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Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

Beauty Marks

September 1, 2016 | by

On Pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Morris.

John Robert Parsons’s photograph of Jane Morris.

A photograph of Jane Morris by John Robert Parsons, 1868.

“Defining British Art,” part of this summer’s 250th anniversary sale at London auctioneer Christie’s, included two lots by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Ligeia Siren (1873), a nude of an unknown model, and Portrait of Jane Morris, bust-length (ca. 1870), a chalk drawing of the legendary Pre-Raphaelite muse—née Jane Burden and known as Janey to her friends—who, despite being married to trailblazing designer William Morris for thirty-seven years, was the love of Rossetti’s life. Only the second work sold (for the tidy sum of £602,500), from which we might infer that Janey’s strange beauty, more than a century after her death, entices at least as much as Rossetti’s signature. A few years ago, his chalk drawing of Janey as Proserpine, goddess of spring and empress of Hades, sold at Sotheby’s for nearly £3.3 million—double the presale estimate.

Rossetti would be gratified indeed. Proserpine, which he reworked in at least eight versions, was his favorite creation, the fullest realization of an artistic drive fueled, above all, by his passion for Janey. A. S. Byatt, in pondering Rossetti’s painterly addiction to Janey in her new book, Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work, also sees this particular image as the culmination of Rossetti’s entwined artistic and erotic fixations. Byatt, however, is disquieted by it. “There is something appalling,” she writes, “in looking at a whole series of Rossetti’s images, more and more obsessive yet essentially all the same, brooding, dangerous, sexually greedy, too much. The best, and therefore the worst, is Proserpine.” Read More »

A Big Glooby Blob of Sad Blufush, and Other News

July 22, 2016 | by

Kerouac photographed by John Cohen, 1959. Image via The Spectator.

  • Remember that time Henry James met Winston Churchill? The encounter took place in December, 1914, when Churchill was forty years old and James, his elder by three decades, was still a year from the stroke that would have him signing letters as Napoleon to arrange for “the decoration of certain apartments and palaces ... of the Louvre and the Tuileries.” According to Louis Menand, “Churchill had no idea who James was, found him tedious, and behaved crudely.” After the event, James told his host, Violet Bonham Carter—a friend of Churchill, daughter of the prime minister, and grandmother of Helena—that the “interesting” experience had “brought home to me, very forcibly and vividly … the limitations by which men of genius … purchase their ascendancy … over mankind.”
  • In 1931, during what he described as his wilderness years, Churchill launched an American speaking tour in an effort to make back the money he’d lost in the stock-market crash two years earlier. While crossing Fifth Avenue in New York, Churchill looked the wrong way for traffic and was hit by a taxi, an accident he later wrote up as “My New York Misadventure,” which essay he sold to the Daily Mail for twenty-five hundred dollars. (Yes: about forty thousand dollars in today’s money.) Earlier that year, some three hundred and fifty miles from the site of Churchill’s lucrative debilitation, the hard-bop jazz pianist Conrad Yeatis “Sonny” Clark was born in a Pennsylvania coal patch. Clark’s career was often torturous, in no small part thanks to the heroin addiction that killed him in 1963. But he found a wide following in Japan, and, as Sam Stephenson wrote for the Daily in 2011, “no jazz pianist was more drenched in minor blues” than he was. Clark would have been eighty-five yesterday.
  • Clark released Sonny’s Crib, with John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone, in 1957, the same year Jack Kerouac published On the Road. For Geoff Dyer, “there has never been a better-looking male writer. The Kerouac of the 1950s—athletic, muscular forearms emerging from plaid shirt, dark hair roughly quiffed—could step into a bar in Brooklyn today and he’d still look hip.” But Kerouac’s time at the top was brief: “From the moment his achievement was recognized his talent was in decline. He became imprisoned by the method of composition—spontaneous prose—that had liberated him. The breakthrough that enabled him to become a great writer condemned him to often being a pretty terrible one. Sinking into alcoholism, living with his mum in Florida and Massachusetts, he became ‘a big glooby blob of sad blufush.’ ”
  • Kerouac’s father, a French Canadian printer, died of stomach cancer in 1946, the same year a former domestic servant from Scotland gave birth to the man who last night became the Republican Party’s official candidate for president of the United States. About that last fact you may read a word or two today, but in the midst of the frenzy let us not forget the welcome counsel of Julian Barnes, namely that “this has been a rich time to explore nineteenth-century Scandinavian painting.” A new show at the Fondation Custodia, in Paris, includes paintings by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, a Danish painter who studied under Jacques-Louis David. “The Paris show,” Barnes says, reveals Eckersberg “to be always securely himself, yet frequently on the move.”

The Native Henry James

February 26, 2016 | by

February 28 marks the hundredth anniversary of James’s death.

Photo: Alice Boughton, 1916.

