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Posts Tagged ‘John Williams’

What a Good Book Can Be: An Interview with Edwin Frank

April 7, 2016 | by

In 1999, Edwin Frank founded New York Review Books to reintroduce out-of-print works—many in first translations from around the world—to the reading public. “From the beginning, it was our intention to be resolutely eclectic, and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue,” Frank told the New York Times last year. “We set out to do the whole mix of things that a curious person might be interested in, which would take you back and forth from fiction to certain kinds of history.” In the last seventeen years, you’ve likely picked up a New York Review Book—maybe because you were taken with its arresting design, or because you recognized a work you didn’t know by a major author: Walt Whitman’s unexpurgated Drum-Taps, say, or unpublished stories by Chekhov, or new versions of Aeschylus and Balzac, Dante and Euripides, or essay collections by Sartre, Lionel Trilling, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm.

Since its inception, the series has won dozens of awards for its translations; the New York Times chose Magda Szabó’s The Door as one of the ten best books of 2015. New York Review Books have met not just with critical plaudits but commercial success, which naturally leads the curious reader to wonder: Who is Edwin Frank, anyway? We met in his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn to discuss his process: how he finds the books he publishes and what provokes his interest. Frank has a soft-spoken manner and a reader’s excellent dispatch of vocabulary, but he clearly enjoys regular punctuations of loud laughter, provoked by his knowing, bone-dry sense of humor.

You’ve published two books of poetry. Has your background as a poet affected your tastes as an editor? 

Well you could say that reading and writing poetry saved me from ever being a professional reader or writer. I had a Stegner Fellowship after college, but the main thing I took away from it was a permanent aversion to the world of writing programs, and poetry is also a pretty effective inoculation against commercial publishing. And I was always sure that I wanted to have nothing to do with the academic study of literature. Then again, poetry did in some sense lead me to publishing—a kind of gateway drug—since in the nineties my friend Andy McCord and I started a small press, Alef Books, in which we published Joseph Lease, Ilya Kutik, Melissa Monroe, Michael Ruby. But that was a labor of love. In fact I came to editing very late, in my midthirties, which is unusual in publishing, a business people mostly go into right after college. It was a lucky break. I needed a job and I thought that having put out a handful of books of poems would make me of interest to publishers, which of course was dead wrong.
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Spoiler Alert, and Other News

February 16, 2016 | by

The Death of Chatterton

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, oil paint on canvas.

  • To die in literature is to achieve fictional immortality, argues John Williams. “Just a cursory list of memorable deaths (spoilers ahead) can make all of literature seem like one long Edward Gorey strip: Cathy in Wuthering Heights; Beth in Little Women; Piggy in Lord of the Flies; Cordelia in King Lear; more or less everyone in Hamlet; Leonard Bast in Howards End; Anna Karenina; and perhaps most agonizingly, the small children in Jude the Obscure.”
  • Conversely: “15 Books to Read if You Love a Shocking Plot Twist.” (At some point, Hamlet would have made this list.)
  • Stéphane Heuet’s controversial—but wildly popular—graphic novelization of À la recherche du temps perdu has finally hit the UK. One reviewer—a Proust virgin—finds it “a good and gentle place to start. Sumptuous, elegant and beautifully paced, it is completely absorbing. Will it send me to the real thing? Maybe, one day. But whatever happens, this volume is a work of art in its own right. I’ll be forever glad to have spent so much time bent over it.”
  • The following link is not included at all because it is illustrated by an image of a dollhouse. On the contrary, that is of no interest to us whatsoever. What is: a tribute to the late novelist Margaret Forster (she died February 8th) and her memoir, My Life in Houses. “As Forster moves from room to flat to house so the progress of her life reflects the pattern woven by childhood, academia, love, marriage, a career as a writer and then motherhood while a series of individuals who have marked her life inhabit the shadows within the structure of the bricks and mortar of the book. From her hard-working mother, her altruistic grandfather George, her two Oxford landladies, the imperious lace-capped Mrs. Brown, ‘straight out of Jane Austen’ and her tiny, deceptively smiley sister Fanny, who ran the house in a state of ‘suppressed fury’, to Sixties dinner parties at home with three of the four Beatles, each character takes up position fleetingly.”
  • Let’s just get it out of the way: you are about to read the words Mahler grooves. Besides everything else, this is sort of false advertising; Mahler does not groove so much as write a Sixth Symphony which has been widely interpreted—and reordered—by any number of conductors. The oiid app is pretty groovy, though: it allows you to effectively “step inside a performance,” exploring the recordings of a number of conductors against the score and, in the process, learn a new appreciation for the complex work. As Leonard Bernstein wrote, the Sixth contains “basic elements (including clichés) of German music, driven to their furious ultimate power. Result: Neurotic intensity, irony, extreme sentimentalism, despair … ” In other words, Tuesday. 

