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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

Paris from Camus’s Notebooks

September 19, 2016 | by

Albert Camus.

Albert Camus.

The myth is tenacious: an unknown writer on the verge of international fame, not suspecting that the scattered pages on his or her desk will become that miracle, a first published novel and a passport to glory. From March to May 1940, Albert Camus was that man, finishing a draft of the book he was calling The Stranger. The city, eerily calm, overtaken with a sense of dread, was weeks from the German invasion. Paris has changed enormously since 1940, but you can still walk in Camus’s footsteps through places that a few literary specialists have put on the map and come close to a moment of artistic creation.

Camus finished a first draft of his novel alone in a hotel room in Montmartre. The former Hôtel du Poirier on the rue Ravignan sits atop one of Paris’s “buttes” or hills, whose cleaner air might have benefitted the young writer, who struggled with chronic tuberculosis. The site is still about as picturesque a place as Paris has to offer: up a terraced set of steps, on one side of a cobblestone square with its own fountain, the little hotel stood directly across from the Bateau-Lavoir, a beehive of artist studios, spread out like a ship. On this vessel of high modernism, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. The glory days of the Bateau-Lavoir ended after World War I, but in March 1940, when Camus lived in its shadow, the place still exuded its bohemian aura. Crowned by the mammoth Sacré-Cœur cathedral, Montmartre was an acquired taste, with its own diehard citizens—pimps and scoundrels, anarchists and poets. Far from the business districts, Montmartre was still, in 1940, practically a separate village, a neighborhood where an artist or writer could get by on almost nothing. Read More »

A Battery of Tests for You, and Other News

August 19, 2016 | by

“The Make a Picture Story Test,” a psychological study from 1942. Image courtesy Redstone Press, via The New Yorker.

  • Elif Batuman has been reading Psychobook, a new collection of what can only be described as vintage psychological tests. The book is designed for many things, but not to make its readers feel sane: “No less than the many tests in its pages, Psychobook is itself a kind of inkblot, certain to evoke different emotions and associations from different people. For this reader, one recurring sensation was that of a deeply American beleaguerment, with some Eastern European overtones. I thought again and again of the immigrant woman, landing like Kafka’s hero on American shores after a long and, one feels, psychically taxing boat ride, facing the first of many new puzzles in a strange new land … It’s not immediately clear why this book exists, but it would probably look great in a therapist’s waiting room.”
  • Today in junk that might also be art—or, at least, junk that you could soon own: Tekserve, a computer-support shop not far from the Review’s offices in Chelsea, ended its twenty-nine-year run this week. As a kind of progenitor of the Apple store, the business amassed a lot of obsolete technology over the decades, and now you can buy that stuff at auction. Have you had your eye on a Philco Predicta TV? An early “magic lantern” slide projector? A Braille display processor? A Nagra 4.2 portable mono tape recorder? Or perhaps the storied “Mac Museum,” “which comprises thirty-five computers that represent the development of Apple from 1984 to 2004”?
  • Since 1982, the London Review of Books has had featured writers from all over the world for their Diary column. Until this week, no one could say which corners of the globe, exactly, had been represented in the LRB’s pages—but now they’ve gone ahead and marked all eight hundred of their contributors on a map. Note the presences, of course, but also the absences. No one has ever filed a diary from Mongolia or Indonesia, for instance—book your flights now and refine your pitches from thirty thousand feet.

How to Keep a Journal

July 15, 2016 | by

A history of the discipline, and of myself.

Samuel F. B. Morse,Susan Walker Morse (The Muse) (detail), 73 3/4 x 57 5/8,  1945.

Samuel F. B. Morse, Susan Walker Morse (The Muse) (detail), 73 3/4 x 57 5/8, 1945.

A few months after I turned sixteen, I began to keep a journal. I labeled it VOLUME I and titled it Journal of the 16th Summer of Alyssa Jean Pelish—anticipating posterity, if only in the form of my older self. I wrote in this journal daily, diligently, the only way I knew how. I had no models beyond the very general Protestant work ethic it is possible to glean from children’s picture books and Saturday morning cartoons and after-school reruns, which taught me that you win approval by, say, training your horse every single day, or, once you have planted a seed, by never ceasing to pull up the weeds and sprinkle water over the ground. Unstinting repetition was, therefore, my MO. Read More »

We’re Both Dippy Over Him, and Other News

June 30, 2016 | by

Gee whiz!

