- Good help is hard to find. The late nineteenth century was a fecund period for the Oxford English Dictionary, which began to add and sift through words at unprecedented speed—in large part because Dr. William Chester Minor, a murderer locked up in the Broadmoor insane asylum, was volunteering for the dictionary by mail. “In 1879, Minor began to submit thousands of words to the Oxford English Dictionary via a mail-in volunteer system to the dictionary’s editor, Dr. James Murray … Murray and Minor wrote each other often, but Murray didn’t learn that his most prolific contributor lived in a psychiatric hospital until he traveled fifty miles to see him in 1896 … Haunted by a branding he was forced to give an Irish deserter in the American Civil War, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and had believed he was being molested and poisoned as revenge by Irish men, nightly, for years.”
- Henry James’s late memoirs A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother find him recounting—with apparent joy, at that—the adventures of his youth: Adam Gopnik thinks the books deserve a wider audience. “The charm of the memoirs—the first book in particular—is helped, too, by their evocation of New York. Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue and Washington Square all register as the places they are now and were then, and yet are dazzlingly unlike. We are both in a city we know and in another city entirely, bearing the same street names, and this double vision delights us on each page. Nothing is more charming than James using the full weight of his scrutiny on the simple attractions of his youth, the Crystal Palace and P. T. Barnum’s American Museum.”
- Everyone cheers for the innovative spirit of Roman plumbing. Roman bathhouses! Roman sewers! Roman latrines and toilets! Fine inventions, all, but filthy ones, too—research suggests that these advances in sanitation really didn’t do much to improve public health. “In some baths the water was only changed intermittently, and could acquire a scum on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics … They were afraid of connecting their houses to the sewers, since they feared what might climb out of a sewer into one’s house … They also feared the mephitic gas fires that sometimes burned in sewer holes or in the open seats in public toilets … And when they did go to the public latrines, one of the things they used to wipe themselves was a sponge on a stick, which was shared by everybody.”
- Who needs monuments? What good has a monument ever done anybody, really? Jed Perl argues that Rodin, “with his zigzagging enthusiasms, may have been the first sculptor to conceive of the monument in ways that unmade the monument. He set the stage for the twentieth-century sculptor’s conflicted allegiances to grandiosity and intimacy, as well as what many have come to see as modernism’s embrace of ambiguity. Although Rodin was capable of placing an expressive figure on an imposing base, as in his beguiling salute to the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, often he aimed to destabilize the monument, suggesting with The Burghers of Calais that heroic figures might have no need for a pedestal and transforming the imposing, cloaked figure of Balzac into a mountainous talisman, a primordial plinth.”
- Few would call this a golden age for much of anything—but it is, maybe, a golden age for immersive theater. In New York alone there are at least eight immersive theater productions showing now or soon to open. Whether this is a wondrous bounty or an epidemic depends on what kind of a theatergoer you are: “In the last six weeks or so, I’ve gone to ten events involving all levels of participation, from not much to nonstop; varying in price from $18 to $200 a ticket; and ranging in personal discomfort level from mildly embarrassing to horrifically mortifying. I have experienced many interesting things … I cannot say that this investigation made me want to join an avant-garde acting troupe, but my self-conscious little internal voice, the one that keeps experiences at bay by critiquing them even as they happen, took itself off to a bar and got pleasantly drunk. Some productions were so compelling that you could not help but lose yourself in them, and that was exciting and unexpected.”
We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
On the obsolescence of guidebooks; traveling in Myanmar.
Several years ago in New York, I told Wim Wenders how much I’d liked his film about musicians in Lisbon; he grabbed me by the lapels. “You should go,” he said, “before it’s too late.” I didn’t go then. A few years later I did, and I couldn’t tell whether it was too late. Probably it was—that seems to almost always be the case.
In a similar mind, I went to Myanmar. “It’s already too late” is the refrain one hears again and again about Myanmar, but better late than never. Flights from Bangkok to Yangon are ridiculously cheap, but the city that was Rangoon has a hotel shortage, and beds there are not. Even the taxi from the airport reveals a city in the throes of sudden, extreme development: Vaguely worded business parks have sprouted up everywhere and billboards promise luxurious condos. Hotel lobbies have fliers from real estate developers; breakfast is a sea of laptops, people trying to get in on the ground floor of a newly opened country.
