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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Don’t Like the Cover? Sew Your Own, and Other News

July 21, 2015 | by

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Elizabeth Sandwich’s 1759 hand-stitched Bible cover. Image: Provenance Online Project

  • If you like asking big questions about, say, the presence of sentient life-forms elsewhere in the universe, then look to science fiction, which at its best functions philosophically: “What, then, does it really mean to be alone or not alone? If you are alone, are you by definition lonely—with the yearning that implies? What does yearning do to warp the results of an inquiry? … A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle. If we’re going to ask a question like ‘Are we alone?’, an awareness of our own inconsistent history, our own limitations, is important—and so too is a wider understanding of what exists all around us.”
  • Samuel Delany’s novel Hogg is chock full of rape, incest, and abjection; to read its reviews is to understand “the difficulty of ascribing value to literature that is purposely unpleasant to read.” What are we to make of it—or, more important, how are we to discuss what we mean by enjoyment and disgust? “What happens when readers feel, for instance, aroused while reading Hogg, or when they experience conflicting affective responses? … The body’s responses are nuanced and manifold, and critics require more nuanced and legible terms for understanding them, especially those that are unsettling or unrecognizable.”
  • If that’s too heavy for you, look at this eighteenth-century embroidered worsted-wool Bible cover, a handmade, one-of-a-kind object that functions to individuate in the same way that an iPhone cover does now: “This is a book that was owned by someone with something to show the world … This embroidery work, taken up by a woman in a quiet moment at home 256 years ago, serves as a reminder to us of all we put our names to, all we add of our own selves to the world, and all the ways what we read, view, and watch is wrapped in the colors of our own individual experience.”
  • Joe Gould’s The Oral History of Our Time might just be the longest book ever written—portions of it were secreted away in closets and attics, and its manuscript, all told, was more than seven feet high. In the forties, speculation about the book was rampant, but no one could find it, and its author, an old drunk, wasn’t much help. But we’re in 2015 now. We can find anything. Cue the new search for Gould’s opus, and with it a new set of frustrations.
  • In Russia, censorship takes a host of forms: in recent months, rap groups, blockbuster movies, YouTube sensations, performance artists, opera productions, metal bands, and theater festivals have all fallen afoul of the government. What do they all have in common, according to Russia? They “deny human morality”; they “contradict moral norms.”

Is It Sincere? Is It Genuine? and Other News

April 24, 2015 | by

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M. H. Abrams.

  • M. H. Abrams, whose Norton Anthologies have united the bookshelves of English majors across time and space, is dead at 102. His seminal work, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), was that rare thing, a work of criticism that permeated the culture and changed the way we read; it resuscitated the reputation of the British Romantics and launched a new school of thought. “The first test any poem must pass,” Abrams wrote, “is no longer, ‘is it true to nature?’ but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, ‘Is it sincere? Is it genuine?’ ”
  • Maureen Freely, Orhan Pamuk’s longtime English translator, has come to see Istanbul through his eyes: “The Istanbul of my own childhood had vanished. I was left, instead, with men streaming down badly paved streets in shabby suits and covered women waiting on the roadside for the bus that never arrived; with collapsing Ottoman palaces, and fountains that had ceased working two centuries ago, and mosques whose lead domes were being plundered piece by piece.”
  • Rupert Brooke, who died in 1915 of a mosquito bite, was once of Britain’s most beloved poets—devastatingly handsome, wealthy, and deeply patriotic, he was an ideal poster child for all things English. But today his sonnets on World War I make him look like a “posh idiot nationalist”: “As with the work of many writers whose worlds have so thoroughly vanished and whose lives have sunk into myth, it can be hard to grasp the humor and the lightness in Brooke’s writing.”
  • Philip Glass has written a memoir. The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir. Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore. The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore. The American composer Philip Glass, known for his use of repetition and incremental variation, has written a memoir.”
  • When the scatological meets the diabolical: a history of poop as a weapon. (Oh, like you’ve never tried to kill anyone with it.)

Bolaño Hits the Powerball Jackpot, and Other News

March 17, 2015 | by

Illustration by Hache Holguin.

Illustration by Hache Holguin

  • Chicago’s Goodman Theater is mounting a five-hour adaptation of Bolaño’s 2666. The production is underwritten by a grant from “an actor and stage manager turned Episcopal monk who pledged last year to give away much of his $153 million Powerball jackpot” to support the arts.
  • Are you tired of suffering through novels rife with profanity and cussing? Try Clean Reader, “the only e-reader that gives you the power to hide swear words”—it’ll change bastard to jerk, damn to darn, and presumably render most David Mamet plays unreadable. And here’s a winning slice of the Clean Reader philosophy: “Will some authors be offended that some of their consumers use Clean Reader to pick out most of the profanity in their books? Perhaps. Should the reader feel bad about it? Nope. They’ve paid good money for the book, they can consume it how they want.”
  • For the literary critic F. R. Leavis—who was, by the time of his death in 1978, totally out of fashion—great books were judgments about life, and “when a great novel or poem is used to support some generalization about culture, the qualities which make it worth reading tend to be ignored.” Leavis abstained, dogmatically, from the pleasures of pop: “Leavis declined ‘intellectual slumming’ of any sort. If he got winded, he put Schubert on the gramophone or read a neglected classic.”
  • How music hijacks our sense of time: “In 2004, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring deemed Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie the most dangerous music to listen to while driving. It is not so much the distraction, but the substitution of the frenzied tempo of the music that challenges drivers’ normal sense of speed—and the objective cue of the speedometer—and causes them to speed.”
  • On getting a start as a critic: “I drew on a quality—a resource, a tool—that is very dear to me, and, I’d venture to say, very dear to most people who write reviews: arrogance … There’s good arrogance, too, just like there’s good cholesterol: arrogance that bolsters you, that allows you to feel that your judgment might be sound, that it might—and this is when the reviewer’s mind starts warming up, starts humming—be even better than sound.”

Speaking Bluntly

January 28, 2015 | by

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Colette in 1907.

Two letters from Colette, who was born on this day in 1873, to her friend Marguerite Moreno.

 

Rozven, mid-September 1924

… I should like to talk earnestly to you about your copy for Les Annales. You still do not have quite the right touch. You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the “diary” effect. For the most part you have approached your gentlemen as though they were so many subjects assigned in class … For one portrait which works—Jarry—there are two others—Proust and Iturri, say—who don’t. They are just not sufficiently alive!

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John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann

December 4, 2014 | by

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game. Read More »

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