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WRB—April 5, 2023
There will be an intermission. Thank you for your attention.
Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, this may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the newsletter begins, but we have an unusual subject—the story of WRB—the story of the Managing Editors.
In the LARB, Tom Comitta on learning to write a novel:
There was something in that term “post-writing,” the combination of light sarcasm and praise, that stuck with me. He never explained what he meant, so I had to speculate. Did post-writing refer to what you create after there is nothing more to say? Did it mean simply a kind of writing that cannibalizes other texts, as I had done, supplanting invention for something new entirely?
Two in The MIT Press Reader:
All of these years of submerging snails—of gastropods drowned and survived—have produced one primary, albeit tentative, finding: It is at least possible that land snails are floating around the world to establish themselves in distant places. We just don’t know enough about Hawai’i’s snails to know how likely a vector this is for their movements; we have a single, short-term study on one of the over 750 known species.
But even deeper relations between the fragmentariness embedded in robotic aesthetics and the Japanese ethos can be found in the form and structure of the Japanese language itself. If this is most obviously expressed in Japanese texts through the simultaneous presence of three writing systems — kanji, hiragana, and katakana — the last of these deserves particular attention in this respect. While often regarded as negligible for its apparent simplicity and restricted contemporary use, katakana has played a fundamental role in the development of both ancient and modern Japan. Most revelatory not only of the functioning of the Japanese mind but of its relationship with other cultures, it also embodies the concept of fragmentariness more than the other scripts of the Japanese language for several reasons.
Two in The Guardian:
Giles Tremlett with the story of three children abandoned in a Barcelona train station in the 1980s and their search later in life for their parents:
Her brothers’ memories, pointing as they did towards her parents’ involvement in illicit activities, started to make Elvira nervous. How do you peer into a world so far removed from your own stable, unremarkable middle-class existence? Despite her nervousness, she discussed with Ramón using hypnosis to dig deeper into his memory. But when she consulted psychologists, they told her that hypnosis might produce false memories or kill off real ones. Elvira felt as if she had hit a dead end, a feeling that would return repeatedly over the coming months as she continued her search.
By the time we arrived in Honolulu, I was nine and we had been travelling for two years and 223 days. This was the point at which our trip was supposed to finish. Captain Cook had been killed in Hawaii, and we’d arrived there just over 200 years after his death.
William T. Vollmann in the Times on Sunday reviewing the new Fernanda Melchor book of stories (This is Not Miami, out yesterday):
How true are these stories, which their author prefers to call relatos? They are “based on events that really happened,” she writes in her introduction. When I requested more information, she replied via her publicist: “Either they are personal testimonies … or the result of long interviews with witnesses and informants, all recorded.” No horrific detail is made up. However, her introduction adds, “the heart of these texts is not the incidents themselves, but the impact they had on their witnesses.” This qualification is prudent, first, because in most cases the author is not a witness but a careful, patient auditor of witnesses, and second, because some incidents are supernatural.
- reviews Sarah Hart’s forthcoming book about mathematics and literature (Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature, April) [the Upcoming book from WRB Mar. 25]:
Although my criticisms of Once Upon a Prime may seem strong, I really appreciate the attempt made by Hart. In fact, the effort of making a book like this was probably a bit too ambitious. A lot of this content is seriously esoteric. For instance, part of the real-life inspiration for this book was Hart coming across the geometrical term “cycloid” in Moby Dick. In actuality, each section (or even some of the chapters) could have probably been given book-length treatments. These concepts and topics simply aren’t the most general-audience-friendly, and it takes a lot of work to make them digestible. Hart does accomplish that, but has to make editorial sacrifices on that account.
For the CRB,reviews the new Saunders stories (Liberation Day, 2022): “Liberation Day is festooned with American décor, but it’s not really about America. Rather, it’s about empathy as it operates in fiction: between characters, between author and character, and between reader and character.”
