- “One cannot read a book,” Nabokov famously said, “one can only reread it.” That’s pleasant and all—certainly it flatters our sense of elitism, suggesting that “aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best”—but doesn’t it amount to sophistry? “No reader ever really takes complete control of a book—it’s an illusion—and perhaps to expend vast quantities of energy seeking to do so is a form of impoverishment … Is it really wise to renounce all the impressions that a thousand books could bring, all that living, for the wisdom of five or six?”
- Today in the age of mechanical reproduction: the Smithsonian is 3-D printing prehistoric skulls. They have no intention of trying to pass off the replicas as authentic—they just want to share more of their skulls with the world, and 3-D printing them is the easiest way to do so. “Still, the proliferation of replicas does stand to diminish the value of the real thing. The museums that own the original skulls depend on income from visitors and model making, so the Smithsonian will limit production and keep the skulls’ 3-D ‘blueprints’ to itself.”
- Great news for poets! Bots have obviated the need for your art. They are, in fact, your art. Condolences. “I was thinking of writing a poem about bots, but that’s already so ten minutes ago, and anyway, some bot has already written that poem. Does it matter? These days people are writing poems about fucking on volcanoes. ‘We fucked on a volcano.’ How does that help? … You can expand the poetic field to include ‘we fucked on a volcano’ or even ‘the whole week we fucked on a volcano,’ and you can expand it to include bots, and so what? It’s bigger now … everything is.”
- Relatedly: conversations between bots are nearly indistinguishable from Beckett plays. Bots are dramatists, too.
Z.: Then leave.
Y.: How did you know?
Z.: Just leave.
Y.: You leave.
Z.: I don’t even know how.
- New to the Oxford English Dictionary: twerk, intersectionality, staycation, presidentiable, SCOTUS.
After reading David Constantine’s story “In Another Country,” which the Canadian publisher Biblioasis passed along to me, I can’t figure out why a U.S. press hasn’t caught on to his work. He’s won a number of big prizes, including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award twice—last year, he beat out Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy, and Peter Stamm—and no wonder: this story has me wanting more. (Thankfully, Biblioasis will publish a selection of his stories next year.) The sentences are restrained, the tone muted. The remoteness between the husband and wife of the story is never described but is made palpable through the stillness in their interactions and the spareness of the prose, but the tension created by the slow unraveling of the past within the present is innervating: “What worried Mrs. Mercer suddenly took shape. Into the little room came a rush of ghosts. She sat down opposite him and both felt cold. That Katya, she said. Yes, he said. They’ve found her in the ice. I see, said Mrs. Mercer.” If you get excited, as I do, by stories in which very little happens, then this one is for you. —Nicole Rudick
In 1949, Niki de Saint Phalle and Harry Mathews eloped together, both a bit shy of their twentieth birthdays. The ten-year marriage that followed saw joy, sorrow, electroshock therapy, disapproving parents, reprimanding neighbors, two children, suicidal episodes, numerous infidelities, artistic awakenings, homes in more than four countries, and, ultimately, insurmountable growing pains. In Harry and Me: 1950–1960, The Family Years, de Saint Phalle chronicles their famous, tumultous relationship in verse and image. A remarkably generous portrait of their time together—it includes sidebars of text written by Mathews in response to de Saint Phalle’s account, in which he corrects and addends but never criticizes—this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the work of either artist. Their developmental years were spent in stride, and the naïveté that brought them together (and eventually drove them apart) was instrumental in shaping their artistic desires, particularly the whimsy and color that marks de Saint Phalle’s sculpture. Though the relationship ends, the children suffer, and the hurt never truly goes away, neither party, many years later, seems to regret the marriage. Instead, they go to bat for the young, reckless love that directed the course of their lives. —Clare Fentress
Lots of people are nostalgic for rotary phones and handwritten letters. Not so many have the same wistfulness for the telegraph. But William Saroyan’s “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,” from his 1934 short story collection The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, has left me rethinking the old teletype machine and its nuanced relation to our digital age. The story tells of two telegraph operators, who meet—virtually—by striking up a conversation over the wires. Saroyan’s depiction of the giddy thrill of instantaneous, faceless communication, in which half the fun is in the imagined possibilities, seems oddly anachronistic to the modern reader, but it also predicts the appeal of instant messaging and texting. From the first hello hello hello, the narrator realizes the untapped opportunity of his teletype machine as a personal device of contact, of love: “I had never thought of the machine as being related in any way to me … I began to try to visualize the girl. I began to wonder if she would go out with me to this house I wanted and help me fill it with our lives together.” —Chantal McStay Read More
You will likely have noticed by now the writerly fashion of building an essay by numbered sections. These sections can vary from just a single sentence to many pages. Sometimes a section will bear one or more indentations or line breaks and will stretch into a mini-essay. Sometimes there will be as few as three sections and sometimes there will be more than a hundred.
Writers, such as God, have been numbering sections for a very long time indeed, and I do not wish to suggest that this technique is new, rather that it is increasingly used. My proof is a general sense that this is happening, nursed into conviction by a robust confirmation bias.
Quite often these sections comprise a series of declarative sentences, near aphorisms, sayings that, breathed from the lips of drunks, would by most of us be taken in, swished around and then spat out.
These sections comprise wild declarative sentences, aphorisms, sayings that, belched from the throats of drunks, would be swished around and then spat out.
To take one example, “The only picture that it seems appropriate to paint in 2012 is a painting of people having their picture taken by famous paintings.”
Let America wonder about Untitled by Anonymous—I got my Madoff fix in Paris, from a profile in XXI magazine. A quarterly devoted to long-form journalism, with generous helpings of fact-based bandes dessinées and photo essays reminiscent of the old National Geographic, XXI has been a somewhat unlikely hit with readers and bookstores. The magazine runs no ads, has no publicity department, conducts no market research, has minimal Web presence, and offers no discount to subscribers. As cofounder Patrick de Saint-Exupéry explains, “The magazine’s worth what it’s worth.” —Lorin Stein
I’ve been reading Beryl Bainbridge’s last novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, which was published posthumously this year. It’s strange and bleak and interesting, a little disturbing. It’s apparently based on Bainbridge herself, as well as the mysterious woman rumored to have been involved in Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. —Sadie Stein
This weekend I plan to check out the Lucian Freud show at the Met. Freud, who died in July, once said, “I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.” He’s not for everyone, and that’s a good thing. —Cody Wiewandt
I’m currently working my way through this little audio treasure: forty years of Polish experimental radio. —Natalie Jacoby
I’ve been flipping through Nabokov’s annotated copy of Madame Bovary at the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library. If Flaubert’s prose doesn’t astound, then Nabokov’s illustrations of Emma Bovary’s chignon, his passing jibes at less than adequate translators, and the chronological maps of the author’s life will. —Mackenzie Beer
The relaunch of Take the Handle—an “online hub of rascalism, repartee & recreation”—includes short pieces by former Review editor Nathaniel Rich as well as an interview with the makers of Plimpton!, the forthcoming documentary of the Review’s first editor. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn
In Paris I found myself reading several postbreakup novels: After Claude (thanks, Sadie!), plus two books by Jean-Philippe Toussaint about a recurring ex-girlfriend named Marie. (My favorite, The Truth About Marie, comes out next month.) Toussaint has been described as a writer of nouveaux nouveaux romans, but he is dreamy and funny and haunted in a way all his own. —L. S.
The New York Post outdid itself with this piece of reportage. —S. S.