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Posts Tagged ‘Honoré de Balzac’

Java Jive

September 29, 2014 | by

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A coffeepot truck from 1956. Photo via Retronaut

There are too many coffee clichés: nineties Seattle yuppies, current obsessives in Portland and Brooklyn, the enormous and always hilarious line of tchotchkes that emphasize the importance of caffeine to functioning and the inadvisability of approaching the addict pre-coffee. And that Friends pop-up! Oh god, the Friends pop-up. It makes one squirm with vicarious humiliation. It is impossible to mention coffee in any context without falling into some hoary cliché trap, which I imagine being like one of those pits cleverly disguised with leaves. But there's a funny paradox at work: however much we take it for granted, coffee has become a sort of identity. In a time when the real thing is scarce, coffee is sold to us as craftsmanship, as connoisseurship, as signifier—for ideas of glamor that very few of us can actually afford. 

It was not always so. Joseph Smith reported that hot drinks are not for the body or belly; Bach wrote the “Coffee Cantata”; and Balzac may or may not have died of coffee poisoning:

I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he'd been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man. He was tall, blond, slender and had thinning hair; he apparently had a stomach of papier-mâché. There has been, on my part, a failure of observation.

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Balzac the Intern, and Other News

September 29, 2014 | by

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A drawing of Balzac attributed to Achille Devéria, ca. 1820.

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, interviewed the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito: “A writer was a sort of creator, naturally, but I always liked to think of him as a reader as well—a great reader. By way of his writing, I tried to make out, or guess at, what he’d read. A sort of literary voyeurism. And the writer would often show his hand, as though by chance. I felt a wonderful sense of complicity when I was able to recognize a title, or a line of poetry, or an allusion.”
  • Once he’d graduated from the Sorbonne, Balzac took an internship at a Paris law firm. “An intern is to the Civil Service what a choirboy is to the Church, or what an army child is to his Regiment, or what rats and sidekicks are to Theatres: innocent, gullible, and blinded by illusions,” he wrote in 1841’s The Physiology of the Employee.
  • On Scorsese’s new NYRB doc, which debuted this weekend: “Most literary publications, running smoothly, are about as well suited to cinematic narrative as a long-term janitorial project. Scorsese has attempted to pep things up by casting the Review as a front-lines political journal with a rock-star stable of writers. The result is forced, befuddled, and frequently weird. Still, it’s a fine introduction to the long arc of the paper’s history.”
  • The art of recording: John Vanderslice quit his job as a waiter at Chez Panisse to open one of the most innovative recording studios in the country. His mantra: “sloppy hi-fi,” which means “capturing loose, spontaneous performances on the best microphones in the world. It means gritting a pretty song with white noise, pink noise, high-quality distortion (not an oxymoron: ‘It has to be high-quality distortion’), tube amps, and tube compressors, and also by physically distressing and damaging the tape. Basically, Vanderslice wants powers of violence over the loveliest sounds.”
  • Today in highly unforeseen merchandise: “Prufrock”-themed flats. “These flats feature a mix of lines from the poem and theme collage imagery (peaches, mermaids, coffee spoons, etc). The edges and flexible areas of the flats are black for an extra accent.” (Also available: Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye flats.)

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The Limits of a Language, and Other News

August 21, 2014 | by

emojidick

From Fred Benenson’s Emoji Dick.

  • Could writers learn from carpenters? … Writers need to know more about the business of their art … During the days of postal submissions, writers often had to read ‘an issue or two of the publications to which they submitted, mainly due to the fact that that was largely how anyone knew about what journals were out there.’ Now writers unfamiliar with the submission process can sometimes produce ‘absurd results.’ ”
  • Stop. Look around you. Think. Are you in a Balzac novel? Some telltale signs: “There’s a woman you’d like to sleep with, so you decide to tell her an off-putting story about murder, castration, or bestiality … You play a lot of whist … You once tried to have sex with a panther.”
  • As a kind of language, emoji “are the social lubricant smoothing the rough edges of our digital lives: they underscore tone, introduce humor, and give us a quick way to bring personality into otherwise monochrome spaces.” But are they too conservative? “What habits of daily life do emoji promote, from the painted nails to the martini glasses? What behavior do they normalize? … In a broad sense, what emoji are trying to sell us, if not happiness, is a kind of quiescence … Emoji can represent cocktails, paparazzo attacks, and other trappings of Western consumer and celebrity culture with ease. More complicated matters? There’s no emoji for that.”
  • Oops. Now was not a good moment to release a feature film called Let’s Be Cops: “this is our only movie starring law enforcement run amok, at a moment when much of the nation is outraged that actual law enforcement is doing the same.”
  • When a programmer inserted the classic “Lorem Ipsum” placeholder text into Google Translate, he got some strange results. Cue the conspiracy theorists.

