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WRB—Nov. 23, 2022
It’s giving season. It’s giving so much season.
Email newsletters are like phosphorus: they shine with maximum brilliance at the moment when they attempt to die.
To do list:
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, now stored on this page for non-paying readers to access, either by placing or responding to one;
and, if you’ve enjoyed the past ten months of the WRB and found our twice-weekly emails useful, amusing, diverting, or edifying, consider supporting our tireless efforts to produce these effects in you, now for a greatly reduced price for a yearly subscription through the end of the year:
[I’m making our entire posts this week free, in case you need enticement to the small sorts of things we get up to beyond the usual paywall. In the new year, it’s my hope to be able to add more regular content for subscribers: more Monday Supplements, more extensive collections of Rebecca West quotations, more of Julia’s wonderful comments on poetry, perhaps even real book reviews. —Chris]
A few months ago we cracked some jokes [Shocking.] about the seeming surfeit of directors-cum-novelists we’ve seen recently (e.g. Herzog, The Twilight World, June [Don’t miss Paul Franz’ review in The Nation linked Sept. 10]; Mann, Heat 2, August; Waters, Liarmouth, May [Christian Lorentzen recently went to screw around with Waters on a boat for a Cultured magazine profile.]). For The Drift, Hanson O’Haver takes a closer look at the phenomenon: “This may not be the best news for readers. Novels are not just movies yet to be filmed. To be clear, none of the abovementioned debuts are bad, and if you’re a fan of what the director’s done lately, you’ll probably like his book. But even the best of the lot fail to approach anything near their authors’ cinematic peaks.”
“Given the prevailing atmosphere of disdain and indifference, readers may be surprised at what a new look at midwestern history reveals. Once the cobwebs are cleared off old journals, long-forgotten records consulted, and the veil of stereotypes pierced, a remarkable world is discovered. In contrast to prevailing clichés and the modern platitudes about backwardness, sterility, racial injustice, and oppression, an in-depth look at the history of the American Midwest reveals a land of democratic vigor, cultural strength, racial and gender progress, and civic energy—a Good Country, a place lost to the mists of time by chronic neglect but one well worth recovering, for the sake of both the accuracy of our history and our own well-being. The Midwest of the long nineteenth century, to state it boldly, constituted the most advanced democratic society that the world had seen to date, but its achievements are rarely highlighted in history texts and indeed seldom mentioned.” RealClearBooks has an excerpt from Jon K. Lauck’s new book on the history of the Midwest (The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest, 1800–1900, November). [Belt has Midwest Futures on sale in a bundle right now at a price that makes us concerned. It’s a great book!]
On Saturday, we mentioned The Recognitions a few times. Jason Guriel takes the Don DeLillo blurb on the back of the NYRB paperback edition as a jumping off point in this excerpt from his new book about the finer pleasures of wandering around a bookstore (On Browsing, November): “There’s a lot to like about this blurb. There’s the spectacle of one great novelist plumping for the work of another. There’s the real-time search for the right words (‘or, maybe more apt’) and the wonderful ones arrived at (‘a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words’). There’s the subtext of a green writer, a budding DeLillo, stumbling on the kind of writing he hadn’t thought was native to his American soil, something he didn’t even realize he was searching for. ‘And they were the words of a contemporary American,’ he tells us, in awe. ‘This, to me, was the wonder of it.’ There’s a bildungsroman buried in DeLillo’s blurb.”
Sam Kriss retells the history of the “historical Wakanda,” including the people who, perhaps spurred by several Black Panther films, still believe in its existence.
For the New York Sun, Jude Russo reviews a new translation of Ovid by Stephanie McCarter (Metamorphoses, November): “Ms. McCarter’s work allows Ovid to sing out in English without history’s obscuring echoes. She explains her compromises between awkward literalism and a more poetic but less Ovidian product, valuable for those whose encounter with Ovid will be in English. She engages in what Heidegger called ‘the destruction of history’—removing longstanding ways of thinking about the text that prevent us from grappling with the author’s original thought.”
Two on Brigitta Olubas’ new Shirley Hazzard biography (Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, November):
In Bookforum, Christine Smallwood takes the biographical approach: “The Hazzard that emerges in Olubas’s exhaustive biography is rather like one of Hazzard’s characters: brilliant and cosmopolitan; living through historical events but strangely untouched by generational mores; at once supremely composed and eager to demonstrate her worth. The voice of her diary, like that of her published fiction, was lofty. She disliked much of the Australian writing of the 1970s and ’80s, and in turn, Murray Bail complained of her “prissy aversion to vomit” and “overbearing provincialism.” Hazzard’s prose is precise and gorgeous but dense and sometimes overdone; it can open up immense pools of feeling and flatten feeling out by making every moment richly supercharged. One never hears a car coming in Hazzard. The senses are more finely tuned than that, able to distinguish between “the bronchial change of gear with which a van might mount the hill” and “a swift, decided sound, a sound in showroom condition,” etc. Her sound was always in showroom condition.
In the Baffler, Anthony Domestico focuses on Hazzard’s attempt to incarnate the sensibilities of her favorite literary works: “Hazzard and Steegmuller read Gibbon and Auden and Seneca aloud; they went to the opera; they wrote. They knew, and had to dinner, the literary guests worth knowing and dining with: Ralph Ellison, Richard Howard, John Updike, Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Bowen. Another friend, Alfred Kazin, said that ‘the Steegmullers had this gift of turning their dinner guests into replicas of their social graces’; to spend time with Hazzard in particular was to see ‘that love is a form of intelligence—a way of listening to the world, of taking it in, of rising above one’s angry heart.’ As Olubas writes, the marriage was, ‘in a sense, what [Hazzard] had always dreamed of.’” [My own opinion is that The Transit of Venus, which is best read in a marathon session on a transatlantic flight, will teach you more interesting things about Shirley Hazzard than any biography. –Nic]
There’s a New Directions sale through next Monday, 20% off with code GIVETHANKS.
