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Posts Tagged ‘modernism’

The Discovery of Oneself: An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

July 1, 2014 | by

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Photographed by Matt Mendelsohn.

Last year, the French magazine La Revue des Deux Mondes published an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn about his experiences reading Proust as part of a special issue on “Proust vu d’Amérique.” We’re pleased to present an English version of the interview here, translated from the French by Anna Heyward.

In Time Regained, Proust writes, “In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself.” You read Proust for the first time when you were a Classics student at the University of Virginia. What did you feel then?

Discovering Proust was a real shock—the shock of recognition. I was twenty, and my encounter with this novel gave me a shock that, I believe, is felt by every gay person reading Proust for the first time. It was remarkable to understand that the unsatisfied desires and the erotic frustrations I harbored had not only been felt by someone else—much bigger news in 1980 than today, it’s worth remembering—but, even more extraordinarily, had been made the subject of a great book. And yet, interestingly, when I read Swann’s Way, it wasn’t any specific description of homosexual desire that touched me—that theme is treated much more fully in a later volume, as we know—but something much more general, the novel’s description of unreciprocated desire and, above all, the astounding revelation, or perhaps confirmation, for me, that desire can’t endure its own satisfaction. We see that exemplified in Swann in Love. When Swann succeeds in physically possessing Odette, when she ceases to escape him, his desire for her vanishes. For me, yes, that was a revelation as well as a recognition of something I was feeling in my own early erotic encounters.

And then I had another kind of shock. Thanks to Proust, I found a certain consolation in thinking that all artistic creation is a substitute for erotic frustration and disappointment. That art feeds on our failures. Back then, I remember thinking to myself, I can’t get what I want anyway—by which, at the time, I meant that it didn’t seem possible to have a fulfilled “romantic” life—so I may as well become a writer.

Some readers feel the need to dive straight back into In Search of Lost Time as soon as they’ve finished reading the seven volumes of the book. Was that the case for you?

No. On the contrary, when I read it that first time, and in fact every time I’ve read it since, I need time to absorb it, to let it resonate, or perhaps percolate. After a sentence, a moment, as magnificent as the ones that end  Time Regained¹, I find it difficult to return to any reading at all. You feel everything has been said. On the other hand, I’ve reread In Search of Lost Time about every ten years since I was twenty. I’m a little over fifty now, and so I suppose it’s high time I start my fourth reading. Read More »

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The Making of an American

May 14, 2014 | by

Carl Van Vechten shaped and burnished the legend of Gertrude Stein.

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Carl Van Vechten’s iconic 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s collection of experimental still-life word portraits split into the categories of objects, food, and rooms, and which—excluding a vanity publication in 1909, which she paid for herself—was the first of Stein’s work to be published in the United States. Stein had hoped that this enigmatic little book would be her big break, the thing to convince the American people of her genius. That was not to be. Tender Buttons left critics bemused and made barely a dent on the consciousness of the wider reading public. There was no great clamor for more of her writing; Stein would have to wait another twenty years to become a household name. Nevertheless, the publication of Tender Buttons is now widely regarded as a landmark in American literary modernism, the moment when one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century first unfurled her avant-garde sensibilities before the American public.

That moment would never have arrived had it not been for the work of Stein’s most important champion, Carl Van Vechten, the man who arranged for the book’s publication. Little remembered today, Van Vechten was a pioneering arts critic, a popular author of tart, brittle novels about Manhattan’s Jazz-Age excesses, an acclaimed photographer, and a flamboyant socialite whose daring interracial cocktail parties were a defining part of Prohibition-era New York’s social scene. But his greatest legacy is as a promoter of many underappreciated American writers, artists, and performers who went on to gain canonical status. Names as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Herman Melville all felt the effects of Van Vechten’s boost. His first great cause was Gertrude Stein. He did more than anyone else to carve her legend into the edifice of the American Century, arranging publishing deals for her, photographing her, and publicizing her work, a task he continued long after her death.

Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. “I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,” Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. “Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.” Van Vechten and Stein were strikingly different, led wildly different lives. Hers was rooted in the domestic stability she enjoyed with her partner Alice B. Toklas; his was an exhausting whirl of binges, parties, and pansexual escapades. But they had two crucial things in common: the conviction that Gertrude Stein was an irrefutable genius and a love of mythmaking, an obsession with re-scripting reality until they became the central actors in the fantastical scenes that unfolded in their heads. When Stein played fast and loose with the facts in her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, many were furious over her distortions. But Van Vechten understood that telling the literal truth about her life—or anybody else’s—was never Stein’s concern. Read More »

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Spring Fever

July 11, 2013 | by

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Six weeks ago, the world celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the premiere of Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) on May 29, 1913, and of the legendary riot that accompanied it. It was the culmination of an ongoing celebration. In the past year, orchestras around the globe performed the piece. Carolina Performing Arts sponsored a symposium featuring leading scholars, a puppetry performance by Basil Twist, and a new reinterpretation of Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s ballet, called A Rite, by Anne Bogart and Bill T. Jones. Mark Morris, too, leapt onto the reboot bandwagon with Spring Spring Spring, danced to a musical reinterpretation of Stravinsky by the jazz group the Bad Plus. So, too, did the German choreographer Sasha Waltz, with her new ballet, performed on May 29 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the very theater in which the original premiered. Indubitably great as Stravinsky’s composition was, there is no doubt that much of the work’s fame and the desire to mark its anniversary rest on the riot. The Rite may have created a riot, but it was the myth of the riot that made The Rite and much attention has been spent in recent months on determining just what the source of the riot was.

