- For three years, Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the maligned former governor of South Carolina. His book, The Speechwriter, suggests that Sanford’s grammar was as wanting as his ethics: “Nearly every page of this book is wet with the tears of a pedant. At their first meeting, Sanford interrupts Swaim to ask whether it is appropriate to begin a sentence with a preposition. Swaim suggests that he must mean a conjunction, in which case it is a silly non-rule that no good writer has ever observed. Sanford is unconvinced: ‘There’s a rule against beginning a sentence with a prepositions [sic]—conjunctions, whatever—and you can’t break rules.’ Determined to keep the boss happy, Swaim dutifully tries to remove ‘yet’ from a speech a few weeks later, only to be rebuffed by a colleague who assures him that Sanford ‘doesn’t know “yet” is a conjunction’.”
- When Nabokov came to America, his whole style underwent a transformation, and he took pains to emphasize his Americanness; he said once that he was “as American as April in Arizona.” “Nabokov turned himself into a more purely American writer than many others have so far acknowledged … But the questions remain. Where did Nabokov really develop what Kingsley Amis, in a brilliant review of Lolita in The Spectator, called his ‘Charles Atlas muscle-man’ style of writing? Was it in St Petersburg or on an American campus? On the family estate back home in Russia or in the lonely motel rooms he and Véra liked to stay in on their long summer tours of the Rockies and the Southern states? Are literary audacity and effrontery really echt American or are they the products of aristocratic disdain?”
- Somewhere deep in the annals of facial-hair scholarship you’ll find T. S. Gowing’s The Philosophy of Beards, a treatise from 1875 or thereabouts that makes a series of dubious aesthetic and functional arguments for bearding: “‘The beards of foreign smiths and masons,’ he remarks, ‘filter plaster dust and metal from the air, protecting the lungs.’ Bearded soldiers, he claims, are less likely to catch colds; and the ability of a moustache to warm the air is invaluable ‘in a consumption-breeding climate like ours.’” He also suggests that a shaved man resembles a monkey—contradicting more recent research that suggests that men grow beards expressly to indulge “simian displays of size and aggression.”
- Today in holography: Alkiviades David, a forty-seven-year-old billionaire and hologram impresario, thinks that “the hologram business is bigger than porn. It’s going to be as big as the movie market.” He imagines hologram performances so sophisticated that it would be possible to bring back Amy Winehouse. Or the Beatles. Or Jesus. But he seems to miss the fact that people have a limited appetite for novelties and imitations: “Ultimately, what is a hologram good for? … It’s entirely possible, even probable, that, at some point, David’s technology will be fully able to create and project a celebrity digital likeness that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, one that moves fluidly and organically and delivers unerringly consistent performances. But no matter how lifelike, a hologram still favors the second half of that adjective more than the first.”
- The French artist Bernar Venet has written conceptual poetry since 1967, when the phrase conceptual poetry inspired many fewer grunts of disdain than it does now. His focus is on “the rudimentary syntax of the list,” and his “list poems” comprise everything from “synonyms to acronyms to currency exchange rates to the most frequented tourist destinations in France.” His poem “Monostique” is literally a math problem. “Following French semiologist Jacques Bertin, he associates figurative representation with polysemy (which is open to multiple meanings) and abstraction with pansemy (which is open to any meaning). Mathematical symbols, on the other hand, convey only a single, fixed meaning, and for Venet, such unambiguity has not yet been explored in the history of art.”
In 2010, a graphic novel, Quai D’Orsay, was published in France under a pseudonym, causing a quiet sensation. Set in, of all places, the Foreign Ministry, Quai D’Orsay starred a young speechwriter frantically learning on the job—the novel featured recognizable public figures, including the foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who famously said non to the war in Iraq.
In France, graphic novels, or comic books (bandes dessinées), are a revered venue for pointed satire. The bestseller’s author, it turned out, was a wunderkind former staffer for Villepin named Antonin Baudry. A man of varied passions—board games, Metallica, Greek philosophy—Baudry is currently the French Cultural Counselor for the U.S. Last fall, he adapted the graphic novel for the big screen. The resulting film, The Minister, became an instant hit in France, earning the rookie screenwriter a nomination for a César, the French Oscar. The Minister is now showing (under the title The French Minister) at select theaters in the U.S., including the IFC Center, in New York; the graphic novel is available in English under the title Weapons of Mass Diplomacy.
Sitting in his cavernous office in the French embassy, overlooking Central Park, the informal diplomat says he would love to try another graphic novel “on globalism, set in the Middle Ages.”
Both in the graphic novel and the movie, you make it seem as if you hadn’t the slightest qualification to write speeches for the foreign minister. Is that true?
Yes. I didn’t have the background that all the people there had at all. I had never met a politician before. I had never met a diplomat. What happened was that Dominique de Villepin was looking for young people from different universes to write for him. He heard through a mutual friend that I had done master’s theses in math and literature, and he wanted to meet me. I totally panicked. I said to my friend, Why did you do this to me? I had to buy a suit. The minister received me at the Quai D’Orsay, and it was just like being hypnotized. He explained a lot of things to me and everything seemed clear, and then when I left, I couldn’t remember a thing. And there was this time pressure. He said I had to answer within twenty-four hours because we were possibly on the eve of a Third World War. I was twenty-six, and I thought, Why not? I’d done academic writing and I knew I wanted to write novels. I accepted the job because I think many writers have no experience of the world. I once worked for the sanitation department in Berlin, cleaning the streets at five in the morning. I loved it for the same reason—it gave me the chance to observe another universe instead of staying in my room, contemplating myself. Read More