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Posts Tagged ‘J.M. Coetzee’

A Brief History of Shelving, and Other News

November 12, 2015 | by

Titles on the spines: what a concept! A shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek. Photo: Erik Kwakkel

  • In 1650, William Pynchon—Thomas’s earliest colonial ancestor—published The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a small quarto volume about, you know, God and stuff, which caused a hell-storm of controversy in Puritan New England: “To leading officials in the government of Massachusetts Bay, however, this was an insidious text, an exercise in heresy—one the Puritan clergy believed capable of throwing their young and vulnerable colony into irreversible chaos. Pynchon, a prominent layman with a devoted constituency, was charismatic enough to inspire a movement similar to the Antinomian debacle that had nearly brought the colony to its knees in the previous decade … In addition to the burning of Pynchon’s book, the General Court also commissioned a theologian named John Norton to write an official rebuttal … The General Court accepted [Pynchon’s] contrition, though the magistrates did demand he appear before them again the following October. They set bail at £100. This time, Pynchon absconded.”
  • Imagine what it must’ve felt like to be the scribe who invented page numbers. Or title labels. Or spine titles. A physical book is an efficient device, but to look at the history of bookbinding is to see how momentous and hard-won these modest advances were, as Erik Kwakkel writes: “The early history of displaying a book’s title and author on the outside is long and winding: first the information was found on the front or back, then on the fore-edge, and finally on the spine. This order is no coincidence, because it roughly reflects another development, namely how books were stored: first flat (Early and Central Middle Ages), then upright with the fore-edge facing the reader (Later Middle Ages), and finally with the spine facing outward (Early Modern period). Judging from surviving book bindings, the history of the dust jacket actually starts surprisingly late. After all, the earliest traceable specimens date from the fourteenth century.”
  • Punk, which began as street fashion, has completed the final step in its transformation from ethos to consumerist movement: now it’s just street fashion again, and we’re left to wonder if there was ever really anything to it. “Forty years after Television’s legendary residency at CBGB, the world is awash in punk. In the last twenty months, former Village Voice rock critic and punk champion Robert Christgau wrote a memoir about his downtown New York youth, Kim Gordon published her memoirs, Viv Albertine published hers, Richard Hell released the paperback edition of his, Patti Smith released the follow-up to her National Book Award–winning memoir, and HarperCollins signed Lenny Kaye, Smith’s guitarist, to write a memoir of his own. Ramones fans can look forward to a forthcoming Martin Scorsese–helmed biopic and a documentary promising new footage of the seminal band, whose last founding member perished in 2014 … As punk pushes into its fourth decade, its rules, aesthetic, and parameters are still murky at best. Does punk retain any meaning at all?”
  • On the connection between writing and running: “Writers, like runners, often like the idea of their pursuit more so than the difficult work. The appeal of a running regimen is how the miles not only condition the body, but free up a space for the creative mind … Since I’ve returned to distance running, I’ve changed the way I think about writing. Writing exists in that odd mental space between imagination and intellect, between the organic and the planned. Runners must learn to accept the same paradoxes, to realize that each individual run has its own narrative, with twists and turns and strains.”
  • The Paris Review’s intern Joshua Maserow on J. M. Coetzee: “Coetzee doesn’t hate truth. In fact, he yearns for it (transcendental, objective truth). The truth just doesn’t seem all that comforting or that accessible. We must search for our truths but won’t find them. He wears two hats: that of the hopeful Platonist (‘our engagements are with a constantly changing interplay between shadows (fictions) and the real’) but also that of the weary pragmatist (‘the more a person has been offered sympathetic fictions of herself, the more easily she will be able to live within the fiction(s) she holds herself’).”

Staff Picks: Castrating Cattle, Driving on Drugs

September 18, 2015 | by

From the cover of Alien Abduction.

