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Posts Tagged ‘Blek le Rat’

Staff Picks: Pop, Rock, and Bear Hock

August 29, 2014 | by

From Barry Guy's Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

From Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez

In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein

That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More »


What We’re Loving: YA, Sci-Fi, Street Art, and Zweig

September 20, 2013 | by


Galvanized by the interview with Ursula Le Guin in our current issue, and recalling my love for her first three Earthsea books, I’ve embarked upon the second set in the series, which she began nearly two decades after the original trio. The long stories in Tales from Earthsea have been keeping me company late at night, the perfect companion for my recent bouts of insomnia. Though they function as back stories for characters and events in the earlier books, they’re also highly enjoyable as standalone narratives. What the best fantasy does—and what Le Guin does in spades—is give the impression that even when the book stops, the world inside its pages continues to exist beyond the bounds of the author’s invention. Upon her return to writing about Earthsea, Le Guin herself found that to be true: “What I thought was going to happen isn’t what’s happening, people aren’t who—or what—I thought they were, and I lose my way on islands thought I knew by heart.” —Nicole Rudick

After Sadie wrote about The Disaster Artist last week, I couldn’t help but pick up the book myself. I had seen The Room years ago—and the film’s as inexplicable as you’ve heard—but I was captivated by the unlikely bromance between a struggling actor and an enigmatic filmmaker at the core of the story. Yes, there are plenty of hilarious making-of stories, but it’s a sincere portrait of the rewards and peril of having an artistic vision you’re 100 percent committed to expressing. For the uninitiated: check out the book trailer here. —Justin Alvarez

Blek le Rat’s solo exhibition “Ignorance Is Bliss” lured me to the Jonathan LeVine Gallery this week, and his stenciled canvases have since been burned into my retinas. In these large, often monochromatic images, strewn with thick swashes of black, the viewer sees such forms as the oracle Sibyl from Greek antiquity, via appropriation of Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl. Grace permeates the canvas; Blek subverts this with a skull tattoo on Sibyl’s arm. In a six-foot canvas we see several children playing tug-of-war with one of his iconic rats. On a nearby pedestal is Blek’s first work in sculpture, a small bronze statue of David holding a Kalashnikov while a rat gazes up from below. Seeing the culmination of thirty years of the Parisian-born street artist’s work, we experience both its sociopolitical resolve and the familiarity of his tightly controlled spray-paint forms; he innovated stencils and rats, and others took cues from him, or, indeed, lifted his entire style. For those who know street art through Banksy, here’s what the famously elusive artist allegedly said of Blek: “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.” And should you notice a stenciled Andy Warhol or a gas mask surrounded by rats on a wall in Brooklyn, that too, was Blek. —Adam Winters

Long before I went to work at Jezebel, I was a devoted fan of Lizzie Skurnick’s late, lamented “Fine Lines” column, in which she paid tribute to unjustly forgotten YA classics. So, like many people, I was thrilled when I heard about Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint devoted to just these titles. The series kicks off with a bang: the great Lois Duncan’s 1958 Debutante Hill. The book, Duncan’s first, is a classic coming-of-age page-turner with a protagonist you root for. But like all her fiction, it deals with real issues of class, social consciousness, and growing up with seriousness and sensitivity, and is as fresh and engaging today as it was upon its publication. But then, that is what Skurnick has always understood about these books: at their best, they are literature in the true sense of the word, and by no means only for young readers. (Although it’s exciting to think of a new generation discovering them.) —Sadie Stein

Since the current issue of The Paris Review features an excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s upcoming translation of Karl Kraus, I figured it would be thematically appropriate to tout Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday. (A shame, incidentally, about that title translation. In English, it sounds a little too much like a depressing expo installation; the book’s elegiac tone is more successfully rendered in the German original, Die Welt von Gestern.) As Kraus’s contemporary, Zweig’s memoir is useful reading for anyone interested in the social milieu of fin de siècle Vienna, and the precipitous decline of the Hapsburg Empire. Zweig’s dewy-eyed recollection of the prewar years in Vienna, not to mention his gushing description of boy wonder Hugo von Hofmannsthal, also provide a nice counterbalance to the eternally acerbic Kraus. —Fritz Huber