In the hands of Westerners everywhere in Myanmar, one notices a book—Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma), published in July of last year, the most recent travel guide to the country. Leave the capital and its prevalence is even more striking. Elsewhere, the travel guide is a vanishing species, done in first by the Internet and then by smartphones. In most countries in the region, a ten-dollar SIM card will get you Google Maps, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Agoda; even without a SIM, wireless isn’t hard to find. Myanmar, for the moment, is different. You can buy a SIM in Yangon, but we left for Sittwe the day after the electrification of Rakhine State was celebrated: asking for a working cellular network there was too much too soon. Lonely Planet would have to suffice. Read More >>
- Your extensive library is all vanity: Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady warns against associating our books with status and considering them a marker of “the supposed growth of our intellect advertised in terms of shelf space.” Do you collect books, or do you actually read them?
- What happened to midrange film dramas? Maybe they just got better and look more like big pictures. Example: that “art film” aesthetic we like so much (hand-held camera work, low and bad lighting) is tied more to compromises made by directors with low budgets than to artistic choice, and yet these bad techniques are often misused as a markers of “artistic authenticity.” Film history has seen a number of these gambles and trade-offs, but not all have stuck: “there’s no connection between the short-term appeal of a movie and its artistic importance. Some aesthetic landmarks are profitable, some aren’t.”
- The comic-book publisher Drawn & Quarterly celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday this year, and everyone is excited because they’ve been doing the Lord’s work: “The D+Q backlist is rich in volumes that have been at the forefront of making comics an accepted literary and visual form—works by such prominent cartoonists as Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Seth, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Yoshihiro Tatsumi.”
- Before you do your literary duty and read Go Set a Watchman, consider naming your child after your literary hero. If the trends tell us anything, we may be destined for a generation of Atticuses: “Harper, which nationwide ranked 887th for newborn girls in 2004, actually ranked 11th in 2014. Atticus rose from 937th in 2004 to rank 370th in popularity for male babies in 2014.”
- Touché! A specific set of literature is steeped in pistol-wielding duels. Whether it be the soufflet, the acknowledgement of the offense, the rencontre, the violent encounter, or listening to the dying opponent’s final words, John Leigh’s Touché catalogues and analyzes the duels of literary history. Through this chronicle of absurd formality, Leigh looks at everything, from “Casanova’s account of his duel with a Polish nobleman, to comic duels in Dickens and to two of Maupassant’s short stories.”
- “I see The Paris Review as much as an ‘object’ as I do a venerable and essential literary quarterly. The look and feel is both so important to the readers’ experience … The logo we now use was scanned from a midcentury back issue, and it has all the character of the original lead type that created it.” Talking shop with our art editor, Charlotte Strick.
- On Henry James’s mommy issues: though the author was close with his mother, “he did not write much about mothers in his fiction. In fact, many of his best novels have no mothers at all. They are safe spaces for orphans, or semi-orphans … James loved his mother and he also wanted to get away from her. It is as though those desires were oddly close to each other, both sides of a coin, or nudged each other gently.”
- Juan Felipe Herrera, our new poet laureate, has at last revealed the fetish that drives the creative class: tomatoes. “We are hermits, that is true. We live in tiny rooms, and we stay in those rooms hours upon hours … But we also like to walk around and throw ourselves into big crates of tomatoes, and roll around in them, and then get up all tomato-stained.”
- In 1983, the philosopher Vilém Flusser published Towards a Philosophy of Photography, which took an entirely technical view of the medium—and in the age of social media, the book’s arguments about technology read as eerily prescient. “Flusser claimed that the camera was the ancestor of apparatuses, which are in the process of ‘robotizing all aspects of our lives, from one’s most public acts to one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires.’ And when we look at social media—from blogs, to Twitter, to Facebook, and to Instagram—we can see he was correct. The Twitter game is like Wittgenstein’s language games; we must learn the rules in order to play.”
