“Happy Dark,” an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Maren Karlson, is at Brooklyn’s Interstate Projects through June 18. Karlson, who lives and works in Berlin, populates her drawings with demonic cartoons, lurid, sinuous lines, and distended patterns—as if the elemental figures of some netherworld have started to skew and melt under the pressure of their occult lifestyle. Her exhibition takes its title from some lines by Clarice Lispector: “Only the mercy of god could yank me out of that terrible indifferent joy in which I was bathing, complete. For I was exulting. I was coming to know the violence of the happy dark—I was happy as a demon, hell is my maximum.”
Anyone who talks about Clarice Lispector and psychoanalysis is likely to say something foolish, not least because psychoanalysis is a discipline of listening, not talking. And, in fact, this is a tempting place to stop.
“Coherence,” says Lispector, “I don’t want it any more. Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder. I can only guess at it through a vehement incoherence.”
Let’s talk about this single aspect of Lispector. I’m going to tell you not just why her work is so important, why I think she is so important, but how I think it, the way in which I think that thought. Read More
So many of our contributors brought out new books this year—Amie Barrodale, Emma Cline, Peter Cole, Rachel Cusk, Kristin Dombek, Garth Greenwell, Benjamin Hale, Fanny Howe, Ishion Hutchinson, Alexandra Kleeman, Karl Ove Knausgaard, April Ayers Lawson, Nathalie Léger, Ben Lerner, Jonathan Lethem, Mark Leyner, Sarah Manguso, Luke Mogelson, Mary Ruefle, David Salle, Brenda Shaughnessy, Zadie Smith, Karen Solie, David Szalay … I worry I’m forgetting some, but these are the ones on my shelf. After these, my favorite new books of 2016 were probably a couple of reissues from New York Review Classics. First there was Henry Green’s masterpiece, Loving, about servants on an Irish estate during World War II; then there was Sybille Bedford’s multigenerational saga, A Legacy. First published in 1956, this is the story of two German families—one, rich Berlin Jews; the other, country aristocrats—whose fates intertwine in the years before World War I. If you like any two of the following—The Radetzky March, The Hare With Amber Eyes, or Love in a Cold Climate—then A Legacy should be on your short list. Things get a tiny bit slow at the very end, only because Bedford seems to lose interest in the plot. What she cares about is scenes, character, and atmosphere. She is also very good at food: “The sea-urchins came heaped in a great armorial pile, sable and violet, tiered on their burnished quills, like the unexplained detail on the hill by the thistles and the hermitage of a quattrocento background, exposing now inside each severed shell the pattern of a tender sea-star.” And that’s just the first course. —Lorin Stein
With such wildness going on around us, it’s beginning to feel like an even more difficult task than usual to make writing equal to the gargantuan thing we keep melancholically calling reality. The essays by Mark Greif in Against Everything are a rare example of patient, complicated clarity; while I hope someone is translating Nous by the French novelist and philosopher Tristan Garcia, a book that brilliantly examines what we mean when we use that pernicious and inescapable word we. I guess in the end it just comes down to some kind of accuracy of voice, like the disillusioned, festive thinking on display, in very different ways, in Frederick Seidel’s Widening Income Inequality and Maureen McLane’s Mz N: the Serial. Or maybe there’s no need to expect the contemporary to be equal to the contemporary … The woozy inventions on display in Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories (I know it came out last year, but still …) seem more and more alarming and persuasive. —Adam Thirlwell Read More
When I spoke with Mary Ruefle on the phone recently, she’d just moved into a new house and had spent the morning putting screws into the back of a mirror. “I had my toolbox out and one of the screws was deficient,” she told me, “so I had to find another and it was just endless … You need two people for this sort of thing, but I did it myself.” It’s a statement akin to many in her new collection, My Private Property, a mélange of essays, stories, and prose poems, in which small objects often become vehicles for profound reflection. Ruefle, best known for her poetry, begins much of her work this way—she muses on ordinary things like keys or clouds, yellow scarves or golf pencils, until those descriptions unfurl and beget larger, existential meditations on sadness and boredom, on language and lullabies and autonomy in old age. Our conversation was like that, too, always unraveling toward some arresting observation.
To work with Ruefle is to enjoy the pleasures of another age; she rarely uses a computer. I mailed her the transcript of our interview, and she returned it with scrawls of red ink and typewriter marks. The last page had been touched by a lit cigarette, leaving a small orbicular burn in the right margin with a stale, nimbus-like ring around it—punctuating, with great finality, the end of our conversation.
