Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey’s play SLASH is so enjoyable it’s like having dessert for two hours with no intermission. One advertisement describes it as an “attempt to transcend the banality of identity and the terror of consciousness,” but I prefer the Instagram promo with an image of Camille Paglia in men’s clothing wielding a switchblade in front of a urinal. That’s much closer to the play’s prankish genius. Every dynamic (or adversarial) duo from popular culture whom you’ve probably been obsessed with at some point appears for a romping ten minutes or so, from Spock and Captain Kirk to Lennon and McCartney to Morrissey and Johnny Marr. The hints of homosexuality in these pairings are the source of a great deal of the comedy: it’s the most fun meditation on the collaboration eroticism since Wayne Koestenbaum’s Double Talk. The best bit is probably the one that’s getting the most hype, a reenactment of some shade from the early nineties thrown around by Paglia and Susan Sontag, but take my advice—wait for the real thing and don’t watch the clip of it online from last year. In person, Allan (Paglia) and Hennessey (Sontag) sound so much like their respective muses that if you close your eyes, you’ll have an opinion on The Volcano Lover again. SLASH runs through Thursday, January 31, at MX Gallery in Chinatown. —Ben Shields Read More
Fans of the surrealist painter Remedios Varo likely won’t be surprised that her writing is as wide reaching and imaginative as her work on canvas. She crafted uncanny fables and strange recipes intended to conjure dreams, but perhaps her most significant achievements on the page are her letters. Varo had a habit of writing to strangers, a practice immortalized in her friend Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, in which the character Carmella Velasquez “writes letters all over the world to people she has never met and signs them with all sorts of romantic names, never her own … These wonderful letters fly off, in a celestial way, by airmail, in Carmella’s delicate handwriting. No one ever replies.” Below, read Varo’s letter to a man whose address she picked at random from the phone book.
I haven’t a clue if you’re a single man or the head of a household, if you’re a shy introvert or a happy extrovert, but whatever the case, perhaps you’re bored and want to dive fearlessly into a group of strangers in hopes of hearing something that will interest or amuse you. What’s more, the fact that you feel curiosity and even some discomfort is already an incentive, and so I’m proposing that you come and spend New Year’s Eve at house No.—— on —— Street. Read More
In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
Nescio is Latin for “I don’t know” and was the pen name of a respectable Holland-Bombay Trading Company director and father of four publishing in Amsterdam between 1909 and 1942. The writer, whose real name was J. H. F. Grönloh (1882–1961), worked in an office by day and by night sparingly penned not-so-respectable short stories about artistic passion, upper-middle-class sexual longing, and the luminous vistas of his water-soaked city. His minuscule output (two books over forty years) is classic literature in the Netherlands but nearly unknown here. Amsterdam Stories was translated into English for the first time in 2012 and published by NYRB Classics.
The book is a series of interlocking stories about a gang of pals who want to be painters and how they fare over time. Some quickly give up the artistic dreams of their youth for the grind of making money. Others struggle longer against the inevitably conventional middle age. The one who “succeeds” in the art world is portrayed as a successful businessperson of a different stripe. Japi, a character introduced in the story “The Freeloader,” is the true artist of the bunch but also antisocial, a sponger, and a jerk. The protagonists mostly wind up with boring office jobs and staid marriages, drowning in the daily details of their lives, as we all do. Of packing lunch for children (the way I begin my morning five days a week), Nescio says, “You try slicing bread and making sandwiches for four kids just once, if you’re not used to it, the way the unfortunate writer of these pages has done on occasion, it’ll drive you insane.” Yes, it will. Yet even faded souls have stirrings, “some vague idea” toward art and nature, love and greatness. Much of Nescio’s charm for the modern reader is in how recognizable the issues he examines are, how little has changed.
