The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Vivian Gornick’

Vivian Gornick on In Search of Ali Mahmoud: An American Woman in Egypt

July 19, 2016 | by

Inspired by our famous Writers at Work interviews, “My First Time” is a series of short videos about how writers got their start. Created by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling, each video is a portrait of the artist as a beginner—and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

This week, Vivian Gornick discusses her first book, In Search of Ali Mahmoud: An American Woman in Egypt, about middle-class Egyptian family life. After reporting overseas, she came home and confronted her material: “When I got home, I had this whole cast of characters, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know how to write a book, it was the first book! … The book taught me who I was. It began to teach me what I was capable of doing and what I would ultimately do, which was to use myself to see the world.” Read More »

The Shade of Mark Twain, and Other News

March 4, 2016 | by

Emily Grant Hutchings, who claimed to commune with Mark Twain’s ghost.

  • Today in exotic forms of posthumous success: In 1917, seven years after his death, Mark Twain wrote a novel called Jap Herron by communicating through a medium using a Ouija board. This led to some legal troubles (to say nothing of the metaphysical quandaries) because Twain had a deal to publish all his books with Harper & Brothers. Did his ghost have to make good on that deal, too? The New York Times gave a taste of the courtroom antics: “[I]t is possible that the Ouija Board will be made to perform in court and that the shade of Mark Twain, or what purports to be his spirit, will undertake to confound Mark Twain, the unbeliever. That Mrs. Hutchings intends to get into communications with that very important witness is an assured point.”
  • Vivian Gornick looks back at Constance Fenimore Woolson, who “was a popular American writer of the late nineteenth century whose friendship with Henry James has, among James scholars, long qualified hers as a distinctly lesser life. In all the James biographies, Woolson appears as a shadowy presence whose morbid anxieties simply echo those of the Master himself. Now, with the publication of a full-length biography and the reissue of a collection of her stories, Woolson emerges as a figure of some dimension in her own right … Turning to her Miss Grief and Other Stories is something of a shock; that’s how unexpected is the punch that much of the book delivers. There are seven stories in all, three set in Europe, four in America. The writing in all of them is remarkably good, but it is the American stories that will send the reader looking for more of Woolson’s work.”
  • Rivka Galchen envies only one thing about men, and it’s not (or not exactly) that men have traditionally been able to get away with behaving like cretins: “The first gender-envy thoughts I have had, really in my entire life, started maybe not immediately following the arrival of my daughter in my apartment, but shortly after … The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that his romantic partner doesn’t know about. This is a crazy thought, of course, but I find myself feeling it with such sincerity that I cannot see its edges. The thought seems a descendant of a thought I had while hoping to become pregnant, which was imagining a woman who was pregnant with twins but didn’t have the courage to confess this to her partner, whom she believes will be devastated by the news, and so she dreams up plans to come up with some ‘hysterical’ reason for not wanting her partner there for the birth, and then what? What will she do with the second child? Raise it in secrecy? I knew I wouldn’t be having a second baby.”
  • It’s Friday. Why not go on a little jaunt through Chekhov’s notebooks? That’s what they’re there for. And what do we find: “A passion for the word uterine: my uterine brother, my uterine wife, my uterine brother-in-law, etc.” “A conversation at a conference of doctors. First doctor: ‘All diseases can be cured by salt.’ Second doctor, military: ‘Every disease can be cured by prescribing no salt.’ The first points to his wife, the second to his daughter.” “A theatrical manager, lying in bed, read a new play. He read three or four pages and then in irritation threw the play on to the floor, put out the candle, and drew the bedclothes over him; a little later, after thinking over it, he took the play up again and began to read it; then, getting angry with the uninspired tedious work, he again threw it on the floor and put out the candle. A little later he once more took up the play and read it, then he produced it and it was a failure.”
  • Today in failing to follow instructions from the master: seems like we may have been playing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” incorrectly all these decades. Specifically, our nation’s finest orchestras have made a mess of the part calling for French taxi horns to bleat: “The ambiguity stems from how the taxi horn parts are notated in Gershwin’s original handwritten score. To put it in Gershwin terms, we got rhythm: The score shows that the horns play sets of accented eighth notes. But when it comes to pitch, things are less clear. Gershwin’s score labels the four taxi horns with a circled ‘A,’ a circled ‘B,’ a circled ‘C’ and a circled ‘D.’ Those circled letters have been interpreted as indicating which note each horn should play—A, B, C and D on the scale—since at least 1945 … But the new critical edition will argue that Gershwin’s circled letters were merely labels specifying which horns to play, not which notes.”

