WRB—April 29, 2023
In the pocket of Big Indie Bookstore
“at certain moments in the evolution of the arts the values of the WRB may deserve to be lent priority over those of revolution or progress”
- on Ronald Blythe’s oral history of a village in East Anglia (Akenfield, 1969), and what has been lost and what has been gained:
It does seem a shame—the poor trees! the poor chickens! the poor ploughmen!—to deform something so natural in the service of efficiency and productivity. But of course there’s nothing natural about any of this, the old or the new, at least not in the sense of “how it would be without our involvement.” The landscape of the British Isles has been actively managed for human purposes for at least four thousand years, in ways that varied tremendously as technology changed. Constable’s pastoral idyll is no more representative of the “truth” of East Anglia than an early medieval village amid the undrained fens would have been. And similarly, we mustn’t assume the immiseration of Akenfield’s rural laborers in the years before the Great War was representative of preindustrial agriculture writ large: the particular history of East Sussex is important, from its unusually early enclosure to the land’s direct ownership by wealthy farmers rather than aristocratic landlord/small tenant relationship more common in other parts of the country. The worldwide agricultural depression driven by cheap grain from the North American prairies is extremely relevant, too.
- on Elizabeth Hardwick, wife of Robert Lowell:
Hardwick’s position on femininity argues against her own ambition to be a writer. It’s always that way with smart women who drink the Kool-Aid. Lowell, on the other hand, wrote in the interest of his own interests. He was tolerated because he was talented, a Lowell, good at wheedling, terrifying when denied, and fragile. There was always someone ready to listen to a poem, type it up, and carry it to the post office. When Lowell was disenchanted, he grew cool and dismissive. Lovers were cruelly rejected. Sometimes a lawyer would write a curt note. The ease of Lowell’s life didn’t make him crazy, but it may have contributed to his never getting well. The milieu that accepted his hostility as normal colored his interpretation of his life.
In Hazlitt, Max Ufberg is sent on a quest by Denis Johnson’s notes:
The document goes on to highlight upcoming birthdays (“Isaac Hudson turned a whopping 97!”) and social functions (“Friday coffee hour is a great success”), and encourages attendance for an upcoming “Easter pageant for Beverly Manor residents.” After a few minutes I set aside the page and continued through the folder, where I came upon the umpteenth draft of “Beverly Home,” except here Johnson used a different title for the story: “Beverly Manor.”
I wondered: if Jesus’ Son is based to some extent on Johnson’s life—as indeed he’s indicated—was there a real Beverly Home? And was Johnson the in-house scribe?
I wasn’t exactly of a neutral mind here; I wanted this person, who writes sweetly about celebrations and social functions, to be Johnson. I wanted assurance that, like his conduit Fuckhead, Johnson cared about the people who hovered in the caverns as he climbed his way out of rock bottom. I longed to know that he wasn’t just tapping their sorrows for his art.
In the New Statesman, Nick Burns suggests that the tradition in which Tocqueville operated could use a revival:
It should be a reason for regret, then, that Tocqueville has had few successors in the grand tradition of political theory informed by, or conducted through, the observation of political practices in different countries. Today, there exists a formal separation between the two in academic political science departments: some scholars study comparative politics; others, political theory. This formal division reflects the mistaken impression that the two are separate enterprises best conducted separately, rather than, as the great political theorists of history demonstrate, complementary pursuits that should be undertaken simultaneously by the same minds. Twentieth-century theorists of politics, such as John Rawls, are best known for books that contain little in the way of observation of how politics is conducted in the world. The field of anthropology has taken over much of the responsibility for commenting on the wide range of human practices – but in a way often separate from directly political concerns.
In 4Columns, Brian Dillon [for more about him, see Local] reviews a collection of essays by Katy Kelleher (The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption, April):
There’s no special reason Kelleher’s ruminations on beauty should be guided, let alone governed, by aesthetic theory. But her shying from such rigors (and pleasures, surely?) is of a piece with one of her book’s most maddening aspects. What is beauty, if such exists, or the experience of beauty, if not a movement out of ourselves, an ecstasy, an excess? Kelleher acknowledges this when she confesses: “I feel discomforted by my desire for more, always more, even when I know I already have enough.” But she doesn’t ask why her desire is for more of the same, for a glut of aesthetic politesse masquerading as luxury, one dainty thing after another. She repeatedly shrinks from what she thinks of as extremes: the “minimalism” of the Guggenheim Museum, the longueurs of “overly serious” films—the adverb here begging the question of how much seriousness Kelleher will take.
In the WSJ, Barton Swaim reviews a book on Beethoven by Norman Lebrecht (Why Beethoven: A Phenomenon in One Hundred Pieces, May):
“Johann Sebastian Bach’s oratorios lay untouched for a hundred years,” Mr. Lebrecht writes. “The operas of Handel were hardly seen for two centuries. Mozart, popular as his operas may have been, had his symphonies and concertos used as kindling. . . . Schubert’s piano sonatas gathered dust for generations. Schumann’s symphonies were discarded, as were several Verdi operas. Beethoven, alone among classical and romantic composers, was embraced first to last, his time to ours. Why is that?”
I take Mr. Lebrecht’s point that Beethoven’s greatness has never been disputed by serious people, but his comparisons are trite. Bach and Handel lived a century before Beethoven, and their music had to endure the 1760s and ’70s, when European musical authorities were fools and there was no concertgoing public in the 19th-century sense. Schumann’s symphonies are very fine but the loss of them would not amount to a civilizational tragedy. And maybe Schubert’s sonatas gathered dust, but his songs did not, whereas Beethoven’s songs might be forgotten at no great cost.
