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Posts Tagged ‘London Review of Books’

Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October

March 6, 2015 | by

Ilf-Petrov005

Ilf and Petrov.

In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Phillips conducts a restless interrogation of conscience, that most eminent and most frustrating of moral constructs. We take it as a given, Phillips points out, that self-criticism has some purgative or ameliorative influence, that it moves us to better ourselves. But it’s more often an exercise in a kind of self-slavery: “We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer.” Why do we put such stock in our superego, who is, after all, mainly a reproachful asshole? “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.” There follows a fascinating Freudian reading of Hamlet, a meditation on cowardice, and a careful deconstruction of the superego, from whose ridiculousness Phillips draws an inspired conclusion. “Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous,” he writes, “so we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are radically dangerous to ourselves and others.” —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw the first installment of Knausgaard’s travelogue for the New York Times Magazine, I thought of Ilf and Petrov’s American Roadtrip, their account of driving around the U.S. for ten weeks in 1935. But in truth, the two chronicles have little in common. Where Knausgaard is expansive and self-seeking, Ilf and Petrov are witty and concisely observant. “And on a chilly November morning we left New York for America,” they write, later finding the archetype of the American landscape at “an intersection of two roads and a gasoline station against a ground of wires and advertising signs.” Both Ilf and Petrov had experience in journalism—they met while working for the proletariat magazine Gudok—but I hadn’t read this early work until this week, when I saw Steven Volynets’s translation in Asymptote of a 1923 feuilleton by Ilf called “A Country That Didn’t Have October.” It’s an atmospheric recitation of the waves of occupation and retreat in Odessa during the civil war and World War I. Volynets calls it an “atomization” of the city’s fervor, and I was frequently reminded of Mayakovsky’s brash, agitated poems. Of 1917, Mayakovsky writes, “The drum of war thunders and thunders. / It calls: thrust iron into the living,” to which Ilf adds a description of the “worker provinces … where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The [revolutionaries’] gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.” —Nicole Rudick

If you liked Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams or Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, try Steven Church’s latest collection, Ultrasonica group of essays brought together by the theme of sound. Church at times seems to say, I make noise, therefore I am. He dissects the nature of sound waves in a racquetball court, counts the seconds between lightning and thunder, and listens for signs of life from trapped Chilean miners—and his digressions invariably come back around to sucker punch you. Church uses sound to explore notions of masculinity and fatherhood, love and death. He elaborates on his methods and inspirations in an interview with Jacket Copy: “I did a Google search for ‘blue noise’ … I read a sentence that said, ‘Blue noise makes a good dither,’ and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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Anne Hollander, 1930–2014

July 9, 2014 | by

seeing through clothes

Anne Hollander, whose acute writing on fashion, costume, and style infused those subjects with a new intellectual energy, died on Sunday at eighty-three. As the Times reports, “She argued that clothing revealed far more than it concealed—about art, about perceptions of the body and ourselves—and her interests spanned centuries and mediums.”

Hollander conducted—or co-conducted; she shares the credit with John Marquand—The Paris Review’s first Art of Theater interview, with Lillian Hellman, published in 1965. Back then, her contributor’s note read modestly, “Anne Hollander designs costumes, paints, and translates occasionally.”

A little more than a decade later, in 1978, she published her first book, the brilliant (and brilliantly named) Seeing Through Clothes, a history of clothing and a study of representations of the body in Western art. The book was full of offhand wisdom about what you could call our philosophy of dress: “People seem always actually to know,” Hollander wrote, “with a degree of pain that has required the comfort of fairy tales, that when you are dressed in any particular way at all, you are revealed rather than hidden.” The book took a while to find its audience, but, as one critic noted, it “pushes erudition to the point of originality. The thoroughness with which she examines Western art and clothes has precipitated a new subject: how painting, sculpture and photography mediate between bodily ideals and what we wear.”

Over the next decades, her reputation grew and she published a succession of well-received books, including Moving Pictures and Sex in Suits; she wrote essays for a number of magazines, including The London Review of Books. Not much of Hollander’s writing is available online, but she was, for a time in the late nineties, the fashion columnist for Slate, which has curiously yet to publish a remembrance. Her pieces there have aged well; a column from February 1997—“A Loss for Words: Why there’s no good writing in fashion”—is just as true nearly twenty years later:

Fashion journalists and sensational fictioneers like Danielle Steele have co-opted the field, and other writers are scared off. Fashion now seems like a club with a private jargon that leaves no room for the play of sensitive literary exposition. And good critical writing about clothing hardly exists at all. There is no tradition of clothes criticism that includes serious analysis, or even of costume criticism among theater, ballet, and opera critics, who do have an august writerly heritage. This fact may be what makes the fashion journalist hate her job—the painful sense that real work cannot be done in this genre, that it would be better, more honorable, to be writing about something else.