I’ve been reading Lewis Warsh’s collection Alien Abduction this week, and it’s pretty great. Many are prose poems, and even those that aren’t read like they are: conversational, plain-dealing, unpretentious. Among my favorites is “Once,” a paragraph of a poem about taking mescaline and going for a drive and the miraculous feeling that comes from arriving back home in one piece and to a domestic scene that is oblivious to the adventure. There’s a loneliness to these poems, even when the poet isn’t alone, but he doesn’t seem heedful of this, or bothered by it: it may be more of a gentle, yawning solitude than loneliness. “There’s a difference between being with someone and being alone,” Warsh writes, “but I can’t tell you what it is.” —Nicole Rudick

The Paris Review was forced to move its offices in 2013; like every other building on our Tribeca block, ours—built in 1869, with a beautiful cast-iron facade, and chock-full of various arts organizations—was sold to a developer who planned to convert its units to high-end condos. For the staffers who were relatively new to the city, it felt like the end of an era—though, of course, the era that established Tribeca as an art haven has been over for a very long time. New York’s abandonment of its identity as a gritty, crime-ridden, artistically productive city is the subject of Edmund White’s essay “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?,” published last week in T Magazine and accompanied by the hauntingly beautiful photographs of Peter Hujar. White is too exacting (and too honest; New York of forty years ago, despite its appeal, was a thoroughly unpleasant place to live) to be wistful: he gives the city’s vices more coverage than its virtues. But the piece is undeniably a lament, at least in part, for the New York of the seventies—“the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic: a place and a time in which, rich or poor, you were stuck together in the misery (and the freedom) of the place, where not even money could insulate you.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Some things I learned from Ted Conover’s “Cattle Calls,” a look into the lives of Iowa livestock veterinarians from the new issue of Harper’s: that more than 10 percent of the nation’s pigs died in a year from porcine epidemic diarrhea; that you can castrate a bull simply by tying a rubber band around its scrotum, and that dogs love to eat raw bull testicles; that agribusiness has made it all but impossible to survive as a vet with a private practice in a rural area; that bald eagles have taken to eating a slurry of dead hog parts sometimes used as fertilizer. Conover’s piece opens with a doctor inserting his arm into a cow’s rectum and ends with an assisted cattle birth; and lest you feel misled by the lurid details I’ve cherry-picked, it’s a generous, evocative portrait of an increasingly rare kind of working life. The photography, by Lance Rosenfield, is strong and lived-in—here in New York, where Fashion Week has just ended, it feels like an authentic rebuke to the parade of editorials glamorizing blue-collar work wear. —Dan Piepenbring
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What We’re Loving: Self-Help, Self-Hate, Sense and Sensibility

November 1, 2013 | by


In the last month, thanks to some timely advice from Sam Lipsyte in the Oslo airport, I’ve gone back to two books that I could never get through as a kid: Blood Meridian and Sense and Sensibility. Blood Meridian still defeats me, though I got about halfway through. Does every pueblo have to be ruinous, every puddle some shade of crimson? Will the Judge ever shut up about Darwin? The book it keeps comparing itself to is Moby-Dick, but Moby-Dick doesn’t compare itself to anything, and isn’t—or doesn’t feel—anywhere near as long. Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, was just my speed. The last two pages are so good, I tore them out and pinned the sheet over my desk as a talisman. (The airport paperback had a painting of Spanish Gibson girls on the cover, and had to be thrown away.) —Lorin Stein

First published in 1957, the late Daniel Anselme’s On Leave chronicles one week in the lives of three soldiers, furloughed in Paris. Anselme, a resistance fighter and journalist, interviewed many conscripted men while researching the novel, and its unflinching look at the horrors of the Algerian conflict meant it was initially ignored by critics and never reprinted or translated. A new edition by Faber & Faber brings this “lost novel” to a whole new readership, and that’s a good thing. While it’s not a light or easy read (although David Bellos’s translation is spare and clear), it remains deeply affecting and, needless to say, relevant. —Sadie O. Stein Read More »


What We’re Loving: The New York Review, Baghdad, Fire

October 18, 2013 | by


The funny thing about the New York Review’s fiftieth anniversary issue is that it’s basically just a slightly fatter version of the normal product. Here’s Zadie Smith on girl-watching with her father. Here’s Frederick Seidel with a poem I badly wish we’d published ourselves. Here’s Chabon on Pynchon, Mendelsohn on Game of Thrones, and Timothy Garton-Ash writing (unenviably and with aplomb) on the ethos of the Review itself. Here’s Justice Stephen Breyer discussing Proust with a French journalist (Breyer turns out to be the only person about whom one is actually glad to know how Proust changed his life), plus Richard Holmes on Keats, Diane Johnson on MFA programs, Adam Shatz on Charlie Parker, Coetzee on Patrick White—and this is just the beginning. (As usual, I’m saving the politics for last.) There is one discovery I have to single out. In 1949 the German novelist Hans Keilson published one of the stranger World War II novels ever written, a novel later translated into English under the enigmatic title The Death of the Adversary. Thanks to Claire Messud’s beautiful essay on Camus, I think I may know where Keilson’s translator got the phrase. Camus, 1945: “I am not made for politics, because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.” Thank you, Ms. Messud. Thank you, New York Review. —Lorin Stein

Has any city been so cursed by history and so blessed in its poets as Baghdad? Reuven Snir, a scholar with family roots in Baghdad’s Jewish community, has edited and translated Baghdad: The City in Verse, an anthology of poems from the eighth century to the present, which has been my bedside reading for the last week. There are poems of debauchery (“Baghdad is not an abode for hermits,” an early poet warns his readers), nostalgia, and lament. The mournful note is especially strong in the later poems. But it is already there in Ishaq al-Khuraymi’s “Elegy for Baghdad,” a lament written in the aftermath of a civil war, which remembers a city “surrounded by vineyards, palm trees, and basil,” but now sees a wasteland of widows and dry wells, with “the city split into groups, / the connections between them cut off.” The Mongol invasion of 1258, when tradition says the Tigris ran black with the ink of books and red with the blood of scholars, was still four hundred years away. —Robyn Creswell Read More »


Books and Bodies: On Organs and Literary Estates

August 22, 2012 | by

The New Yorker made headlines this month by publishing “new” work by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Thank You for the Light” had been rejected by the magazine in 1936 when Fitzgerald first submitted it, but editorial judgments—like love, pain, and kitchen knives—have a way of dulling over time.

“We’re afraid that this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question,” read the original note spurning the story. “It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic.”

Resubmitted by Fitzgerald’s grandchildren, “Thank You for the Light” was, at least by Fitzgerald’s own standards, ready for publication. Its condition differs greatly from his final work, tentatively titled The Love of the Last Tycoon but published as The Last Tycoon in 1941. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack before he could finish the novel, so what went to press was a version of his incomplete draft, notes, and outlines pieced together by the literary critic Edmund Wilson. In his preface to the novel, Wilson wrote, “It has been possible to supplement this unfinished draft with an outline of the rest of the story as Fitzgerald intended to develop it.”

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What We’re Loving: Dorian Gray, Sex with Immortals

July 27, 2012 | by

Last Thursday, finding myself with an hour to kill in London, I stopped into Lutyens & Rubinstein bookstore in Notting Hill. No Paris Review (sigh), but I did pick up the Summer issue of Slightly Foxed, a quarterly devoted to little essays about people’s favorite books. The clerk claimed it’s the most popular lit mag they stock. And it’s easy to see why. Crome Yellow, The Lost Oases, The Elegies of Quintilius, and a guide to British sea birds give some idea of the miscellany. Read one issue back to back and you could cross every conceivable reader off your Christmas list. —Lorin Stein

How, exactly, do a human and a god have sex? For Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s novel, it is less a question of metaphysics than of mechanics. “Bad enough to have a full-grown male swan jabbing webbed feet into your backside while he has his way, or a one-ton bull leaning his moaning weight on you,” she thinks. But when the god does not change form, how does the human body accommodate itself to “the blast of his desire”? What makes the passage so interesting is not only Costello’s amusing speculations on the impracticality of cosmic coupling but the way such a question allows Coetzee to reflect on the whole messy business of the god-human relationship. The gods may never die, he suggests, but that doesn’t mean they know how to live. —Anna Hadfield

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