A Week in Culture: Gemma Sieff, Editor, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Sieff’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


11:00 A.M. This copy of Innocence comes from Adam’s Books, a used bookstore on Bergen Street in Brooklyn that has since closed. The volume was, in a previous incarnation, a gift and carries an inscription:


I hope you enjoy this gift. But I must tell you now, while everyone’s watching, that I have a gift to give you when we are alone that will lead to something even grander and more sublime than this novel, or any work of art for that matter. I am thinking of touching you now, watching you while you read this inscription.
Your hulking, sometimes brilliant and temperamental, boyfriend. You are my only baby.

I love you


X-mas 1992

By the way—this title is appropriate given the theme of the fall in our relationship.

This couple actually seems kind of sweet. One wonders why she chucked the book—but it doesn’t mean they didn’t get married. She could have been having an Archer moment. “The message inside the envelope … ran as follows: ‘Parents consent wedding Tuesday after Easter at twelve Grace Church eight bridesmaids please see Rector so happy love May.’ Archer crumpled up the yellow sheet as if the gesture could annihilate the news it contained.” Yet there he is on his wedding day with the old ladies in their “faded sables and yellowing ermines,” observing every ritual and “formality … which made of a nineteenth-century New York wedding a rite that seemed to belong to the dawn of history.”

8:00 P.M. I watch Public Speaking, Scorsese’s documentary about Fran Lebowitz. Fran is funny and fascinating. New York, it occurs to me, is (still!) a thrilling city because of its conversationalists. My late boss Barbara Epstein, superlative in every way (Hilton and I agree on this one), really knew how to talk on the phone.

Fran is a force not only when she’s storytelling/Not Writing but also when she’s stalking the streets of New York and driving her marvelous car. She has wonderful bone structure. (I think she looks like Israel Rosenfield.) I notice how she uses the word like. I like when older people use it in a slangy way that’s different from my generation’s tic of imprecision. Fran treats it as a beat, and it lets her wit, which is so very keen and a million miles ahead of us all, unfold more slowly, so that it almost seems a bit extemporized and like she might be riffing.

Fran observes that men and women react to parenthood very differently, men going about their work and daily life with their concentration mainly intact, women constantly distracted by their children, not so much by their demands as by their existence. A curdled version of this occurs in Péter Nádas’s story in this magazine’s latest issue. A profoundly weird and sexy tale. I would characterize the prose as slippery, though as a friend points out it’s difficult to tell how much of that, stylistically, is Nádas and how much his fine translator, Imré Goldstein. “The feeling that even when we were alone together, I wasn’t there by myself, as he was, that is what he wanted to extinguish in me,” Geerte says to Erna, of her husband. “As if he wanted us to be just the two of us again.” Geerte’s cleft lip, which Nádas says makes her less than whole, seems somehow relevant.

Her mouth was indeed a surgical masterpiece, but her flesh lacked the usual tripartite division on the rim of the upper lip. Even now, her lips did not close completely, making them especially round looking—at once fascinating and repulsive, as are all injuries that affect the body’s wholeness or hint at any threat to it.


11:00 A.M. Christmas. We cook a duck.


9:30 P.M. I watch Tiny Furniture, for the third time, with my parents. This, along with the thought that Lena Dunham is a touch overcozy with her folks (i.e., tropes of bed-sharing in the film and that wry rumoring in Rebecca Mead’s revealing profile), makes me feel a bit self-conscious. I, too, was a teenager always hanging out with my parents.

Dunham has a brilliant ear. I find this so surpassingly rare in writing of any kind that I’m willing to forgive her some slipups as she figures things out. (“‘I’m figuring it out, Mom,’” parrots Siri sarcastically. “I am so sick of your words!”) I’m interested by the allergic reactions some people have had to the movie, which is provocatively autobiographical. Dunham plays the lead and casts her mother, sister, friends, and Tribeca loft as themselves. The overlap didn’t obsess me because the film felt so written, so aesthetically determined, and porousness between fiction and non is, to me, not problematic (or necessarily even interesting) if the work is good. “Is the character Aura actually Ms. Dunham (the unique woman who lived in that loft) or is the director playing a copy of herself?” asks Manohla Dargis, in the Times. It’s a reasonable (and inevitable) question, but the supposition that follows seems kind of snide. “One hint,” she writes, “might be the character’s unusual first name, which suggests that Ms. Dunham, at the age of 24 and herself a recent graduate, has read the social theorist Walter Benjamin’s 1930s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,’ one of the most influential (and commonly classroom-assigned) inquiries into aesthetic production and the mass reproduction of art … Cinema, in other words, might spark critical thinking.”

