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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

The Wonders of Czech Book Design, and Other News

December 1, 2015 | by

An illustration by Josef Čapek in Nové zpěvy : kniha lyrických průbojů, 1918.

  • When Germans like to dramatize their politics, imbuing the theater with metaphors to suit the times, they always turn to one play: Hamlet. Over the centuries, the Dane has survived a dizzying number of interpretations and representations on German stages—they’re obsessed with the guy. “The 1970s West German Hamlet was shown as powerless to affect his corrupt society, reflecting the experiences of intellectuals and theatre directors who failed to influence the politics of the 1960s revolutions … East German interpretations of Hamlet were unsurprisingly very different. In his speech at the 1964 Shakespeare festival, Cultural Minister Alexander Abusch praised Hamlet’s socialist ideals and lambasted the corrupt society that prevented him carrying them out … The frequent revival of this old, familiar play does not signal a retreat in German theatre from innovative drama. In fact, the nation’s changing role has sparked an exciting new phase in the depiction of the dithering protagonist … In a radical 2005 production in Munich, director Lars-Ole Walburg incorporated quotations from George W Bush and Michael Moore and references to the Rwandan genocide and the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.”
  • The English major is in decline, and who can even rouse himself to defend it? There’s no utilitarian value to it. It doesn’t seem to make students more ethical or to improve their decision making. People would very probably still read books without it. So … uh … Adam Gopnik has a thought: “The best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? ‘Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.’ You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects. A good doctor said to me, not long ago, ‘You really sort of have to like assholes and ear wax to be a good general practitioner’; you have to really like, or not mind much, intricate and dull and occasionally even dumb arguments about books to study English.”
  • Good spelling has always had an uncomfortable correlation with good breeding—before the advent of spell-check, and even to some extent after it, to spell well was to signify one’s belonging in the upper classes. In the nineteenth century, two men tried to level the playing field with an ambitious overhaul to the language: “On December 5, 1846, in the first issue of a newspaper called Di Anglo-Sacsun, an introductory letter to readers heralded the day when ‘bad spelling, the monster that scares, and grins at, and harasses the people, will fall into fits, like the Giant Despair of Doubting Castle, and will die outright of his spasms’ … S. P. Andrews and Augustus Boyle, the editors of the Di Anglo-Sacsun, believed that they could end poverty by making literacy less time-consuming and more accessible, particularly for poor immigrants and slaves. As the written language formalized over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century through innovations like the steam press and energetic lexicographers like Noah Webster, standardized spelling had become a newly erected barrier between the upwardly mobile and those who had neither the time nor the resources to crack the code of literacy. Andrews and Boyle wanted to simplify the process by making spelling entirely phonetic.”
  • In the early twentieth century, Czech book design drew its influences from a surprisingly broad array of artistic movements—and a singular, stylish form of publishing emerged as a result. “One popular trend during the turn of the century was to embellish literature with elaborate, local ornamentations that were mostly Romanesque in style, as exemplified by Josef Mánes’ illustrations in a manuscript of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bohemian poems and songs. Floral motifs also became popular Czech symbols … However, artists later dismissed floral and other ornate symbolism as medieval decorations, especially as Czech culture was increasingly exposed to foreign influences that fueled widespread experimentation … Some found the decorativeness of beautiful book illustrations extravagant, preferring to shape the appearance of books with bold and often stark photomontages.”
  • Reminder: your M.F.A. program is the product of specific political circumstances, and to write “well” is essentially to play by the rules of the state: “Less than a lifetime ago, reputable American writers would occasionally start fistfights, sleep in ditches and even espouse Communist doctrines. Such were the prerogatives and exigencies of the artist’s existence, until M.F.A. programs arrived to impose discipline and provide livelihoods. Whether the professionalization of creative writing has been good for American literature has set off a lot of elegantly worded soul-searching and well-mannered debate recently … Sponsored by foundations dedicated to defeating Communism, creative-­writing programs during the postwar period taught aspiring authors certain rules of propriety … Certain seemingly timeless criteria of good writing are actually the product of historically bound political agendas.”

