The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘legend’

What We’re Loving: Captain Kentucky, John Henry, Plagues

December 7, 2012 | by

I picked up Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead when it was first reissued in 2010 but then had to put it aside. I began it again—and finished it—last week, and I’m so glad I did. The novel, originally published in England in 1954, concerns the Willoweed family and their reactions to an outbreak of madness and suicide in their small village. Its humor is by turns black and light, its characters morbid and delightful. An aberrant pastoral as smart as this one could only come from someone with a biography as nutty and wonderful as Comyns’s. A painter by training—she exhibited with the London Group—Comyns married and had two children. To support them, “she dealt in antiques and vintage cars, renovated apartments, and bred poodles. She later lived in Spain for eighteen years.” —Nicole Rudick

Brain still humming with Elaine Blair’s brilliant essay on David Foster Wallace, I read his own long 1990 review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, now reprinted in Both Flesh and Not. So much has been written about Infinite Jest, but for me these two essays together do the best job of describing what’s at stake in that novel—morally, philosophically, artistically. Among other things, Wallace reveals his debt to Stanley Cavell (a teacher whose influence he later played down) and his raw-nerved engagement with feminist criticism. At times, too, “The Empty Plenum” reads like a sort of preemptive rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in The New Yorker. Wallace may not have been the sage we wished for, but as Blair writes, he “worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods.” —Lorin Stein

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Open Sesame

September 19, 2012 | by

Artist: John Gagliano

A writer stands outside a story yelling, “Open Sesame!” and the story, as if a seed, opens. And treasure is found inside. That treasure, of course, is just another story, and it all begins again…

Or else, say the writer is no different from any other of his tribe—say he’s actually a thief. And the story is no story, but really a mountain. “Open Sesame!” (this writer continues)—the mountain opens and my meaning is revealed.

A version of this nonsense—this magician’s stage business—occurs in the tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” popularly known from the One Thousand and One Nights.

But Ali’s tale is not to be found in the oldest manuscripts of that collection. Some scholars believe it to be the invention of one Youhenna Diab, known as Hanna of Aleppo, an Arab Christian storyteller said to have communicated it to Antoine Galland, the first translator of the Nights into French. Others argue for a purely Western source, and believe that Ali is the incorrupt fiction of Galland himself (though Richard Burton, the first translator of an unexpurgated Nights into English, claimed that Ali was to be found in an Arabic original, a mythical manuscript often forged but never found).

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