Henry James died in London, at the age of seventy-two, on February 28, 1916, in the midst of World War I. His funeral was held at Chelsea Old Church on March 3, with a mostly British congregation of mourners—though his sister-in-law Alice, widow of his brother, the philosopher William, was in attendance, having crossed the war-torn ocean when she heard of his illness.

The U.S. had not yet entered the war—the issue was controversial, and indeed, James and his old antagonist Theodore Roosevelt, who had long denounced him as un-American, had found common cause in their indignation at their country’s prolonged neutrality. This caused particular tension on James’s death, because the novelist had taken British nationality in July 1915, an implicit protest against America’s refusal to join the conflict. As he had written to his fellow American-in-London John Singer Sargent just after the event, “It would really have been so easy for the U. S. to have ‘kept’ (if they had cared to!) yours all faithfully, Henry James.” He had finally grown tired of waiting for America to end its neutrality, and felt he needed, by this gesture, to end his own detachment from the conflict. The memorial in Chelsea Old Church tactfully describes him as “a resident of this parish who renounced a cherished citizenship to give his allegiance to England in the first year of the Great War”—the “cherished” insisting from the grave that James had been a good American. Read More »

Remember to Authenticate Your Falcon, and Other News

February 22, 2016 | by

Humphrey Bogart with the elusive (and presumably genuine) Maltese Falcon.

  • Zadie Smith is thinking about The Polar Express 4–D Experience and Anomalisa and, of course, Schopenhauer: “One way of dealing with the boredom of our own needs might be to complicate them unnecessarily, so as always to have something new to desire. Human needs, Schopenhauer thought, are not in their essence complex. On the contrary, their ‘basis is very narrow: it consists of health, food, protection from heat and cold, and sexual gratification; or the lack of these things.’ Yet on this narrow strip we build the extraordinary edifice of pleasure and pain, of hope and disappointment! Not just salmon, but wild-caught Copper River Alaskan salmon almandine! And all to achieve exactly the same result in the end; health, food, covering, and so on … ”
  • Today in late authors and real-estate envy: turns out Harper Lee had a place on the Upper East Side all these years, and she paid less than a thousand bucks a month for it. Early in the morning, you could spot her not at Starbucks but at the local butcher’s: “She was a regular at Ottomanelli Bros. butcher shop on York Avenue, visiting twice a day, first at 7:30 A.M. for a cup of black coffee and a raisin scone, said co-owner Nicolas ‘Uncle Nic’ Ottomanelli. She would go back in the late afternoon for a chicken, a lamb chop ‘trimmed real neat’ or the first cut of Delmonico steak.”
  • Advice for biographers—if you want to earn the respect of your subject’s forebears, hide the dirty laundry. Henry James’s first biographer, Leon Edel, won the trust of the James estate in part because of his suspicious willingness to conceal aspects of the author’s sexuality: “Slowly, Edel became a trusted servant of the James estate as well as James’s biographer. He informed the family when a scholar he met at a conference expressed an interest in James’s homoerotic correspondence. He was assured by the Houghton Library that ‘she is certainly not going to see anything she’s not supposed to see.’ Edel’s job was to keep all insinuations about James’s sexuality at bay … Since Edel knew he would have to deal with James’s sexuality in his later volumes, he hoped that some other writer would spill the beans first so that it would, as he wrote, ‘relieve me of the onus of “breaking” the story.’ ”
  • Advice for crime writers—put girl in your book’s title, make a little money. “I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the world girl in their title,” Megan Abbott told NPR. “It’s not necessarily an issue with the content of the book itself, but there’s this sort of shorthand that if it has girl in the title, then I know what to expect.”
  • Advice for movie-memorabilia collectors—if you’re going to shell out $4.1 million for the black statuette from The Maltese Falcon, make sure it’s the genuine article first. Ask Hank Risan, who owns two of them and has gone to great lengths to discover their provenance: “Mysteriously, there was an identical marking near the base on each of Risan’s Falcons. It appeared to be two numbers: a 7 with a crossbar and a 5, each followed by a period. Could it be a ‘7.5.,’ referring to the 1975 film? … Risan managed to make an appointment with Edward Baer, an assistant manager in the property department, who had been at the studio for thirty-seven years ... When they showed him one of Risan’s Falcons, Baer said it was nothing like those he had designed. Baer explained that he had made the 1975 Falcons from the original 1941 mold, which he had fished out of a Warner Bros. warehouse. But the mold had deteriorated, so after using it to make a single replica out of resin, he destroyed the mold, then used the resin Falcon to make a new mold. The replicas made from this mold were scrunched forward and a little lopsided—sad cousins of the original.”

Just Another Filthy Sewer, and Other News

January 12, 2016 | by

Cloaca Maxima.

