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A Loaded Deck, and Other News

January 28, 2016 | by

Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

  • It feels like only yesterday that I was lugging my hardcover of 2666 around town, regularly having my mind blown on subway cars, buses, park benches, et cetera. Imagine how much easier it would’ve been to have that experience in one prolonged five-hour session at the theater! Robert Falls and Seth Bockley are bringing Bolaño’s opus to the stage next month, at the Goodman Theatre: “The play is being presented with three intermissions. To keep things moving, Mr. Falls and Mr. Bockley boiled the novel down to essential characters and story lines, though they would periodically restore some of the stories-within-stories-within-stories, like the tale of a painter who attaches his mummified hand to a self-portrait … The directors and the design team worked to create a distinct style for each of the five parts, keyed to the radically different literary genres Mr. Bolaño drew on: fairy tale, hard-boiled crime novel, academic satire, lyrical short story, Don Quixote–style picaresque.”
  • Meanwhile, in Chile: Ariel Lewiton is on the hunt for Neruda’s ghost. “Isla Negra was the home Neruda loved best, the one for which he’d written: The house … I don’t know when it was born in me … For the first time I felt the prick of the scent of the winter sea—a mixture of laurel and salty sand, seaweed and thistle, struck me. It was here I believed I would finally find Neruda … I had not thought to bring flowers. I walked past the grave to where the hill gave way to the sea. At the shore, waves thrashed the rocks. I took off my shoes and waded out from the land. The water was so cold it burned and I stood there for a while with the ocean biting at my ankles.”
  • And while we’re focusing on the Spanish language, Janet Hendrickson has translated entries from the letter in a seventeenth-century Spanish dictionary. Among the words: apio (celery), “the symbol of sadness and weeping”; alba (dawn), “What is that? Nothing but the dawn as it walks among the cabbages”; and andrógeno (hermaphrodite), “Some say that women have three wombs on the right and three on the left and one in the middle; some wombs create males, the others females, and the one in the middle hermaphrodites. And others attribute even more wombs to women, and many allow for none of this.”
  • Did you know? Between long bouts of poverty, disease, and malnutrition, people in the Middle Ages occasionally had fun. They did this by playing cards, mainly. And you should see these cards, on display now at the Cloisters Museum here in New York: “The decks on view are often beautiful, and sometimes poetic; a number are humorous and a few downright bawdy. For instance, on one card (pictured above) a woman with long blonde braids sits on a stool milking a grumpy cow—which on inspection proves to be a bull. Another portrays a woman passing a phallic-looking tree on her way to market. One hand balances the basket of geese on her head, the other lifts her long skirt above her knee. Geese are not all that is for sale.”
  • There’s been plenty of attention paid to Nabokov’s recently collected letters to his wife, Véra—but why hasn’t anyone told me before now that he used those letters to chronicle everything he’d eaten for the day? The Nabokov diet, writes Nina Martyris, was hardly gourmet: “Nabokov kept his promise of sending her a daily bulletin, which included a scrupulous itemization of his meals. Listing every meal he ate was clearly a drudgery, but he hurried on with it by squashing the menu between parentheses: ‘(A couple of meatballs—cold-cuts, sausage, radishes)’; ‘(cold-cuts, fried eggs, a cold meatball)’; or ‘(liver and gooseberry jelly—a sort of frog caviar).’ Occasionally, there was a dry barb: ‘incomprehensible meat,’ and more rarely, a stab of praise, ‘magnificent blueberry soup.’ But mostly it was a boring plod of cold cuts and compotes.”

