I plan to exit from my house before the end of the fiscal year. No, I don’t mean I intend to leave it, physically. I’m here in my basement, as I always have been, and where would I go? But I will install a policy of silent noncooperation with the other rooms, beginning with the kitchen. I have long resented the kitchen’s implicit high-handed judgment of my habits, always shaming me with its leafy greens, its ancient grains, its paucity of refined sugars. I well remember those golden years of pizza for breakfast and frosted cereal for lunch with an unlimited supply of carbonated power drinks, and seethe at how I have cravenly allowed the kitchen to dictate a regimen it loftily considers to be better for me, as if it knew. I will make my eating habits great again. Read More
- The FBI kept a file on James Baldwin that ran to 1,884 pages. What was in it? Reasonably adept criticism, among other things: “The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports … It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers.”
- A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, “Readers Make Their Mark,” collected annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, thus continuing the culture’s growing fascination with marginalia. “Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books: George Bernard Shaw identifies a printed text of his Too True to be Good as a ‘Provisional Prompt Copy’ for a particular production and calls it ‘Frightfully Private. No Press Agent to be let near it.’ And sometimes—as in the case of an early woman reader who judges the characters in Emma, one by one—they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar.”
- “Let’s get out of here” is one of the most common lines in film—people in movies just love to leave places. “It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt.” But in more contemporary movies, “getting out of here” faces stiff competition from its longtime nemesis, “staying put.” “This emphasis on staying suits our times: The people writing and watching these movies are all part of an introspective, if not isolationist, culture that’s still licking its wounds after plotless wars and a traumatic recession.”
- Is there anything more insufferable than our current predilection for all things twee? “Twee is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.”
- I’ve always dreamed of winning an Oscar—I could put it up for auction, I thought, and make a lot of money, and that would be cool. But it turns out that selling your Oscar trophy is a great way to get sued by the Academy. In fact, the Academy thrills to a good lawsuit; they’ve also brought suits against “television shows that use the name ‘Oscar’ (i.e., ‘The Wine Oscars’); a website that predicts Oscar winners; and a chocolate-maker who produced Oscar-shaped candies.” Next up: people named Oscar, or people related to those people.
My first memory of Václav Havel is of watching the news as a kid, after the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and seeing pictures of Havel in his living room: a prison of stuffed bookshelves. For me, Havel was the image of a literary hero, an ideal of literature as integrity.
I’ve always, in other words, been a sucker for the questions of Prague—especially Prague in the era of Soviet Communism, probably because these questions all relate to a larger problem: a writer’s responsibility and resistance to political life, the serious business of being flippant. In the setups of his farcical plays and—following his imprisonment in 1977 for involvement in a human-rights charter—through the patient linguistic analysis of his essays, Havel’s subject was always the same: how language can be made to connive in unreality. But he also believed that words could be renovated, that a politics was possible. And this hope led him, for instance, to the courage of the following statement in his 1977 trial: there were certain words, he said, “which recur continually in the indictment and which one would describe as loaded, words like subversion, lies, malice, illegal organizations, anticommunist centers, vilification, hatred and so on. However, when one looks closely at these words, one finds that there is nothing behind them.” Just as it made him read Bellow’s libertine Herzog, in prison, in these dissident terms: “A professional with ‘words’ goes mad in a situation where words have no weight. He clearly lacks what we do not, which is to say a situation in which words have so much weight that you must pay quite dearly for them.”
This was why, in the summer of 2010, I found myself proposing a Paris Review interview to Havel. I wanted to ask him my own series of Prague questions, about his love of Bohumil Hrabal’s stories, the cinema of the Czech New Wave, his intuition of farce … These questions, basically, were one big question: What was it like for a writer, as he did, to end up in the Presidential Palace?
The Interview, however, turned into a melancholy comedy of its own. Read More