The Daily

On the Shelf

We Fucked on a Volcano, and Other News

June 30, 2015 | by

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Emilie Eisenhut, Vulkanausbruch, 1827, gouache on paper.

  • “One cannot read a book,” Nabokov famously said, “one can only reread it.” That’s pleasant and all—certainly it flatters our sense of elitism, suggesting that “aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best”—but doesn’t it amount to sophistry? “No reader ever really takes complete control of a book—it’s an illusion—and perhaps to expend vast quantities of energy seeking to do so is a form of impoverishment … Is it really wise to renounce all the impressions that a thousand books could bring, all that living, for the wisdom of five or six?”
  • Today in the age of mechanical reproduction: the Smithsonian is 3-D printing prehistoric skulls. They have no intention of trying to pass off the replicas as authentic—they just want to share more of their skulls with the world, and 3-D printing them is the easiest way to do so. “Still, the proliferation of replicas does stand to diminish the value of the real thing. The museums that own the original skulls depend on income from visitors and model making, so the Smithsonian will limit production and keep the skulls’ 3-D ‘blueprints’ to itself.”
  • Great news for poets! Bots have obviated the need for your art. They are, in fact, your art. Condolences. “I was thinking of writing a poem about bots, but that’s already so ten minutes ago, and anyway, some bot has already written that poem. Does it matter? These days people are writing poems about fucking on volcanoes. ‘We fucked on a volcano.’ How does that help? … You can expand the poetic field to include ‘we fucked on a volcano’ or even ‘the whole week we fucked on a volcano,’ and you can expand it to include bots, and so what? It’s bigger now … everything is.”
  • Relatedly: conversations between bots are nearly indistinguishable from Beckett plays. Bots are dramatists, too.
    Z.: Then leave.
    Y.: How did you know?
    Z.: Just leave.
    Y.: You leave.
    Z.: No.
    Y.: Yes.
    Z.: I don’t even know how.
  • New to the Oxford English Dictionary: twerk, intersectionality, staycation, presidentiable, SCOTUS.

On Travel

A Very Interesting Excursion

June 29, 2015 | by

Looking for van Gogh in Belgium’s mining district.

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Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower, 1888, which was inspired by paintings by Jean-François Millet.

Earlier this month, Nellie wrote for the Daily about van Gogh’s time in the Borinage and its effect on his art. In this follow-up piece, she reflects on her own travels in the region.

On a sunny but cool afternoon in mid March, I stood on the muddy ground of a closed and abandoned mine in Belgium. Behind me, a handful of pigs screamed from inside a pen in one of the decrepit buildings. A large, lean, mean-looking dog, which in fact was not mean at all, stood nearby, tethered to a long rope.

It was my first time in this place, the former mining district of Belgium, called the Borinage, though I spent the nearly six years prior writing a novel that took place there. From 1878 to 1880, before he declared himself an artist, Vincent van Gogh lived in the Borinage, trying to be a preacher, and the story of what may have happened during that time is my novel’s subject. I didn’t go to Belgium while I was researching or writing the book—the mines are all closed these days and the area developed; I told myself there was no point in going if it didn’t look just like it had in the late nineteenth century. But Mons, the city that sits right at the tip of the Borinage region, is this year’s selection for the European Capital of Culture and, as a result, is home to all sorts of interesting exhibits and performances, including the first-ever exhibition of van Gogh’s work from and related to this period of his life: it opened, strangely, just a few weeks after my book had been published. It was a coincidence too odd to ignore, and I got on a plane to go see this place I had long imagined.

I have been struggling to articulate what this visit was like in any coherent way. I knew, all those years, that the place I was envisioning was real, but in my mind it was a place that no longer existed, a place to be conjured and imagined, not to stand on with two real feet. To be confronted with the reality of the place in physical space was quite a different thing. I expected that there would be nothing left. In a way I was right, and in a way very wrong. Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Chicken or Egg

June 29, 2015 | by

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Odilon Redon, L’oeuf (The Egg), 1885

This is the very worst wickedness, that we refuse to acknowledge the passionate evil that is in us. This makes us secret and rotten. —D. H. Lawrence

Have you, a modern person, ever really smelled a rotten egg? Think hard! In all honesty, I can’t say with certainty that I have. Old, sure. Smears of unappealing, desiccated yolk on a carton, yes. But truly rotten? I don’t think so. Read More »

In Memoriam

One More for James Salter

June 29, 2015 | by

Photo: Lan Rys

We’re concluding our week of James Salter remembrances with this interview by Kate Peterson from 2010. She recalls the experience fondly:

Among writers, James Salter was my first hero. Maybe it’s outmoded in 2015 to call someone your hero, but then, if any recent American writer took the idea of heroism seriously, it was Salter. I found his story collection Last Night ten years ago on my own, by chance—no friend or teacher had recommended it, and no social media list of must-reads existed then, at least on my radar. As discoveries go, it was a deliciously private one. The authority of his sentences and paragraphs came from their music, but not only from that. His descriptions seemed to draw power from what had been relinquished. I was dazzled, puzzled. Discipleship is fueled, in part, by mystery; at least mine was.