At Full Stop, William Repass reviews Jean D’Amérique book length poem, translated from the French last year (No Way in the Skin without This Bloody Embrace, 2022): “In its closing sections, No Way in the Skin shifts from desperate, flailing isolation to direct address. Here, this rhetorical mode, like a lovers’ discourse, carries with it an erogenous charge.”
- writes about a short novel of Romanian extraction which NYRB rereleased a few years ago (The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, 1969, 2018):
Lichter makes clear that ‘simply silent’ is an oxymoron, that silence contains a lot more than the absence of noise. Lichter explains Christ’s silence towards Pilate as one of the most poignant speeches ever recorded, “Christ’s silence at that moment is the deepest eulogy of questions ever given.” And Lichter proves this belief in the virtue of silence thoroughly, however at odds it may put him with the world. For example, Lichter refuses to announce his innocence when he is detained by police on the accusation of theft, maintaining that—in a way that Bartleby never expressed but perhaps would have assented to—while being unjustly accused was disagreeable, having to uphold one’s innocence is entirely more unpleasant. “Did you steal?” Lichter is asked, “It is possible that I stole and equally possible that I did not,” he answers, “Claiming one’s innocence (no matter how justified) is ultimately demeaning because it always seems distracted by a cowardly acceptance of the accuser’s criteria.”
For The Book Cover Review, Paul Barnes on an old copy of Akróasis (1946) he encountered in the Strand bookstores in the ’90s:
It had a unity; the book as object. The cover of the book was not simply the type or the linen, it was also the boards themselves—which I realised was what appealed to me so much. They weren’t heavy and did not suffocate such a modest item. Instead they were light in weight and flexible to touch, so the book could bend, but was not as flimsy as a paperback; so it could fit in a pocket and not become burdensome. It is a book that, if I close my eyes, I still know its quality; it invokes the sense of touch. With its rounded spine, overhanging board and untrimmed page it has a human quality of manufacture.
The Spring issue of Liberties is coming soon. It’s blue.
But the April–May Issue of The London Magazine is available now.
“You can’t get a good bagel in Philip Roth’s hometown.” (Erin Somers, Esquire)
A reader comments on Charles Portis, reacting to a Review from Saturday:
There are lots of funny novels. But how many of those would you categorize as “funny,” first and foremost? Jane Austen is funny—and many other things besides. Miss Lonelyhearts is very funny, as well as very sad. But The Dog of the South is funny because it's full of jokes. Funny is what it’s supposed to be. Not that it isn’t a road trip novel, a Southern picaresque, a superfluous man narrative, too. But above all it’s funny, and qua funny it’s the funniest.
“Is this boom in bourgeois gaming bad?” (Benjamin Tausig, Public Books):
In those depths, the feeling of devoting oneself to something unproductive became humanizing, not as a way to refuel before work but precisely as a fuck-you to work. One’s boss might ask them to give their whole brilliance—honed to a glistening edge by years of training and hard-won wisdom—to QuiznosPitchDeck.xls. But suddenly many people had the courage to reserve the very best of themselves for something else, like Learned League, SpellTower, or Animal Crossing. It is worth asking what comes of playing seriously as a core part of people’s identities in a moment when, for many, their work life no longer fills that role.
[No, Adorno was right on this one. —Chris]
“We cannot solve our misgivings about our disintegrating present by fine tuning how we feel or think about it, just as the purist regimens of Smith’s reformers were no answer to the ravages of industrialisation.” (Michael Ledger-Lomas, The Spectator)
Tomorrow at the National Gallery: “In the Catacomb of Metempsychosis: Seeing the Ancient Egyptian Afterlife in the Early 19th Century”
Through August 6 at the National Gallery: “Drawing in Britain, 1700–1900: New Additions to the Collection”
Sunday through mid-July at the National Gallery: “Going through Hell: The Divine Dante”
April 11 | Columbia University Press
Puppet Flower: A Novel of 1867 Formosa
by Yao-chang Chen, translated by Pao-fang Hsu, Ian Maxwell, and Tung-jung Chen
From the publisher: In 1867, an American merchant ship, the Rover, sank off the coast of southern Taiwan. Fourteen sailors reached the shore, where almost all were killed by indigenous people. In retaliation, the United States launched two disastrous military operations against local tribes. Eventually, the U.S. consul to Amoy, Charles Le Gendre, negotiated a treaty with Tauketok, the chief of the eighteen tribes of the area, that secured safe passage for shipwrecked sailors.
