- The Danish writer Dorthe Nors decided to leave Copenhagen for Jutland, and she’s having a wild time: “Just about the time that I seriously began to consider moving from Copenhagen, the first wolf was sighted in Jutland. Big commotion! Wolves had been wiped out a couple of centuries previous, and suddenly: ‘a wolf in Jutland!’ Interest groups sprouted up that felt the wolf should be shot. A wolf-free Denmark, they said. Out trickled tales that seemed to have come from the Brothers Grimm. Letters fired off to editors screamed, ‘The wolf is coming, the wolf is coming!’ People said they were afraid that the wolf would approach their houses, would snatch their children. ‘But Jutland is a big place,’ said others, who knew that the most dangerous wolf is the one that lurks in our minds. ‘Let’s welcome the wolf back.’ The debate was heated.”
- Vinson Cunningham has been staring at a lot of ugly things—and reading Gretchen Henderson’s new Ugliness: A Cultural History. The role of ugliness in our culture is changing, he writes: “I can’t remember the last time I heard one person call another person ugly. Art: sure. But when it comes to other human beings, we seem to have invested almost totally in metaphoric deployments of the word: ‘ugly’ now describes degrading items like the steadily worsening rhetoric of Donald Trump; or, simply, sinful behavior, as in: ‘God don’t like ugly.’ This may seem like progress, but it could also be regarded as a kind of absurd end state for Aristotelian thinking. No longer does the outward merely track the inward: by an almost forgotten transitive process, the two have become one. And so, today, ugly means evil, and the philosopher’s conflation is complete.”
- Today in the quest for utopia: pause to remember Paul Scheerbart (discussed previously on the Daily), a German writer whose work was animated by “unfashionable, childlike hopefulness”: “Scheerbart often reads like an apocalyptic mystic out of the Middle Ages who was somehow transported to the age of railroads and telegraphs. He returns again and again to the idea that existence—our own, or those of aliens on other planets—can be transformed into a paradise inhabited by beings who are like gods … Yet the agency of earthly renewal, in Scheerbart’s work, is not divine—at least, not directly. It is, rather, the power of human ingenuity, operating with hitherto unimaginable tools and techniques, that will literally remake the face of the earth.”
- A new exhibition, “Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado,” gives a sumptuous public presentation to paintings that were once strictly a private affair: “During the culturally repressive late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish kings often secreted away their nude paintings in rooms known as ‘salas reservadas,’ where they could enjoy them in private … ‘These types of paintings were considered anathema,’ said Kathleen Morris … ‘The royals, the kings and their entourage found a way around the idea that they were not considered to be appropriate.’ ”
- If I know you, you’ve been living in your little bubble, completely ignoring South Korean abstract art. Well, it’s time to stop ignoring South Korean abstract art, says Barry Schwabsky, who has paid attention while the rest of us distracted ourselves: “One attraction is that ready-made label: tansaekhwa (sometimes rendered dansaekhwa). The word means ‘monochrome painting,’ but it’s usually translated as ‘Korean monochrome painting’ to distinguish it within the genre that came into existence in Russia when Malevich painted his white-on-white canvas in 1918 … Tansaekhwa deserves the attention of anyone with a genuine interest in painting, in part because it originated in a deep ambivalence about painting. In South Korea, education in painting runs on two separate tracks: ‘Oriental’ (ink) and ‘Western’ (oil). The tansaekhwa artists, born and partly educated in the prewar period of Japanese occupation, may not have been trained under this system, but it’s worth considering their work not so much as a synthesis of these supposedly separate Asian and Euro-American strands, but in opposition to both—as well as in opposition to the very dichotomy between them.”
- Luc Sante on listening to reggae in the late seventies: “General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of ‘slackness,’ the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian ‘cultural’ style … his songs include ‘Bathroom Sex’ and ‘I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire’ (‘crotches,’ that is), as well as ‘Drunken Master’ and ‘International Year of the Child.’ ”
- The Cannes Film Festival saw a lot more action in the fifties: “Of all the grueling daily rituals … perhaps the most frivolous are the combination beach party/publicity functions, where paparazzi scramble to get shots of the ‘traditional striptease by the starlet of the year standing on the rocks.’ This particular custom was spawned in part by Brigitte Bardot’s inaugural, bikinied appearance at Cannes in 1953. But disrobing actresses arguably didn’t become a fixture of the festival until the following year, when Simone Silva got banned for posing topless next to Robert Mitchum—a spectacle that caused a pile-up of frantic, injured photographers.”