We’ll Show Them Burger King Creeps, and Other News

November 4, 2015 | by

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From “Burger Wars,” an episode of Judge Dredd withheld by lawyers for decades.

  • The French artist Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne, first published in 1983, is back in print. If you or I made a book about stalking and photographing a complete stranger, we would be cast out of our communities; when Sophie Calle makes one, it’s a minor masterwork. In 1980, she saw a man on the street and tried to photograph him—he eluded her. That night, she ran into him at a party. His name was Henri B., and he told her he was going to Venice. She decided to go, too. In Suite Vénetienne, “Calle spends thirteen days looking for and trailing Henri B. around the city … at last, she finds [him]—he’s been staying in a pensione a hundred meters from her own. She stands outside his hotel and watches as he comes and goes … The strength of the project comes from the interplay between Calle’s physical pursuit and her emotional remove. Calle doesn’t care for Henri B ... Yet proximity to her subject seems to create a kind of attachment. Calle dreams of Henri B., he ‘consumes’ her. She has high expectations of their encounters, then worries about displeasing him. They meet. She frets it was banal. She tries to rent his former hotel room. She envisions herself sleeping in his bed.”
  • Beneath the chapel in St. Leonard’s Church in Worcestershire is a single skull, just one, lonely skull. Scuttlebutt has it that someone stole this little guy from Shakespeare’s tomb back in the eighteenth century. But we may never know if this skull is Shakespeare’s. And I don’t mean that rhetorically—we will actually probably never know, because the Church of England doesn’t want any DNA testing on the skull. In a seven-thousand word statement, some stuffed-shirt barrister guy “sided with prominent Shakespeare scholars who have rubbished the claims and concluded they read ‘like a piece of Gothic fiction’ … He said he had seen ‘no scholarly or other evidence that comes anywhere near providing any support for the truth of the story” and that there was “nothing whatsoever to link it to William Shakespeare.’”
  • Later today we’ll share some exciting news about Lydia Davis. But first, in the name of public service, some not-so-exciting news. A copy of Davis’s Collected Stories—a copy from the NYU Library, no less—has gone missing. It was last spotted in North Brooklyn, outside Tony’s Pizza at Dekalb and Knickerbocker, near the B38 bus stop. Have you seen this book? Its cover is handsome, its spine thick, its borrower concerned.
  • Today in comic-book news you didn’t know you cared about: two parodic, dystopian episodes of Judge Dredd are back in print. The comics, from 1978, depict a postnuclear America in which commercial culture has run amok, and they made lawyers squeamish: “In Burger Wars, Dredd finds a devastated middle America in thrall to the warring Burger Lords, modeled on Ronald McDonald and Burger King’s eponymous monarch, who capture the heroes and force them to live on burgers and shakes. In Soul Food, a Dr. Moreau–style genetic engineer living in the blasted wasteland has created mutated creatures based on mascots of American retail culture including the Jolly Green Giant and Michelin’s tire-man Bibendum … Ben Smith, head of books and comic books at Rebellion Publishing, said: ‘The most common question we have been asked at conventions over the years is “Will you be reprinting Burger Wars?” It’s a delight, and frankly a relief, to be able to finally say, Yes!’ ”
  • Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, In Jackson Heights, is (really!) a riveting three-hour testament to a neighborhood’s civic life. “What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices … The discussions that he films involve such matters as fair labor practices, gentrification, the legal ramifications of urban gardening, the push for change in traffic-safety regulations, school redistricting, police harassment of gay and transgender bar patrons, fear of deportation, citizenship-test study, and the laws and norms to pass a taxi-driver test. In other words, the movie is about the very stuff of life … The problems that Wiseman finds are local, practical, intimate, but the emotions that he films are grand and tragic.”

