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Peacock-eating for Poetical Public Relations, and Other News

February 25, 2015 | by

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A mural in Switzerland. Photo: Roland zh

  • In a 1914 publicity stunt—back when poets were free to partake of the great PR machine—Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and four others gathered at a luncheon to eat a peacock. “The papers were alerted, and news of the meal spread far and wide, from the London Times to the Boston Evening Transcript.”
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, your humble correspondent, is traveling across America for The New York Times Magazine: “The editor proposed that I travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it. ‘A tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,’ as he put it.”
  • Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner: the Romantic legacy of these composers lives on … in first-person shooters. “The grandiloquent sounds of the nineteenth century are still alive in the new millennium … but only when someone is getting bludgeoned, bloodied, blown-up, or decimated with automatic weapons … Even heavy metal isn’t heavy enough for most composers seeking to juice up their combat scenes. We need something with a little more sturm und drang.
  • Starting to write a book is hard. Then there’s the whole middle part—also difficult. And finally there’s the end, which is no cakewalk, either. Can we learn anything from the last sentences in famous novels? “For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game.”
  • On rereading Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, a 1982 memoir of her turbulent marriage to John Berryman: “For a long time I could not shake the belief that these poets, all of them dead before their time from madness, self-neglect or suicide, paid a noble price for their pursuit of truth and beauty … I don’t think that anymore. Now, it’s Simpson herself who seems to be the hero … Simpson, who became a psychotherapist and went on to publish several books, writes with an almost uncanny clemency and a kind of cerulean objectivity. Where there might have been bitterness there is, instead, compassion.”

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The Service Industry’s Snobbiest Sector, and Other News

February 24, 2015 | by

Who could say no to that face?

  • Your stereotypical French waiter is condescending, arrogant, and rigid with hauteur—a veritable seven-course meal of Gallic clichés. But that radiant superiority is earned: French waiters are still more talented than most everyone else in the game. No one has perfected the art as they have. Sartre wrote of their “lively and exaggerated manner, a little too precise, a little too fast … trying to mimic the rigor of a robot while carrying his tray with the temerity of a tightrope walker.”
  • It’s time to bury Pablo Neruda again, a Chilean judge has ruled. Forensic scientists exhumed Neruda’s remains nearly two years ago to investigate a claim by his former driver, who’d said the poet “had been murdered by an injection to his stomach by political enemies.”
  • On Oscar Wilde’s long journey from tasteless sodomite to canonized icon: “In the English classrooms of my youth, Wilde was taught as a pillar of classical learning and modern suavity, not some licentious bogeyman. Wilde, now, is tame; safe. We canonize authors to pretend we understand them; we forgive authors who ought rather to forgive us.”
  • Charles Simic knows how to beat writer’s block: just stay in bed. “When you write in bed, you don’t feel like you’re doing something serious. I’ve been traveling, visiting European institutions, and they give you a gorgeous space to work, with perhaps a lake and a beautiful desk. I could never write there; I feel intimidated by the whole thing. When you’re in bed, you feel very casual about it. It’s just doodling.”
  • Industry analysts, publishers, and grown-ups are flummoxed by news that hip, digitally native young persons apparently prefer reading printed books to reading electronic ones. “These are people who aren’t supposed to remember what it’s like to even smell books,” said one wide-eyed, confused adult. “It’s quite astounding.”

Today’s Defacement Is Tomorrow’s Artifact, and Other News

February 23, 2015 | by

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Mark Twain’s annotations to translations by John Dryden. Photo via NYRB

  • The FBI kept a file on James Baldwin that ran to 1,884 pages. What was in it? Reasonably adept criticism, among other things: “The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports … It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers.”
  • A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, “Readers Make Their Mark,” collected annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, thus continuing the culture’s growing fascination with marginalia. “Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books: George Bernard Shaw identifies a printed text of his Too True to be Good as a ‘Provisional Prompt Copy’ for a particular production and calls it ‘Frightfully Private. No Press Agent to be let near it.’ And sometimes—as in the case of an early woman reader who judges the characters in Emma, one by one—they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar.”
  • “Let’s get out of here” is one of the most common lines in film—people in movies just love to leave places. “It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt.” But in more contemporary movies, “getting out of here” faces stiff competition from its longtime nemesis, “staying put.” “This emphasis on staying suits our times: The people writing and watching these movies are all part of an introspective, if not isolationist, culture that’s still licking its wounds after plotless wars and a traumatic recession.”
  • Is there anything more insufferable than our current predilection for all things twee? “Twee is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.”
  • I’ve always dreamed of winning an Oscar—I could put it up for auction, I thought, and make a lot of money, and that would be cool. But it turns out that selling your Oscar trophy is a great way to get sued by the Academy. In fact, the Academy thrills to a good lawsuit; they’ve also brought suits against “television shows that use the name ‘Oscar’ (i.e., ‘The Wine Oscars’); a website that predicts Oscar winners; and a chocolate-maker who produced Oscar-shaped candies.” Next up: people named Oscar, or people related to those people.

