- Today in comedies of errors: William Empson began work on The Face of the Buddha in 1932, but the book is only now being published. What took so long? Well, for starters, Empson gave the manuscript to a dangerous guy: “The man of letters John Davenport had left it in a taxi when very, very drunk, circa 1947 … Davenport was so embarrassed by his bungle that he did not confess to Empson until 1952. But his apology was far from accurate. Thanks to an inspired curator at the British Library (let his name be honored: Jamie Andrews), we now know the full story. What actually happened is that Davenport, still three sheets to the wind, handed the manuscript and its photographic illustrations over to that most colorful figure of 1940s literary bohemia, the Tamil poet and editor of Poetry London, Tambimuttu. Shortly afterwards, Tambimuttu quit London and returned to his native Ceylon, leaving The Face of the Buddha in the hands of his coeditor, Edward Marsh. And shortly after the handover, Marsh took ill and died. His papers remained unexamined until they were bought by the British Library in 2003. Andrews discovered Empson’s material two years later.”
- While we’re on the joys of rediscovery, let’s bring Bob Dylan into the mix: “There have long been rumors that Mr. Dylan had stashed away an extensive archive. It is now revealed that he did keep a private trove of his work, dating back to his earliest days as an artist, including lyrics, correspondence, recordings, films and photographs. That archive of 6,000 pieces has recently been acquired by a group of institutions in Oklahoma for an estimated $15 million to $20 million, and is set to become a resource for academic study … With voluminous drafts from every phase of Mr. Dylan’s career, the collection offers a comprehensive look at the working process of a legendarily secretive artist … Seeing the archive may conjure a familiar feeling of astonishment at just how deep the well of Dylanology goes. There is always far more beneath the surface than anyone could guess.”
- Tim Murphy reminds us not just that Valley of the Dolls is fifty years old now but that talk shows used to be a lot more combative, and all the better for it: “Jacqueline Susann, with thickly rimmed eyes, signature lacquered black hair and in a print mini-dress, went on the David Frost talk show. There, the notoriously scabrous critic John Simon eviscerated her before a live audience. What was Valley of the Dolls, he asked her, but ‘a piece of trash on which you can get famous, rich, known quick, and make money?’ Smiling gamely and (literally) leaning in, Susann, then fifty, asked him if his name was Goebbels, Göring, or Simon, ‘because you sound like a stormtrooper.’ She then told him Valley of the Dolls was ‘too sophisticated a story for you to understand, because it’s dirty!’ ”
- Movie premieres used to be better, too, even when they were for art-house films by Samuel Beckett starring Buster Keaton: “Film premiered on September 4, 1965 … Rex Reed, in the New York Times, described the scene: ‘several hundred bikini-clad starlets’ surrounding the likes of Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard, and then Keaton, looking ‘for all the world like the kind of man dogs kick,’ with ‘his pants a little baggy’ and ‘his hat a bit crushed.’ Keaton said it was the first time he’d ever been invited to a film festival. Critics mostly panned the movie—but then Keaton hadn’t given them much to go on. ‘Heck, I’d be the last one in the world to comment,’ he told Reed, ‘because I didn’t know what those guys were doing half the time.’ ”
- The “shot reverse shot” is a fundamental filmmaking technique: you turn the camera on one character, then you turn another camera on whatever that character is looking at, and boom, you’re making movies. But the Coen brothers take the technique in another direction, according to Tony Zhou: their filmography “is full of shot reverse shots that feel both ‘kind of uncomfortable, and kind of funny,’ a visual evocation of the Coen brothers’ frequent use of isolated characters trapped in ‘situations they really have no control over’—and because of the choice of lens and placement of the camera, ‘you’re trapped with them.’ And that setup gives them a host of options when they want to emphasize or even exaggerate certain qualities of the characters talking or the situation the story has put them in.”
