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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Comyns’

What We’re Loving: Marionettes, Ducks, and Connell

October 25, 2013 | by

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I was about to describe Barbara Comyns’s hyper-vivid little novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) as Ivy Compton-Burnett on acid. Then I googled Comyns. Top result: “Barbara Comyns Is Not Anyone on Acid.” Thank you, Emily Gould. But why do so many readers reach for the same cliché? Who Was Changed is trippy from sentence one: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.” The real trippiness of the novel—about an English village struck by a mysterious epidemic—lies not just in its eye-rubbingly bright details, but also in its moral sensibility. Flood, fire, madness descend on Comyns’s characters without any of the usual narratorial handwringing, occasionally accompanied by ducks. Comyns is so matter-of-fact as to be surreal, and irresistible. —Lorin Stein

Until recently, I had never read Evan S. Connell; quite the faux pas when you consider that Mrs. Bridge originated as a short story in the Fall 1955 issue of The Paris Review. In this, his first novel, Connell paints a brilliantly handsome and moving portrait of a woman by the name of India Bridge and her unspectacular Kansas City family. We follow the quotidian concerns of a woman plagued by upper-middle-class luxury, and while her obsession with all things bourgeois lends humor to the novel, Connell refuses to pass any sort of judgment on his protagonist. And yet we feel the muted despair of a family divided by perpetual boredom, isolation, and the complete inability to connect. We ache for a mother’s attempt (and failure) to mother, a wife’s desperation to be loved, a woman’s unending struggle with herself. Connell’s prose is decisively, and artfully, quiet; yet the silence he weaves into the novel’s 117 chapters brims with the same fervor and frustration buried in his characters. —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Captain Kentucky, John Henry, Plagues

December 7, 2012 | by

I picked up Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead when it was first reissued in 2010 but then had to put it aside. I began it again—and finished it—last week, and I’m so glad I did. The novel, originally published in England in 1954, concerns the Willoweed family and their reactions to an outbreak of madness and suicide in their small village. Its humor is by turns black and light, its characters morbid and delightful. An aberrant pastoral as smart as this one could only come from someone with a biography as nutty and wonderful as Comyns’s. A painter by training—she exhibited with the London Group—Comyns married and had two children. To support them, “she dealt in antiques and vintage cars, renovated apartments, and bred poodles. She later lived in Spain for eighteen years.” —Nicole Rudick

Brain still humming with Elaine Blair’s brilliant essay on David Foster Wallace, I read his own long 1990 review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, now reprinted in Both Flesh and Not. So much has been written about Infinite Jest, but for me these two essays together do the best job of describing what’s at stake in that novel—morally, philosophically, artistically. Among other things, Wallace reveals his debt to Stanley Cavell (a teacher whose influence he later played down) and his raw-nerved engagement with feminist criticism. At times, too, “The Empty Plenum” reads like a sort of preemptive rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in The New Yorker. Wallace may not have been the sage we wished for, but as Blair writes, he “worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods.” —Lorin Stein

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Press Pass: Dorothy

September 24, 2012 | by

In 2010, Danielle Dutton founded Dorothy, a publishing project, with the aim of producing books that appeal both to fiction readers and to poetry fans. Her own writing—she is the author of two novels, Attempts at a Life and S P R A W L—likewise embraces the slipperiness of not quite being one or the other. The covers she designed for Dalkey Archive, meanwhile, were often as minimal and tonal as the writing within. Who better, then, to shepherd formally unconventional, handsomely made little books into being? On the occasion of her third year of books—she produces a pair each year—I spoke with Dutton by phone about her one-woman operation.

How would you describe the aesthetic of the press?

Part of the idea of starting the press was that I felt that I was in two different camps. In working at Dalkey, I felt tapped into American literary fiction and translation. At the same time, my own writing was more small press, experimental, and I felt that, much of the time, there is little crossover between those two communities. The idea, then, was to publish two books each year that are aesthetically different, in order to try to develop a crossover readership.

The fiction community that my own writing was coming out of at the beginning was really loose and close to poetry, and it seemed like that there was no cross-reading going on. So I published Renee Gladman, who started as a poet. The other book I published that first year was a novel by Barbara Comyns that was out-of-print. I offered those two books together at a special discount to encourage people to buy both when they come looking for just one—to get Renee Gladman’s book into the hands of Barbara Comyns’s readers and vice versa. So the aesthetic is open, but it’s all work that is risking something, that is adventurous aesthetically or structurally.

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Staff Picks: Tea Cakes and Putin and Vets, Oh My!

April 6, 2012 | by

“Some poems smack of a gentility one would like in some moods to smack out of them.” Even before I read that sentence—about the sainted Elizabeth Bishop!—I knew Maureen McLane was the poetry teacher for me. Her first book of criticism, My Poets, is the survey course of my dreams: a long, loving argument with and about everyone from Chaucer to Gertrude Stein. As befits her subject, McLane is both plainspoken and lyrical, falling at times, as if naturally, into verse as clear as her prose. —Lorin Stein

I remember a college professor commenting that he was never sure Stephen Crane “knew what he was doing” when he dropped all sorts of clues and oddness into his stories. I had the same thought while reading Barbara Comyns's 1959 book, The Vet's Daughter. Does all this strangeness serve a purpose? Does the bizarre ending mean something? Whether the answer is yes or no, I still enjoyed the novel more than anything I’ve read in months, and I’ve already ordered the rest of her books. —Sadie Stein

Robert Caro—never disappointing—had a particularly good piece in the April 2 edition of The New Yorker, on John F. Kennedy’s assassination but from LBJ’s perspective. It’s a bizarre and fascinating tale of how history is formed both by monumental events and by intimate details. And that famous photograph of his swearing in—as he stands grim-faced and flanked by Lady Bird and Jackie—will never look the same to me again. —Nicole Rudick

It wasn’t the intimidating length or experimental style that had me wondering, Wait, what?, when reading Finnegans Wake. It was my damned curiosity about the “careful teacakes” that Joyce introduces. My foodie heart salivated at the thought—where do I get one of those? Luckily, I stumbled upon A Trifle, a Coddle, a Fry: An Irish Literary Cookbook last weekend and was thrilled to find a recipe for these mysterious treats alongside sixty-six other recipes gathered from food references in the writing of twelve Irish authors, including Beckett and Shaw. Crack it open for a satisfying literary and gastronomic adventure, and let the sating begin. —Elizabeth Nelson

Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin has kept me up the last three nights. —L.S.

This week I attended a reading of Dante’s Inferno inside Saint John the Divine cathedral, a massive Gothic-revival church near Columbia University. If you missed it, mark the date. It happens annually on Maundy Thursday (which, for those needing to brush up on their Christian calendar, commemorates the day of the Last Supper). It was awesome, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. A wooden pew is really the only place one should learn about Hell. —Allison Bulger

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