I once visited the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia with someone who was convinced that the entire place was filled with fake art: not forgeries or wrongly attributed masterpieces, but “museum quality” reproductions. The basis for this wild claim was a painting from Cézanne’s series The Card Players, of which there are two very similar versions, one in the Barnes, and the other in the Met. Not only was she sure she had seen this painting before, she was certain that at that very moment, the real version was hanging in its rightful place in New York, which meant that the Philadelphia version had to be a fake. The history and layout of the Barnes allowed this theory to quickly gather steam: one of the largest collections of Modernist and Impressionist art in America, it was originally housed in the billionaire philanthropist Albert C. Barnes’s mansion in Pennsylvania and arranged according to esoteric principles that came to be known as the Barnes Method. Rather than having all the Cézannes in one wing, you might see, for example, a peasant woman by Cézanne, with a girl in a pink bonnet by Renoir hanging above it, and a medieval door latch between them. The idea is to observe closely and forge your own metaphoric connections between object and image. But there were too many vaguely familiar Picassos, too many Van Goghs stuffed between rusty sconces, too many corners jammed with Restoration armoires. It was just the sort of thing, my companion said, that an American industrialist who made his fortune selling antiseptic creams would do: build a mansion in the middle of nowhere and fill it with copies of his favorite European things. (This dovetailed nicely with her initial impression that Philadelphia itself was a lesser copy of New York.) Apart from feeling momentarily insane, and at the same time realizing I would probably end up marrying this woman, it occurred to me that it’s not such a bonkers idea when you consider the Met Cloisters, the mishmash of actual convent buildings from Catalonia and southern France that were reassembled in Upper Manhattan by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and filled with an array of Old European Things like sarcophagi, tapestries, and illuminated manuscripts. In any case, it’s a theory that would likely have interested William Gaddis, whose novel The Recognitions, reissued in November by NYRB Classics, is full to bursting with forgers, fakes, thieves, and liars, all in search of an authentic experience of art and life.
Most successful collaborations are celebrated for the near-magic synchronicity between the musicians. But when Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach shared a recording studio in 1962, the result was a monument to tension and friction.
The title track of Duke Ellington’s 1962 album Money Jungle opens with a jarring, metallic sound, something between a bison call and a buzz saw, bleating alone in tripping doubles, siren-tense. It is the bassist doing something unnatural to his instrument—running his fingernail against the strings, snapping them, making them percuss. A violent sound. Five seconds of the bass bleating and the drums burst, a crisp wave of sound from the hi-hat, a parade over the lowing of the bass, cresting and dipping in preparation for the piano, and after another five seconds the piano comes in loud, bursting, a chord played with all the pianist’s strength, as if he had thrown all his weight down onto those first keys. In the wake of this opening salvo the piano flits about the bass, weaving bright circles, like a bullfighter leaning tight to the bull and swaying just out of reach—in turn the doubles of the bass become a run, the opening figure played over and over again, obsessively, the bass stamping the ground, beating its head against the wall just to touch something. When the bass finally lets up, relaxes off its single note and dips, the piano dips right behind it—a bird snatching an insect off the ground. The album, in the first thirty seconds, is less a collaboration than a tug-of-war, a tangle of thrown gauntlets and cross-purposes. For the remaining five minutes of the song the piano is in control, jumping in front of and about the bass, staying just ahead of its push.
The track ends not in explosion but in exhaustion. The bass tries one last charge, snapping the same note over and over to the limit of endurance, and soon loses its proportion, slowing to something heavy and irregular, a wounded breathing. The piano slows too, but mechanically, like a wind-up toy at the end of its string—a few soft, low plinks, and gone, scattered over the dense body of the bass. After the track was recorded, it is said, the bassist attempted to walk out of the session. The album, in my estimation, is a masterpiece.
Money Jungle had been intended as a collaboration of styles and generations—Duke Ellington, sixty-three, big-band grandee, measured and smooth, a living legend albeit slightly passé, playing around with two emissaries of sweating, jagged, hard-driving bop—the drummer Max Roach, thirty-eight; and the bassist and composer Charles Mingus, forty, a man occasionally proclaimed to be the inheritor of Duke’s mantle, a musician who named “Duke and Church” as his two influences and a volcanic personality who had previously been fired from Duke’s 1953 European touring band after only four days for fighting a fellow musician. Mingus in concert, finally, with his idol. Duke embracing his descendants, bestowing his personal seal on their lineage. And Roach straddling both styles, yoking them together in rhythm—or at least, that was the plan. As Rick Mattingly writes in The Drummer’s Time: Conversations with the Great Drummers of Jazz, at Roach’s recollection of their sole prerecording meeting, Ellington had self-effacingly called himself “the poor man’s Bud Powell,” and had expressed a desire to play an assortment of compositions, not only his own. On the finished album, however, every track is Ellington’s.