  • If you’ve been listening to pop music your whole life, you might think that love is a many-splendored thing, subject to the vicissitudes and vagaries of the human condition. You would be wrong. Love has exactly seven stages—no more, no less. Stendhal said so: “In 1818, Stendhal—then an unsuccessful writer in his midthirties named Henri Beyle—met one of the loves of his life, Méthilde … But Méthilde kept Stendhal at arm’s length, and even limited their interactions, only allowing him to visit her once every two weeks, which, in turn, gave Stendhal time to develop and nurture his fantasy of her, to exaggerate his love and admiration to truly grandiose proportions. ‘This is a love that lives only through the imagination,’ Stendhal recorded in his journal … Stendhal kept track of his emotions, and began to think about love with an almost scientific scrutiny. The result of this project was called De l’Amour, in which he described his famous concept of the stages of love. There are seven stages in all—which could conceivably follow like episodes on a season of The Bachelor—evolving in a form of crystallization: ‘a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.’ ”
  • While we’re talking love—David Rees found his grandma’s diaries, and they are full of it. Mainly the object of her affection is ice cream; sometimes boys, too. “My teenage grandmother’s great genius was flirting,” he writes: “Those amazing boys! The peachy, dandy, charming boys of Gloversville, anointed with adjectives now reserved for Yelp reviews of bed-and-breakfasts. I can barely keep up with her crushes, or their fluctuations in status: ‘But what do you suppose [Peggy] told me? That Bill was mad at me because he thought I was mad at him because he talked to Velma Thorne! And there I didn’t even know he’d been talking to her! Wasn’t it funny. ... So I told [Ralph] to tell [Bill] I wasn’t mad and it didn’t bother me how much he talked to Velma!’ It turns out poor Bill, being ‘stout’ and a cigarette-bummer (‘I hate to see a fellow smoke when he’s with a girl on the street, don’t you?’) was no match for Grant. Or Jonsey. Or the mysterious ‘Sunshine,’ who, if my grandmother is to be believed, was, for one summer in 1911, the most alluring young man in the universe: ‘one grand rower, fisher and sportsman. Really I never saw anybody like him. Emma & I are both dippy over him!’ ”
  • So like imagine you’re a young Karl Ove Knausgaard and you get on the elevator in a fancy midtown building and hey now, it’s some hotshot publisher and you’ve got about thirty seconds to pitch My Struggle: “Ah, hello. Yes, going up. I haven’t chosen a floor yet. You may know me. I’m a writer. Imagine: A young man boards the bus to his grandparents’ flat in Elvegaten. He usually sits on the left side of the aisle, a few rows from the back, by the window, if the seat is available. It is: He sits there. He—there’s more to it, actually, but—yes, have a nice day.”
  • Marianne Moore revised her poems restlessly, constantly—and sometimes publicly. In her willingness to let her readers see a poem in different iterations, she anticipated the Internet, Ali Pechman writes: “Particularly with respect to the way she changed her work, Moore has always struck me as more of a digital-age artist than any of her contemporaries. Her poems were as malleable as something written online … Her process gives a hint of how a poetic mind might use the Internet. In poems such as ‘An Octopus,’ she collages together text from newspapers, guidebooks, and overheard remarks at the circus in a shimmering representation of Mount Rainier. ‘Marriage’ contains roughly thirty sources from Francis Bacon to Ezra Pound to the inscription on a statue in Central Park. Such poems are a reflection of the hours she spent scouring countless books at the library and attending lectures. Her democratic sphere of influence apes the Internet—and, to follow, her aggressive self-editing reads like a symptom of that kind of capacity. One wonders what she would have written if she had had references at her fingertips.”
  • Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, an Oulipo project, tells a love story without ever referring to gender—a feat that’s all the more impressive in French, which has gender baked into its grammatical constructs.To get around these rules, Garréta digs deep into the French language. Instead of the passé composé she uses the literary form of the past tense, the passé simple, which does not employ participles that require agreement, and relies heavily on the imparfait, which describes continuously-occurring past actions. Sometimes Garréta uses sentence fragments to avoid the verb altogether. She describes A***’s body indirectly, taking advantage of the fact that, in French, an arm (un bras) is masculine even if it belongs to a female and a leg (une jambe) is feminine even when it belongs to a male. No primary or secondary sex characteristics are ever mentioned, of course: in the sex scenes thighs and crotches end up doing the erotic and narrative heavy lifting. And in one important instance a genderless English noun stands in for its gendered French equivalent.”