The Baby Girl’s Guide to D.C.? [Congratulations!]
The CRB is coming in print.
The Lamp is also running its year-end sale, 40% off with the code 40off22.
December 6 | Simon & Schuster
by Sam Lipsyte
From the publisher: Manhattan’s East Village, 1993. Dive bars, DIY music venues, shady weirdos, and hard drugs are plentiful. Crime is high but rent is low, luring hopeful, creative kids from sleepy suburbs around the country.
One of these is Jack S., a young New Jersey rock musician. Just a few days before his band’s biggest gig, their lead singer goes missing with Jack’s prized bass, presumably to hock it to feed his junk habit. Jack’s search for his buddy uncovers a sinister entanglement of crimes tied to local real estate barons looking to remake New York City—and who might also be connected to the recent death of Jack’s punk rock mentor. Along the way, Jack encounters a cast of colorful characters, including a bewitching, quick-witted scenester who favors dressing in a nurse’s outfit, a monstrous hired killer with a devotion to both figure skating and edged weapons, a deranged if prophetic postwar novelist, and a tough-talking cop who fancies himself a retro-cool icon of the homicide squad but is harboring a surprising secret.
No One Left to Come Looking for You is a page-turning suspense novel that also serves as a love letter to a bygone era of New York City where young artists could still afford to chase their dreams.
What we’re reading:
Chris has been reading Rebecca West’s critical essays, mostly those in The Strange Necessity. Some amusing lines, most of them pretty mean, almost all printed originally in the New York Herald-Tribune:
On Arnold Bennett:
Elaborately worked over though the Clayhanger trilogy is, it may be doubted if anybody ever attempted to alleviate the tedium of a journey from, say, Chicago to South Bend, Ind., by leaning back, closing the eyes and exclaiming, “Let me recall what I can of those delicious creations, Edwin Clayhanger and Hilda Lessways!”
From an essay on Death Comes for the Archbishop and the respective artistic vocations of Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence: “It would almost seem sometimes as if the Church burned heretics because it was afraid that if it did not man would burn his soup.”
Somehow, part of an extended bit of put-downs of periodicals which fall short of the English Review under Ford Madox Ford’s editorship:
The more conservative type of monthly, which specializes in sober essays by the oldest female inhabitant of Baltimore on the decay of almost everything except, oddly enough, teeth. [This is part of an extended metaphor comparing magazines to the types of plaintiffs in family court that I really don’t know how to reproduce succinctly.]
In the middle of praise for H.M. Tomlinson’s war reporting: “The trouble about soldiers in Mr. Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry, for example, is that they are the kind of people who in a railroad train have to travel with their backs to the engine.”
And in praise of Mr. Tomlinson’s “non-neurotic quality”: “We are, speaking generally, hot and bothered. Therefore we like our geniuses to be hot and bothered.”
In complaint about Thomas Hardy’s propensity to dwell on macabre images in his poems:
Really, the thing is prodigious. One of Mr. Hardy’s ancestors must have married a weeping willow. There are pages and pages in his collected poems which are simply plain narratives in ballad form of how an unenjoyable time was had by all.
[A page later, on the same issue in his short stories: “mere recitals of odd ways of getting into the churchyard.”]
On her second novel, The Judge (1922): “Thomas Hardy makes his wife read it to him over and over again, it being the only book ever written as gloomy as his own. His own wife told me this in accents of incredible bitterness.” (From a letter to Louis Golding, 1922.)
On a British statesman she is under pains to distinguish from Mr. Hardy:
That doctrinaire Radical, who had many admirable qualities, but who was about as full of the ripe wisdom of earth as an umbrella frame, was a pacifist for the same reason that he was one of the worst prose writers that ever lived. He could not see why he could not force his intention of peace on the world in spite of the contrary movement of history. Just as he never could see why he could not force his meaning on the reader in a certain mould of words in spite of the contrary disposition of the English language.
On Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for Harpers:
It is depressing to recognize how easily this episode would find a home in fiction. It would work in nicely to a certain kind of Roman Catholic novel, in which God would find the ripe sinnerhood of Hickock far preferable to the insipid Pelagian virtue of his parents.
“VI.” by Pablo Neruda (translated by William O’Daly)
Pardon me, if when I want
to tell the story of my life
it’s the land I talk about.
This is the land.
It grows in your blood
and you grow.
If it dies in your blood
you die out.
[This is from Still Another Day (1983), but I got it from Copper Canyon Press’s upcoming anthology, A House Called Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Poetry, which they were generous enough to send us an advance copy of. Copper Canyon is a wonderful poetry press, so I wasn’t surprised when I examined the table of contents and saw a lot of poets I admire (and many ones new to me, too!). I’ve been enjoying reading it so much. Its publication is set for January; it’s almost a shame that it’s post-Christmas, because I think it would make a really lovely gift, either for someone looking to get into poetry for the first time or for a long-time poetry lover.
I love the first three lines here with sticky-note-above-my-desk love. But I also love the way the last four lines push past my expectations. In a way, the first sentence is obvious; plenty of writers take up as subject matter the way narratives and landscapes interact. But in the final two sentences, Neruda goes as far as to suggest that entwining the land with our own narratives is necessary for survival and growth. That’s such an interesting idea to me. —Julia]
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