The Daily

Our Daily Correspondent

Conservative Radicals

March 26, 2015 | by

frost meet the press

Frost on Meet the Press in 1955.

First, a general note: At what point do we stop celebrating the birthdays of the deceased? Yes, Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874, and yes, that would make him 141 today—had not death intervened in 1963, when, at eighty-eight, Frost had already been around for a good while. At a certain point, can’t we just say that today is “the anniversary of his birth”? The word birthday no longer seems to apply—in the normal range of things, it starts to feel a bit macabre. One begins to imagine cakes and party hats on gravestones. Read More »

On Film

Drunk in Love

March 26, 2015 | by

Sixty-four years later, The Tales of Hoffmann continues to delight and perplex.

a Michael Powell Emeric Pressburger The Tales of Hoffmann Criterion DVD PDVD_005

A still from The Tales of Hoffmann.

Lovers of the recherché have flocked to see Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 Tales of Hoffmann at Film Forum, where it’s still showing for one more day. In a newly restored print, the film’s fantastical mise-en-scène and extravagant polychrome glory assault viewers head on for a hundred and thirty-three minutes. At each screening, Martin Scorsese introduces Hoffmann in a videotaped homily, during which he confesses to an “obsession” with the film, having first fallen for it, strangely enough, when it aired in black-and-white on Million Dollar Movie. Most critics rave or rant, or both, about this odd work. The amiable William Germano, the author of a smart, slim volume about the film for the British Film Institute, spoke at the screening I attended, and his was one of the more measured, sanguine appreciations: “Whatever Hoffmann was, there had never been a cinematic creation quite like this one.” Read More »

The “Mating” Book Club

3: “Blasts and Lurches”

March 26, 2015 | by

From “A Fête Worse than Death” through “A Great Reckoning in a Little Room,” pp. 59–71

mating

This is the third entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.

In their opening salvos to this celebration of/cerebration on Norman Rush’s Mating, it seems only reasonable that my virtual clubmates, Popkey and Piepenbring, have focused on the voice of the novel’s nameless first-person narrator. Without question, she’s a unique creation. Piepenbring calls her, approvingly, “strange,” a strangeness that Popkey would have us appreciate for a believable femaleness. I concede, as Popkey documents, that since Mating received the National Book Award for fiction, in 1991, it has been a point of debate, among critics and readers, to assess the degree of plausibility of the femaleness of Rush’s narrator (a nameless narrator who, in Rush’s third-person second novel, Mortals, has a brief walk-on part in which we learn both her pedestrian forename and her satisfying surname). 

Setting aside here the question of a male novelist’s capacity to imagine female prose (whatever that is), it seems to me that a deeper challenge, and the one by which we might measure Rush’s capacities, is his ability to imagine a character with a complex, plausible intellectual life. Though the human heart tested to its limits is amply central in the history of the novel, a human mind functioning at the peak of its powers is less well represented (and, when amply charted, is more typically criminal: Charles Kinbote and Humbert Humbert, for two). As such, I’m less concerned about veracity of voice than I am with memorableness of mind. No one I know talks like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, but that doesn’t stop me from believing in him. And no one I know takes in the world quite the way the narrator of Mating does. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Not Without My Piglet, and Other News

March 26, 2015 | by

          From Pulp Drunk: Mexican Pulp Art

From Pulp Drunk: Mexican Pulp Art

  • This spring, Zachary Leader’s new life of Saul Bellow arrives—“transparently meant as a corrective to the authorized biography published by James Atlas in 2000, which presented Bellow as a racist and a woman-hater, among other things, and accelerated Bellow’s fall from literary grace. You can feel the lines being drawn and the gloves going up … ”
  • “Characters having hallucinations and apparitions; super-strength robots throwing cars on a destructive rampage; jealous gorillas who are furious they didn’t end up with the girl; a thieving woman stealing a piglet under the cover of nighttime; circus murder mysteries … ” You’ll find all these and more on the pulpy covers of Mexican paperbacks.
  • A nineteenth-century guide to oratory tells you everything you need to know about giving a good speech; it will generously expand your gestural vocabulary, if nothing else. (The key to public speaking is to flail around like you’re an out-of-water synchronized swimmer, apparently.)
  • You might also make liberal use of litotes—the art of ironic understatement “in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary”—a not unsubtle addition to any rhetorician’s arsenal. “Litotes is best appreciated as a kind of rhetorical magician or illusionist. It can draw our attention to something—its badness, its difficulty, etc.—while, simultaneously, emphasizing its opposite. The quickness of the rhetorical hand deceives the mind’s eye—now you see what’s being meant, now you don’t.”
  • And steer clear of zombie nouns, while you’re at it: “Judith Butler, in the essay that won the 1997 Bad Writing Contest, uses account, relations, ways, hegemony, relations, repetition, convergence, rearticulation, question, temporality, thinking, structure, shift, theory, totalities, objects, insights, possibility, structure, conception, hegemony, sites, strategies, rearticulation and power—all in a single sentence. It is not much clearer with the other words added.”

On Games

It’s-A-Me, Ishmael

March 25, 2015 | by

Can Nintendo tell a proper story?

The-Legend-of-Zelda-Wind-Waker

From The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.

Nintendo and Netflix may be developing a Legend of Zelda TV series, the Wall Street Journal recently reported; or, as Time reported even more recently, they may not. Behind the will-they-or-won’t-they speculation lies a more complicated question: Can they? Do games like these bear expansion into full-fledged stories?

At first glance, a Zelda series seems like a savvy move: HBO’s Game of Thrones has proven that there’s high demand for vaguely medieval fantasies, of which Zelda—a franchise that made its debut in 1986, and that’s grown to include roughly seventeen games—is a prime specimen. And since Nintendo has gradually been losing its share of the video-game market for the past fifteen years, it has every reason to find other ways to wring more value from its globally recognizable intellectual property.

But games don’t translate as easily to TV or film as you might think. In his 2010 apologia Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, perhaps the most thorough defense to date of video games as art, the journalist and essayist Tom Bissell explains why: “The video-game form,” he writes, “is incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative progression.” Unlike books and films, games require challenge, “which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression.” Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Theory and Practice

March 25, 2015 | by

Walter_Gramatte_Trinker_1922

Walter Gramatté, Trinker (detail), 1922.

Let’s say you’ve had a long day, have a rare evening to yourself, and decide to treat yourself to dinner out. You sit at a restaurant bar with a good book, a glass of wine, your own company. You choose your meal, start to disappear into a story, and then—bam—it’s spoiled by the intrusion of a chatty neighbor. You give your book a regretful, longing look and resign yourself to the opposite of pleasure. 

There are few moments more purely happy than those dedicated to uninterrupted reading, and few more galling than those in which that peace is shattered, abruptly, by a stranger. Read More »