Discover more from The Washington Review of Books
WRB—Mar. 30, 2022
Sylvia Plath, Le Corbusier, Lydia Davis, Chrétien, Helen DeWitt, et al
It’s more a revue of books if we’re really being honest.
To do list:
Tell us your favorite grocery store in D.C. [Specifically tips for where to find bottles of rose water, please. —Chris]
Felicity Plunkett, by way of a personal remembrance of a lifetime reading the poet, reviews a recent biography of Sylvia Plath for the Sydney Review of Books. [“Down Under,” please. —Nic]
In Noema, Johanna Hoffman has an essay on the ruin value of the tiny seaside town of Bombay Beach, CA. [Click for the photos. —Chris]
And for “the digital-only news organisation with the widest reach in India,” Aaran Patel reports “What Le Corbusier got wrong (and right)” when designing the planned city of Chandigarh.
In the March Literary Review, Stephen Romer reviews Lydia Davis’ most recent book of essays and does some very light relitigation of her translation for the new Penguin Proust series. [I’ve never read Davis, but I read this brief post about her this week, which says, “She writes in almost flawless English,” to which I said, “Typical critical pablum.” But then I found with a quick Google this excerpt from her last collection, and knew he was telling the truth immediately. —Chris]
For Believer, Amber Husain deals with “Fictitious Overexcitement in the Works of Helen DeWitt.”
from Emily Post’s Etiquette:
Today an increasing number of people live in apartments where a guest room is a rarity. Sometimes a couch in the living room can be converted into a comfortable bed at night for an overnight guest, or if a child is away at camp or boarding school, his room may be available. No matter how hospitable your host or hostess may be, a guest should remember that an extra person in small quarters is, inevitably, something of an imposition—no matter how charming the guest may be. Household regulations should be meticulously observed, and the visitor should stay no longer than necessary. He should take up as little room with his possessions as possible and keep his belongings neat. Above all, he should be prepared to fit in with the household schedule and not inconvenience his host or hostess.
Commonweal is hiring a managing editor. [Managing editors is hard! —Nic] [Until you try editing managers. —Chris]
A woman in McLean is selling a bust of the goddess Diana.
Gary Hustwit’s design documentary Helvetica is free to watch through the end of today.
The FBI has compiled a guide to internet slang. Notable omissions: “Managing Editor,” “WRB,” “technical reasons,” “sister publication.”
The Managing Editors are rarely more enthused than they are by the prospect of a launch party for a new publication—how much must their joy increase, then, when the magazine is also based in the District of Columbia.
Another struggling mag: Some guy named “Dan Stone” informs us that John Podhoretz makes close to $400,000 each year editing Commentary. To paraphrase the Bloodhound Gang, that’s a hefty sum. [Couldn’t be us. —Chris.] [Well, it could be us, if we sell 40 million words in ads. —Nic]
What we’re reading:
Chris read a few essays from Under the Gaze of the Bible on Sunday, and so he was delighted to see this essay, published yesterday, treating the themes of the book very compactly: “only in the mirror of the Scriptures are my eyes opened and a stone with a new name written on it promised to me”—it’s true if you’ve ever done it. He also finished that insane book about 9/11 and Elvis.
Nic is diverting himself with a collection of Edmund Morris’s essays. When he picked it up at Second Story several months ago, the guy behind the counter asked for a review. Here it is: Good, recommended. He is also finding Repetition just as delightful as he hoped.
April 26 | Princeton University Press
The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English
by Hana Videen
From the publisher: Old English is the language you think you know until you actually hear or see it. Unlike Shakespearean English or even Chaucer’s Middle English, Old English—the language of Beowulf—defies comprehension by untrained modern readers. Used throughout much of Britain more than a thousand years ago, it is rich with words that haven’t changed (like word), others that are unrecognizable (such as neorxnawang, or paradise), and some that are mystifying even in translation (gafol-fisc, or tax-fish). In this delightful book, Hana Videen gathers a glorious trove of these gems and uses them to illuminate the lives of the earliest English speakers. We discover a world where choking on a bit of bread might prove your guilt, where fiend-ship was as likely as friendship, and where you might grow up to be a laughter-smith.
The Wordhord takes readers on a journey through Old English words and customs related to practical daily activities (eating, drinking, learning, working); relationships and entertainment; health and the body, mind, and soul; the natural world (animals, plants, and weather); locations and travel (the source of some of the most evocative words in Old English); mortality, religion, and fate; and the imagination and storytelling. Each chapter ends with its own “wordhord”—a list of its Old English terms, with definitions and pronunciations.