The Hermit Kingdom—in Fabulous 3-D! And Other News

October 8, 2015 | by

Won Il-myong, a furnace worker at North Korea’s Chollima Steelworks. Photo: Matjaž Tančič, via The Guardian

  • The Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Read her piece “Voices from Chernobyl” from our Winter 2004 issue. “Alexievich,” The New York Times writes, “is best known for giving voice to women and men who had lived through World War II, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.”
  • Our editor Lorin Stein discusses translating Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission—specifically, one sentence about arousal, Muslims, and politics: “At first I wrote, ‘Given the political situation, choosing a Muslim turned me on.’ But this was very un-Houellebecqian … One of us came up with arouse: ‘Arousing, in a way’ — for me, that’s how Houellebecq sounds. And even though the syntax doesn’t track the French exactly, it preserves the air of anticlimax, the slight fussiness, the stoicism of the original. The sentence became less brutal, less vulgar.”
  • When he’s not making movies, Wim Wenders takes photographs—and yes, most of these photos contain landscapes, and sure, most of them are devoid of human life, but don’t call the guy a landscape photographer. He’s got your number. “I am not a landscape photographer. I am interested in people. I am interested in our civilization. I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and places. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us. Places are so much more able to evoke people when people are out. As soon as there is one person in the shot everybody looks at that person. If there is nobody in the shot, the beholder is able to listen to the story of that place. And that’s my job. I try to make places tell their stories about us. So I am not a landscape photographer. I am really interested in people, but my way of finding out things about people is that I do photos about their absence, about their traces.”
  • When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced plans to translate all thirty-six plays into modern English, people got very pissed, very fast. These days we like our Shakespeare unadulterated; his genius, the thinking goes, reposes in his language. But it wasn’t always so.So many serious Shakespeareans over the centuries have argued the opposite: that Shakespeare’s genius had to be salvaged from the obscure, indecorous, archaic, quibbling mess of his language. For poets, playwrights, editors, and actors from the seventeenth century through much of the nineteenth, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t intoxicating so much as intoxicated: it needed a sobering intervention.”
  • North Korea just held its first photography exhibition curated by Western artists. Among the works on display were pictures by the Slovenian photographer Matjaž Tančič, who took portraits of North Koreans in—wait for it—3-D. And though that art form is liberating, his travels were not: “My guides would keep trying to trick me by taking me to the ‘beautiful bits’ like the pristine maternity hospital in Pyongyang, or a newly refurbished library. I’d keep trying to trick them into letting me talk to ordinary North Koreans.” Tančič described the country as “like a stage,” and then, later, “like a movie.”

The Bard Blazed, and Other News

August 11, 2015 | by

Shakespeare

Our greatest dramatist, debilitated by the effects of cannabis at some kind of “reefer party.”

  • Shakespeare scholars are reeling from a discovery so major, so irrefutably epochal, that it sets the entire field on its head: four clay pipes found in his Stratford-upon-Avon garden contain cannabis residue. Historians may never know for certain if Shakespeare composed his masterworks among purple plumes of the dankest kush, but for the sake of sensationalism, we of the media have no choice but to assume he did. T-shirts featuring the Bard ripping tubes, smoking bowls, and otherwise enjoying a good old-fashioned toke will be available in novelty shops near you by C.O.B. today. I had nothing to do with them.
  • A 1991 letter from Elena Ferrante to her Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola, lays out her approach to promotion with the utmost candor: “I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad … I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”
  • In which Avies Platt, “an art mistress at Wellingborough County High School for Girls in Northamptonshire,” has a stirring encounter with an aging W. B. Yeats: “she met the seventy-two-year-old Yeats at an open meeting of the Sex Education Society, a group headed by controversial sexologist Norman Haire … As the evening progressed it became obvious that the elderly poet’s interest in Platt went further than conversation—she mentions him sitting outside the Athenaeum club in Pall Mall and expressing his regrets at ‘the stupid rule that we may not take ladies in after midnight.’ ”
  • Let’s talk about trolling, and while we’re at it, let’s throw some existentialism in there, too: “If the Internet was predicated on everyone co-existing on a level playing field, able to distribute and share knowledge without the previous gatekeepers of status or affiliation to slow things down (perhaps one of the main benefits of having user names rather than real names), trolling takes that utopian possibility and throws it by the wayside … trolling is a destructive way of addressing the ambivalent state of being that is life online, that is, being connected to millions and even billions of people simultaneously, but being incredibly isolated, separated from the nuance of subtle body language, body odor, touch, taste, et cetera.”
  • Today in new applications for 3-D printing: haute couture. At Paris Fashion Week, Chanel presented a version of its classic two-piece suit: “Using selective laser sintering—a high powered laser fusing together tiny particles—much of the suit vest was sculpted, appearing boxlike, with no sewing necessary … With endless possibilities in shape, texture and transparency, the experimentation of 3-D printing techniques and materials has a worthy place on the cutting edge of couture. But fashion designers must learn how to generate computer files and complex computer-aided drafting techniques for the printing process to work.”

