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Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges’

In Praise of Minor Literature

July 8, 2016 | by


Houseboats by the Thames.

Some of the writers and books I hold in the highest esteem were discovered en passant: buried in the archives of a little-read blog; mentioned in a thirty-year-old essay devoted to more prominent writers; planted near the end of a long list on Wikipedia. (Idleness and obsession are the impetus for most of my discoveries.) Most of these books are rare tastes, not even well known for not being well known. They are not likely to come up at dinner parties, and they are not part of any canon or curriculum. I don’t get any credit for having read them. They are what some people call minor. 

What does it mean to be minor? It’s not the same thing as being obscure. Leon Forrest’s oeuvre is a megalith, but there seem to be about six of us who have read him. Nor is a minor writer a bad writer. Guy Davenport proposed that Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, and Michael Gilbert were all “impeccable stylists” but also, next to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, and Proust, incontrovertibly minor. Davenport, a self-described minor prose stylist who was great enough to be genuinely self-effacing, said that “the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying.” When judged by this standard, he suggested, even Borges and Poe were minor, since “a Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them.” Read More »

Attack of the De-Constructivists, and Other News

June 15, 2016 | by

Rusakov Workers’ Club in Moscow by Konstantin Melnikov, 1927–28.

  • In Moscow, meanwhile, constructivist landmarks are suddenly slated for demolition as Russians struggle to decide which parts of their past are worth preserving: “ ‘They operate by ticking boxes, but you cannot judge a building in this way,’ says Marina Khrustaleva, an expert on constructivism … ‘By the 1930s, [constructivist buildings] were already rejected for being insufficiently decorative and too western,’ says Khrustaleva. During perestroika, she adds, the architecture was associated with the worst of the Soviet past … Russians’ bad memories of the 1920s, [Alexandra] Selivanova suggests, keep them from appreciating early Soviet architecture. ‘People associate this period with hunger and social experiments,’ she says. Stalinist architecture is more popular: ‘It’s festive and reminds people of the propaganda films of the 1930s and 1950s, which still make an impact today.’ ”
  • And while we’re on comedy: “Punching up and punching down are relatively new pop-political terms … So it should come as no surprise that they have become entangled with our current national panic over political correctness, which, apparently, not only has created a ‘humor crisis,’ but also is why we can’t properly fight terrorism, control immigration, or make unruly college students read Alison Bechdel and eat faux bánh mì. Western democracy itself hangs in the balance, depending on who happens to be lecturing you at the moment … The question it raises—Who has the moral authority to punch down?—is a messy one, and one rarely asked of those who appear to punch up.”

An Indulgence of Authors’ Self-Portraits

March 24, 2016 | by

Philip Roth

“An Indulgence of Authors’ Self-Portraits” appeared in our Fall 1976 issue, the same year Burt Britton’s book Self-Portraits—Book People Picture Themselves was published. Britton’s book displays his collection of self-doodles by famous authors, artist, athletes, actors, and musicians, much of which was sold at auction in 2009. “So what does Mr. Britton look like?” asked the New York Times in 2009. “He refused to be photographed.” —Jeffery Gleaves

One evening fifteen years ago Burt Britton (now head of the Review department at the Strand Bookstore) and Norman Mailer were sitting together in the Village Vanguard where Britton then worked. On impulse, Britton asked Mailer for a self-portrait. Mailer complied—the first of a collection which began to fill the pages of a blank book in the Strand. These were done by friends—primarily writers—who entered their drawings and salutations when they visited the store. No one has refused him a self-portrait. When he remarked on James Jones’ generosity, Jones explained, “Burt, for Christ’s sake, I wouldn’t be left out of that book!”

As his collection grew, Britton was approached by a number of publishers, but always refused publication on the grounds that the self-portraits were the property of his private mania. But recently Anais Nin and others have persuaded him to let others in on how writers view themselves. Random House will publish the entire collection this fall under the title, Self-Portraits—Book People Picture Themselves. Many of the portraits reproduced here are by writers who have been published and/or interviewed in this magazine.  Read More »

The Borges Memorial Non-Lending Library of Imaginary Books

March 24, 2016 | by

A brief survey of fictional books.

Erik Desmazières, Library of Babel.

I’m soon to move across the country, and surveying my bookcases—the three in the living room and the three in the bedroom, plus the unshelved piles that crop up from any flat surface—fills me with dread. The only cure, I’ve found, is to let my thoughts wander to another, even larger literary collection, a kind of underworld reflection of the one all around me. The books in this second collection are not all fiction, but they are all fictional. I’m imagining a place the late Umberto Eco might appreciate: the Borges Memorial Non-Lending Library of Imaginary Books. Read More »

Empty Your Own Chamber Pot, and Other News

January 7, 2016 | by

Tolstoy’s family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, ca. 1905.

The Phantoms of the Fifteenth Arrondissement

December 28, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


Caillois ca. 1975. Photo: R. Minnaert

In an unremarkable section of Paris, Roger Caillois saw hiding places for “floating beings.”

Pity the Fifteenth! Paris’s most populous arrondissement is also one of its least celebrated. Stretching from the Front de Seine high-rises in the northwest to the Tour de Montparnasse in the southeast, the Fifteenth is sleepy, residential, and architecturally undistinguished. Home to minor government agencies and the headquarters of various corporations, its streets and thoroughfares are named for military officers, former colonial possessions, inventors, and Émile Zola, France’s dullest great novelist. Rue des Entrepreneurs intersects Rue de Commerce, where it branches off into Rue de l’Église and Rue Mademoiselle, which gives a good indication of what was on the minds of the men who incorporated the small suburban villages of Grenelle, Javel, and Vaugirard into the metropolis in the early years of the Second Empire. To make matters worse, the Fifteenth is tantalizingly adjacent to some of Paris’s genuine landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, located just across the Avenue de Suffren in the Seventh, the Cimetière Montparnasse, on the other side of the neighborhood’s eponymous and much-reviled skyscraper, or the tony apartment buildings on right bank of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.

Yet this is Paris, and even the most unremarkable stretches of Zone 1 have their devoted mythographers. Born in 1913 in Reims, the jack-of-all-genres Roger Caillois knew something about being fame-adjacent. If you were to look at the faded group photographs of some of the most important avant-garde literary movements of the twentieth century, you would see him, in the background, with his thick eyebrows and chubby cheeks, manuscript in hand, ready to launch into a lecture about his latest intellectual obsession: mimicry, ludology, the sacred, gemstones, secret societies, science fiction, the City of Light. As a student at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études, Caillois became acquainted with the works of pioneering philosophers and anthropologists like Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss. He was a member of the surrealists until a disagreement with André Breton over the nature of a Mexican jumping bean got him kicked out of the movement. He went on to found a discussion group, the Collège de Sociologie, with fellow excommunicant George Bataille, contributing articles to Bataille’s journal Acéphale while skipping the meetings of his secret society, one of which notoriously involved a serious discussion about a ritual sacrifice of one of the members. Walter Benjamin loathed him, but nevertheless included several citations from his writings on Paris in The Arcades Project. In Buenos Aires, where Caillois, a militant antifascist, spent the war years, he met Victoria Ocampo, the editor of the journal Sur. Ocampo was responsible for publishing some of the leading lights of what would become known as the Latin American Boom. Upon his return to France, Caillois took up a position at UNESCO, using his influence there to introduce the French reading public to his new friends Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Silvina Ocampo. Read More >>