To celebrate the publication of Roberto Bolaño’s collected nonfiction, New Directions and Galapagos Arts Space host translator Natasha Wimmer, novelist Francisco Goldman, writer and Believer editor Heidi Julavits, Harper’s contributing editor Wyatt Mason, and our very own Lorin Stein as they they read from and discuss Between Parentheses, a collection of the late Chilean author’s essays, reviews, speeches, and personal musings. The event is free; doors open at 7:00 P.M. Galapagos Arts Space, 16 Main Street, Brooklyn, New York. Further details here.
Early on in Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (A Chess Novella) the narrator, a casual chess player, expresses his worry that a serious devotion to chess might bring on madness:
How impossible to imagine […] a man of intelligence who, without going mad, again and again, over ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, applies the whole elastic power of his thinking to the ridiculous goal of backing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board!
On Monday, I settled down to watch Bobby Fischer Against the World, an entertaining new HBO documentary, directed by Liz Garbus. Besides chronicling the career of one of the greatest chess players of all time, it is also a rumination on the cold war, on political extremism, on youth prodigies and the dangers of sudden fame, and on loneliness. Finally, perhaps most hauntingly, it is about the relationship between chess, genius, and madness.
Bobby Fischer grew up on Lincoln Place, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the son of a single mother who spent much of her time agitating for communism. A lonely, awkward, uncommunicative boy, he immediately became obsessed with chess when, at age six, he learned how to play from the instructions of a cheap set bought at a candy store below his apartment. Soon, Bobby was staring at his chessboard for hours on end, playing both white and black, engrossed in the absurd attempt of beating himself, and of not letting himself be beaten by himself.
When he was no older than thirteen, this obsession, which at first had worried his mother, seemed to pay off. At the 1956 Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York, Bobby’s first appearance at a major chess event, he played a game of such daring and brilliance that he instantly became a sensation in chess circles. Within a year, he had won the prestigious U.S. Open; within another year, he won the U.S. Championship; and within a year after that, he was well on his way toward a lucrative career as an internationally renowned master.
Last Saturday I caught a midnight showing of John Cassavetes’s Faces. Shot in LA in the mid-sixties, Faces is a movie about sex, booze, and aging—or, you might just as well say, about the faces of John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, and Gena Rowlands. It is absolutely sad, absolutely tender, and absolutely unsentimental. You won’t cry, and for days you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Not, at least, by reading The Pumpkin Eater (1962), Penelope Mortimer’s fictional account of her marriage to Rumpole creator John Mortimer: “We didn’t love each other as most people love: and yet the moment I have said that I think of the men and women I have seen clasped together with eyes full of loathing, men and women who murder each other with all the weapons of devotion.” —Lorin Stein
I’ve been enjoying Caroline Preston’s ingenious The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, a novel made up entirely of vintage images. It’s nifty and fun—but the plot moves along, too! —Sadie Stein
Jon-Jon Goulian on Robert Silvers, venerable founding editor of The New York Review of Books: “A man who can field a call like that with such composure is a man, you might say, whose head is still full of marbles, and yet that would leave open the possibility, inconceivable to me, that Bob might one day lose a few. That leaves only one alternative: Bob’s head contains one giant marble, one only, and you will have to behead him to make him give it up.” —L. S.
Maybe the summer is provoking more wanderlust in me than usual, because this week I read two novels about runaways. First up was Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. I moved on to Denis Johnson’s Angels. Reading it late at night in the immensely humid heat and borderline-nonexistent light of my tiny bedroom seemed to underscore every bizarre and frightening episode of Johnson’s book. —Natalie Jacoby
Prior to reading Terry Castle’s collection The Professor: A Sentimental Education, I was only familiar with her jaw-dropping Sontag reminiscences—but I’m sorry it took me so long: all her essays are that funny, pithy, and unexpected. —S. S.
Wesley Yang’s remarkable n+1 essay about Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter at the Virginia Tech massacre, is now available as a Kindle single. —Thessaly La Force
On the lighter side, I recommend our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on how to survive Disney World—minus the fear and loathing. —L. S.
A George Plimpton video game? —T. L.