We met for this interview at the University of Minnesota in October 2010. I turned on my tape recorder and flipped to a fresh sheet of notebook paper, but before I could ask my first question, Salter asked one of his own: Bob Dylan had played near here, hadn’t he? I said he had. Did I know his songs? Not well, I admitted. He asked, could I sing any? Though I crossed Fourth Street every day, I confessed I couldn’t; I had been raised on show tunes. Like Rodgers and Hammerstein? Yes, I said. And so, before I knew what was happening, I was singing James Salter a few bars of “Oklahoma.”

That evening, Salter read from what became All That Is, his last novel. Then the working title was To Live It Again. It’s a promise at once retrospective and infinitive, and one, Salter often argued, that only books could honor.

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

Tell me about your new novel.

I’ve been working on it for some years. I’d had the idea for a long time, but I was unconsciously waiting for a line from Christopher Hitchens. He wrote somewhere that “No life is complete that has not known poverty, love, and war.” That struck me, and I began with that.

I haven’t followed it through. Poverty doesn’t play much of a part. Betrayal does, and it’s a book that has a little more plot than other books of mine. It’s about an editor, a book editor, it’s the story of his life. Read More »

On the Shelf

Immoral Situations, and Other News

June 29, 2015 | by

Tess harassed by Alec D'Urberville, from the monthly serialization of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in The Graphic, 1891.

  • Ken Kalfus is on his way to the bookstore, and he’s not having a swell time—because how can you, anymore? “Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.”
  • Philip Larkin will soon be honored with a flagstone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey—a kind of rarefied Walk of Fame where he’ll join such august forebears as Chaucer, Dickens, and Ted Hughes. Asterisk: Larkin regarded his fellow flagstoners, to a one, as hacks. “We do not find any great striving towards artistic greatness,” he said of The Canterbury Tales; Dickens was “hectic, nervy, panic-stricken,” with “queer names, queer characters”; and Hughes he regarded as simply “no good at all.”
  • From the annals of censorship: Thomas Hardy’s original manuscript for Tess of the D’Urbervilles fell afoul of the morality police in strange ways. Macmillan’s Magazine, which rejected the novel for its “immoral situations,” thought Hardy overused the word succulent: “Perhaps I might say that the general impression left on me by reading your story … is one of rather too much succulence.” Another magazine, Graphic, wouldn’t serialize it until Hardy removed “references to characters traveling on a Sunday and to rewrite the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids over a stream—one of the novel’s great moments of muted desire—so that he instead pushed her across in a wheelbarrow.”
  • Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs was a strange book when it appeared in 1995—it’s even stranger now. A novel based on a piece he’d reported for Wired, it endorses a kind of techno-utopia in which start-ups can give real meaning to life, but “the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.” And the Internet is only a glimmer, if not a mirage, on the horizon. “This highway,” one character asks of the Information Superhighway: “Is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.
  • Nonfiction publishing is full of middlebrow “talking-point books”: essentially swollen magazine pieces that hang shoddy scholarship on some banal marketing hook. “We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the ‘always topical’ debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with ‘what it means to be human.’”

This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: A Mongoose Civique and a Maestro of the Rant

June 26, 2015 | by

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Love Wins: our senior editor Stephen Hiltner designed this collage in honor of today’s Supreme Court decision.

heaven“Writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult.” So says Czeslaw Milosz in his 1994 interview with The Paris Review. This, he noted, could be one of the greatest challenges facing the poets of our time: “the incapacity of contemporary man to think in religious terms.” Twenty years later, Rowan Ricardo Phillips published a poem in our summer 2014 issue that begins “Not knowing the difference between Heaven / And Paradise, he called them both Heaven.” That poem appears again in Phillips’ new collection, Heaven. In contemporary poetry, there are few book-length meditations on heaven. It’s strange. What’s more, it’s strange how strange it is: Phillips constantly reminds us that the territory is well charted. His poems pinpoint and stitch together small, disparate nodes of heavenly wisdom scattered through our largely earthbound canon. (Ovid, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, to name a few of the patron saints.) The flow of astronomical allusions, like the subject itself, feels mundane at a glance and somewhat trite to mention. But as Phillips brings them close with the tight scope of his scholarship and lyric observation, they become unfamiliar, and heaven becomes something new, “this star-seized evening that’s / Unreeling and unreals.” —Jake Orbison

I managed to get my hands on a copy of Elena Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan Novel, The Story of a Lost Child (out in September), and have been able to focus on little else all week. In this final installment of the story of Elena and Lila, Ferrante delivers some seismic-level surprises that somehow don’t feel contrived, that instead unearth a new internal symmetry beneath the dynamics established in the earlier books. As Ferrante shapes and reshapes her narrative, she watches generations of Italian intellectuals do the same for that of their country, continuously redefining the acceptable terms for political and social engagement. When they’re not fixating on Ferrante’s anonymity, reviewers like to talk about “the inner lives of women” and “female friendship” in these novels, as if Ferrante is venturing into entirely uncharted territory—as if women’s interiority hasn’t dominated a good part of the past several hundred years’ fictional output. Maybe Ferrante’s femaleness gets emphasized because we don’t have the vocabulary to describe what is indisputably different about her books, to explain why they read like a revelation to so many readers—this one included. —Rebecca Panovka
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