So Long, Circumflex, and Other News

February 8, 2016 | by

The circumflex dares to show itself on this piece of signage telling it to stop showing itself.

  • In France, a twenty-five-year plan to streamline the language for schoolchildren may spell the end of the circumflex, that most mysterious of diacritical marks: “The circumflex came into use in France much later, in the sixteenth century, and the Academie Francaise—let’s dump the acute and the cedilla—haven’t fought to the death to hang on to this trifling novelty. Diacritical marks are now ironic, as they were for Joyce. Anglo-Saxon bands use them as a design feature … From côte to côte, the circumflex tells us how closely French was related to other languages, often via Latin. But according to the Academie Francaise even educated people (‘les personnes instruites’) have trouble with the circumflex, and there’s no need to build a diacritical cult around a consonant that’s disappeared from any given part of speech.”
  • In which Vivian Gornick rereads Howards End to discover that Forster knew far less than she’d remembered: “It has often been my experience that rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly called into alarming question … Howards End has proven just such a book for me. I read it when I was in college and now, many decades later, have reread it only to find myself dismayed not only by how much I got wrong but by how much in the book is wrong—the sexual naïveté, the rhetorical posturing, the hand from the grave all read like hokum today—and yet how absorbing this novel of novels still is!”
  • The poet Richard Siken has found an unlikely cult following in the fanfic community, which mines his work for lines they can use to describe the mystery of, say, two characters from Sherlock. Siken, though he intended no resonance here, has embraced his new audience: “Fan fiction sexualizes. It’s transgressive because it suggests the possibility of the erotic. It’s political, because it complicates power structures. And it’s personal, because it grants permission for range of previously unacceptable expressions and interactions. I think my poems enact a space for complicated, multivalent relationships. I think that’s the draw.”
  • Meanwhile, Gerry Adams, the president of the Irish republican party Sinn Féin, has become the latest public figure to publish his tweets as poetry: “The book, with its routine dispatches from Adams’s extracurricular activities (‘Pilates. Aaaaaahhhhh’; ‘1st Pilates of 2015…’; ‘Seriously overstretched myself @ pilates’) and its endless jokily plaintive references to overdue household chores, creates a vacuum of significance so total that you wonder whether you’re missing some deeper intent. There is, for instance, an overwhelming emphasis on bathing: aside from the frequent testimonials to his menagerie of rubber ducks, Adams insists again and again on his enjoyment of every aspect of the bathing process. ‘So the bath beckons!’ we are told. ‘Plastic ducks. Soapy suds…’ Elsewhere, he tweets that his bath ‘Overflowth,’ advising his followers that he has just taken delivery of his ‘1st Orange Duck,’ and that ‘A Good Suddy Soak’ awaits him.”
  • The Lost Rolls: 1988–2012 collects unused pictures from the photojournalist Ron Haviv, depriving them of context and giving them a strange new beauty. As Colin Dickey writes, “The images of The Lost Rolls were selected from various rolls of undeveloped film that were tucked away in drawers and bags, mostly forgotten, in Haviv’s house for decades. The result is an assemblage of deteriorating photographs, depicting random moments in time and revealing a range of physical imperfections. Many are washed with a rose tint; others are streaked with broad swaths of yellow or drooping blemishes of cyan … Photojournalism is, by its nature, obsessed with the moment and defined by action verbs: to document, to witness, to reveal, to inform, to effect change. The images in The Lost Rolls, by contrast, are unmoored from context. Like the rolls themselves, the time signature here is lost.”

