After the jump, a recap of our last two softball games, against High Times and The Nation. Read More
4:45 A.M. Reviewing two new books about Caravaggio—books that are about as different from each other as it is possible to be: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and The Moment of Caravaggio, a series of illustrated lectures by Michael Fried. Almost everything we know about the man himself comes from evidence meticulously transcribed by hugely diligent notaries attached to the Roman civil and criminal courts: a litany of threats, assault, battery, and, ultimately, cold-blooded murder.
6:00 A.M. Until two years ago it was axiomatic that Caravaggio did not draw. Thanks to a new infra-red camera, however, we may now observe what was previously thought not to exist, namely short choppy lines in ink—unmistakable evidence of fairly extensive under-drawing by which the artist set down on the primed canvas his principal points of reference. There is also evidence of scored lines and even tracing, à la carbon paper. None of this overturns the basic fact that draftsmanship was not very important to him. But at least we now know Caravaggio certainly practiced it when he needed to, the crafty devil.
12:30 P.M. I am re-reading My Memories of Six Reigns, by H. H. Princess Marie-Louise, having some months ago suggested it as an ideal summer book for readers of the Yale Alumni Magazine, especially connoisseurs of that neglected subgenre of dotty royal memoir. “Cousin Louie,” as she was known, was the fourth child of Queen Victoria’s bad-tempered middle daughter, Princess Helena. Her book is a fantastically weird combination of out-of-sequence table-rapping reminiscence; reverent reflection upon the burdens of monarchy, and innumerable flecks of interesting detail.
1:45 P.M. Louie’s Edwardian wedding to Prince Aribert of Anhalt was the bright idea of Cousin Willie, the Kaiser, but more accurately an example of his total lack of judgment. It seems the Prince was soon afterwards caught in flagrante with an attractive young male servant in, on, or more probably beside the marital bed, and, concluding from this that her marriage was no longer viable, Louie promptly undertook an extended tour of Canada and the United States. Returning to Britain she immersed herself in charitable and artistic work, set up a Girls’ Club in Bermondsey, kept an eye on her mother’s nursing homes, and lent modest support to the imperial trade in dried fruit. Wholly guileless, Princess Marie Louise is irresistible. Read More
Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, signals his move out of Soviet territory and into a near-future New York City, where books have no place in a hyper-technological society. Yet, in our conversation a few weeks ago, many of Shteyngart’s expressions (such as “the intertube”) reveal an innocence he has maintained in our own heavily digitized world. He reflects that now, after having lived with this book for three years, he needs to “retreat to the countryside and live in a pristine environment where the iTelephone doesn’t work.”
Super Sad True Love Story switches between letters, diary entries, and dialogues. Why did you choose these formats?
Well, you know, it’s sort of hard to read an entire book cover to cover these days. Most people just don’t come with the same equipment that we used to have. When they look at a book they think, “Oh my God, it’s so many pages! What am I going to do? How will I ever get through this?” So, you’ll notice the cover of this book is very flashy—it’s almost like you want to press parts of it, hoping that something will pop up. So, the insides of the book—the “text” you would call it—have the same kind of approach to it. Everything is mixed up, and different stuff comes at you at different speeds. Just as the reader is about to fall asleep with one kind of format, all of the sudden it changes.
Your new book also features some bizarre clothing trends, especially those Onionskin jeans. What’s your assessment of fashion today?
Well, first of all, a couple years ago the pubic bone started making an appearance. I’ve never seen so many pubic bones! I mean, it’s shocking. I know them so well now. Forget the asscrack–that’s been around for a while.
After placing two novels in the Soviet Union, why did you move away from that setting for your third novel?
Boy, it’s getting tiring! You know? When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, it collapsed. I wrote about that collapse in two books already, but I have an uncanny feeling we’re not doing very well here, too. I think I have a sixth sense when it comes to failing empires. That’s sort of my specialty. If I were around during the Roman Empire I’d be writing a book a week. I’d be so happy! I love things on the decline because that’s really the natural progression of our lives. We’re born, we’re feisty for the first couple of years, and then the inevitable decline begins. That’s what appeals to me—the long slide into oblivion. Read More
Otto Dix went to war voluntarily. A good part of his WWI duty on team Germany was as a machine-gunner, which provided Dix with front row seats to the Battle of Somme and other horrifying displays of anatomy, brutally exposed. He was entrenched in gore. He was repeatedly wounded, once near-fatally. Things around him were about as violent as is conceivable—and Dix, like others who thrilled to the front, spent those years cultivating a conception of violence. Which is shitty and all, except that that was his motive from the get go: Dix was eager for the terribleness, volunteering, he once explained, “to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it.”
He got it. And for the next near-decade, Dix stored the sought-after experience of those war years in the sick, fragmented cinema of the brain where we keep all the worst of what we’ve seen, that asylum for repression from which broken imagery escapes into our nightmares and peripheral vision. Then, in 1924, Dix produced Der Krieg (The War), a cycle of fifty-one demented and harrowing prints that document his experience in battle: exposed brains; eviscerated youth; abstractions that, upon reflection, reveal themselves to be piles of disembowelment; blood blood blood. The series acts as sort of post-traumatic stress exorcism modeled after Francisco Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra. Loose translation: “I’ve seen shit you can’t even imagine and these artworks will only give you a fraction of an idea of how awful my daydreaming mind has forever become.”
