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Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Distant Hammers

February 4, 2016 | by

Notes on art and apocalypse.

From Patrick Reed’s “Distant Hammers.”

How will the end come? Did it already come? Did we miss it? That we can ask this last question shows just how far our current mood of millenarianism has traveled from its antecedents in the distant and not-so-distant past. As late as Eliot, poets and prognosticators assured us that we would recognize “how the world ends.” Most visions of apocalypse were spectacular, sublime. The possibility that we have instead whimpered our way into some kind of boiling-frog scenario—marked by slow but irreversible global warming, mass human displacement, and a gradually perceptible slide toward famine, disease, war, and extinction—is a radical departure from the convulsive display we’d long been promised.

The first properly apocalyptic writings in the monotheistic tradition are the books of Joel and Zechariah, two of the twelve minor prophets in the Tanakh, or Jewish canon. Joel, whose account may date to the reign of King Josiah, around 800 B.C., and who may therefore be the oldest prophet, begins by describing a coming locust infestation, which he claims will be coincident with famine and widespread misery. The lament transforms into a hallucinogenic description of locusts as God’s army (“the increasing locust, the nibbling locust, the finishing locust, and the shearing locust”), of a fire that consumes the world, and of a day of thick darkness “like the dawn spread over the mountains.” The more famous book of Daniel follows approximately in this mold, albeit with new messianic trappings. Read More »

As Blue as Indigo Bags

January 18, 2016 | by

Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1893.

Any Joe with a Twitter account will tell you that today is Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. It’s a claim that rests mostly on a bunch of pseudoscience and a dubious 2005 ad campaign for a travel agency. Even so, a whole cottage industry has risen up around our apparent mid-January slump—especially in the UK, where people are always kind of miserable anyway. Tesco superstores are giving away free fruit; the BBC’s Scotland bureau has urged citizens to stay cheery by reminding themselves that the ski forecast is good and that the Spice Girls may soon reunite.

Though claims as to our collective depression have long been debunked, I wondered about the origin of the phrase “Blue Monday,” which clearly predates this latest usage. There was that great New Order song from 1983, for starters, and the subtitle to Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (or Goodbye, Blue Monday) and the Gershwin opera well before that. Evidence from eighteenth-century books suggests that Blue Monday was once just an excuse for working people to get drunk, and it happened every Monday, because our ancestors have long known what any casual reader of Garfield does: Mondays are for the birds. Read More »

Black Ink

January 15, 2016 | by

Henry de Montherlant’s novels have fallen out of fashion, but at their best they’re perfect for our confused age.

Henry de Montherlant, c. 1953.

Henry de Montherlant began writing in earnest after he came home wounded from the Great War, a decorated veteran. France in the 1930s made him a literary star, awarding him the Grand Prix—yet he hated the Third Republic. Montherlant, a true misfit, had many such contrarian tendencies: though he was gay, he wrote caustic articles for right-wing magazines and loathed modernity. In print, he professed admiration for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, writing that France, with its “shopgirl’s morality,” deserved to lose the war. His book Le solstice de juin counseled “acceptance, then adherence” to German occupation and Vichy; after the war, it earned him a yearlong ban from publishing.

Even so, Montherlant was elected to the Académie française in 1960. His plays were staged, his novels published. In 1972, he swallowed cyanide and, to make sure, shot himself in the head. He has made the long slide from fame to infamy, but in his time he was tolerated and even praised, a guilty reminder that there were far more collaborators than Charles de Gaulle’s myth of noble France ever could admit. His literary biographer Lucille Becker writes, Read More »

Beauty Does Not Exist Anywhere, and Other News

January 4, 2016 | by

Jean Dubuffet, Fête Villageoise, acrylic and collage on paper mounted on canvas, 8' 2" x 10' 7-3/4".

