The Daily

On the Shelf

Hey Orphan, You’re Just a Plot Device, and Other News

October 9, 2015 | by

Oliver Twist, as pictured on the cover of Classic Comics no. 23.

  • Michael Lewis’s profile of (and fan note to) Tom Wolfe also reveals the startling comprehensiveness of the latter’s archives: “Wolfe saved what he touched—report cards, tailors’ bills, to-do lists, reader letters, lecture notes, book blurbs, requests for book blurbs, drawings, ideas for drawings never executed (‘Nude Skydiver Devoured in Midair by Ravenous Owls’), and dozens of sexually explicit and totally insane letters from a female stalker, including one consisting chiefly of seventeen pages of red lip prints. He just tossed all this stuff in steamer trunks and hauled the trunks up to the attic, where some of them had sat undisturbed for fifty years. He kept postcards from friends with hardly anything written on them; he kept all the Christmas cards; he kept morning-after notes from New York society ladies … The documents tell the story of the leading journalistic observer and describer of American life, in a time of radical cultural transformation, and of the sensational explosion in American literary journalism that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s—on which the ashes and the dust are just now settling.”
  • The orphan in literature is many things—spunky, resourceful, downtrodden, tragic, trammeled, unfettered—but foremost it’s a shortcut to narrative tension: “Orphanhood is the beginning of (mis)adventures and only very rarely the end. Once such intolerable extremity has been inflicted (by parents, by cruel society, by authors), it can’t be left be: the sufferers must seek relief and resolution … The literary orphan belongs to no world except that of narrative opportunity … Many people expect real orphans to behave like literary orphans: like portable anti-alienation devices for the people who, so to speak, take us in.”
  • If you sat for a portrait from Goya, you weren’t there for vanity’s sake; you had to be prepared to see the worst in yourself, because that’s what he was going to put on the canvas. “Even while he was following the protocols of aristocratic portraiture, Goya just couldn’t stop himself noticing—and depicting—all sorts of extraneous and revealing sights … There are such subversive undertones and notes of sardonic comedy to many of his pictures … Goya’s (Lucian) Freud-like honesty about his sitters seems so clear in retrospect that it has always been a mystery why some of them put up with it. He clearly despised his last royal master Ferdinand VII, who looks sly, nasty, fat-faced and idiotic in the state portrait of 1814–15.”
  • Driving refugees on Lesbos: “At one of the main landing beaches, children, babies, elderly, sick and disabled people were waiting for Norwegian volunteers to pick them up and drive them three wiles west to another makeshift waiting point at Efthalou. It used to be illegal to transport refugees on the island and the police arrested a few people, but the law has since been relaxed. A Danish woman asked me to drive a family of four. They were from the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus, which is now mostly controlled by Islamic State. Rami, the father, spoke excellent English … ‘Somebody, somebody will help us,’ he said. His wife was pregnant and had had bleeding problems in the boat. ‘Oh my god, very beautiful,’ Rami said as we drove round a bend on the dirt track overlooking the sea.”
  • You look like someone who’s seeking ethical clarity. Well, don’t look for it here. We don’t have any. We’re fresh out. “The old question—How to live an alright life in a bad world? … Nonprofit job, artish hobbies, moderate drinking, hope the friends stay funny and nearby. While young: shared apartments, cheap whiskey, n+1; older: art in the house, Spanish wine, the New Yorker. And when God or the workers’ council weighs our fates, hope the scales might be tipped by the weight of a book … An idea is a kind of cartoon. Inhabiting one, we get that thrill of clarity: everything simple and certain, with sharp black borders. But at some point this cleaner world turns oppressive, like the grandparents’ condo after a few days’ visit, and we look to escape. That too is another sort of thrill. We get out, and the fuller world rushes back to meet us, in all its grubby confusion.”

