WRB—Jan. 11, 2023
“After all, their backs are against the wall, for if a few managing editors become aware of how things are going, there will be some highly talented literary critics pounding the pavement.”
To do list:
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In last week’s Friday column at The Paris Review, Lisa Robertson recommends reading Chateaubriand: “The attribution of causation to human behavior is generally a work of fantasy. Birds will speak the last human words, Chateaubriand says. Each one of us is the last witness of something—some custom, habit, way of speaking, economy, some lapsed mode of life. He says only style survives.”
[Two volumes of Memoirs from Beyond the Grave are available from NYRB Classics, newly translated by Alex Andriesse: 1768–1800 (2018) and 1800–1815 (2022). See this review by Algis Valiunas in National Review last month:
The Memoirs is very much a Life and Times, sometimes more Times than Life, which tends to dwell on momentous events and their moral consequences but does make room for the strictly personal. The reader becomes familiar from the start with Chateaubriand’s ineradicable melancholy and its crown of thorns. Nearly dead at birth, he seems often to wish he’d been spared the trouble of coming out alive.
Quickly [What makes this different from N.B.? —Nic] [Link fatigue. —Chris]:
For Full Stop, Ryan Thier reviews Michael X. Wang’s recent “epic historical novel” “that tells a powerful and moving story of two ordinary people” (Lost in the Long March, November 2022):
This is where the book soars. The interplay of individual emotions and mass political struggle; trauma and reinvention; ideology and identity. Nothing and no one are static. Forget consistent, nothing and no one are even clear or confident. This layering surpasses anything like theme or plot and suffuses into a kind of aesthetic ethos which justifies the old saying: The novelist picks up where the historian has to stop.
Two on the posthumous Janet Malcolm:
In the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Winkler reviews the memoir—“a collection of vignettes built around family photos” (Still Pictures, out yesterday) [An Upcoming book from last month. You can read an early excerpt from the draft in the New Yorker from 2018.]:
The approach feels deceptively simple, even obvious. But it cleverly allows her to avoid imposing a singular narrative on her life. (It is as useless to impose one on our own life as it is to impose one on the lives of others.) Instead, she shows us snapshots, which more closely resemble the way we actually recall our lives—in sporadic, inconsistent images. A random memory of strewing flower petals as a child is incredibly vivid while the entirety of her first year in America is “largely a blank.” A friend’s unremarkable words one afternoon in a candy shop have stayed with her while more significant utterances have vanished—“another instance of memory’s perversity.” She struggles to capture her parents. “Doesn’t the lock on the bedroom door permanently protect them from our curiosity, keep us forever in the corridor of doubt?” She contemplates the difficulties of memoir-writing, of making a narrative from uncertain recollections. In short, her story is—as always—the construction of the story.
And for n+1, Max Abelson on the collected interviews (Janet Malcolm: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, June 2022):
At their best, the transcripts channel and help explain Malcolm’s mesmerizing journalism, only the tables are turned. Reading the interviews has the perverse quality of seeing a judge on trial or your analyst in therapy.
Often, though, it’s a polite book—one in Melville House’s series of “last” interviews with interesting people—that chooses the wrong times to go soft. Malcolm, who knew the subjects of journalism are always “astonished when they see the flash of the knife,” doesn’t even get nicked.
The friction that’s missing here is what electrifies not just Malcolm’s writing but the record of what happened when she was actually put on the hot seat. When, decades ago, the star of one of her books sued her for libel, taking her to the Supreme Court and then to two trials, Malcolm—in front of a jury—gave the moral accounting these interviews avoid.
[I like the line “Her stories about psychotherapy have the sweet swing of sportswriting.” Nic and I were recently appreciating this wonderful long review of the last essay collection (Nobody’s Looking at You, 2019) by Sarah Nicole Prickett in Bookforum. Note: “the (New Yorker) magazine’s staffers could, in those days (William Shawn’s), expense three-quarters of the cost of psychoanalysis.”—What?!—and this line from Renata Adler: “An almost uncanny thing that happens to me in a piece by Janet Malcolm is that it is so fair, and so true, that I have the freedom to believe something else.” —Chris]
More narration in good faith: for the New Republic, Vivian Gornick reviews Miranda Seymour’s biography of Jean Rhys from last year (I Used To Live Here Once, 2022) [Last year we linked to the TLS review]:
Inevitably, Rhys’s fictional counterparts lead the reader to believe that they themselves are acting in good faith when it comes to sexual love; it is the men who uniformly use and betray them. So what can a Rhys woman do but drink to kill the pain and sleep around in the vain hope that the next man will end the isolation? But the next man is the isolation. Between 1928 and 1939, Jean Rhys published four novels—Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight—all of which exploit this sense of despair to the hilt.