Fractals, Man, They’re Everywhere, and Other News

January 27, 2016 | by

David Foster Wallace famously used the Sierpinski gasket, above, as a model for the structure of Infinite Jest. Image: Nevit Dilmen, 2006

  • Many reasonable people have concluded that the only way to stay sane in New York City is to be drunk all the time. It was just a matter of time until the advantages of this lifestyle reached the theater community and seeped into its most pious sect, the Shakespeareans—and so was Drunk Shakespeare: “The gimmick here is that at each performance, one actor begins by consuming enough shots to trip even the best-trained tongue … There’s a fair amount of impaired performing going around … What sets Drunk Shakespeare apart is that alcohol isn’t the main character. It’s more like an enabler, allowing the actors (sober and drunk) to take all sorts of liberties with Shakespeare, but skillfully.”
  • In the UK, at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, a show called “death: the human experience” attempts to succeed where commercial culture has failed: at selling death. “The show repackages death into friendly jewel-pink tones and soft lowercase letters, yet does not shy away from frank presentation of the processes that surround death. Visitors can peruse a model of the mortician’s workplace, where bodies are embalmed and dressed for funerals … One of the final displays, a digitized version of Don Celender’s 1982 ‘Reincarnation Study,’ punctuates a gloomy subject with humor. Celender, an artist and professor, asked dozens of celebrities ‘in which form would you like to return?’ Julia Child, an American chef and television personality, responded with a list: ‘three inches shorter, feet two sizes smaller, flat stomach, capacity to eat all day and not gain a pound, otherwise Okay as is.’ ”
  • Not unrelatedly, here’s the Polish writer Filip Springer on Przyczółek Grochowski, a famously bleak housing complex in Warsaw:You can’t even die here in dignity,’ I overhear someone say on Bracław Street. ‘You can’t even get a coffin in and out of the apartments. They have to wait with it downstairs. The sexton wraps the corpse in a sheet and shoves it out the window. I saw it happen once. They were carrying a dead man. His hands were dangling. No dignity at all, but how else are you going to do it? That’s why all the furniture people have has to be collapsible.’”
  • Today in fractals: they’re everywhere, dude. In Joyce—fractals. In Proust—fractals. In Cortázar, Woolf, Dos Passos, Bolaño—fractals, fractals, all fractals, sometimes even multifractals. This per science: “Some of the world’s greatest writers appear to be, in some respects, constructing fractals. Statistical analysis carried out at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, however, revealed something even more intriguing. The composition of works from within a particular genre was characterized by the exceptional dynamics of a cascading (avalanche) narrative structure. This type of narrative turns out to be multifractal … The study involved 113 literary works written in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish … To convert the texts to numerical sequences, sentence length was measured by the number of words … The dependences were then searched for in the data … This is the posited question: If a sentence of a given length is x times longer than the sentences of different lengths, is the same aspect ratio preserved when looking at sentences respectively longer or shorter?”
  • John Lingan on Johnny Mercer, the songwriter who had a string of hits in the 1930s and ’40s: “Beyond his lyrics’ rural and black affectations—the dropped g’s, the cornpone scenery—Mercer brought a distinctly Southern stillness to American pop. Economical yet vivid in his natural descriptions, he kept his songs’ emotions at a cool simmer and rarely told stories, instead opting for calm, wistful dioramas … He preferred to write lyrics while supine, eyes closed, ‘as if he could dream songs into existence,’ according to the critic Wilfrid Sheed. His entire public persona was built around this same aloofness; onstage (a rare occurrence, though he became better known for live performances in the 1970s), his mind seemed to be elsewhere, and even his Tinseltown reminiscences seem muted, obligatory.”

Salubrious Cervantes, and Other News

January 26, 2016 | by

Illustration by Stefan Mart, 1933.

