- Today in censored statues: in Italy, the fashionable thing to do with one’s nude statues is not to display them but to conceal them with some plywood or maybe a heavy drop-cloth or whatever else you’ve got lying around. The Capitoline Venus, which resides in the hall of the Capitoline Museums, in Rome, was boxed up last month to preserve the delicate sensibilities of the visiting Iranian president, but really this sort of thing happens all the time: “True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’s horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall … This kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported. As journalist Giovanna Vitale has pointed out, for instance, it had been only five months since a nude by Jeff Koons in a Florentine palace included in the itinerary of sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed al Nahyan was concealed … And—in case you think it’s only heads of state of the Muslim faith who are reserved this peculiar treatment—it was eight months since posters of a Tamara de Lempicka exhibition in Turin … were covered to save the Pope from certain emotional trauma.”
- A few months ago, I used this space to hawk Saul Bellow’s ten-thousand-dollar desk, which was not, at the time, a hot seller. But things have changed. That desk is gone. As Bellow’s son Daniel explained to Atlas Obscura: “All of a sudden, everyone from famous journalists to doctors from the Mayo Clinic contacted him about purchasing his father’s desk … In the end, though, Bellow’s desk was sold to his son’s niece, who matched the top bid at the auction, and kept the desk in the family … The desk will be put in his niece’s new home in Hudson, New York. As for the money from the auction, Daniel says he is going to use it to build a kiln chimney in his new pottery studio.”
- Faced with an al-Qaida invasion, librarians in Timbuktu oversaw a massive smuggling operation in which some 300,000 rare books and manuscripts were secreted away to safety: “The first thing we’re going to do is get them out of these big libraries. We’re going to take trunks. We’re going to pack them into trunks at night when the rebels are asleep, and then we’re going to move them in the dead of night by mule cart to these various houses—safe houses scattered around the city. And hopefully they’ll be safe for the duration of this occupation … They’re in about a dozen climate-controlled storage rooms in Bamako, the capital of Mali.”
- In which Meghan O’Gieblyn decides to give Updike a chance, takes Couples off the shelf, and finds … many things she expected and a few she didn’t: “There was plenty in the book that lived up to Updike’s contemporary reputation: women who think things no woman would think (‘She had wanted to bear Ken a child, to brew his excellence in her warmth’) … There are many passages in which Updike’s prodigious gifts as a prose artist are given over to the effects of gravity on women’s bodies. Nobody can write the female body in decay quite like Updike. So clinical and unrelenting is his gaze, he manages to call attention to signs of aging that even I—someone in possession of a female body—had never considered. ‘Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands,’ he writes of Piet’s wife, Angela, ‘their stringy backs and reddened fingertips’ … What intrigued me most about Couples, though, was the sense of doom that undercuts the orgy.”
- Jonas Mekas was the first film critic for the Village Voice, and a new collection of his critical writing reveals “an artistic time capsule of New York at a moment of crucial energy”: “There’s a live-wire spontaneity to Mekas’s writing, an excitement sparked by his sense of beauty, by his sheer pleasure in cinematic imagination, and it’s connected to a soulful sense of inwardness and empathy … What energizes his discussions and exhortations is the impulse behind the films, rather than the films themselves—the lives and dreams of the artists, the harsh demands placed on filmmakers by the effort to create homemade, self-financed, independent films, made by oneself and one’s friends. These are films that repudiate openly the conventions of the commercial cinema, the norms and limits on subject matter and representation, while the filmmakers submit to a horrific range of deprivations and afflictions for the sake of their art. In effect, Mekas offers, both in and as film criticism, extraordinary and enduring sketches of downtown lives.”
- Jim Harrison has died at seventy-eight. “You don’t write—an artist doesn’t create, or very rarely creates—good art in support of different causes,” he told The Paris Review in 1988. “And critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer. You have to explain to them: I am not all the men in my novels. How could I be? I’m little Jimmy back here on the farm with my wife and two daughters, and, at one time, three female horses, three female cats, and three female dogs, and I’m quite a nice person.”
