That Was Not a Very Nice Thing to Do, and Other News


On the Shelf

From the cover of My Brilliant Friend.

  • Now, let’s divert our attention to a much less controversial story from the NYRB: Nathaniel Rich on George Plimpton. “The quintessential Plimptonian anecdote comes near the end of Paper Lion when, a year after leaving the team, he wistfully follows his old squad from afar. We find him in Bellagio, on Lake Como, chasing down a box score in a Paris Herald he has found at a waterside café. ‘When I read that the Lions had lost a game,’ he writes, ‘I rose in anguish out of my chair, absolutely stiff with grief, my knee catching the edge of the table as I came up, and toppling it over in a fine cascade of Perrier bottles’ … Philip Roth, in the extended appreciation of Plimpton that appears in Exit Ghost, identified the issue of social class as ‘the deepest inspiration for his writing so singularly about sports’ … But the technique only works because Plimpton hides this knowing quality from his readers. There is never a wink or nod in the direction of the premise’s artifice. A consummate straight man, he emphasizes how seriously he is taking matters.” 

  • Michael Hofmann has some advice for translators: just don’t think about it. If you’re one of those “thinking” types, put a sock in it, he writes: “Translation offers great potential for over-thinking. Most of this is not done by translators—we don’t have the time, or the aptitude, most of us. I had what felt to me like exquisitely interesting thoughts about English and German and the author while I was translating Kafka, but I couldn’t capture any of them—I would have ground to a halt. I was briefly in a fascinating position, but, thankfully, it passed. I like thinking; but as a translator, it’s not what I’m paid for. What I do is to strike the two stones of English and German against each other, for as brief a time as possible. Most of my time is spent, and almost all my enjoyment comes from, blowing on the tiny flames.”
  • If the aftermath of Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech—i.e. the scandal we couldn’t forget about before this unforgettable Elena Ferrante scandal came along to help us forget it—Jess Row has a few ideas about what a white writer of fiction might reasonably do: “We still live in a culture in which white people are very seldom stopped from doing anything they want to do, and when they are stopped or challenged, get extraordinarily upset about it … My term for it is ‘white dreamtime.’ And waking up in the middle of a dream, as we all know, is an unpleasant experience … The white writer, in this Shriver/Franzen formulation, is entitled to a zone of absolute privacy and limitless artistic autonomy; if a critic makes an observation about their work on the order of, ‘this person is depicted stereotypically,’ or ‘this wide-ranging, ambitious urban American social novel lacks a single nonwhite character,’ that critic is attacking their private imaginative process, their dream-life, rather than simply reading the work itself.”
  • When René Magritte wasn’t stoking the flames of his surreal obsession with men in bowler hats, he was writing art criticism: and now some of it is finally available in English. E.g.: “People do not want a diamond for its intrinsic properties—its authentic qualities alone—but because, as it costs a great deal, it gives the man who possesses it a kind of superiority over his fellow men, and is a concrete expression of social inequality. Besides, things have reached such an absurd point that if you buy a fake diamond unawares, you will be just as satisfied, because you have paid the price of the genuine article. It is no different with art.”