What We’re Loving: Illuminations and Despair


This Week’s Reading


Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art” opened at the Morgan Library earlier this month. The exhibition packs an astounding range of illuminated manuscripts, each depicting an aspect of the relationship between the body of Christ and medieval culture, into a single room. Though there are a few archetypal works on display, with their colorfully wrought letters, floral detailing, and flattened and disproportional bodies, many of the manuscripts are particularly particular. A German work depicts King David feeding the hungry; he holds a large skewer of meat in one hand and oversized pretzels in the other. Another is a parody of the Mass; I didn’t write down the provenance of the volume, but I did record some of the descriptive text provided by the curator, which narrates the drawings on the pages to which the book is opened: “A fox, dressed in a chasuble, ‘celebrates’ Mass—not on an altar but on the naked buttocks of a man standing on his head. With folded paws, the fox priest bows—not to a chalice but a tankard of ale.” Cheers. —Clare Fentress

“Dear Lorin,” the note read, “I saw this book and thought you might like it, even though it is full of despair.” The book in question is Jean-Pierre Martinet’s 1979 mini-novella The High Life, newly translated by Henry Vale. The narrator, Adolphe Marlaud, is a midget who lives next to the Montparnasse cemetery. He works in a funerary shop, where he passes the time making advances (unwanted) toward the grieving female customers; evenings he spends in the arms of his concierge, an older (and much bigger) woman whom he calls Madame C. Then one night Madame C suggests that they see a pornographic movie, and the drama begins—except, as Marlaud observes, “There’s no drama with us, messieurs, nor tragedy: there is only burlesque and obscenity.” Many thanks to Matt Bucher, administrator of the David Foster Wallace listserv wallace-l, for turning me on to The High Life (even though it is full of despair). —Lorin Stein

I recently stumbled across Azalea, the journal of Korean literature published by Harvard’s Korea Institute, which had an entire section dedicated to contemporary Korean science fiction. While almost all the authors are new to me (Mo Yan has an essay on short stories of South Chosŏn), the short stories were exactly what I was looking for: imaginative, literary, and just plain bizarre. Bae Myung Hoon’s “Art and the Acceleration of Gravity” is a standout, a story of the romance between an earthling and a dancer from the moon. A choice line: “I dearly cherished her, not only with all my heart, but with the soul I hadn’t been able to puke out on that fateful day.” —Justin Alvarez

It’s been two weeks since I saw the Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera show “Life’s Work” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and I still can’t shake the images out of my head. In his half of the exhibition, Phillips reimagines every page of W. H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document and creates his own narrative by highlighting and obscuring Mallock’s original text with collage, paint, and line. The result, Humument, is an intricate and hypnotizing combination of art and literature. Phillips is continually revising Humument, and multiple versions of the same page are shown together. I spent only an hour at the show, but I could’ve stayed much longer. If the trip to the museum is too far, Phillips has Humument published and partially online. —Emily Belshaw

For better or worse, Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic is not quite what its title promises. It is, instead, a long poem by Mexican enfant terrible José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda (alias Mario Santiago Papasquiaro), who inspired the character of Ulises Lima, hero of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Unlike Lima, however, a poetry fanatic who “never wrote poems,” Papasquiaro was prolific, and Advice may be his best-known work—although until Cole Heinowitz’s wonderfully propulsive version it had never been translated into English. Papasquiaro’s poem, like much of Bolaño’s fiction, is a kind of nightmare spent in the company of one’s best friends: “the 1 who dreams of revolutions that stay too long in the Caribbean / the 1 who’d like to rip out the eyes of the billboard heroes / to expose the hollowness of the farce / the girl with the feline & filmic green eyes / even if on getting closer they turn out to be blue.” —Robyn Creswell

“No, obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say ‘Fuck off’ to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. Men have generations of practice at this. Men have figured out how to spawn children and leave them to others to raise, how to placate their mothers with a mere phone call from afar, how to insist, as calmly as if insisting that the sun is in the sky, as if any other possibility were madness, that their work, of all things, is what must—and must first—be done.” What’s so weird about Claire Messud’s latest novel, The Woman Upstairs? Listen to those three sentences—to the prose of them. First you notice the repetitions (starting with was and all, moving to men and must) and the rhetorical flights (“as if insisting that the sun is in the sky”). You notice the fury. But then, or at the same time, you hear how written it is, how the sentences vary in rhythm, how that third sentence moves from the aw sound to the ay sound to afar. (And doesn’t it sound almost Edwardian, “a mere phone call from afar”?) The whole book is like that: patterned, plotted, deliberate, with dozens of tiny gears each clearly doing its thing. At the same time, the anger can make you blink, and this same tension—between tidiness and spectacle, between Cambridge, Mass., and Lebanon, between miniature dioramas and video installations—is very much what the story is about. Which makes everything that much tidier … or that much more unhinged. —L.S.