WRB—June 21, 2023
Eventually, each of us comes to a fork in the Path of Life: One way leads to Banality; the other to the Washington Review of Books.
We’re working on some changes here at the WRB: notably, Steve is now a “Managing Editor” and will be helping a lot more with this main newsletter. More news to come in due time. Congratulations, Steve. [Here, here! —Chris]
In The Yale Review, Percival Everett on abstraction and nonsense in the novel:
What am I doing when I decide to write a realistic story? What am I setting about to make? I am in fact constructing an artifice that appears, seems, feels real or “lifelike.” Roland Barthes would have us believe that the tricks of fiction are no longer effective, dead. With all due respect, this is hardly true, and it’s not true for a couple of reasons. The first is that readers still invest themselves in stories so deeply that they will feel bad or good and defend or argue whether a character has behaved realistically or not. The second reason is that the notion of tricks is unintelligible. Readers are never unaware that they are regarding a construction. Fictions are not lies. Readers come to the work willingly and agree to certain terms. Those terms will vary from work to work, but are established by the work, usually early on. Like any contract, breaking it leads to distrust. This is accepted reality. But I imagine that the broken agreement and all its attendant distrust can be seen as similar to the analogous actual-world act of betrayal, and so can be as real as anything.
I’m very interested in thinking about perfection in art, but it’s also true that if I set out worrying about failure or what I was going to inevitably lose in my translations, I’d never start! If you dissect any literary translation, you will see the meticulous decision-making process that’s gone into it. You should be able to see then that translation is a process of negotiation—there will be some wrangling, there will be occasional smooth substitutions, and there will be compromise and resourcefulness. I’m more interested in thinking about how I can be tactful than how not to lose things. For example, if I want dialogue between two people fighting to sound realistic, I probably won’t be able to translate their slurs or offenses literally or closely. Rather, I think of what a person might scream in their language. I turn my ear away from the original and towards the target language. This act doesn’t betray the author’s choice but honors the intention behind the phrase.
In The Point, Gary Greenberg on what he learned from his correspondence with Ted Kaczynski:
I have to conclude that at that time, unlike after his imprisonment (and after his cancer diagnosis), he must still have had some hope, however slight, of going free. Something still mattered to him; the nihilism incipient in his terrorism was not fully realized until he was entirely overwhelmed by circumstance, outmatched by all the forces arrayed against him. Twenty-five years later, some large portion of Americans, and many of our leaders, appear to be reaching the same point: overwhelming despair leading to the conclusion that seeking after moral principles is a fool’s errand, that nothing matters other than brute power, and that if you can’t have or keep it, then you might as well destroy everything, even yourself.
Cf. Sohrab Ahmari in The New Statesman on the “Unabomber right.”
[He was just a freelance writer with a, shall we say, exotic pitching style. There’s nothing interesting there besides the frisson, one way or the other. —Steve]
In the LARB, Richard Wolin on the conduct of Heidegger’s literary estate:
Another low point in this tragicomic editorial saga occurred in 2015, when Gesamtausgabe publisher Vittorio Klostermann, in a desperate gambit to bolster waning public confidence in the edition’s integrity, felt compelled to circulate a memorandum requesting that editors who were aware of additional textual irregularities step forward in order to stave off further embarrassment. As Klostermann explained, the press had received “numerous inquiries as to why Martin Heidegger’s anti-Jewish enmity [Judenfeindschaft] had not surfaced in earlier Gesamtausgabe volumes.” Fearing that a point of no return had been reached, Klostermann underlined the severity of the metastasizing editorial debacle, warning that “[e]very additional discrepancy that third parties are able to point out risks placing the publisher […] on the defensive and could potentially damage the reputation of the Gesamtausgabe as a whole.” Klostermann concluded with an appeal that targeted editors who were responsible for volumes from the Nazi period, requesting that they come forward with any information they might have concerning “questionable deviations from the authorized copies of Heidegger’s manuscripts, be it a question of omissions or transcription errors.”
In 2022, Klostermann revealed that it had been necessary to “pulp” two Gesamtausgabe volumes in their entirety and replace them with new editions, in order to correct the various omissions and falsifications. He also acknowledged that the press had posted corrections to no fewer than 26 volumes on its website.
In Public Books, Daphne Kalotay on Daphne du Maurier’s “Monte Verità”:
The characters cling to their beliefs as to a crumbling cliff. Though “no man living had set eyes on them,” the villagers believe that the women at Monte Verità remain young and beautiful forever. The men, though, long to attack what they cannot comprehend—this cult is stealing their young women!
Through the myth of the mountain priestesses, “Monte Verità” taps into male fear of imponderable female power. Something similar happens in other great Du Maurier stories, among them “Kiss Me Again, Stranger”—about a seemingly otherworldly femme fatale—and the brilliant “Don’t Look Now,” in which a husband worries his wife is being manipulated by enigmatic twin sisters.
Seventeen NYT columnists each picked one piece of culture by which America can be understood.
Ezra Klein, Her: “Her” saw something that I think most of A.I. commentary is missing: These systems are going to upend our relationships long before they remake our economies.
Ross Douthat, The Great Gatsby: “If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man,” Gatsby’s father says before the funeral. But in dying young, Gatsby achieved the secret goal of all Americans: to get rich while remaining citizens of Eden, innocents till the last.
[No one picked Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Sad! —Steve]
From the N.B. of the TLS, M. C. on a recently republished interview with Borges:
Interviewer and interviewee find a common interest in their personal connections to Geneva; but the conversation ends as abruptly as it began when another visitor arrives. “Well, no, I can’t give advice,” Borges says at last, when asked if he has any for “the kids” of the day; “my life has been a series of mistakes.”