Appropriately for a book about the daily grind, people in Amsterdam Stories are frequently seen eating that most office appropriate of meals: the sandwich, sometimes mentioned to be “ham” but usually unspecified. Sandwiches appear enough in the stories that I wanted to know what they were like in Nescio’s Netherlands and why people didn’t eat anything else. Via the auspices of the internet, I discovered that the sandwich’s prevalence in the book was no coincidence; supposedly, that’s all Dutch people eat for breakfast and lunch. They like them small, with thin fillings, and there are many classics, like pastrami and sliced liverwurst, and three-layer “zebras” of rye bread and chive cream cheese (as you’ll see below, I made both). They also eat sandwiches with butter and sugar sprinkles (called “hail”), but that must have been after Nescio’s time. Read More
History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. —James Joyce, Ulysses
Near the beginning of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus famously compares history to a nightmare. It was also in 1922 that Lu Xun penned the preface to his first short-story collection, Call to Arms (published in 1923), in which he asks whether he should try to use his writing to wake up his fellow countrymen still trapped in the proverbial “iron house” of Chinese feudal values. In these almost simultaneous texts, two of the twentieth century’s leading modernist authors both equated history with sleep and dreams. Whereas Joyce’s Dedalus wants to awaken from the nightmare that is history, Lu Xun worries that his works might in fact succeed in rousing his blissfully oblivious readers, causing them to awaken to a state of historical awareness for which they would then have no easy remedy.
Nearly a century later, Yan Lianke appeals to a similar set of oneiric metaphors in his novel The Day the Sun Died. Centered on a fourteen-year-old boy named Li Niannian, whose parents run a shop that sells items for funeral rituals and whose uncle runs a crematorium, the story describes a night during which most of the residents of the boy’s village suddenly start sleepwalking—or, to translate the Chinese term for somnambulism more literally, “dreamwalking.” The community degenerates into chaos, as many villagers act out the urges that they had kept suppressed during their normal waking state.
Like Ulysses, which famously unfolds over the course of a single day (June 16, 1904), the main narrative of The Day the Sun Died takes place over the course of a single night, beginning at five P.M. on the evening of the sixth day of the sixth lunar month, and concluding early the following morning. The novel is divided into a series of “books,” each of which opens with a header that notes a temporal interval using the traditional Chinese geng-dian system, and each book is then divided into sections that similarly open with a header that notes the corresponding temporal interval using the Western twenty-four-hour system. Read More
Steinberg’s line is the line of a master penman and artist. It is also a “line”—that is, a kind of organized talk. The pen of this artist-monologuist brings into being pictures that are also words, e.g., the odd birds at a cocktail party. Or they are visualizations of things said, as in the drawings in his book The Labyrinth, where people utter flowers, strings of beads, heraldic decorations.
Both because of his superb penmanship and the complex intellectual nature of his assertions, I think of Steinberg as a kind of writer, though there is only one of his kind. He has worked out an exchange between the verbal and the visual that makes possible all kinds of revelations. For instance, there is a drawing in which a triangle on one end of a scale weighs down an old, patched-up, decrepit question mark on the other. Axiom: A NEAT FORMULA OUTWEIGHS A BANGED-UP PROBLEM.
To build his labyrinth, Steinberg had only to draw a line from A to B on the principle that the truth is the longest distance between two points: the result is an enormous scrawl within which the original two dots appear as the eyes of the Minotaur.
As if the relations between words and objects weren’t complicated enough, Steinberg has thrust between them the illusions of the drawing paper. “There is perhaps no artist alive,” E. H. Gombrich testifies in Art and Illusion, “who knows more about the philosophy of representation.” A long straight line keeps changing its pictorial functions—first it represents a table edge, then a railroad trestle, then a laundry line, until it ends up in an abstract flourish. Steinberg is the Houdini of multiple meanings: the line with which he creates his labyrinth and entangles himself in it is also the string that leads him out of it. Read More
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I recently realized I wanted to be a poet. Is there a poem for getting over the fear that my poetry won’t be good enough?
A Hopeful Poet Read More