WRB—May 17, 2023
It is nonetheless dearly meant, and merciful, and kind.
Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds and in the end, none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do. . . . the WRB, great pessimists. I was subscribed for years and nothing happened. The poor Managing Editors got so frustrated, they finally started selling tote bags. Maybe the poets are right. Maybe love is the only answer.
For The Brooklyn Rail, Cat Woods reviews a novel, newly translated from Han Kang’s Korean, which, like The Secret History, is about how studying the classics is more trouble than it’s worth (Greek Lessons, April):
Kang’s cleverness is in challenging readers to determine their own motivation for engaging with her novel, her characters, and their complicated, oftentimes confusing combination of dialogue and reflection. Is the problem in Kang’s use of language or the translation of her language from Korean to English, or is it the nature of language itself that creates division between what we are absorbing from the page and what we want from it?
Two from the new issue of Harper’s:
Ian Penman on Chuck Berry and the RJ Smith’s biography of last year (Chuck Berry: An American Life, November):
Smith doesn’t go in for baroque theorizing, or make a big symbolic meal of Berry’s crimes and proclivities. He is calm, scrupulous, and lucid—as well as immensely readable. He doesn’t moralize but simply lays out Berry’s life with a kind of wary, detached empathy, opening it up for a range of non-formulaic or non-dogmatic responses. Smith convincingly restates Berry’s achievements as a musician, a lyricist, a cultural figure—as a man of his time. With a measure of compassion and an absence of easy condemnation, he retrieves complexity, both for Berry and for his readers. He doesn’t shy away from the thorns and prickles, but navigates the bleaker paths without any special pleading—to rediscover things that are in danger of being crushed, flattened, mangled.
And of interest in Claire Messud’s column: some early notes on the forthcoming Jenny Erpenbeck translation (Kairos, June) and the forthcoming Peter Brown biography (Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, June).
For the LARB, Erik Hmiel on a history of phenomenology in America put out last fall (Inventing Philosophy’s Other, October):
The recruiting practices in philosophy departments at elite universities during the postwar hiring boom only reinforced this perception. As Strassfeld shows with painstaking quantitative analysis and archival records of faculty meetings, correspondence, and administrative deliberations, the nation’s elite institutions came largely to hire graduates of their own departments, where “analytic” philosophy was held up as the new philosophical mainstream (Harvard looms particularly large in this narrative). This created the conditions, by the 1970s, of a reified category of “continental” philosophy that existed largely at the margins of the discipline’s mainstream. By this point, those margins not only included “inferior” continental departments but had also extended to departments of literature, rhetoric, religious studies, and gender and women’s studies, where the study of continental philosophy became arguably most dynamic, if somewhat more haphazard. Indeed, there is a sense in the narrative arc of 20th-century American philosophy that continental philosophy was chased off.
For The New Statesman, Anna Leszkiewicz reviews Joanna Biggs’ book out yesterday, about female writers (A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again, May):
Biggs’s project is defiantly unscholarly. She recalls that the “biggest taboo during my degree was to wonder about the sort of person a writer was from the novels they wrote”, but this, she writes, is exactly how many of us read fiction: “It is strange to me that anyone ever talks of books apart from a writer’s life… Even if a book is about everything else, it is never not about the life the writer lived.” Hers, then, embraces a biographical, emotional and associative form of criticism.
A subject of long concern to the Managing Editors: where can you get Cel-Ray in the DMV? At Food52, Lyra Walsh Fuchs on Dr. Browns.
“Have you ever imagined a book made out of bamboo? What about metal? Or how about glass? You might not have, but literature luminary Dave Eggers sure has, and he’s even brought one of these fantasies to life.” [Do you think he could put it back? —Chris] (Charlotte Beach for Print)
“An unfortunate consequence of this, though, is the profusion of publications designed from the ground up to appeal to the demographic of ‘business people who incorrectly imagine themselves to be ideas people.’” ()
PEN Drama “Masha Gessen Resigns in Protest From PEN America Board”
This Sunday afternoon at the National Gallery, “the final talk of the six-part series Vital Signs: The Visual Cultures of Maya Writing, presented by Stephen D. Houston of Brown University for the 72nd A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts.”
May 23 | Riverhead
The Late Americans
by Brandon Taylor
From the publisher: In the shared and private spaces of Iowa City, a loose circle of lovers and friends encounter, confront, and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery. Among them are Seamus, a frustrated young poet; Ivan, a dancer turned aspiring banker who dabbles in amateur pornography; Fatima, whose independence and work ethic complicate her relationships with friends and a trusted mentor; and Noah, who “didn’t seek sex out so much as it came up to him like an anxious dog in need of affection.” These four are buffeted by a cast of artists, landlords, meatpacking workers, and mathematicians who populate the cafes, classrooms, and food-service kitchens of the city, sometimes to violent and electrifying consequence. Finally, as each prepares for an uncertain future, the group heads to a cabin to bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.
A novel of friendship and chosen family, The Late Americans asks fresh questions about love and sex, ambition and precarity, and about how human beings can bruise one another while trying to find themselves. It is Brandon Taylor’s richest and most involving work of fiction to date, confirming his position as one of our most perceptive chroniclers of contemporary life.
See Claire Messud’s review in the last issue of Harper’s.
[The blob is dying hard, huh? —Chris]
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