WRB—April 26, 2023
Uniquely “unsubstitutable” persons
Incredibly, it was not until she actually arrived for good in Washington—not until she was crossing Rock Creek in a taxi with two suitcases—that she remembered how much she’d always hated politics and politicians. She walked into the house on 29th Street and saw, in a heartbeat, that she’d made yet another mistake.1
For Orion, Sumana Roy on Jagadish Chandra Bose, plants, and children:
What Bose seeks, therefore, is not “autograph” alone, but rather the auto-biography that it reveals, the “hidden history,” the “unsaid” (abyakto) of the plants. Writing at the height of modernism, when autobiography was the entry point for those who had been kept out of “literature” and “culture” by gatekeepers, this urge seems natural. After all, the sciences can tell a story—of an animal, an object, an element, a star, or, of course, a plant. Bose is signaling for a move away from a literature about the other and toward a directness that has been denied to almost everyone. He is challenging the Aristotelian hierarchy of “living beings” in which plants sink to the bottom. He is trying to parse a language where none was said to exist.
- on Orwell, political art, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:
Whatever his failings as a journalist, or his even more obvious formal wobbles as a novelist, Orwell sincerely believes that reality unmasked is the only worthwhile subject of literature. Unfortunately, the “political writing in our time,” he fumes, “consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child's Meccano set. It is the unavoidable result of self-censorship. To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.”
For Sidecar, Dustin Illingsworth on Peter Weiss:
Augmenting this sense of fragmentation are the visual collages Weiss includes throughout the novella. These cryptic juxtapositions—anatomical figures, suns, insects, geometric abstractions, broken limbs, horses, playing cards—obliquely rhyme with various aspects of the text. They present a kind of topographic unconscious, highly affecting in their grotesque mystery, often striking with the force of troubling dreams. Weiss’s technique prefigures W. G. Sebald’s use of inscrutable photographs by almost forty years. The Rings of Saturn or The Emigrants, seem, to me, unimaginable without his example.
For The New Statesman, Leah Broad on Sergei Rachmaninoff:
At the start of Rachmaninoff’s career his music was considered both progressive and modern—it was only around the time of the First World War, when he was in his forties, that he began rejecting the more severe forms of modernism that were emerging. Composer and critic César Cui thought Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony far too modern in 1897, denouncing its “sickly perverse harmonisation” and the “complete absence of themes,” complaining that it left “an evil impression.” The American composer John Alden Carpenter observed in 1919 that Rachmaninoff’s significance “lies in the fact that he is a sensitive touchstone between the new and the old.” It was this ability to bridge musical worlds that made Rachmaninoff, like Sibelius, a composer of choice for many more aesthetically conservative musicians and listeners.
Two in Engelsberg Ideas:
Thomas de Waal on the different ways Alexander Pushkin has been fetishized:
When the statue was unveiled, different writers delivered speeches that laid claim to their own Pushkin. The Westerniser Ivan Turgenev spoke of him as a symbol of emancipation, freedom and education—a message that was received with great acclaim. Russia’s most famous Slavophile, Fyodor Dostoevsky, then won an even more rapturous reception with a speech portraying Pushkin as “an extraordinary, and perhaps unique manifestation of the Russian spirit” The brilliant speech is still quoted but, as many have remarked, actually tells us a lot more about Dostoevsky—very much a single-minded hedgehog—than about Pushkin.
James Snell on why William Gerhardie fell into obscurity:
I believe what Gerhardie had he never fully lost; but that his critics—many of them drunk on an exotic picture of Russia, and addicted to the translators and authors who brought their fantasies to life—grew tired of someone who had a broader and more encompassing vision.
Gerhardie was once barracked by Bernard Shaw, who demanded to know if Gerhardie was Russian or English. Shaw told Gerhardie that if he was English, he was a genius, whereas if he was a Russian—that part was left implied. Gerhardie interrupted to say that he was English. What stern critics interpreted as vanity—the man greedily grasping for the laurels of genius—he intended as the truth.
