- Prince died yesterday, at age fifty-seven, at his home, Paisley Park, in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The nation mourns: Minnesota Public Radio has dedicated its waves exclusively to the artist; purple rain adorns next week’s New Yorker cover; San Francisco lit its City Hall with the royal hue; and MTV, which hasn’t played a music video in years, aired nothing but the late musician’s work and the movie Purple Rain yesterday. Said the New York Times of the musician, “His music was a cornucopia of ideas: triumphantly, brilliantly kaleidoscopic.”
- As it turns out, Soviet production novels—that humorless subgenre of yore—followed a pretty basic pattern: “an outsider arrives at a factory or construction site and has to figure out how to solve a morale problem or increase productivity: Ivan Alexandrovich has to supervise the building of a hydroelectric plant or Sofia Alexandrovna has to increase production at the textile mill. They are, along with Elizabethan masques and vice-presidential autobiographies, one of the most arid literary genres ever devised.”
- Any young person working in publishing today ought to know a little about the history of fonts. If you, like me, feel your knowledge is lacking, I offer you a not-so-brief history of roman fonts. “The Carolingian or Caroline minuscule joined forces with antique Roman square capitals at the very beginning of the fifteenth century—a conjunction willed by the great Florentine humanists; their forms first wrought in metal by two German immigrants at Subiaco and Rome, honed by a Frenchman, and consummated at the hands of Griffo of Bologna and Aldus the Venetian. A thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the romans returned and reconquered.”
- Today is the four-hundredth anniversary of Cervantes’s death. Before he wrote Don Quixote, Cervantes was kidnapped by pirates and imprisoned in the Algiers for five years, a life-defining moment that influenced his writing: “I would argue that Cervantes’s explicit interest in the question of madness emerges from the borderline situations he endured as a captive, from the encounter with death that transformed him into a survivor. [It] converts him into a pioneer in the exploration of the psyche three centuries before Freud.”
- You know who else passed away this week four hundred years ago? Shakespeare, that’s who. To celebrate the Bard, NPR spoke with Shakespeare scholars, dramaturges, and Victorian food experts and produced a series of delightful essays on his relation to food. Linguistic and gastronomical insights abound: As Anne Bramley writes, “When Hamlet huffs about the ‘funeral baked meats’ served at his mother’s wedding banquet, he is chastising her for her quick remarriage, implying that she was serving leftovers from his father’s recent funeral. But funeral baked meats were in fact a real food, and they weren’t as macabre as their name implied—though they were cooked in a ‘coffin.’ The same word was used for ‘a coffer to keep dead people or to keep meat in,’ explains Ken Albala, director of food studies at the University of the Pacific.”
PEDICULARE, the lousie disease, that is when the bodie is pestred and full of lice and nits.
—Iohn Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English
Think of the above as an indirect nod to Shakespeare’s birthday: living as he did in a particularly pestilential period of London’s history, the bard had reason to reference “the lousie disease” with some regularity. The plague of 1593 famously shuttered all of London’s theaters; ten thousand people died in this outbreak alone. Even in nonplague years, typhus was a major killer. And at the best of times, lice were a quotidian nuisance and a marker of hygiene.
Indeed, lice of various kinds come up in Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and that’s just for starters. The reason I am not quoting them is because most of these references are very lascivious and vile indeed. The only context in which Shakespeare uses lice is as an insult: always insulting someone’s cleanliness to sexual hygiene. (Which seems harsh in a time when vermin of all kinds must have been fairly rampant.) Surely not only slatterns and villains were prone to the pestilence! What about Thomas of Beckett, with his hair shirt running with lice? Shakespeare was most definitely a part of the problem.
And the shame and stigma in the modern classroom are alive and well, even in places well-fortified with antibiotics and running water. To wit: On a downtown subway platform, I heard one little girl in a Catholic school uniform—maybe six—turn to her friend and say, “Pinkie swear you’ve never had lice. Pinkie swear.” Duly sworn in, the two then walked down the platform and approached a third little girl, standing alone.
“Have you ever had lice?” they demanded sternly. The loner looked around in a panicked sort of way. “N-no… ” she said uncertainly.
“Will you pinkie swear?” demanded the ringleader.
I have! I wanted to tell her. It doesn’t make you dirty or weird, even if you happen to be sort of weird and lonely! And maybe dirty! Anyone can get it! And those nit combs and that horribly painful shampoo are punishment enough! And then one day you’ll just be a grown-up on the platform and no one will even check if you wash your hair! It will be okay!
