The Daily

Arts & Culture

The Borges Memorial Non-Lending Library of Imaginary Books

March 24, 2016 | by

A brief survey of fictional books.

Erik Desmazières, Library of Babel.

I’m soon to move across the country, and surveying my bookcases—the three in the living room and the three in the bedroom, plus the unshelved piles that crop up from any flat surface—fills me with dread. The only cure, I’ve found, is to let my thoughts wander to another, even larger literary collection, a kind of underworld reflection of the one all around me. The books in this second collection are not all fiction, but they are all fictional. I’m imagining a place the late Umberto Eco might appreciate: the Borges Memorial Non-Lending Library of Imaginary Books. Read More »

Clairvoyant Observation

March 9, 2016 | by

A vision of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” at its centenary.

Diane Szczepaniak, Stanza 6 (Is there no change of death in paradise).

When “Sunday Morning” was first published in the November 1915 issue of Poetry, just over a hundred years ago, Wallace Stevens was thirty-six; the poem was one of his first major publications. He’d recently moved to the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he would spend the rest of his life insuring people against the hazards of sudden change. His professional and poetic lives converged on that fact: everything changes.

A spiritual meditation for a secular era, “Sunday Morning” glows with the ripe colors of late summer and early autumn, brief arc segments of the seasonal cycle whose rhythms Stevens celebrates.

*

In 2007, my mother, Diane Szczepaniak, a lifelong abstract painter and sculptor, began to memorize “Sunday Morning.” She was unaccustomed to memorization; it became a kind of ritual for her. She kept Stevens’s book by her bed and worked through the poem line by line. As she built each stanza in her memory, she began to paint her experience of the images, music, and emotions carried by the language. The paintings became her “Sunday Morning” seriesRead More »

A Boy with No Birthday Turns Sixty

March 3, 2016 | by

The long and tangled history of Alfred E. Neuman.

Norman Mingo’s canonical Neuman.

In a 1975 interview with the New York Times, MAD Magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman recalled an illustration of a grinning boy he’d spotted on a postcard in the early fifties: a “bumpkin portrait,” “part leering wiseacre, part happy-go-lucky kid.” It was captioned “What, Me Worry?”

That bumpkin became Alfred E. Neuman, MAD’s mascot, who turns sixty this year—kind of. The impish, immutable redhead made his official debut in December 1956, when he appeared on the cover of MAD no. 30 as a write-in candidate for president. He’s appeared on almost every MAD cover since: possessing, spoofing, and spooking cultural icons with nothing more than a drowsy rictus. Though MAD gave him a purpose, a permanent home, his origin story remains elusive. It involves, among other things, a plum-pudding advertisement, a dubious lawsuit, and a traveling nineteenth-century farce. Neuman is forever synonymous with the magazine and its infinite irreverence, but the riddle of his real age may be the trickster’s trump card. Read More »

The Native Henry James

February 26, 2016 | by

February 28 marks the hundredth anniversary of James’s death.

Photo: Alice Boughton, 1916.

Henry James died in London, at the age of seventy-two, on February 28, 1916, in the midst of World War I. His funeral was held at Chelsea Old Church on March 3, with a mostly British congregation of mourners—though his sister-in-law Alice, widow of his brother, the philosopher William, was in attendance, having crossed the war-torn ocean when she heard of his illness.

The U.S. had not yet entered the war—the issue was controversial, and indeed, James and his old antagonist Theodore Roosevelt, who had long denounced him as un-American, had found common cause in their indignation at their country’s prolonged neutrality. This caused particular tension on James’s death, because the novelist had taken British nationality in July 1915, an implicit protest against America’s refusal to join the conflict. As he had written to his fellow American-in-London John Singer Sargent just after the event, “It would really have been so easy for the U. S. to have ‘kept’ (if they had cared to!) yours all faithfully, Henry James.” He had finally grown tired of waiting for America to end its neutrality, and felt he needed, by this gesture, to end his own detachment from the conflict. The memorial in Chelsea Old Church tactfully describes him as “a resident of this parish who renounced a cherished citizenship to give his allegiance to England in the first year of the Great War”—the “cherished” insisting from the grave that James had been a good American. Read More »

My Harper Lee SparkNotes

February 22, 2016 | by

Writing the SparkNotes for Go Set a Watchman. 

From the cover of Go Set a Watchman.


Context

The summer when I was eight, I read two books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird. My copy of Mockingbird was a cheap lilac paperback. Its cover featured the knot of a tree with a pocket watch and a ball of yarn inside, a mockingbird stamped in silhouette. In the corner, a crescent moon as thin as a tea-stain rose above a clot of green trees.

I lived inside that book. I read it, reread it, and reread it again, sitting in an attic bedroom of my grandparents’ house, hunched on the green shag carpet. I remember the book in discrete images: Dill’s duckweed-like tufts of hair. Slimy Mr. Ewell leering at his daughter. Miss Maudie’s house going up in flames, like a pumpkin, and her prized azaleas frozen and charred in the aftermath. Crotchety, liver-spotted Mrs. Dubose with her perfect camellias, ivory and globular against the glossy leaves. The day when Jem, in a sudden rampage, snatches Scout’s baton and shears off all the buds and flowers on the camellia bushes. And then, when Mrs. Dubose dies, the white box that her servant gives to Jem with one pristine, waxy camellia resting inside. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me how to create a fully realized, sensory world. Read More »

How Repulsive

February 10, 2016 | by

On the merits of disturbing literature.

Frederic Leighton, Study at a Reading Desk‎, 1877.

In a letter to a reader who was disturbed by his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If [Malte] contains bitter reproaches, these are absolutely not directed against life. On the contrary, they are evidences that, for lack of strength, through distraction and inherited errors we lose completely the countless earthly riches that were intended for us.”

Faced with a reader like Rilke’s, it can be hard for a writer to defend the need for “bitter reproaches”—to uphold the disturbing above the merely distasteful. After all, some “disturbing” books do nothing more than shock. Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, for instance, is a litany of gross and obscene bodily functions that never adds up to more than grossness and obscenity. But good books disturb for good reasons. To disturb is, among other things, to guard against complacency: to make the reader face the underbelly of dark thoughts and actions, see how circumstances can make even good people go astray if they are not vigilant in honoring the best in themselves and in the outside world. Disturbing passages, when skillful, make a vital inquiry into the subtle causes and effects of human behavior. Read More »