- Everyone holds up Anna Karenina as a milestone for realism—“We are not to take Anna Karénine as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life,” Matthew Arnold wrote—but Janet Malcolm raises an eyebrow at all that. “The book’s ‘astonishing immediacy’ is nothing if not an object of the exaggeration, distortion, and dissimulation through which each scene is rendered … If the dream is father to imaginative literature, Tolstoy may be the novelist who most closely hews to its deep structures.”
- Now at the Frick Collection: Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, an iconic Victorian painting whose subject’s well-developed right thigh set the world on fire. “The beautiful woman asleep in some archaic past was a recurrent motif in Victorian art … The figure of the languid woman is more than just an object of erotic desire. She’s the opposite of the rationalist, ever-striving, murderously competitive spirit—once conventionally thought of as distinctively masculine. She embodies a yearning to relax, to retire from the fray and take pleasure in just being alive.”
- Jenny Diski is dying of lung cancer, and facing the illness the only way she knows how: in prose. “A marvel of steady and dispassionate self-revelation, Diski’s cancer essays are bracingly devoid of sententiousness, sentimentality or any kind of spiritual urge or twitch … they also testify to an inner life of undiminished hyperactivity.”
- Nesh, gloaming, cochineal, swamm, clart: writers pick their favorite words. “The chosen words are mostly regional, often monosyllabic, and frequently richly onomatopoeic: the natural poetry of the heterogeneous English-speaking tongue.”
- In which Orson Welles dabbles in pornography: in a pro-bono gig for the picture 3 A. M., the filmmaker “wound up editing a hard-core lesbian shower scene that he couldn’t resist cutting in Wellesian fashion with low camera angles and other trademark flair.”
If I said to you, “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her “thick lashes,” her weight, or maybe even her little downy mustache (yes—it’s there). Matthew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes … ”
But what does Anna Karenina look like? You may feel intimately acquainted with a character (people like to say, of a brilliantly described character, It’s like I know her), but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed—nothing so choate.
Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly) provide their fictional characters with more behavioral than physical description. Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide. Anna: her hair, her weight—these are only facets, and do not make up a true image of a person. They make up a body type, a hair color … What does Anna look like? We don’t know—our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.
Visualizing seems to require will …
… though at times it may also seem as though an image of a sort appears to us unbidden.
(It is tenuous, and withdraws shyly upon scrutiny.) Read More
We’re tournament people, my husband and I. The way some people climb rocks or brew beer (I don’t know: What do other people do?), we draw sloppy 64-berth brackets in coffee-stained spiral-bound notebooks then set to vigorous, regimented discussion, rationally whittling down the field until an undisputed champion emerges. Notable competitions past include Most Intriguing City (Helsinki def. Buenos Aires) and Favorite Animal (Polar Bear def. House Cat). Most times, Matt is the tournament master, the committee of one who conceives and presents the field to me, which I then imperiously adjudicate, usually while reclining on a couch or airplane seat and eating something packed with butterfat. It’s a good arrangement, because he is a historian who likes categories and I am a writer who likes making things up.
For tournament people, the next bracket is always a gift. Matt’s mom visited last month, and she brought with her a 32-person field of literary characters for each of us to complete. Our champions were to be not the greatest or most iconic or most influential figures, but the characters we’d most like to have as friends.
“Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” Claire Messud had recently demanded of Publishers Weekly.
She had a point. We took Alexander Portnoy instead. Read More
“Would you wear this?” the Swede asked. His honey-colored hair flopped over one eye. He was in a much-loved ragged, red jacket that looked expensive on his lanky frame.
I wore my best-fitting jeans and my favorite shirt, a cowboy shirt with pearl-clasp buttons and that perfect stich in the chest pocket made for cigarettes or pens. My curly red hair was extra poofy, spiraling away from my head, thanks to some mousse applied by the Swede. The pièce de résistance of my outfit was this poncho-thing that could’ve been designed by Jennifer Beals in Flashdance for a Western-themed dance night, a beige sweatshirt stretched out into a boatneck collar, draping across my chest, festooned with fringe. I looked like a cowboy’s sidekick. I felt silly.
“I’ve never really worn fringe before,” I said. “I plead the fifth.”