And finally for the Washington Free Beacon, Dominic Green reviews the recent memoirs of Brian Johnson (of AC/DC) (The Lives of Brian, October 2022): “AABA is the ruba’i form, a Persian pattern. It is used rarely in English; Edward Fitzgerald used it in his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”
Dan Sinykin on major poetry prizes, MFAs, data for humanities research, etc.:
Today when asked for advice about how to be a writer, I say: Find writing you love and follow it. Make those writers your writers. Read each other, publish each other, create literature that speaks from where you are. Take as your model Belt Publishing or Cave Canem or Deep Vellum or Dorothy: A Publishing Project or Hub City Press or Sublunary Editions. Fuck the Poetry Police. Learn from others. Think collectively. Make an aesthetic of your own. “Poets, descend,” writes Ferlinghetti, “to the street of the world once more.” Out from the shadows, into the light.
When will we hear from The Dial?
A few weeks ago, we said “Oh hell yes. Oh heck yes.” Here’s more, from Laura Miller at Slate: “Ross, you can do that! You just have to remember to keep doing it for hundreds of pages. It will mean long years of struggle and toil, but for a tortured Christian moralist, isn’t that a plus?”
Two very different sorts of writing advice have circulated recently: from Irina Dumitrescu at her Substack, “Take a lot of showers.” And from David Bentley Hart, for The Lamp: “Never squander an opportunity for verbal cleverness.” The editors of the Washington Review of Books would like to think they do not need to choose.
January 17 | Mariner Classics
The Written World and the Unwritten World
by Italo Calvino
From the publisher: An extraordinary collection of essays, forewords, articles, and interviews, The Written World and the Unwritten World displays the remarkable intelligence and razor-sharp wit of prolific Italian writer Italo Calvino as he explores the meaning of literature in a rapidly changing world. From classics to contemporary literature, from tradition to the avant-garde, Calvino masterfully explores reading, writing, and translating through careful and illuminating discussion of the works of Bakhtin, Brecht, Cortázar, Thomas Mann, Octavio Paz, Georges Perec, Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, and more. Drawn from Mondo scritto e mondo non scritto (2002), Sulla fiaba (1988), and other uncollected essays, this volume of previously untranslated work—now rendered in English by acclaimed translator Ann Goldstein—is a major statement in literary criticism.
Can there be much material left in Italo Calvino’s desk drawers? … with this seventh collection, The Written World and the Unwritten World, covering a scattering of Calvino’s literary writings from 1952 to 1985 and translated by Ann Goldstein, we might expect scraps from the table. Sure enough, there’s some slight stuff here—a page on character names, say—but the surprise is that we get so much of substance.
[I meant to mention here on Saturday that the Upcoming book from a few days ago (The Diaries of Franz Kafka, out yesterday) also has an excerpt available on The Paris Review’s website. And at Lithub, another excerpt, and an introduction from translator Ross Benjamin: “In these disparate writings the line between life and literature cannot be sharply drawn. Often it cannot be determined in a given passage whether Kafka is registering a private experience, crafting fiction, or transforming the one into the other.” There’s also a review of the diaries in the New Yorker this week from Becca Rothfeld:
Kafka writes unsentimentally about his lovers, but he displays incongruous tenderness about striking scenes around the city: at one point, he effuses, “The sight of stairs moves me so much today.”
The myth of Kafka as an inveterate melancholic has not prepared us for his endearments toward stairs. From this master of self-flagellation we expect only litanies of miseries and maladies. And the diaries do include their share of obligatory despairing. Kafka takes evident pleasure in posturing as an incurable, and he is unfailingly dramatic about minor infirmities. When he has a headache, it is as if he has “two little boards screwed against my temples”; when he cannot sleep, he feels as if he has laid his head “in a false hole.” He was keenly sensitive to sound, and in a short piece later published in a magazine he whines that his bedroom is “the headquarters of the noise of the whole apartment.” His letters have much to say about his phobia of mice. As his biographer Reiner Stach so aptly puts it, “For this man absolutely anything could become a problem.”
