The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language’

Bring on the Batemans, and Other News

March 25, 2016 | by

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in a still from American Psycho.

Beware the Mean Beach Attendant, and Other News

March 21, 2016 | by

From the cover of Ferrante’s The Beach at Night.

  • Our basketball columnist, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, has stepped over to The New Yorker to bid farewell to Kobe Bryant. And he’s a defender of Bryant’s poem-cum-retirement-announcement: “ ‘Dear Basketball’ was mocked by some, but it has more going on in it, from a literary perspective, than may be immediately clear. Not only is the narrative circular, with a changed perspective at the end, it’s also both an epistle and an apostrophe—a form of rhetoric in which the speaker addresses an inanimate object as though it’s a living thing. As both a basketball player and a personality, Bryant has always put extraordinary emphasis on the importance of craft. He has also always owed a debt to Michael Jordan, and this was the case here as well: Jordan, too, published an open letter to basketball in order to say goodbye to the game. But his was in prose.”
  • Today in parenting, Ferrante style: next year you can lull your sons and daughters to sleep with The Beach at Night, Ferrante’s new book, aimed at readers six to ten. It’s a sunny, feel-good story, suffused with light and hope: “The Beach at Night is a spinoff of The Lost Daughter, one of the author’s lesser-known early novels, in which a teacher goes on vacation in a coastal town and steals a doll from a child. In The Beach at Night, the doll isn’t stolen. Instead, she is abandoned by her young owner to face nighttime terrors such as the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, the Big Rake … ‘A Beach Attendant arrives, I don’t like his eyes,’ the doll says, according to a sample translation … ‘He folds up the big beach umbrellas, the chaises. I see the hairs of his mustache moving over his lips like lizards’ tails.’ ”
  • Geoffrey H. Hartman, whose Criticism in the Wilderness took criticism perhaps farther afield than anything before it, has died at eighty-six. “In Criticism in the Wilderness, he argued that criticism should not only stand on an equal footing with literature but also be literature … In elevating criticism to the status of literature, Professor Hartman did not mean merely that it should be well written. What he also meant was that criticism should function for criticism’s sake alone. ‘The spectacle of the critic’s mind disoriented, bewildered, caught in some ‘wild surmise’ about the text and struggling to adjust—is not that one of the interests critical writing has for us?’”
  • Reminder: art and commerce don’t really “intersect” anymore. They’re running parallel toward the horizon, forever. Want to go the other way? You can’t. Just ask young artists: “A few years ago … if you were a creatively minded person, you might have become a sculptor or a painter. Now you are equally likely to become the founder of a tech startup, channeling your creative ideas and risk into what is, ultimately, a business … A lot of young startup people are viewing their companies as an artwork … I think the creativity involved in painting, say, and that of tech are getting closer. The incredible risk—with vision and values—that artists once represented is now embodied in these tech companies. That has a real resonance for me. People can make a beautiful business or a beautiful venture.”
  • What compels a writer to abandon one language for another? Beckett, Conrad, and Nabokov all traded one tongue for another: “Some do it because they are intoxicated by the possibilities offered in a new language—the words and turns of phrase for which their own language doesn’t have any equivalents, the strange new rhythms and patterns of sound … Yet the adoption of a foreign language isn’t just about looking for a fresh perspective. It can signal a vexed relationship with the original language; the psychological burdens of a writer’s previous texts, his literary reputation in that language, the entire tradition in which he is working … Writers rejuvenate themselves by fleeing to foreign tongues. They escape all the psychic associations that gather around a language and a literary tradition. In a sense, it’s an extreme cure for writer’s block.”

Lovecraft Ghostwrote for Houdini, and Other News

March 18, 2016 | by

Houdini with an elephant, 1918.

