Giraffes, Despair, and Other News


On the Shelf

Alfred Edmund Brehm, Giraffes, 1893.


  • The British monarchy is one of those institutions whose endurance serves as its justification—like NASCAR or mall Santas, it’s so deeply entrenched that you can sometimes go for whole years without realizing how ridiculous it is. But Tanya Gold, wandering Buckingham Palace (“There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room”) knows full well what an asinine spectacle the queen is: “She does not make mistakes. We are applauding an absence of something. It is very British to salute a void. Everyone can agree on its merits … The Queen walks a slender line between monotony and the sublime. She has managed this contortion by remaining largely silent for eighty-nine years—a good mirror will grant a reflection to anyone who walks past—and, more important, by giving the impression that she does not want the job … This, though, is the central pillar of Elizabeth II’s myth: the Queen as victim. You can get away with anything if people think you are doing it for their sakes.”
  • In promoting Swing Time, Zadie Smith has found she gets one question over and over: “In your earlier novels you sounded so optimistic, but now your books are tinged with despair. Is this fair to say?” Her answer: “I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history. We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride. I took pride in my neighborhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possible—and is still experienced as possible by millions—is now denied as if it never did and never could exist.” 

  • I, too, am “tinged with despair.” And not just for the usual reasons. I don’t normally use this space to keep you abreast of endangered species, but fuck it—the world’s gone to hell and now we’re losing giraffes. So listen up, because these are the giraffe facts: “In just 30 years, the giraffe population has fallen up to 40 percent, from between 152,000 and 163,000 animals in 1985 to just 98,000 in 2015. This dramatic decline is reflected in the latest edition of the Red List of Threatened Species—the ever-depressing inventory in which the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the world’s wildlife into various shades of screwed. Giraffes used to be in the safest bracket: ‘Least Concern.’ As of this week, they’ve been shunted into ‘Vulnerable’—a two-step demotion, and four steps away from total extinction.”
  • In which Jonathan Blitzer strolls around the Frick Museum with Javier Marías: “Marías likes to quote Laurence Sterne to describe his craft: ‘I progress as I digress.’ When a dramatic event occurs in one of his novels, it’s usually as a prelude to a string of rambling anecdotes or some lengthy existential musing … In person, Marías can seem a little withdrawn, as if visiting from another era; he is almost always photographed in his study, with a cigarette trailing smoke and a wall of books behind him. On the page, he is expansive and unrestrained. In addition to publishing more than a dozen novels, he has spent the past two decades writing a column for El País that ranges from art criticism to screeds against bicycle traffic … Marías is a pedigreed leftist of the old school, which occasionally makes him a target, as much for his style as for his politics, for the younger generation. One critic recently wrote, on a popular Spanish blog, that ‘Marías does what no one does better: turn politics into a fusty egotrip.’ ”
  • Earlier this week I mentioned Fidel Castro’s connection to Gabriel García Márquez, for whom the dictator served as a sometime copy editor. But there’s more: the Harry Ransom Center has Márquez’s library, and somebody has turned up a monogrammed Castro handkerchief hiding out in one of his books. “Castro inscribed four books in the collection, two for Mercedes and two for ‘Gabo.’ There are few materials that I have worked with that have inspired awe in the same way as coming across this embroidered handkerchief laid in to a copy of La historia me absolverá.Printed in 1973, in Cuba, the title is already scarce in the United States, but the inscription and handkerchief make this volume a priceless and a fascinating piece of history.”