What we’re reading:
Chris has been reading The Taming of the Shrew and Ulysses this week, mostly while walking around. He also finished Rebecca West’s collection of columns which she wrote as European correspondent for The Bookman in New York during 1929 and 1930 (Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log, 1931), which we’ve noted before is “light, amusing fare.” [True enough, but also with notable exceptions pretty dull unless you have a lot invested in quips about the Continental theatre scene in 1929. One exception: the elegy for D.H. Lawrence:
The point about Lawrence’s work that I have been unable to explain save by resorting to my personal acquaintance with him is this: that it was founded on the same basis as those of his mental movements which then seemed to me ridiculous, and which, now that I have had more experience, I see as proceeding in a straight line to the distant goal of wisdom. He was tapping out an article on the state of Florence at that moment without knowing enough about it to make his views of real value. Is that the way I looked at it? Then I was naïve. I know now that he was writing about the state of his own soul at that moment, which, since our selfconsciousness is incomplete, and since in consequence our vocabulary also is incomplete, he could only render in symbolic terms; and the city of Florence was as good a symbol as any other.
And the other exception is the piece to which the title of the collection alludes, and which also furnishes the little quote at the top of this email: West’s final filing for The Bookman resigning her column and outlining at length the issue she takes with the journal’s embrace of “humanism”—following Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More—and disparagement of contemporary literature and the critics who promoted it—Lawrence, aforementioned, along with Joyce and Proust and Virginia Woolf. I think it’s worth reading the whole piece (here’s a PDF), especially since so little—down to the “tone of superiority and querulousness” for which “conservative” critics have such a weakness—seems to have changed in the intervening decades. (“The Right has been doing the same things now for half a century.”) An excerpt:
Professor Babbitt in his attitude to his contemporaries closely resembles the luckless soldier one has sometimes seen on a parade ground, who fails to hear the last order and goes on performing the last order but one, convinced that everybody in the regiment is out of step except himself. It is unusual to make such a soldier a drill sergeant. It is true that acceptance of Professor Babbitt’s main thesis will do nobody any harm. To prefer Aristotle to Rousseau is certainly the way of grace, and though most of us would do that in any case it illumines argument to have Professor Babbitt state the case again with his unrivaled power of allusion: and similarly we can enjoy reiteration on these terms of the truism that it is better to be sane than mad. (“To lack sanity,” he somewhere helpfully explains, “is to be headed towards misery and even madness.”) But to accept his attitude towards the moderns seems to me a pity. It consists mainly, of course, of disapproving generalizations, but when he touches the concrete he often surprises us by his naïveté. He ranges wide, and his taste is far from being an infallible guide. Here is an instance where he strays into consideration of another art than literature:
The partisans of expression as opposed to form in the eighteenth century led to the fanatics of expression in the nineteenth century, and these have led to the maniacs of expression in the twentieth. The extremists in painting have gone so far beyond Cézanne, who was regarded not so long ago as one of the wildest of innovators, that Cézanne is, we are told, “in a fair way to achieve the unhappy fate of becoming a classic.”
Just how genuinely sensitive to art Professor Babbitt is can be judged from this unfortunate reference to the heir of Poussin, who was despised only because he conflicted with the romantic movement against which, in theory, Professor Babbitt has such an immediate and fastidious reaction. No, I have no great confidence in this drill sergeant.
“The End of Winter” by Louise Glück
Over the still world, a bird calls
waking solitary among black boughs.
You wanted to be born; I let you be born.
When has my grief ever gotten
in the way of your pleasure?
into the dark and light at the same time
eager for sensation
as though you were some new thing, wanting
to express yourselves
all brilliance, all vivacity
this would cost you anything,
never imagining the sound of my voice
as anything but part of you—
you won’t hear it in the other world,
not clearly again,
not in birdcall or human cry,
not the clear sound, only
in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye—
the one continuous line
that binds us to each other.
[This is from Glück’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris, which I’ve been working through recently. It’s not entirely my taste, but that’s just an issue of preference. (No, but like same. —Chris) The title poem from it is featured in the anthology American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide (published in November; edited and illustrated by two NYRB editors), which I’ve also been reading on and off lately—it’s both beautiful, visually, and a solid anthology. —Julia]
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Dubious Analogies is a culture essay every week hinging on a dubious analogy.
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