The Daily

At Work

Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann

December 4, 2014 | by

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game. Read More »

3 COMMENTS

The In-Between Space: An Interview with Shelly Oria

November 25, 2014 | by

Photo: T. Kira Madden

The eighteen stories in New York 1 Tel Aviv 0, Shelly Oria’s debut collection, are beguiling, bizarre, and wise. (One of them, “My Wife, in Converse,” appeared in The Paris Review earlier this year.) Her sentences, with their clear-eyed, authoritative calm, underscore and complicate the unlikely circumstances in which her characters find themselves, and the chaos of their inner lives. Here, for example, is the narrator of “This Way I Don’t Have to Be,” on her addiction to sleeping with married men:

I always look them in the eye throughout, and that can be tricky, because they mostly try to avoid the intimacy of eye contact. I wait, and then suddenly it’s there, passing through them like a wave. In that moment, their entire lives turn to air … For one brief moment, they go back in time, they make different choices, they are different men. And my body is the time-travel machine that takes them there.

Born in Los Angeles but raised in Israel, Oria moved to the United States at twenty-five, five years after finishing her compulsory military service. Though she was fluent in English, she thought—and wrote—in Hebrew; hoping to attend the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, she taught herself to write fiction in English, an experience she describes as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Her prose is both energized and measured, and perhaps this is the effect of customary Israeli volubility short-leashed by an inner translator—a tiny version of the author herself who sits at her little desk inside the brain, reading the rough transcripts as they are faxed up from the heart, and forever sending notes back down that read, Yes, but is that really exactly what you meant to say? All authors live with a version of this little demon; it just happens that Oria’s is bilingual and combat trained.

I should mention that Oria is my colleague at the Pratt Institute. She is also a life/creativity coach and hosts a reading series in the East Village. Between all of that and a book tour, she is very busy, for which reason, though we would have much preferred the pleasure of each other’s company, this interview was conducted via e-mail.

I find myself returning to the scene in the title story where Pie—who is in a three-way relationship with a woman and a man—divides herself into “Me No. 1” and “Me No. 2.” No. 1, “the Israeli who was taught that being tough and being strong are the same thing,” is ready to walk out the door on both lovers immediately. No. 2, “a woman who successfully impersonates an American” and “has a lot to prove,” wants to stay. Pie seems to think that No. 1 has the right take on the situation, but it’s No. 2’s position she adopts as her own, and I for one am hardly convinced that she’s wrong. Might you speak, then, to the risks and allures of pulling off a successful impersonation?

The thing is—and maybe this is obvious—both Pies are wrong. By which I, of course, also mean that they’re both right. And to me that’s what the story is trying to do, and what the book is trying to do, and what I’m trying to do, not only as a writer but as a human—challenge this idea of either-or, hang out a bit in the in-between space. Or really, the both space. As far as I’m concerned, that goes for nationality, for sexuality, for identity in general. We’re hardwired toward this dichotomous way of thinking about and constructing identity. It’s almost an addiction—a cultural addiction to categories. Read More »

5 COMMENTS

Eye Contact: An Interview with Gladys Nilsson

November 24, 2014 | by

1 Plant16

Gladys Nilsson, Plant #16, 2010, ink, graphite, and collage on paper, 11 3/4" x 11 3/4".

2 Walk1

Gladys Nilsson, A Walk… #1, 2014, mixed media on paper, 12" x 9".

3 Walk5

Gladys Nilsson, A Walk… #5, 2014, mixed media on paper, 12" x 9".

4 Arbor3

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #3, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

5 Arbor6

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #6, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

6 Arbor 7

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #7, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

7 Arbor10

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #10, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

8 Arbor11

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #11, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

9 Arbor13

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #13, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

Gladys Nilsson was born in Chicago in 1940 and grew up visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, which she then attended from 1958 to 1962. In the mid- to late sixties, she was a member of the Hyde Park–based art group the Hairy Who and created exuberant figurative paintings using both acrylic on Plexiglas and vibrant watercolors on paper. While at SAIC, Nilsson studied with the art historian Whitney Halstead, who taught his students to look beyond Western art and also beyond traditional realms of art to more vernacular sources. Though Nilsson has periodically integrated cut-paper elements into her paintings since the sixties, she has recently begun to make heavily collaged works, in the series “Plant” (2010) and “A Walk … ” (2014). But perhaps none of Nilsson’s work exemplifies Halstead’s directive better than the collages currently on view at Garth Greenan Gallery, in New York. The series, called A Girl in the Arbor” (2013), comprises thirteen lush works, each of a woman sitting on a brown chair under a blue arbor and surrounded by greenery. The surface of each collage is littered with tiny cutouts, some of which compose and adorn the large female figure; many others seem oblivious to her and are engaged in their own affairs. 

I met Nilsson the day before her show opened late last month, and we talked over the phone a few weeks later—she, in Chicago, where she still resides—about the intricacies in these collages, her experiences as a budding art student in the city, and the horror of trying on swimsuits. 

