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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

On Paul Metcalf’s Genoa

July 29, 2015 | by

Metcalf’s “poeticized collage” reckons with his great-grandfather, Herman Melville.

Paul Metcalf

It is extremely rare, these days, to encounter something that feels completely new. That is, most literary artifacts are pretty easy to slot into one format or the other.What a gift then, what a rare, beautiful turn of events when you stumble on a book that seems to come from some spot entirely its own. What a gift, the moment in which you must summon all your readerly resources to grasp the enormity of what you are encountering, to see the pages as they are. I can count these reading experiences on one hand, and in each case I was somehow improved,made better as a reader (Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, by Bruno Schulz; The Recognitions, by William Gaddis; The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald; The Beetle Leg, by John Hawkes). Often the reason we read is in the hope of having these experiences of the truly, unmistakably original.

Paul Metcalf is one of these original writers. A writer who had to follow his own path, at significant cost to himself, over many decades, without a large following. A writer who took the forms that were at hand and shook them up, recast them, repurposed them, so that a traditional approach, after beholding his model, seems almost ludicrously simplistic. A writer of the new, the surprising, the arresting. Read More »

All’s Fair

July 21, 2015 | by

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Tove Jansson. Photo: Per Olov Jansson

 

They lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side. Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains. She could pause on the way to listen to the rain on the metal roof, look out across the city as it lit its lights, or just linger for the pleasure of it.

They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

—Tove Jansson, “Videomania,” Fair Play

There are not many really good books that portray functional relationships. Certainly not the relationships of artists. Well, that’s not a shocker—happy families, as we are told, are all alike. Fair Play, Tove Jansson’s 1982 portrait of a partnership, is an exception.

Fair Play is based on Jansson’s relationship with the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she shared a life, and a home, for some forty years. If you have read Jansson’s classic Summer Book, certain things about Fair Play will be familiar: the island setting, the spareness, the less-is-more portrait of human connection. These things will be familiar even to those who only know Jansson from her most famous works, like Finn Family Moomintroll. (Indeed, Pietilä was the inspiration for the competent Moomin character Too-Ticky.) Read More »

The Hunters

June 23, 2015 | by

In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Geoff Dyer looks at Salter’s first novel, The Hunters.

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

James Salter in a fighter plane.

The Hunters (1957) was Salter’s first novel and remains the most concise expression of his talents. It is based closely on his own experience as a pilot flying combat missions in Korea. The war in the air proceeds in tandem with a near civil war on the ground as the pilots vie with each other to achieve the coveted five kills that will make them aces. The conflicting demands between ensuring the safety of comrades (the “sacred” duty of the wingman) and the individual daring—recklessness even—needed to shoot down MiGs threaten to destroy the central character, Cleve Connell.

In Burning the Days Salter recalls a friend’s advising him that “the original form of storytelling is someone saying, I was there and this is what I beheld.” As soon as he began writing, Salter knew that his time as a fighter pilot would give his storytelling this elemental immediacy and power. (The magnificent climactic scene of the novel involves an incident mentioned briefly in the memoir, when two planes, out of fuel, are forced to glide back to base.) Earlier still, when he was learning to fly, Salter had fallen under the spell of the most famous writer-pilot of them all, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “it was his knowledge I admired, his wholeness of mind, more than his exploits. ... In [his] footsteps I would follow.” (This tradition—or perhaps trajectory is a better word—has recently been extended by Jed Mercurio. Part of his novel Ascent (2007), about Soviet pilots flying MiGs in Korea, can be read as a commentary on—or duel with?—Salter, whose novel, presumably, served as template and inspiration.) Cassada has at its core an event that is in some ways a reworking of the kind of crisis imaginatively depicted by Saint-Exupéry in Night Flight as two lost planes drift past their landing strip, cut off from the earth by darkness and rain clouds. The Hunters contains a direct allusion to the master, a translation of the lyricism of Wind, Sand and Stars (“Below the sea of clouds lies eternity”) into the argot of the jet age, the dawn of the right stuff: “There was a mission when they conned across seas of eternity, never catching sight of the ground except at the beginning and end.” Not that Salter is lacking in his own lyric gifts. The experience of flight, the mysteries of the sky, remain as intoxicating and magical as they were for the pilots of propeller-driven biplanes:

Suddenly Pell called out something at three o’clock. Cleve looked. He could not tell what it was at first. Far out, a strange, dreamy rain was falling, silver and wavering. It was a group of drop tanks, tumbling down from above, the fuel and vapor streaming from them. Cleve counted them at a glance. There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence. That many tanks meant MiGs. He searched the sky above, but saw nothing.

