WRB—Nov. 4, 2023
“Sick.” “Flu.” “In bed.” “Fever.”
One particularly obsessive fan became so upset about the lack of interest in radicalism by the Washington Review of Books that he formed a protest organization, the Washington Review of Books Liberation Front, and began to lead demonstrations outside the Managing Editors’ houses. “FREE THE WASHINGTON REVIEW OF BOOKS!” chanted the demonstrators during a demonstration in January 1971. “Free the Managing Editors from themselves!”
In The Brooklyn Rail, Mandana Chaffa interviews Lydia Davis:
You're right that music was my first love—playing and reading scores, studying music theory. And I do think that music training was helpful in a number of ways. Certainly I learned about structure per se, and my ear was trained to listen closely, which carries over into being sensitive to the rhythms of prose. When I'm writing, I don't “think” in terms of music, but I'm sure my constant immersion from a pretty early age in (mostly classical) music has influenced the rhythms and structures of my prose. Very little in my approach to writing is conscious or deliberate, though—it all comes more spontaneously or naturally from inside me, from whatever has developed in me. And that's what I recommend for younger writers—develop yourself, and then write freely and inventively. Train yourself rigorously in technique, cultivate your mind—and then write adventurously and unselfconsciously.
- on “the art of the fragment” in Davis’s work:
It’s also notable that Davis is a reader of mystery stories. One way of thinking about her writing is that she creates fragmentary fiction with scenarios that often lend themselves to mystery or thriller settings. Her brevity is designed to leave you with a sense of mystery to explore.
“A good sentence in prose,” says Flaubert, “should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.” To achieve a translation that matches this high standard is difficult, perhaps impossible. Of course, a translation of even a less exacting stylist requires millions of tiny, detailed decisions; many reconsiderations; the testing of one word or phrase against another multiple times.
- on “the art of the fragment” in Davis’s work:
We regret to inform you that the people who are usually at it are, once again, at it: white men are writing novels. Some of these novels display great ambition, even. Laura Miller on the conversations surrounding that kind of thing in Slate:
The white-guy social novel has since gone out of fashion, its ambition rewritten as overreach. Who were these white men to presume to speak for the entirety of a diverse culture? Who is the “we” in “the way we live now”? And why were they so celebrated by the media when other, equally talented writers from marginalized groups were treated as lesser or special-interest novelists? It is easy—and a relief at times!—to dismiss an author’s work because his fans are annoying, his press coverage too breathless, his extra-literary pronouncements too clueless or prissy. It’s also worth pointing out that few of these novelists made the kinds of bold claims for their own books deployed by their publicists and the press. The media in particular has long been obsessed with the notion of the “Great American Novel,” a work that ostensibly captures the spirit of the country. Pitching a book in those terms remains an effective way of getting the increasingly distractible public to pay attention to it.
In Dissent, Michael Kazin on his time as a student radical:
At every T stop from Cambridge to Boston University that evening, a different member of the collective was assigned the task of giving a one-minute speech to the other passengers before the doors closed again. Most of us confidently spat out a few slogans about victory for the Viet Cong or declared “Power to the People.” But when it was time for Jimmy, a member of the Northeastern contingent, to speak, he was struck dumb with anxiety. “Jimmy,” I implored him, “say anything.” Jimmy rose from his seat, his face crimson with effort, and shouted, “This country sucks!” That still strikes me as the most concise summary of Weatherman’s politics I have ever heard.
Zosima’s narrative ends with a section on his “conversations and exhortations,” in which Dostoyevsky “develops some of his most cherished ideas,” in the words of Joseph Frank, the novelist’s award-winning biographer. Among Zosima’s exhortations is a paean to the Russian peasantry, urging people to “pray to God for gladness” and insisting that it is necessary “to love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of the Divine love and is the highest love on earth.” Above everything, Zosima warns, we must shun “a desire for vengeance on the evildoer.” He speaks of the power of “unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything.” At the end of Book VI, Zosima dies. The old monk bows down, his face to the ground, his arms stretched out “as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying (as he himself taught), quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.”
