Posts Tagged ‘Wayne Koestenbaum’
September 22, 2016 | by Alison Kinney
Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?
When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.
Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.
But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party. Read More »
August 14, 2015 | by The Paris Review
This week, in anticipation of sending files to our printer, I’ve mostly been reading the work that will make up our Fall issue. But I’ve snuck moments to read from Amy Gerstler’s new collection, Scattered at Sea. Gerstler’s poems are witty and direct, informal but also decisive. She seems to be thinking about things that other people aren’t thinking about—or they are thinking about them but don’t take notice of the fact. So we have “On Wanting to Be Male,” in which she “Lusted after their sprint speed, briefcases, Tahitian aftershave, crew cuts, blue nuts, thrusty cutlasses” instead of the “undulating, oft-colonized potential baby cave” of the “female model.” Elsewhere, she imagines herself as a cavewoman who “Can’t keep cave clean” and has “Tender feeling for baby mammoth as we eat him.” There are moments of sublimity, too, as when she describes a sunset as “a cocktail of too many boozes / she’d like to switch off / via remote control / but there’s no antidote / for celestial events.” And when she says of the early Greek philosophers, “getting a lot of the science right / While still pawing through entrails to divine the future,” I feel the distance between then and now shrink to almost nothing. —Nicole Rudick
Barton Swaim’s memoir The Speechwriter is about his time working for Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina—but Sanford’s name never appears in print, which helps the book to shrug off the lurid connotations of political tell-alls. There’s actually nothing scandalous in The Speechwriter: it’s a sober, lucid, funny story about language and its fraught relation to statesmanship. Early on, Swaim learns that what the governor wants from him isn’t well-honed rhetoric—it’s logorrhea, a torrent of verbiage designed to conceal the total absence of content at the heart of the gubernatorial body. “Sometimes,” he writes, “I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit.” In the extent of its dysfunction, Sanford’s office seems like something out of an Armando Iannucci show, and Swaim allows himself to feel cynical about it, but never inhumane or Orwellian. In fact, unlike nearly every book of its kind, The Speechwriter at its core is sensitive and apolitical: Swain just wants to understand why we so often insist on mangling the language. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »
August 29, 2014 | by The Paris Review
John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez
In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein
That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More »
September 18, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
- Quoth Patrick Hemingway, “I’m not a great fan of Vanity Fair. It’s a sort of luxury thinker’s magazine, for people who get their satisfaction out of driving a Jaguar instead of a Mini.” VF rejected his dad’s story “My Life in the Bull Ring With Donald Ogden” in 1924, and apparently the Hemingways hold a grudge; although Vanity Fair reportedly wanted to publish it, the story will run in the October Harper’s.
- “Insults from Kakutani about characters or the book or its author: 27.” Michi, by the numbers.
- NYU’s Center for French Civilization and Culture kicks off its “Re-Thinking Literature” conference tomorrow. Speakers include Ben Lerner, Wayne Koestenbaum, Joshua Cohen, and many more scholars, critics, and writers.
- A previously unpublished poem by Dorothy Wordsworth (poet, sister, and muse of William), “Lines addressed to my kind friend & medical attendant, Thomas Carr,” is on the Oxford University Press blog. Wordsworth was, at the time, suffering from arteriosclerosis and dementia.