But Hollander didn’t write about something else, thankfully. She expanded the rhetoric and insight of criticism about style, engaging where most writers thought there was nothing to engage with.

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What We’re Loving: Eccentrics, Cult Figures

August 3, 2012 | by

All month I’ve found myself recommending Perry Anderson’s series in the London Review of Books on the birth of modern India. Anderson is hardly a well-kept secret; he is about as renowned as a Marxist historian can be. Still, his in-depth articles—on China, Russia, Italy, et cetera—are like nothing in any other magazine. Imagine the old Encyclopedia Britannica as written by the God of the Old Testament. He lays about him with a mighty hand. —Lorin Stein

I like biographies for beach reading. (And by beach I mean the roof of my building.) Lisa Cohen’s All We Know—a joint study of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland, and a vivid portrait of between-the-wars bohemia—is just the thing: substantive, thoughtful, and juicy enough that you’ll risk a burn to find out what happens next. —Sadie O. Stein

If you are an eccentric, you will be thrilled to know that there is a club for you. It’s called, rather plainly, The Eccentrics Club. It’s based in London, was founded in 1781, and still exists. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t—it’s patronized by the Duke of Edinburgh, no less. The club’s stated mission is to promote, presumably just among eccentrics, “Good Fellowship” and “True Sociality”—“virtues which,” according to the club's rules and regulations of 1808, “are now getting rare and eccentric; but which it is the wish and intent of this Society to cherish within their narrow circle to the utmost of their power … in the occasional enjoyment of  ‘the feast of reason and the flow of soul.’” If you aren’t quite sure whether or not you qualify, do not fret, as the Society has a useful page to help you diagnose yourself. If you discover that you are in fact an eccentric, don’t get too excited: admission to the club is by interview only. —Arthur Holland Michel

Searching for Sugar Man—the story of Detroit cult singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his unlikely second act—is a solid, pleasurable documentary that I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys crying alone at movies (I do). But even if you don’t catch it, check out the sound track: composed entirely of the subject’s own music, it makes a strong case for his place in the early-seventies canon. I’ve had Cold Fact on repeat for the past week. —S.O.S.

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Frank Kermode (1919-2010)

September 7, 2010 | by

The writer and critic Frank Kermode, who died last month at the age of 91, was, for the many colleagues and readers who loved and admired him in America and England, sui generis. Over more than sixty years, in more than fifty books and hundreds—no, thousands—of vigorous, elegant review articles, not to mention his classes and lectures, we came to know his never-failing equipoise; his stupendous literary, scholastic and philosophical learning; and a precision and lightness of touch that gave even his most difficult work an aura of grace. What was he up to? He was much more than a professor of literature, as his label described him, however high-minded and admirable that profession may be. For one thing, he disregarded the usual boundaries, teaching and writing about literature from the Renaissance to the present day—dramas, novels, histories, letters, scriptures, poetry. He analyzed the way criticism of various genres evolved, how readers and writers treated novelty or adhered to tradition; he instructed us on the many strategies developed for trying to understand what writers of this poem or that narrative meant to say—wie es eigentlich gemeint, to paraphrase the great Ranke. And he gave us unforced judgments on the greatest literary works ancient and modern, whose breathtaking splendors, which he clearly loved, he taught us to comprehend.

Where did this amazing person come from? Who was he? In a fine memoir composed in his seventies, Not Entitled, Kermode wrote about his childhood in Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, where his father was a grocery clerk and his mother a café waitress. It’s all there in his early years, of course, or a lot of it—the mother with no parents, no family, no past, but with a rich sense of language, both Manx and English, along with a practiced, lively social style that was deferential to strangers yet easy with them, to whom Frank owed, as he put it, not only his “early training in politeness and motiveless civility” but also the “association of gaiety with terror, giggling with desolation”; the father, well-liked, very hardworking, strong, hot-tempered yet anxious, whose characteristic “patient good humour” was eventually destroyed by “disappointment, hard labour and diabetes.” And then there was their oblique, many-layered awareness of England as a foreign governing power, and their attachment to the Anglican Church, which conveniently signaled that the Kermodes were not, in the Manx world, either low-born “dissenters” or, worse, Irish Catholic. These were parents who didn’t quite know what to do with their mysteriously gifted though clumsy and short-sighted son, except to complain about him (his father) or push him to try harder (his mother). If nothing else, they taught Frank “what it meant to work, however unseasonably, however against the grain.” Read More »

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