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Posts Tagged ‘Edmund White’

The Art of Losing

March 7, 2013 | by

Southernmost-Point-Key-West722

Writers often hate talking about the book they’ve just written. On the one hand, books are an exercise in preservation, an old-fashioned sort of external hard drive. But for the author personally, a book can also be an elaborate act of forgetting. I wonder sometimes whether I’m driven to write about certain things, especially difficult things, just so I’ll never have to deal with them again; I’ll capture my subject and be done with it. From a particular angle, the writing life for me is a gradual process of self-erasure—first the crisp details go, then the plot, the underlying obsessions—or else each book is a box in which something of myself can be stored away forever.

I’ve never felt this shrinking, unpublic side of writing as strongly as I have with the book about real-life murders I just finished—work it’s just not possible for me to be “done with.” The book tells the stories of killings, but I didn’t want to recount the cases with the heavy hand typical of stories that turn on crime and justice. The buffoonish, Wayne LaPierre–esque division of the world into good guys and bad guys may be an easy, reflexive way to organize the life around us, a busy firing of synapses that adds up to something less than thinking. I never saw the point of it, but I admit, in this instance, it would have made terrible stories easier to forget.

It’s stressful to keep in the forefront of our minds how real lives are pixelated with good and bad acts. It’s even worse when the real lives you’re writing about belong to murderers, and the acts—at least one of them—are as bad as possible. After all my research and all the interviews, I felt the weariness I imagine sin-eaters feel—the people who take responsibility for the world’s sinful deeds so others won’t have to. Read More »

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Gossip Archaeology with Edmund White

February 28, 2013 | by

pink_macaronI had planned my disclaimer before he even opened the door. What kind of an idiot, I had realized belatedly, brings noted francophile and former Paris-dweller Edmund White bootleg, neon, NYC-made macaroons for tea at his apartment? “Mr. White, I am so embarrassed ...”

I never had a chance to tell him. He was kind and warm, thrilled with the fat, ersatz cookies, even claiming he loved them, got them himself sometimes. We sat down together in White’s living room with a pot of English tea and two Fiesta teal-colored teacups, me on the couch facing him, in one of a pair of battered brown club chairs. He was wearing a pale-blue checkered shirt and navy pants. I’d interrupted his taxes, visible on the den table.

We’d been put in touch by Kathryn Hamilton, press attaché of the Cultural Services at the French Embassy, in regards to the Marcel Proust exhibit they organized with the BnF at the Morgan Library for the upcoming centennial of Swann’s Way. This was our initial point of contact, at least. Paris gossip was more pressing. I’d just gotten back from the city where White lived for many years, the subject of his upcoming memoir, Inside a Pearl. He’d initially wanted to call it Paris Gossip, but the publisher wouldn’t have it. They wanted more depth. “I don’t think it will ever be published in France,” White told me, because of French invasion-of-privacy laws. “I used to call myself an archaeologist of gossip,” he said. “That’s sort of Proust, too—not to make a comparison between my humble self and the great Proust.” Read More »

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Shelf-Conscious

December 27, 2012 | by

Chris Killip, 'The Library of Chained Books,' Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, UK, 1992.

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.

“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”

There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.

There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More »

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The Long March

December 12, 2011 | by

On a recent Sunday evening, in a lounge at the Jane Hotel in Manhattan, the writers Kurt Andersen and Anne Kreamer enacted before an audience the final pages of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, a 1971 work of literary pastiche by the author Frederic Tuten. Andersen played the role of Chairman Mao, sitting for a fictitious interview. “Have you seen Godard’s La Chinoise?” asked Kreamer, playing his interlocutor. “Have you seen Dali’s Mao/Marilyn?” “Chairman Mao, perhaps I might ask your opinion on birth control.” Tuten himself, a septuagenarian in a black blazer, sat at the front of the room, beaming with happiness at the event held in his honor.

