The Daily


Kenward Elmslie and The Orchid Stories

October 25, 2016 | by

From the cover of The Orchid Stories. 

Upon that golden shore, kids
We’ll lie on beds of orchids.
—John Latouche, “Goona Goona,” from the musical The Golden Apple

The first chapters of Kenward Elmslie’s novel The Orchid Stories first appeared in the Summer 1967 issue of The Paris Review. The novel has just been reissued by The Song Cave.

Kenward Elmslie’s perverse, scabrous, gorgeous poetry and prose have astonished his fans for over fifty years—decades during which he remained the pride of small presses, the happy secret of cognoscenti—but it is safe to say that the vast audience his work deserves doesn’t know what it’s missing. He’s the most extravagant, and extravagantly overlooked, poet in America.

Elmslie is the nearly invisible fifth member of the quintet that includes Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. The generations of poets they inspired sing Elmslie’s praises, but he is most brilliantly described by Ashbery, his comrade-in-arms. Elmslie’s voice, writes Ashbery, is “that of some freaked-out Levi-Strauss, a mad scientist who has swallowed the wrong potion in his lab and is desperately trying to get his calculations on paper before everything closes in.” Read More »

Being a Bumpkin

October 10, 2016 | by

Three new books try to untangle the Gordian knot of white-trash identity.

From the cover of Hillbilly Elegy. 

Scan the headlines and you’ll find that everyone’s talking about how the white trash have made their presence felt. The white trash support Trump; the white trash are losing ground; the white trash should be honored by the government for their hard work and sacrifices; the white trash are continuing to redirect their aggression at other racial minorities instead of the robber barons who exploit them.

But who exactly are these people, these trashy whites who have found themselves, in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, “without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power?” Read More »

Snorri the Seal

September 29, 2016 | by

What a vain little seal!

It’s Banned Books Week, and everyone is rallying around the classics: your Gatsbys, your Catcher in the Ryes, your Mockingbirds and Lady Chatterleys. No one is giving any love to Snorri the Seal—to my eye one of the handsomest books ever to face censorship.

Snorri is a Norwegian children’s book written and illustrated by Frithjof Sælen. Published in 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, it tells the story of “the vainest little seal in the Arctic Ocean”—that’s our Snorri!—who whiles away his seal-days delighting in his own good looks. And who wouldn’t, with a luxurious coat like his? He’s so self-absorbed that he fails to see trouble on the horizon in the form of Brummelab, a distinctly Soviet polar bear. Read More »

My Motherland

September 15, 2016 | by

Finding—and writing—the worlds where only I had been.

Robert Walter Weir, watercolor, 8 15/16" x 6 11/16", 1825.

Robert Walter Weir, watercolor, 8 15/16" x 6 11/16", 1825.

In high school I was, like many American intellectual kids, a stranger in a strange land. I made the Berkeley Public Library my refuge, and lived half my life in books. Not only American books—English and French novels and poetry, Russian novels in translation. Transported unexpectedly to college in another strange land, the East Coast, I majored in French lit and went on reading European lit on my own. I felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.

Much as I loved my studies, their purpose was to make me able to earn a living as a teacher, so I could go on writing. And I worked hard at writing short stories. But here my European orientation was a problem. I wasn’t drawn to the topics and aims of contemporary American realism. I didn’t admire Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, or Edna Ferber. I did admire John Steinbeck, but knew I couldn’t write that way. In The New Yorker, I loved Thurber, but skipped over John O’Hara to read the Englishwoman Sylvia Townsend Warner. Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. Read More »

Three by Kafka

September 14, 2016 | by

A drawing from Kafka’s journal, 1916.

A drawing from Kafka’s journal, 1916.

Three what by Kafka? Truthfully, I don’t know how best to categorize the trio of prose nuggets below. I’m tempted to call them parables—each is succinct and appears to illustrate some truth—but Kafka himself undoes that notion in the first fragment, drawing a meaningful line between the lessons of allegory and those of real life. And yet Kafka’s writing is so effective because it plays within an area of overlap between the two worlds. The result, of course, is the Kafkaesque, a mode that is entirely unto itself. “It would be a fallacy,” writes Peter Wortsman, the editor and translator of Konundrum, from which these fragments are excerpted, “to insist that his fables and parables, or whatever literary label we may apply, are really about anything, i.e., that they correspond to states of reality extant outside the tenuous confines of a solitary psyche, or that they carry a clearly decipherable moral.” 

In Konundrum (forthcoming next month), Wortsman has gathered remnants of Kafka’s various writings—letters, journals, posthumously published and unfinished stories, newly translated tales—from which we have selected three. These jottings come from Kafkas’s posthumous papers, and each was titled by his friend, biographer, and literary executor Max Brod. —Nicole Rudick



Many complain that the words of the wise are always only presented as parables, useless in daily life, and this is all we have. When the wise man says: “Get thee hence,” he does not mean that we should go to the other side, a task we could in any case easily accomplish were the crossing worthwhile, he rather means for us to hasten to some fabled yonder that we don’t know, a place moreover which he cannot describe any more precisely, and which is perfectly useless to us here and now. What all these parables really mean to say is just that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and that much we already knew. But what we wrestle with every day, that’s something else.

To which a wise one said: “Why do you resist? Were you to follow the wisdom of the parables, you yourselves would become parables, and would thereby be relieved of the burden of everyday toil.”

Another one said: “I bet that that’s a parable too.” Read More »

Woman Will Be Able to Resist

September 9, 2016 | by

Image: Gianni Dagli Orti.

This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today, the final extract: Read More »