- Brad Bigelow thinks of his blog, Neglected Books, as “one little step against entropy.” His reviews of forgotten or obscure books have led, in many cases, to publishers reissuing them, sometimes even in translation: “One of Bigelow’s favorite rediscoveries is Gentleman Overboard, a 1937 novella by Herbert Clyde Lewis, a son of Russian immigrants. Lewis grew up in New York, became a journalist, and eventually wrote Hollywood screenplays. The book’s protagonist is a steamship passenger named Henry Preston Standish, who slips on a spot of oil and tumbles overboard. Gentleman Overboard is a record of his final day and his fading hopes of rescue … The most accessible online edition was scanned from an old library copy, which was last checked out in 1950. That’s the same year that Lewis died, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-one. But Bigelow has saved Gentleman Overboard from going completely underwater: a few years ago, he recommended it to a publisher in Argentina, who decided to release a Spanish translation.”
- While we’re on forgetting: Yeats wrote that his friend William Horton “has his waking dreams, but more detailed and vivid than mine; and copied them as if they were models posed for him by some unearthly master.” Despite the poet’s praise, few remember Horton’s drawings today—after some early success, his career, as Jon Crabb writes, found him listing toward occultism: “Horton was clearly immersed in the London occult scene during the 1900s, but in 1905 he also finally attracted the attention of The Studio, the era’s foremost journal of design and illustration. The September issue featured several Horton illustrations, which are of a more mature and less ominous style … Sadly, he published little after 1912 and, in 1916, suffered a mental breakdown after the death of his partner Amy Audrey Locke. In 1918, he was hit by a car and further incapacitated. He died in obscurity the following year.”
- No one does compound words like the Germans do compound works. English speakers can only look on in envy as the Germans chain together nouns—Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, anyone?—with reckless abandon and effortless precision. Bruce Duncan picks some of his favorites and looks at the grammatical back end: “Both German and English can create compound words out of most parts of speech, not just nouns … My own personal favorite [is] Verschlimmbesserung. This construction doesn’t just present contrasting concepts. It also employs a playful use of German’s grammatical structures to tie them together. The word begins with two verbs—verschlimmern (‘to worsen’) and verbessern (‘to improve’). It then conflates their prefixes (ver-), and adds the suffix (-ung) to turn it into a noun. This process compresses an idea that only a wordy English translation can unpack: “an intended improvement that makes things worse.”
- If you’re fluent in German, you’ll get more out of Paul Klee’s notebooks—thirty-nine hundred pages of which have just been digitized and released online—than I was able to. Klee used these notes “as the source for his Bauhaus teaching between 1921 and 1931 … His extensively detailed textual theorizing on the mechanics of art (especially the use of color, with which he struggled before returning from a 1914 trip to Tunisia declaring, ‘Color and I are one. I am a painter’) [and] … his copious illustrations of all these observations and principles, in their vividness, clarity, and reflection of a truly active mind, can still captivate anybody—just as his paintings do.”
- Michael Wood on Orson Welles’s adaptation of Kafka: “It’s not that Welles has ‘a stunning visual intelligence and a numbingly banal view of human experience,’ as Joan Didion thought Fellini and Bergman had; but he does get extraordinary suggestions into his images, and he can become sententious in his words and plots. Welles fans are not enthusiastic about The Trial … But we can see Welles doing something new with his visual machinery in the film, reaching for social meanings of a kind he had not sought before. Welles’s Joseph K is a guilty man and proud of it, because he is not half as guilty as the evil system that closes in on him and kills him … In The Trial more than anywhere else we see how much Welles’s imagination has to do with space. A set for him is a location to be explored, and a location is full of stories.”
One pleasure of living where I do is the giveaway table, where tenants leave unwanted CDs, cassettes, salt-and-pepper shakers, et cetera, and especially books. These tend to be romance novels or thrillers, but the other week someone left the second edition of August Kleinzahler’s Cutty, One Rock—a book I’d given away many times and had eventually forgotten to replace. My wife let me read the title essay aloud, even though I kept slipping into my version of a New Jersey accent (bad, bad). Then, maybe three days later, on the same table, I found a copy of B. S. Johnson’s 1964 novel Albert Angelo. It was crazy—I’d been meaning to read B. S. Johnson for years. If I had come across any of his novels in a bookstore, I’d have bought them. This one’s about a beleaguered substitute teacher in a London slum, a subgenre (the bitter teacher novel) I especially enjoy. Obviously these books—the old favorite and the object of curiosity—have been two clicks away, but serendipity beats intention every time. —Lorin Stein Read More
This is the second installment of Banks’ culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
12:30 P.M. I put in a few bets in advance on the Saratoga card and head for the eye doctor to get new lenses for my glasses (which would have been a boon to have in place before the trip to Philadelphia and DC). I’ll be lens-less for a half hour or so but I print out anyway a Guardian article by Tom McCarthy on “technology and the novel” that I want to read after finishing C. The book had already dashed my fears that post-Remainder McCarthy had turned art-world prankster at best, experimentalist court jester at worst. The profile’s a funny and smart piece when I squint over it an hour later. C begins at a turn-of-the-century school for the deaf with the burial of the protagonist’s sister while the dead girl’s father, a wireless communications buff, wants to rig the bier with a device so that she might signal if she’s not really dead. McCarthy mentions an anecdote about Alexander Graham Bell—his father also ran a school for the deaf, he also had a brother who died, and Alexander entered into a promise with his surviving sibling (who died early as well) that should either of them succomb, the other would create a device to receive transmissions from beyond the grave. He probably would have invented the telephone anyway, of course, and “remained a skeptic and a rationalist throughout his life—but only because his brothers never called: the desire was there.” I’m not sure I buy it, but C makes me feel like I should.
3:30 P.M. Get back home after picking up the new glasses, and I’m glad I read the essay while I waited for them—the replacement lenses make me feel like I’m seeing the world through a goldfish bowl, and I get a terrible headache as a result. Plus, I lost my bets. In the mail is the new Jonathan Franzen which I put off reading with my funky vision. It’ll have to wait until next week, which means I’ll have to make up a bunch of lies if anybody asks me what I think of it. I’d rather bullshit my way through than face the guilt that I won’t actually turn to it until I’m on vacation.
8:00 P.M. Head is still throbbing so I cancel plans to go see the Tilda Swinton flick I Am Love (the only film it seems anybody’s talking about these days) and turn on The Wild One on TMC instead. I feel like I’ve seen it a million times but this seems like the first time I’ve noticed the actor who plays one of Lee Marvin’s sidekicks—who is that guy? A quick IMDB check turns up Timothy Carey—his face is familiar because he plays the racist psychopath in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing who shoots a horse, Red Lightning, during a stakes race, setting off the racetrack heist. Man, where have I been? I make a note to rent Carey’s only directorial effort, The World’s Greatest Sinner, where he plays a crazed rock n’ roller who turns into a Jimmy Swaggert–style evangelist and is struck down by God Himself in the final scene.