WRB—July 29, 2023
“the first symptom of attack”
It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it—but it’s a party—and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining—and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes—but—but not because you’re possessive—but because—you’re reading the Washington Review of Books. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this newsletter will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about.
In today’s edition:
Virginia Woolf’s diaries—Christgau—early Robert Hass—a cranky comment about Andre Dubus—a few things about trains—bookstore opening…
[Steve, I’ll admit I’m lukewarm on this insert so far. —Chris]
In The Yale Review, Daegan Miller on using a scythe and paying attention:
You may find yourself agreeing with Wendell Berry that working with a scythe is a categorical good, carrying “the force of a parable,” or with Paul Kingsnorth that “using a scythe properly is a meditation. . . . Everything is connected to everything else.” You may find yourself nodding along with Robin Wall Kimmerer: “The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world.”
Or perhaps you will stand with Henry David Thoreau: “The scythe that cuts will cut our legs,” he wrote. “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”
[This led me to scythe YouTube, which, wow. —Chris]
In The Nation, David Schurman Wallace on Peter Handke:
By constructing a total fantasy, Handke can offer up the ideal ending he believes his narrator deserves—a refuge where language is solely an aesthetic tool and no longer socially consequential. This fantasy is at the heart of Handke’s work. Throughout his novels, he dreams of a pure art created by pure exile, an art that can be appreciated for its beauty and strangeness alone. This very inclination to imagine a world outside the world we live in is the weakness of his work as well as its strength. Art may allow us to escape our origins, but it still reflects out into the world, changing it in unpredictable ways.
We are often witness to a second moment as well: the event’s transformation into language. See how she watches rooks whirling above her in the air, then attempts to find the words to represent it. “Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high. & still I say to myself instinctively ‘Whats the phrase for that?’ & try to make more & more vivid the roughness of the air current & the tremor of the rooks wing
deep breastingit slicing—as if the air were full of ridges & ripples & roughnesses; they rise & sink, up & down, as if the exercise pleased themrubbed & braced them like swimmers in rough water. But what a little I can get down with my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.” This second moment was as vital to Woolf as the first, though she longed to close the gap between them. “If one does not lie back & sum up & say to the moment, this very moment, stay you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying?”
Robert Bellafiore reviews two recent music books (Why Beethoven: A Phenomenon in One Hundred Pieces, May; Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces, June):
Together, Mackie and Lebrecht’s approaches reveal two ways of understanding the artist: In the former case, as rooted in a particular time and place, inevitably positioned in, though not reducible to, some context; in the latter, beyond time and place altogether, a sheer force of creation on its own terms, or perhaps on the terms of an eternal, unchanging beauty. For Lebrecht, Beethoven is an absolute musician, untainted by external factors: “Unbothered by practicalities, he touched the ethereal.” He even draws a comparison to Mozart, who “writes within the conventions of his time, where Beethoven has one foot way outside of them. Mozart is concerned with the here-and-now, Beethoven with the great beyond.” For Mackie, in contrast, Mozart’s significance is at least in part a matter of his encapsulation of his epoch: “Europe was wavering on the brink of modernity, and Mozart became the key artist of the modern world because his music was richly fired by so many of the factors and energies at work in this process.” To borrow Ben Jonson’s famous remark about Shakespeare, Mozart was “of an age”; Beethoven was “for all time.”
In the Boston Review, David Waldstreicher reviews Nick Witham’s book on five postwar historians who wrote for the public (Popularizing the Past: Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America, July 26)
Still, it is hard not to wonder what Witham’s study might suggest if he had dealt with some examples that cut across his categories of general versus activist historians and readers, followed their entire careers or backlists as such, or even looked more closely at their relationships with each other. Hofstadter, after all, is still often read as essentially antipopulist and antiradical, but he seemed to take a more critical turn (or return?) in 1968, as he began working on a multivolume history of the United States. Unfortunately, he died of leukemia in 1970, so all we have is his extended prologue, America at 1750: A Social Portrait. Would this have been the lost synthesis, stylistically and interpretively, Americanists are still trying to find? Witham treads lightly over Boorstin’s conservative third act, implying more consistency than Boortsin actually demonstrated: timing, and the rightward turn of U.S. politics, usually explains these things, but in Witham it is strangely absent, as if historians not only make their audiences but also their eras. What if he had considered C. Vann Woodward, the southerner as liberal who by the early 1990s (much like Wilentz now) came to serve as a historian-cop of race discourse from a perch at the New York Review of Books?
A short-story collection, like a book of poems, holds curious tensions. Poems and short stories are forms that thrive in the world of literary magazines—often quarterly publications that are perhaps most frequently read by their contributors and aspiring writers—and gathering them together in a book can pose challenges. I hope I’m not being too heretical when I say that even modern masters of the short story such as Cheever, Andre Dubus, and Flannery O’Connor had weaker tales among the classics. That alone is not enough to sully the worth of a book of stories; it would be akin to faulting an entire novel for a slow scene or a moment of frivolous exposition.
