WRB—October 4, 2023
“crude jokes and deliberate filth”
The reference specifies the Washington Review of Books’ design as usefully as any: an epistemological tool in itself, engineered to enable the near endless enumeration of cultural facts on the way to an idea, but declaring itself only by reference to the compiled list of examples left. Every item thus requires a two-fold reading, thetic and then antithetical, moving from the things compulsively mentioned toward those that cannot be said.
Some things never change. One of them is fighting about knowledge of the classics. In Lapham’s Quarterly, an excerpt from Abigail Williams’s book on 18th-century readers (Reading It Wrong: An Alternative History of Early Eighteenth-Century Literature, September) addressing their understanding of classical languages:
Alexander Pope’s copies of pamphlets by contemporary writers are also peppered with snarky comments about his rivals’ lack of learning. His edition of the anonymous Gulliver Decypher’d, a critique of Swift’s prose satire, contains a mean little list of its author’s malapropisms and typos, including the mistranscription of βασιλευς as ΒΑΣΙΛΙΣ. In his copy of Matthew Concanen’s A Supplement to the Profund (1728), Pope again laid into an adversary’s lack of Greek. In his work, Concanen had questioned Pope’s erudition, and in his notes on the Supplement, Pope went to town in exposing his adversary’s limited classical knowledge, writing of Concanen “his remarks and his observations proceed almost all from his own ignorance of ye Greek.” The reality was that Concanen was a barrister, later attorney general of Jamaica, and had in all likelihood more extensive university education than the Catholic Pope (Concanen’s early life is unknown). Calling out another writer for substandard learning served the dual purpose of discrediting the publication and shoring up Pope’s own contested credentials as a translator of the classics.
[Imagine what Pope would have made of My Big Fat Grssk Wedding (2002) and sequels. —Steve]
On Saturday we mentioned resisting the declining cultural status of classical music. In a similar and yet distinct line, Alexandra Wilson rescues Puccini from the snobs, to whom he “seems far too untroubled and content to be a major artistic figure” in Engelsberg Ideas:
An accessible figure then, and also a modern one, in his pinstriped or linen three-piece suits and succession of raffish hats. This might not be how the majority of men style themselves nowadays (alas), but it is a look from living memory. There is a modernity to his works as well, which are all too often consigned to the nineteenth-century chapters of music histories but are in reality far more forward-looking than many critics concede. It is not only the scores that seem modern, but the composer’s whole approach to drama and characterisation. As Friedrich Lippmann wrote in The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera, ‘Real musical characterisation of individuals entered Italian opera only with middle- and late-period Verdi’, every earlier love aria being simply a love aria, no matter who sang it. But there is no mistaking Rodolfo and Mimì for Pinkerton and Butterfly, and it is Puccini’s detailed attention to character psychology that makes his operas so ripe for updating to the present day. And yet, at the same time, these are works so evocative of their own historical moment. It was, for example, the inclusion of Puccini arias in the soundtrack that made the Merchant Ivory A Room with a View among the more exquisite of period dramas.
Mevre Emre interviews Lydia Davis in The New Yorker:
The kernel of the story is obviously the kids and trying to identify that object. But then I added the first paragraph because they have their own way of saying the word. But then we have all these other languages that also have different ways of saying the word. And it’s similar to the boys. The boys get very close. Their words for “egg” or “Ping-Pong ball” are very close. And we have neighboring languages that are very close, but then the comedy for me comes in, you know, with the Scots Gaelic word for “egg” is just “ugh.” And the French is funny too, “oeuf.” They suddenly have nothing to do with the thing itself.
And in Granta, excerpts from Davis’s journal:
At first, she was pleased that the piped music on the phone was Chopin, but as she listened carefully to it, having nothing else to do while she waited, she began to object to the interpretation.
at the roller-skating rink, skating to ‘modern music’
These were all serious writers bent on surpassing themselves; I’m not aware that any of them looked on their chosen form as less than worthy. Himes wrote in many modes, and ultimately did not differentiate the crime novels from the rest of his oeuvre. Highsmith’s ambitions are clear from her journals, not to mention the literary allusions that abound in her novels. I do not think they thought in terms of limitations, but of artistic opportunities not otherwise available.
[The delay of Dune: Part Two to 2024 is one of the more grievous injuries I have suffered this year. Nevertheless, we press on. —Steve] In Heatmap, Jeva Lange interviews Ryan Britt about his new book (The Spice Must Flow: The Story of Dune, from Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies, September) detailing how and why Dune became a pop culture phenomenon:
By the time we get to Children of Dune (1976), he has a very interesting message about climate change, which is that the sandworms are an endangered species but they’re also essential to the economy because they create the spice—the spice is an allegory for all natural resources that power transportation. So some of the best ecological messaging comes out of the sequels. Children of Dune was the first hardcover bestseller science fiction novel—in terms of being marketed as a science fiction novel—of all time. And in that book is when Herbert says, look, not only does climate change and ignoring climate change have a negative effect on our environment, but it has a negative effect on the economy as well.
[Behind the paywall: Julia on the agitation and quickness of a poem portraying the aftermath of a party; Steve on Catullus, the bookstores of Long Island, and Michael Lewis and college football; and more of the carefully curated selection of links, reviews, and commentary our readers have come to expect. Why not sign up? This newsletter is for you.]
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Washington Review of Books to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.