  • For the painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet, the most profound art was “art brut”—created from chaos and madness by the mentally ill. A new exhibition at the American Folk Art museum explores his ethos. Our managing editor, Nicole Rudick, explains: “Dubuffet advocated on behalf of art brut in famously eloquent pamphlets, speeches, and manifestos. In 1951, he gave a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago called ‘Anticultural Positions,’ which set out his antiformalist, expressive style and his dissatisfaction with Western conceptions of beauty. He rejected the notion that certain objects are more beautiful than others, advocating instead for the idea that ‘there is no ugly object nor ugly person in this world and that beauty does not exist anywhere, but that any object is able to become fascinating and illuminating.’ ”
  • Today, literary blogs such as this one face competition from their fiercest adversary yet: Bill Gates. His blog, Gates Notes, features a thriving book reviews section—and Gates, unlike all those self-aggrandizing show-off critics you’ve grown accustomed to, endeavors “to fill his reviews with bits of information he hopes people will consider, even if they don’t end up reading the book. ‘I read textbooks related to global health but they are pretty technical for a general audience, so I generally don’t review them,’ he said … ‘I like to share what I learn from books like that because I know most people won’t read the whole thing but some will read an 800-word review of it.’”
  • Conventional wisdom maintains that commercial fiction is vastly more sentimental than “serious” literary fiction—and that eschewing sentimentality is a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Academics have tested that notion using sentiment analysis, mapping the number of positive and negative words in literary novels: “There appears to be an assumption at work among the canon that reality is harsh and positivity distorts the truth … It’s not that emotions are absent from the most serious of serious literature. Rather, what is missing is a kind of explicit articulation of belief, what we might call, for lack of a better word, conviction. Over time we seem to institutionally value novels that downplay the clarity of their own beliefs. This makes a good deal of sense—novels that endure do so because they represent more open belief systems, ones that allow readers across broader stretches of time to engage with them and explore their own beliefs.”
  • Free yourself from the tyranny of choice. Submit to the awesome power of fate. Visit this Tokyo bookstore, where only one title is for sale each week. (Right now it’s Masaru Tatsuki’s photo anthology Fish-Man.) “This bookstore that sells only one book could also be described as ‘a bookstore that organises an exhibition derived from a single book,’ ” says the proprietor, Yoshiyuki Morioka. “For instance, when selling a book on flowers, in the store could be exhibited a flower that actually appears in the book. Also, I ask the authors and editors to be at the bookstore for as much time as possible. This is an attempt to make the two-dimensional book into three-dimensional ambience and experience. I believe that the customers, or readers, should feel as though they are entering ‘inside a book.’ ”
  • In 1939, when he was nine, the historian Gerhard Weinberg fled Germany to escape Hitler. Now Weinberg is eighty-seven and advocating for the first new German edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf since 1945, along with its little-known sequel. “In 2003, Weinberg wrote, ‘Germany and the rest of the world have not yet come close to coming to terms with Hitler as a person, as leader of a great nation, and as a symbol.’ The publication history of his books seems to support Weinberg’s point. In 1961, publishers were afraid of Hitler’s second book. In 2013, the state of Bavaria showed that it was still afraid of his first. The lack of critical editions didn’t prevent readers from accessing Hitler’s ideas—instead, it prevented historians from shaping the way these books are remembered.”

The Wonders of Czech Book Design, and Other News

December 1, 2015 | by

An illustration by Josef Čapek in Nové zpěvy : kniha lyrických průbojů, 1918.

