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Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’

American Grotesque, and Other News

December 1, 2014 | by

William Mortensen’s L’Amour (1932) doubles as the cover of a new book about him, American Grotesque.

  • Don DeLillo rereads his own opus, Underworld, seventeen years after its publication. (“Great fucking line,” he’s written next to “The subway seals you durably in the stone of the moment.”)
  • In the thirties, William Mortensen was one of the most celebrated photographers in the nation—his pictures were “unabashedly theatrical, bizarre, and often louche.” What sank his reputation: a critical tiff with Ansel Adams.
  • The Chinese State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has moved to ban wordplay “on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese, makes promoting cultural heritage harder and may mislead the public—especially children.” (An example of the now forbidden fruit: “replacing a single character in ke bu rong huan has turned ‘brook no delay’ into ‘coughing must not linger’ for a medicine ad.”)
  • While we’re on censorship: In the quest for G-rated moon landings, NASA used to go to great lengths to scrub astronauts’ profanity from its transcripts. In the case of one particularly salty spaceman, they went further—they had him hypnotized. “A psychiatrist put the idea in his head that he would rather hum when his mind wandered.”
  • On the history of fairy tales: “In the coded language of symbol and metaphor they chart the journey from childhood to adulthood. The Russian commentator Eleaser Meletinksji wrote, ‘It is even possible to say that the fairy tale begins with the break-up of one family and ends with the creation of a new one.’”

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Getting at the Gothic, and Other News

November 12, 2014 | by

Gothic British Library Tales of Terror

From Matthew Lewis’s Tales of Terror, published 1808.

  • In France, 40 percent of TV programming comes from America, which means dubbing is a major industry, and voice-over actors have enough work to collect a following of their own: meet the French Jennifer Lawrence and the French Daniel Radcliffe, for instance.
  • The Brothers Grimm published seven editions of their famous tales—the last edition is best known today. But the first edition sounds a lot more fun: “Rapunzel is impregnated by her prince, the evil queen in Snow White is the princess’s biological mother, plotting to murder her own child, and a hungry mother in another story is so ‘unhinged and desperate’ that she tells her daughters: ‘I’ve got to kill you so I can have something to eat.’ ”
  • In the nineties, Bob Dylan pursued a gutsy alternative career: “After binge-watching Jerry Lewis movies on his tour bus, Dylan came to the conclusion that slapstick comedy was where he wanted to put his artistic stamp … ‘We finally wrote … a very elaborate treatment for this slapstick comedy, which is filled with surrealism and all kinds of things from his songs and stuff.’ ” HBO bought the show, but Dylan’s interest waned soon after.
  • The Gothic is “having a moment” now—and a new exhibition at the British Library explores 250 years of the Gothic tradition. But what does it mean to be Gothic, anyway? “The term suffers from its implicit pluralism: Are we talking about novels, horror films, flying buttresses, Alice Cooper, black-painted fingernails or a specific period in North-European history? On the one hand, it seems fair to say that John Ruskin’s famous comments on the architecture—that most of us know Gothic when we see it, without being able to identify exactly what makes it so—still have something to say about the thing as a whole. On the other, the Gothic really does just mean the spooky and the titillating.”
  • “I’m not a cynic. I prefer irony, which depends on the ability to hold contradictory ideas, which probably springs from ambivalence. People confuse and conflate irony with insincerity and dishonesty; they believe an ironist isn’t serious. But saying the opposite of what is meant allows for at least two meanings to fly. Irony couples and uncouples statements, while revealing the hidden agendas of language and its conventions.”

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Mermaid Convention: An Interview with Matthea Harvey

September 2, 2014 | by

Harvey, Matthea

Matthea Harvey. Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press

Matthea Harvey’s whimsy almost defies the scope of the English language. She seems to sculpt out of molten glass the topics and the treatments in her poems, optimistic fairy tales for a universe where everything’s deformed, or maybe deformed fairies in a universe where everything’s optimistic. It’s easy to feel almost at home among her poems, which are sometimes uncanny in the way that scary truths are uncanny, sometimes uncanny like the Uncanny X-Men, and sometimes uncanny in that their delightful artifice should, but can’t, be preserved and canned.

Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn; she grew up in England and Wisconsin. You may have read her beautifully titled first volume, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000); or Modern Life (2007), where alliterative, associative, alphabetical poems jostle against prose parables that science-fiction readers would call “slipstream”; or Of Lamb (2011), Harvey’s collaboration with the visual artist Amy Jean Porter, in which an erased biography of Charles and Mary Lamb sends Mary and Her Lamb through—a lost garden? A forest of previous children’s books? A dreamland? Or you might have seen one of her other collaborations—with composers, with animators—or one of her own photographs. Still, you won’t be ready for If The Tabloids Are True Then What Are You?, her new collection of poems and fables, in verse and prose, about mermaids, ice cubes, erasures, talking animals, and early telephones, with a set of images—including photographs of Harvey’s sculptures—inseparable from them. As NPR put it earlier this year, “Harvey is a genius of the unusual, and of the dark underbelly of the adorable.”