03 marks the beguiling English-language debut of the youngish French writer Jean-Christophe Valtat. The slim book was written in French, and has been published here in a sharp translation by Mitzi Angel, but Valtat writes also in English—or “some idiom that resembles English,” as he puts it—including in his upcoming Aurorarama, to be published in August. “I like both languages, and how they blend at times, but what I write in French is different from what I write in English,” he tells me. “In French, I tend to ratiocinate. English is where my imagination takes me.”
The whole of 03 is a single, propulsive monologue—uninterrupted, even, by paragraph breaks. How important was it for you to make this a story that should be read in a single sitting?
It’s less a story, maybe, than about getting frustrated by the impossibility of any story to happen. I always wanted the book to be short and filled up to the brim with frustration and anger, as if about to spill. I sometimes describe it as holding as much as can be held in a closed fist—it is supposed to reflect the intensity and urgency of teenage angst, and the way it feeds on itself relentlessly, in the hope of filling the surrounding emptiness. It should sound like when you talk too much in order to impress a girl, or, since in the book the girl is out of reach, like a mad-eyed, clenched-jawed hamster running in a wheel.
That girl is not just “out of reach,” of course, she’s retarded, and her disability is presented in an unusual, undomesticated way—it makes her an object of real desire. Is this just a trip to the terminal point in the literature of forbidden love and foreclosed lust—or something more?
There is some of that, of course. She works first as a mirror image of the narrator’s own disability regarding love and lust. But on another level, she is an allegory of the general failure that he seems to observe in himself and in others, school kids or adults—and of the way prettiness and youth is doomed to be ignored or destroyed. And then, she is also the blank page or the screen that he uses to construct and project a way to understand others. As this is done through endless hypotheses, it is also the beginning of fiction. Most of what happens in one’s head is fiction, after all.
In the book you offer, alongside that allegory, this one: “A young retarded boy asks his teacher if she wants to know the time, and without waiting for her reply he unzips his fly to reveal a watch he has strapped around his penis.” How would you characterize the relationship of these stunted characters to time?
The narrator is keenly aware that people are never fully their own contemporaries, mostly because of the annoying persistence of childhood, or because they’re lagging behind a dream-image of themselves. In this respect, everybody seems to be stunted in some way or other.
But that seems less a regrettable state, in 03, than simply a mysterious one—almost sacred, and inviting examination. “The more I wanted to identify with her, the more I identified with myself; and the more I tried to understand her, the less, necessarily, I succeeded: the failure of an intelligent mind to grasp feeblemindedness was deep and dark, no less than the failure of a feeble mind to grasp intelligence, because intelligence got its shape by not understanding the thing it could never be.” The portrait of the girl emerges over the courses of the book only through “endless hypotheses,” as you put it—does that make it a failure?
I guess there wouldn’t be a book if there wasn’t in it a sense that fiction can work, a little. So, at some points, and though he will never know it, the narrator may get close to the understanding is looking for. I have no particular fascination for failure. In some respects the book is about avoiding it. It ends on a “farewell,” which I think is some sort of success—or profane salvation.
What we’ve been reading this week.
- I was keen to catch a glimpse of what is being called the “last comic” of Harvey Pekar, which is a collaboration with Tara Seibel, a Cleveland cartoonist and graphic designer. Seibel’s story of her final moment with Pekar is comforting in its ordinariness: she dropped him off at the public library, where he had parked his car. —Thessaly La Force
- Jackson Lears’ marvelous review of Alan Brinkley’s less-marvelous dual biography of Henry Luce and Time, Inc. The book has been a strange mirror for reviewers: when The New Yorker handled the book, it did so as a shadow portrait of Eustace Tilley; when The New York Times did, it became a book about the challenges facing newspapermen in the digital era. But Lears sees something bigger than himself reflected in the story of Luce and his mid-century behemoth. “Few men have more fully embodied the tense alliance between the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” he writes. “He preached a civil religion for an emerging affluent society.” —David Wallace-Wells
- It’s douche bag, not douchebag, according to a former New York Magazine copy editor. But my favorite testimony from the trenches is still this Q&A with The New Yorker‘s Mary Norris. Some tidbits: she will always regret making Oliver Sacks spell sulfur the American way (instead of sulpher); there’s a staff writer who consistently spells annihilate with one “n”; and even the best are confused by the difference between “lie” and “lay.” —T. L.
- Also, the ever-serious Jeffrey Rosen on the punishing frivolity of life on the Internet; theologian David B. Hart on theologician Marilynne Robinson; and a charming Esquire feature on gamesmanship and The Price Is Right. —D. W. W.
- For my sins I’ve been reading Seymour Krim’s 1970 collection Shake it for the World. Krim was what used to be called an “underground” critic. He wrote for the Voice and the New American Review; I read him to remember how dead that world is now. Half this collection is a sustained rant against James Jones and Norman Mailer (“… now this hip young literary snatch was carrying on about Barbary Shore in a way that would have offended Mailer himself. I lost my trick of the evening because of the stone I turned to after this Mailer-infected preacherette thrust him at me like the sacrament . . . ” etc., etc., etc.) Nowadays I suppose he’d be a blogger, like the rest of us. Every once in a while, though, Krim gets off a zinger. For instance when the New Yorker theater critic John McCarten calls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf “a vulgar mishmash.” Writes Krim: “What Irishman is kidding what Jew?” One misses that kind of thing, a little. —Lorin Stein