What We’re Loving: Atomic Weapons, Augustus, Ang Lee

August 8, 2014 | by

Bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, 27–25 BC

The bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, ca. 27–25 BC. Photo: British Museum

“I have worked in an atomic weapons depot, a Veterans’ psychiatric hospital and a perfectly awful mental hospital for juveniles, and in all of these places I did what I was told to do, and gave my notice when I had had it with the life they offered.” So begins Mike Kirby’s “Diary” in last week’s London Review of Books. With his description of making and testing bombs, Kirby shows you don’t have to picture the stuff a writer describes—you don’t even have to understand what he’s talking about—to follow his train of thought or remain under the spell of his voice. (And no, this staff pick has nothing to do with our special summer offer—but, yes, right now you can get a year of both the LRB and The Paris Review for $60.) —Lorin Stein

There are so many things about John Williams’s Augustus, the newly reissued winner of the 1973 National Book Award, that shouldn’t work. First, it’s an epistolary novel—a form that always stretches credibility, by my lights, because to advance the plot its letters must make long forays into exposition, and real letters seldom do. Two, it tracks the lives of white men who’ve been dead so long their names are shrouded in the dust of antiquity: they can be hard to tell apart. Three, it deigns to speculate on the inner life of the most famous of these men, the founder of the Roman Empire, and that kind of conjecture almost always seems presumptuous in a novelist. And yet Augustus is gripping, brimming with life. Daniel Mendelsohn’s smart, thoughtful introduction gets at why: central to the novel, he says, is “the conflict between individuals and institutions”—a fecund concern in any age. But none of its drama would bear fruit if Williams weren’t such a close observer of human behavior. “The concerns of this spectacular historical saga are intimate and deeply humane,” Mendelsohn writes. “Like the best works of historical fiction about the classical world …  Augustus suggests the past without presuming to re-create it.” —Dan Piepenbring

For forty years, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake in Fright was believed to be lost—the editor Anthony Buckley made it his mission to find a surviving print. It’s one of the most shocking and uncompromised studies of male degradation ever put on celluloid. By the end of the film, we’ve seen drunken fistfights, rape, and a gruesome moonlight kangaroo hunt; we’ve watched as a cultured schoolteacher comes to emulate the chauvinistic drunkards he despises. Though it was reviled upon its initial release, the film, along with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Tim Burstall’s Stork, paved the way for the Australian New Wave and gave filmmakers such as Fred Schepisi and Peter Weir the courage to make films like Mad Max and The Devil’s Playground. The Australia of Wake in Fright is populated by men who have become accustomed to the harshness of nowhere. Welcome to hell. Stay a while. —Justin Alvarez

Hot on the (platform) heels of last night’s seventies-themed celebration of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge at the office, I offer a rather different rendering of the age of synthetic fibers via Ang Lee’s 1997 adaptation of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. Set during Thanksgiving 1973, the film captures, with Lee’s signature precision, the full gamut of seventies escapism—and yeah, there’s a swingers party. But beneath the water beds and shaggy hairstyles, this is a movie about adolescence; its cast of teenagers wants desperately to experience adult life, and yet they’re utterly unprepared for the series of very adult situations in which they find themselves. The scene in which two characters question whether or not their parents will get divorced has an unforced, awkward closeness to it that rings true. Lee gets at something difficult to describe about coming of age: often it’s not a gradual process but a baptism by fire. —Chantal McStayRead More »

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What We’re Loving: Porto Pim, Montana, Cat Pianos

March 15, 2013 | by

Cat1

I am currently in Missoula, attending a conference at the University of Montana. At a welcome reception last night (in which we were treated to, among other things, some delicious bison meatballs), one title kept cropping up in conversation: John Williams’s Stoner. Why has this 1965 novel of loneliness and small lives acquired such a cult following? As one professor put it, “It captures academia perfectly.” (And since it’s one of my favorites, I felt at home right away.) —Sadie O. Stein

Thank you to John Glassie and Writers No One Reads for highlighting Athanasius Kircher, the seventeeth-century Jesuit priest and polymath who gives a whole new definition to “Renaissance man”: author, inventor, curator, Mount Vesuvius climber. While most of his ideas—covering more than seven million words, in Latin—are dead wrong (universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains), his poetic “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions are masterpieces of expression. On a section of an Egyptian obelisk now in Rome’s Piazza della Minerva, Kircher wrote:

Supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it, from whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and abundance of all things and variety of species arises. 

