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Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’

The Lindworm

May 22, 2015 | by

Schiltberger_Lindwurm_vnd_einhiren

An illustration of the Lindworm doing battle, circa 1477.

Last night, as part of the Norwegian-American Literary Festival, four Norwegian writers—Gunnhild Øyehaug, Lars Petter Sveen, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, and Carl Frode Tillerspoke at New York’s 192 Books. James Wood, who moderated, asked them to address the question of perceived Norwegian literary tropes like solitude and loneliness. Sveen pointed out another: the shared cultural knowledge of fairy tales. 

Of course, you’ll find solitude and loneliness there, too. Norwegian fairy tales are, even by the genre’s grim standards, dark, thematically and often literally, too (e.g. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”). For an American audience, accustomed to tall tales that focus on the heroic, and devils who rarely do anything worse than argue with sharp-witted Yankee lawyers, Norway’s fairy tales are downright scary.

“The Lindworm”—also translated, when it is, as “The Lindworm Prince”—is a story with variations across Scandinavia. The version anthologized in the seminal Asbjornsen and Moe collection goes thus: Read More »

Read, Reread, Re-reread, Re-re-reread, and Other News

February 10, 2015 | by

A_PASSENGER_ON_THE_LONE_STAR_PASSES_THE_TIME_READING_IN_HER_COMPARTMENT_AS_THE_TRAIN_CROSSES_OKLAHOMA_ENROUTE_FROM..._-_NARA_-_556033

A passenger reading on a train to Houston, 1974. Photo: NARA

  • It’s one thing to be well read—quite another to be well reread. Stephen Marche has coined the term centireading, i.e., reading something a hundred times. He’s accomplished only two feats of centireading (Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves), but they effectively restored the purity of his reading experience: “The main effect of reading Hamlet a 100 times was, counter-intuitively, that it lost its sense of cliché. ‘To be or not to be’ is the Stairway to Heaven of theatre; it settles over the crowd like a slightly funky blanket knitted by a favorite aunt. Eventually, if you read Hamlet often enough, every soliloquy takes on that same familiarity. And so ‘To be or not to be’ resumes its natural place in the play, as just another speech. Which renders its power and its beauty of a piece with the rest of the work.”
  • As a moneymaking device, the book is obsolete, as we all know. Of course it is—it’s very, very old. What you might not have heard yet is that Web sites are obsolete, too, and that your mere presence on this page renders you a technological dinosaur. It’s okay. I’m one, too. This man is not: “In his weird zone of the internet, he said, the concept of a large publication seemed utterly hopeless. The only thing that keeps people coming back to apps in great enough numbers over time to make real money is the presence of other people. So the only apps that people use in the way publications want their readers to behave—with growing loyalty that can be turned into money—are communications services. The near-future internet puts the publishing and communications industries in competition with each other for the same confused advertising dollars, and it’s not even close.”
  • From the makers of the flaneur, meet the crónica: “a crónica is both ‘a history that obeys the order of the times’ and ‘a journalistic piece … about current events.’ But it is more. Starting in the nineteenth century, crónica and urban life became inseparable; to the mere recording of a city life for posterity, the genre added flânerie and modern investigative reporting. Together, crónica and la ciudad (the city) inform a typology of ‘essaying’ a pie (on foot), in which walking is to thinking what seeing is to reading, and cities’ ‘intensification of nervous stimulation’ becomes social and cultural criticism.”
  • In France, even illicit, politically scandalous affairs play out like fairy tales: “It was not until his press attaché phoned Valérie and informed her that François was ‘madly in love with you’ that Valérie recognized the current of passion that roiled beneath their professional rapport … They were committed to others—Ségolène and Denis—and they had more than half a dozen children between them, but how could they refuse love’s call? Over crêpes and waffles, Valérie and François confessed their feelings, which led to, she wrote, ‘a kiss like no other kiss I’d ever shared with anyone. A kiss that had been held back for nearly fifteen years, in the middle of a crossroads.’”
  • William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the most daring movies of the sixties, which may be why no one saw it until 1991. Now his film is finally getting its due: “Greaves was up there with John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke in the blend of sophisticated modernism and emotional fury, of self-implication and formal innovation, of self-revelation and revelation of the heart of the times.”

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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 »