Entertaining and enlightening, The Wordhord reveals the magical roots of the language you’re reading right now: you’ll never look at—or speak—English in the same way again.
“At the Cafe” by Howard Moss
At the café, at the outdoor table
Fronting the last of the puppet shows,
We have come to sip a bit of brandy
And watch the rapidly descending evening.
Violinists scrape the bow of air,
Arguments begin and finish soon,
As if philosophy were running a café
Where nothing is served but old ideas;
Tensed against the wine-soaked washrag
Of the sky the trees erect themselves
In the last small oblivion of lights;
Talk grows animated . . . someone screams . . .
This passes, these days, for the Bohemian.
Still, the knees of two bright things
Are touching . . . Everyone’s lost the theme:
What’s the mind compared to it,
To feeling’s theatre always in flames,
On the stage, its aging, ludicrous opera
Still faintly heard among the ruins?
[(Lots of people told us they like it when I do this, so I guess I’ll keep at it.)
Howard Moss was the poetry editor for The New Yorker for a very long time, and he came to me by way of a loyal reader, who noted she was passed him by Dana Gioia—that’s three quite esteemed notes in his favor! “At the Cafe” was inset in the June 5, 1978 issue of that magazine in the middle of a piece of fiction by Charles McGrath (most recently linked to in WRB Mar. 19, 2022) which I find totally inscrutable. I’m probably missing a joke. It was collected a few years later in Notes from the Castle, though of course I found it in a copy of New Selected Poems (1985). I have a first edition in paperback from Atheneum Books, and it is not an attractive volume.
In his big interview in The Paris Review, George Steiner (who departed in February 2020, I’ll note if anyone else didn’t happen to notice or remember given that unusual time) gives a description of what a café can be like:
From western Portugal to St. Petersburg, you have cafés, places where you can come in the morning, order a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, spend the day reading the world’s newspapers, playing chess and writing. The bibliography of magnificent books written in cafés is enormous. There are people who have always worked that way and preferred to. . . . I’m at home everywhere in Europe because I go to a café the moment I arrive, either have a chess game, challenge somebody, or have them bring the papers for me on those wooden sticks, the old-fashioned ones where you roll them up, and it’s the most egalitarian society in the world because the price of one cup of coffee or glass of wine buys you the day at the table, and you can write, you can do anything. After my lectures in Geneva, my students always knew at which café I would have my second coffee of the morning, or a glass of white wine, and they could come and chat. That’s where the intellectual life really blazes.
In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West also records a take on that sort of activity, from a Croatian playwright over lunch in Zagreb on Holy Saturday 1937:
Writers like Shaw and Wells and Péguy and Gide did not seem to him artists at all: they wrote down what one talks in cafés, which is quite a good thing to do if the talk is good enough, but is not serious, because it deals with something as common and renewable as sweat.
I mostly do my work in an office and mostly read and talk at home, and in those places my knees never touch, praise, anyone else’s, but I still think about both these passages quite a lot.
The WRB Classifieds:
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In D.C./NOVA: Trained singer and pianist (23F) seeks other amateur musicians to play music together casually, and/or conquer DC’s karaoke scene. Some musical ability is a plus, but altogether unnecessary. [Email WRB with subject: “The Song on a Lark”]
In D.C.: PMC (23M) seeking other disillusioned and disaffected youths to read Infinite Jest with. [Email WRB with subject: “The Library, And Step On It!”]
Wanted: 30ish woman for The National-esque doctor in American midwest. Belief in predestination and disbelief in fibromyalgia preferred. [Email WRB with subject: “Coffee and Flowers”]
In D.C.: Young man has found people to play tennis with, but is leaving an open offer to play. [Email WRB with subject: “Tennis, Anyone?”]
Literate + fit Christian girl, professional engineer in middle America (northwest Arkansas), is open to the idea of meeting marriage-worthy young man. [Email WRB with subject: “Lost in the Beau-zarks”]
Nice Christian girl wanted for nice Christian boy. Him: 25 y/o 6’2” homeowner. Seattle area. Her: Tall a plus. Ex athlete a plus. Must love kids. [Email WRB with subject: “Sleepless in Seattle”]
DC-local male seeking recommendations for DC-local locales to purchase oddities in the service of bedroom decoration. Economical ideas preferred. [Email WRB with subject “Priceless Moments”]
Man, single, 26, seeking to enter the next phase of life and settle down. Low-maintenance preferred, but open to a fixer-upper. Will travel to meet with respondent. No Mazdas, please. [Email WRB with subject: “Passengers Not Included”]
Aging millennial looking for a piano teacher near Fairfax. [Email WRB with subject: “Tickling the Ivories”]
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