- Where did Chaucer get his writing done? In absolute squalor, apparently: “From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favor bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate … The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls … Meanwhile ‘a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall’; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and fecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory, you’d find ‘the occasional human corpse.’ ”
- A Christian publisher has pulled a best-selling memoir, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, after its author, Alex Malarkey, admitted that he made the story up. “I did not die. I did not go to heaven,” Malarkey wrote. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”
- When he died in 1989, John Cassavetes left behind a lot of unpublished or unproduced work—novels, plays, screenplays. Now his last project, a play called Begin the Beguine, has finally had its premiere, in Vienna of all places …
- Michel Houellebecq, Francophobe: “Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but—more unusually—a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind. He doesn’t ‘delight in depicting our follies,’ as reviewers like to say; he’s made miserable by them. French reviews and American previews of Submission might leave one with the impression of a sardonic, teeth-baring polemic about the evils of Islam, the absurdities of feminism, the terrible demoralization of French life. In truth, the tone of the book is melancholic rather than polemical. Life makes Houellebecq blue.”
- On Arthur Goldhammer, who’s translated more than a hundred books from French to English: “Translation is like forming any kind of human relationship … When you meet a new person you think it might be a friend, you are still sometimes wary, you are not completely familiar with the kinds of exchange you are going to have with this person, so you are more cautious at the beginning. Caution is one of the things a translator has to overcome.”
- Discovered on the walls of Angkor Wat: more than two hundred hidden paintings.
- An intimate new biography of Beethoven: “Suchet also presents ongoing reports regarding Beethoven’s gastrointestinal issues, which run through the book like an idée fixe. These begin with a description of the stomach pains and diarrhea that Beethoven experienced before his first concert at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1794, followed by periodic updates on his irritable bowel syndrome, bad digestion, irregularity, acute constipation, colic, distended stomach, and more … one begins to wonder whether the book might have been more aptly titled The Inner Beethoven.”
- On September 18, 1970, John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. They were all completely sozzled.
- An attempt to categorize poetry in translation: “It seems impossible and so it is. But that is why we try, and every time we try we establish a small area of possibility. In fact if we are doing it well we are doing more than that: we are establishing an area of possibility that is itself a poem and the world is never poorer for a new good poem, which is like a new piece of knowledge of the world.”
- Today in protein news: in praise of alpaca meat.
Last Saturday I caught a midnight showing of John Cassavetes’s Faces. Shot in LA in the mid-sixties, Faces is a movie about sex, booze, and aging—or, you might just as well say, about the faces of John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, and Gena Rowlands. It is absolutely sad, absolutely tender, and absolutely unsentimental. You won’t cry, and for days you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Not, at least, by reading The Pumpkin Eater (1962), Penelope Mortimer’s fictional account of her marriage to Rumpole creator John Mortimer: “We didn’t love each other as most people love: and yet the moment I have said that I think of the men and women I have seen clasped together with eyes full of loathing, men and women who murder each other with all the weapons of devotion.” —Lorin Stein
I’ve been enjoying Caroline Preston’s ingenious The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, a novel made up entirely of vintage images. It’s nifty and fun—but the plot moves along, too! —Sadie Stein
Jon-Jon Goulian on Robert Silvers, venerable founding editor of The New York Review of Books: “A man who can field a call like that with such composure is a man, you might say, whose head is still full of marbles, and yet that would leave open the possibility, inconceivable to me, that Bob might one day lose a few. That leaves only one alternative: Bob’s head contains one giant marble, one only, and you will have to behead him to make him give it up.” —L. S.
Maybe the summer is provoking more wanderlust in me than usual, because this week I read two novels about runaways. First up was Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. I moved on to Denis Johnson’s Angels. Reading it late at night in the immensely humid heat and borderline-nonexistent light of my tiny bedroom seemed to underscore every bizarre and frightening episode of Johnson’s book. —Natalie Jacoby
Prior to reading Terry Castle’s collection The Professor: A Sentimental Education, I was only familiar with her jaw-dropping Sontag reminiscences—but I’m sorry it took me so long: all her essays are that funny, pithy, and unexpected. —S. S.
Wesley Yang’s remarkable n+1 essay about Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter at the Virginia Tech massacre, is now available as a Kindle single. —Thessaly La Force
On the lighter side, I recommend our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on how to survive Disney World—minus the fear and loathing. —L. S.
A George Plimpton video game? —T. L.