Anna Kavan’s short story “Ice Storm” begins in winter, with the narrator leaving Grand Central Terminal to visit friends in Connecticut, to clear her head and make a decision (about what, is left unspecified). They can’t understand why she has chosen to leave her “nice warm Manhattan apartment” for the relentless chill of the country. A similar question: Why would we leave the warmth of a relatively comfortable life to enter fiction like Kavan’s, which is often fraught and frigid? Her masterful lucidity and dispassionate affectation—on display in Machines in the Head, a collection of Kavan’s short fiction, out this week from NYRB Classics—is a journey into the cold to clear your head. Unlike her most popular work, the excellent novel Ice, which skids along planes of disrupted reality, these stories (selected from the span of her writing life) are tighter and more focused. The psychological reality of her characters is rendered sharply: in the title story, the narrator awakens “just in time to catch a glimpse of the vanishing hem of sleep as, like a dark scarf maliciously snatched away, it glides over the foot of the bed and disappears in a flash under the closed door.” Her narrators are often faceless, unnamed, and ungendered; rather than being alienating, this instead asks you to imagine your way inside. Her narratives are uncanny enough to ultimately forge a safe distance, but her characters familiar enough to make one understand anew what it means to wake up and be unable to fall back asleep, or feel unable to decide one’s future. —Lauren Kane Read More
When she died last December at the age of ninety-eight, the novelist Elizabeth Spencer was described as “a national treasure.” The author of nine novels, eight story collections, a memoir, and a play, she had mastered every mode of literary fiction. Her first novel appeared in 1948 and her most recent book in 2014. On the page, Spencer makes what’s technically difficult seem unusually clear, then psychologically inevitable. From the start, her voice was praised for its tonal nuance, its stratospheric empathy. Spencer had the gift for infusing social situations with a bullfight’s fatality.
She was born in 1921 in the waning plantation culture of Carrollton, Mississippi. Senator John McCain was her second cousin. She grew up owning a horse and believing in ghosts. The subject of race was inescapable in the Jim Crow South and it figured strongly in her fiction.
At her career’s very start, Elizabeth Spencer won the admiration of wise older writers, fine judges of talent like Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty. They identified her depth of insight, her fellow feeling, and the warm richness of her character.
A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1953 allowed her to depart Mississippi for Italy. There she met and married John Rusher, an Englishman from Cornwall. The couple moved to Montreal in 1956. I first encountered Spencer when I published my first story at age twenty-six. She sent me a letter praising what I’d done. Beginner’s luck on all fronts. When Spencer became writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in 1986, she took up residence in Chapel Hill, where we became neighbors. Read More
Our column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
The French writer Inès Cagnati was not unknown during her lifetime, but she was deeply unwilling to play the public role that helps a writer secure a place in the canon, or to spread her fame beyond national borders. Her three novels, written over the course of the seventies, each won or was nominated for France’s most prestigious literary prizes, but the recent New York Review Books edition of Free Day (Le jour de congé, her 1973 debut), is the first English translation. The irony of her embrace by the French literary establishment lies in Cagnati’s deep sense of alienation from the country in which she was born and raised. The daughter of Italian immigrant farmworkers, Cagnati grew up poor and isolated in the small town of Monclar, in southwestern France. She spoke no French until she went to school, and although she eventually became a teacher and a novelist in the language, she described her naturalization as a French citizen as a “tragedy.” The weight of multiple forms of estrangement—of language, culture, class, and gender—settled heavily on her as a child and shaped her as a novelist.
The popular vision of rural southern France as a place of sun-dappled ease and beauty is not the southern France that appears in Cagnati’s books; hers is a place where tough, alienated people scratch out a thankless existence. Cagnati’s parents were part of a wave of immigration from Italy to southwestern France between the wars, agricultural workers who were lured by the promise of lush and abundant farmland to fill the gap left by the twin depopulating forces of World War I and mass migration to cities. Faced with a “marshy, rocky,” unforgiving reality, they nonetheless dug in and helped revive the rural economy. By the time Cagnati was born in 1937, more than eighty thousand Italians were living in the region around Monclar, and running more than half of the farms. Yet because the stories of poor rural people, often unable to read and write, are easily overlooked, it’s a period and place that could have been forgotten. Cagnati’s novels are of primary importance in shaping the memory and bearing witness to this history. They help complicate the widely held French faith that the country’s rural areas hold some kind of true and unsullied national identity.
Not long ago, I volunteered to take part in a performance at the contemporary art museum near my home. Very little is known about the artist who created the piece. Even in a recent obituary, his date of death and the names of survivors were deliberately withheld, “in keeping with his lifelong penchant for privacy.” In death, as in life and art, his biography has remained publicly minimalist.