  • Today in long-lost manuscripts commissioned by prominent escape artists: an expansive essay by Lovecraft called “The Cancer of Superstition” (sounds nuanced, doesn’t it?) was found among the memorabilia from a defunct magic shop. Apparently Harry Houdini conceived the project, which was, as its title suggests, a screed against every aspect of the superstitious: “Houdini had asked Lovecraft in 1926 to ghostwrite the treatise exploring superstition, but the magician’s death later that year halted the project, as his wife did not wish to pursue it … The document explores everything from worship of the dead to werewolves and cannibalism, theorising that superstition is an ‘inborn inclination’ that ‘persists only through mental indolence of those who reject modern science’ … ‘Most of us are heathens in the innermost recesses of our hearts,’ it concludes.” Christopher Hitchens would be proud.
  • In which Anakana Schofield enters the job market only to find that it’s been overrun with hyperbole and the bloated, dead, “aspirational” language of advertising: “I can’t save lives or fix broken pipes: I need a job with the potential for staring into space or reading Pinget on the side—a car park attendant seemed ideal. I found an advert online and immediately entered a car park of excessive adjectives. The parking lot attendant they were looking for needed to ‘Be a trail blazer … Be Bold, Open-minded & Entrepreneurial.’ I was puzzled. How does one ‘blaze a trail’ handing out change and scanning parking stubs and visa cards through a drafty hut window? … I left that car park with the new understanding that the language of recruitment has gone up several octaves but since I negotiate language for a living, I was undeterred. The next advert included the promising phrase ‘a front line ambassador’ … ”
  • America doesn’t need vacuous words like bold and open-minded. America needs y’all. “It sounds elegant, warm, and inviting. It offers both economy and an end to second-person ambiguity. Teach it in schools across the country. Mouth it to babies. Put it on end-of-grade tests … The possibilities are endless, and a simple substitution could actually solve a real problem in modern English that will only grow as we continue to examine how gender works in language. It could provide a better and gender-neutral word. It could relieve “you” of the impossible task of ostensibly functioning in so many roles, and maybe even along the way ease some of the regional and racial stigmatization of language and slang.”
  • Talking to Zadie Smith, Darryl Pinckney looks at the effect of memoirs like Margo Jefferson’s Negroland on the conventional narrative of black achievement: “I think one of the things Margo Jefferson’s marvelous memoir does is remind us that classed aspiration was at one time a radical act or a radical mode for black people, because white people didn’t want you to leave the plantation. They didn't want your barbershop to succeed. They didn’t want you to go to college. They didn’t want you to have Latin in college because they violated what DuBois called ‘personal whiteness.’ It wasn’t until the late fifties with the E. Franklin Frazier book Black Bourgeoisie that all this was demonized, that black middle class. DuBois also raked everyone over the coals for wanting to play golf instead of wanting to be in the NAACP. And then in the sixties, middle-class life became an optic of scorn anyway. So blacks were doubly scorned, for ‘trying to be white,’ which was a deep insult because these people had found a way to be black, and that wasn’t respected at all.”
  • Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1949 novel Cré na Cille was widely regarded as an Irish Gaelic masterpiece—so why are we only now seeing an English translation? “For almost seventy years, Ó Cadhain’s greatest work remained inaccessible to nearly all Irish readers, because it was written in Irish Gaelic, a language vanishingly few of them speak, and it had never been translated into English … Sáirséal agus Dill, Ó Cadhain’s publisher, took concrete steps toward putting out a translation. In the early nineteen-sixties, a contract was sent to a young woman who’d submitted a sample translation as part of an open contest. (A letter from the woman’s mother eventually came back: her daughter wouldn’t be able to finish the translation, she wrote, as she’d just entered a convent.) Sáirséal agus Dill next tried to entice the poet Thomas Kinsella to translate the book; though he was honored they’d considered him, Kinsella wrote in a 1963 letter, he was ‘sure it would be a very difficult job, especially since we’re talking about Cré na Cille. It’s not an exaggeration to say it would take years.’ ”

The Delinquents

March 10, 2016 | by

The language of debt and ethics.

Illustration: Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

When E. E. Cummings wrote “i am never without it (anywhere / i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done / by only me is your doing, my darling),” he was talking about a lover, but he may as well have been talking about a debt. For we are wracked with debt, especially with student debt, which last month the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported to be the second largest household debt category after mortgages. It’s also the debt category with the highest delinquency rate—perhaps because its balances are unpayable, given the way the global economy is stacked against the young. But still creditors wonder: How can they make their debtors pay up? The key may be in asking with the right words, and for the right reasons. Read More »

Some Unearthly Master, and Other News

March 10, 2016 | by

William Horton’s illustration in The Savoy No. 7. Via the Public Domain Review.

