The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Kenward Elmslie and The Orchid Stories

October 25, 2016 | by

From the cover of The Orchid Stories. 

Upon that golden shore, kids
We’ll lie on beds of orchids.
—John Latouche, “Goona Goona,” from the musical The Golden Apple

The first chapters of Kenward Elmslie’s novel The Orchid Stories first appeared in the Summer 1967 issue of The Paris Review. The novel has just been reissued by The Song Cave.

Kenward Elmslie’s perverse, scabrous, gorgeous poetry and prose have astonished his fans for over fifty years—decades during which he remained the pride of small presses, the happy secret of cognoscenti—but it is safe to say that the vast audience his work deserves doesn’t know what it’s missing. He’s the most extravagant, and extravagantly overlooked, poet in America.

Elmslie is the nearly invisible fifth member of the quintet that includes Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. The generations of poets they inspired sing Elmslie’s praises, but he is most brilliantly described by Ashbery, his comrade-in-arms. Elmslie’s voice, writes Ashbery, is “that of some freaked-out Levi-Strauss, a mad scientist who has swallowed the wrong potion in his lab and is desperately trying to get his calculations on paper before everything closes in.” Read More »

To Heaven with Buraq, and Other News

September 23, 2016 | by

Buraq with Taj Mahal, a poster from Delhi. Image: Sandria Freitag personal collection/Public Domain Review.

  • As the Quran has it, Prophet Muhammad took a night trip to heaven aboard a trusty winged pony-horse-mule-ish creature called Buraq. It’s an episode that’s inspired Islamic art ever since, because few artists can resist a theologically sound reason to draw a winged horse. Yasmine Seale writes, “The friction between the historical Prophet and his fantastical mount, between the sacred and the physical, reflects a similar divide within Buraq herself: she has been perceived both as a dream-horse—mythical, sexless, emblematic—and as a creature of flesh. And Buraq as animal, especially in her more sexualized incarnations, in turn raises thorny questions about the body of the Prophet himself. Artists generally elided this problem, or creatively eluded it; early images of the Prophet tend to show him with a veil, and more recently his body has been symbolized by a white cloud, a rose, or a flame.”

Read More »

Black Pearls Before Swine

September 22, 2016 | by

Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?

Florence Foster Jenkins.

When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.

Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.

But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party. Read More »

Summer on the Stones

August 1, 2016 | by

Chekhov, Thomas Mann, and the longueurs of vacationing.

After a proposal from a rich but ridiculous suitor, Tony Buddenbrook, the high-society heroine of Thomas Mann’s first novel, leaves the German city of Lübeck for Travemünde, a resort town where the Trave River meets the Baltic Sea. “I won’t pay any attention to the social whirl at the spa,” she tells her brother Tom. “I know all that quite well enough already.” Tony stays instead in the modest home of her father’s friend the harbor pilot, whose son, a medical student named Morten Schwarzkopf, is also on vacation. On her first day, he accompanies Tony to the spa, and she invites him to meet the friends she had pledged to avoid. “I don’t think I’d fit in very well,” Morten says. “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones.”

By the end of the summer, Tony and Morten have fallen in love, and “on the stones” is a “fixed phrase” in their relationship, Mann writes, meaning “to be lonely and bored.” I visited Travemünde recently and after a few hours felt rather on the stones myself. The Baltic Sea was impotent at raising waves, and an incontinent gray sky drizzled on the city. The riverside homes along the Front Row, where the harbor pilot lived, are now tourist shops and restaurants filled with old German couples not talking to each other. The other nineteenth-century landmarks of Tony and Morten’s romance haven’t aged much better. The Sea Temple, a waterfront gazebo where they sit so close their hands nearly touch, fell into the Baltic in 1872, drowning with it the records of young lovers who scratched their initials on the walls. Read More »

The Backside of the Painting, and Other News

July 29, 2016 | by

Vik Muniz, Verso (Illha de Itamaraca), 2016.

