You Can See Through Windows, and Other News


On the Shelf

Caspar David Friedrich, Window Looking Over the Park, 1810–11.

  • Here is a brutal reality about windows: they’re transparent. It’s such an obvious statement, and yet, as Edwin Heathcote writes, fewer and fewer people seem to understand it: “You can have a panoramic window, but there will also be a view back in. It is a condition highlighted in recent complaints by residents in the Neo Bankside apartments that visitors to neighboring Tate Modern’s new viewing gallery were using it to look right into their apartments. There have been letters. Sir Nicholas Serota, the outgoing director of the Tate, probably didn’t help when he suggested the residents put up net curtains. Yet the flippant (and also rather brilliant) comment did highlight a contemporary condition … The difficulty stems from a confusion at the heart of contemporary architecture—that is, the difference between a window and a wall.” 

  • When you read a headline like, HE LOVED OPIUM, MURDER, AND WORDSWORTH, you think: pssssh, who doesn’t? You’re just about to click away when you see they’re writing about Thomas De Quincey, who loved those things fervently, passionately, perhaps even—yes—more than you do. Frances Wilson’s new biography of De Quincey explores his failures as a husband, father, and addict, meaning it’s great fun to read: “At Oxford, De Quincey disdained the final oral exams because they were not, as advertised, conducted in ancient Greek. The ‘hoary’ university, he determined, was beneath him. ‘I owe thee nothing!’ he dismissively informed it … De Quincey first took opium to relieve a toothache. It provoked a change of life and those infamous rhapsodies in Confessions, e.g.: ‘I took it—and in an hour, oh! Heavens! What a revulsion! What an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me!’ ” 
  • De Quincey appeals because literature has always been not so secretly about getting fucked up. The writing doesn’t actually matter that much; it’s the hedonism that counts. That’s what the Brat Pack discovered in the eighties, and they perfected it—so much so that people are still writing profiles of them in Harper’s Bazaar even though most of their books are immediately forgettable. (My opinions are not those of the Review.) “Did you know that Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis “attended the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards together, an event novelists are rarely, if ever, invited to; McInerney says they found the event ‘silly.’ But they both earned their reputations: McInerney partied with the rich, beautiful, and famous; Ellis, the personification of young and cool, was sent back to Los Angeles to spend a night with Judd Nelson on assignment forVanity Fair. In his own interviews, he chugged drinks while sounding cryptic and doomed: ‘I’m sure I’m going to get some deadly disease any second, like AIDS or cancer,’ he told the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Magazine. The ‘toxic twins,’ the press called them, since they, sometimes along with [the editors] Fisketjon or Entrekin, were often spotted at trendy New York clubs like Area, or Tribeca dives like Puffy’s and Raccoon Lodge, drinks in hand, eyes bloodshot.”
  • Abdelfattah Kilito on finding the right language to write in: “At school, I took pains to learn French, and at university I specialized in French literature, which I then taught for more than forty years … There’s no record of all those years of lecturing, and I’ve rarely made an effort to publish anything on French literature. I know I can’t add anything significant to what the French have already written. In any case—this is the important part—the French don’t expect me to write about their literature. Their literature doesn’t need me. Arabic literature does need me, however, just as much as I need it. This has always been a firm belief of mine; without it, I never would have written anything at all … You might even say that I learned French, paradoxically, so that I could write in Arabic.”