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Posts Tagged ‘Fatherhood’

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »

Holiday Travel

December 18, 2015 | by

The night crowd.

I grew up in a Manhattan apartment whose view encompassed sky, clouds, and other apartments. For a while I kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill. I used them before going to bed, a kind of voyeuristic nightcap. Most of the pleasure I got came from noting which lights were on and which were off in other people’s apartments. I would sometimes wonder if somewhere out there, in one of the unlit windows, perhaps, there was a kid with binoculars looking back at me. 

Once, when we were thirteen or so, a friend in the building and I took his massive telescope to the roof. This was before all modes of entrance and egress in Manhattan apartment buildings and hotels were locked down and wired with alarms. We probably almost died getting the tripod up the fire ladder. Once we were up there, we took turns slowly rotating the telescope across the landscape as we peered through with one eye closed. We did this on a few occasions, and only once achieved the semi-nirvana of seeing a naked woman. She was sleeping on her stomach. A sheet covered most of her. But enough of her back, and a bit of leg, was visible to infer that she was naked. The question was if she would wake up, or at least roll over. We stayed up there for a long time, waiting. I don’t think she ever woke. Read More »

After My Struggle: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

December 15, 2015 | by

From the paperback edition of My Struggle, Book 2.

Readers in the U.S. await the fifth volume of My Struggle—but in Norway, Karl Ove Knausgaard has moved on. With the money from Struggle’s sales, he’s established his own publishing house, devoted to promoting new talent and translating books by writers like Ben Marcus and Donald Antrim into Norwegian. Since his announcement, in 2011, that he would stop writing, he’s gone to publish four books of essays, and this fall he launched a new series: his “four seasons” quartet, On Autumn, On Winter, On Spring, and (as you might have guessed) On Summer. Presented as a “lexicon for an unborn child” and dedicated to the youngest of his four children, the quartet comprises several hundred short texts about objects (boots, chewing gum, plastic bags) and concepts (love, sex, war).

I recently caught up with Knausgaard in Oslo, where we discussed his new books and how he’s moving past the success of My Struggle. 

You’ve described your new series as “personal encyclopedia of our close surroundings.”

It started as a completely private project. When we were expecting our daughter, I wanted to write something for her, a diary or letter, for her to read when she was older—about how things looked like around our home before she was born, what her family was like, our thoughts and habits. Around the same time I got an assignment from an American magazine to write a short text for each issue for a year. I ended up writing about ten things that made life worth living and ten things that made me want to shoot myself. The editor quit and the project was canceled before I turned it in, but in that brief form I’d found something that appealed to me. So I continued writing, about a new subject every day, and at some point the two projects merged. Read More »

New Tricks

September 11, 2015 | by

From Popular Science, 1896.

Last November, my brother and I went out with my mother for her birthday dinner. It was a special birthday—she was becoming a senior citizen—so we went somewhere nice, where the waiter told us that it was the start of scallop season and the sweet local bay scallops were a special. My mother ordered them and, after the waiter had left the table, informed us, “I’m going to get my scalloping license this winter.”

“No you’re not,” scoffed my brother. Which is the sort of thing he can get away with, and which in any case was tinged with affection. He and I were thinking of other abandoned schemes: the metal detector, the archery set, the very brief period when our parents walked quarantined dogs at the local shelter. Read More »

Far-Out Kandy-Kolored Machine Dreams, and Other News

June 22, 2015 | by

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A “dreamscape” made from random noise. Illustration: Google, via the Guardian

  • As an undergraduate at Harvard, T. S. Eliot risked flunking out—but fear not, for his febrile poetic mind was already hard at work: “He invented the characters of ‘Columbo’ and ‘Bolo,’ who for years to come starred in a series of scatological, violent, and racist poems. Circulated privately, these verses became known to a wider readership only after Eliot’s death, when they presented the immensely refined poet in a bizarrely crude light … such writing served a purpose for the shy, physically awkward, and sexually late-blooming Eliot. It was a way for him to bond with his peers … ”
  • Advertisements used to contain words—many words—even those aimed at such famously illiterate audiences as rock-music fans. A look at the Rolling Stone archive reveals a surprising amount of po-mo sophistication in record-label copywriting. A 1979 ad for the singer-songwriter Sirani Avedia, for example, begins, “After the chic anarchy of punk, the escapism of disco, and the cerebral celebrations of jazz fusion … something real.”
  • An old photograph by Giovanni Gargiolli inspires ruminations on fatherhood: “The photograph was taken outside a Franciscan church in Alatri, a village south of Rome, in 1902 or 1903 … I recognize myself in that father who is leaning out of the family portrait in the church doorway. I feel an apartness, and I wonder: Is it a movable obstacle to the fullness of fatherhood, a primordial paternal taint, or a simple truth about the way men who have children are around their children?”
  • Disturbing news from the tech sector: research suggests that our computers, the very beings on which our civilization depends, are no more than drug-addled dreamers, lost in psychedelic reveries every bit as inscrutable as those of your average dusthead. Google discovered what its image-recognition networks “imagine” by “feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognize a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasize the feature it recognizes. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasize them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.”
  • Nick Sousanis received his doctorate in education for Unflattening, a dissertation in the form of “a graphic novel about the relationship between words and pictures in literature.” Its lowly ambition? “Insurrection against the fixed viewpoint … Fusing words and images to produce new forms of knowledge.”

The Dadliest Decade

April 15, 2014 | by

Why were the nineties so preoccupied with fatherhood?

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Robin Williams as Peter Banning in Hook, 1991

Some decades are summed up easily, the accretion of cliché and cultural narrative having reached such a point that we hardly need say anything at all. The sixties: hippies, drugs, revolution, rock-and-roll. The eighties: Young Republicans, greed is good, massive perms, Ronald Reagan. This is reductive, obviously, but it’s also helpful cultural shorthand. The nineties, like the seventies, have a less unified narrative: there’s gangster rap, Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Kurt Cobain, O.J., MTV, white slackers on skateboards, and the LA riots, but they’re all disparate, disconnected. There was no counterculture powerful enough to write the narrative from below, no one mass-cultural or political trend hegemonic enough to make itself the truth. Some enjoy calling this diffusion postmodernism, though most everyone else agrees those people are assholes.

But there was, I contend, a current that ran through the culture of the nineties, a theme that has not to my knowledge been recognized as such. That theme is the heroic dad. Read More »

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