The Slow Decline of the Fridge Poem, and Other News

October 12, 2015 | by

There are about fifty of these under your fridge right now. Photo: Steve Johnson, via Flickr

  • In which Vivian Gornick lives in New York, and walks, walks, walks, and keeps walking, imagining herself under “citywide house arrest”: “Nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like joining the endless stream of people moving steadily, as blood moves through veins and arteries, along these democratic streets. The relief I felt stepping daily into the anonymous crowd was almost indescribable; and then relief morphed into vigor, and vigor gave me vital information … What struck me almost viscerally was the sense of expectation that seemed to rise and fall before my very eyes … It was this expectation that supplied New York with its unique brand of energy: avid, noisy, fast-moving; wild to get into the act. That was it, really, getting into the act … To this day, the street achieves for me what I so often cannot achieve for myself: composition.”
  • When Trollope published The Duke’s Children in 1879, he had to cull some 65,000 words from it—presumably at the request of his editor. Now the uncut original has been published, and it turns out there was something to those 65,000 words: “The new version will most likely not change anyone’s view of The Duke’s Children, and yet all those tiny excisions do add up. The restored version is a fuller, richer book. And it’s fascinating to compare the two versions and see what Trollope himself thought could go and what he insisted on keeping. Maybe most revealing is a long fox-hunting sequence, about two-thirds of the way through, which Trollope trimmed only lightly. The sequence serves no crucial purpose in the book, other than providing Tregear with an occasion to have an accident that keeps him bedridden and apart from lovelorn Mary. It’s there because there’s almost always a fox-­hunting scene in a Trollope novel.”
  • Defenders of literary awards usually claim some kind of critical value for them; detractors say they’re just part of the publicity machine. But no one’s even arguing about the potential critical value of blurbs. Maybe it’s time for someone to stand up for them. “Can puffing—the practice of lauding a book’s merits in a few words, usually on its jacket blurb—be considered a kind of literary criticism, however cynically regarded it might be? … If we look at a couple of the puffs for this year’s Booker shortlist, we might be able to bring this question into focus. The claim of the unnamed reviewer in the Independent that Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is simply ‘glorious’ doesn’t seem to get us very far into the realms of literary criticism. Eleanor Catton’s gnomic description of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen as ‘awesome in the true sense of the word’ is perhaps more critically promising: what is the true sense of ‘awesome’? Why does this book in particular evoke that sense?”
  • Not so very long ago, refrigerators across the land were freckled with tiny, easy-to-lose magnetic words from which passersby were intended to fashion a kind of “poetry.” (More often, people used them to make vaguely naughty sex jokes.) So what became of Magnetic Poetry, to say nothing of the impulse behind it? “By removing the messiest step from the cut-up technique, it made the barrier to entry knee-high. It boxed up the creative process, putting it in the checkout aisle and then, once on the fridge, directly at eye level. It let us indulge all these instincts at once—toward communication, creation, jokes, profanity—and layered the results on the domestic experience. From the end of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, it turned kitchens everywhere into an inescapable id pastiche.”
  • The men (and they’re always men) who commit mass killings have a discomfiting tendency to write: they nearly always leave behind a manifesto, and it is nearly always inscrutable. Why the compulsion to address oneself to posterity? And what, if anything, can be gleaned from their words? “There have always been killers and they have often left pieces of writing behind (think of Jack the Ripper and his notes written in blood); some of them were even called manifestos. The Manson ‘family’, a previous group of bent fans of popular culture who heard messages in songs, believed in a program of salvation that required the slaughtering of the human ‘pigs’ who put them down. Valerie Solanos wrote a manifesto that wants to be a feminist tract before shooting Andy Warhol. But not even Warhol, who understood something essential about fame, could have guessed that, one day, such would-be killers, or putative cleaners-up of our corrupt and oppressive world, would carry the wherewithal in the pocket of their jeans. All they needed was a smartphone and a set of grievances, and the world was theirs.”