Unfortunately, he only wrote one book of fiction (1656’s Ecstatic Journey), and while most of his work is long forgotten, he was an influence on such writers and artists as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Marcel Duchamp. Not bad for someone who invented an instrument called the cat piano. —Justin Alvarez Read More »

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John Williams, Writer and Editor, Part 2

July 8, 2010 | by

This is the second installment of Williams' culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

DAY FIVE

Photograph by Justin Lane.

9:30 A.M. I read a profile of novelist David Mitchell by Wyatt Mason in The New York Times Magazine. I try to read anything Mason writes. He’s always sharp, and he was among the few critics who gave one of my favorite novels (It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick) its due. As for Mitchell, I want to read him in theory, but I’ve yet to feel inspired to actually pick up the books. I’m most interested in Black Swan Green, his semi-autobiographical novel, and by consensus his least formally inventive.

11:00 A.M. I read an excerpt from David Grossman’s forthcoming novel, To the End of the Land, at The New York Review of Books site. The novel is one of the fall books I’m looking forward to most.

11:45 A.M. I go back through several publishers’ catalogs to firm up a list of titles that I hope to assign for review on The Second Pass in the fall. I add Dinaw Mengestu’s sophomore novel, How to Read the Air, and the list is now sixty-five books long, which seems ambitious. I may have to prune it a bit.

4:35 P.M. I read the first few pages of The Art of Losing, a debut novel by Rebecca Connell that appeared in the mail last week. It’s being published in October, and I add it to the list for review. I realize this is the opposite of pruning.

11:00 P.M. The Criterion Collection recently released Make Way for Tomorrow, a 1937 movie directed by Leo McCarey, who also directed Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, and dozens of others. I watch it on my laptop. It stars Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as an elderly couple who lose their home to foreclosure. None of their children are able to take them both, so they’re separated. Legendary character actor Thomas Mitchell is great as George, the son who takes in his mother. Made in the wake of the Social Security Act of 1935, the movie, without being overtly political at all, unfolds like an argument for the importance of social safety nets. There are moments of real humor, but the overall mood is melancholy. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: John Williams, Writer and Editor

July 7, 2010 | by

DAY ONE

Photograph by Justin Lane.

7:00 P.M. Head to Idlewild Books in Manhattan for an event marking the publication of Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. The evening, like the book, takes the form of a conversation between n+1 editor Keith Gessen and the hedge fund manager. The latter was not in disguise at the event, but people who knew him kept creepily referring to him in code as “HFM.” From all I can tell, he has retired and moved to Austin, so I’m not sure why the anonymity is so important. He looks like a “Steve” to me. Maybe an “Andy.”

10:30 P.M. I've enjoyed the culture diaries contributed by other people, and it's been interesting to see their different approaches. Like Rita Konig, I've mostly chosen to focus on a few things a day that captured my prolonged attention. I flip through Reality Hunger by David Shields again. I have extensive notes for a review, but I need to put them together. Several of these notes are just quotes from Shields’ many promotional interviews, almost all of which have annoyed me as much as the book did. I also take a look at the first few pages of Shields’ Black Planet, his chronicle of the 1994-95 season of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, lent to me by a friend. Planet is a better read than Reality Hunger, but I won’t know how much that says until I get through more of it.

11:58 P.M. Before going to bed, I check the night’s baseball box scores on ESPN.com. For six months a year, this is a nightly ritual.

DAY TWO

11:30 A.M. I’ve been reading Jackson Lears’ Something for Nothing: Luck in America, partly because I’ve been meaning to for years and partly because I’m treating it as research for a potential writing project of my own. The tone is somewhere between generalist and academic, and halfway through I’m enjoying it and finding it useful, particularly the early sections on early-American religious attitudes toward gambling.

1:15 P.M. I go to Andrew Sullivan’s blog to catch up on the last few days. I’ve been visiting the site less often lately for various reasons—I’ve been busy; reading about Sarah Palin at length is depressing even when you agree with the writer; etc.—but probably three million times since he launched it.

7:30 P.M. I go to the IFC Center with my girlfriend to see the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Following an obsessed person around for a while is a reliable documentary formula, and Rivers, at seventy-five, remains obsessed with her career. She’s still funny, maniacally driven, and poignantly unsatisfied.

11:30 P.M. Read a little more of Something for Nothing and write some notes about my own project. Listen to Astral Weeks by Van Morrison while doing it. Read More »

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