What We’re Loving: The New York Review, Baghdad, Fire


This Week’s Reading


The funny thing about the New York Review’s fiftieth anniversary issue is that it’s basically just a slightly fatter version of the normal product. Here’s Zadie Smith on girl-watching with her father. Here’s Frederick Seidel with a poem I badly wish we’d published ourselves. Here’s Chabon on Pynchon, Mendelsohn on Game of Thrones, and Timothy Garton-Ash writing (unenviably and with aplomb) on the ethos of the Review itself. Here’s Justice Stephen Breyer discussing Proust with a French journalist (Breyer turns out to be the only person about whom one is actually glad to know how Proust changed his life), plus Richard Holmes on Keats, Diane Johnson on MFA programs, Adam Shatz on Charlie Parker, Coetzee on Patrick White—and this is just the beginning. (As usual, I’m saving the politics for last.) There is one discovery I have to single out. In 1949 the German novelist Hans Keilson published one of the stranger World War II novels ever written, a novel later translated into English under the enigmatic title The Death of the Adversary. Thanks to Claire Messud’s beautiful essay on Camus, I think I may know where Keilson’s translator got the phrase. Camus, 1945: “I am not made for politics, because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.” Thank you, Ms. Messud. Thank you, New York Review. —Lorin Stein

Has any city been so cursed by history and so blessed in its poets as Baghdad? Reuven Snir, a scholar with family roots in Baghdad’s Jewish community, has edited and translated Baghdad: The City in Verse, an anthology of poems from the eighth century to the present, which has been my bedside reading for the last week. There are poems of debauchery (“Baghdad is not an abode for hermits,” an early poet warns his readers), nostalgia, and lament. The mournful note is especially strong in the later poems. But it is already there in Ishaq al-Khuraymi’s “Elegy for Baghdad,” a lament written in the aftermath of a civil war, which remembers a city “surrounded by vineyards, palm trees, and basil,” but now sees a wasteland of widows and dry wells, with “the city split into groups, / the connections between them cut off.” The Mongol invasion of 1258, when tradition says the Tigris ran black with the ink of books and red with the blood of scholars, was still four hundred years away. —Robyn Creswell

Gondal was the imaginary world created by the Brontë sisters in their youth. Just south of the island was Gaaldine, to which Gerald Murnane alludes in “The Interior of Gaaldine,” one of the stories included in the recent issue of Music & Literature. In “Gaaldine,” Murnane decides to stop writing a book he realizes has become too unwieldy. However, as in much of Murnane’s work, there’s more than one reality. “I was about to give almost too much away,” he writes, “not some secret, horrible sexual urge or something, but too much about my central tenets or dreams.” Murnane is infamous for his personal archive, cabinets of files on subjects like “people who might have loved me” and “shame.” He is as comfortable in his quotidian, real-life existence (he has never left his home country of Australia) as the fantastical (he has taught himself Hungarian but has no intention of visiting the European country). And his lack of travel has never stopped Murnane from writing about foreign lands. In Inland, published last year by Dalkey, Australia merges into South Dakota which then becomes the Hungarian Alföld; the whole time, the narrator sits alone in a room full of books. As he remarks, “I have sometimes heard in this room an echo of a sound from a word in a language other than my own.” —Justin Alvarez

I used to work in the woods; not anymore. These days, I’m doing all I can to become an effete New Yorker. But sometimes, when I’m not busy having my toenails buffed, or lamenting last night’s sub-par unagi, I like to reminisce. And in those moments, I reread what remains the best account of U.S. Forest Service life: Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. This is the story of the Mann Gulch Fire, and of the thirteen smokejumpers (wildland firefighters who parachute into particularly inaccessible terrain) who lost their lives on a Montana hillside on August 5, 1949. Maclean, a veteran of the Forest Service who became an English professor at the University of Chicago, unpacks the drama in measured prose so deadpan that the occasional flashes of humor are easy to miss: “As in life generally, it is most common to land in grass that thinly covers very hard rocks.” But of course, it isn’t a funny story. It is, at its heart, a mystery; how did topography, light fuels, and a shifting wind conspire to turn a routine assignment into a fatal afternoon? —Fritz Huber