The Hermit Kingdom—in Fabulous 3-D! And Other News

October 8, 2015 | by

Won Il-myong, a furnace worker at North Korea’s Chollima Steelworks. Photo: Matjaž Tančič, via The Guardian

  • The Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Read her piece “Voices from Chernobyl” from our Winter 2004 issue. “Alexievich,” The New York Times writes, “is best known for giving voice to women and men who had lived through World War II, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.”
  • Our editor Lorin Stein discusses translating Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission—specifically, one sentence about arousal, Muslims, and politics: “At first I wrote, ‘Given the political situation, choosing a Muslim turned me on.’ But this was very un-Houellebecqian … One of us came up with arouse: ‘Arousing, in a way’ — for me, that’s how Houellebecq sounds. And even though the syntax doesn’t track the French exactly, it preserves the air of anticlimax, the slight fussiness, the stoicism of the original. The sentence became less brutal, less vulgar.”
  • When he’s not making movies, Wim Wenders takes photographs—and yes, most of these photos contain landscapes, and sure, most of them are devoid of human life, but don’t call the guy a landscape photographer. He’s got your number. “I am not a landscape photographer. I am interested in people. I am interested in our civilization. I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and places. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us. Places are so much more able to evoke people when people are out. As soon as there is one person in the shot everybody looks at that person. If there is nobody in the shot, the beholder is able to listen to the story of that place. And that’s my job. I try to make places tell their stories about us. So I am not a landscape photographer. I am really interested in people, but my way of finding out things about people is that I do photos about their absence, about their traces.”
  • When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced plans to translate all thirty-six plays into modern English, people got very pissed, very fast. These days we like our Shakespeare unadulterated; his genius, the thinking goes, reposes in his language. But it wasn’t always so.So many serious Shakespeareans over the centuries have argued the opposite: that Shakespeare’s genius had to be salvaged from the obscure, indecorous, archaic, quibbling mess of his language. For poets, playwrights, editors, and actors from the seventeenth century through much of the nineteenth, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t intoxicating so much as intoxicated: it needed a sobering intervention.”
  • North Korea just held its first photography exhibition curated by Western artists. Among the works on display were pictures by the Slovenian photographer Matjaž Tančič, who took portraits of North Koreans in—wait for it—3-D. And though that art form is liberating, his travels were not: “My guides would keep trying to trick me by taking me to the ‘beautiful bits’ like the pristine maternity hospital in Pyongyang, or a newly refurbished library. I’d keep trying to trick them into letting me talk to ordinary North Koreans.” Tančič described the country as “like a stage,” and then, later, “like a movie.”

God Hates Renoir, and Other News

October 7, 2015 | by

Photo: Courtesy Max Geller

  • If the prospect of another literary awards season has you rolling your eyes and grumbling about the tastelessness of the establishment, try spicing things up the old-fashioned way: gambling. You’ll find that a well-placed bet, or even a poor one, can bring a certain frisson to even the fustiest book prizes: “I allotted a budget of £100 for the Nobel and Booker combined. My rule was that, with one exception, any winner among the bets I placed had to win me back at least my entire stake. I tend to make three categories of bet: (1) a likely winner; (2) a writer I really admire who’s also a patriotic favorite; (3) a writer I’ve reviewed negatively. There’s often overlap between categories 1 and 3 … Philip Roth has 8-to-1 odds, but I’ve given up on him since he gave up writing books. He seems cursed by Stockholm. I put the rest of my Nobel money on Marilynne Robinson (£4 at 25-to-1) and Don DeLillo (£10 at 50-to-1).”
  • Or you can rage against the arts-and-culture machine with a nonviolent protest, as these enemies of Renoir—who’s plainly the shittiest of the Impressionists—have done outside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “The rally, which mostly bewildered passersby, was organized by Max Geller, creator of the Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting, who wants the MFA to take its Renoirs off the walls and replace them with something better. Holding homemade signs reading ‘God Hates Renoir’ and ‘Treacle Harms Society,’ the protesters ate cheese pizza purchased by Geller, and chanted: ‘Put some fingers on those hands! Give us work by Paul Gauguin!’ and ‘Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!’”
  • As unrest seizes the globe and the model of the nation-state faces collapse, theorists are frantically debating the fate of geopolitics—but no one is worrying about the video-game designers. How are they supposed to make a decent historical strategy game when no one knows what it looks like to win the twenty-first century? “In the twenty-first century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? … Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the twentieth century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day.”
  • Francine Prose looks at the frightening but tender psychology underpinning Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, The Lobster, which “posits a dystopian near-future in which it has become illegal not to be part of a couple”: “Lanthimos’s films often contain such disturbing moments of unexpected, startling violence that people who have never been able to watch Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to the end might be wise to spare themselves. Like Sophocles, Lanthimos understands that sudden self-mutilation generates a particular kind of adrenaline in the viewer. Consequently, the director’s fans learn to brace themselves every time one of his characters stands in front of a mirror.”
  • Dude: Creedence. Creedence Clearwater Revival. There’s a band. I mean, that’s a band for everyone, a band for all times! Talking to John Fogerty reveals some tricks of the trade, including the band’s go-to themes, “foremost among them the nostalgia for some lost agrarian past. But, of course, that same nostalgia was a founding theme of the South … If this vision was itself a sort of cartoon—a brutal and deadly one, with strange fruit hanging from the trees—an odd thing happened when you spread the cartoonish map of ‘Born on the Bayou’ across the partly real, partly imagined Southern landscape: you got a one-to-one ratio. The result was something like realism.”