If you have not heard of The Adventures of Mao, you would not have been out of place at its marathon reading. Indeed, some of those who gathered to participate in the reading—a roster including Lydia Davis, Wallace Shawn, Walter Mosley, John Guare, and Edmund White—admitted to having had only a glancing familiarity with the novel or its author. Yet The Adventures of Mao, about, as the title suggests, the Chinese dictator’s rise to power, has always had its advocates; Susan Sontag called it “soda pop, a cold towel, or a shady spot under a tree for culture-clogged footsoldiers on the American long march.” In 1972, the book achieved that pinnacle of literary attention, the John Updike New Yorker review. Analyzing the novel’s five distinct modes—textbooklike history of the Long March; ample direct quotation from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fenimore Cooper; passages of literary parody of authors such as Kerouac and Malamud; “normal novelistic substance—imaginary encounters and conversations”; and, finally, that extended interview with Chairman Mao—Updike declared the resulting sum “an intelligent, taut, and entertaining change from conventional novels.”

Despite Mao’s champions over the decades—New Directions embalmed it as one of its classics in 2005—the event at the Jane Hotel was in some ways an unlikely one. It had all begun in the Strand Bookstore, where three men in their twenties stumbled upon the book and brought it to their book club. Read More »

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Love Stories

October 20, 2011 | by

Photograph courtesy of Elisabeth Moore.

F. and I were introduced by a mutual friend while I was on a visit to L.A. I was living in D.C., newly single and working at a political magazine. I had given myself a firm dating rule: no journalists. In a sleepy company town, where ethics precluded romantic liaisons with my sources, it had begun to feel as if I’d doomed myself to celibacy. F. was a writer who’d just finished his first film and was passing time as a listings editor. He was my best friend’s occasional tennis partner. “You’ll love him,” she promised, sending him a text as I shoved my bag in the backseat of her car at LAX. “I’ll have him meet us for drinks at this outdoor German place.” We hit it off instantly.

It started with a challenge. I told him that first night that I’d found Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist overly self-conscious, so he slid The Hundred Brothers into my carry-on for the red-eye back east. Antrim’s endlessly multiplying brothers and claustrophobic prose were right at home in the repetitious concourses of LAX. My perfume leaked in my suitcase during the flight, but I returned his copy anyway, with a handwritten note, reeking of the nape of my neck. Read More »

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Staff Picks: The Wrong Place, Modernist Cuisine

March 25, 2011 | by

Belgian artist Brecht Evens’s The Wrong Place, a graphic novel done in watercolor, is a jewel box. The formal chaos of social interaction—at a dinner party and in a crowded Moroccan-themed night club—comes alive in the book’s riotous melding of clothing and decor patterns and luminous, vivid color. I read it straight through; its gorgeous pages are burned into my brain. —Nicole Rudick

This Wednesday, I attended a demonstration for the Modernist Cuisine, which could have only been written by a crazy person. Or, in this case, several crazy people. Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet have written five volumes covering everything from sous vide to shit. As The New Yorker’s John Lancaster puts it: “In its packed state, it weighs forty-six pounds. The scale and ambition of the project—and maybe at least one of the egos behind it—are Pharaonic.” At the demonstration, I was served a striped omelette, and like Amanda Hesser, I wish that I had booked it to Myhrvold’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, five years ago and joined the effort. —Thessaly La Force

Earlier this year, Edmund White introduced British readers to his top ten books about New York. I enjoyed the list very much—it featured the expected classics alongside neglected curiosities—but couldn’t help feeling that he’d missed a trick by omitting the complete writings of Whitney Balliett, who was the jazz critic at The New Yorker for fifty years. Balliett’s tastes lean a little too much toward the conservative—goodness knows what he’d make of my predilection for this kind of nonsense—but the perfectly weighted cadences of his prose are as tight and agile as the rhythm section of the slickest combo around. Check out his profiles of Big Sid Catlett, Ben Webster, and Ornette Coleman in particular. This, for me, is the sound of New York. —Jonathan Gharraie

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