- So you published one of the most lauded, beloved, fiercely debated novels of 2015—what now? A new thrill can be hard to come by. Hanya Yanagihara has elected to follow her success by swimming across Martha’s Vineyard. Just because. “Swimming,” she writes, “is the writer’s sport, because it is the sport most like writing. To swim, as to write, is to choose an intense state of socially acceptable aloneness. You can be a serious runner or bicyclist and still have to occasionally nod at a passerby or negotiate traffic. Swimming, however, precludes interaction with the world. When Anne Sexton won a fellowship from Radcliffe in 1961, she used the money to build herself a pool, which has always seemed to me a sensible artistic decision, if those two adjectives can ever be paired … There is no better place to unkink a complicated piece of invented logic than in the water—there is little else to do, in fact, but confront your problems.”
- The Coen brothers are back with Hail, Caesar!, which, as you’ve probably heard, is about a brutish studio fixer in the golden age of Hollywood. Richard Brody sees it as a meditation on faith: “The Coen brothers are into belief systems—big and seemingly backward ideas that overcome contradictions with a leap of faith—and Hail, Caesar! is full of them … The Coens see the absurdity and the narrowness in the grandeur of the Hollywood mythology on which they were raised. Movies are different now because the people who make them don’t—and can’t—exercise the same sort of plenipotentiary power; because studio heads are no longer godlike; because studios as such, with their closed complexes of soundstages and paternalistic control over actors’ lives, no longer exist. Yet the Coens look back upon those movies with a specific nostalgia for a lost faith. The religion that the Coens grew up with wasn’t Christianity, but it was the American religion—Hollywood.”
- Hey, they made a new movie of Arabian Nights! Imagine the pageant of exotic images to come as Scheherazade tells his stories! And then stop imagining it, because Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, as Adam Thirlwell writes, has another set of references in mind: “There are no sherbets, no hunting parties, no silks: this movie employs a different vocabulary of cigarettes, drizzle, plastic signs, and metal fences … The movie lasts more than six hours, and is divided into three parts—‘The Restless One,’ ‘The Desolate One,’ and ‘The Enchanted One’—each of which is in turn divided into three or four named stories, which vary in length but which each last roughly thirty to forty-five minutes. It’s a long film that is also a series of shorts. To make the movie, Gomes set up a troupe: a mini office of investigative journalists, whose job was to come to him with raw material from Portugal’s recession.”
- How did Joan Didion make the leap from litterateur to legend? That’s the kind of rhetorical question only Vanity Fair could answer. In the process, Lili Anolik probes the recesses of Didion’s marriage to John Gregory Dunne: “Dunne wasn’t Didion’s match artistically. Not so much a slight as it might sound. Dunne was a fine writer; Didion just happens to be more than that. And he seemed to have accepted his second-best status … ‘John told Brian [Moore, the Irish novelist] he was walking on the beach one night and he ran into Jesus and Jesus said, “I love your wife’s work!” ’ … That Didion could wipe the floor with Dunne anytime she chose must’ve been disturbing for him. And confusing. The girl he’d married, a slip of a thing, bookish and wallflowerish, turned out to be this spooky genius, a poet of paranoia or possibly a clairvoyant of paranoia fulfilled.”
- As e-books sales begin to slump, one digital publisher is doubling down by putting out “unprintable books”: “People like to talk about how physical books have qualities that don’t transfer well to digital … We want to show that digital books can have narrative and visual qualities that champion writing but can’t be transferred to print. You wouldn’t really sit and read a novel while at your desktop would you? You’re more likely to curl up on your sofa or armchair and read a book—and you can do that on your phone just as easily as you can with a paperback.”