I’m writing from the outskirts of the small town of Tarapoto, in northeastern Peru. My ostensibly short trip here last March intersected with the declaration of a state of emergency: complete shutdown of domestic travel, strict curfew, international borders sealed. There were expensive “humanitarian flights” requiring government permission to travel to Lima; otherwise, it was impossible to move. This was meant to keep the virus out. By midsummer the situation improved elsewhere while Peru was suddenly in the global epicenter, and lockdown was meant to keep the virus in. Now the situation is reversing again, travel restrictions are loosening, and after eight months, I’m faced with the option of heading home.
Before the pandemic, I was living in Harlem, teaching at City College, and working on a book about the writings that remain from the bathysphere dives—strange, poetic texts that constitute the first eyewitness account of the deep ocean. The bathysphere was a four-and-a-half-foot steel ball fitted with circular, three-inch quartz windows, the first vessel that could go far underwater. Launching from the small island of Nonsuch, in the Bermuda archipelago, in 1930, the ball was winched off a vessel called the Ready and lowered on a steel cable. It eventually sunk to below three thousand feet, exponentially deeper than any previous dives.
Folded up inside the ball was William Beebe, a zoologist and popular nonfiction writer. When the dives began, he was already famous for his research on pheasants and his account of a recent trip to the Galápagos, where he’d witnessed the eruption of a volcano. His 1934 book on the bathysphere, Half Mile Down, straddles science writing, history, and a kind of secular mysticism, rich with observation but oriented toward the failure of language, the inexpressibility of experience. Read More
Read Ayşegül Savaş’s story “Layover” in our Fall issue.
The club has six members. Maks and I bring the cake. Beth brings drinks. Talia sets out chairs in front of the bookshop. Penelope carries the metal grill and turns the shop sign to CLOSED. Follie, the black dog, goes wild. She jumps and licks and runs in circles. Then she goes in search of an empty bookshelf to curl into. We have a joke about Follie reading all the books inside while the club congregates on the shop terrace, across from the gates to the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s really not that funny. But somehow at a gathering, it can become hysterical.
The club is called Cakes and Ale. That might be my favorite of Maugham’s books, though it’s Penelope who came up with the name. She’s been a bookseller for thirty-five years, which means that she’s a master punner. She is also a master judge of character. It seems too obvious that a bookshop owner named Penelope, with her long hair and wool cardigans, should also be an eccentric. I’ll say, then, that she’s like a favorite childhood book: with unexpected turns and wicked humor, a meandering narrative that nevertheless knows where it’s headed.
Maks is best among us at keeping Penelope on track when she tells stories. Not long ago, as Penelope told us a long story about Bach, a jazz pianist, and a brunch gone awry, Beth and Maks shouted in chorus: “Penelope get to the point!” So Penelope delivered: “She died.”
Ours isn’t a book club. It’s not even a friends’ club, exactly, given how little we know about one another, far less than we do about friends with whom we have long and deep conversations, building constantly toward an unshakeable alliance: to share everything, to hold the same values, to have the same orientation in life. This one, if anything, is a humble pandemic club: we are, simply, neighbors. Before, we’d share a drink whenever we stayed past the shop’s closing time. Sometimes, feeling bad about our constant lingering, we’d come with a bottle and snacks. But now we have room for routine and we make no objection to sitting outdoors in the cold, on stools. It’s an old-fashioned gathering we wouldn’t have maintained in the old world, with travels and appointments and engagements, all the different groups we’d like to be a part of, the constant tailoring of our social circle to our own tastes and likeness.
