WRB—Jan. 4, 2023
Newly translated into English
The Washington Review of Books is from a fairy tale. It is the story of a young managing editor who is devoured with an ambition to write a biweekly email newsletter. At the end of the evening he is tired and wants to go home, but the WRB is not tired. In fact, the WRB is never tired. … Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the WRB goes on.
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Delight is, or had better be, an essential part of culture. It softens the rough edges. It opens the window. It balances out the indignities. It dissipates anger. It separates beauty from sadness. It converts the grapes of wrath into the wine of extreme satisfaction, of lively pleasures, of gratification of mind, when the weight of events does the exact opposite. Much as Van Alen’s Chrysler Building mutely witnessed the Great Depression, before which it was designed and during which it was built, art aligned with delight will not cast off or lessen the weight of events. Delight is impermanent. “West End Blues” lasts only three minutes. When it reaches its fourth act, The Marriage of Figaro is almost over, its plot about to resolve. Delight is so necessary because it will never be the rule; it is relief from the rule. Once one sees the Chrysler Building from the street, New York will heartlessly reimpose itself. It will not let you rest in that spire’s glistening ambience. The Chrysler Building was not placed gracefully in a planned city. It offers momentary respite from the frenzy of promotion, the money making, the reputation making, and the thrill seeking to which New York City is unashamedly devoted. Delight’s victories never last.
In the LARB, Paul J. Pastor revisits the poetry of J.V. Cunningham:
The union of the classical and the American is everywhere in these poems, but the effect is anything but old-fashioned and stodgy. Like his classical forebears (Martial, Catullus, Statius, Horace, many of whom he translated both in school and in his later work), Cunningham’s lines capture, in their stark beauty, moral wisdom born of base human experience.
[I can only imagine what Cunningham, an “extreme formalist” not overly fond of “big lines”, would have to say about the occasional long lines in today’s Poem, which I will admit I have my own mixed feelings about. —Julia]
And in the New Yorker, Audrey Wollen revisits the arrested work of Rosemary Tonks:
She was afraid of finding someone else’s thoughts left behind in her personality, like a strange scarf unearthed from the sofa cushions after a party. Books were the most acute threat to the sanctity of the bordered self. Of course, Tonks is right: that is what reading does—it places another’s mind in your own mind. It is the swiftest metaphysical delirium we have, impossible to replicate. The immensity of what reading feels like should not be discounted by its omnipresence in our daily lives. How do we distinguish between the sentences that sprout and green from our own selves, the arcane loam of the individual, and the sentences that fall and land there, alien and already bloomed? Is there even a difference to discover?
We can look forward to what Vodolazkin calls a new “concentration,” which will entail “inner strengthening and social reconsolidation.” By focusing on their unique souls, people will try, and occasionally succeed, in overcoming their focus on mere self. Vodolazkin is struck by a phrase that recently entered Russia from the individualistic West: “That’s your problem.” It reflects a worldview that is entirely amoral because it acknowledges nothing beyond self-interest. In Vodolazkin’s novels, by contrast, the deepest moments of self-understanding occur when an empathic hero enters into the souls of others. Arseny’s healing power derives in part from his special ability to listen attentively to others, who feel they are truly understood as if from within. Instead of speaking, he is silent, so their voice becomes his: “They think his attention is special, for he who refuses to speak expresses himself by hearing.”
On his new Substack, Billy Lennon gives us a brief update on the long-awaited sequel to Kristen Lavransdatter, as of this past fall in one volume in English translation (Jon Fosse, Septology, November):
Hyper-real can include things like signs, signifiers, screens, etc. It’s a flawed concept but you get it. My main gripe here is that, while Fosse does genuinely emit a “prayer-like” vibe, I think that people see the very visible discussion of God, signaled by Fosse’s use of religious terminology, and think that the book must contain religious truths. My hope is that critics will be ever attentive to the religious in things that aren’t signaled by the religious “hyper-real.” I’m not against the religious per say, just don’t embrace the category then only discuss it in relation to explicit symbolic discussions of religion as a category.
In the last days of the year, some final writing from Bookforum. David Kurnick reviews a horror novel by Mariana Enriquez with an English translation due to arrive next month (Our Share of the Night, February):
The Ishiguro blurb (“The most exciting discovery I’ve made in fiction for some time”) might be designed to entice skittish readers of literary fiction into committing to six hundred pages of horror. Who better than the SF-dabbling Nobel laureate to assure us that we can indulge our genre pleasures and remain serious people? Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night, her first novel to be translated into English, comes well weighted with prestige-ballast: the novel won the 2019 Herralde Prize awarded by the Spanish publishing house Anagrama, and her second story collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker. But Our Share of Night makes Ishiguro’s genre-gestures look hesitant and polite by comparison. Enriquez is unabashed about the camp-gothic trappings of her chosen genre, the kitschy nomenclature and the stomach-churning ceremonies and the bruised eroticism. You’ll get your meditation on Argentine history here, but you’ll also get the mysterious entity called the Darkness and the aristocratic Order that serves it—along with houses that eat little girls, sacred texts stored in a secret London library, mutilated infants held in underground dungeons, and an impossibly sexy “medium,” broken and dangerous as a young Brando. The novel’s most audacious gambit isn’t that it makes all this emotionally and intellectually powerful (it does), but that it never surrenders its trashy allure in doing so.
The book sold out on its first printing, but its critical reception was lukewarm. “Despite the obvious talents of its author,” one reviewer wrote, the over-all effect was “a bit thin.” Francine was “startingly impassive” as a character, while the plot centered on a family drama that was devoid of “anything phenomenal or essential.” Duras’s editor at the time, the writer Raymond Queneau, thought that the first draft tried too hard to emulate Camus’s “L’Étranger” (1942), and Duras herself was often dismissive of the novel, as she was with many of her works. Even Duras scholars tend to skip ahead to the nineteen-fifties, once her Communist commitments were more obviously exposed and the jagged edges of her early writing sharpened. And yet “The Easy Life” is constructed with the same torqued intensity as all her fiction, seeding the problems that will eventually become Durassian preoccupations: the anguish of poverty, the vertigo of young love, the pull of biological conformity, and the struggle of women to reconcile the requirements of feminine competence with the disorganizing effects of sexual desire.
“We’re a chic literary salon but I’m the only one who can read.” [Couldn’t agree more Lena. —Chris]
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be digitally transformed.
Alan Jacobs has a brief introduction to Thomas Pynchon on his blog.
January 26 | Sublunary Editions
The Collected Poems
by Amy Levy
Upon her death at the age of 27, the British poet Amy Levy (November 10, 1861—September 10, 1889) was eulogized in the pages of The Woman’s World by its editor, Oscar Wilde, who said that her work “was not poured out lightly, but drawn drop by drop from the very depth of her own feeling.” In addition to her poetry, collected in its entirety here for the first time, Levy wrote three novels—Reuben Sachs, The Romance of a Shop, and Miss Meredith—as well as short stories and essays. Her writings reflect on the aspects of feminism, and her essays explore the role of Jewish characters in the history of literary fiction. She was the first woman to enroll at Newnham College, Cambridge.
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