June 14, 2013 | by Alexander Nazaryan
It is best to dispense at once with the salacious stuff of Charlie Newman’s life: he was a drunk, a bastard, and a boor. His marriages did not last. His books did not bring fame. When not poisoning his liver or relations with both family and fellow writers, he taught college, smoked a pipe, and trained dogs.
Only the very last of these facts is relevant when reading In Partial Disgrace, a fantastically odd posthumous novel for those who like their beauty strange, their plots unruly, their ideas ambitious. It has been patched together by his nephew Ben Ryder Howe—a former editor at The Paris Review–and released this spring by Dalkey Archive Press. The book is set in a fictional European land called Cannonia, its history based on that of Hungary but its name quite clearly derived from the Latin for dog, canis. The main character, Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, is a dog breeder, and there are roughly 0.7 references to the canine species on each page of this gorgeous mess of a novel, which is what Pale Fire (a novel Newman adored) might have read like if given a heavy-handed edit by Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Millan. Read More »
June 11, 2013 | by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein
In the Library of Congress archive of the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, there is a vast network of one-sided correspondence, incomplete drafts, unpublished texts, notes, proofs, diaries, and datebooks. It is a space of the unfinished, of process, and of radical possibility. Its silences represent the often violent effects of cold-war intellectual suppression, the sexism of editors, and the deaths of lovers. Over the course of six years I came and went, making the trip from New York to D.C., piecing together a literary history about a writer whose life and work are notoriously difficult to map.
The archival breaks, aesthetic pronouncements, and biographical lacunae that characterize Rukeyser’s archive do not feel particularly surprising for a writer whose career and work appear always disrupted and open-ended—visible and invisible at the same time. Rukeyser’s poems, biographies, and essays have persistently challenged the rigid artistic, political, and intellectual binaries that have shaped the twentieth century, and because of this she has experienced a continual burial and recovery. She has been alternately denigrated and admired for being an avant-garde and radical poet, a feminist, a theorist, an activist; for being sexually liberated and a single mother. She has been viewed from both sides of the critical establishment as being either too aesthetically experimental or not aesthetically rigorous enough, as too radical or insufficiently Marxist. These dichotomous readings of Rukeyser highlight the ways in which her work defied and remade the political and artistic programs of her historical moment. “For our time depends not on single points of knowledge,” she wrote in The Life of Poetry, “but on clusters and combinations.”
The Life of Poetry begins on a boat evacuating Barcelona during the first days of the Spanish Civil War. In it, she describes an experience of profound transformation, writing of Spain as the place where “I began to say what I believed.” I followed that thought into her archive and back out again. Almost no one had written on the subject; her writings on Spain were like unmarked graves scattered through her work, identifiable only by a phrase or image repeated and refigured in other works, some of them long out of print, others lost and buried in the archive. But the silences of each gave access to the other: a line in a poem made a map into the archive; the material recovered in the archive made visible not only that which was hidden in her already published work, but elucidated new literary and political histories. Rukeyser wrote about Spain for more than forty years, in every genre. The texts overlap and echo each other; they proliferate across decades and are intertwined with other histories. Always they carry a sense of urgency, and always they return to just five days in 1936. Read More »
May 8, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
April 9, 2013 | by Jonathan Franzen
Our Spring Revel will take place tonight! In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. The following is excerpted from an essay that originally ran as the introduction to Desperate Characters.
