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Posts Tagged ‘Moscow’

Plimpton Worldwide, and Other News

April 28, 2016 | by

George Plimpton (left) with cat (right).

  • Jenny Diski has died at sixty-eight. Blake Morrison told the Guardian: “What I liked was her abrasiveness—she was tough, not least on herself. Whatever subject she took on—rape, depression, the sixties, Antarctica—she had something new and surprising to say … Some of the diaries and reviews she published in the London Review of Books were small masterpieces.” You can read those diaries here. “It’s as simple as pushing a button, and I’m lost in no man’s land,” she wrote in the last entry. “The insoluble grief. Not that there’s anything to be done about any of it.”
  • Prince’s early webmaster remembers helping him with the NPG Music Club, a crucial forerunner for social media, digital music, and artist-run distribution: “If he built his own online record label, his own online radio station, and his own online music store, he had just as much access to his audience as the traditional channels did. He finally had a way to skip all the barriers and go direct … This direct connection between the fans and an artist on Prince’s level didn’t exist before the NPG Music Club. There was no Twitter, Facebook, or even YouTube. At the time, he saw direct Internet distribution as a model for all artists. He would tell me, if you could build your own music club, why would you need to pay anyone else a share and give away all your fans’ information? Why not do it all yourself—downloads, concert tickets, streaming concert events, and even a hub for emerging artists? He was leading the way to a new artist-owned music business … For a moment in time, we had something special no one had ever seen before—and something prescient, that predicted some of the questions about online distribution and artist agency that would come later.”
  • Today in reality: Is it real? Do our sense perceptions offer anything more than impotent glimpses of the world outside our heads? “We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. If I see something that I think of as a snake, I don’t pick it up. If I see a train, I don’t step in front of it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally … I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind.”
  • When George Plimpton wasn’t editing The Paris Review, he was doing … almost literally everything else. “Plimpton was an omnipresence for much of American cultural life—both high and low—in the last third of the twentieth century. He appeared in commercials for Oldsmobile and Intellivision, and appeared in the movies The Bonfire of the Vanities and Good Will Hunting and on TV’s Married with Children. He was present when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, helping to tackle Sirhan Sirhan. He turned up as a character on The Simpsons. In a New Yorker cartoon from 1967, a man about to undergo surgery looks up at the doctor wearing a mask and asks, ‘Wait a minute! How do I know you’re not George Plimpton?’ That Zelig-like identity rested largely on a series of seven books in which the New York–born, Harvard-educated Plimpton threw himself both physically and intellectually into the professional sporting life. Decades before the onset of reality TV and the Twittersphere, Plimpton starred in his own Everyman story.”
  • As I write this, Moscow is teeming with horrendous art. So what, you may say—so’s New York. At least in Moscow’s case there’s a festival to blame: the Moscow Spring Festival, with a three-million-dollar price tag. “By Friday, the entire center of the city was covered with sculptures and installations, most of them far larger than life size. These included a plastic reproduction of the classic Russian painting Bogatyrs (featuring three Russian-superhero horsemen), the size of a two-story house; the head of a woman—also roughly the size of a house—in faux topiary, with a twisted hand growing out of the ground next to it; and a cartoon Soviet policeman, which was the height of a small apartment building. It was as if the city had been invaded by a horde of aliens with flamboyantly bad taste. The Moscow intelligentsia recoiled in horror.”

A Century of Censorship, and Other News

November 18, 2015 | by

Audrey Munson, in a still from Inspiration.