  • Flush your antidepressants, fire your therapist, and deaccession your self-help library: Cervantes is the only mood elevator you need. “Eduardo Guerrero, head of Mexico’s prisons system, told Radio Imagen that when El Chapo was recaptured earlier this month after escaping six months ago, ‘he arrived depressed, and more than depressed, tired—tired of being on the run.’ In the last few days, said Guerrero, the prisoner had been given a copy of Don Quixote to read, ‘because we believe it is an excellent book, and we have to start giving him such notions.’ ”
  • In the late eighties, Lex Kaplen launched Wigwag, an ambitious magazine that lasted for only fifteen issues, perhaps because of its unlikely name or its strange agenda: “The Wigwag office was in SoHo, on Spring Street, downstairs from a place where a man dealt in geological survey maps, two blocks from the Spring Street Natural. Lex set the tone for the office. His favorite outfit was Bermuda shorts and a cardigan sweater … Wigwag was a general-interest magazine that included some of the same kinds of things that The New Yorker ran—reporting, fiction, columns on the arts—along with quirkier features: a bedtime story, a map contributed by a reader (‘Dogs of Westhampton, Mass.’), a Family Tree of, say, TV sitcom writers or celebrity hairdressers. Its heart was a section called Letters from Home, in which writers from towns big and small (Baltimore; Dripping Springs, Texas) kept readers abreast of the local goings on.” The theme for one issue was polka dots.
  • The best way to remember Clarence Reid, the R & B rabble-rouser better known as Blowfly, is to read a few of his song titles: “My Baby Keeps Farting in My Face,” “Electronic Pussy Sucker,” “Shitting on the Dock of the Bay,” “Spermy Night in Georgia” … you get the picture. Reid died last week at seventy-six. “In both his parodies and his original compositions, Mr. Reid was lascivious but good-natured. Even at his most extreme, there was nothing harsh about him. While his songs painted him as a libertine and rascal, in real life he was religious—he had memorized the Bible, Mr. Bowker said—and rarely drank or did drugs … As Blowfly, Mr. Reid created an implicitly radical counternarrative to the more polite strains of soul that were popular at the time.”
  • If you want your very own National Magazine Award, it’s time to start being systematic. Just follow a few simple steps and that handsome copper elephant statuette can be yours, all yours! You’ll want to go long (no fewer than 6,500 words) and stick to the past tense. Write in the second person and try not to cuss too much …
  • Or you can liquidate some of that capital you’ve got tied up in Andy Warhol. Most of us have dozens, if not hundreds, of Warhol artworks just lying around the house, quietly skyrocketing in value. The time to sell is now, and the man to see is Geoff Hargadon, who operates a storefront in Boston called Cash for Your Warhol. “Hargadon, a financial planner by day, has been pretending to buy Warhols since 2009, when the recession spawned an influx of bandit signs promising ‘Cash for Your Home’ and ‘Cash for Your Gold.’ Fascinated by the sheer bluntness of the signs, Hargadon started collecting them. At some point, while thinking about markets left untapped, ‘the phrase [Cash for Your Warhol] just popped into my head,’ he says. He set up a hotline (617-553-1103), designed his own line of signs, stickers and billboards, and stuck them all over major cities from Kentucky to Pennsylvania.”

The Art of Investing, and Other News

January 25, 2016 | by

Sarah Meyohas, Paradise INC on January 12, 2016, 2016, Oil stick on canvas, 50" x 60". Image via 303 Gallery

  • Today in translating bugs: The Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature (1921), newly reissued, reminds that certain literary tropes are far from universal: “Yoko Tawada recently remarked that one of the difficulties she faced when translating The Metamorphosis into Japanese was that the associations Japanese people had with insects—even presumably giant beetles—were different from those of Europeans … In Japan, Buddhism teaches that a person might be reincarnated as any kind of animal or insect, creating a strong sense of continuity between the human and insect realms. That butterfly flapping above your head may contain the soul of a deceased lover … Humans (in the West at least) had, [Hearn] argued, become numb to the magic and horror implicit in the daily lives of insects.”
  • Want to support the work of young artists without pumping capital into the infernal machine that is Big Finance? Invest in Sarah Meyohas, whose first solo show is up now: “Meyohas, who studied finance at Wharton and recently received an M.F.A. from Yale, is known for creating a cryptocurrency called BitchCoin. Here, she cheerfully explains to visitors that she is using her laptop to buy and sell stocks on the New York Stock Exchange. Every day she selects a company for which little or no trading is happening, and with her own money she buys stock in that company, which drives up its price. This precipitates a sell-off, at which point she may or may not buy more stocks. After cashing out, she takes a black marker and draws a line on one of the canvases, loosely tracing the stock’s price line during the time she invested in it.”
  • Tim Parks does a close reading of Primo Levi in translation, looking at what changes in his prose and why: “The fact is that much space is required to say anything even halfway serious about a translation. For example, the three volumes of Levi’s Complete Works include fourteen books and involved ten translators … While Levi liked to describe himself as a writer with a determinedly plain style, the truth is rather different. Often a direct, speaking voice shifts between the colloquial and the literary, the ironically highfalutin and the grittily scientific. It’s true that there are rarely serious problems of comprehension, but the exact nature of the register, which is to say the manner in which the author addresses us, the relationship into which he draws us, is a complex and highly mobile animal. It is here that the translator is put to the test.”
  • In Medieval Graffiti, the historian and archaeologist Matthew Champion studies the long history of defacing English churches and the thin line between desecration and devotion: “Rarely were these marks and messages removed or written over by other parish members, showing a sign of respect and acceptance. Curiously, many of the graffiti traces discovered by Champion relate to curses, magic, and more pagan practices than are often connected with Christianity … It wasn’t outside the realm of belief that a symbolic carving in this sacred space had transformative power.”
  • Diana Kennedy is a ninety-two-year-old writer living in Mexico City. She’s also, as it happens, embroiled in a fierce debate about Mexican food writing: “Kennedy is far more than just a writer of cook books. ‘All anthropologists and botanists, they ought to learn to cook,’ she has said, ‘or they will miss the whole point of how culture and plants and food come together’ … There’s probably no better contemporary book that illustrates the food/non-food question than Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy. The book is exotic less for its unlikely ingredients, although there are plenty of them, than for its variety: throughout the province of Oaxaca, there are thousands of valley-specific dishes.”