In your poem “A Half-Sketched Head,” you wrote, “If we were thermometers, no one would want to be thirty; everyone would want to be seventy-eight.” My Private Property returns to this theme of getting older and embracing old age. Take “Pause,” your essay on menopause. You write about a feeling most women experience as they age, the feeling of becoming invisible, of becoming more and more like a ghost because we’re no longer noticed in the same way we once were. But you settle on this, that “being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift that anyone could ever have given you.” What do you mean?
Well, thematically, aging and death become one in the same for writers, and very often you lose young readership because you’re no longer interested in the things young people are interested in. The time for exuberance, energy, endless curiosity, endless activity within a body of work, that drops away and everything becomes bittersweet. But this becoming invisible—all women talk about it. There’s a period of transition that’s so disorienting that you’re confused and horrified by it, you can’t get a grip on it, but it does pass. You endure it, and you are patient, and it falls away. And then you come into a new kind of autonomy that you simply didn’t have when you were young. You didn’t have it when your parents were alive, you didn’t have it back when you were once a woman to be seen. It’s total autonomy and freedom, and you become a much stronger person. You’re not answerable to anyone anymore. For me, it was a journey of shedding the sense of needing to please someone—parents, children, partners.
Men don’t become invisible in the same way. There’s a difference in power between men and women, and I know I’m using an archaic formula but I do belong to another century. For the longest time, male power was posited in the accumulation of wealth or experience, and experience was something every man could have. And a woman’s power was always posited on physical attractiveness, the ability to have children. So as a man ages, he gains power, and as a woman ages, she loses it, or feels as though she does. If you go back to this paradox, which I understand people may find antiquated, you find there are still shards and shreds of it everywhere. Read More
Eve Babitz’s singular take on Los Angeles.
Years ago, a friend gave me a first edition of Eve Babitz’s second book, Slow Days, Fast Company (1974), which had slipped out of print. Tucked inside was a promotional photo of the author on thick, glossy Kodak paper; the back cover, featuring the same image, explained that Babitz had begun to write in 1972 after a stint designing album covers for Atlantic Records. It neglected to mention that she’d had romances with the portrait’s photographer, Paul Ruscha, and his brother, the artist Ed Ruscha—a kind of discretion she’s not often afforded.
Most discussions of Babitz’s writing are preceded by a list of her paramours or a seemingly obligatory nod to the iconic 1963 photograph in which Babitz, nude, plays chess with Marcel Duchamp. I wouldn’t care so much about Babitz having dated Jim Morrison—one of her admitted “tar babies”—or having posed with Duchamp, except that her love life plays nicely into her game on the page: one of sharp, funny, memoiristic essays set in the late sixties and seventies Los Angeles scene. Babitz claims she started these studies at age fourteen. I believe her. She’s been working since she was a teenager, closely observing the people around her—few of whom, presumably, suspected that such a pretty party girl could be so gimlet-eyed. Read More
“How many reasons have I for going to Moscow at once! How can I bear the boredom of seven months of winter in this place? … Am I to be reduced to defending myself—I who have always attacked? Such a role is unworthy of me … I am not used to playing it … It is not in keeping with my genius.” Thus Napoleon in 1812 in Lithuania, on the eve of his disastrous Russian campaign, which would destroy the French army and cost more than a hundred thousand French lives. The whole time, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Philippe-Paul, Count de Ségur, was taking notes. His inside account of the debacle—now known in English as Defeat—was a best seller when it appeared in 1824 and became a key source for War and Peace. Readers will recognize scenes from Tolstoy’s novel, but Ségur’s Napoleon is, if anything, even more vivid, because Ségur loves him and believes in him even when his genius lets him down. —Lorin Stein
The carnival that erupted in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir in 2011, and continued in one form or another for two and half years, has spawned any number of books and films. Maybe because the initial skirmishes were so chaotic or because the outcome of the revolts is still unclear—although a Thermidorian reaction now stretches into the foreseeable future—a documentary approach to this history has often seemed like the best one. Matthew Connor’s book of photographs, Fire in Cairo, goes in a wonderfully different direction. Taken during the spring of 2013, prior the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Connor’s photos are aslant and at times surreal. The violence of the revolts is present, even omnipresent, but as a mood rather than something concrete to look at. His shots, which have no captions, are full of fog, lasers, and common Cairene objects made mysterious through close-ups. There is also a gallery of portraits, many of whose subjects have their faces covered—by veils, helmets, or homemade gas masks. The effect of the book, for me, was to make the revolution strange again; it brought me back to that exciting time when none of us knew quite what we were looking at. —Robyn Creswell Read More