  • Our new anthology, The Unprofessionals, is out now. What does it mean to be unprofessional, you ask? In many cases, it’s as easy as spitting in someone’s food or showing up to work in bondage gear. But if you’re a writer, escaping the rising tide of professionalism proves more difficult. Fortunately, our editor, Lorin Stein, has some advice: “The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say ‘I.’ Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience … There’s a kind of realism—not just in stories, but in poems and essays—that assumes we live in dishonesty, that we lie to others and ourselves as a matter of survival, but that part of us knows the truth when we see it. That’s what interests me: the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority.” 
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard hears this voice, too: “The novel is an oddly intimate genre: at root, it is always a matter between two individuals, writer and reader, whose first encounter occurs when the writer writes—for in writing, the very act of it, there is always an appeal to a you, redeemed only by the insertion of a reader. This you may be inserted at any time, even hundreds of years after the event of writing, the way, for instance, we might read a novel written in seventeenth-century Spain, or eighteenth-century Russia, or early-twentieth-century Germany, and yet still induce the voice of the self to rise anew within us, remoteness dissolving. And that self may also reveal itself to us in the reading of novels from places geographically remote to us, such as China, Kenya, Colombia.”
  • A century ago today, on November 18, 1915, cinema saw its first nude woman, and people have been in a tizzy over sex and censorship on-screen ever since: “The bare breasts and buttocks of Audrey Munson, the actress in Inspiration, seemed to enter the public consciousness only obliquely. One contemporary critic wrote that the film was ‘both inspiring and intellectual,’ with Munson giving a performance of ‘innocence, modesty, and simplicity’; others noted that it was ‘daring’ and a ‘triumph of Film Art.’ One, the Daily Capital Journal, scoffed at the idea of anyone being offended by it. After all, it pointed out, this is a work of ‘extreme artistic and educational value,’ not a titillating striptease.”
  • Today in nests and nesting: in Zvenigorod, forty miles west of Moscow, there stands a cathedral with a wealth of rare printed matter hidden inside: letters, newspaper clippings, candy wrappers, banknotes, some as old as the early nineteenth century. For this horn of archival plenty, we can thank the birds: “flocks of swifts and jackdaws had built nests in the attic out of various bits of papers, dirt, branches, and trash that over the centuries came to form a considerably thick layer of preserved history … Other documents record the town’s civic, religious, and educational affairs; among the lot: bus tickets, delivery contracts, a county court slip, students’ notebooks and diplomas, parish registers, and even church confessional statements.”
  • The photographer Andrew Moore’s new book, Dirt Meridian, features ten years of his pictures of homestead sites, taken along the hundredth meridian line that runs through Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, where once pioneers were attracted by the Homestead Act. What’s there now? “Almost World Famous Dixie’s Café,” crumbling houses, Simon’s Schoolhouse Museum, and a lot of property that looks more or less the same.

The Book Cover That Judges You Back, and Other News

February 3, 2015 | by

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Anyone who regards this cover with an iota of judgment on his face will be forbidden to access it. Photo via the Guardian

  • Two “virile” bronze figures—a pair of totally ripped guys riding ferocious panthers—may be the work of Michelangelo, experts say. If their research is accurate, these would be Michelangelo’s only surviving bronzes. “In addition to welcoming new input from outside researchers between now and summer, those currently involved in the project will undertake further research of their own. Mr. Abrahams, for example, plans to meet with a bodybuilder to compare his physiognomy to that of the sinuous statues.”
  • Today in power reclamation: a book that judges you by your cover, thus standing up for books everywhere. “Thijs Biersteker of digital entrepreneurs Moore has created a book jacket that will open only when a reader shows no judgment. An integrated camera and facial recognition system scans the reader’s face, only unlocking the book ... when their expression is neutral.”
  • This weekend in Moscow, one of the Russia’s largest libraries, the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences, caught fire—but firefighters were able to save a quasi-miraculous 85 percent of the books. “The books did not suffer,” the director told the press.
  • A new biography on T. S. Eliot’s earlier years reassesses his marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood “as a union between two profoundly damaged people, each of whom believed they could be a healer for the other: a dire recipe for a happy marriage. Eliot wrote a good deal later that ‘all I really wanted of Vivienne [both of them sometimes used this spelling] was a flirtation or a mild affair.’ ”
  • Living in the Future is a magazine that “calls for rapprochement between the art world and the subculture of the science fiction magazine … The magazine embraces the strange and deranged aspects of science fiction which stand apart from the reasoned, cognitive tradition associated with the writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, with their engineer stories and defiantly flat characterization.”

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A Week in Culture: Sophie Pinkham, Moscow and Kiev

August 7, 2013 | by

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Slavicist Sophie Pinkham documented her week in NYC-based Russian culture for the Daily in April. When she returned to Russia, we asked her to diary her cultural experiences there, as well.

DAY ONE

In Moscow, I attend the opening of Lily Idov’s new exhibit, “Relics.” Idov took a series of photos at the Russian museums that tourists rarely visit: the Museum of Culinary Arts, the Museum of Darwinism, the Museum of Moscow Railways, the Museum of Cosmonautics. The photos are surreal, and often funny. A dummy astronaut gazes heavenward, starry-eyed; a dummy chef poses in front of a lacquered swordfish, looking perplexed. Idov’s photos remind us that the attendants are often the most interesting artifacts in these empty museums. A dummy youth in a train plays a guitar, one chord for eternity, as his live guard stands nearby, sphinx-like. A young woman gazes skeptically at a wax man wreathed in bagels. One elderly attendant looks as taxidermied as the crocodile he’s been assigned to watch. In fact, with his long white beard and weary expression, he looks rather like a taxidermied Tolstoy.