We’ve Got Spines for Everyone, and Other News

January 22, 2016 | by

Collect ’em all. (All 215 of them.)

  • AIGA’s Eye on Design blog has a thoughtful, thorough history of The Paris Review’s art and design, with stories from our former editor Maxine Groffsky and our art editor, Charlotte Strick. “The masthead has shape shifted from serif to sans and back again; its size has gone from pamphlet, to book, to magazine, to somewhere in-between … ‘Mining The Paris Review’s rich archives revealed that the primary role of design in those mid-century issues was to support the publication’s beautifully curated literature and artwork,’ says art editor Strick. She was determined to make the current publication work in the same way, while simultaneously reminding the reader of The Paris Review’s continual evolution.”
  • Scholars have long endeavored to place Sarah Palin on the continuum of American poets—but where does she belong? Her speech endorsing Trump this week suggests that she’s the next Walt Whitman, as Jeet Heer writes: “There is a strong consensus among Palin scholars as to where she fits into the poetic pantheon: She is heir to the tradition of free-flowing democratic verse that runs from Walt Whitman to Carl Sandburg to Allen Ginsberg … Now that Palin is back in the spotlight, it’s hard not to hear her voice in her great precursor Whitman. Palin’s alliterative apostrophe to the common folk of Iowa (“You farm families! And teachers! And teamsters! And cops, and cooks!”) calls to mind the egalitarian inclusiveness of Whitman’s many lists … As a right-wing populist, Palin shifts the political valence but keeps the allegiance to the ordinary. As much as any Whitmanesque poet, she claims to be the voice of those who are never listened to.”
  • In which Janet Malcolm takes Ted Hughes’s unauthorized biographer, Jonathan Bate, to task: “Beyond tastelessness there is Bate’s cluelessness about what you can and cannot do if you want to be regarded as an honest and serious writer … The question of what [Hughes] was ‘really’ like remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. Biographers, in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.”
  • Fact: Robert Pinsky once wrote a text-adventure video game called Mindwheel. “For a brief time in the mid-nineteen-eighties major literary publishers, including Simon & Schuster and Random House, opened software divisions, and major bookstores stocked works of ‘interactive fiction,’ ” writes James Reith; Pinsky’s Mindwheel is “a playful mishmash of sci-fi tropes, Pop surrealism, and allusions both high and low: the work of a poet having fun, but still the work of a poet. After all, Pinsky pointed out to me, ‘allusion’ and ‘ludicrous’ both come from the Latin ludere, meaning ‘to play.’ ”
  • While we’re here poring over our “books” and our “literature,” there are people out there with their eyes on the real prize: an elevator to the stars. “As outlandish as it seems, a space elevator would make getting to space accessible, affordable and potentially very lucrative. But why it hasn’t happened yet basically boils down to materials—even the best of today’s super-strong and super-lightweight materials just still aren’t good enough to support a space elevator … ‘The problem with the entire space elevator effort is that there is no real support for it … This is what a project looks like when it’s done as a hobby, by hundreds of people spread out all over the world. There will be no substantial progress until there is real support and professional coordinating management for the effort.’ ”