I like Dunham’s irreverence and fear of pretentiousness mixed in with her literary ambition. Little sister Nadine has won “the biggest prize in America,” announces Siri, which turns out to be a pretty big-deal poetry award for high-school students; only Nadine, like an embittered adjunct, declares poetry “a very stupid thing to be good at” and “a failure of an intellectual community.” The next scene finds the sisters in the bathroom. Aura shaves in the shower as Nadine shyly reads one of her poems aloud. You can hear her nervousness and also her pride. She protects herself with scare quotes (“Whenever I write a poem, I feel like I have all these ‘feelings’”), and Aura, understanding the bid for big sisterly approval, is sweetly, not falsely, self-deprecating, recalling her Oberlin “Slam–po-e-try–voice” full of portent and angst. Aura gets that this is her sister’s thing.

Aura is extremely sensitive to language, especially others’. We don’t see her reading much, though the boys around her read lots, and preeningly. Jed, a romantic interest and intellectual rival, reads Woody Allen’s Without Feathers. The chef with whom Aura briefly works (and whom she finds pretty dishy—the actor David Call having just the right type of good looks, blond, Fedora’d, with a mustache), reads Austerlitz and The Road, he tells her, “by Cormac McCarthy.” Aura tells him it’s an Oprah pick, the tease sweet-natured.

When he slights her, which happens twice, the lust that has fogged her awareness of his stupidity evaporates just long enough for her to notice his awful clichés. “Same shit, different day,” he tells her day after day, the final instance occurring as a lame excuse for having stood her up, and she says icily, “You know I thought that was something you made up, but it turns out it’s just something people say.” Later [SPOILER ALERT] after they’ve fucked in a pipe in an abandoned lot and are walking through Brooklyn fully clothed if slightly smeared and he lunges suddenly right, hissing, “Oh shit, that’s my boy,” and forcing her to crouch behind a red hatchback because he thinks he sees a guy who works with his girlfriend’s sister, Aura remarks that he has uttered the phrase “no harm, no foul” “like seven times tonight.” We recall the other banalities to which he has treated her: “When I get a big enough nut, I’m gonna quit.” He and his girlfriend are having problems so he’s “gotta put the time in.” His taste in pornography runs toward “some Japanese shit.” He can’t kiss her, he claims, minutes before the pipe tryst, because until he and Jessica are “formally broken up I should keep it in my pants.” Do you know what Vicodin feels like? “Like lying naked on a bearskin rug next to a fire.” (That one makes Aura laugh.) At the end of the film, the actor who plays the guy dimly espied and feared to be an acquaintance of Jessica’s sister is credited as KEITH’S “BOY.”

For Jed, the weather is “nippy” and the blowup mattress is “defective. It’s devastating.” He gets an “e-mail from this terrible girl I used to know” whom he met in a “horrible trendy coffee shop in Wicker Park.” “Or some fuckin’ nonsense.” Of the chef: “Dude sounds like a real meatball.” He’s a man in the house and a cowboy at dusk and it’s no big whoop. Aura doesn’t comment on his misspelling of Nietzsche when she watches his “Nietschian [sic] Cowboy” schtick on YouTube with her mom. Jed’s mouth is actually very Geerte-like: too-round, fascinating, and repulsive.
The film is also visually astute. Antonioni shots through doors and steady shots of bookcases, slender vases, tiny furniture, and Siri in the tub, red hair and red-wine dark spots against the blinding tile.

Aura’s best friend Charlotte, impudent English minx, is luscious; and so for that matter is Aura. For me that’s one of the main pleasures of the movie: to feel ever fonder of this young girl with unwashed hair and the body of a Teletubby as she pads pantsless around the apartment, wiggles into a body stocking, puts on her cowboy boots. It was her mom who (long ago) logged in her (actual) diary her daily morsels (“zucchini bread, cheese, crackers, wine”) and the wish “to weigh 128–125, and be happy.” It’s not that Aura doesn’t think about this stuff; it’s that it seems, maybe, like a bit less of a tyranny. I wouldn’t say this is a feminist film (that film would have been Siri’s), but it is unquestionably a female film about female things made on female time, with female funniness.

Of course “It does hurt,” Aura says, as Charlotte pricks her with ink, giving her a new tattoo. The movie made me appreciate women: those I love and being one. And I felt sisterly toward this talented young person. Precocity is exciting, and produces impatience for what Dunham does next.

My parents also liked the movie.


10:00 A.M. NYT Sunday Styles.

He’s no Lorin Stein, but Philip Galanes wisely advises us not to ask a woman whether she is pregnant before offering her your seat on the subway.

Vows: Mina & Jesse. Friend of the bride Poopak Banky says Jesse gives Mina a feeling of “ghili vili,” i.e., he has created a revolution in her.

Straight razors are back.

Gemma Sieff edits Reviews & Criticism at Harper’s Magazine.