Teach Your Automaton to Feel, and Other News

June 8, 2015 | by

Tim_Davies_-_Space_Robot_Lovers_(Scarlet_version)_postcard

Tim Davies, Space Robot Lovers, 2012.

  • At last, the time has come for robots to harness the single most powerful force known to humanity: metaphor. An attempt to teach emotional nuance to artificial intelligences, The Poetry for Robots project invites people—even decidedly unpoetic people—to react to photographs in verse, which the robots will thereafter memorize, as is their wont. “By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to ‘teach the database the metaphors’ that humans associate with pictures, ‘and see what happens.’ ”
  • Pistols at dawn! The duel, which was at the peak of its powers in the eighteenth century, enjoyed a prominent status in the literature of the era. Actually, “without literature, there would be much less to go on, historically speaking. Dueling was usually illegal. It was often tolerated, but, still, discretion was an issue—dueling at dawn was popular for reasons of secrecy … One outcome of the silence surrounding the activity was that, for first-timers, the nearest guide to protocol might lie in fiction.”
  • Vivian Gornick on Delmore Schwartz: “Like the time itself, everything about him was out of control—his beautiful, anxiety-ridden face, his stormy eloquence, his outrageous self-dramatization. He charmed and alarmed. There was a sweetness of spirit at the center of all his dishevelment that made nearly everyone who knew him hold him in tender regard.”
  • Fact: “under the right conditions, three atoms that all repel each other will be forced into an inseparable triad.” Physicists have only recently discovered what existentialists have known for a good while—“hell is other atoms.”
  • In French, the word créneau—what we’d call a crenellation, or a battlement in a castle—has taken on a rich figurative life; it can mean a parking spot, an appointment time, even a market opportunity. In other words, it’s very much like our word slot. So why not ask: “Does it mean anything that the French etymology sees appointment times, schedule segments, and parking spaces as figurative openings in a defensive wall made for ‘shooting or launching projectiles upon the enemy,’ while English speakers see them figuratively as shaped depressions made to allow pieces of wood to be fit together into useful structures?”

The Golden State’s Golden Age, and Other News

January 27, 2015 | by

Thames_Hudson-INT-.JvH_Moscoso_Who

John Van Hamersveld and Victor Moscoso, The Who with Fleetwood Mac Shrine Auditorium poster, 1968. Image via It’s Nice That

  • From the department of own-horn-tooting: Looking for something to read today? Try The Paris Review. But you didn’t hear it from us: “One thing I’d like to have on my blanketed lap today,” Dwight Garner wrote, “is the new issue of The Paris Review. That journal has found its mojo, in a big way … The new one has among other things a warm and wise interview with the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick that’s worth the price of admission alone.”
  • India’s Jaipur Literary Festival is advertised as the largest free literary festival in the world. “This year it attracted an estimated 80,000. And on the fourth day, with 20,000 packed into the disorderly old palace complex where it is held, and the queues for entry still growing, the police abruptly closed the gates. They feared a stampede was coming. But who were these people? And what were they coming for?”
  • A new book looks at midcentury graphic design in California, which had a sensibility and influence all its own: “Fuck New York. Fuck Europe. We’ll figure out what art is.”
  • Whither the ukulele? It began its life as a piece of exotica and then, in the hands of Tiny Tim, descended promptly into kitsch—but some say it’s enjoying a revival. “The ukulele still plays its role as everyman instrument quite convincingly.”
  • Today in people who are wrong: “Today’s minor arts, I think, include theater, ballet, opera, symphonic music, and literary fiction. These still include small audiences whose members are not also creators, audiences who patronize these arts in part out of an inherited feeling that these are superior to movies or genre fiction … The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby.”

2 COMMENTS