And blessedly, then the train pulled in.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
How Blutch’s graphic novel Peplum shatters the Satyricon.
In an interview after Peplum’s first publication in book form, Blutch tells of a reader who asked him why he was such a difficult author. “But I don’t feel like I’m difficult at all!” he exclaimed. “I don’t understand why I get asked that. What I do is fairly simple, and not at all intellectual. In my stories, I try to favor action.” And in action, Blutch’s book abounds: stabbing, stoning, amputation, eye-gouging, sex, seafaring, Attic dance, pirate attacks. Yet these sequences are as artificial as they are visceral, feral, and formal at once. Taking as its title the European term for the sword-and-sandal cinematic subgenre, Peplum offers a decidedly different take on the toga epic—one of aporia and ambiguity, a fractured tale of antiquity in all its alien majesty. Read More
- Many reasonable people have concluded that the only way to stay sane in New York City is to be drunk all the time. It was just a matter of time until the advantages of this lifestyle reached the theater community and seeped into its most pious sect, the Shakespeareans—and so was Drunk Shakespeare: “The gimmick here is that at each performance, one actor begins by consuming enough shots to trip even the best-trained tongue … There’s a fair amount of impaired performing going around … What sets Drunk Shakespeare apart is that alcohol isn’t the main character. It’s more like an enabler, allowing the actors (sober and drunk) to take all sorts of liberties with Shakespeare, but skillfully.”
- In the UK, at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, a show called “death: the human experience” attempts to succeed where commercial culture has failed: at selling death. “The show repackages death into friendly jewel-pink tones and soft lowercase letters, yet does not shy away from frank presentation of the processes that surround death. Visitors can peruse a model of the mortician’s workplace, where bodies are embalmed and dressed for funerals … One of the final displays, a digitized version of Don Celender’s 1982 ‘Reincarnation Study,’ punctuates a gloomy subject with humor. Celender, an artist and professor, asked dozens of celebrities ‘in which form would you like to return?’ Julia Child, an American chef and television personality, responded with a list: ‘three inches shorter, feet two sizes smaller, flat stomach, capacity to eat all day and not gain a pound, otherwise Okay as is.’ ”
- Not unrelatedly, here’s the Polish writer Filip Springer on Przyczółek Grochowski, a famously bleak housing complex in Warsaw: “‘You can’t even die here in dignity,’ I overhear someone say on Bracław Street. ‘You can’t even get a coffin in and out of the apartments. They have to wait with it downstairs. The sexton wraps the corpse in a sheet and shoves it out the window. I saw it happen once. They were carrying a dead man. His hands were dangling. No dignity at all, but how else are you going to do it? That’s why all the furniture people have has to be collapsible.’”
- Today in fractals: they’re everywhere, dude. In Joyce—fractals. In Proust—fractals. In Cortázar, Woolf, Dos Passos, Bolaño—fractals, fractals, all fractals, sometimes even multifractals. This per science: “Some of the world’s greatest writers appear to be, in some respects, constructing fractals. Statistical analysis carried out at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, however, revealed something even more intriguing. The composition of works from within a particular genre was characterized by the exceptional dynamics of a cascading (avalanche) narrative structure. This type of narrative turns out to be multifractal … The study involved 113 literary works written in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish … To convert the texts to numerical sequences, sentence length was measured by the number of words … The dependences were then searched for in the data … This is the posited question: If a sentence of a given length is x times longer than the sentences of different lengths, is the same aspect ratio preserved when looking at sentences respectively longer or shorter?”
- John Lingan on Johnny Mercer, the songwriter who had a string of hits in the 1930s and ’40s: “Beyond his lyrics’ rural and black affectations—the dropped g’s, the cornpone scenery—Mercer brought a distinctly Southern stillness to American pop. Economical yet vivid in his natural descriptions, he kept his songs’ emotions at a cool simmer and rarely told stories, instead opting for calm, wistful dioramas … He preferred to write lyrics while supine, eyes closed, ‘as if he could dream songs into existence,’ according to the critic Wilfrid Sheed. His entire public persona was built around this same aloofness; onstage (a rare occurrence, though he became better known for live performances in the 1970s), his mind seemed to be elsewhere, and even his Tinseltown reminiscences seem muted, obligatory.”