L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-GorskyDAY TWO

With two friends from New York, I take a day trip to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate. The signs are in Russian, English, and Korean, and our fellow tourists wear large bundles of leaves on their heads. The effect is festive, but also warlike. And what does it have to do, exactly, with Lev Nikolaevich? Tourism is its own civilization, with customs that can be understood only through intensive ethnographic research.

“Who are you, and where do you come from?” asks a surly attendant. We return to the entrance, pay for a mandatory tour, and put plastic baggies over our shoes, as if prepping for surgery. Our guide is an older woman with tinted glasses, bright red lipstick, and what is, one senses, a certain weariness with Lev Nikolaevich. There is a marked contrast between her fast, flat delivery and Tolstoy’s tortured moral ideas.

Lev Nikolaevich had sharp eyes that saw into a person’s soul the question that tortured him throughout his life was what is the meaning of human life what is truly in the human soul surely it contains great goodness

We examine the leather sofa where Lev Nikolaevich and his children were born. There was once a leather pillow, but it was lost in the war. Read More »

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A Dinner in Moscow

April 23, 2013 | by

Soviet_stamp_1975_30_let_RSFR_6kIn March 1975, a couple of weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday, I accompanied my girlfriend Tina on a trip to Russia. At the time Tina was a graduate student at the University of Essex pursuing a thesis on “Dostoyevsky and the Russian Orthodox Church,” under the benign supervision of the eminent scholar and translator Angela Livingstone. Londoners both, we had been living together for almost four years in the village of Wivenhoe near its estuary, close to the college campus, far from the big city and the disapproving glare of our respective widowed mothers.

My mother, a conscientious objector to interfaith relationships, had long ago banned Tina from visits to her home. “It’s bad enough you have to go out with someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said, “but why did you have to pick a girl with Christ in her name?”

“Her name’s Tina,” I had replied.

“And what do you think that’s short for, idiot?”

For her own part, Tina’s mother, dressed always in Greek Orthodox widow’s black, was opposed to our living together on moral grounds, which had, I could see, a superior logic.

Our workman’s cottage in Wivenhoe featured no bathroom, a decidedly unpoetic outside toilet, and walls so thin that the neighbors’ voices came through no softer than our own. The wife could be harsh. “Pick, pick pick,” we heard her yell at her husband as we sat down to eat. “You stick your finger so far up your nose that you’re gonna pick your bloody guts out one of these days.” Our kitchen table doubled as a work desk, and was covered with books by obscure (to me) Russian saints and philosophers, Tikhon of Zadonsk and Vladimir Solovyov among them.

Angela Livingstone was already in Russia working on a translation project, and she invited Tina to come and visit her. I tagged along for the ride. We booked onto a group tour through Intourist, the Russian travel agency: it was not easy in those days to move without an official guide in the Soviet Union. We planned a few days in Leningrad, to be followed by a train journey to Moscow, where Angela would meet us at our hotel and, we hoped, spirit us away from our minders. Read More »

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The Troubadour of Honed Banality

January 25, 2012 | by

Sergei Dovlatov (right) with Alexander Genis (smoking) at Novy Americanets office. Photo by Nina Alovert, 1980.

A., my girlfriend, is originally from Moscow. Her mother lives around the corner from us in Queens and throws dinner parties. It’s mainly an older, cultured ex-Soviet crowd. Lots of vodka, lots of overeating zakuski (appetizers to accompany vodka)—hours of nostalgic guffawing (Soviet jokes) and choral crooning (dissident songs and Stalinist patriotic rousers, with equal pleasure). Not speaking the lingo, I grin a lot—a genial, inebriated, slightly patronized potted plant.

The air of these evenings is thick with Russian irony and cultural chauvinism. Pushkin is beyond all criticism. “How dare you even pronounce his name with your filthy mouth,” A. will flare up, not altogether faking her indignance.

Or an old photographer-pal of Brodsky’s from Leningrad (inevitably old pals of Brodsky’s are present) will assert that Russian translations of Hemingway far surpass the originals.

This latter bit of flag-waving causes me to reflect that much of the literature that deeply influenced me as a writer I read in English translation. Foremost stands Isaac Babel, whose compressed, lyric violence overwhelmed me in my twenties. Then there was Bulgakov; even P—n’s fate-haunted tales. Later, in my early days with A., while she was away and I mooched disconsolately in her apartment, I read in translation Shalamov’s horrifying, degraded, flickering Kolyma Tales about his frozen years in the Siberian Gulag. I kept dropping the book and pacing away, moaning and clutching my head at the savagery, the unspeakable pathos. Then there were Cendrars and Simenon, Borges and César Aira (another alchemical Argentinean, rendered brilliantly by Chris Andrews) .

But, however good the English versions, there’s always in these books a slight straining—a hovering sense of idioms being just off. Read More »

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