Arsenic and Old Austen, and Other News


On the Shelf

Sort of looks like someone who was poisoned by arsenic, doesn’t it?


  • Look, I want to believe it, too; I want to run through the streets shouting it until I’m blue in the face: Jane Austen was poisoned by arsenic! Janey Goddamn Austen, poisoned! Sandra Tuppen, a curator at the British Library, has purported that three pairs of Austen’s eyeglasses—one of which is strong enough to suggest that she suddenly went very nearly blind—could indicate that she suffered from arsenic poisoning, among the symptoms of which is a decline in visual acuity. It would be neat, wouldn’t it? Jane Austen, poisoned. It would spice things up a bit around here. But even though Austen died when she was only forty-one, this arsenic theory doesn’t hold much water, some say: “According to Dr. Cheryl Kinney, a national board member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, many things contained arsenic during the author’s lifetime: ‘Water, the soil, homemade wine (which Jane Austen refers to in her letters), wallpaper, clothing that had green pigment, glue, and medicines … People would often take arsenic on their own as they were convinced that arsenic in controlled quantities could improve energy, make you plumper, and more vital. Pots and jars of skin creams also could contain arsenic … There are many other more likely causes of cataracts than arsenic poisoning.’”
  • In the midsixties, as America and the USSR were locked in a race to the moon, another contender quietly threw his hat in the ring: Edward Makuka Nkoloso, of Zambia. His methods were unorthodox; his students, untested; his uniforms, unprofessional. But the guy had moxie. Namwali Serpell writes, “Nkoloso wore a standard-issue combat helmet, a khaki military uniform, and a flowing cape—multicolored silk or heliotrope velvet, with an embroidered neck and festooned with medals. His astronauts sometimes wore green satin jackets with yellow trousers. (They were quick to explain that these were not space suits: ‘No, we are the Dynamite Rock Music Group when we are not space cadets.’) … He rolled his cadets down a hill in a forty-gallon oil drum to simulate the weightless conditions of the moon. ‘I also make them swing from the end of a long rope,’ he told a reporter. ‘When they reach the highest point, I cut the rope. This produces the feeling of freefall.’ ”

  • Dictators don’t care if their homes are Instagrammable; they have no appetite for hygge or minimalism or starchitect-designed green buildings; they don’t even really give a shit about antiques. Instead, they reside in ferocious, claustrophobic tributes to their power—the representation of force is their only aesthetic concern. Peter York, who literally wrote the book on “dictator chic,” offers a few insights: “Fascinated by the question of what makes dictators’ houses so recognizably similar, I spent months poring over pictures—from across the continents, from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first … Dictators might work in the grand styles of earlier centuries, but they don’t usually use old materials and furniture. Everything is brand spanking new. Old styles add gravitas, but antiques themselves are too faded and shabby … Dictators’ homes aren’t for one’s family, friends or private self; they’re not a refuge from the world or the job. Dictators’ homes, in fact, are the job—a place to do business, harangue people and settle scores, all while one’s entourage stays nearby. They are an architectural and artistic means of establishing the power of the occupants, of intimidating and impressing any visitor.”
  • Alex Clark has undertaken a survey of the new generation of protest novel, which prizes a certain situational agility: a speedy turnaround, an unabashed topicality. But for these protests to reach a wide audience—an audience that hasn’t already heard their message a thousand times—we “need writers who will play the long game; who will bide their time and present us with a more settled view in the years to come,” Clark writes: “When Robert McCrum spoke to American novelists in the wake of Trump’s victory, they appeared largely minded to exercise restraint. ‘We’ll have to see what Trump is going to do,’ said Walter Mosley. ‘If it’s bad enough, I won’t be writing novels, I’ll be talking and writing about it.’ Others appeared utterly wrong-footed: ‘I said Trump was an impossibility. The fact that I was so completely wrong has made me doubt what I understand about my country,’ said Richard Ford … And Don DeLillo, with characteristic phlegmatism, possibly captured the mood best, months before Trump was elected. ‘I don’t know what the future holds,’ he told a London audience last year, ‘but I don’t think anybody in the country is looking forward to it very much.’ ”
  • Cinephiles should have their minds in the gutter. The film critic Melissa Anderson remembers reading “this perfect sentence: ‘Motion pictures are for people who like to watch women,’ a line I have since repeated endlessly. It was written by Boyd McDonald (1925–1993); I discovered it while reading Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV, a collection of the peerless critic’s columns for Christopher Street and other gay publications that had been recently reissued by Semiotext(e). The observation strikes me as the purest, simplest distillation of cinephilia—or at least one strain of it, mine especially. A master of beautifully and hilariously articulated bawdiness, McDonald advanced an aesthetic principle best encapsulated by this excerpt from his tribute to Steve Cochran, one of the many B- and C-list actors who were the writer’s chief fascination: ‘But I have digressed from my topic, and digressed so far that it may be necessary to remind the reader what my topic is: the size of Cochran’s meat.’ ”