- “Bring an excitement form wise—not just word-wise excitement but the twist of the hip—even the way we walk will be put in the poem—it gets that basic. Should if we let it. Thus those damn readers get their money’s worth. They meet us. Watch us dance.” Letters from John Wieners to Robert Greene and James Schuyler.
“As usual the world was powdery and blue, like a rococo miniature. I was driving underneath the tree canopy and behind those trees were mansions and their many vehicles, gently arranged on the drive. It was the world as I had always known it, when being driven by my parents to music lessons or football practice or the first ever parties of my youth, the ones that ended at dawn with everyone staring at each other calmly in a field, feeling tired. That was how I always lived, out here on the outskirts of a giant city: the world occurred to me as a series of impressions seen from the windows of a car.”
Adam Thirlwell’s third novel, Lurid & Cute, is made up of such impressions—charming, nostalgic, not quite tethered to reality. The unnamed narrator—formerly a child prodigy, he tells us—is a privileged young man who has quit his office job to pursue his art, and who now lives with his wife at the house of his adoring parents. His talent, as he puts it, is mostly for thinking. The observations above occur to him as he drives his bloodied, comatose best friend to the emergency room, having discovered her suffering some kind of hemorrhage in his hotel bed after a night of ketamine and sex.
At thirty-six, Thirlwell dresses like a youngish teenager—silver sneakers, jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower—and looks perpetually exhausted. In our Skype conversation, he had a way of speaking that, like one of his characters, “sometimes seemed like teasing and sometimes seemed like it wasn’t and it wasn’t always easy to be able to tell the two apart.” “Multiplicity! Levity! World History!” he later wrote to me in an e-mail about what he seeks in his reading. “Those kind of T-shirt slogans.”
Your dialogue is very funny. It seems very stylized but then, when you read it aloud, it’s perfectly realistic. Do you have rules for dialogue? Whose do you admire?
Maybe perversely, I love Henry James’s The Awkward Age, which is written almost entirely in dialogue and is therefore almost incomprehensible. Everyone is speaking in intimation and allusion—which is so much like life that the reader has desperately to work out what the degrees of irony and lying are. That kind of flatness seems to me the ideal. There’s a great moment in a Lampedusa essay where he praises the dialogue in Stendhal’s novels, because none of it is celebrated, nothing is quotable. I wonder if in novels, rather than plays or screenplays, the dialogue can become this baroque surface thing, because it’s free to be as close to audiotape as possible, without the burden of meaning anything, or conveying plot. Although I don’t know if this is some kind of London problem—how little is actually said in conversation. Okay, sure, there might be mutual understanding—but the sentences are only nonsense, or nonsense poetry. Read More
- Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his collection of Civil War poems, is 150 this month—and like the war itself, it’s still perplexing and angering people. Henry James, upon its release, called it “an insult to art … the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”
- In which Mary Shelley trounces taboos: “When she meets the enormously handsome and charismatic poet Percy Shelley when she’s sixteen, she takes him to her special place, her mother’s grave. He’s twenty-one, she’s sixteen, and they sit and talk there for hours, day after day. Finally, it’s on that gravesite that Mary Shelley declares her love for Percy. That’s where we think she had sex for the first time, on her mother’s grave. We can’t prove that they actually had sex, but they certainly declared their love and became intimate. It was a really dangerous thing to do. The next thing they do is they run away to Paris.”
- One might suppose that in the nineteenth century, with no text messages or telephones, it was more difficult for men to be creeps. But one would be wrong, as this assortment of nineteenth-century escort cards shows. Men gave these cards to women at parties, begging them for the privilege of walking them home. “Your coral lips were made to kiss,” one says. And several offer a disturbing ultimatum: either let me take you home or let me sit on the fence, slobbering and drooling at you as you pass.
- Where have all our haruspices gone? These days, it seems hardly anyone can be bothered to divine our future from animal entrails, though we have arguably more occasions for it than ever.
- “All art—all non-propagandist art—is a form of resistance to the idea that the shape, the meaning, the myriad ways of living in and moving through the world should—or even could—ever be one thing. The greatest paintings, performances, sculptures, installations and films refuse to represent anyone as a type: this is, perhaps, art’s finest attribute.”