In the Literary Review of Canada, André Forget reviews Geoffrey D. Morrison’s first novel (Falling Hour, February):
This is one of the reasons Hugh narrates his story the way he does. His unbelieving Calvinism has led him to become infected with the “mind virus of skepticism,” the conviction that “nothing on earth was truly the name we called it by.” Canada is a liberal-Methodistical state, but it is also not real; it exists as a linguistic convention that has only the power we grant it. For Hugh, language itself is a veil over the world, a misleading series of signifiers that have no necessary relationship to material reality. Many of his digressions end with him reminding himself that everything he is thinking about is “made up”—though acknowledging it is made up does not free him from having to think about it. This philosophical problem supplies the main drama of Falling Hour : How can Hugh square the conviction, born of the brokenness of his brain, that everything is artificial with his desire to act meaningfully in the world?
In The New Republic, Jeremy Lybarger reviews the first biography of Connie Converse, by Howard Fishman (To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse, May):
It’s true that Converse seems to float in her own anachronistic bubble. Fishman reaches for parallels to help explain her—the Carter Family, Elizabeth Cotten, Jimmie Rodgers, Molly Drake—without ever landing on the right fit. In a chapter titled “Interlude: Genres,” he argues that one reason Converse never found commercial success in her lifetime was because record executives couldn’t easily pigeonhole her. She was too early to be folk, too early to be a literary singer-songwriter à la Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell, and too introspective to be a political or protest singer. (Her lyrics are also often more imagistic than mainstream ’50s fare. “Then my bed is made of stone / a star has burnt my eye / I’m going down to the willow tree and teach her how to cry,” she sings in “Trouble.”) Fishman suggests she was most closely allied with older blues and hillbilly artists such as Riley Puckett, Skip James, and Alberta Hunter, but even those lineages can’t account for Converse’s idiosyncrasies. Perhaps she’s best understood as a precursor to other outliers in the American songbook, such as Cordell Jackson, Daniel Johnston, Hasil Adkins, or Karen Dalton—fellow sui generis musicians who emerged from the roots and funk of their regional culture to create songs of inimitable vigor. “The visionary, forward-looking quality of what Converse had been up to seemed to suggest the need to update the narrative of mid-twentieth-century American song altogether,” Fishman writes.
Lol there’s a new Dave Eggers book. [lol. —Chris]
“The implosion of web advertising would leave only those media outlets that can support themselves by subscription.”
“It was important to my parents that we also have a library at home.”
The report is about new 2022 editions of Thank You, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves. Though the books are described as being rewritten and worse, the reality is that we removed one irrefutably offensive, outdated and racist word. This change was made by our editorial team with the full support of the author’s literary estate.
Roku TV can show you all kinds of cultural artifacts: “the endless march of the Fail Army on 810 or the 24-hour national pageant on 815, which presents a patriotic infinity of America’s Funniest Home Videos. On channel 953, you can watch Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting every second of the day―dubbed in Spanish.” [Look out for the WRB Film Supplement deep dive into this. —Chris]
The newest issue of The New Atlantis is online and in print, and it is, unsurprisingly, blue.
The issue includes Jon Askonas on the fact, which has had a good run:
And so, the automatic digital production of superabundant data also led to the apparent liberation of facts from the authorities that had previously generated and verified them. Produced automatically by computers, the data seem to stand apart from the messy social process that once gave them authority. Institutions, expertise, the scientific process, trust, authority, verification—all sink into the invisible background, and the facts seem readily available for application in diverging realities. The computer will keep giving you the data, and the data will keep seeming true and useful, even if you have no understanding of or faith in the underlying theory. As rain falls on both the just and the unjust, so does an iPhone’s GPS navigate equally well for NASA physicists and for Flat Earthers.
[“Facts all come with points of view / Facts don’t do what I want them to.” —Steve]
The new issue of the New Left Review is a bright magenta [I absolutely adore the NLR archive page. —Chris]
According to whoever runs the Capitol Hill Books Twitter, today is Indie Bookstore Day, and accordingly, they are offering 10% today.
And the Juanita Thornton-Shepherd Park Library has its spring book sale today and tomorrow.
The Petworth Porch Fest is today.
Brian Dillon will be discussing his new book (Affinities, April) at East City Bookshop on May 11.
The Folger Shakespeare Library will reopen on November 17 after a three-year renovation.
As of this writing there were two available seats for the matinee of Les Misérables at the Kennedy Center. The run ends today.
On Sunday at the National Cathedral (that’s the Episcopalian one), the Choristers Cathedra performs Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine.
Also on Sunday: “NEA Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim is a true pioneer of South African jazz—Jason Moran calls the Cape Town-born pianist ‘South Africa’s Duke Ellington.’”—playing at the Kennedy Center at 8 pm. You could do both!
May 2 | New Directions
by Mieko Kanai, translated by Polly Barton
From the publisher: The apparently unremarkable Natsumi lives in a modern Tokyo apartment with her husband and two sons: she does the laundry, goes to the supermarket, visits friends, and gossips with neighbors. Tracing her conversations and interactions with her family and friends as they blend seamlessly into her own infernally buzzing internal monologue, Mild Vertigo explores the dizzying reality of being unable to locate oneself in the endless stream of minutiae that forms a lonely life confined to a middle-class home, where both everything and nothing happens.
With shades of Clarice Lispector, Elena Ferrante, and Kobo Abe, this verbally acrobatic novel by the esteemed novelist, essayist, and critic Mieko Kanai—whose work enjoys a cult status in Japan—is a disconcerting and radically imaginative portrait of selfhood in late-stage capitalist society.
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