The first entry in New York Review Books’s new comics series is Mark Beyer’s Agony, a graphic novel about two regular working people just trying to get by and the ceaseless horrors visited on them. Amy and Jordan endure acid baths, bear and monster attacks, unemployment, boring friends, prison beatings, armed robbery, an apartment flooded with blood, and deaths in the family, among other cataclysms; they bear it all with the same gaunt, anxious expressions, and usually they speak only in affectless expository sentences. E.g.: “I’ve been swallowed by the same fish that ate Amy’s head, and my legs have been bitten off. I’ve got to get out of here!” As Colson Whitehead writes in the introduction, how hard you laugh at all this depends on “how you feel about relinquishing the logic of realism in favor of the logic of undying despair.” I couldn’t get enough of their misery: I finished it in one sitting and flipped back to the beginning. —Dan Piepenbring
My traveling companion these days has been the late poet Frank Lima and his newly collected Incidents of Travel in Poetry. The book, beautifully culled by editors Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier, comprises the breadth of Lima’s work, from his early poems written as a heroin-addicted New York School outsider to his later surrealistic ones informed by freewriting. Many are autobiographical, making this one of the heavier, more affecting collections I’ve read in a while. His poems are laced with incest and smack and guns: he writes of his stay on Hart’s Island, where he tries to get clean, and of his mother who, “when I awoke … was a warm mist hovering, suspended over me, / naked, / … sweeping my body away / into the cumulus clouds / of black pubic hair.” Lima’s verse is uninhibited and unafraid; he writes with pungent frankness. My favorite lines, though, are the playful, tender ones. From “morning sara”: “I am hungry and go thru your underwear / give me some hot soup or / I’ll suck on the curtains!”; from “Mi Tierra”: “When I touch you / I see Utah / your flat white sandy belly / the powdered dust devils in your navel / the white nipples of the Rocky Mountains.” —Caitlin Youngquist
- “‘They shouldn’t be allowed to read it at all,’ Julian suddenly said. ‘They’re the editors,’ I said. ‘They’ve commissioned this thing. And they have to read it.’ ‘No. They will only prejudice it.’” The beguiling story of ghostwriting for Julian Assange.
- “To cunt a text is to adore it.” How to cunt your favorite poets, including samples of Cunt Chaucer, Cunt Wordsworth, and Cunt Olson. A fun arts-and-crafts activity for you and your kids.
- Why was the Coen brothers’ excellent latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, snubbed by the Academy?
- What we know about the Voynich manuscript: it’s 246 pages, it was discovered in an Italian monastery in 1912, it consists of words and illustrations, it’s … well, it’s a manuscript. What it says, or whether it says anything at all, remains a mystery, even to linguists, chemists, historians, and physicists.
- Perhaps forensic linguistics holds the key: “an investigative technique that helps experts determine authorship by identifying quirks in a writer’s style. Advances in computer technology can now parse text with ever-finer accuracy.” Aspirant criminals: write blandly.
In early February 1996, an ice storm smothered my hometown with a blanket of deadly frost several inches thick. It was magnificent, sleek, and treacherous, the perfect surface for my eleven-year-old self to hurtle headlong on my mom’s Flexible Flyer, going briefly airborne before I hit the frozen pavement, my sled coming to rest squarely on my right hand. I spent the rest of that week inside my parents’ house, my right hand wrapped in ice and Ace bandages, and my left fumbling through a paperback copy of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I’d received the whole box set that Christmas and had promptly set about devouring them.
Despite my unhappy convalescence, I felt as if the ice storm was a gift of sorts, bestowed upon me from the great literary beyond by Laura herself. It was a chilly glimpse into her life, otherwise so remote from my own. When my dad went out to clear the driveway, he was Pa trekking out to the barn in a blizzard; when the power went out, briefly, and my mother boiled water for hot chocolate over the fireplace in our living room, she was Ma making chicory. When I rode in the back seat of our Plymouth Grand Voyager as it crept across icy, rutted surface roads en route to the emergency room, where my hand was deemed unbroken, my family was the Wilders crossing the frozen expanse of Lake Pepin on the way out to Indian Territory.
The writer and editor Wendy McClure also adored the Little House series as a child. After her mother died a few years ago, she fell back into them—fell so hard that her life became consumed, for a time, with churning butter and reading biographies and ferreting out the historical reality from the deeply beloved, quasifictional world of the stories. From it all, McClure wrote her own book, The Wilder Life, which came out last April and which I read in greedy bursts on my train trips to and from work. It was early spring in the South, the underground platforms already sagging with humidity. But daily my arms prickled with goose bumps as McClure rifled through the books’ most intense pleasures, the food and the cozy houses and the unceasing restlessness that pulls the Ingalls family ever westward. Read More