In The Dial, Elisabeth Åsbrink on the end of a friendship:
“I now have to say something that pains me a great deal,” Lars Norén told me. It was Aug. 30, 2015, a hot and dusty summer day in Stockholm. We hadn’t seen each other all year, our communication had been limited to sporadic text messages. But finally, we had arranged a time to meet for a cup of coffee.
“We can’t be friends anymore,” he said.
“No?” I asked, surprised. I had always sensed that our acquaintance could suddenly end—and that one day it inevitably would. Still, I was unprepared.
“How come?” I asked.
“Because of Dagens Nyheter and its stance on the NATO issue,” he answered. “I cannot accept it.”
In The Guardian, Steven Poole reviews Lewis Dartnell’s contribution to the “trend for thick tomes proposing to explain our humanity through one or other lens across deep time” (Being Human: How Our Biology Shaped World History, June)
So are we really essentially the same animals as the early Homo sapiens hunting and gathering on the savannahs? Dartnell thinks so. “The fundamental aspects of what it means to be human—the hardware of our bodies and the software of our minds—haven’t changed.” This is, indeed, the assumption behind evolutionary psychology, which seeks to explain modern human behaviour in terms of what is hypothesised to have been adaptive for our cave-dwelling ancestors. But his mainframe-age metaphor of hardware and software is old hat and inaccurate. We now know that the human brain exhibits substantial neuroplasticity: in other words, the “software” can change the “hardware” it’s running on, as is not the case for any actual computer.
“The globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) has been consumed in the Mediterranean for more than 3,000 years.” [A non-metaphorical artichoke, that is. —Chris] [I know a poem for this. —Julia] [So does Horace, although I can’t find a translation of Ode 4.1 I like to link here. One of my few pieces of decoration is a page from what I assume was a botany textbook. It has a picture of the globe artichoke, with separate images showing more detail of its immature flower-head, cooked flower-head, and receptacle. (There are also pictures of cardoon and okra.) One of the best gifts I have ever received. —Steve] [“It’s great to see something through the eyes of a person who had never seen it before, because artichokes really are weird-looking.” —Chris]
Dispatches from a lost world (being young in the year 2002).
In 1745 Simon Mason discouraged “an imprudent Use of Tea, by Persons of an inferior Rank, and mean Abilities.” [I had two cans of store-brand lime seltzer while working on this newsletter. What do you make of that, Simon? —Steve]
One last McCarthy piece: “With his famed reclusiveness and idiosyncratic prose style, Mr. McCarthy might seem like an obdurate anachronism. But his career arc reveals that he was serendipitously of his time.”
Issues we’re having:
The July issue of Harper’s is out. [“The Protestant ethic and the spirit of wokeness”? Seriously? —Chris] [Weber, describing Puritan attitudes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: “Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins.” One shudders to imagine their reaction to many subtle and ingenious ways to waste time developed more recently, such as writing articles with the subhead “The Protestant ethic and the spirit of wokeness.” —Steve]
Canadian Notes and Queries Issue #113 also out.
One last issue: the Washington Review of Books is a reader-supported publication. You should become a reading supporter! [Supporting reader? —Chris] We need your support!
The Capital Fringe Festival runs from July 12th to the 23rd.
How to draw in the visitor is a key focus of the reimagining currently underway at the NGA. “There are very few better experiences that you can have in an art museum than walking though it with somebody that knows its collection well,” says Stein, “whether it’s a curator or a conservator or a director, because they can help you to unpack the stories of the art that cannot be discerned from simply reading a label. . . . But you’re right,” he admits, “we’re kind of facing an uphill battle in that a large segment of our potential audience either thinks, ’No, art’s not for me,’ or, ‘This isn’t necessarily my idea of fun.’”
This Friday, the 23rd, a special after-hours experience at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, featuring 12 original Leonardo da Vinci drawings from the Codex Atlanticus.
The East Front of the Capitol was designed to be its formal entrance for receiving dignitaries, based on this assumption that the new capital city would face the Anacostia and East Capitol Street would be a grand avenue connecting the East Front of the Capitol to a bridge across the Anacostia. In reality, the East Capitol Street bridge was not built until 1955. Likewise, while the current Zero Milestone is located at the north edge of the Ellipse, L’Enfant’s plan indicated that a column from which “all distances of places through the continent are to be calculated” would be placed in what is now Lincoln Park at 12th Street and East Capitol Street.
TODAY | Seagull Books
by Patrick Rambaud, translated by Nicole Ball and David Ball
From the publisher: Welcome to China in the fifth century BCE, a colorful, violent, unstable world into which Zhuang is born. Here royals raise huge armies, constantly waging wars against one another. They have slaves, concubines. Gold is everywhere. And so is hunger. Born rich and entitled, Zhuang learns to refuse any official function. His travels bring him closer to ordinary people, from whom he learns how to live a simple and useful life. This is how he will become one of the greatest Chinese philosophers who gave his name to his legendary book, the Zhuangzi, one of the two foundational texts of Taoism—a magnificent procession of lively stories in which we meet dwarfs, virtuous bandits, butchers, powerful lords in their castles, turtles, charming concubines, and false sages. In this remarkable bildungsroman, award-winning French novelist Patrick Rambaud spins out the extraordinary life of Zhuang Zhou—a poetic, cruel, and often humorous tale, halfway between fable and philosophy.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial