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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

A Sincere Mustache, and Other News

March 6, 2015 | by

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From a 1902 newspaper advertisement.

  • John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
  • Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
  • On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
  • The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
  • “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”

Ten Hours a Day, Ten Days a Week, and Other News

February 12, 2015 | by

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A French revolutionary clock.

  • Two newly discovered letters by Jane Austen’s brother, Charles, “shed a suggestive and unexpectedly saucy light on the ways her literary reputation was kept alive in the decades after her death in 1817.” (That sauciness is literal and figurative, I’ll have you know.)
  • The politics of the calendar: Why have so many nations attempted to change the way we mark time? “In perhaps the most famous example, the French Republican Calendar not only reorganized the days and months around a ten-day week called a décade, but also restarted the entire thing at Year I. At the time John Quincy Adams decried it as ‘superficially frivolous’ and ‘coarsely vulgar,’ not to mention ‘irreligious’—but this was of course the point: the de-Christianization of the calendar.”
  • On the photographer Duane Michals, a retrospective of whose work is currently at the Carnegie Museum of Art: “In a career spanning more than half a century he has worked in both utilitarian black-and-white and luxuriant color, produced slapstick self-portraits, evoked erotic daydreams, pamphleteered against art world fashions, and painted whimsical abstract designs on vintage photographs.”
  • The war on sadness in language: “A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined 100,000 words across texts in ten different languages and found ‘a universal positivity bias.’ ” We demand more sad words.
  • Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s orgies happen four times a year. What else happens four times a year? We can think of a thing or two …

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Jane Austen: Teen Historian, and Other News

January 30, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Henry VII by Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister.

  • In 1791, a fifteen-year-old Jane Austen wrote The History of England, a satirical pamphlet “by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring watercolor illustrations by her sister, Cassandra.
  • Out of print and in demand: What are the most sought-after books no longer being published? Norman F. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976) leads the list—there’s also “an enthusiast’s guide to building bamboo fly-rods” and Madonna’s Sex.
  • Tom Stoppard’s new play is opening at the National Theatre in London. Tickets are very hard to come by—it might be easier just to write your own Tom Stoppard play. Here’s a step-by-step guide. Remember, “what you’re aiming for is intellectual sparring that manages to be tragic and comic at the same time, while alluding to a universal emotional truth and revealing a vast, in-depth knowledge of the literary canon. Basically like the way you think you talk to your oldest friend when you’re both drunk. Do not shy away from paradox and metatextuality!”
  • Or maybe you’d rather try your hand at some fiction from Africa. In 2006’s How to Write About Africa, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina advised, “Always use the word Africa or Darkness or Safari in your title … be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention ... Africa is doomed.” But in the years since he made those pronouncements, “writing from Africa has flowered, and many of those clichés have been dispelled … This is a fertile moment when young writers are emerging as some of the elders they grew up reading are still at their peak … This cross-generational richness enhances a literature that today ranges from dirty realism and crime thrillers to science fiction, digital serials and graphic novels.”
  • One man’s intrepid journey into the craft of hand-making lace: “I had no teacher, and unlike knitting classes in knitting stores, never considered that I could find one even in a metropolis like New York City. Indeed, if you ask employees in yarn stores if they have any tatting supplies, half will not know what you are talking about and say no, and the other half will know what you are talking about but still say no.”

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W. H. Auden’s Potent Syllabus, and Other News

January 29, 2015 | by

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Light reading. Image via More Than 95 Theses

  • W. H. Auden was a professor at the University of Michigan for the 1941–42 academic year. His course was called Fate and the Individual in European Literature, and its syllabus mandated more than six thousand pages of reading: The Divine Comedy, The Brothers Karamazov, Moby-Dick, Fear and Trembling 
  • Coming to the Huntington Library: Jane Austen’s family letters, Wicked Ned the Pirate’s watercolors, Louis Pasteur’s beer notes (“scribbled on pages of various sizes, in black and blue ink”).
  • On Pedro Lemebel, a Chilean writer (and artist and activist and provocateur) who died last week: “a writer who called himself a ‘queen’ (una loca) and ‘a poor old faggot’ (un marica pobre y viejo), and whose style and obsessions were forged on the social margins and in political opposition.”
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s unreleased documentary about the Holocaust, suppressed for decades, is being screened in full for the first time later this year. “The film, shown at test screenings, extremely disturbed colleagues, experts and film historians.”
  • Fear death? Sure you do! Don’t just sit there drumming your fingers and waiting for the end, though. Talk about it. Over coffee. At a Swiss death café. “The idea for the café mortel was simple: the gathering was to take place in a restaurant, anyone could come, and [Bernard] Crettaz [a Swiss sociologist] himself would gently marshal the conversation. The only rule was that there was to be no prescription: no topic, no religion, no judgment. He wanted people to talk as openly on the subject as they could.”

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John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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Characters Get Together

December 31, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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Wilshire Boulevard ca. 1959. Photo: Roger Wollstadt, via Flickr

There were extenuating circumstances. I was in LA for work, and I had known, intellectually, that it would be warm in California—hot, even. But when you’re deep in a New York winter, who really thinks to pack a sundress?

The lightest thing I had was a pair of jeans. So on a particularly Saharan afternoon, I ducked into a thrift store and grabbed a cotton dress off the rack without trying it on. When I got back to my room and changed, I noticed that the dress was brief. It wasn’t until I had donned my sandals that I realized the dress was in fact too small for me. Oh well, I thought. Better to look silly than to burn, as Saint Paul would most certainly not have said.

The bus let me off some distance from my destination. I didn’t mind; I like to walk. But I was the only pedestrian on that stretch of Santa Monica. Then, as the wind whipped my flimsy skirt up around my thighs, motorists started honking. One car slowed so the driver could catcall me.

If you think this is flattering—and no woman reading this does—think again. Read More >>