Sherlock Holmes Defends Civil Engineering, and Other News

February 20, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Sherlock Holmes from The Strand, 1920s.

  • In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
  • Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
  • While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
  • How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”

Hey, I Got You This Meaningless First Edition, and Other News

February 19, 2015 | by

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From The Boy Next Door.

  • Feeling anxious? Depressed? Full of foreboding? Use fiction to overmaster your fears, and experience instant results. “In my books I get to create anxiety on my own terms. I can moderate fear and pass it on to other people. This creative, oddly communal form of anxiety feels very different from the kind I have in the back of my mind always—the fear about what will happen to my sight. There is something delicious—that’s the only word I can use to describe it—about recreating apprehension on the page.”
  • Jennifer Lopez’s terrible new movie The Boy Next Door has inspired a misguided quest for first editions of the Iliad. “Lopez plays a divorced English literature high school teacher who has a one-night stand with her younger neighbor played by Ryan Guzman. In one scene, Guzman’s character gives Lopez a copy of The Iliad, which is described as a ‘first edition’ and apparently found for ‘a buck at a garage sale.’ ” Problems: no one knows for certain when the Iliad was even written. It was passed down by oral tradition first. It’s at least three thousand years old. It wasn’t composed in English for first publication in a handsome hardcover.
  • On André Brink, a South African novelist who died last week: “Brink could write in a blocky, slightly cumbersome way, and some of his overlong later novels needed more editing. But the combination of his moral vision, psychological acuity, and insistent narrative force puts him, in my mind at least, in the company of Theodore Dreiser and Russell Banks.”
  • I’m not sure if Victoria Sambunaris’s pictures amount to “a photographer’s version of the Great American Novel,” as the headline says they do—but they’re an affecting record of an American phenomenon: “the recurring sprawl of massive development and junctures where nature meets culture unexpectedly and surprisingly sublimely.”
  • Supposedly, we’ve entered a new golden age for television, and for architecture, and some might say even journalism—what about art? “This is how we know precisely that we’re not in any Golden Age for visual art: There’s the spectacle of obsessive, laser-like bidding on lonely, singular canvasses by the few, but no broadly shared delight and conversation. ‘Excess of excellence’ or ‘intellectual credibility’ wouldn’t exactly be the first words from anyone in Contemporary art describing their own field, much less Miami art fairs.”

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Try Not to Write a Best Seller Before Puberty, and Other News

February 18, 2015 | by

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Barbara Follett. Photo via Farksolia/Lapham’s Quarterly

  • Many twelve-year-olds write novels. Few of them garner attention from Alfred A. Knopf, who published The House Without Windows in 1926, when its author, Barbara Newhart Follett, was still young enough to write to a friend, “Daddy and I are correcting the manuscript.” The book attracted enough critical renown to make Barbara famous, thus ensuring that her life went to pieces—she disappeared in 1939, and no one close to her ever saw her again.
  • Virginia Woolf’s turbulent final years were well documented in her correspondence, which is full of sorrow and incoherent lapses into a kind of bliss. “As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no attraction in you. There are moments—when you kissed me the other day was one—when I feel no more than a rock,” she wrote to Leonard Woolf, whom she later married. But then, later: “I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good … I don’t think two people could have been happier.”
  • Frederic Tuten remembers his friend Roy Lichtenstein: “People were so shocked by Roy’s paintings in the beginning—it was almost as if he had committed a sacrilege … But the point was, if you make what you think is a work of art, you’re going to do what everyone does. If you make a painting as good as Cezanne or Picasso, so what? Nothing has been added, nothing has been brought forward, nothing has been made to change our conception of painting. This is what I, as a young writer … thought I had learned from Roy. No writer I knew personally at that time gave me the feeling that there was something yet fresh to be done in fiction.”
  • What does it really mean to be creepy, at the end of the day? Does it have something to do with “displaced sexual energy”? “We can be creeped out by corporations, by places, by inanimate objects, even by periods of time (who is not vaguely creeped out by the 1970s?). We hesitate to say that these things are inherently creepy, and yet the judgment that something is creepy seems somehow more than simply ‘subjective.’ ”
  • Time was, any major metropolis worth its salt had a splendorous cathedral on offer. But there’s a more important metric these days: “Cathedrals remain powerful statements of a culture and, to Christians, significant symbols of their faith, but if I were drawing up the rules for what made a city of any worth, my first point of reference would be its botanical garden. These days, I find I have no need of organised religion to guide me through the days. Yet as a denizen of what Henry Miller called ‘the air-conditioned nightmare,’ I find comfort in almost any exposure to the intricate order of the natural world.”