Workers must command
A Bulgarian grocery store opened for business in my Amsterdam neighborhood. On the inside of the plate-glass window they hung a Bulgarian flag, making the store highly visible from the outside, but dark inside. They sell overpriced Bulgarian groceries. And the same can be said of almost all the ethnic markets. First come the migrants, and after them—the markets. After a time the ethnic food markets disappear, but the migrants? Do they stick around? The number of Bulgarians in the Netherlands is clearly on the rise; two Bulgarian markets have opened recently in my neighborhood alone. And as to those with a “Balkan tooth,” they have famously deep pockets as far as food is concerned; they’ll happily shell out a euro or two extra to satisfy gourmandish nostalgia. The markets sell Bulgarian wine, frozen kebapcheta and meat patties, cheese pastries (banitsas), pickled peppers and cucumbers, kyopolou, pindjur, lyutenitsa, and sweets that look as if they’ve come from a package for aid to the malnourished: they are all beyond their shelf dates. The store is poorly tended and a mess, customers are always tripping over cardboard boxes. Next to the cash register sits a young man who doesn’t budge, more dead than alive, it’s as if he has sworn on his patron saint that nobody will ever extract a word from him. The young woman at the cash register is teen-magazine cute. She has a short skirt, long straight blond hair, a good tan. Her tan comes from her liquid foundation; her cunning radiates like the liquid powder. She files her nails, and next to her stands a small bottle of bright red nail polish. The scene fills me with joy. She grins slyly. I buy lyutenitsa, Bulgarian (Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Serbian) cheese, and three large-size Bulgarian tomatoes. Dovizhdane. Довиждане.
I know that every European right-wing heart warms to this description. True, the “Easterners,” the Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles, not only steal, drink, and lie, but they bring with them their own pickles, their own swill. They can hardly wait to milk our welfare system, move into our subsidized housing, which they then sublet to others while they go back to their houses and lounge and laze around with the money they’ve ripped off from us taxpayers. Of course the Bulgarians, Romanians, and Poles think the same of their Roma; and until recently the Bulgarians thought likewise of their Turks. Ever since educated Bulgarian women have been rushing off to Turkey in droves, however, to earn a little pocket money as housekeepers, the constellation of products and the erosion of stereotypes has shifted to the advantage of the Turks.
The division into those who work and those who do not—the hardworking and the indolent, the diligent and the ne’er-do-wells, the earnest and the couch potatoes—is hardly new, but over the last few years it has become the basic media-ideological matrix around which revolve the freethinkers of the general public. Joining the category of the indolent, ne’er-do-wells, and malingerers are the ranks of the jobless (for whom the employed claim they are simply incompetents and bumblers), along with the grumblers, indignants, and the groups defined by their country, geography, and ethnicity (Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians—all shiftless riffraff!), anticapitalistic elements, hooligans, vandals, terrorists, and Islamic fundamentalists.
In response to the question of how to become a multimillionaire, one of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs replied, “Don’t you forget, I work seventeen hours a day!” The very same answer is given by criminals, thieves, politicians, porn stars, war profiteers, celebs, mass murderers, and other similar deplorables. They all say seventeen hours a day, my career, and my job with such brash confidence, not a twitch to be seen. On Meet the Russians, a TV show broadcast by Fox, young, prosperous Russians, many of them born, themselves, into money, fashion models, fashion and entertainment industry moguls, pop stars, club owners, and the like, all use the following phrases: I deserve this; everything I have, I’ve earned; my time is money; I work 24/7; I never give up. Read More
This puzzling quest is almost at its end. —James Rorimer, 1942
Nobody knows who made the Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven weavings that depict a unicorn hunt that has been described as “the greatest inheritance of the Middle Ages.”
Without evidence, the La Rochefoucauld family in France asserted that the tapestries originate with the marriage of a family ancestor in the fifteenth century. The tapestries did belong to the La Rochefoucauld in 1793, before they were stolen by rioters who set fire to their château at Verteuil. The family regained possession sixty years later, when the tapestries were recovered in a barn. The precious weavings of wool, silk, gold, and silver were in tatters at their edges and punched full of holes. They had been used to wrap barren fruit trees during the winter.
In late 1922, the Unicorn Tapestries disappeared again. They were sent to New York for an exhibition, which never opened. A rich American had bought them and transferred them to his bank vault before anyone else could see them. In February 1923, John D. Rockefeller Jr. confirmed from his vacation home in Florida that he was the American who had acquired the tapestries for the price of $1.1 million. The tapestries were transferred to Rockefeller’s private residence in Midtown Manhattan.
Fourteen years later, Rockefeller donated the tapestries to the Cloisters, a new medieval art museum he had funded as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The mysterious works were to be on regular public display for the first time in their five-hundred-year history. James Rorimer, the first curator of the Cloisters, had the intimidating task of interpreting them.
On July 26, 1942, the New York Times reported that Rorimer had identified symbols that proved the key to the mystery, among them a knotted cord, a pair of striped tights, and a squirrel. He identified these as symbols in a system that pointed to Anne of Brittany as their owner and decided the tapestries had been made to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII in 1499. No one who read the news that Sunday was able to see the Unicorn Tapestries for another two years. The weavings were moved to a secret location following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.