A book that has fallen, however briefly, out of print can put a strain on even the most devoted reader’s love. In the way that a man might regret certain shy mannerisms in his wife that cloud her beauty, or a woman might wish that her husband laughed less loudly at his own jokes, though the jokes are very funny, I’ve suffered for the tiny imperfections that might prejudice potential readers against Desperate Characters. I’m thinking of the stiffness and impersonality of the opening paragraph, the austerity of the opening sentence, the creaky word “repast”: as a lover of the book, I now appreciate how the formality and stasis of the paragraph set up the short, sharp line of dialogue that follows (“The cat is back”); but what if a reader never makes it past “repast”? I wonder, too, if the name of the protagonist, “Otto Bentwood,” might be diffi cult to take on first reading. Fox generally works her characters’ names very hard— the name “Russel,” for instance, nicely echoes Charlie’s restless, furtive energies (Otto suspects him of literally “rustling” clients), and just as something is surely missing in Charlie’s character, a second “l” is missing in his surname. I do admire how the old- fashioned and vaguely Teutonic name “Otto” saddles Otto the way his compulsive orderliness saddles him; but “Bentwood,” even after many readings, remains for me a little artificial in its bonsai imagery. And then there’s the title of the book. It’s apt, certainly, and yet it’s no The Day of the Locust, no The Great Gatsby, no Absalom, Absalom! It’s a title that people may forget or confuse with other titles. Sometimes, wishing it were stronger, I feel lonely in the peculiar way of someone deeply married.
February 11, 2013 | by Rachel Yoder
I didn’t know Amish romance novels existed until a trip I took a number of years ago to Shipshewana, Indiana. There my uncle directed an Amish and Mennonite cultural center, and I was ostensibly working on a book about Amish and Mennonite culture, so it seemed a place I should go. I had just turned thirty and was beset with ambivalent, indistinct longings for the Mennonite heritage in which I’d been raised, even though the entirety of my twenties had served as an extended exercise in exodus and estrangement. Still, I went, most excited to locate and eat some peanut butter pie made with flaky, lard-infused crust.
The cultural center my uncle ran was called Menno-Hof, hof a Pennsylvania Dutch word that means something close to “farmyard,” though at Menno-Hof the farmyard is neatly pruned, the pond perfectly ovular, the flower garden precisely planted to approximate a quilt. It seemed to me a beautiful lie in need of some freshly dropped horse patties.
After touring the fastidiously curated exhibits in the barn and adjacent whitewashed Amish farmhouse—replete with a recreated reformation dungeon, a small hurricane room with a vibrating floor and powerful fans, a Conservative Mennonite church where a booming God voice commanded that I consider my spiritual fate—I finally wound up in the gift shop on the brink of both ecstatic revelation and nervous breakdown. Many of the wares there approximated the contents of my mother’s root cellar (raspberry jam and apple butter in glass jars) and the theological section of my father’s library (Nonviolence—A Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures, by John Howard Yoder).
The only items there truly unfamiliar to me were two wire racks full of paperbacks, their covers each backlit with the golden glow of God’s everlasting presence and bucolic perfection: wheat fields, corn fields, rivers and barns beneath cerulean or honey skies. A plain-clothed woman in some state of muted emotional duress gazed into the middle distance beneath her white bonnet. I spun through the racks, elated, repulsed. Could there be anything better, or worse, than Amish romance novels? Read More »
February 8, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
Here in the Northeast, we are all hunkering down for what could be a lot of snow, or at least a little slush. Either way, it will be a weekend for staying indoors with a good book, and we asked some of our bookish friends what they recommend for such occasions.
I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith, and Laurie Colwin! —Emily Gould, writer, founder of Emily Books
I am reading a dated but rad detective novel called The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, wherein a detective laid up in the hospital clears King Richard III of the crime of murdering his nephews using deductive logic and dubious speculation. This is part of my ongoing celebration of Richard III’s skeleton’s coming-out-the-closet or whatever you call it. Otherwise keeping busy with hoarding seltzer/Snackwell’s vanilla cremes. So this is a pretty normal weekend for me. —Pete Beatty, editor
Right now I find myself on page 1400 of Proust, by circumstance. Hoping to make some real headway in the next forty-eight. (Yesterday I was reading it on the A train, and this woman got down on her knees to look up to see what was the giant book I had in my hand. Like, she could have asked. Maybe she was saving me the pretension of responding, “Proust.”) —Brian Ulicky, publicist Read More »