Next month, City Lights will publish Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, a series of reminiscences and miniportraits of modernist writers and artists—Blaise Cendrars, James Joyce, Pierre Reverdy, and others—by Philippe Soupault, a Dadaist who, with André Breton, wrote Les Champs magnétique in 1919, kicking off the Surrealist movement. Soupault’s sketches in Lost Profiles were originally published in French in 1963; this translation, by Alan Bernheimer, marks their first appearance in English.
The personal impressions Soupault provides of these “great” men, who comprise his contemporaries and his heroes, elucidate their individuality, the nature of their friendship, and essential qualities that underpin their artistic reputations. He writes, for instance, that critics’ use of the terms primitive and Sunday painter in describing Henri Rousseau perpetuated a misunderstanding of the man, despite his artistic success. The cause of the misunderstanding is simply that “no one has yet tried to depict the true personality of Henri Rousseau.” In his afterword, Ron Padgett recalls meeting Soupault in the seventies, when he performs the same service for his own literary hero, observing that Soupault’s “personal manner was a reflection of the lightness of touch of his best poems, a delicacy that is so artful that it never calls attention to itself.” —Nicole Rudick Read More
Evan Kindley and Joanna Neborsky both happen to have new books dealing with questionnaires. Kindley’s Questionnaire, part of the Object Lessons series, charts the history of “the form as form” from its inception in the late nineteenth century to its current apotheosis in our data-crazy present. Neborsky’s A Proust Questionnaire, meanwhile, revives one of the earliest examples of quiz mania—the questionnaire filled out by a teenaged Marcel Proust in the 1880s—for a new generation of confessors.
Neborsky is an illustrator and animator who has contributed to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review Daily, and has illustrated books by Félix Fénéon and Daniil Kharms; Kindley is a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Both live in Los Angeles. Earlier this month the two corresponded about questionnaires, using the Proust Questionnaire’s famous prompts as a basic framework.
I’ve long wondered—since we met that one time, at that party, next to the pretzel mix in a dark office courtyard—what do you consider the lowest form of misery? And why did you write this book? Read More
Looking for Proust’s muse in Paris.
After making a careful study of contemporary fashion plates, Baudelaire came to the conclusion that one couldn’t examine clothes apart from the individual wearing them. “You might as well admire the tattered rags hung up as slack and lifeless as the skin of St. Bartholomeu,” he wrote in his essay “In Praise of Cosmetics.” In order to “recover the light and movement of life,” clothes needed to be animated by a living body, and it was only on this living body that they were to be understood. One wonders what he would’ve made of the nascent trend of the fashion exhibition, in which the fashions of yesteryear appear on mannequins, those motionless abstractions of the human figure.
“La Mode retrouvée,” now at the Musée de la Mode in Paris, and coming in September to New York, uses clothes as a sort of Pompeiian ash in order to sketch the person who once filled them out. In this case, it’s the Comtesse Élisabeth Greffulhe (1860–1952), who was by reputation the most fashionable woman of her time. At her salon on the Rue d’Astorg, an integral part of the political and artistic milieux, she arranged for what was thought to be the impossible Russian-Franco alliance, as well as the reception of Fauré, Wagner, Isadora Duncan, and the Ballets Russes in Paris. Historians of the era have argued that no patron did more for music than she. And this at a time when, no matter the fact that she was married into wealth and rank, she had neither rights nor property as her own, as was the case for all women under the civil code of the Third Republic. Read More
“Never saw him write even the shortest note standing up,” Proust’s housekeeper Celeste Albaret wrote. Proust, it seems, spent the better part of his day—and the last three years of his life—in his spartan, cork-lined bedroom. He wrote, according to his biographer Diana Fuss, “from a semi-recumbent position, suspended midway between the realms of sleeping and waking using his knees as a desk.”
His bedchamber has been fully reconstructed at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris’s Marais neighborhood. This is apt; when forced to move from 102 Boulevard Haussmann later in life, the author was at pains to keep his environment intact. An exact copy, the Carnavalet installation is small and snug. According to Albaret, Proust wanted no distractions whatsoever from his writing, nothing extraneous in the room. Writing implements were arranged close at hand on a series of occasional tables; everything else was simple and unadorned. Read More
- Proust’s madeleine is one of modernism’s essential images—a cookie whose unique taste, whose absolute singularity, could conjure for the author a whole lost world. So it’s downright disturbing, then, to learn that the cookie was damn near something else: “A first draft of Proust’s monumental novel dating from 1907 had the author reminiscing not about madeleines as the sensory trigger for a childhood memory about his aunt, but instead about toasted bread mixed with honey … A second draft, the manuscripts showed, had the evocative mouthful as a biscotto, a hard biscuit.” Nostalgia is hereby ruined for everyone. Condolences.
- Rivka Galchen has been spending a lot of time singing lullabies, which has given her ample room to consider their origins, their mysteries, and the plangent sadness they sound: “What, really, is a lullaby? We can define it functionally—a song used to lull a child to sleep … Another function is to let the singer speak. Maybe this is one reason the lyrics of lullabies are often so unsettled and dark. One way a mother might bond with a newborn is by sharing her joy; another way is by sharing her grief or frustration … When even relatively happy, well-supported people become the primary caretaker of a very small person, they tend to find themselves eddied out from the world of adults. They are never alone—there is always that tiny person—and yet they are often lonely. Old songs let us feel the fellowship of these other people, across space and time, also holding babies in dark rooms.”
- Looking for a way forward, young writer? Embrace Ottessa Moshfegh’s scatological philosophy, and find truth in the ouroboros of your gastrointestinal tract: “My aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting. The process requires as much self-awareness and honesty as I’m capable of having. It requires the courage to be hostile and contradictory. My creativity seems to gain traction out of this relationship with reality: I hate you, I hate myself, I love myself, you love me, I love you, I hate you, ad infinitum. I am interested in my own hypocrisy. It provides the turbulence for me to change.”
- John Clare, cast off in the nineteenth century as a minor poet, is today one of our most essential, especially in his treatment of nature: “He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get. Clare seems to have benefited from few of the changes wreaked on the planet since the invention of the steam engine and cannot be blamed for whatever brought them about: he may be the last significant white Anglophone poet for whom that was true.” Accordingly, poets like Lisa Fishman, Matthew Dickman, David Morley, David Baker, and Donald Revell have opened up a kind of dialogue with him in work that directly addresses his own: “Clare’s apparently unorganized—but minutely observed—poetry looks like a model for poets who want to stay true to a material world while rejecting the hypotactic, well-made structures that earlier generations preferred.”
- You’ve probably spent hours in your toolshed puzzling over the etymology of monkey wrench—who hasn’t? Relief is at hand: you may now learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the history and origin of monkey wrenches, and their mystery runs deep. Charles Moncky, the alleged inventor of said wrench, is often believed to have inspired its name, but “he would have been only twelve years old in 1840 when the earliest known accounts of monkey wrenches appeared in print.” The answer may lie in a popular toy, the monkey stick—you decide.