- Milan Kundera has a new novel out, his first in a decade—but does anyone care? Kundera’s books epitomize a certain outmoded, chauvinist worldview: “I can’t help feeling that if anything will undermine Kundera’s long-term reputation … it will be his overwhelming androcentrism. I avoid the word misogyny because I don’t think that he hates women, or is consistently hostile to them, but he does seem to see the world from an exclusively male viewpoint, and this does limit what might otherwise have been his limitless achievements as a novelist and essayist.”
- Speaking of androcentric writers: Philip Roth’s much ballyhooed retirement “may well go down in history as one of the literary world’s greatest pranks.” Despite his many claims to have retreated from the public eye, Roth is still as visible as ever, even if he isn’t publishing new novels.
- Dante is still very much a public figure, too, having gone on an international charm offensive to celebrate his seven-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday: “More than a hundred events are planned. These include everything from the minting of a new two-euro coin, embossed with the poet’s profile, to a selfie-con-Dante campaign. (Cardboard cutouts of the poet are being set up in Florence, and visitors are encouraged to post pictures of themselves with them using the hashtag #dante750.)”
- And who knows? A hashtagged selfie with a Dante cutout might be just what you need to recharge your fatigued sense of awe, that emotion most abused by modernity: “You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events—live music, theater, museums and galleries—has dropped over the years.”
- Don’t blame literature’s avant-garde, though; the state of the contemporary novel suggests that writers are spending more time in museums than ever before. “The avant-garde writers of today aspire to be conceptual artists, and have their novels considered conceptual art. This may be literature’s Duchampian moment. Welcome to the readymade novel.”
Millions of Americans heard the name Alan Splet (1940–1994) for the first time as a punch line on television. The occasion was the 1980 Academy Awards, where his sound design the previous year, on Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, had earned him a special Oscar. Citing prior commitments, Splet did not attend the ceremony. When the presenter held up the statuette and the honoree failed to appear to accept it, the evening’s host, Johnny Carson, turned this perceived snub of Hollywood taste back on the truant. “It always happens,” he deadpanned to the audience, “first George C. Scott doesn’t show, then Marlon Brando, and now Alan Splet.”
Splet deserves better. He was no joke. In fact, to an exclusive circle of independent filmmakers who know how much his collages of sound and musical refinement added to their movies from the late seventies to the early nineties, his name is still invoked with an affection verging on awe. Tributes can be found on YouTube from Ballard, Peter Weir, Caleb Deschanel, and Philip Kaufman, with whom Splet collaborated on three films. Splet’s sound design and editing on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) ranks among the most haunting and sophisticated of its day—or any day. Leoš Janáček’s string and piano music is as ravishing as Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, underlining not only the distinctly tart Czech melancholia of the novel, but also serving, notes Kaufman, to “supplant Kundera’s voice as the narrator and give the film its drive.”
No filmmaker in those years bonded more intensely or productively with Splet than David Lynch. The two met in 1970 when the writer-director needed a sound track for his short film The Grandmother. (Splet was then employed at a Philadelphia industrial film company, having bailed on a career in accounting.)
With no money to foster the visions Lynch had in his uncompromising young head, the pair spent twelve-hour days inventing effects on the cheap, recording human mewls and gurgles and hissing machine-made sounds. Not until their concoctions matched the images on the editing table and the pairing created an elusive “mood” (a key term for Lynch) were they satisfied. Thereafter, until Splet’s death in 1994, he partnered with Lynch on every major film project, those that were completed (Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) and those that weren’t (Ronnie Rocket).
In the opinion of some, however, their masterpiece of “audio surrealism” remains Eraserhead. Begun in Philadelphia and finished in Los Angeles, its atmosphere is as marked by the sooty poverty of the filmmakers as The Grandmother had been. It was during this time (around 1973) that Lynch, who could not afford paints, did two meticulous drawings in ballpoint pen: a crucifixion, in a style that combines Mattias Grünewald and Francis Bacon, and a resurrection, now lost. Hoping to raise money to finish the film, they had prints made, an enterprise that was rewarded with total failure.
I would never have had my very first orgasm, missionary style, on a twin-size futon in the middle of a school day had he not given me the book. It was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In the inscription, he wrote he didnt want his first gift to me to be something as fleeting as flowers or chocolate. They die, they get eaten, they disappear. How could I not be impressed? I was a teenager, a California girl from the quintessential southern part, where Id probably been too preoccupied with all that, like, sun to get entangled in post-exile, Czech-communist literature.
Days later, I gave him my virginity. It was his first time too. We did it the way humans are meant to, without rubbers or other prophylactic nuisances. Afterward, he put on my bathrobe and sat out on my balcony, holding a wine-glass of orange juice in one hand, a cigarette in the other. I took a snapshot. We laughed.
I wont lie and say I burned my way through it. In fact, I could barely get past the first sentence:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!
Goddamn, it was a doozy of a line—a harbinger of many more that I also didnt quite get. Several pages in, Id suddenly come out of a haze and realize Id just lost the last ten minutes of my life. It was like leaving Los Angeles on the 405 late at night, lulled by miles of darkness and speed, and then remembering: Im still driving.