In a 1974 interview with The Paris Review, Archibald MacLeish adamantly insisted that the writer must engage with the world around him in order to create art, not act as a mere outside observer commenting on the play at hand. “The subject of art is life. You learn by living it. And you don’t live it alone … You live it with and by people—yourself in your relation with people, with and by living things, yourself in your relation to living things.” I wholeheartedly agree with MacLeish but have plenty of writer-friends who insist on separating themselves from the world around them, alone and misunderstood by everyone else. What’s your take on the romantic notion of the artist in isolation? Is a Henry David Thoreau laughable in this day and age? —Kate
Of course writers need solitude—that’s where the writing happens—but I’m with MacLeish: if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you’d better start by taking an interest in other people. That means living among them; sexting doesn’t count. The two big dangers for contemporary fiction, it seems to me, are people not reading enough and people not hanging out enough. These dangers were unimaginable in Thoreau’s time. His solitude is full of remembered texts and remembered conversations. His clean slate is a palimpsest. But to spend your days alone and online isn’t just bad training, it also makes for lousy material.
So, I’m curious—what was the last book that made you cry?
I got prickly-eyed last night over a history book, of all things, by our sports correspondent Louisa Thomas. In Conscience, Thomas writes about her great grandfather and great uncles, minister’s sons who wrestled with the question of whether to fight in World War I. (The most famous of these brothers, Norman Thomas, later became a hero of the Socialist party.) The moral seriousness of Norman and his brother Evan, in their letters and speeches, is wonderful, at times even preposterous—and those are exactly the moments that get me.
But if you mean crying like boo-hoo, and if you don’t count King Lear (which came to town last month with Derek Jacobi), I think it may have been rereading Mrs. Bridge. Boo-hooing and laughing at once.
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Theater director Peter Sellars has never seen a great work of art that didn’t reflect the madness of modern life. Which for years has driven critics around the bend, who have accused Sellars of dragging classic operas and plays through the mud of topical politics. This Friday at the venerable Ojai Music Festival, Sellars will stage The Winds of Destiny, a recent work by renowned composer George Crumb, to evoke the U.S. war in Afghanistan. I recently caught up with Sellars in New York, and again on the phone, when he was in Brussels directing Desdemona, a new theater work by Toni Morrison. His exuberance as a director carries over to his conversations, where his infectious high spirits never flag, even when addressing criticisms of his work.
In the The Winds of Destiny, Crumb recasts Civil War folk songs, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in a blistering setting of percussion and female voices. Why did you choose this piece for the Ojai festival?
Because the sense of being at war with one’s own country, and the violence of that, is so intense, and has left such a deep scar in the life of our country, that it has not only not healed, it is being reopened in our lifetime. Certain people in America now are trying to rewrite the social contract of this country to exclude a huge segment of the population from prosperity and the pursuit of happiness. We’ve returned to the same issues of the Civil War, where the future of America is about whether we’re going to allow people who are not white to be treated equally. And George Crumb has set the music in a strange, haunted universe of memory, of regret, and those memories contain an enormous amount of violence. That’s by definition post-traumatic stress disorder: things being replayed again and again; strange rattling and rustling and sleeplessness. This is music that really cuts deep.
“Wanted,” the advertisement read, “sixteen- or seventeen-year-old apprentice cutter for Savile Row firm. Energetic … Intelligent … Smart appearance …” I was skeptical (what the hell was a cutter?) but Dad made the call and we were granted an appointment at ten the following Tuesday. I had never heard of Huntsman before. For that matter, I am not sure that I had ever heard of Savile Row.”
So began, somewhat ignominiously, Richard Anderson’s career as a bespoke tailor. Today, Anderson is “The King of Savile Row,” as The Independent called him—but in 1982 he was a teenager with failing grades who showed up for an interview in white socks, a short-sleeved shirt, and a school blazer.
Anderson’s memoir, Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed, has been called the Kitchen Confidential of the tailoring world, an insider’s look at the industry and one that exposes a certain amount of its foibles and eccentricity. But what’s even more of a revelation than the ins and outs of cutting and fitting is the sheer thoroughness of the traditional apprenticeship, which Anderson served. Even thirty years ago when Anderson got his start, the kind of ground-up dues paying he describes was on the wane; in an era of overnight success, it’s almost unimaginable.
It’s no shock that, since everything’s ripe for the TV picking, even Savile Row got its own BBC special—a reality program that made it look, says Anderson, “quite glamorous.” And as a result, he now gets some ten or fifteen letters a weeks from prospective employees. However, their notion of apprenticeship doesn’t involve sweeping or cutting, let alone the kind of respect for institutional authority that was the backbone of Anderson’s training. “They tend to think they’d quite enjoy designing,” Anderson explains dryly, adding that they also tend to be older and “there’s a big difference between a seventeen-year-old kid just out of school and a twenty-something who’s seen a bit of the world.” Especially one in today’s England, he need not add.