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The Physiology of Marriage

May 20, 2014 | by

HBalzac

This man could save your marriage—or ruin it. A portrait of Balzac, based on an 1842 daguerreotype

It’s Honoré de Balzac’s birthday, making this as good an occasion as any to investigate one of his stranger works, 1829’s The Physiology of Marriage—an extraordinary kind of precursor to the self-help manual. Balzac was thirty when it was published, and already he felt he knew enough about the institution of marriage to advise others on the matter. And maybe he was: though he hadn’t married yet, he’d already perfected the art of the aphorism. This book is full of them: “To saunter is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; to saunter is to live.” “A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.” And “Marriage is a fight to the death, before which the wedded couple ask a blessing from heaven, because it is the rashest of all undertakings to swear eternal love; the fight at once commences and victory, that is to say liberty, remains in the hands of the cleverer of the two.”

The Physiology of Marriage is a series of meditations on the more quotidian aspects of loving and living with another—many of which arrive at the rather contemporary conclusion that marriage is an exceedingly difficult arrangement, liable to end in adultery. The book has moments of surprising candor about men and women, and Balzac clearly knows a thing or two about, you know, the Human Comedy. But he’s also full of lousy counsel, and he loves playing power games. Here, for instance, are some excerpts from Meditation XII, “On the Hygiene of Marriage”:Read More »

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Bookish Heroism, and Other News

February 6, 2013 | by

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  • Before they were stars: the wayward youth of Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and more. (And it was wayward!)
  • Bookish, a new website created by Penguin, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, has launched. Check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s riposte to Philip Roth
  • How one man saved eight thousand precious volumes amid the violence in Timbuktu. 
  • We are psyched about the new Believer podcast, The Organist
  • A. L. Kennedy: “From here I can see the spine of The Wind in the Willows—the same volume I read in bed when I was a child. It has been my friend for more than 40 years, there for me, a kind light. Here is the volume of Raymond Carver I threw across the room when I was a student because it was so amazing, so tender with broken people. Here is Alasdair Gray and his mind-blowing Lanark, which taught me the courage inherent in thinking and creating when I had no courage of my own. Here is my library.” 
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    Literary Paint Chips: Gallery 1

    April 26, 2012 | by

    Paint Samples, suitable for the home, sourced from colors in literature. As seen in our two-hundredth issue.

    City Fingers1 Delta Khaki2 Navy Rayon3 Limpopo4
    Mapp’s Silence5 Nightclub Lycra6 Alleline’s Pink Gin7 Lydia8
    Montdore Mink9 Rothko’s Forearm10 Moth11 Mrs. Jones Green12
    Elephant Hills13 Camel Cashmere14 Glimpse Gray15 Samsa Juice16
    Anne’s Shoes17 Mossy Trout18 Lipstick Smack19 Ocean Heart20
    Mediterranean Cock21 Rebecca’s Smalls22 Dock Green23 Fair Fuzz24
    Gosling25 Random Dandelion26 Violet Hour27 Golightly28