- How the Danish writer Dorthe Nors found her way to the short story: “The Swedes have that big, fearless, existential approach to literature. The Danes have an elastic, playful, anarchistic and ironic way of using language. And here was this dude telling me—the closet Swede—that I should make use of the strengths of my own language … ”
- What does Taylor Swift have in common with Austen, Auden, Thackeray, and Shakespeare? And don’t say, She’s a storyteller of legendary talents—the answer is more mundane. She’s an adopter of they as a singular pronoun.
- When John Updike tried to write a Jewish character—Henry Bech, who went on to star in four of Updike’s novels—Cynthia Ozick took him to task: “Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing … Being a Jew is something more than being an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair.”
This month marks the release of Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop, the Danish author’s first work to be translated into English and her only collection of short stories. Karate Chop is a small, dark collection. It consists of fifteen stories, most only a few pages long. Nors’s work often sounds like a parable relayed by one of the wryer, more fatalistic disciples, the one who doesn’t particularly care about our moral edification. But beneath the droll delivery, there tends to be a quiet heartbreak. In Karate Chop, parents disappoint, animals suffer, and certain boyfriends or husbands simply need killing. That heartbreak seems to belong as much to Nors as to her characters. We’re left with the impression that she would spare her creations all the sordid hurt and discord if the world were somehow different or she were a little less clear-eyed. Things as they are, she can only encourage them to laugh off what they can, to bear the rest, and to remember that certain dark corners of the world are “vast and beautiful and desolate.”
I spoke with Nors on her final day in the U.S. following the book’s launch. She is warm and confiding and possessed of a Northern European glamour that favors dark sweaters and disdains what most New Yorkers would consider a major and ongoing snowstorm. Throughout the hour we spent together, she drank trucker-strength coffee and held her chin in her hand. She told me about bucking tradition with new forms, the finer points of Danish comedy, and how life finds a way of slashing us all.
After four novels, it’s a short story collection—your first—giving you a breakthrough into the U.S. market. Why do you think that form did it?
Without me realizing it, I found that the short story—this compact, intensive way of writing—suited my voice. The short story isn’t really part of our tradition in Denmark. This is the country of Hans Christian Anderson and Karen Blixen, but for some reason there’s this sense that we don’t want to dirty our hands with the short story. That’s why it’s such a blessing that this is happening for me in America, where there’s such a strong tradition for the form. I feel like I’m presenting my work to a nation without having to explain what I’m doing.
How did you first step outside that tradition and decide to give the short story a try?
I always thought that writing short stories would be too difficult, but I knew this teacher who worked with at-risk teenagers and he asked me to come write a story about his class. So I spent some time with these kids and cooked something up. Afterward, the teacher assembled the entire school to hear me read this story, and when I was done, the kids were actually cheering. They could see themselves in it and they loved it. That experience boosted my confidence. Read More
There are moments, on a red-eye flight, when your brain is too jumpy and raw to figure out what, exactly, n+1 is arguing in its attack on “global literature.” When you can’t go back to your (global?) novel and don’t want to plug your head into a cooking show, and when sleep is out of the question. For such moments, pack Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island—a story collection that roams over the Irish landscape during and after the Boom, and through several dozen varieties of bad idea, from selling meth, to having children, to organizing an ale-tasting excursion in Wales. At the risk of indulging in cultural stereotypes, Barry is Irish: when he writes a story, he tells a story, and he’s not afraid of a sentimental ending, if one presents itself. Along the way, he takes such contagious pleasure in his flawed, incorrigible people that I was happy to be on a plane. —Lorin Stein
In Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, Susan Howe writes, “I have loved watching films all my life. I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.” The films in question are La Jetée and Sans Soleil. Howe splices her thoughts about these works together with childhood memories of watching Olivier’s Hamlet, the early history of Soviet cinema, an elegy to her husband, and the fallout of Hiroshima, among other subjects. It is an investigation, as she says, of “the immense indifference of history” and “the crushing hold of memory’s abiding present.” It is also, one feels, about the discovery of kinship between a documentary poet and a documentary filmmaker, via the essay—whose root meaning, as both Howe and Marker remind us, suggests experiment rather argument, and a commitment to the art of surprise. —Robyn Creswell Read More