Biblioasis is reviving an apparent tradition of reading ghost stories at Christmastime through a quintet of booklet-size publications, each containing a spooky story and designed and illustrated by the cartoonist Seth. It’s a lovely little set, with tales by Dickens, Wharton, A. M. Burrage, Marjorie Bowen, and M. R. James, but I haven’t saved them for Christmas (no one tells me what to do). I’ve already torn through the Burrage and Bowen, and while they aren’t bloodcurdling, they’re lots of fun. Burrage’s One Who Saw relates the tale of a man lured by the specter of a desolate woman in an ominous hotel garden. He describes his irresistible attraction to her as being akin to “starting on a voyage, feeling no motion from the ship, and then being suddenly aware of a spreading space of water between the vessel and the quay.” Bowen’s tale, The Crown Derby Plate, involves a dumpy, smelly spirit who won’t relinquish his beloved china collection. It’s not exactly a nail-biter, but Bowen manages an eerie description of wasted wintry marshes—“olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on saffron-tinted bogs”—that bears the uncanniness of a Charles Burchfield landscape. —Nicole Rudick Read More
The Crime of Father Amaro, by Eça de Queirós, imagine a Trollope novel—early 1870s, cathedral town, church politics, Tories v. Whigs—except that everyone’s super Catholic, and sex crazed, and with the added difference that the author can’t ever quite decide whether he’s writing a bawdy comedy or a satirical tragedy, and so ends up writing both. This wavering tone must have been hard to translate, but Margaret Jull Costa’s 2002 translation makes it look easy. The Crime of Father Amaro is the best novel I’ve read this year. —Lorin SteinAlmost a year ago, old friends gave me a big fat Portugese novel I’d never heard of, which promptly burrowed its way under a stack of old New Yorkers and stayed hidden until a month ago. It was a buried treasure. To get an idea of
What do we want from poetry? To read a poem is, on some level, to loathe it—both poem and poet aspire to fulfill a set of impossible expectations from the culture. In his new book, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner argues that a disdain for poetry is inextricable from the art form itself. Earlier this month, Michael Clune spoke to Lerner at Greenlight Books, in Brooklyn. The exchange below is an edited version of that conversation. —Ed.
One of the most striking things you do in The Hatred of Poetry is to reorient our sense of value. Your canon is “the terrible poets, the great poets, and the silent poets,” as opposed to the merely good or the mediocre. You write about the worst poet in history, McGonagall, and his horrific masterpiece, or antimasterpiece, “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:
Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remembered for a very long
Wikipedia says that he’s widely considered the worst poet ever. Read More
“‘The first thirty days after that performance … it hurt. I just wasn’t right. Whatever that was … catharsis … People don’t understand.’” In the new issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason has a moving, in-depth profile of Bryan Doerries, a director and translator who stages classical tragedies for veterans suffering from PTSD. —Lorin Stein
There’s no better way to savor the last of these summer evenings than to head to Photoville, a pop-up photography exhibition in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The exhibition comprises sixty-some shipping containers—surprisingly well suited for the purpose—and, over the course of its eleven-day run, will showcase the work of more than four hundred artists. Highlights include Josh Haner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning series on Jeff Bauman and a curated selection of James Nachtwey’s work from his thirty-year (and counting) tenure at Time. The Photoville runs through September 28. —Stephen A. Hiltner
As I read David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, I feared I was elevating its somewhat typical techno-thriller plot simply because of the filmmaker’s name. It’s too difficult to sum up here, but the story involves yellow journalism, Marxism, black-market organ trafficking, North Korea, 3-D printing, and sex—the latter “in an incredible number of varieties,” as the jacket states. But I needn’t have worried. Hints of what makes Cronenberg’s filmmaking so unsettling and enthralling began to seep in: the detailed horror of violence and its repercussions, unexpected humor (the Marxist philosophers are named Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy), and the plot’s transition from the tech world to the inner turmoil of our finite existences. As Cronenberg once said, “Consciousness is the original sin: consciousness of the inevitability of our death.” —Justin Alvarez
In this weekend’s Times Magazine, along with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s excellent profile of Donald Antrim, is Matt Bai’s piece about Gary Hart, a name that will fire cobwebbed synapses if you followed presidential politics in ’87. (I didn’t. I was a one-year-old.) Hart was the Democratic front-runner that year until a reporter from the Miami Herald got a tip that he’d been sleeping around. As Bai writes, the Herald’s sanctimonious coverage of these events—or nonevents—has had ramifications not just in the media but in the very essence of our political character. For fear of being crucified as Hart was, politicians no longer do, say, or believe in anything interesting; they’ve purged themselves of personality, conviction, and contradiction. Buried in Bai’s critique is a canny, surprisingly ardent defense of humanism: “As an industry, [the media] aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, ‘We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.’ That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.” —Dan Piepenbring
With all the sunshine we’ve been enjoying in New York this September, it seems hard to believe that the autumnal equinox is almost here. As I’m returning to England tomorrow, where it will probably be winter and almost definitely raining, the realization that summer is over is now sinking in. And my mental countdown was only intensified by revisiting Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, a novel that centers on Ireland’s Anglo-Irish community during the early twenties, when the War of Independence finally broke through their isolated bubble of tennis and tea parties. Okay, so our situations are not quite analogous. But the magnetism of Bowen’s writing pulls you into a smoldering autumnal landscape that only heats up as the novel progresses, and the Irish rebels close in on “the big house” and its inhabitants. Growing up as an Anglo-Irish child herself, Bowen once remarked that she grew “accustomed to … being enclosed in a ring of almost complete silence.” It’s the breaking of this silence that The Last September captures so well, with those seasonal reds and oranges transforming into warning signs for an inevitable fall. —Helena Sutcliffe
A certain literary quarterly graced Page Six this morning, and it’s not because we’re in rehab or recently posed nude or hosted a tony, freewheeling charity dinner in Sagaponack—though we aspire to do those things, ideally all at once.
