WRB—Mar. 1, 2023
The ruthless review of all books that exist
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The exquisite patterns of Balanchine’s waltzes, each as distinct as a snowflake and touched with metaphor, have much in common with the ländler, an Austrian precursor to the waltz that is storylike, courtly, a playful hide-and-seek in which the partners hunt species of eros, love, in their midst. The ländler moves in lines and circlets, paths that contain it. The waltz is always turning, open to momentum.
Anahid Nersessian hitting the interview circuit all of a sudden about her 2021 book (Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, 2021) [Sometimes I like to link two examples of the same thing as an opportunity for a study in contrasts. —Chris]:
With Jack Skelley in LARB:
These were not fringe ideas, so it’s strange to me that people who would probably, if pressed, describe themselves as serious readers can go into fight-or-flight mode if they’re invited to think about Romantic poetry in its larger historical and philosophical context. We’re comfortable describing Mary Wollstonecraft as a feminist, a word she never heard—let alone used—in her life. But we want to ignore George Bernard Shaw when he says—and he did say this—that some of the material in Keats’s poems wouldn’t be out of place in Das Kapital? That’s just such a loss—to literature, minimally.
And with Hannah Zeavin in Public Books:
He’s a poet, and he’s just bombarding her with his truth. Thinking about that distinction between truth and honesty, I’m tempted to say that truth in the sense of a subjective intensity is the object of poetry, or of the poet. Anyway, it was for Keats. And when Keats writes those letters, there’s no honesty in them: there can’t be, because Fanny Brawne is simply not there. He never says “I saw you yesterday, you were wearing this dress.” Instead he says “Yesterday and this morning I have been haunted with a sweet vision—I have seen you the whole time in your shepherdess dress.” Does such a dress even exist? We have no idea. What’s most vivid to him is the vision, the fantasy of her. She loved him, that seems beyond a doubt, but who knows what she made of his insistence on always speaking at her rather than to her?
Rushdie is, in short, a 1990s-vintage believer in open societies, liberalism, the twindom of reason and beauty, and probably of democratic peace theory too. He is scandalized by the fact that people display backwardness of the sort almost all people do, attaching their hopes to superstitions and bothering to care that other people worship different things and fuck in different ways, regarding it as a sort of predictable yet incomprehensible hiccup.
OK, boomer! But lots of trite things are also right.
For Engelsberg Ideas, Clive Aslet reviews a recent survey of architecture by Witold Rybczynski (The Story of Architecture, November):
Although this book begins in the third millennium BC, fully one-third of it is devoted to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This is the period for which the general reader, for whom the book is intended, most needs Rybczynski’s help. The author suavely guides us from modern life in the Vienna of the Secession to the elevators, cinema and rolled steel frame of the Ellicott Square Building in Buffalo New York—before a chapter on the ‘Enduring Past’ of Washington DC and the Viceroy’s House, New Delhi. That seems to be Rybczynski’s point: the past does endure. Early skyscrapers were intended to relate to the great works of the past; they also had the equivalent of bases, shafts and capitals.
In the Journal, Joseph Epstein reviews a new history of the encyclopedia and its decline (All the Knowledge in the World, February).
Department of foreign affairs: For LRB, Raymond MacKenzie writes about two recent translations from the French by Graham Anderson (The Woman, This Man and This Was the Man, September 2022):
She undoubtedly shared the opinion Sand expresses in Elle et lui, that artists need to be forgiven more readily than others, being subject to ‘more sudden enthusiasms’ and stronger fits of passion. Such an opinion is a harder sell today. Colet’s relationship with Flaubert sputtered to an end in 1854, though he didn’t write breaking it off until March 1855. She had gone to his apartment in Paris, and he wrote saying that she would never find him in. Musset died in May 1857, a month after Madame Bovary came out in book form. Two years later, as Sand was serialising Elle et lui, Colet began readying her own version of the story, Lui, which came out in August 1859.
New Proust translation series incoming from OUP.
Book (Travellers to Unimaginable Lands, March) excerpt in The Guardian: “Dinner with Proust: how Alzheimer’s caregivers are pulled into their patients’ worlds”
More printed matter:
Local choir The Thirteen is performing Rachmaninoff's Vespers this weekend in three performances in Alexandria, the District, and Bethesda.
Charles and Tessa Carman will host novelist and poet Marly Youmans [“the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.” —John Wilson] for a house reading and signing of her new novel-in-verse Seren of the Wildwood (Wiseblood Books) on Friday, March 10, at 7 p.m. Interested folks can RSVP email@example.com.
Opening tomorrow and running through August at the National Gallery of Art:
Philip Guston Now charts the 50-year career of one of America’s most influential modern artists through more than 150 paintings and drawings. Guston’s story is one of epic change—of artistic styles, from muralism to abstract expressionism to figuration, of degrees of political and social involvement, and of levels of personal confession in his work. Renowned in his time and in ours, Guston’s work continues to resonate, attract, and provoke, raising crucial questions about the relationship of art to beauty and brutality, freedom and doubt, politics and the imagination.
“Shilpi Malinowski’s Shaw, LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History does most of what it promises.” (Tushnet)
Pacific Overtures is running at Signature Theatre March 7–April 9.
March is Orchid Month. March is Orchid Month! At Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens.
March 6 | New Directions
The Flowers of Buffoonery
by Osamu Dazai, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett
From the publisher: The Flowers of Buffoonery opens in a seaside sanitarium where Yozo Oba—the narrator of No Longer Human—is convalescing after a failed suicide attempt. Friends and family visit him, and nurses and police drift in and out of his room. Against this dispiriting backdrop, Yozo and his visitors try to maintain a lighthearted, even clownish atmosphere: playing cards, smoking cigarettes, vying for attention, cracking jokes, and trying to make each other laugh. Dazai is known for delving into the darkest corners of human consciousness, but in The Flowers of Buffoonery he pokes fun at these same emotions: the follies and hardships of youth, of love, and of self-hatred and depression. A glimpse into the lives of a group of outsiders in prewar Japan, The Flowers of Buffoonery is a fresh and darkly humorous addition to Osamu Dazai’s masterful and intoxicating oeuvre.
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