    Annotations

    1. “The clouds have their old color back, their old English color: the color of a soft-boiled egg, shelled by city fingers.” ‘London Fields,’ Martin Amis.
    2. “They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in khaki.” ‘Brave New World,’ Aldous Huxley.
    3. “Instead, she’d burst into tears. Wetting the front of her navy-blue rayon housewife dress.” ‘Blonde,’ Joyce Carol Oates.
    4. “Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, ‘Go to the banks of the great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.’ ” “The Elephant’s Child,” Rudyard Kipling.
    5. “Miss Mapp inclined her head. Silence was gold.” ‘Miss Mapp,’ E.F. Benson.
    6. “So Becca shows up at the last minute, right before post time. She’s already called about eighteen times just to let us know that she’s coming, finally she dances through the door in this micro lycra red dress— just a sheath really, perfect for that 3:00 a.m. nightclub appearance, but like even I wouldn’t be caught dead walking around in this thing in the middle of the day. But the boys love it and it gets so quiet for a minute you can hear the sound of tongues dropping and saliva splashing on the floor.” ‘Story of My Life,’ Jay McInerney.
    7. “Percy showed it to him last night—over a pink gin, was it, Percy, at the Travellers’?” ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,’ John le Carré.
    8. “Lydia never looked clean; her skin was not pitted like Joe’s but it had a permanent grayness, the grayness of one reared on baked beans, jelly and bread and dripping.” ‘The Millstone,’ Margaret Drabble.
    9. “‘The important thing, dear,’ she said, ‘is to have a really good fur coat, I mean a proper, dark one.’ To Lady Montdore, fur meant mink.” ‘Love in a Cold Climate,’ Nancy Mitford.
    10. “He’s very close to being the shade of the walls, isn’t he, and the shade of the walls is exactly the color of the inside of Rothko’s forearm.” ‘Breaking and Entering,’ Joy Williams.
    11. “He will not open the screen and capture their pollened bodies. He did this once and the terrified thrash of the moth—a brown-pink creature who released col- ored dust on his fingers—scared them both.” ‘In the Skin of a Lion,’ Michael Ondaatje.
    12. “ ‘Now, darling,’ she said sailing past me into the kitchen. ‘I’ve brought you some nice soup, and some smart outfits of mine for Monday!’ She was wearing a lime green suit, black tights and high-heeled court shoes.” ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary,’ Helen Fielding.
    13. “‘Well, let’s try and have a fine time.’ ‘All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’ ” “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway.
    14. “Cousin Bette, a victim, ever since her arrival in Paris, to a longing for cashmere shawls, was fascinated by the thought of possessing this particular yellow camel’s-hair, given by the baron to his wife in 1808, and according to the custom of certain families passed over to the daughter in 1830.” ‘Cousin Bette,’ Honoré de Balzac.
    15. “I saw large gray eyes in a bright, lively face, and suddenly this face began to quiver and laugh.” ‘First Love,’ Ivan Turgenev.
    16. “He seemed, unfortunately, to have no proper teeth—how was he, then, to grasp the key?—but the lack of teeth was, of course, made up for with a very strong jaw; using the jaw, he really was able to start the key turning, ignoring the fact that he must have been causing some kind of damage as a brown fluid came from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped onto the floor.” ‘The Metamorphosis,’ Franz Kafka.
    17. “Everywhere I go, upstairs or down, they all cast admiring glances at my feet, which are adorned by a pair of exceptionally beautiful ( for times like these!) shoes. Miep managed to snap them up for 27.50 guilders. Burgundy-colored suede and leather with medium-sized high heels. I feel as if I’m on stilts, and look even taller than I already am.” ‘Diary of a Young Girl,’ Anne Frank.
    18. “He was the color of moss, that color green. It was as if he had been wrapped up in moss a long time, and the color had come off all over him.” “Nobody Said Anything,” Raymond Carver.
    19. “When I awoke, B. and the girl had gone, leaving in the wake of their coupling a great mountain of disheveled bedding, a brilliant stain of orange lipstick smack in the middle of the pillow, and on the exposed sheet the untidy evidence of their urgency.” ‘A Fan’s Notes,’ Frederick Exley.
    20. “Ah, brig, good-night / To crew and you; / The ocean’s heart too smooth, too blue, / To break for you.” “Shipwreck,” Emily Dickinson.
    21. “And then later that business down below, his thick cock that blue-brown of Mediterranean types and, he wonders if her hair there is as curly as the hair on her head, in and out, he can’t believe it will happen, while the rest of them sit here listening to the rain.” ‘Rabbit Is Rich,’ John Updike.
    22. “These are her underclothes, in this drawer. This pink set here she had never worn. She was wearing slacks of course and a shirt when she died.” ‘Rebecca,’ Daphne du Maurier.
    23. “‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’ ” ‘The Great Gatsby,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald.
    24. “In the black pubic hair, ladies and gentlemen, weighing one hundred and seventy pounds, at least half of which is still undigested halvah and hot pastrami, from Newark, NJ, The Shnoz, Alexander Portnoy! And his opponent, in the fair fuzz, with her elegant polished limbs and the gentle maidenly face of a Botticelli, that ever-popular purveyor of the social amenities here in the Garden, one hundred and fourteen pounds of Republican refinement, and the pertest pair of nipples in all New England, from New Canaan, Connecticut, Sarah Abbott Maulsby! ” ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ Philip Roth.
    25. “When the first gosling poked its gray-green head through the goose’s feathers and looked around, Charlotte spied it and made the announcement.” ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ E.B. White.
    26. “Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun.” ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Margaret Atwood.
    27. “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits / Like a taxi throbbing waiting.” ‘The Waste Land,’ T. S. Eliot.
    28. “For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.” ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ Truman Capote.

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