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Mysterious Skin: The Realia of William Gaddis

December 24, 2013 | by

-1Most people with scholarly inclinations will visit a novelist’s literary archive to follow the paper trails, as manifested through gathered correspondence, stray postcards, marked-upon stationery, and scattered drafts. A couple of months before the recent publication of his collected letters, I visited the William Gaddis Papers at Washington University in Saint Louis in search of something near the polar opposite.

I had harbored a minor obsession with the novelist for years, even before reading a single word of his writing, probably due his reputation as a writer who crafted a string of unapologetically dense works while almost entirely avoiding the fickleness of the literary limelight. I had bought a used hardcover of Carpenter’s Gothic, one of Gaddis’s shorter novels, at a library booksale just after my early-twenties Pynchon obsession had tapered off a bit. That book sat unread on a shelf for a few years until I decided to make the plunge into Gaddis’s work after seeing his specter, both his name and the titles of his books, floating through David Markson’s great anecdote—and allusion-heavy novels.

More dilettante than scholar, I was on the hunt for certain pieces of the novelist’s realia, that archival category of physical, three-dimensional objects rather than the usual rectangular flatland of manuscripts. Gaddis—who wrote “only” five books over the course of a forty-odd-year career (though amounting to around 2,640 pages in total), with each tome encompassing every possible spectrum of American vernacular and obsession; who won a MacArthur Award and two National Book Awards; and who was famous, as Cynthia Ozick once put it, for not being famous enough—had one object in his collection that I had never seen in a library catalog before. I found this particular entry buried deep within the online finding aid for the Gaddis Papers:

“Box 166.2/- : Zebra Skin, (1 item), Stored in oversize; box on order.”

After scanning across this listing while doing cursory research for something else, I instantly became obsessed with the idea of the zebra skin in the library. What, exactly, did it look like? How was it stored among Gaddis’s papers? Why had he owned it? What was it doing in the special collections of an academic library? Read More »

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A Mark So Fine: Joe Henry and You

May 18, 2012 | by

Photograph by Michael Wilson.

In November of 2001, I picked up Joe Henry’s album Scar and was stunned by the opening track, a slow blues number called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” Henry, a white man, sang from the point of view of the black icon, expressing the comedian’s love-hate relationship with himself and his audience. Henry had the audacity and sensitivity to pull it off, with help from a spiraling, dipping, dripping saxophone solo by Ornette Coleman.

Scar was released in May of that year. Henry couldn’t have known how tearful the nation would be that fall. He closed the album with these lines from the title track, sung in a careful, mournful tempo:

The blade of our outrageous fortune,
Like a parade, it cuts a path.
Light shows on our foolish way
And darkness on
Our aftermath.

If I love you, to save myself
And you love me because we are
So fool to think that our parade
Could leave a path
And not a scar.
And I love you with all I am
And you love me with what you are,
As pretty as a twisting vine
A mark so fine
But still a scar.

The album resonated with me throughout that first post–September 11 holiday season, more than Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, which was released on that particular Tuesday, a coincidence that generated new claims of clairvoyance from Dylanologists. Henry’s album cuts deeper. Read More »

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Staff Picks: ‘At Last,’ Ambivalence

February 10, 2012 | by

“I couldn’t make her amusing,” says David Melrose after asking his girlfriend to eat off the floor like a dog, “but I did at least keep her quiet. I was dreading having another talk about the agonies of being rich. I know so little about them, and she knows so little about anything else.” From the first pages of Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, it’s clear that his cycle of Patrick Melrose novels will be delightfully packed with gross privilege, dysfunction, and savage humor. The first four novels have just been released as a single paperback alongside the fifth and final book, At Last. I look forward to devouring them all. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

If you’re a Thomas Mann fan—or, anyway, someone who’s fascinated by his work (fan doesn’t seem the right word)—it’s worth seeking out Gilbert Adair’s The Real Tadzio, the story of the ten-year-old Polish nobleman who inspired Mann’s Death in Venice. The object of the thirty-six-year-old author’s fixation was unaware of the connection for years. The book deals with his reaction to the odd sort of celebrity he acquired and, of course, with the summer in Venice that inspired the novella. It’s a slim volume, but it packs a punch and is ultimately as much about the end of an era in Europe as it is about the creative process or Mann’s disquieting obsession (about which his wife was oddly blasé). —Sadie Stein

Ambivalence may be the moral failing of the twenty-first century. Or perhaps not. It depends. I’m as guilty of it as anyone (maybe more), and I don’t feel good about my role in what Kenneth Weisbrode describes as a collective pathology. But in reading his engaging minihistory, I do feel encouraged to just make a decision already. —Nicole Rudick

The Library of Congress has made available, via Flickr, all sixteen hundred jazz photos by William P. Gottlieb. From 1938 to 1948, Gottlieb documented the New York and D.C. jazz scenes with the obsession of an avid collector. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Django Reinhardt, and even Doris Day—all are represented. —Josh Anderson

Weighing in at ten pounds, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, the nine-hundred-page volume of photographer Taryn Simon’s latest body of work, is not the easiest book to curl up with. Compiled over four years, Simon’s project records the bloodlines of eighteen different families across the world, charting the forgotten details of their family histories. It is an unforgettable exploration of survival, inheritance, and the forces of fate. —Elizabeth Nelson

“Anyone who takes pleasure in modesty will get on well here,” writes Robert Walser of a bar in his Berlin Stories. The same could be said of his work, as the excerpts now running at The New York Review blog prove. —D.F.M.

I really liked this piece on Jewish designers’ appropriation of WASP style—and how often is a title this perfectly suited to its subject? —S.S.

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