The Daily

On the Shelf

The Slow Decline of the Fridge Poem, and Other News

October 12, 2015 | by

There are about fifty of these under your fridge right now. Photo: Steve Johnson, via Flickr

  • In which Vivian Gornick lives in New York, and walks, walks, walks, and keeps walking, imagining herself under “citywide house arrest”: “Nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like joining the endless stream of people moving steadily, as blood moves through veins and arteries, along these democratic streets. The relief I felt stepping daily into the anonymous crowd was almost indescribable; and then relief morphed into vigor, and vigor gave me vital information … What struck me almost viscerally was the sense of expectation that seemed to rise and fall before my very eyes … It was this expectation that supplied New York with its unique brand of energy: avid, noisy, fast-moving; wild to get into the act. That was it, really, getting into the act … To this day, the street achieves for me what I so often cannot achieve for myself: composition.”
  • When Trollope published The Duke’s Children in 1879, he had to cull some 65,000 words from it—presumably at the request of his editor. Now the uncut original has been published, and it turns out there was something to those 65,000 words: “The new version will most likely not change anyone’s view of The Duke’s Children, and yet all those tiny excisions do add up. The restored version is a fuller, richer book. And it’s fascinating to compare the two versions and see what Trollope himself thought could go and what he insisted on keeping. Maybe most revealing is a long fox-hunting sequence, about two-thirds of the way through, which Trollope trimmed only lightly. The sequence serves no crucial purpose in the book, other than providing Tregear with an occasion to have an accident that keeps him bedridden and apart from lovelorn Mary. It’s there because there’s almost always a fox-­hunting scene in a Trollope novel.”
  • Defenders of literary awards usually claim some kind of critical value for them; detractors say they’re just part of the publicity machine. But no one’s even arguing about the potential critical value of blurbs. Maybe it’s time for someone to stand up for them. “Can puffing—the practice of lauding a book’s merits in a few words, usually on its jacket blurb—be considered a kind of literary criticism, however cynically regarded it might be? … If we look at a couple of the puffs for this year’s Booker shortlist, we might be able to bring this question into focus. The claim of the unnamed reviewer in the Independent that Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is simply ‘glorious’ doesn’t seem to get us very far into the realms of literary criticism. Eleanor Catton’s gnomic description of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen as ‘awesome in the true sense of the word’ is perhaps more critically promising: what is the true sense of ‘awesome’? Why does this book in particular evoke that sense?”
  • Not so very long ago, refrigerators across the land were freckled with tiny, easy-to-lose magnetic words from which passersby were intended to fashion a kind of “poetry.” (More often, people used them to make vaguely naughty sex jokes.) So what became of Magnetic Poetry, to say nothing of the impulse behind it? “By removing the messiest step from the cut-up technique, it made the barrier to entry knee-high. It boxed up the creative process, putting it in the checkout aisle and then, once on the fridge, directly at eye level. It let us indulge all these instincts at once—toward communication, creation, jokes, profanity—and layered the results on the domestic experience. From the end of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, it turned kitchens everywhere into an inescapable id pastiche.”
  • The men (and they’re always men) who commit mass killings have a discomfiting tendency to write: they nearly always leave behind a manifesto, and it is nearly always inscrutable. Why the compulsion to address oneself to posterity? And what, if anything, can be gleaned from their words? “There have always been killers and they have often left pieces of writing behind (think of Jack the Ripper and his notes written in blood); some of them were even called manifestos. The Manson ‘family’, a previous group of bent fans of popular culture who heard messages in songs, believed in a program of salvation that required the slaughtering of the human ‘pigs’ who put them down. Valerie Solanos wrote a manifesto that wants to be a feminist tract before shooting Andy Warhol. But not even Warhol, who understood something essential about fame, could have guessed that, one day, such would-be killers, or putative cleaners-up of our corrupt and oppressive world, would carry the wherewithal in the pocket of their jeans. All they needed was a smartphone and a set of grievances, and the world was theirs.”


Saturday: See Lorin Stein Discuss “Narcissus and Literature”

October 9, 2015 | by


New York! Tomorrow—Saturday, October 10— at three P.M., our editor Lorin Stein will moderate a discussion with our Southern editor John Jeremiah Sullivan, Elif Batuman, and Jessica Moss. The matter at hand: How do writers interact with the mirror of the page? They’ll talk about the uses and perils of the first person in modern and classic literature.