You visited the Art Institute as a grade-school student and then as an art student, and you’ve said that in that time, it changed from a nineteenth- to a twentieth-century institution. What did you mean?

What I meant when it changed from being a nineteenth-century building into a twentieth-century is that the building had been modernized. Things were hung in new places, and some galleries were configured differently.

When I was in grade school, a friend and I—she and I drew cows—would walk around a bit in the museum, and I remembered a catwalk in the back, over a large area that no one ever went to, that had large plaster casts of building facades and statuary from other times and other places. It stuck in my mind because it was a very curious area. So when I went to school there, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where this area was. But I couldn’t find it. At first I thought I had imagined the place, until I discovered old pictures in the archives of the museum.

Do you recall looking at Seurat’s painting at the institute?

Yeah, very much so. I wasn’t necessarily crazy about it. I liked it, but it wasn’t a favorite. But I found sitting and looking at it because it had a nice bench in front of it. That it was one of the most soothing things for me—not that I was in turmoil. It was just a very quiet experience, because Seurat has got a lot going on surfacewise. But then it’s also an extremely static painting. I spent a lot of time looking at it, and it’s probably the one painting that I remember most, aside from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which is a whole other thing. Read More »

4 COMMENTS

Assorted Hijinks: An Interview with Dick Cavett

November 13, 2014 | by

9780805099775

Cavett on the cover of Brief Encounters.

Forty years ago, The Dick Cavett Show was a place where luminaries sparred (e.g., Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer), where reclusive stars lowered their guard (Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier), and where musicians were actually interviewed about their music (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon). Cavett’s show put an early spotlight on the Watergate scandal, even taping a special episode with the senators in the very chambers where the hearings were taking place. It’s hard to imagine today’s major-network late-night shows doing anything similar.

The Nebraska-born Cavett began in New York as a broke Yale grad attempting an acting career while working as a copy boy at Time magazine. One afternoon, with a Time envelope in hand, he bluffed his way into The Tonight Show studios and handed said envelope, filled with jokes, to Jack Paar, who was then the show’s host. Paar used some of the material that night; Cavett was hired, and booked talent for Paar, briefly, until a writing staff slot opened up. Later, he wrote for fellow Nesbaskan Johnny Carson before going out on his own, so to speak.

Cavett, at seventy-seven, keeps busy—for the past several years he’s moonlighted as a columnist for the New York Times, and earlier this year he starred in Hellman v. McCarthy, a play off Broadway at the Abingdon Theater Company that explores the legal fallout from a time in ’79 when Cavett had the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on his show. McCarthy lambasted Lillian Hellman: “She really belongs to the past. As I said in an interview, she’s such a dishonest writer that even her ands and thes are lies.” Cavett plays himself in the play. “The funny thing is,” he told the Times when it debuted, “I was the second choice for the role.”

In July, Cavett made a popular video with Dave Hill and Malcolm Gladwell about the Amazon-Hachette dispute; he followed this with an op-ed in Time about the prevalence of depression in show business (“Robin Williams Won’t Be the Last Suicidal Star”). That same week, PBS aired a special, “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” about his role in having publicized the scandal.

Finally, last week saw the publication of Cavett’s new memoir, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, with a foreword by Jimmy Fallon. To discuss the book, late-night television, and his writing process, I rang Cavett at his house in Montauk.

In Cavett, your book from 1974, you quite vehemently said you had no interest in being a cultural critic. But that’s an arguably accurate descriptor for you.

I would never think of that as a description of me. It has a nice sound, I like the alliteration, but other than that, it surprises me when I’m  called that. Honestly, I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer/commentator/ cultural critic /columnist. Especially for The New York Times. I’ve had op-ed pieces in the Times over the years when I was pissed off about something. But I always felt alien to friends who knew exactly what they wanted to be. I’m still wondering.

Anyway, the Times offer came over the transom—or out of the blue. (Is it National Cliché Week?) and I took the dive. (Another one.) I’ve been told I write well, maybe thanks to two English teacher parents who wrote well, so I took the job. It’s not for the money, I assure you. Someone said, do you want to try a column for the Times? And I thought, Sure, I guess. How much. And they said two days a week. Most writers would have meant how much money, I guess. And I said, that seems easy enough, and it was—for about three weeks when I was doing two a week. Then I started to get desperate, because I felt I had said everything I would ever be able to say in a column of any kind. It’s always nice when someone remembers a line correctly from something you’ve written. In a Sarah Palin column, I said, “She seems to have no first language.” And this is much remembered to this very day, I find. Strange.