For the Hudson Review, Dean Flower reviews John James Audubon on his travels, as edited by Christoph Irmscher and Richard J. King (Audubon at Sea: The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon, 2022):
Note how phrases like “empty world” and “frozen in timelessness” are projections, not facts. Note how Audubon supposedly “already knew” in 1836 that auks “didn’t stand a chance” and were killed “simply because they were rare.” As if Audubon knew what happened in 1844 and why. But did he? Irmscher and King cannot possibly know. Audubon might have wanted to depict auks because he saw them as part of natural history. And because he was ambitious to include every species he could lay his hands on. Or because the auk’s oddities—flightless, gigantic, with a huge white circular patch in front of its small dark eye, giving it a blank eye-like stare (ominous to predators, no doubt)—were interesting. But no, Irmscher and King want to say that Audubon was like us, protesting what he foresaw, and making auks “little more than a monument to their own demise.”
In The New Criterion, Myron Magnet reviews a book by Timothy Clayton on James Gillray (James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, 2022):
Gillray, though, has a demystifying, democratizing aim that Dickens doesn’t often share. He seeks to deflate the great and famous, to show that under the finery is not only a man or woman like the rest of us, but a ridiculously fat or skinny or squat or tall one with gross features and the usual appetites and the usual organs and orifices that perform the usual functions. Worse, beyond natural gluttony, sloth, and lust, all have the ignoble civilized vices, with greed, vanity, and a will to power leading the cart.
For the Hong Kong Review of Books, Stuart Walton reviews a book by Uwe Wittstock about German writers as the Nazis came to power (February 1933: The Winter of Literature, June):
Despite these critical false notes, Wittstock is proficient at delineating character. All members of the Mann family, from the patrician Thomas, brooding in Switzerland over whether anybody had the right to prevent him returning to his homeland, to the fantastically silly Klaus, are rendered in three dimensions. The publisher Ernst Rowohlt, an unhinged egomaniac given to biting and chewing up shards from champagne glasses and bashing himself on the head with authors’ manuscripts, like an embarrassing cabaret turn in want of a stage, sounds like somebody whose presence at a party would be the occasion for remembering you had had a better offer.
From the Middle West Review, which is “An interdisciplinary journal about the American Midwest,” “a list of crucial texts on Midwestern regional history from 1980 to 2023.”
The D.C. Public Library is getting a new website.
The WRB offices never experience work disruptions like this.
Novel sentence watch: “Once you start contemplating all the ways that cultural biases can seep into science, it doesn’t stop at dairy-based desserts.”
Commonweal is hiring summer interns.
New Spike: “The Museum Issue”
This Saturday afternoon, There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) is showing at the National Gallery of Art. A signing of Marsha Gordon’s new book (Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life & Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott, April) follows the screening.
Brian Allen on the new Rubell Museum:
I’ve seen lots of bad art. Among the worst was a painting I saw in the window of a Santa Monica gallery years ago depicting drowning dachshunds. There’s nothing that wretched at the Rubell, but the hideous portraits of Snowden, Self, and February James are in the running, or should be tossed into deep water. Nina Abney isn’t a bad artist, but too much of her does her no credit. She has a gallery filled with derivative, Ensor-lite paintings, some ten footers. Familiarity breeds contempt.
May 18 at the Hillwood estate: “an evening concert with D.C.-based music ensemble Sound Impact, in a program inspired by the exhibition Determined Women: Collectors, Artists, and Designers at Hillwood.”
April 30 | Paradise Editions
The Man Without a Transit Pass
by Jaroslav Hašek
From the publisher: Gathering work from across Jaroslav Hašek’s brief but prolific career, this collection showcases the outrageous wit and biting social commentary that made him the most popular Czech writer of all time. Much like his beloved novel The Good Soldier Švejk, these sixteen tales—previously unavailable in English—are populated with unforgettable characters: various cranks, conmen, and secret geniuses. The Man Without a Transit Pass further solidifies Hašek’s place as one of the 20th century’s greatest satirists.
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