Their discussion is part of this year’s Onassis Festival, a four-day series of arts and ideas to inaugurate the renovated Onassis Center; the theme is Narcissus Now: The Myth Reimagined. The event takes place in the gallery at Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue, at Fifty-first Street. Tickets are available here. We hope to see you there!


Bringing Voices from Chernobyl to America

October 9, 2015 | by

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich in Berlin. © Photo M. Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich, the latest Nobel laureate in literature, has said that “after twenty years of work with documentary material and having written five books on their basis I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.” But art is precisely what she has made: a “novel of voices,” as she has described her work, built from fact and feeling. Voices from Chernobyl, which Dalkey Archive Press published in 2005, is Alexievich’s fourth book but only her second to be translated into English. None of her other works have, to date, been published in English.

I asked Chad Post, who was then Dalkey’s associate director—he’s now the publisher of Open Letter Books—about what led him to publish Voices from Chernobyl in America and about his first impressions of Alexievich’s work, a blend of narrative and reportage that doesn’t offer conclusions. “Why can’t we say, I don’t want to be a slave anymore?” she said in a 2013 interview. “Why do we suffer again and again? Why does this remain our burden and fate? … I don’t have an answer, but I want my books to motivate readers to think about the question for themselves.”

What struck you about Alexievich’s writing when you first read her?

That it’s very political of course. She’s writing about the way the government ruined people’s lives. People died, they knew it, and they covered it up. They didn’t care. But at the same time, her writing is made up of all these voices—there are hundreds of people are in the book, but each one is fairly distinct, and even when their stories overlap, they retain their own voices, their own particular tales. That made it feel very human. It’s miserable to read, but it’s made very human and very powerful because of the way she allows their voices to tell truths that are hard to take. When those truths in the context of a narrative, of someone telling a story, it’s much stronger than if the experiences had been reported. Instead of “Then, on April 24, this thing happened, these people died in this way,” she let someone say, “My husband brought home his firefighter’s hat, and gave it to our son, who later got brain cancer and died.” Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Casting the Runes

October 9, 2015 | by

From Night of the Demon, a 1957 film loosely based on M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”

I love being read to. I could pretend it’s because it takes my mind away when I have a migraine or because it allows one to appreciate the aural poetry of writing—and that would be partially true. But the appeal is more elemental, more regressive. When you’re being read to, you’re being taken care of.

Perhaps by the same token, something scary can be magnified in the hearing. Ghost stories are meant to be told orally, after all, and when you are listening to something recorded, you have the option of doing so in the dark. When October comes, no matter if it’s more Indian summer than crisp fall, I want nothing so much as the occult and creepy. And so I walk through the city or work in the kitchen or stand on line at the bank, with M. R. James playing in my ears. Read More »

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Cairo, Cruising, Chrissie, Kmart

October 9, 2015 | by

Fire in Cairo.

“How many reasons have I for going to Moscow at once! How can I bear the boredom of seven months of winter in this place? … Am I to be reduced to defending myself—I who have always attacked? Such a role is unworthy of me … I am not used to playing it … It is not in keeping with my genius.” Thus Napoleon in 1812 in Lithuania, on the eve of his disastrous Russian campaign, which would destroy the French army and cost more than a hundred thousand French lives. The whole time, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Philippe-Paul, Count de Ségur, was taking notes. His inside account of the debacle—now known in English as Defeat—was a best seller when it appeared in 1824 and became a key source for War and Peace. Readers will recognize scenes from Tolstoy’s novel, but Ségur’s Napoleon is, if anything, even more vivid, because Ségur loves him and believes in him even when his genius lets him down. —Lorin Stein

The carnival that erupted in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir in 2011, and continued in one form or another for two and half years, has spawned any number of books and films. Maybe because the initial skirmishes were so chaotic or because the outcome of the revolts is still unclear—although a Thermidorian reaction now stretches into the foreseeable future—a documentary approach to this history has often seemed like the best one. Matthew Connor’s book of photographs, Fire in Cairo, goes in a wonderfully different direction. Taken during the spring of 2013, prior the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Connor’s photos are aslant and at times surreal. The violence of the revolts is present, even omnipresent, but as a mood rather than something concrete to look at. His shots, which have no captions, are full of fog, lasers, and common Cairene objects made mysterious through close-ups. There is also a gallery of portraits, many of whose subjects have their faces covered—by veils, helmets, or homemade gas masks. The effect of the book, for me, was to make the revolution strange again; it brought me back to that exciting time when none of us knew quite what we were looking at. —Robyn Creswell Read More »

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.”