Yao-Chang Chen’s historical novel Puppet Flower retells the story of the Rover incident, bringing to light its pivotal role in Taiwanese history. Merging documented events and literary imagination, the novel vividly depicts Tauketok, Le Gendre, and other historical figures alongside the story of Butterfly, a young woman of mixed ethnic heritage who serves as an interpreter and mediator during the crisis. Chen deftly reconstructs the multiethnic and multilingual society of southern Taiwan in the second half of the nineteenth century from multiple perspectives, portraying local people’s daily struggles for survival and their interactions with Han Chinese settlers, Qing dynasty bureaucrats, and Western officials, tradesmen, and adventurers. The novel explores nineteenth-century Sino-American and Sino-indigenous relations and emphasizes the centrality of Taiwanese indigenous cultures to the island’s history.
A gripping work of historical fiction, Puppet Flower is a powerful revisionist narrative of a formative moment in Taiwan’s past. It was recently adapted into a popular Taiwanese TV miniseries, Seqalu: Formosa 1867.
What we’re reading:
[It is my birthday today and the closest I am going to get to reading anything is completing a Getting Things Done course for my employer. —Chris]
“Agape” by César Vallejo, translated by Clayton Eshelman
Today no one has come to inquire;
nor have they asked me for anything this afternoon.
I have not seen a single cemetery flower
in such a happy procession of lights.
Forgive me, Lord: how little I have died!
On this afternoon everybody, everybody passes by
without inquiring or asking me for anything.
And I do not know what they forget and feels
wrong in my hands, like something that is not mine.
I have gone to the door,
and feel like shouting at everybody:
If you are missing something, here it is!
Because in all the afternoons of this life,
I do not know what doors they slam in the face,
and my soul is seized by someone else’s thing.
Today no one has come;
and today I have died so little this afternoon!
[This is from Vallejo’s 1919 The Black Heralds. It was one of five poetry collections he wrote, and the first of the only two that would be published during his lifetime.
Vallejo was a significant influence on poets James Wright and Robery Bly (among others), whose translations did much to make his work known to the English-speaking world. I got this translation from Eschelman’s book of Vallejo translations, The Complete Poetry, but sources worth trusting tell me that Bly and Wright’s translations are superior (I can’t comment on the Copper Canyon translation I linked above).
I’ll admit I’ve only read a handful of Vallejo poems, but every one I have read is striking and, well, haunting. Think of the end of his “Black Stone on a White Stone”:
César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also
with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .
or his “A man walks by with a stick of bread on his shoulder.” There’s something about these poems that feels simultaneously intuitive and just outside the reach of comprehension.
This poem, in particular, feels heart wrenching. It’s lonely, but it’s loneliness at a fever-pitch; the issue is not that the speaker feels like he’s not receiving, but that he has no opportunity to give, and it’s that lack, the lack of giving, that poses a kind of existential or salvific threat to the speaker. There’s so much I feel I, as a reader, don’t know, and yet there’s also the sense that the speaker doesn’t know, either: I do not know what they forget and feels / wrong in my hands, like something that is not mine. It all feels painful in its disconnection, both from others and from self-knowledge.
In case you’re wondering, Vallejo did not die on a Thursday as he predicted in “Black Stone.” It was Good Friday of 1938 (April 15th). He did get the part about the rain right, though. —Julia]