Read More »

5 COMMENTS

Desperate Measures: An Interview with David Gordon

October 27, 2014 | by

David Gordon_Credit Michael Sharkey

Photo: Michael Sharkey

David Gordon’s fiction doesn’t fall comfortably into one category. Depending on what you’re reading and who you’re talking to, he might be a mystery writer, a postmodernist, a satirist, or a hybrid. His new collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, runs an impressive gamut. Its cast is large and varied—there are gunmen, grad students, investigators, vampires, struggling writers, Internet sex trolls, and men named David Gordon. (One of these stories, “Man-Boob Summer,” first appeared in The Paris Review’s Fall 2012 issue.) Gordon’s sentences are crisp and often jarring. His plots unspool in strange, sometimes disturbing ways. There’s little to be gained in trying to situate yourself according to generic conventions; better just to enjoy the disorientation and to trust that you’re in the hands of an earnest storyteller.

I met with Gordon, who has also published two novels, on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. School was letting out next door, but Gordon’s booming voice carried over the two-thirty hysteria. We spoke over the course of the afternoon about repurposing genres, literary stardom in Japan (the Japanese translation of his first novel, The Serialist, was a major success), the risks of first-person storytelling, and the publishing-industry controversy swirling around him.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain is your first story collection. Did you approach the stories differently than you would a novel?

In conceptual terms, I do think there’s a difference, at least for me. A story usually comes into my mind like a three-dimensional object—something I can see and feel and rotate. I’m often completely wrong about what the object is, but it’s still there. Whereas a novel is more like a set of directions for a road trip to California, with a planned stop in, say, Colorado and a visit to the Grand Canyon. The truth is I have no idea what’s going to happen along the way or whether I’ll even get there, but I have this general sense of direction and an end I hope to reach.

Now that the stories are completed and assembled, are you surprised at any of the themes or images that crop up?

I wrote these stories over a period of years, so some of the thematic echoes that people point out seem fairly straightforward for somebody who’s been writing for a long time—you deal with certain recurring ideas and problems. But then there are very specific echoes that I wasn’t aware of, and those are really interesting to me. My protagonists eat a lot of Chinese food and go to a lot of cafés. People tend to have cats in my stories, and the women have long fingers. I have no idea where this stuff comes from. I have no lost love with long fingers. I guess these things just leak out of my subconscious. Read More »

1 COMMENT

Being Discovered: An Interview with Calvin Tomkins

October 20, 2014 | by

tpr-10

Gerald and Sara Murphy with Cole Porter and the Murphy’s friend Ginny Carpenter, in Venice, summer of 1923. Gerald had come to collaborate with Porter on their ballet Within the Quota. © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In the late fifties, Calvin Tomkins, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, moved his family from New York City to a little community on the Hudson River called Sneden’s Landing. “The houses are built on the side of a hill fairly close together,” Tomkins told me by phone this past summer, “but in those days there were no real property lines. Everybody knew each other, and the kids wandered all over.”

Tomkins’s two daughters, Anne and Susan, eventually found their way to Gerald Murphy, then in his sixties, pruning his rose garden. As kids do, they struck up a conversation with Gerald, and when Tomkins and his wife caught up with them, Sara, Gerald’s wife, emerged from the house, taking orders for ginger ale.

“The Murphys didn’t talk about the past in those days, and it was some time before I realized they were the people F. Scott Fitzgerald had used as models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night,” Tomkins wrote in 1998. In the twenties and early thirties, the couple, along with their three children, spent part of the year in the south of France, on the Riviera, and the rest of it immersed in the salad days of modernism and surrealism in Paris, where they had befriended, among others, Picasso and his first wife, Olga Khokhlova; Ferdinand Léger; Dorothy Parker; Cole Porter; the Fitzgeralds; the Dos Passos; and the Hemingways. It was a fascinating life, though shrouded in mystery and tragedy.

tpr-6

Gerald Murphy with Picasso. © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Tomkins urged Murphy to write a memoir, but Murphy “scoffed at the notion … he had too much respect for the craft of writing, he said, to attempt something which could only be second-rate.” Tomkins reported the piece instead. It was called “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” a reference to the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert’s mordant epigram, which Murphy had once jotted down on a piece of paper. The piece ran in The New Yorker on July 28, 1962. By the time Tomkins had expanded it into a book, in 1974, “Gerald had been dead for ten years, and Sara, who died in 1975, was no longer aware of the world around her.”

Fortunately, Tomkins was, and Living Well Is the Best Revenge remains one of the most ingeniously reported profiles of the Lost Generation, with the Murphys serving to illuminate the nearly century-old American expat scene that flourished in Europe between the two World Wars. The book had gone out of print until MoMA reissued it earlier this year in a beautiful flex-cover format. I spoke to Tomkins, who’s now eighty-eight, about the Murphys’ past, Gerald’s career as an artist, and his reporting for the book.

Before you got to know them, did you know much about Gerald and Sara Murphy?

I had heard about them. The Murphys were legendary because people knew vaguely about their life in Paris in the twenties, but nobody really knew them very well. They had a party a year, I think—a garden party with candles in paper bags. More or less the whole community was invited. But otherwise, they kept to themselves. We were all very curious about them. It seemed to us that we had these exotic creatures living in our midst. Read More »

4 COMMENTS