  • The hatchet job isn’t what it used to be. To read Tobias Smollett’s book reviews from the eighteenth century is to discover, as J. H. Pearl writes, ever-higher concentrations of venom: “Smollett, who helmed The Critical Review from 1756 to 1763, never minced words in his judgment of whether a particular text was worth the paper it was printed on … All Smollett needed, it seems, was a target for his wrath. And as the pages of the Review attest, targets abounded … Specific reviewers remained anonymous, the better to create the impression of a unified voice, but writers of badly reviewed books tended to blame Smollett, returning their fire on him. It’s easy to understand that anger. Would you want your book called ‘a very trivial, insipid, injudicious and defective performance, without plan, method, learning, accuracy, or elegance; an unmeaning composition of shreds, rags, and remnants … a patched, a pie-bald, linsey-woolsey nothing’? (That was the assessment of a book called A New and Accurate History of South-America.)”
  • Because people excel at finding new ways to waste other people’s time, a small but vocal faction of conservative educators and politicians have called on our schools to start teaching cursive again. Tamara Thornton, the author of the 1996 book Handwriting in America, sees the reactionary anxiety at the center of their argument: “Learning cursive has never been just about learning how to express yourself in writing … In the early twentieth century, it’s about following models and suppressing your individuality … We get very interested in cursive when we feel that our morals are in a state of decline, all hell is breaking loose, people are doing whatever they want … And I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch that the sort of people who believe in the standard model of the family get very nervous when we depart from the standard models of the cursive script. So there have been periodic bouts of hysteria about the decline of cursive. And it’s always when we feel that as a society, we’re going down the tubes.”
  • At the White Plains Annual Reptile Expo, Madeline Cash dissects the strange bond between lizard and lizard keeper: “That unspoken connection no one else could understand, which maybe didn’t even exist, echoed all over the Convention Center. A lizard’s inhuman qualities are its appeal. They are whatever you need them to be—loving, smiling, a good listener — because the relationship is all a projection … When I saw the bearded dragons, my heart swelled. The gold-breasted beasts had the same long mouths carved across their faces that, as a child, I’d understood to be a smile. The vendor handed one over in an attempt to make a sale off my nostalgia. It cocked its head up at me with that permanent grin and it all flooded back.”

Tell Me How You Really Feel, Bro

June 6, 2016 | by

Thomas Mann, right, with his brother Heinrich.

In December 1903, Thomas Mann wrote his older brother, Heinrich, a long letter reviewing the latter’s novel—with brutal candor. Some of the most scathing bits are below. The complete missive is in The Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900–1949.

My impressions? They are not exactly very pleasant—which impressions, indeed, don’t absolutely need to be. It didn’t exactly make agreeable reading—which, indeed, however, is absolutely not necessary either. I struggled back and forth with the book, threw it aside, took it up again, groaned, complained, and then got tears in my eyes again … For days, in the lowest barometric pressure in a hundred years (according to the meteorologist), I went about in the agony your book caused in me. Now I know approximately what I have to say to you.

That I am not in agreement with your literary development—that must finally be said … When I think back ten, eight, five years! How do you appear to me? How were you? A refined connoisseur—next to whom I seemed to myself eternally plebeian, barbaric, and buffoonish—full of discretion and culture, full of reserve toward “modernity” and historically as talented as could be, free of all need for applause, a delicate and proud personality for whose literary endeavors there would quite probably be a select and receptive public … And now, instead of that? Instead, now these strained jokes, these vulgar, shrill, hectic, unnatural calumnies of the truth and humanity, these disgraceful grimaces and somersaults, the desperate attacks on the reader’s interest! … I read them and I don’t know you anymore. The psychological constant of the work, the desire of weak artificiality for life, this desire that would gladly masquerade as amorous desire within the lonely and sensuous artist—how is it supposed to move, to work convincingly when not even an attempt is being made to come close to life, to observe and capture even the air of the inner impulse of this simple madcap? Everything is distorted, screaming, exaggerated, “bellows,” “buffo,” romantic in the bad sense … Read More »