Here’s a mysterious poem by Catherine Pierce about pregnancy and superstition. We were taken with the way it evokes the magical thinking that comes with vulnerability—and the places where scientific advice about prenatal health subtly shades into paranoia and misplaced faith. Pierce lets us into the speaker’s predicament but only so far, leaving the reader with a sense of heightened confusion and attentiveness to the instability of the world around us. Even the moon can seem twisted in this mindset.—Meghan O’Rourke
“It’s actually nice to play on this piano because it’s got the funk,” said the virtuoso jazz pianist Jason Moran. He was seated at an old Kurtzman upright piano and had just finished playing a lush, hard-swinging solo version of “The Sheik of Araby,” a tune he recently learned for his Fats Waller dance party at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. His comment elicited nervous laughter from the crowd of fans who’d crammed themselves into the main room of a suffocatingly hot Lower East Side apartment late last month—some of us seated on fold-out chairs, others on the floor—to hear him play two unaccompanied sets. Moran, one of the most celebrated young jazz artists of the last ten years, seemed right at home in this intimate, makeshift performance space, aptly named A Gathering of Tribes. Although he has been justly praised for his sometimes cerebral approach to jazz, the no-frills atmosphere of the venue, which attracts players of every school and listeners of every stripe, accentuated the earthier side of his style.
A Gathering of Tribes is the home of author and educator Steve Cannon, a man the writer Paul Beatty, who dropped by for Moran’s second set, once referred to as “professor emeritus of the Lower East Side.” For the past twenty years Cannon has used his apartment to stage public readings, concerts, and art exhibitions. The venture reflects his devotion to the local community and his desire to preserve its vanishing bohemian character, which he came to know firsthand upon moving there from New Orleans in the 1960s. Cannon has made Tribes a particularly important site for contemporary jazz music. It boasts an impressive roster of past performers, including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Butch Morris, and Matthew Shipp.
One of the distinctions of Film Socialisme in Jean-Luc Godard’s oeuvre is its near-absence of cinemacentric references (the most prominent visual citation is from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, a film from the so-called experimental-film tradition, one that has played a slender part in Godard’s lifetime of cinematic reflections). This time around, Godard comes to the history of cinema from the outside, as in a sequence that features the voice-over remarks “My friends, I’ve found the black box: here’s why Hollywood is called the Mecca of cinema—the tomb of the Prophet—all gazes turned in the same direction—the movie theater.” Likening the movie screen to the Kaaba, Godard suggests that the secular Jews of Hollywood were also founders of a faith, of a devotion to the guided gaze, sacralized by the prophetic power of the image itself. Yet calling the discovery the “black box” suggests that Godard considers the definitive record of Hollywood’s influence also to be a disaster and its prophetic influence to be fraudulent. It also suggests the loss of faith that accounts for the absence of references to the classic cinema and, in particular, to the Hollywood movies that were the core of the tradition he inherited and perpetuated.
When an athlete grows old, when she slips and starts making errors, you say that her body betrays her. What you mean is that she betrays you. A superhuman should not age. So you punish her with your attention, with your nostalgia and condescension, and also with your neglect. You turn your gaze to the young.
For the first two weeks of this year’s French Open, that’s what happened. Sure, younger players had earned the spotlight. Novak Djokovic was in the middle of one of the longest win streaks in the history of tennis. If he made the French Open final, he would become number one. For his part, Rafa Nadal was looking to equal Björn Borg’s record of six French Open titles. No one expected much of Roger Federer. Even Anna Wintour, who sat in Federer’s box in Paris, had more or less conceded Djokovic’s dominance, featuring the Serb in tiny swimming briefs in the pages of Vogue, where once Roger had been king. Federer is twenty-nine years old.
On the women’s side, the favorite was a beautiful blonde Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, twenty years old. She had never won a major, but never mind. The defending champion, Francesca Schiavone, who has hollow cheeks and a habit of kissing the dirt, wasn’t given a chance. Some thought her win last year—she had been seeded seventeenth—was a fluke, and besides she is ancient, nearly thirty-one. But Wozniacki lost in the third round, and when the finals arrived Schiavone was there again, and this time playing the twenty-nine-year-old Li Na, best known for being Asian and having a tattoo.
“With a combined age of sixty years seventy-nine days, Li and Schiavone make up the oldest French Open final pairing since 1986,” said The New York Times. Li and Schiavone were pressed to explain their advanced ages. “Is like the wine,” Schiavone said. “Stay in the bottle more is much, much better.”
“I’m not old,” Li Na insisted. “Why do you think I’m old?”
Decorated with numerous awards in his native Spain—including the same Premio Rómulo Gallegos that catapulted his friend Roberto Bolaño to international renown—Enrique Vila-Matas has pioneered one of contemporary literature’s most interesting responses to the great Modernist writers. Taking the Modernists as towering giants that will never be equaled, Vila-Matas works to inscribe himself—at times literally—in the margins of their works. His tools are irony, parody, paradox, and futility, and his goal is to mix fact, fiction, and autobiography in order to depict not reality but truth. I asked him about his newly translated novel Never Any End to Paris—his third in English—based on the time he spent in Paris as a young writer attempting (and gloriously failing) to triumph as Hemingway did.
Never Any End to Paris uses your youth in Paris to explore ideas of creativity, influence, and identity. The narrator is a writer whose facts and dates are similar to yours, though—I think—he both is and isn’t you. Do you think art requires certain compromises with reality?
Which reality? If you mean the conventional “consumerist reality” that rules the book market and has become the preferred milieu for fiction, this doesn’t interest me at all. What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures. There remains to be written a great book, a book that would be the missing chapter in the development of the epic. This chapter would include all of those—from Cervantes through Kafka and Musil—who struggle with a colossal strength against all forms of fakery and pretense. Their struggle has always had an obvious touch of paradox, since those who so struggled were writers that were up to their ears in fiction. They searched for truth through fiction. And out of this stylistic tension have emerged marvelous semblances of the truth, as well as the best pages of modern literature.
This sentiment is very similar to something you say in Paris—“where there is a mirage there is life”—and it reminds me of something I heard you say in an interview: that for the modernists the quest is rectilinear, in contrast to that of Ulysses, whose quest was a circle. In your books, what inspires this search?
In a movie by Wim Wenders, Nicholas Ray says “you can’t go home again.” Sometimes I think about this phrase, and in order to calm down I imagine myself as a Chinese who came home. “I’m just a Chinese who returned home,” wrote Kafka in a letter. Sometimes I wish I were this Chinese, but only sometimes. Because the truth is that what I write frequently brings me to a descent, a fall, a journey within, an excursion to the end of the night, the complete opposite of a return to Ithaca. In short, I long to journey endlessly, always in search of something new. Always alert.