If we really want to understand that watershed moment, however, we might do better to recall a different anniversary. A hundred years ago today, on July 11, 1913, the ballet was performed for the first time in London. After the tumult in Paris, what must have happened in the conservative, even staid, cultural climate of England?  France, after all, had spawned Baudelaire, the Moulin Rouge, and Ubu Roi. London had sired Tennyson, the pantomime, and H.M.S. Pinafore. If worldly Parisians had rioted, surely parochial Londoners must have rampaged. Read More »

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The Dogs of Men and War: Charlie Newman and His Lost Novel

June 14, 2013 | by

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It is best to dispense at once with the salacious stuff of Charlie Newman’s life: he was a drunk, a bastard, and a boor. His marriages did not last. His books did not bring fame. When not poisoning his liver or relations with both family and fellow writers, he taught college, smoked a pipe, and trained dogs.

Only the very last of these facts is relevant when reading In Partial Disgrace, a fantastically odd posthumous novel for those who like their beauty strange, their plots unruly, their ideas ambitious. It has been patched together by his nephew Ben Ryder Howe—a former editor at The Paris Review–and released this spring by Dalkey Archive Press. The book is set in a fictional European land called Cannonia, its history based on that of Hungary but its name quite clearly derived from the Latin for dog, canis. The main character, Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, is a dog breeder, and there are roughly 0.7 references to the canine species on each page of this gorgeous mess of a novel, which is what Pale Fire (a novel Newman adored) might have read like if given a heavy-handed edit by Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Millan. Read More »

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Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: Modernists Go Off-Menu

January 2, 2013 | by

The opening scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times demonstrate the indignities mechanized factory production perpetrates upon the bodies of its workers. The first shot, of sheep herded into a pen, dissolves into one of men leaving the subway. They’re bound, the viewer assumes, for the kind of job in which the next cut finds Chaplin’s Little Tramp: working on an assembly line, his motions so repetitive that they become reflexive. He can’t stop twisting his wrists, as if to tighten bolts, even when he leaves the station where he tightens bolts all day. His body is so bound to the line and to the factory that the same boss who controls the conveyor belt’s speed also controls the movements of the Tramp’s body. Finally, the factory extends its control to the Tramp’s last autonomous function: eating his lunch.

A salesman so committed to mechanization that he lets a machine speak for him has brought to the factory boss’s office a prototype of “the Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work.” He asks the boss to pick one of his workers for a demonstration, and of course Chaplin’s Tramp is volunteered. Strapped into the machine, hands incapacitated, the helpless Tramp watches the machine rotate plates before him: soup, air-cooled between spoonfuls; corn, spinning on its cob; cubes of meat, pushed by a mechanical arm from the plate into his mouth; and finally cake for dessert. The machine promises to “eliminate the lunch hour.”

Even before the machine goes predictably haywire—speeding up, spilling soup on the Tramp’s shirt and cake in his face (always pausing, hilariously, to wipe his mouth)—it’s clear to the viewer that some kind of line has been crossed. Read More »

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Documenta 13

July 11, 2012 | by

Massimo Bartolini, Untitled (Wave), 1997–2012. Photo: Nils Klinger

Michelangelo Antonioni was not happy with the grass. This was the summer of 1966, and London was experiencing an extreme drought. The director had shot the pivotal scene in Blow-Up where David Hemmings photographs an unconsenting Vanessa Redgrave and her lover, and maybe, or maybe not, a murder at Maryon Park. But the grass looked terrible, scraggy and yellow, so Antonioni had the crew spray-paint it green, and then shot the whole sequence again.

Antonioni would’ve approved of the grass in Kassel, though. It was incredibly green, food-coloring green. The leaves, too. The city, at the northern tip of the province of Hesse, in the middle of Germany, is known for having been nearly obliterated by Allied bombs in World War II and for Documenta, the hundred-day international exhibition of 150 contemporary artists that takes place every five years. I was there with my girlfriend, Liza, for the event's thirteenth incarnation, but at some point, everyone I met would mention the destruction—whether to explain the city’s history of manufacturing weapons or the blocky postwar architecture.

The painter and professor Arnold Bode organized the first Documenta in 1955 in order to exhibit publicly the “degenerate” art that had been banned under the Third Reich. The work of prewar and wartime modernism was displayed in the ruins of the Fridericianum Museum, not just as an act of recovery but of testimony, too. This year, the director is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and the exhibition spread beyond the renovated Fridericianum to the main square, the train station, the Brothers Grimm Museum, the sprawling Karslaue Park, and more. There were paintings, installations, films, performances, lectures, seminars, and, as described in the press packet, “periodic activity.” I was there for three days, which is enough time to realize how little time that is, especially since this year Documenta extends beyond Kassel to Alexandria, Cairo, and Kabul, where ruins, recovery, and testimony are not distant concepts.

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