One pleasure of living where I do is the giveaway table, where tenants leave unwanted CDs, cassettes, salt-and-pepper shakers, et cetera, and especially books. These tend to be romance novels or thrillers, but the other week someone left the second edition of August Kleinzahler’s Cutty, One Rock—a book I’d given away many times and had eventually forgotten to replace. My wife let me read the title essay aloud, even though I kept slipping into my version of a New Jersey accent (bad, bad). Then, maybe three days later, on the same table, I found a copy of B. S. Johnson’s 1964 novel Albert Angelo. It was crazy—I’d been meaning to read B. S. Johnson for years. If I had come across any of his novels in a bookstore, I’d have bought them. This one’s about a beleaguered substitute teacher in a London slum, a subgenre (the bitter teacher novel) I especially enjoy. Obviously these books—the old favorite and the object of curiosity—have been two clicks away, but serendipity beats intention every time. —Lorin Stein Read More
- Museums around the world are motioning to ban selfie sticks, those, sleek, obtrusive icons of narcissism. “While its elongated form might have some structural merits and it inspires a devoted gaze just from standing below it, it simply detracts from other pieces in the collection in a rather pedestrian fashion. So, like groundbreaking art forms before it, the selfie stick will just have to patiently wait for times to change before it receives its artistic due.”
- On Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, as a rewiring of avant-garde fiction: “Convergences, nodes and relays, interstices: This is precisely the lexicon of the midcentury avant-garde McCarthy once found so useful and influential. But where this abstract-concrete thinking … once seemed urgent and perhaps even politically salient, now it just seems like cliché. Actually, worse than cliché: commercial and pernicious. The avant-garde’s work has been inherited by the corporation.”
- This is not your beautiful house. This is not your beautiful wife. This is not your beautiful art: “A retired odd job man and electrician and his wife stand trial on Tuesday, accused of illegally possessing 271 works by Pablo Picasso … Mr. Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them more than forty years ago.”
- Contemporary fiction is cool and all, but why aren’t there more grandparents in it? Grandparents are cool, too, you know. “Look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at sixty and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfillment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply.”
- Philip K. Dick’s work reveals its prescience yet again: in his 1969 novel Ubik, “characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.” Meanwhile, in the reality of 2015, Samsung invents a television that captures “personal or other sensitive” information for transmission to a third party …
From Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein, a collection of experimental prose and “word portraits” written by Gertrude Stein between 1909 and 1912. Stein, who was born on this day in 1874, had arrived in Paris by 1903 and began to develop a kind of literary Cubism, steeping herself in the art of Picasso, Matisse, and others. These pieces saw her evolving approach to aphorism and especially to repetition, the device she made her trademark, even if it chagrined some early readers.
To lie in the cheese, to smile in the butter, to lengthen in the rain, to sit in the flour all that makes a model stronger, there is no strangeness where there is more useful color, a description has not every mission.
Leaning together and destroying a principle preciousness which is not mangled, this is so loaned that there is no habit, not at all and yet there is the late way, there is an instance of more.
To be painful is not more than a street, to be a principal apricot is not more than a cherry and yet there is an expression, there certainly is. Read More
In the late fifties, Calvin Tomkins, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, moved his family from New York City to a little community on the Hudson River called Sneden’s Landing. “The houses are built on the side of a hill fairly close together,” Tomkins told me by phone this past summer, “but in those days there were no real property lines. Everybody knew each other, and the kids wandered all over.”
Tomkins’s two daughters, Anne and Susan, eventually found their way to Gerald Murphy, then in his sixties, pruning his rose garden. As kids do, they struck up a conversation with Gerald, and when Tomkins and his wife caught up with them, Sara, Gerald’s wife, emerged from the house, taking orders for ginger ale.