It was my semester abroad. I was twenty years old and living in London. I had never been a particularly good liar, having been blessed with a round moon of a face that registered every thought. But as I assimilated among the English, a people with whom I assumed I’d get along very well, being of clearly similar native-of-Boston stock and having a love of nineties Britpop, it was becoming clear to me that I had a more pressing social problem: I did not know how to tell a white lie. I didn’t even have the grace to realize when you should tell a white lie. In my own well-meaning way, I was becoming a bit of an asshole. “I plead the fifth” was my catchphrase. In England. Read More
It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I spent a recent Sunday morning at the baby shower of a friend made in adulthood. The other attendees all went back to Catholic school, so after the obligatory oohing and aahing over the onesies, conversation turned to Jessie, the surprising no-show of the high school crowd. “She must be hungover again,” said one girl with a knowing shrug.
“Yeah,” another chimed in. “Scott must’ve been on the late shift again, if you know what I mean.”
Snickering all around. “Ugh, Scott,” one said with a theatrical shiver. “That guy is such a loser, my God. If Jessie doesn’t move on soon—”
“Jessie will never move on,” another girl emphatically interrupted. “She finds his gigantic forty-year-old beer belly and pathological fear of commitment totally entrancing, and really who wouldn’t?”
What followed was another ten minutes on the subject of the absent Jessie, who, at thirty-three, all agreed, was definitely way too old to keep answering the midnight booty calls of the ne’er-do-well weeknight bartender at the Harp. Finally, the hostess noticed me nibbling quietly on my teacakes in the corner. “Oh, God, I am so sorry!” she cried. “I forgot that you don’t know Jessie! This must be so boring to you—we will change the subject.” A pause. “So, um, what else should we talk about?” She gazed down at her belly doubtfully.
In the thudding silence that followed, I was allowed to insist that Jessie’s sleazy sexual predilections and Scott’s ironic collection of too-tight NASCAR T-shirts were infinitely more interesting than bump-circumference guessing games or the extortionate price of strollers these days. Several hours past the official end of the party, I left in the glow of new friendships made: it was truly the most fun I’d had in weeks.
Because that’s the thing: gossip is fun, one of the most profound and satisfying pleasures we humans are given. Read More
I’m planning a trip to Southeast Asia later in the year, and I’m looking for fiction set in the countries I’ll be visiting. For the most part I’ve managed to find books that fit the bill—Graham Greene’s The Quiet American for Vietnam, André Malraux’s The Way of Kings for Cambodia, and Christopher Kremmer’s Bamboo Palace for Laos. But I’m really stuck on Thailand. There’s The Beach by Alex Garland, which I’ve read and wasn’t a huge fan of. Aside from that all I can seem to find are some fairly nasty-looking crime novels. I’d prefer something slightly more on the literary side of things if possible, whether fiction or nonfiction.
Thanks (and kap koon kah).
John Burdett’s not your speed, eh? In that case, I recommend Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. Set in Chiang Mae and in the jungles of northern Thailand, it tells the story of an anthropologist and a family of American missionaries battling over the hearts and minds of an animist village. No less an authority than Stephen King raved about it in Entertainment Weekly:
This is a great story. It has an exotic locale, mystery, and a narrative voice full of humor and sadness. Reading Fieldwork is like discovering an unpublished Robertson Davies novel; as with Davies, you can’t stop reading until midnight (good), and you don’t hate yourself in the morning (better).
King didn’t like the title (“Berlinski tells us the editor hung that says-nothing title on the book. The guy should have stuck to editing”). As the editor in question, I may be biased—but I promise it’s the book you want.
Perhaps you can assist me with a delicate matter. Having lately fallen in love, I find I have been inspired to address to my particular Phoebus Apollo a string of flamboyant sonnets, which, although they genuinely come from the heart, are, I suspect, really terrible. True, they scan quite well and, of course rhyme, but in their slightly banal sentimentality they make John Betjeman seem highbrow. So, mindful of the possibility that such a dubious body of work might someday come to light, is it better, do you think, to run the risk of being labeled as an awful poetaster who’s heart is in the right place, or disconcerting Phoebus Apollo by engaging in ruthless self-censorship?
Why not take a page (a very famous page) from Sir Philip Sidney?
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite—
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”
As Sidney writes, a love sonnet needn’t be good—just induce a modicum of pity. Your limitations can only be a strength. Read More