  • Brad Bigelow thinks of his blog, Neglected Books, as “one little step against entropy.” His reviews of forgotten or obscure books have led, in many cases, to publishers reissuing them, sometimes even in translation: “One of Bigelow’s favorite rediscoveries is Gentleman Overboard, a 1937 novella by Herbert Clyde Lewis, a son of Russian immigrants. Lewis grew up in New York, became a journalist, and eventually wrote Hollywood screenplays. The book’s protagonist is a steamship passenger named Henry Preston Standish, who slips on a spot of oil and tumbles overboard. Gentleman Overboard is a record of his final day and his fading hopes of rescue … The most accessible online edition was scanned from an old library copy, which was last checked out in 1950. That’s the same year that Lewis died, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-one. But Bigelow has saved Gentleman Overboard from going completely underwater: a few years ago, he recommended it to a publisher in Argentina, who decided to release a Spanish translation.”
  • While we’re on forgetting: Yeats wrote that his friend William Horton “has his waking dreams, but more detailed and vivid than mine; and copied them as if they were models posed for him by some unearthly master.” Despite the poet’s praise, few remember Horton’s drawings today—after some early success, his career, as Jon Crabb writes, found him listing toward occultism: “Horton was clearly immersed in the London occult scene during the 1900s, but in 1905 he also finally attracted the attention of The Studio, the era’s foremost journal of design and illustration. The September issue featured several Horton illustrations, which are of a more mature and less ominous style … Sadly, he published little after 1912 and, in 1916, suffered a mental breakdown after the death of his partner Amy Audrey Locke. In 1918, he was hit by a car and further incapacitated. He died in obscurity the following year.”
  • No one does compound words like the Germans do compound works. English speakers can only look on in envy as the Germans chain together nouns—Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, anyone?—with reckless abandon and effortless precision. Bruce Duncan picks some of his favorites and looks at the grammatical back end: “Both German and English can create compound words out of most parts of speech, not just nouns … My own personal favorite [is] Verschlimmbesserung. This construction doesn’t just present contrasting concepts. It also employs a playful use of German’s grammatical structures to tie them together. The word begins with two verbs—verschlimmern (‘to worsen’) and verbessern (‘to improve’). It then conflates their prefixes (ver-), and adds the suffix (-ung) to turn it into a noun. This process compresses an idea that only a wordy English translation can unpack: “an intended improvement that makes things worse.”
  • If you’re fluent in German, you’ll get more out of Paul Klee’s notebooks—thirty-nine hundred pages of which have just been digitized and released online—than I was able to. Klee used these notes “as the source for his Bauhaus teaching between 1921 and 1931 … His extensively detailed textual theorizing on the mechanics of art (especially the use of color, with which he struggled before returning from a 1914 trip to Tunisia declaring, ‘Color and I are one. I am a painter’) [and] … his copious illustrations of all these observations and principles, in their vividness, clarity, and reflection of a truly active mind, can still captivate anybody—just as his paintings do.”
  • Michael Wood on Orson Welles’s adaptation of Kafka: “It’s not that Welles has ‘a stunning visual intelligence and a numbingly banal view of human experience,’ as Joan Didion thought Fellini and Bergman had; but he does get extraordinary suggestions into his images, and he can become sententious in his words and plots. Welles fans are not enthusiastic about The Trial … But we can see Welles doing something new with his visual machinery in the film, reaching for social meanings of a kind he had not sought before. Welles’s Joseph K is a guilty man and proud of it, because he is not half as guilty as the evil system that closes in on him and kills him … In The Trial more than anywhere else we see how much Welles’s imagination has to do with space. A set for him is a location to be explored, and a location is full of stories.”

Mystery

February 5, 2016 | by

With all the controversy surrounding the renaming of problematic buildings, it seems fitting to draw attention to another bit of suspicious rebranding. Perhaps you’ve seen the BBC miniseries previewed above. “Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None,” is, of course, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians—which was originally, notoriously, released serially in the UK under the title Ten Little Niggers. (This was the British music-hall version of the minstrel song.) Even in 1939, this title was considered too offensive for American publication. Read More »