Jeanne Dielman Forever, and Other News

October 6, 2015 | by

A still from Jeanne Dielman.

  • The filmmaker Chantal Akerman, whose 1975 movie, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is arguably “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema,” has died at sixty-five. “Jeanne Dielman is a real-time study of a middle-aged widow who lives with her teenage son in a small Brussels flat. The film follows her as she completes drab domestic tasks and tries to make ends meet through occasional prostitution … The long, frank takes featured in Jeanne Dielman were a feature of Akerman’s work.”
  • As a theater director, Bryan Doerries aims to revitalize the power of the medium: his company performs Greek tragedies at full-tilt for audiences at schools, hospitals, prisons, and army bases, and his goal is catharsis in the fullest sense of the word. “Theater is able to do something that no other medium can achieve,” he says. “It leads disparate audiences into a profound communion … We have lost touch, as a culture, with the importance of coming together and confronting what it means to be human as a community. Theater, and tragedy in particular, has the power to do this … Theater still has the power to create a sacred space, in which we are transported out of our quotidian reality and brought into contact with the transcendent, the heroic, the mythic, and with one another. We still hunger, I think, for this experience, as people, as a culture. And in some ways, because it’s so rare, it’s all the more overpowering and effective when we encounter it.”
  • Today in unlikely longevity: New Hampshire’s Yankee magazine has been around since 1935, and it’s navigated, somehow, many epochal changes in media. What’s its secret? Listen carefully: cover fall foliage as if it’s Mardi Gras, never change, and appeal to a boring, affluent, aging readership. Yankee stands tall because of, not in spite of, its stupefying predictability: “There are tips on travel to destinations like Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island, and recipes for Boston cream pie and needhams (an old-fashioned Maine candy made with mashed potatoes). Ads for regional businesses and New England wares still fill the magazine, which now comes out six times a year. The much loved Swopper’s Column—a classifieds page for unusual objects, which first appeared in the magazine’s fourth issue—was not discontinued until 2013.”
  • On Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, which has at its center a stunt that cinema has been waiting for a long time: “Two twenty-first-century phenomena have changed the way moving pictures are made and perceived. The first is the accelerating use of digital technology and the inexorable rise of a cyborg cinema that, by combining animated and photographic images, compromises the direct relationship to reality that had long been the medium’s claim to truth. The second is the trauma of September 11, 2001, which for many provided the ultimate movie experience that was more than a movie—spectacular destruction, broadcast live, and watched by an audience, more or less simultaneously, of billions.”

Humean, All Too Humean, and Other News

October 5, 2015 | by

The Camera Restricta encourages you to get a life.