“The Murphys didn’t talk about the past in those days, and it was some time before I realized they were the people F. Scott Fitzgerald had used as models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night,” Tomkins wrote in 1998. In the twenties and early thirties, the couple, along with their three children, spent part of the year in the south of France, on the Riviera, and the rest of it immersed in the salad days of modernism and surrealism in Paris, where they had befriended, among others, Picasso and his first wife, Olga Khokhlova; Ferdinand Léger; Dorothy Parker; Cole Porter; the Fitzgeralds; the Dos Passos; and the Hemingways. It was a fascinating life, though shrouded in mystery and tragedy.
Tomkins urged Murphy to write a memoir, but Murphy “scoffed at the notion … he had too much respect for the craft of writing, he said, to attempt something which could only be second-rate.” Tomkins reported the piece instead. It was called “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” a reference to the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert’s mordant epigram, which Murphy had once jotted down on a piece of paper. The piece ran in The New Yorker on July 28, 1962. By the time Tomkins had expanded it into a book, in 1974, “Gerald had been dead for ten years, and Sara, who died in 1975, was no longer aware of the world around her.”
Fortunately, Tomkins was, and Living Well Is the Best Revenge remains one of the most ingeniously reported profiles of the Lost Generation, with the Murphys serving to illuminate the nearly century-old American expat scene that flourished in Europe between the two World Wars. The book had gone out of print until MoMA reissued it earlier this year in a beautiful flex-cover format. I spoke to Tomkins, who’s now eighty-eight, about the Murphys’ past, Gerald’s career as an artist, and his reporting for the book.
Before you got to know them, did you know much about Gerald and Sara Murphy?
I had heard about them. The Murphys were legendary because people knew vaguely about their life in Paris in the twenties, but nobody really knew them very well. They had a party a year, I think—a garden party with candles in paper bags. More or less the whole community was invited. But otherwise, they kept to themselves. We were all very curious about them. It seemed to us that we had these exotic creatures living in our midst. Read More
- Beneath Picasso’s painting The Blue Room, infrared technology has revealed another painting, “a portrait of a man wearing a jacket, bow tie, and rings.”
- Literary Feud of the Day: Patrick Leigh Fermor versus W. Somerset Maugham. The latter called the former “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women,” but “at least a small part of Somerset Maugham’s hostility can be attributed to an evening during which Leigh Fermor, a guest at the older writer’s table, entertained the company by making fun of his host’s stutter.”
- Pablo Delcán on his complex, eerie cover designs for the Spanish editions of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy: “It was about giving a twist to the natural and known world, a way of making it fictional and distorted.”
- Charles Barsotti, one of The New Yorker’s greatest cartoonists, died yesterday. Among his many masterworks is a cartoon of a cheerful God talking to a nervous new arrival in heaven: “No, no, that’s not a sin, either. My goodness, you must have worried yourself to death.”
- An interview with Barbara Cassin, whose Dictionary of Untranslatables is now available in English: “I wanted something else, and this something else is rephilosophizing words with words and not with universals. And these words are words in languages. Let us see what it means, how it can bring us to dwell a little bit on the difference between mind, Geist, and esprit. What happens if we look at the words, where they emerge and where they philosophize? Let us have a look.”
Today, Sotheby’s is auctioning off a collection of sixteen letters and ten postcards that William Faulkner wrote from Europe to his family in Oxford, Mississippi, chronicling his first trip to the Continent in the early fall of 1925. The collection of handwritten correspondence—which includes sketched self-portraits, as well as Faulkner’s musings on growing a beard (“makes me look sort of distinguished”) and dining alone in his hotel room (“here I sit with spaghetti”)—is expected to fetch between $250,000 and $350,000.
The collection seems to provide glimpses of a relatable, human Faulkner: a twenty-eight-year-old who went to nightclubs, griped about money, and signed off as “Billy.” Yet the letters also hint at the profound influence that this trip—specifically, the modernist painting Faulkner first saw in Paris—would have on his fiction. In a letter dated September 22, 1925, he writes, “I have seen Rodin’s museum, and two private collections of Matisse and Picasso (who are yet alive and painting) as well as numberless young and struggling moderns. And Cézanne! That man dipped his brush in light …” Read More