- Fact: you, too, can enjoy Aldous Huxley waxing lyrical about a controversial Los Angeles sewage treatment plant. “One day in 1939, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, and two women walk along the shore south of Los Angeles. The weather is beautiful, the beach is empty, and Shakespeare is debated. Then the group realizes that something’s funny about the beach. As Huxley put it in the essay, ‘Like Hyperion to a Satyr,’ they are suddenly walking among ‘ten million emblems and mementos of Modern Love … Malthusian flotsam and unspeakable jetsam.’ The four had found themselves among a sea of used condoms that ejected by Los Angeles’s Hyperion sewage treatment plant. Huxley returned to those shores a few years later, after LA upgraded the plant in 1950. He was overjoyed with what he saw, and what he thought the vista suggested about the city: ‘Another torrent, this time about 99.95 percent pure, rushes down through the submarine outfall and mingles, a mile offshore, with the Pacific. The problem of keeping a great city clean without polluting a river or fouling the beaches, and without robbing the soil of its fertility, has been triumphantly solved.’ ”
- In America, Joseph Brodsky is often held up as “the poster boy for Soviet persecution,” as Cynthia Haven writes—but a new biography is trying to change that perception: “Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir, Brodskij sredi nas (Brodsky Among Us), offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it … According to the leading critic Anna Narinskaya, writing in the newspaper Kommersant, Teasley’s memoir had been written ‘without teary-eyed ecstasy or vicious vengefulness, without petty settling of scores with the deceased—or the living—and at the same time demonstrating complete comprehension of the caliber and extreme singularity of her “hero” ’ … Even so, the book has yet to find a publisher in English, the language in which it was written.”
- Do you want Saul Bellow’s desk? He sat there, wrote some books. And it’s nice—a mahogany roll-top job dating to the Victorian era. A steal at ten thousand bucks. Please buy it. Please, please buy it. No one else is buying it, Bellow’s son told the Wall Street Journal: “I guess space is expensive on the Upper West Side. Nobody’s got room for a giant piece of furniture … I thought, well, this will provoke discussion. But it really didn’t … I’m moving to a smaller place and the desk just isn’t fitting into the plan.”
- Problem: a staging at the Park Avenue Armory of Louis Andriessen’s 1988 avant-garde opera, De Materie, calls for one hundred sheep. Solution: get the fucking sheep. “Simply getting hold of so many stage-ready sheep was an exceptionally difficult bit of opera casting … The bane of international opera stars is a visa system that can be difficult to navigate. For opera sheep, it is getting the right veterinary certificates, exhibiting permits, humane handling paperwork and the like … Then there was the question of where to house them. The ovine troupers could not sleep at the Armory; could not commute from Pennsylvania; and would not have been welcome at the hotels that usually cater to visiting sopranos. So accommodations were found at the Bronx Equestrian Center, which has stables in Pelham Bay Park. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has jurisdiction over animals in performances, issued a permit to allow the project to go ahead … Then the Armory had to be readied. A backstage paddock was built and soundproofed … ”
How to name your fictional characters.
To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.
The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More
- Have you seen F. W. Murnau’s skull? From the neck up, the Nosferatu director has gone missing from his grave, which sits about twelve miles out of Berlin. No reward has been set, and no word given on whether his lovely throat remains intact.
- I do my best to ensure that this is a Go Set a Watchman–free space. But who can resist the chance to quote a bunch of parents who named their sons after Atticus Finch, only to find that Watchman depicts him as a racist, segregationist clod? “When we first heard about the book, my wife said, ‘Oh no, I hope Atticus didn’t turn bad or something,’ ” one father told the New York Times. “Maybe our son will grow up and be the more famous and distinguished Atticus, and maybe he’ll get all the recognition.” The name was the 370th most common in the country last year, and Watchman’s first printing comprises two million copies. Young Atticus has his work cut out for him.