  • When Germans like to dramatize their politics, imbuing the theater with metaphors to suit the times, they always turn to one play: Hamlet. Over the centuries, the Dane has survived a dizzying number of interpretations and representations on German stages—they’re obsessed with the guy. “The 1970s West German Hamlet was shown as powerless to affect his corrupt society, reflecting the experiences of intellectuals and theatre directors who failed to influence the politics of the 1960s revolutions … East German interpretations of Hamlet were unsurprisingly very different. In his speech at the 1964 Shakespeare festival, Cultural Minister Alexander Abusch praised Hamlet’s socialist ideals and lambasted the corrupt society that prevented him carrying them out … The frequent revival of this old, familiar play does not signal a retreat in German theatre from innovative drama. In fact, the nation’s changing role has sparked an exciting new phase in the depiction of the dithering protagonist … In a radical 2005 production in Munich, director Lars-Ole Walburg incorporated quotations from George W Bush and Michael Moore and references to the Rwandan genocide and the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.”
  • The English major is in decline, and who can even rouse himself to defend it? There’s no utilitarian value to it. It doesn’t seem to make students more ethical or to improve their decision making. People would very probably still read books without it. So … uh … Adam Gopnik has a thought: “The best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? ‘Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.’ You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects. A good doctor said to me, not long ago, ‘You really sort of have to like assholes and ear wax to be a good general practitioner’; you have to really like, or not mind much, intricate and dull and occasionally even dumb arguments about books to study English.”
  • Good spelling has always had an uncomfortable correlation with good breeding—before the advent of spell-check, and even to some extent after it, to spell well was to signify one’s belonging in the upper classes. In the nineteenth century, two men tried to level the playing field with an ambitious overhaul to the language: “On December 5, 1846, in the first issue of a newspaper called Di Anglo-Sacsun, an introductory letter to readers heralded the day when ‘bad spelling, the monster that scares, and grins at, and harasses the people, will fall into fits, like the Giant Despair of Doubting Castle, and will die outright of his spasms’ … S. P. Andrews and Augustus Boyle, the editors of the Di Anglo-Sacsun, believed that they could end poverty by making literacy less time-consuming and more accessible, particularly for poor immigrants and slaves. As the written language formalized over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century through innovations like the steam press and energetic lexicographers like Noah Webster, standardized spelling had become a newly erected barrier between the upwardly mobile and those who had neither the time nor the resources to crack the code of literacy. Andrews and Boyle wanted to simplify the process by making spelling entirely phonetic.”
  • In the early twentieth century, Czech book design drew its influences from a surprisingly broad array of artistic movements—and a singular, stylish form of publishing emerged as a result. “One popular trend during the turn of the century was to embellish literature with elaborate, local ornamentations that were mostly Romanesque in style, as exemplified by Josef Mánes’ illustrations in a manuscript of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bohemian poems and songs. Floral motifs also became popular Czech symbols … However, artists later dismissed floral and other ornate symbolism as medieval decorations, especially as Czech culture was increasingly exposed to foreign influences that fueled widespread experimentation … Some found the decorativeness of beautiful book illustrations extravagant, preferring to shape the appearance of books with bold and often stark photomontages.”
  • Reminder: your M.F.A. program is the product of specific political circumstances, and to write “well” is essentially to play by the rules of the state: “Less than a lifetime ago, reputable American writers would occasionally start fistfights, sleep in ditches and even espouse Communist doctrines. Such were the prerogatives and exigencies of the artist’s existence, until M.F.A. programs arrived to impose discipline and provide livelihoods. Whether the professionalization of creative writing has been good for American literature has set off a lot of elegantly worded soul-searching and well-mannered debate recently … Sponsored by foundations dedicated to defeating Communism, creative-­writing programs during the postwar period taught aspiring authors certain rules of propriety … Certain seemingly timeless criteria of good writing are actually the product of historically bound political agendas.”

No Judgment, No Message, No Mercy

October 16, 2015 | by

At ninety-five, Maria Beig remains deeply underread in America.

Maria Beig in her garden, sometime in the 1980s. Photo: Rupert Leser

No one captures the brutality and pragmatism of rural life like Maria Beig, who turned ninety-five last week. One of thirteen children, she was born in 1920 on a farm in Swabia, a few miles from Lake Constance, a landscape that informs her startling fiction. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was sixty-two, after a lifetime of teaching knitting and home economics in provincial schools. (Young writers, take note—there is another path, if an unglamorous one.)

Her debut, Rabenkrächzen (Raven’s Croak), has never been published in America, but it unleashed a good bit of venom in Germany: Beig’s treatment of Swabia was an arrow that struck the bone, jolting the skeletal structure of a closed society. Those who know Beig’s work like to mention the crowd at an early reading in Ravensburg, not far from her home village, who shouted her down with cries of “liar!” and “nestbeschmutzer!”, which translates roughly to “spoiler of the nest.” She took herself out of the reading business after that. Jaimy Gordon, who has translated two of her novels into English, writes that “as a result, the brother who had inherited the family property forbade Beig not only his house but even the small village where she had grown up.” Read More »