Portraits by Kitty, and Other News

June 21, 2016 | by

A 1978 photo from Kitty’s, a South African portrait studio. Courtesy the Walther Collection. Image via The New Yorker.

  • I don’t keep a diary. I prefer the raw material of anxiety, guilt, and neurosis—my “special sauce”—to remain entirely unprocessed in my brain. But for those who diarize with reckless abandon, there emerges a question of audience, as Elisa Segrave writes: “Compulsive diarists are ambivalent: we want to be private but we want our thoughts to be appreciated. When Jean Lucey Pratt, some of whose diaries have been published as A Notable Woman, began her first in 1926, aged sixteen, she wrote: ‘This document is private.’ But as her life unfolded and she realized that her career as an author was not going to take off, she started to treat her diaries more seriously. On Christmas Day 1934, she wrote: ‘7 p.m. A diarist must do what other writers may not … His purpose is special and peculiar. He has to capture and crystallize moments on the wing so that future generations will say as they turn the glittering pages, ‘This was the present then. This was true.’ ”
  • Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray met once for a tremendously awkward dinner, and in the 165 years since, people have clucked at the severe dress she wore to the encounter: plain blue and white, buttoned up to the neck. (Her contemporaries would’ve gone in for something more low-cut—in silk, maybe, or velvet or lace.) New analysis suggests that Brontë had better fashion sense than history has credited her for—but the dinner itself was still nothing to write home about. “The dinner, with other literary and artistic guests invited to meet the best-selling author, was an abject failure. Conversation faltered, and [Thackeray] later recalled her shocked look as he reached for another potato. One guest recalled it as ‘one of the dullest evenings she ever spent in her life’ … One guest, desperate to break the silence, asked Brontë if she was enjoying London. After a long silence, she finally replied: ‘Yes; and no.’ ”
  • Luke Mogelson teases out that nauseous link between journalism and Schadenfreude: “I do my best to observe things firsthand … This approach, despite its obvious journalistic advantages (you’re less likely to get stuff wrong), can frequently put you in awkward positions. You can find yourself, for instance, visiting a river every morning hoping to find a murder victim. Most foreign correspondents I know would probably object to my use of that word, hoping. They would probably say that we don’t want bad things to happen; we just want to witness them if they do. It’s a legitimate distinction, but one that, in the field, can feel semantic. In the field, we are actively, aggressively seeking to see with our own eyes the reality of war, famine, disaster—and who isn’t at least somewhat gratified when he discovers what he’s sought, at least somewhat disappointed when he doesn’t?”
  • I see you’re smiling, Internet user—you’re probably pretty jazzed about that new form of creative expression you’ve found! But I’m here to tell you that it’s doomed to commodification. Witness the death of the emoji and the GIF: “When emojis and GIFs are filtered through the interests of tech companies, they often become slickly automated … Buying into these features means giving tech companies the power to shape our creative expressions in ways that further enrich the companies themselves. A limited emotional range helps collect data on users’ states of mind. Twitter advertisers can now target users based on the emoji they tweet … The commodification of digital culture has engendered more explicit corporate branding, too. On Snapchat, where users embellish their selfies with emoji, crayon scribbles, and elaborate ‘lenses’ that cover their faces with virtual masks, marketers like McDonalds are seizing the opportunity to write their messages across people’s faces.”

Sweet Sorrow, Et Cetera

May 27, 2016 | by

Mikhail Clodt, Der Abschied, before 1902.

It is a strange thing to monetize your emotions. Anyone who writes or creates knows this. And the work one does on the Internet feels insubstantial, even by the flimsy standards of intellectual property. Any body of digital work is a funny mixture of ephemeral and immortal, and it’s hard to know how to feel about such an archive. 

Today marks my final column as the Daily’s correspondent. When I started writing these casuals, in January 2014, I thought of them as a challenge: to try to do something small, well, and consistently. There are certain kinds of writing—good writing—that are actually better suited to this medium than to print, and translating the personal and fleeting into something public seems to me one of the Internet’s primary gifts. The challenge comes not in finding inspiration, but in trying to strike the balance of confidence—that one’s observations have merit—and humility: recognizing that they’re not inherently interesting. Read More »