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Posts Tagged ‘rereading’

Cover Model

November 6, 2014 | by

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Photo: Inez and Vinoodh for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

T: The New York Times Style Magazine just sent us a sneak preview of their newest cover model: Philip Roth. He’s in handsome company, perhaps dangerously so. The last guy on the cover was Channing Tatum.

But if Roth has that stressed, I-can’t-bear-to-look thing going on—anxiety chic—it’s not because he’s out of his depth in the modeling game. It’s because he’s been rereading his own work, always a dicey proposition. Specifically, he’s been rereading Portnoy’s Complaint, to which his reputation remains staked, many decades and nearly two dozen novels later. Roth doesn’t have a problem with that, but he does have a problem with those who have cast the book as gratuitous or indecorous:

I portrayed a man who is the repository of every unacceptable thought, a 33-year-old man possessed by dangerous sensations, nasty opinions, savage grievances, sinister feelings and, of course, one stalked by the implacable presence of lust. In short, I wrote about the quotient of the unsocialized that is rooted in almost everyone … One writes a repellent book (and Portnoy’s Complaint was taken by many to be solely that) not to be repellent but to represent the repellent, to air the repellent, to expose it, to reveal how it looks and what it is. Chekhov wisely advised that the writer’s task lies not in solving problems but in properly presenting the problem.

With his usual candor, Roth meditates on Alexander Portnoy’s standing today, in these “erotically unfettered” times. His essay is one in a series wherein authors reread their own work; there’s also Lydia Davis on Break It Down, Robert Caro on The Power Broker, George Saunders on CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Marilynne Robinson on Housekeeping, Jennifer Egan on A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Junot Díaz on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. You can read all of them here

Next month, these writers and others are auctioning annotated first editions of their books to benefit PEN American Center. The auction, “First Editions, Second Thoughts,” takes place December 2 at Christie’s New York; previews begin November 17.

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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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Recapping Dante: Canto 34, or “It Is Time for Us to Leave”

June 30, 2014 | by

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A colorized version of Gustave Doré’s illustration for Canto XXXIV.

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the final canto.

My relationship with Dante can be traced back to a Saturday morning in 1994. My dad and I were standing in the rain on Sixty-Sixth and Broadway, and I suspected he was taking me to Lincoln Center for a concert. Instead, we stopped at a small park where a large, bronze statue was shrouded by nearby trees, hidden away from the city. That, he told me, is Dante.

The night before, my dad had told me the story of Count Ugolino, the sinner of canto 33 who may or may not have eaten his children during his imprisonment in Pisa; and later that day, he’d take me to the courtyard at St. John the Divine, where a statue of a crab-like creature pinches off the head of a demon—a scene that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Dante’s Inferno, when the three-headed Lucifer gnashes his teeth around the bodies of the three greatest sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Here, in canto 34, the final chapter, Dante and Virgil meet Lucifer and climb up his back in order to slip through a crack in the universe and leave the Inferno.

It wouldn’t occur to me for many more years that these weren’t stories from my dad, but the work of the better craftsman, or il miglior fabbro, as T. S. Eliot writes in the dedication of “The Waste Land,” paraphrasing Dante himself. In fact, if I look hard enough, I find traces of Dante throughout my life—a description of the wolf, lion, and leopard in the elevator of 765 Amsterdam Avenue, the building where my grandparents lived; the story of Paolo and Francesca, which I read in an illustrated, abridged Inferno for children; the fiberglass tyrannosaurus in Riverside Park, which I climbed as though I were Virgil scaling Lucifer’s back with Dante in order to reach Purgatory at the end of canto 34; a twig from a tree that I passed on a field trip in a botanical garden, which I tore off à la Dante in canto 13, so that my dad, a reluctant chaperone, would know that I wanted to be there as little as he did. As far as I knew, I wasn’t alluding to Pier delle Vigne but to a character from my father’s bedtime mythology. None of these tales came without embellishments, and so even today, when I reread passages of the Inferno and notice departures from the stories I heard growing up, I cannot help but think that Dante Alighieri’s versions are slightly inaccurate. Even so, by the time I reach someone like Ugolino, I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend. Read More »

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