In The Millions, a brief history of photography by Ed Simon:
The invention of photography, less than 200 years old, seems both strangely recent and perilously distant. 1839 is an impenetrable barrier, as the entirety of human history before then was filtered through the descriptions of writers or the imaginations of artists, but in the exact particulars of what somebody looked like, the experience of an event, the sense of a place, the details themselves are forever hidden behind a veil. So new is photography that there are the figures whom we almost could have seen rendered in metal and chemical—Benjamin Franklin, Jane Austen, Napoleon Bonaparte—all just slightly beyond that horizon. Sontag writes that if given the choice between Hans Holbein having lived long enough to paint Shakespeare, or the camera having been invented early enough to capture an image, most of those who worship the playwright would opt for the latter, for even if the “photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we would probably still prefer it[.…] Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross.”
In our sister publication in the Big Apple, Vivian Gornick reviews Camus’s impressions of the Americas (Travels in the Americas: Notes and Impressions of a New World, edited by Alice Kaplan, translated by Ryan Bloom, March):
Two elements alone hold Camus’s sustained attention during these American trips: his precarious health and the oppressiveness of the tour itself. Having contracted tuberculosis as a teenager, all his life Camus suffered repeated bouts of symptoms derived from the original illness. In the Americas they seem never to have left him in peace. In entry after entry in Travels in the Americas we get “Sick.” “Flu.” “In bed.” “Fever.” Two days into the first trip, “Get up with a fever and slightly sore throat.” Five days from the end of the second trip, “Two awful days dragging about with my flu.” Final entry, “Sick. Bronchitis, at the least. They call to tell me we’ll be leaving this afternoon. Glorious day. Doctor. Penicillin. The trip finishes in a metal coffin.”
[This boredom with the Americas makes an interesting contrast with what Camus gives the narrator of The Fall (1956) about the image of the Indies Europeans have in their heads:
Holland is a dream, monsieur, a dream of gold and smoke—smokier by day, more gilded by night. And night and day that dream is peopled with Lohengrins like these, dreamily riding their black bicycles with high handle-bars, funereal swans constantly drifting throughout the whole land, around the seas, along the canals. Their heads in their copper-colored clouds, they dream; they cycle in circles; they pray, somnambulists in the fog’s gilded incense; they have ceased to be here. They have gone thousands of miles away, toward Java, the distant isle. They pray to those grimacing gods of Indonesia with which they have decorated all their shop-windows and which at this moment are floating aimlessly above us before alighting, like sumptuous monkeys, on the signs and stepped roofs to remind these homesick colonials that Holland is not only the Europe of merchants but also the sea, the sea that leads to Cipango and to those islands where men die mad and happy.
Mr. LaValle’s entry is a semi-sequel to Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” In both stories, the authors allude to Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. These gestures of respect are in keeping with the habits of Weird Tales and its circle of writers, who mined the heritage of horror and engaged in constant conversation with one another through private correspondence and published work. After reading “The Call of Cthulhu,” for example, Robert E. Howard borrowed one of its place names for his story “Worms of the Earth,” whose hero in turn receives a mention from Lovecraft in “The Whisperer in Darkness.” These authors and their nightmare visions of aliens, demons, forbidden tomes, sinister cults and speculative histories built a sprawling “shared universe” akin to the comic and movie superheroes of Marvel.
In The Hedgehog Review, Witold Rybczynski reviews a book on the shingle style (The Shingle Style Today: Or, the Historian's Revenge, by Vincent Scully, 1974):
Heroic is a trait associated with the work of Louis Kahn, whose presence pervades Scully’s book, which is dedicated to the master. Not that Kahn was influenced by the Shingle Style—he wasn’t—but, as Scully put it, “by breaking the grip of the International Style…[Kahn] liberated his students from a worn-out model.” One of these emancipated students was Charles Moore, who was Kahn’s teaching assistant at Princeton. Moore’s own weekend house, built in 1962 in the Orinda Hills, an area east of Berkeley, while he was teaching at the University of California, casually combined vernacular features with a Modernist aesthetic. The house resembled a little shingle-roofed farm building, complete with sliding barn doors that opened to reveal unglazed corners. The startling interior included two skylit canopies that filled the tall space—one over the living area, that included a grand piano, and one over a sunken bathtub. The canopies were supported on wooden Tuscan columns Moore had retrieved from a demolition site. What is striking is that he introduced the columns without any hint of self-consciousness or irony. In that small detail, at least, his exquisite little pavilion was a harbinger of Classical things to come.