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Monkey Glands for Everyone

June 17, 2015 | by

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The Gland Stealers, 1922.

The history of our quest for eternal youth is a history of fools’ errands. It’s also, if your glass is half full, a buoyant tribute to the human imagination—or at least to the spirit of determination. We want so badly to stay young. We’ve sought to bathe in the Fountain of Youth, to imbibe the Elixir of Life, and to—well, to do whatever it is one does with the Philosopher’s Stone. (Grind it up and snort it?) But few solutions to the problem of aging are as risible or as tragic as that of Serge Voronoff, who essayed to stave off death by replacing old men’s testicles with those of healthy young monkeys.

Voronoff rose to prominence about a century ago, and his methods were in practice, if not in vogue, through the 1940s. His first book, 1920’s Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life, is a goulash of Freudian fixations and well-intentioned pseudoscience. Having observed that eunuchs tend to die young—“their faces are glabrous and livid, and their hanging cheeks make them look like old women. Most of them are fat, with rounded outlines and, in many cases, voluminous breasts”—Voronoff came to the deeply specious conclusion that testicles must hold the spermatozoon-shaped key to a long, vigorous life. He began to experiment by grafting the sex glands of lambs into aging rams, and went to great lengths to convince himself that his aim was true: Read More »

So Big

June 17, 2015 | by

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Detail from the poster for So Big, Warner Bros., 1953.

The other night, as part of their Sterling Hayden festival, Turner Classic Movies aired the 1953 film So Big, an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer-winning epic of the same name. The movie, like its source, chronicles the struggles of a determined Illinois farm woman (played by Jane Wyman) and her more worldly son. The title is an innocuous reference to the little boy’s childhood nickname—but initially Warner Bros. publicists decided to sex things up a bit. Posters displayed a hunky illustrated Hayden look-alike in a passionate clinch with a smaller woman and the tagline, “He stood there so big … she was ready to forget she’d ever been a lady.”

It’s no secret that the fifties were a good time for playing fast-and-loose with the classics. In The Seven Year Itch, famously, filmmakers had plenty of fun with the idea. We see Tom Ewell’s pulp book publisher examining a cover in his office; it’s a paperback edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women featuring four busty, well-endowed twentieth-century dames and the tagline “SECRETS OF A GIRLS DORMITORY!” Ewell scrutinizes the cover art, produces a pen, and decisively lowers each neckline by three inches. Read More »

Haunting Houses: An Interview with Angela Flournoy

June 4, 2015 | by

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Photo © LaToya T. Duncan

In Detroit, the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for generations, and now their home is worth a mere tenth of its mortgage. Oh, and it’s haunted—it’s been that way for fifty years, since Cha-Cha, the oldest son of Francis and Viola Turner, was attacked by a haint one summer night. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, set primarily in 2008, tells the Turner clan’s story as they tend to the elderly Viola and decide what to do with the family home.

Flournoy hangs the family’s personal struggles on the political history of Detroit, tracing their move from Arkansas to the bright industrial promise of midcentury Motor City, the electric environment of the 1967 riots, and the city’s long decline. “Lelah,” an excerpt from the novel in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, focuses on the youngest Turner child, whose gambling addiction takes her to Motor City, where she loses the last of her money on a game of roulette.

I met Flournoy near the Review’s offices in north Chelsea. I was late, and Flournoy, elegantly dressed and having just arrived from Detroit, had already enjoyed most of her coffee and was patiently talking on her cell phone. We discussed ghosts, gambling, and the blend of personal and political in her novel.

Your novel is full of Detroit history. Did you hear stories about it from your family?

I did a lot of research. One thing I remember hearing of the ’67 riot is that nobody knew what it was while it happened. Nobody knows that today is going to be the day a riot starts. A lot of people in Detroit actually called it an uprising. So I would apply the facts I learned in my research to a character’s life. Imagine you’re getting off work, or you’re at work, and things just feel weird. Then you hear that something’s happening across town, but no one knows what to call this thing, because no one knows how big it is. It’s more difficult for the individual to frame what’s going on as a whole, what’s happening outside of the details in the personal life. Read More »