WRB—Dec. 17, 2022
“from the clutches of boring right-wingers”, deliver us
Every issue of the WRB is actually composed from bottom to top. How firm a foundation!
To do list:
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In n+1: “Why Is Everything So Ugly?” asks the latest editorial:
Dodging huge grilles we walk on, pulled by ugliness toward a gentrified retail strip. Here the violence of the new ugliness comes more fully into focus. The ruling class seized cities and chose to turn them into . . . this? To our right is a place that sells wiggly candles. Past that is a boutique liquor store whose chalkboard sign proclaims, in cheerleader handwriting, that the time is Wine O’Clock, and past that is a Bank of America. Across the street, a row of fast-casual chains, whose names and visual identities insist on modesty and anonymity: Just Salad, Just Food For Dogs, Blank Street Coffee. (This raft of normcore brands finds its opposite in the ghost kitchens down the block, which all for some reason are called things like F— Your Little Bitch Burrito.) Up ahead is an axe throwing “experience,” and another Bank of America.
Also in this issue, Laura Preston on working as the “human fallback” for an artificial personality.
In The New Yorker: “What’s with all the sequels?” asks Katy Waldman. [I think this perspective on The Candy House, which Nic and I found for the most part painfully unreadable, actually quite interesting. Reminds me of Anthony Lane’s review of Blade Runner 2049 (2017). —Chris]
In Commonweal: Denys Turner on Dante’s poetry of Purgatory:
Therefore, the emptiness of Hell’s silence is ultimate, the opposite of the silences of Paradise: it is possible to read the whole of the Comedy as a demonstration of all that language can articulate, the poetry and the theology, in that space that falls between the dumb silence of Hell at one extreme and the articulate silence of Paradise at the other. In any case, as Dante descends deeper into Hell, its own vernacular is increasingly weighed down by pressures more primitive than any that poetry in its lowest capacity can reach. […]
Purgatory is the inverse of Hell, and if there are tensions in the poetics of Purgatorio too, they are quite different from those of Inferno. Here again he must learn the local vernacular, Purgatory’s idiom being that of repentant sinners speaking in hope of the salvation they have won but do not yet have the capacity to enjoy. In Purgatory that “baby talk,” the idiom of Dante’s poetry that had no place in Hell, is now exactly appropriate. Purgatory’s vernacular is that of the infant’s longing, of dependence and trust.
In Tablet: Blake Smith pleas for a recovery of Philip Rieff “from the clutches of boring right-wingers”:
From this vantage Rieff resembles other apparently tediously moralizing “Jews of culture” of his era, like Allan and (no relation) Harold Bloom, who fixed themselves in the American mind as public intellectuals by defending the traditional literary canon against the supposedly conjoined threats of multicultural proto-wokeness and mass-culture ignorance. He resembles, indeed, no one more than his ex-wife; in the last years of her career Sontag transformed herself from an enthusiastic analyst of the avant-garde and popular entertainment into a loftily isolated mandarin speaking as if she alone could uphold the standards of literary culture (which seemed to mean writing a long stream of shallow prefaces to New York Review of Books publications of novels by dead European writers). […]
Rieff (with Sontag) thus revealed himself to be one of the 20th century’s most skillful practitioners of a method of reading too often exclusively associated with Leo Strauss (whose influence, to be sure, was at work at the University of Chicago, where both Rieff and Sontag were educated). This method assumes that the arguments, claims, or dogmas that thinkers most vigorously assert are not the real content of their teaching. Rather, they are the tribute they pay to prevailing prejudices. Beneath this surface, the writer aims to awaken thinking among (perhaps only a select minority of) readers. For this, he assumes masks, perhaps of the comedian—or man of woe.
We already linked to a few reviews of the recent biography of Shirley Hazzard (Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, November), but for The Atlantic Lauren Groff uses hers as an excuse to ruminate on literary biography in general:
The person behind the fiction stands revealed as so much smaller than the fiction itself, less interesting, less important, less distinctive. The spectacle-seeker in me was sad to learn no big secrets and discover no great mysteries; the more serious reader in me was disappointed too. I was no more convinced than I had been before reading the book that Hazzard had wielded notable sway in her cultural moment. She has, though, left other writers who, like me, adore The Transit of Venus feeling awed and inspired in an intensely intimate way. Which is, in the end, how literary influence thrives. We have Hazzard’s books. We don’t need to know how much her life figured in her writing to respond to the vitality beating just below the surface of her art.
Biographical fiction, at least in its more literalist mode, is a gratuitous genre, like the novelization of a film. Biography is always already fiction, at least in part, because it involves imagining one’s way into a life lived primarily in the imagination. (This is what distinguishes the biography of a writer from, say, the biography of a politician, where the achievements for which they become known are so much more public.) What’s more, being fictional, biographical fiction is often very bad at the necessary nonfictional elements of biography.
Consider the tote bag. From The Walrus. Consider our tote bag! Everyone who has one loves it! “The literary tote is the perfect signifier for this moment in time because of its inherent contradictions: its lofty, high-minded ideals are represented by an item that’s earthy and utilitarian. It communicates rarefied taste, but it’s too functional to be pretentious. ‘It’s just a bag,’ Phillips says. ‘But it’s so much more than a bag at this point.’” We couldn’t agree more; or: Soooo true.
These long explainer articles are fascinating and everyone always loves them. This is the latest, on “sound,” which is a bit old now, but The Browser just linked it and we thought you;d like to know.
Commonweal is looking for an intern.
The latest Airmail email includes “an excerpt from a sprawling 4,000-plus-word gift guide” compiled by Kaitlin Phillips, whose impressions of Art Basel we shared a few weeks ago. Helpfully, the unedited version is on Google Docs.
Bad news: “There Is No Such Thing As Italian Food”
Thomas Pynchon has sold his papers to the Huntington Library. “The archive includes correspondence relating to the publishing process, the library said, but no private letters or other personal material. And no, there are no photographs of Pynchon either.”
February 7 | Coach House Books
by Geoffrey Morrison
From the publisher: All talk, no action: The Mezzanine meets Ducks, Newburyport in this meandering and captivating debut
It’s a hot summer night, and Hugh Dalgarno, a 31-year-old clerical worker, thinks his brain is broken. Over the course of a day and night in an uncannily depopulated public park, he will sift through the pieces and traverse the baroque landscape of his own thoughts: the theology of nosiness, the beauty of the arbutus tree, the pathos of Gene Hackman, the theory of quantum immortality, Louis Riel’s letter to an Irish newspaper, the baleful influence of Calvinism on the Scottish working class, the sea, the CIA, and, ultimately, thinking itself and how it may be represented in writing. The result is a strange, meandering sojourn, as if the history-haunted landscapes of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn were shrunk down to a mere 85 acres.
These digressions are anchored by remarks from the letters of Keats, by snatches of lyrics from Irish rebel songs and Scottish folk ballads, and, above all else, by the world-shattering call of the red-winged blackbird.
[Has anyone actually read Ducks, Newburyport? I’ve had the galley of this one on my desk for a month or two. I hope I can get around to it before the end of the year, it looks a lot of fun. —Chris]
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