[It feels like we’ve had a lot about short stories recently. I let Chris tell me what’s what there. —Steve] In 4Columns, Sasha Frere-Jones reviews a new issue of Dylan Thomas's collected stories (Collected Stories, November 7):
Thomas’s stories appeal to me because he is required to snake his poetics in between the dialogue and exposition (such as it is), and the form reins in his Biblical tendencies. The first in Adventures, “A Fine Beginning,” sees the Thomas character, Samuel Bennet, smashing his mother’s crockery and defacing his father’s paperwork before taking off for London. (Thomas did not, in fact, do this.) My favorite bit of this young rebellion is not Bennet stuffing his sister’s tea cosies, “hard as rubber,” up the chimney, but his realization at dawn that “people were downstairs all over the world,” as fine a bourgeois capsule as there is.
Flaming Hydra is “an innovative, exciting new ad-free newsletter that will launch in January 2024.”
The particular appeal of the paperback.
n+1’s “Bookmatch” fundraiser is back.
The local Post is “at a crossroads.”
Speaking of crossroads, a history of D.C.’s circles and squares. [“I went to the circle / Fell down on my knees” doesn’t have the same ring to it. —Steve]
An exhibit of Chinese scholars’ stones opens today at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
An exhibit of Dorothea Lange’s photography opens today at the National Gallery of Art.
Emily Wilson, translator of Homer, will be at Politics and Prose Sunday, November 11 at 5 p.m.
An exhibit of Whistler’s urban landscapes opens at the National Museum of Asian Art on Saturday, November 18.
An exhibit of the physical copies of books from Shakespeare’s time that influenced him opens at the National Gallery of Art on Monday, November 27.
Rhizome DC is organizing a course on eco-poetry in the U.S. Botanic Garden on Sunday, December 3 at 2 p.m.
“Growing Up” by Linda Gregg
I am reading Li Po. The TV is on
with the sound off.
I’ve seen this movie before.
I turn on the sound just for a moment
when the man says, “I love you.”
Then turn it off and go on reading.
November 7 | Knopf
Collected Poems of Anthony Hecht
Edited by Philip Hoy
From the publisher: This volume brings together for the first time all of the poems that appeared in Anthony Hecht’s seven trade collections, from A Summoning of Stones of 1954 through to The Darkness and the Light of 2001; it adds the remarkable work contained in his posthumously issued Interior Skies: Late Poems from Liguria of 2011; and it rounds this out with the best of the many poems which were left uncollected at the time of his death in 2004, the earliest dating from 1950 and the latest from 2001. Including the woodcuts by Leonard Baskin that accompanied some of his pieces through the years, Collected Poems brings us the full sweep of the experience and artistry of Anthony Hecht, who, as an infantryman in World War II, bore witness to the shaping events of his time, which continue to shape our own.
As the editor Philip Hoy states in his introduction: “Anthony Hecht once wrote that poems can allow us to contemplate our ‘sweetest triumphs’ and our ‘deepest desolations,’ and by employing ‘the manifold devices of art’ to recover for us what he memorably called ‘the inexhaustible plenitude of the world.’ The work gathered together here amply attests to the truth of that claim, and makes it clear that Hecht was one of the finest poets, not just of his generation, but of the twentieth century.”
November 7 | St. Martin’s Press
Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life
by David Yezzi
From the publisher: Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) was one of America’s greatest poets, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and widely recognized as a master of formal verse that drew on wide-ranging cultural and literary sources, as well as Hecht’s experiences as a soldier during World War II, during which he fought in Germany and Czechoslovakia and helped to liberate the Flossenburg concentration camp.
In Late Romance, David Yezzi—himself a renowned poet and critic—reveals the depths that informed the meticulous surfaces of Hecht’s poems. Born to a wealthy German-Jewish family in Manhattan, Hecht saw his father lose nearly everything during the stock market crash of 1929. He grew into an accomplished athlete, actor, writer, and eventually a soldier in the crucible that consumed the world. Returning from the war, Hecht struggled to reconcile what he had witnessed and experienced, suffering from mental illness that required hospitalization. But he found the means to channel his emotions into poetry of lasting meaning, control, and depth; along with Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Theodore Roethke, and Elizabeth Bishop, Hecht remains a vital presence in letters.
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