Shut Off Your Heating Systems, and Other News

January 21, 2016 | by

Vagrich Bakhchanyan, Attention! (detail), 1972–73, transfer process, colored pencil, and ink on paper. Courtesy of Zimmerli Art Museum, via Hyperallergic

  • We’ve known for a while that fairy tales are old, but only now have we discovered that they’re in fact really, really, really old—an important distinction. Stories like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” originated thousands of years ago, researchers suggest, in “prehistoric times, with one tale originating from the bronze age”: “Using techniques normally employed by biologists, they studied common links between 275 Indo-European fairy tales from around the world and found some have roots that are far older than previously known, and ‘long before the emergence of the literary record.’ ”
  • The sound is as important as the surface and the feel. It’s important because our ears define for me the nature of space,” said Derek Sugden, an acoustic engineer who died this week at ninety-one. He headed Arup Acoustics, which designed buildings with sound in mind, thus starting a kind of quiet revolution in architecture, as Gillian Darley writes: “The more recent transformation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by Cruz y Ortiz takes its responsibilities to an immense visiting public seriously. Enormous frame-form baffles hang from the Gothic Revival roof of the original atrium, while several interior windows are blanked out with fabric ‘shutters’ to keep resonance at a minimum. Thousands of people come and go (the café is in a separate space beyond) and the experience remains convivial and pleasurable, sound levels no higher than a gentle hum. Yet nothing is made of this achievement in features on the renovated museum in the architectural press: Sugden was right, architects don’t hear.”
  • The Soviet artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan hoped to subvert his government by using its own language against it in his art: “He made works on paper in which appropriated texts and images were combined and layered using transfer techniques, some utilizing official notices by Soviet administrators—the terse, usually handwritten flyers that punctuated the everyday life of Soviet citizens with warnings, admonitions, and exhortations. One such announcement scribbled on a page torn out of a logbook reads: ‘Comrade residents! On Monday the 19th there won’t be any cold or hot water. We ask you to close the taps and shut off the heating system in your apartments.’ Over top of this message, Bakhchanyan has layered an image of a peaceful country landscape. In this and other works, the juxtaposition of random texts and images was meant to produce a momentary disorientation, a visual and mental shock caused by two or more layers of signification clashing and negating one another. The artworks reflect the absurdities and humiliations of the Soviet life—the tragic contradictions between the official ideology of socialism and its everyday reality.”
  • Last November, Yurina Ko went to the Big Eaters World Championship in Times Square, where passersby were fascinated by a Japanese woman—everyone called her a girl—who could eat and eat and eat: “ ‘But the girl. She can eat.’ ‘I wonder what her stomach looks like’ … It’s the magic of the Little Big Eater Girl. She’s skinny, prepubescent, and childlike in her seeming ignorance about what constitutes an appropriate portion of food. And yet she’s an adult. If you take her on a date, she won’t order just a salad but every item on the menu and beg for dessert after. After enjoying every spoonful of this giant meal, she still looks healthy, small, and fuckable … Someone in the crowd points to the Japanese eater and says, ‘But look, now she’s sick.’ The woman looks like she’s in pain, breathing into a paper bag. What’s really happening is she’s starting to regurgitate into it. People scatter at the sight of this.”
  • Today in corporate-media pissing contests: anyone who dreams of landing a gig at Condé Nast has a foolish, outmoded dream, because all the cool kids work at Hearst now. “Working at Condé is passé,” an “insider” told Page Six. (Another compared Condé to Icarus.) “Hearst has the better perks now: visiting chefs in the cafeteria and free workout clothes in the gym. There are also master classes from the likes of Gloria Steinem, Ethan Hawke, and Arianna Huffington.”