No, it’s because we have a damn fine softball team.
Fact is, The Paris Review Parisians are on something of a hot streak; in our five games this season, we’ve met with defeat only once, at the hands of The Nation. And we play a good clean game: no pine tar, no corked bats, no steroids (unless you count the occasional can of Bud Light). We believe, like Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, in the Church of Baseball. It was only a matter of time until we attracted the attention of the gossip rags. Says the Post of our game against Harper’s last week,
“A string of ‘Parisian’ homers” put eight more runs on the board … the “mercy rule” was invoked—meaning nobody kept count … A spy said of The Paris Review’s crew that also pummeled The New Yorker two days earlier: “Their team was so good-looking and so coordinated, I could hardly believe any of them actually knew how to read. Let alone know what to do with a semicolon.”
The print version of the piece puts an even finer point on it: “Literary sluggers in rout,” its headline says.
In just a few hours, the Parisians—now well acquainted with the art of being vain—take on Vanity Fair, itself no stranger to Page Six. What’s at stake is more than just bragging rights: it’s what John Updike called, in “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” “the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.”
After reading David Constantine’s story “In Another Country,” which the Canadian publisher Biblioasis passed along to me, I can’t figure out why a U.S. press hasn’t caught on to his work. He’s won a number of big prizes, including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award twice—last year, he beat out Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy, and Peter Stamm—and no wonder: this story has me wanting more. (Thankfully, Biblioasis will publish a selection of his stories next year.) The sentences are restrained, the tone muted. The remoteness between the husband and wife of the story is never described but is made palpable through the stillness in their interactions and the spareness of the prose, but the tension created by the slow unraveling of the past within the present is innervating: “What worried Mrs. Mercer suddenly took shape. Into the little room came a rush of ghosts. She sat down opposite him and both felt cold. That Katya, she said. Yes, he said. They’ve found her in the ice. I see, said Mrs. Mercer.” If you get excited, as I do, by stories in which very little happens, then this one is for you. —Nicole Rudick
In 1949, Niki de Saint Phalle and Harry Mathews eloped together, both a bit shy of their twentieth birthdays. The ten-year marriage that followed saw joy, sorrow, electroshock therapy, disapproving parents, reprimanding neighbors, two children, suicidal episodes, numerous infidelities, artistic awakenings, homes in more than four countries, and, ultimately, insurmountable growing pains. In Harry and Me: 1950–1960, The Family Years, de Saint Phalle chronicles their famous, tumultous relationship in verse and image. A remarkably generous portrait of their time together—it includes sidebars of text written by Mathews in response to de Saint Phalle’s account, in which he corrects and addends but never criticizes—this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the work of either artist. Their developmental years were spent in stride, and the naïveté that brought them together (and eventually drove them apart) was instrumental in shaping their artistic desires, particularly the whimsy and color that marks de Saint Phalle’s sculpture. Though the relationship ends, the children suffer, and the hurt never truly goes away, neither party, many years later, seems to regret the marriage. Instead, they go to bat for the young, reckless love that directed the course of their lives. —Clare Fentress
Lots of people are nostalgic for rotary phones and handwritten letters. Not so many have the same wistfulness for the telegraph. But William Saroyan’s “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,” from his 1934 short story collection The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, has left me rethinking the old teletype machine and its nuanced relation to our digital age. The story tells of two telegraph operators, who meet—virtually—by striking up a conversation over the wires. Saroyan’s depiction of the giddy thrill of instantaneous, faceless communication, in which half the fun is in the imagined possibilities, seems oddly anachronistic to the modern reader, but it also predicts the appeal of instant messaging and texting. From the first hello hello hello, the narrator realizes the untapped opportunity of his teletype machine as a personal device of contact, of love: “I had never thought of the machine as being related in any way to me … I began to try to visualize the girl. I began to wonder if she would go out with me to this house I wanted and help me fill it with our lives together.” —Chantal McStay Read More
This year our Spring Revel will take place on April 9. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.
In 1998, which now feels like a Triassically distant time, I was twenty-four years old and on the publishing make. Technically, I was an editorial assistant, but I was making bold, audacious, and sometimes highly presumptuous assistant editor moves. I had some call, mind you. W. W. Norton, the house that employed me, had encouraged me to come up with “ideas” for the paperback committee, which at the time felt like a huge honor. Correction: it was a huge honor. I had a few ideas, most of which, I was gently informed, stank. But one didn’t. This was the idea I had of republishing a thirty-year-old novel about a cat bite (and urban collapse, race relations, gentrification, and New York City) called Desperate Characters. Read More