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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Mendelsohn’

Staff Picks: Mendelsohn, Microgravity, Misconduct

March 20, 2015 | by


A still from Otolith I.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on Sappho has been haunting me since I read last week’s New Yorker. First there’s the history of her poems. We all know these survive today in a few fragments, but to think there were once as many as ten thousand lines—and that these were in wide circulation for a millennium—can make your chair tilt under you a little. Then there are the fragments themselves, a handful quoted by Mendelsohn in his own translation. Maybe it’s the weather, but I’ve found myself going back to his version of Sappho’s most famous surviving poem, the one that begins “He seems to me an equal of the gods— / whoever gets to sit across from you,” as if I’ve never seen a poem like that before. —Lorin Stein

The Otolith Group, founded in 2002, produces films and writings around sound, Afrofuturism, and the archive. I’ve been curious about the group for some time; since it’s based in London and exhibits mainly in Europe, I’ve had only glancing experiences with its work. But this week their first film, Otolith I, is available at Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen, an “online cinema” for experimental films. The Otolith Group’s name comes from a part of the inner ear sensitive to gravity and tilt, and Otolith I could be a kind of manifesto: narrated by a woman in 2103, it explains that prolonged time spent in the “microgravity” of space has deformed the otoliths of those born on the International Space Station. This new kind of human cannot survive on Earth and must rely on archival footage in order to understand life on the planet. Our narrator examines footage of the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova and of the Iraq war protests in New York in 2003. The former sets up the cosmos as a “zone of peace”; the latter describes a society crippled by collective blindness. “My comprehension erodes under the attrition of American war-speak. Did you know that ‘regime change’ means ‘invasion,’ that ‘preemptive defense’ means ‘attacking a country that is not attacking you,’ that ‘shock and awe’ means ‘military onslaught’?” —Nicole Rudick
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The Discovery of Oneself: An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

July 1, 2014 | by

Mendelsohn-matt mendelsohn

Photographed by Matt Mendelsohn.

Last year, the French magazine La Revue des Deux Mondes published an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn about his experiences reading Proust as part of a special issue on “Proust vu d’Amérique.” We’re pleased to present an English version of the interview here, translated from the French by Anna Heyward.

In Time Regained, Proust writes, “In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself.” You read Proust for the first time when you were a Classics student at the University of Virginia. What did you feel then?

Discovering Proust was a real shock—the shock of recognition. I was twenty, and my encounter with this novel gave me a shock that, I believe, is felt by every gay person reading Proust for the first time. It was remarkable to understand that the unsatisfied desires and the erotic frustrations I harbored had not only been felt by someone else—much bigger news in 1980 than today, it’s worth remembering—but, even more extraordinarily, had been made the subject of a great book. And yet, interestingly, when I read Swann’s Way, it wasn’t any specific description of homosexual desire that touched me—that theme is treated much more fully in a later volume, as we know—but something much more general, the novel’s description of unreciprocated desire and, above all, the astounding revelation, or perhaps confirmation, for me, that desire can’t endure its own satisfaction. We see that exemplified in Swann in Love. When Swann succeeds in physically possessing Odette, when she ceases to escape him, his desire for her vanishes. For me, yes, that was a revelation as well as a recognition of something I was feeling in my own early erotic encounters.

And then I had another kind of shock. Thanks to Proust, I found a certain consolation in thinking that all artistic creation is a substitute for erotic frustration and disappointment. That art feeds on our failures. Back then, I remember thinking to myself, I can’t get what I want anyway—by which, at the time, I meant that it didn’t seem possible to have a fulfilled “romantic” life—so I may as well become a writer.

Some readers feel the need to dive straight back into In Search of Lost Time as soon as they’ve finished reading the seven volumes of the book. Was that the case for you?

No. On the contrary, when I read it that first time, and in fact every time I’ve read it since, I need time to absorb it, to let it resonate, or perhaps percolate. After a sentence, a moment, as magnificent as the ones that end  Time Regained¹, I find it difficult to return to any reading at all. You feel everything has been said. On the other hand, I’ve reread In Search of Lost Time about every ten years since I was twenty. I’m a little over fifty now, and so I suppose it’s high time I start my fourth reading. Read More »


What We’re Loving: The New York Review, Baghdad, Fire

October 18, 2013 | by


The funny thing about the New York Review’s fiftieth anniversary issue is that it’s basically just a slightly fatter version of the normal product. Here’s Zadie Smith on girl-watching with her father. Here’s Frederick Seidel with a poem I badly wish we’d published ourselves. Here’s Chabon on Pynchon, Mendelsohn on Game of Thrones, and Timothy Garton-Ash writing (unenviably and with aplomb) on the ethos of the Review itself. Here’s Justice Stephen Breyer discussing Proust with a French journalist (Breyer turns out to be the only person about whom one is actually glad to know how Proust changed his life), plus Richard Holmes on Keats, Diane Johnson on MFA programs, Adam Shatz on Charlie Parker, Coetzee on Patrick White—and this is just the beginning. (As usual, I’m saving the politics for last.) There is one discovery I have to single out. In 1949 the German novelist Hans Keilson published one of the stranger World War II novels ever written, a novel later translated into English under the enigmatic title The Death of the Adversary. Thanks to Claire Messud’s beautiful essay on Camus, I think I may know where Keilson’s translator got the phrase. Camus, 1945: “I am not made for politics, because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.” Thank you, Ms. Messud. Thank you, New York Review. —Lorin Stein

Has any city been so cursed by history and so blessed in its poets as Baghdad? Reuven Snir, a scholar with family roots in Baghdad’s Jewish community, has edited and translated Baghdad: The City in Verse, an anthology of poems from the eighth century to the present, which has been my bedside reading for the last week. There are poems of debauchery (“Baghdad is not an abode for hermits,” an early poet warns his readers), nostalgia, and lament. The mournful note is especially strong in the later poems. But it is already there in Ishaq al-Khuraymi’s “Elegy for Baghdad,” a lament written in the aftermath of a civil war, which remembers a city “surrounded by vineyards, palm trees, and basil,” but now sees a wasteland of widows and dry wells, with “the city split into groups, / the connections between them cut off.” The Mongol invasion of 1258, when tradition says the Tigris ran black with the ink of books and red with the blood of scholars, was still four hundred years away. —Robyn Creswell Read More »


The NYRB Fiftieth Anniversary Kickoff, in Tweets

February 6, 2013 | by