[If you really read through the Dubus collected, it can’t be controversial that the old man had a great deal of misses. —Chris]
For the Cleveland Review of Books, Eli Schoop reviews a collection of Robert Christgau’s writing throughout his career (Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, 2018):
As one of his progeny (again, for better or worse) it gets to the heart of why we even do this shit. Christgau is generally concerned with dominant culture—at his core he’s a musical sociologist and doesn’t delve into subculture nearly as thoroughly. But whether sizing up M.I.A.’s cross-cultural boundary-breaking or examining Lady Gaga’s well-curated celebrity personae, there’s a noticeable trace of his shadow among my peers’ inquiries into dariacore or city pop or gorge music. Christgau has had a rhizomatic impact on music criticism, one where there’s merit in being both on the outside looking in and enmeshed in the thick of a scene.
[If you like the capsule reviews in the Film Supplement, thank Christgau. —Steve]
Speaking of,chronicles his attempts to fix the Wikipedia article for the short-lived magazine Cheetah.
The WRB editors’ Slack is buzzed about this, so we might as well pass it along: New A.E. Stallings poem.
John Wilson, in passing while recommending that new John McPhee book (Tabula Rasa, July): “In the old days (and not all that long ago), Farrar, Straus and Giroux published books that were well made. The production values of this one aren’t up to snuff; like so many books these days, it feels and looks cheap.” [Real. —Chris]
In the Washington D.C. metro area, an excessive heat warning remains in effect from noon today until 8 p.m. Valerie Stivers’ latest Paris Review cooking column is on Summer Cooking (1955) author Elizabeth David.
An 84-year-old man completed his quest to ride every mile of Amtrak.
And Jeannette Cooperman on an Amtrak trip. [I guess I should have written something on one of those Amtrak trips between South Bend and Boston. —Steve] [You should apply for one of those Amtrak writers residencies. —Chris]
People’s Book, the new bookstore in Takoma Park, will have an all-day opening festival today.
This is the kind of thing our readers can really get worked up about: “D.C. Government Agency Logos, Reviewed” (from 2019)
Street Sense is ceasing weekly printing.
The 2023 National Book Festival will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday, August 12, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities will be delivered by Ruth J. Simmons on September 26.
Dumbarton Oaks Annual Pre-Columbian Symposium, “Out of the Shadows: The Beginnings of South American Civilization,” will take place October 6–7.
Lux Choir presents Legacy, a program celebrating the 150th birthdays of Max Reger and Sergei Rachmaninoff, performing works by Reger, Rachmaninoff, Amy Beach, and R. Nathaniel Dett. August 11, 2023 in Hyattsville, MD and August 12, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Tickets and more information available here.
“Fall” by Robert Hass
Amateurs, we gathered mushrooms
near shaggy eucalyptus groves
which smelled of camphor and the fog-soaked earth.
Chanterelles, puffballs, chicken-of-the-woods,
we cooked in wine or butter,
beaten eggs or sour cream,
half expecting to be
killed by a mistake. “Intense perspiration,”
you said late at night,
quoting the terrifying field guide
while we lay tangled in our sheets and heavy limbs,
“is the first symptom of attack.”
Friends called our aromatic fungi
“liebestoads” and only at the ones
that we most certainly survived.
Death shook us more than once
those days and floating back
it felt like life. Earth-wet, slithery,
we drifted toward the names of things.
Spore prints littered our table
like nervous stars. Rotting caps
gave off a musky smell of loam.
[This is from Hass’s first collection, Field Guide, published in 1973.
I’m only about halfway through the collection, and already it was hard to pick just one poem to talk about. There’s such an intimacy that comes through in these poems—an intimacy with specific places and landscapes, but there’s also an intimacy with which Hass invites readers into particular relationships. Both of those intimacies, the relational intimacy and the intimacy with place, peek through in this poem. The first stanza of “Adhesive: For Earlene” is another wonderful moment of that intimacy:
How often we overslept
those grey enormous mornings
in the first year of marriage
and found that rain and wind
had scattered palm nuts,
palm leaves, and sweet rotting crabapples
across our wildered lawn.
It’s clear and lovely in a way that makes me feel so present to that moment. I love, in “Fall,” when Hass says we drifted toward the names of things. That line that gets echoed two poems later, in “Maps”:
Of all the laws
that bind us to the past
the names of things are
which is a line that I just love, but also feels like an interpretive key to this collection. There’s such an attentiveness with which plants, places, and people, are named, or described beautifully, and it does feel “binding,” in a way—these poems are clearly operating as memories, but at the same time, the memories being invoked feel so present, so close, through the way they’re named. —Julia]