Science Fiction in the White House, and Other News

May 8, 2015 | by

Verne_-_Voyage_au_centre_de_la_Terre,_page_11

  • A plea to the professoriat: If you really love the humanities, do them a favor and shut up about Shakespeare. “On the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education … organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.”
  • When Jules Verne meets the sterling judgment of our nation’s executive branch: John Quincy Adams once approved a journey to the center of the Earth. The plan asked for “one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea … ”
  • Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, newly reissued, “resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about Ross’s work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South. Oreo is sincerely ironic, hilarious, brainy, impenetrable at times.”
  • Scott Timberg’s new book Culture Crash holds the well-being of the cultural middle class as the key to American creativity.” But this thesis only reveals “an unexplored aesthetic bias that favors the sort of art reviewed in the pages of the unrepentantly middle-class New York Times, art that becomes middlebrow through its relative accessibility and popularity. Forget the cynical dross intended for the tasteless masses: It is this kind of middlebrow culture—the kind best known and appreciated by well-rounded liberal-arts grads—of which Timberg wants to see more, even though it abounds right now.”
  • Of Mice and Men contains such hair-raising profanities as bastard and God damn, which make it unsuitable, according to a curriculum-review committee in Idaho, for fourteen- or fifteen-year-old students. “Teachers actually had the audacity to have students read these profanities out loud in class,” one parent said.

The Flexible, Forgeable American Signature, and Other News

May 1, 2015 | by

Glaspalast_Munchen_1891_062

Geheime Korrespondenz, 1891.

  • On etiquette, art, and the increasing complications of public space: “Taking a selfie in a museum may be disruptive to others, and antithetical to the experience of art, yet given the option, most people will avoid walking through the line of sight and ruining someone else’s photograph … In the end, that is the fundamental paradox of art and public space: We go there both to be free and to submit.”
  • The Patriots’ tight end Shrek Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski has inspired a cottage industry—people can’t seem to write enough erotic novels about the guy. (Sample salaciousness: “Suddenly, all I wanted to do was watch Gronk do his thang-thang in the zone place there. My vagina demanded it.”) Now a couple is suing the author of A Gronking to Remember for using their image on her cover without permission.
  • “Historical fiction has become a byword for middlebrow wasteland.” But Hilary Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, whom critics are fond of comparing, have written novels that make a compelling case for the genre—so much so that people have started bickering about whether they’re really “historical” fiction at all …
  • “I think something happened, somewhere around Love’s Labour’s Lost and the early history plays and going into Romeo and Juliet. Either he fell in love or he just grew up, but something happened to him where he suddenly ‘got it’ about women and there was a profound shift in his writing.” In which Shakespeare gets acquainted with the female psyche.
  • The demise of the signature: a new poll suggests that very few Americans give a hoot about our John Hancocks. “While 61% of responders sign paper at least once a week or more, nearly half do so in a hurry and a full 30% just scribble something fast to get it done … 30% said they have a ‘flexible’ signature, with 64% saying it’s because of computer use. A full 81% of people admitted to faking someone’s signature three or more times a year, and a quarter said they wouldn’t be able to tell if someone had forged their own.”