  • Good help is hard to find. The late nineteenth century was a fecund period for the Oxford English Dictionary, which began to add and sift through words at unprecedented speed—in large part because Dr. William Chester Minor, a murderer locked up in the Broadmoor insane asylum, was volunteering for the dictionary by mail. “In 1879, Minor began to submit thousands of words to the Oxford English Dictionary via a mail-in volunteer system to the dictionary’s editor, Dr. James Murray … Murray and Minor wrote each other often, but Murray didn’t learn that his most prolific contributor lived in a psychiatric hospital until he traveled fifty miles to see him in 1896 … Haunted by a branding he was forced to give an Irish deserter in the American Civil War, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and had believed he was being molested and poisoned as revenge by Irish men, nightly, for years.”
  • Henry James’s late memoirs A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother find him recounting—with apparent joy, at that—the adventures of his youth: Adam Gopnik thinks the books deserve a wider audience. “The charm of the memoirs—the first book in particular—is helped, too, by their evocation of New York. Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue and Washington Square all register as the places they are now and were then, and yet are dazzlingly unlike. We are both in a city we know and in another city entirely, bearing the same street names, and this double vision delights us on each page. Nothing is more charming than James using the full weight of his scrutiny on the simple attractions of his youth, the Crystal Palace and P. T. Barnum’s American Museum.”
  • Everyone cheers for the innovative spirit of Roman plumbing. Roman bathhouses! Roman sewers! Roman latrines and toilets! Fine inventions, all, but filthy ones, too—research suggests that these advances in sanitation really didn’t do much to improve public health. “In some baths the water was only changed intermittently, and could acquire a scum on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics … They were afraid of connecting their houses to the sewers, since they feared what might climb out of a sewer into one’s house … They also feared the mephitic gas fires that sometimes burned in sewer holes or in the open seats in public toilets … And when they did go to the public latrines, one of the things they used to wipe themselves was a sponge on a stick, which was shared by everybody.”
  • Who needs monuments? What good has a monument ever done anybody, really? Jed Perl argues that Rodin, “with his zigzagging enthusiasms, may have been the first sculptor to conceive of the monument in ways that unmade the monument. He set the stage for the twentieth-century sculptor’s conflicted allegiances to grandiosity and intimacy, as well as what many have come to see as modernism’s embrace of ambiguity. Although Rodin was capable of placing an expressive figure on an imposing base, as in his beguiling salute to the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, often he aimed to destabilize the monument, suggesting with The Burghers of Calais that heroic figures might have no need for a pedestal and transforming the imposing, cloaked figure of Balzac into a mountainous talisman, a primordial plinth.”
  • Few would call this a golden age for much of anything—but it is, maybe, a golden age for immersive theater. In New York alone there are at least eight immersive theater productions showing now or soon to open. Whether this is a wondrous bounty or an epidemic depends on what kind of a theatergoer you are: “In the last six weeks or so, I’ve gone to ten events involving all levels of participation, from not much to nonstop; varying in price from $18 to $200 a ticket; and ranging in personal discomfort level from mildly embarrassing to horrifically mortifying. I have experienced many interesting things … I cannot say that this investigation made me want to join an avant-garde acting troupe, but my self-conscious little internal voice, the one that keeps experiences at bay by critiquing them even as they happen, took itself off to a bar and got pleasantly drunk. Some productions were so compelling that you could not help but lose yourself in them, and that was exciting and unexpected.”

Confoundingly Picturesque

December 30, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

A Portuguese engraving of Mrauk U, 1676.

On the obsolescence of guidebooks; traveling in Myanmar.

Several years ago in New York, I told Wim Wenders how much I’d liked his film about musicians in Lisbon; he grabbed me by the lapels. “You should go,” he said, “before it’s too late.” I didn’t go then. A few years later I did, and I couldn’t tell whether it was too late. Probably it was—that seems to almost always be the case.

In a similar mind, I went to Myanmar. “It’s already too late” is the refrain one hears again and again about Myanmar, but better late than never. Flights from Bangkok to Yangon are ridiculously cheap, but the city that was Rangoon has a hotel shortage, and beds there are not. Even the taxi from the airport reveals a city in the throes of sudden, extreme development: Vaguely worded business parks have sprouted up everywhere and billboards promise luxurious condos. Hotel lobbies have fliers from real estate developers; breakfast is a sea of laptops, people trying to get in on the ground floor of a newly opened country.

In the hands of Westerners everywhere in Myanmar, one notices a book—Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma), published in July of last year, the most recent travel guide to the country. Leave the capital and its prevalence is even more striking. Elsewhere, the travel guide is a vanishing species, done in first by the Internet and then by smartphones. In most countries in the region, a ten-dollar SIM card will get you Google Maps, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Agoda; even without a SIM, wireless isn’t hard to find. Myanmar, for the moment, is different. You can buy a SIM in Yangon, but we left for Sittwe the day after the electrification of Rakhine State was celebrated: asking for a working cellular network there was too much too soon. Lonely Planet would have to suffice. Read More >>