You can read more about her here and especially here.

Some of the poems have obvious sources in fables—“No-Hands has hands,” or “the animals did begin to glow.” Is there a particular fable or fairy-tale compilation that served as your best source? Aesop, the Grimms, La Fontaine, Kafka, Andrew Lang?

I wrote both of those poems without knowing that there were fables about either one. Myths and fairy tales are mysterious that way—we’re all shoots sprouting from one underground narrative fungus. Still, I know that stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter are all tumbling around in the pebble polisher of my unconscious. I’m currently reading Phillip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, in which I found a new favorite, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.” This insanity happens in it: “The sausage stayed by the pot most of the time, keeping an eye on the vegetables, and from time to time he’d slither through the water to give it a bit of flavoring. If it needed seasoning, he’d swim more slowly.” Imagine flavoring a soup with yourself!

This collection is full of mermaids. Why mermaids?

Primarily because the phrase “straightforward mermaid” appeared in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. But why mermaids in general? Because they’re sex objects who can’t have sex. Because there’s a whole school of gender issues swimming around them. Because we live among so many unspoken boundaries that sometimes it’s a relief to have such an explicit one. Because we all know the feeling of being divided and not belonging. Because we don’t acknowledge our animal selves enough. Read More »

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Sleeping Beauty

January 27, 2014 | by

strong coffee

Photo: Cory Doctorow, via Flickr

My life boasts few distinctions, but I make the worst coffee you will ever drink. It’s almost as if, on the day I was born, the fairies stood over my cradle (okay, incubator) Sleeping Beauty–style, and the first good fairy declared, “She will be able to remember the lyrics to eighties cartoon themes her entire life.” And the second good fairy said, “I give you the gift of teeth that in the eighteenth century would have seemed straight but look kind of crooked now that everyone else has braces.” But then the malevolent enchantress appeared, cackled, and cursed me with the words: “She will never make a potable cup of coffee.”

You would be forgiven, if you have read about my manifold culinary failures, for thinking that I can’t handle myself in the kitchen. In fact, I am pretty competent in that regard, which makes my persistent inability all the more mysterious. And don’t talk to me about single origins, rancid grounds, Chemex, French press, vacuum, toddy, cold brew, hand-grinding: it makes no difference. The curse is stronger than any of these trifling variables.

Sleeping Beauty was always my favorite Disney movie. I saw it with my mother in big-screen re-release when I was about four, and was enchanted by handsome Prince Philip and perfect Briar Rose and gruff, mannish little Merryweather, and of course the elegant Maleficent. I was fascinated by the notion that, no matter how far you run, you cannot escape your fate. (It was, I guess, many a child’s introduction to the classic tenets of tragedy.) Read More »

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Sir George Douglas’s “The Strange Visitor”

January 16, 2013 | by

When my brother and I were small, our parents would read to us each evening. When it was my mother’s turn, she generally read poetry. I don’t know from which children’s collection she read, but it was terrifying: in particularly heavy rotation (at my request) were “Don’t Care,” in which the insouciant protagonist is made to care by being “put in a pot / and boiled til he was done,” “Ozymandias” (I found the idea of the head lying in the sand frightening), and my favorite, “Strange Visitor.”

When I decided to find the poem online, I came across several variations; in the original, compiled by the folklorist Sir George Douglas, the dialect is Scottish; in other adaptations (including that anthologized by George Jacobs) more modern English. The plot is always the same: a woman, sitting at her spinning wheel, wishes for company. A series of mismatched, disembodied parts come in—knees, shoulders, neck, hands—and the figure gives a series of gnomic answers to her questions. “What have you come for?” she asks at last. “FOR YOU!” the reader shouts, leaving any listening children in a state of blissful petrification. The following is Douglas’s transcription, and his stage directions.

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Chamber of Secrets: The Sorcery of Angela Carter

October 17, 2012 | by

Illustration by Igor Karash

Fairy tales were reviled in the first stirrings of post-war liberation movements as part and parcel of the propaganda that kept women down. The American poet Anne Sexton, in a caustic sequence of poems called Transformations, scathingly evokes the corpselike helplessness of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and scorns, with fine irony, the Cinderella dream of bourgeois marriage and living happily ever after: boredom, torment, incest, death to the soul followed. Literary and social theorists joined in the battle against the Disney vision of female virtue (and desirability); Cinderella became a darker villain than her sisters, and for Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their landmark study The Madwoman in the Attic, the evil stepmother in “Snow White” at least possesses mobility, will, and power—for which she is loathed and condemned. In the late sixties and early seventies, it wasn’t enough to rebel, and young writers and artists were dreaming of reshaping the world in the image of their desires. Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan had done the work of analysis and exposure, but action—creative energy—was as necessary to build on the demolition site of the traditional values and definitions of gender.

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