We do know that he was born on December 24, 1932, in Kariya, Japan. And so he would have been roughly four months from his thirteenth birthday when nuclear bombs were dropped on his country. In his late twenties, he moved to Mexico City with his father, the director of an engineering company, where he continued to study art, eventually moving to Paris, then New York, and wherever else he lived. His art-making turned from early figurative paintings to the conceptual and process-based works he became known for, along with his reclusiveness.
Private lives are always ordinary to someone. It is said that the artist enjoyed seeing friends, drinking, conversing, traveling the world (a lifelong passion). Over the years, he sent postcards and telegrams from distant locales with messages like I GOT UP AT 9:04 A.M. and I AM STILL ALIVE to galleries, artists, and friends, this becoming part of his artistic production, akin to the mail art conceived by others in his generation. He established permanent residences in at least a few of the most cosmopolitan metropolises in the world, either successively or simultaneously, though he never revealed anything about his own experiences of these places, his artistic persona more like a wandering ghost, floating around the globe, creating a sort of code that only he held the keys to, dispersing, or erasing, himself into matter-of-fact one-line messages, the monochrome dates, newsprint, and coordinates of his paintings, lists of names and years, color-coordinated calendars. Read More
Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
Noah, my eight-year-old son, and I go to Target. He is carrying a little stuffed monkey, and as we walk through the automatic doors he puts it under his shirt. “No, no,” I say. “Bondo is shy,” he says. “I told him I’d keep him safe.” “No, no,” I say. Under Noah’s shirt, Bondo could be anything. He could be wild and alive. He could be something that doesn’t belong to him. He could be a bouquet of flowers or a gun or a book of fairy tales about the bodies of black boys. “Why?” he asks. “Why,” I answer, or I start saying something and then stop, or I say “because it isn’t safe,” or I say “I love you,” or I say “here, let me hold him.”
A few days later, a friend posts on Facebook that her nine-year-old black son is now riding his bike to the supermarket by himself. “We have talked to him,” she writes, “about using a bag for the items he’s bought, not his pockets, keeping his receipt in his hand as he leaves the store, keeping his hands out of his pockets while shopping, taking his hood off.” I imagine it continuing, “we have given him invisibility powder, we have made wings for him out of the feathers of ancient doves, we have given him the power to become a rain cloud and burst, if necessary, into a storm.”
When I was a child I could’ve hidden a house under my dress, and all I would’ve been was a girl with a house under my dress.
As my sons grow, the American imagination grows around like them like water hemlock. Poisonous and hollow. My sons’ skin is light. So the hemlock may not grow as thick as it would for a darker boy.
I look for a fairy tale about the bodies of boys. There is Pinocchio, but he’s wooden. And Peter Pan, although magical, is only the thin memory of a boy. There is Jack and his bean stalk, but Jack is more wish than body. And then I remember Tom Thumb who, like the body of the black boy, is caught inside a swallow cycle. Read More
Let me tell you something about children’s poetry: people tend to create it for the right reasons. I was taught this concept in connection to medieval lyric poetry. My teacher’s point was that art made in the modern world is under scarcely any obligation to be good. It can be interesting instead, or new. Or it can “bear witness.” Being good—actually good—is even considered a little passé.
The minute you bring a six-year-old into the picture, though, everything changes. She doesn’t care whether what you’re doing “serves as a useful critique.” She wants it to be good. Consequently, if I’m in a used bookstore and I see a book called Thai Children’s Poetry or Setswana Children’s Poetry or Inuit Children’s Poetry, I pretty much buy it on contact. One wants to know: Does Botswana have a Dr. Seuss? Does Thailand? ’Cuz if they do, I need to know about it.
Russia had a Dr. Seuss. Same deal as ours, except his hot decade wasn’t the fifties; it was the twenties. There’s a lot to be said here.
Name: Kornei Chukovsky. Dates: 1882 to 1969. Number of supremo-supremo classic children’s books to his credit: ten or twelve. His stuff is a lot like Green Eggs and Ham: about that long; rhymes bouncing around like popcorn; no real point in sight. (Of course, like with everything else, you can carry whatever point you like into his books and then pretend you found it there. It’s like cops planting weed in people’s cars.)
Chukovsky’s backstory is pleasant. He was a young father; his son was sick. I think he had dysentery, I’m not sure. Somehow, everyone thought the family doctor was the only one would could be consulted, so Chukovsky wound up on a train in the middle of the night with that poor kid, age like four or something, sick and moaning. To take the kid’s mind off the horribleness, Chukovsky got him engrossed in some kind of collaborative improvisation game, rhyming like crazy around a story of a crocodile who comes to Saint Petersburg and eats a dog and then a cop or something… there’s a war … the crocodile runs around … Chukovsky’s kid was just a teeny thing, but he knew inspiration when he saw it. He forgot all about his guts and helped Mozart compose his first symphony.
Next day, the two of ’em knew that what they’d made was too good to let go off, so they sat at a table and reconstructed what they could. Chukovsky took that reconstruction, fixed it up, made it make sense, and voilà: ready for the printer. I’m doing all this from memory.