  • If you were conducting a kind of Hemingway Grand Tour, traveling the world in search of all things Papa, I’d tell you to get a better hobby—but if you insisted, I would tell you to make sure you visit northern Michigan, the site of Hemingway’s sometimes neglected formative years. “Havana, Key West, Ketchum, Paris, Pamplona—these locales tend to conjure vintage Papa: a kerchiefed, bloated, rum-drunk Nobel laureate. Petoskey? Not so much. The gatekeepers of Hemingway’s legend have largely ignored the place … But if you want to understand the writer, you have to start here. Michigan-era Hemingway is threshold Hemingway—young and raw, before the fame and subcutaneous padding and sixteen-daiquiri lunches. It’s where he experimented in delinquency, learned to cast a fly rod, stepped unmoored into the wilderness and first tinkered with a prose style that would one day make him famous.”
  • In times of internal strife and quandary, it’s seldom a good idea to turn to the precepts of dead white men. But during her midlife crisis, Alison Gopnik found solace in the ideas of David Hume, which remain progressive even today: for Hume, “the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or ‘reality’ or even ‘I’? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact … Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.”
  • From the renowned creators of camera obscura and camera lucida, it’s Camera Restricta, which “will force you to actually spend time admiring a picturesque landscape rather than worrying about composing the best shot.” Basically, it’s a camera that can tell if other people have already photographed the thing you’re trying to photograph, thus saving you a lot of time and preventing any kind of White Noise–esque Most Photographed Barn in America phenomenon.
  • On Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, an Indonesian novel now available in English, which is playful and agreeably profane even as it tackles the darkest chapters of its nation’s history, such as 1965’s anti-communist purge: “The narrator’s voice ranges from merciless and brusque to tender and doleful. One of the men is terrorized by the ghosts of slaughtered Communists, who make him ‘think that he was making love to his wife’ when, in fact, ‘he was fucking the toilet hole.’ Scenes of brutality—of rape, incest, bestiality—are undercut by macabre humor. Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter, Alamanda, is in love with Kliwon, her childhood sweetheart, but she is forced to marry the Japanese soldier Shodancho, twenty years her senior, who drugs and rapes her. Alamanda buys an impenetrable ‘anti-terror garment’ that transforms her underwear into a literal iron fortress.”
  • Most of us have accepted that this “Internet” isn’t just a passing trend; it’s time, then, to put some serious thought into how to curb the trolls, whose power is on the rise. “With enough effort, expertise, and good faith, a comments section can showcase the worthwhile, efface the worthless, and downrank the dubious. But in mass media and mega-platforms—where most of the action is—comments sections are all too often cybercesspools of trashing and trolling, obsessive annotators, and regressive instigators … The original sin of Internet culture was the exploitation of user-generated content to enrich a lucky few at the top of dominant platforms. Spreading that wealth … would be a good first step toward taming trolls and shaming sock-puppeteers.”

Bring Home a Little Piece of Obscenity, and Other News

October 2, 2015 | by

Detail from Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait, 1983.

  • If you’ve got an extra $250k–$350k lying around, you could own a part of obscenity history—a print of Robert Mapplethorpe’s electrifying photograph Man in Polyester Suit is up for auction. That’s the one, you’ll recall, that features “a tightly cropped picture of the torso of a black man wearing a three-piece suit, with his large penis hanging out, like a Montgomery Ward catalog hacked by Tom of Finland, with an assist from Duchamp and Groucho Marx.” Twenty-five years ago, Mapplethorpe’s photography unleashed a righteous fury; Jesse Helms and other congressional fuddy-duddies called it obscene and wrote a bunch of angry letters to people. To own Man in Polyester Suit is to give the middle finger to such types, always and forever. I’m sorry I can’t afford it myself. But if someone were to wish to buy it for me as a gift …
  • Elizabeth Bishop met Clarice Lispector in 1962, and immediately set about trying to help the Brazilian writer to break out in America. But there was some kind of a hiccup, and things between them cooled: “It is notably odd that Lispector was not more interested in Bishop’s offer to foster relationships with American publishers; she had struggled to get the elite presses of Brazil to take on her books and would struggle to make money after separating from her husband … Bishop personally negotiated the relationships and letters of interests with these editors, but it seems that she never realized or acknowledged that the power she wielded, often with an air of superiority, was precisely what was offensive … The last time Bishop writes about Lispector to Lowell, she says, ‘She’s hopeless, really.’ ”
  • Whither e-reading? A few years ago, e-books were poised to take over the world—but reading on a screen has failed to live up to its promise, and e-books are just … kind of boring, especially on the much-vaunted Kindle. “Amazon has built seamless, efficient plumbing for digital books. But after a book has made its way through the plumbing and onto the devices, the once-fresh experience now feels neglected … I’ve found that it’s much more effortless to dip back into my physical library—for inspiration or reference—than my digital library. The books are there. They’re obvious. They welcome me back.”
  • If Nietzsche gave a commencement speech—I know, thank God he’s dead, and won’t—he might draw from a part of his Untimely Meditations, devoted to Schopenhauer as an educator, but littered with weird nuggets of quasi-self-help: “There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever … No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”
  • In John Keene’s collection Counternarratives, “every available form of literary irony—every possible way of forcing stubborn words to mean more than they pretend—­seems to be working at once.” Keene (“black, gay, raised in St. Louis, enamored with language, tormented by it”) is intent on using silence and absence in his fiction; his stories are full of missing texts. “This time, they are the reader’s assumptions and expectations, the dominant narratives—historical and political as well as strictly literary—with which we conjure the world and reproduce it, exclusions and erasures intact.”