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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

The Story in the Shadows: An Interview with Sjón

September 26, 2016 | by

Sjón. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Moonstone, Sjón’s latest novel, has been called “the gayest book in Iceland.” It follows the sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn, a queer hustler and cinephile whose life becomes upended by the Spanish flu of 1918 when the pestilence ravages Reykjavik. With the country fearful of any bodily contact, Máni can no longer pick up “gentlemen,” and the cinema houses are shut down. Máni finds solace in a new friendship with Sóla G, a beautiful feminist who rides a motorcycle and dresses all in black. When Máni gets tangled up in a sodomy scandal that threatens to humiliate the homophobic country, Sóla is perhaps the only person who can help him.

As with Sjón’s previous books—The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, and From the Mouth of the Whale—the magic of Moonstone lies in language. Máni Steinn doesn’t just love movies but “lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes he is replaying them in his mind.” Máni is illiterate, and as he struggles to read, “the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word, and might as well be a red cipher to which he does not have the key.” Sjón’s easy way with words goes back to the Icelandic sagas he devoured as a child. He has internalized the lyrical language of epics, myths, folktales, and religion—“the old great narratives,” as he calls them.

Moonstone has been praised all around, with David Mitchell calling it “Sjón’s simmering masterpiece,” and it has won nearly all of Iceland’s literary prizes, including the country’s most prestigious: the Icelandic Literary Award. Sjón and I met once in New York in 2013, to discuss his earlier works; this month he was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about Moonstone over e-mail. Read More »

My First Dirty Joke

September 23, 2016 | by

davidsearcy-story

Photo: Michael Philip Manheim.

Revisiting is what I do. I am a pathological revisitor, I think—my ex-wife ventured to suggest a time or two when, late returning from some errand, I’d admit to having taken an excursion into one of my old neighborhoods. I’m always driving back through my old neighborhoods, the places I have lived within the city from the time I was four until my early teens. The five great ages of my youth, as I conceive them—each as sweeping and portentous, as distinctly toned and lit as Thomas Cole’s five stages of Empire in that famous series of paintings. When I drive through—pretty slowly with the radio off and the windows open—I’ll get into this tour guide state of mind. I’ll fall into this line of patter, actually talking to myself as if into a little microphone. I don’t intend to speak out loud. But here I go. Read More »

The Quotable David Salle

September 19, 2016 | by

Dana Schutz, Frank as a Proboscis Monkey, cropped, 2002, 36" x 32".

Dana Schutz, Frank as a Proboscis Monkey (detail), 2002, 36" x 32".

Recently, thanks to heavy wait times at the twenty-four-hour Genius Bar on Fifth Avenue, I found myself killing an evening at the Plaza with nothing to read but the galleys of a book of art criticism, How to See, by the painter David Salle. It turned out to be perfect company—witty, chatty, intimate, sharp. And slightly exotic (at least for this reader): you rarely see novelists write so knowingly, on a serious first-name basis, about each other’s work. Soon I was dog-earing and drawing lines in the margins next to favorite passages, as for example:

On recent paintings by Alex Katz:

Some of the color has the elegance and unexpectedness of Italian fashion design: teal blue with brown, black with blue and cream. You want to look at, wear, and eat them all at the same time.

Read More »

My Motherland

September 15, 2016 | by

Finding—and writing—the worlds where only I had been.

Robert Walter Weir, watercolor, 8 15/16" x 6 11/16", 1825.

Robert Walter Weir, watercolor, 8 15/16" x 6 11/16", 1825.

In high school I was, like many American intellectual kids, a stranger in a strange land. I made the Berkeley Public Library my refuge, and lived half my life in books. Not only American books—English and French novels and poetry, Russian novels in translation. Transported unexpectedly to college in another strange land, the East Coast, I majored in French lit and went on reading European lit on my own. I felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.

Much as I loved my studies, their purpose was to make me able to earn a living as a teacher, so I could go on writing. And I worked hard at writing short stories. But here my European orientation was a problem. I wasn’t drawn to the topics and aims of contemporary American realism. I didn’t admire Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, or Edna Ferber. I did admire John Steinbeck, but knew I couldn’t write that way. In The New Yorker, I loved Thurber, but skipped over John O’Hara to read the Englishwoman Sylvia Townsend Warner. Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. Read More »

Three by Kafka

September 14, 2016 | by

A drawing from Kafka’s journal, 1916.

A drawing from Kafka’s journal, 1916.

Three what by Kafka? Truthfully, I don’t know how best to categorize the trio of prose nuggets below. I’m tempted to call them parables—each is succinct and appears to illustrate some truth—but Kafka himself undoes that notion in the first fragment, drawing a meaningful line between the lessons of allegory and those of real life. And yet Kafka’s writing is so effective because it plays within an area of overlap between the two worlds. The result, of course, is the Kafkaesque, a mode that is entirely unto itself. “It would be a fallacy,” writes Peter Wortsman, the editor and translator of Konundrum, from which these fragments are excerpted, “to insist that his fables and parables, or whatever literary label we may apply, are really about anything, i.e., that they correspond to states of reality extant outside the tenuous confines of a solitary psyche, or that they carry a clearly decipherable moral.” 

In Konundrum (forthcoming next month), Wortsman has gathered remnants of Kafka’s various writings—letters, journals, posthumously published and unfinished stories, newly translated tales—from which we have selected three. These jottings come from Kafkas’s posthumous papers, and each was titled by his friend, biographer, and literary executor Max Brod. —Nicole Rudick

 

CONCERNING PARABLES

Many complain that the words of the wise are always only presented as parables, useless in daily life, and this is all we have. When the wise man says: “Get thee hence,” he does not mean that we should go to the other side, a task we could in any case easily accomplish were the crossing worthwhile, he rather means for us to hasten to some fabled yonder that we don’t know, a place moreover which he cannot describe any more precisely, and which is perfectly useless to us here and now. What all these parables really mean to say is just that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and that much we already knew. But what we wrestle with every day, that’s something else.

To which a wise one said: “Why do you resist? Were you to follow the wisdom of the parables, you yourselves would become parables, and would thereby be relieved of the burden of everyday toil.”

Another one said: “I bet that that’s a parable too.” Read More »

Dating History

September 1, 2016 | by

How a book about Chinatown made me remember my first New York date.

Mott Street at night, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mott Street at night. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve spent much of the summer totally captivated by Tong Wars, Scott Seligman’s comprehensive account of Manhattan’s Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century. The book narrates the half century of history that followed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made it illegal for Chinese, known at the time as “Celestials,” to immigrate and become naturalized American citizens. Those who traveled to New York from the American West (the New York Herald described them as an “army of almond-eyed exiles”) often found jobs as laundry workers and, according to Seligman, not a few of them spent their evenings gambling illegally in low-lit basements or nursing serious opium addictions.

In Tammany Hall–era Manhattan, Chinatown covered the area between Mott Street, Pell Street, and the Bowery. The neighborhood was the site of violent battles between the Hip Sings and the On Leongs, gangs that fought each other using everything from hatchets to bombs. Doyers Street, the dramatic alley off Pell Street, saw so much violence that it became known as the Bloody Angle. (“More people have died violently at Bloody Angle,” the Times reported in 1994, “than at any other intersection in America.”) Read More »