- Ethics professors spend their entire careers immersed in rigorous analysis of what’s right and good. If you’ve never met one, you could be forgiven for ranking them just under clergymen in their unswerving dedication to the moral life. But ethicists are not, in fact, any more ethical than you or I. A researcher examined their approaches to “voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.” The result will stop the presses: “For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort—logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.” (They do donate to charities more regularly and eat less meat, though.)
- When the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon published his first novel, he had a terrifying encounter with a reader of sorts: “He smiled and shook my hand and even said he was sorry to bother me at home. But he walked in without being asked, and immediately, as he sat down on one of the sofas, took out a big black gun and placed it loudly on the living room table … He said that Hitler was one of his heroes. He said that Hitler was one of the greatest of men. He said that he admired how Hitler always knew exactly how to dispose of his enemies. He said that we should all learn from Hitler. He then asked me if I understood and I managed to stutter that I did and he grabbed his gun from the table, got up, and walked silently out of my house.”
- The trials and triumphs of editing Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein: “As he homed in on something that was bothering him, you’d hear first a deep rasping, the audible intakes of breath growing sharper. Then he’d look up. ‘This isn’t working,’ he’d say. More breathing. Then, ‘Let’s try this.’ At this point, I would start writing, taking down his words. Word by word a new paragraph would emerge and take the place of the older one, stronger, sharper than what was there before. Even as I read it out to him, I’d see how he’d changed it for the better. Whatever had jarred in the earlier version had gone. Writer’s alchemy—changing what was pretty good to begin with into something even better.”
- “My idea of hell on earth,” Philip Larkin wrote once, “is a literary party.” He had in mind the Oxford parties of his era, which, much like the Oxford parties of this era, comprised “a lot of sherry drill with important people.” But what if those parties were in fact really entertaining, as at least one guest avows they were? “God, they were fun. Ever since Mrs. Dylan Thomas, at a literary party, stuck her elbow into the bowl of ice cream that T. S. Eliot was eating from, before presenting it to the great poet with the instruction to ‘Lick it off,’ these things have been democratic, argumentative and often memorable.”
- “Please give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” “What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance?” “Is it good poetry where every other line rhymes, instead of having each line rhyme with the one before it?” Questions for librarians at the New York Public Library before there was the Internet.
- Saul Bellow’s portraitist remembers their encounter: “Bellow talked all the while, about life in New York when he was younger, his cohorts and various writers. What a duplistic moment for me: I had to ask him to be quiet so I could take some close-ups. He was fidgety even while cooperating. He picked up a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and began reading, first quietly, and then aloud. I listened for a few minutes, and cringing apologetically, shushed him again.”
- If Louise Erdrich could go back in time, she’d go to prison, as long as the company was good: “I am stranded for a few days in a comfortable jail cell with Walt Whitman and Henry James. I take one side of the room, share a bunk with Emily Dickinson. We listen in on their awkward conversations, exchange sharp glances of amusement.”
- Max Mathews, who died in April, wasn’t the first person to make sounds with a computer—but his experiments with an IBM 704 mainframe in 1957 were the first to use “a replicable combination of hardware and software that allowed the user to specify what tones he wanted to hear.” He was the first computer musician: “He provided the initial research for virtually every aspect of computer music, from his early work with programming languages for synthesis and composition … to foundational research in real-time performance … Max also helped start the conversation about how humans were meant to interact with computers by developing everything from modified violins to idiosyncratic control systems such as the Radio Baton.”
“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Norman Rush reflects on Saul Bellow, who read from Humboldt’s Gift and Henderson the Rain King on October 10, 1988.
92Y will celebrate Bellow’s centenary tomorrow evening. Martin Amis, Janis Bellow, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicole Krauss, Zachary Leader, and Ian McEwan will read from The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, “Something to Remember Me By,” Humboldt’s Gift, and The Dean’s December.