This is weather for inspiration: for films and books and good listening. If you’re in New York, go see the new restoration of Orson Welles’s 1966 Chimes at Midnight. (Or Midnite, as it says on the Film Forum marquee.) If you’re not, you’ll be able to see the Criterion release soon anywhere you like. The alternate title is Falstaff: the film is Welles’s compendium of all the Falstaff material to be found in Shakespeare, welded into a cohesive, idiosyncratic unit. Welles, of course, is Falstaff. Jeanne Moreau plays a bawd. Read More
- When Germans like to dramatize their politics, imbuing the theater with metaphors to suit the times, they always turn to one play: Hamlet. Over the centuries, the Dane has survived a dizzying number of interpretations and representations on German stages—they’re obsessed with the guy. “The 1970s West German Hamlet was shown as powerless to affect his corrupt society, reflecting the experiences of intellectuals and theatre directors who failed to influence the politics of the 1960s revolutions … East German interpretations of Hamlet were unsurprisingly very different. In his speech at the 1964 Shakespeare festival, Cultural Minister Alexander Abusch praised Hamlet’s socialist ideals and lambasted the corrupt society that prevented him carrying them out … The frequent revival of this old, familiar play does not signal a retreat in German theatre from innovative drama. In fact, the nation’s changing role has sparked an exciting new phase in the depiction of the dithering protagonist … In a radical 2005 production in Munich, director Lars-Ole Walburg incorporated quotations from George W Bush and Michael Moore and references to the Rwandan genocide and the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.”
- The English major is in decline, and who can even rouse himself to defend it? There’s no utilitarian value to it. It doesn’t seem to make students more ethical or to improve their decision making. People would very probably still read books without it. So … uh … Adam Gopnik has a thought: “The best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? ‘Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.’ You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects. A good doctor said to me, not long ago, ‘You really sort of have to like assholes and ear wax to be a good general practitioner’; you have to really like, or not mind much, intricate and dull and occasionally even dumb arguments about books to study English.”
- Good spelling has always had an uncomfortable correlation with good breeding—before the advent of spell-check, and even to some extent after it, to spell well was to signify one’s belonging in the upper classes. In the nineteenth century, two men tried to level the playing field with an ambitious overhaul to the language: “On December 5, 1846, in the first issue of a newspaper called Di Anglo-Sacsun, an introductory letter to readers heralded the day when ‘bad spelling, the monster that scares, and grins at, and harasses the people, will fall into fits, like the Giant Despair of Doubting Castle, and will die outright of his spasms’ … S. P. Andrews and Augustus Boyle, the editors of the Di Anglo-Sacsun, believed that they could end poverty by making literacy less time-consuming and more accessible, particularly for poor immigrants and slaves. As the written language formalized over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century through innovations like the steam press and energetic lexicographers like Noah Webster, standardized spelling had become a newly erected barrier between the upwardly mobile and those who had neither the time nor the resources to crack the code of literacy. Andrews and Boyle wanted to simplify the process by making spelling entirely phonetic.”
- In the early twentieth century, Czech book design drew its influences from a surprisingly broad array of artistic movements—and a singular, stylish form of publishing emerged as a result. “One popular trend during the turn of the century was to embellish literature with elaborate, local ornamentations that were mostly Romanesque in style, as exemplified by Josef Mánes’ illustrations in a manuscript of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bohemian poems and songs. Floral motifs also became popular Czech symbols … However, artists later dismissed floral and other ornate symbolism as medieval decorations, especially as Czech culture was increasingly exposed to foreign influences that fueled widespread experimentation … Some found the decorativeness of beautiful book illustrations extravagant, preferring to shape the appearance of books with bold and often stark photomontages.”
- Reminder: your M.F.A. program is the product of specific political circumstances, and to write “well” is essentially to play by the rules of the state: “Less than a lifetime ago, reputable American writers would occasionally start fistfights, sleep in ditches and even espouse Communist doctrines. Such were the prerogatives and exigencies of the artist’s existence, until M.F.A. programs arrived to impose discipline and provide livelihoods. Whether the professionalization of creative writing has been good for American literature has set off a lot of elegantly worded soul-searching and well-mannered debate recently … Sponsored by foundations dedicated to defeating Communism, creative-writing programs during the postwar period taught aspiring authors certain rules of propriety … Certain seemingly timeless criteria of good writing are actually the product of historically bound political agendas.”