WRB—October 14, 2023
“a horror story or a fairy tale”
I don’t want any of your hideous reality! What do you mean by reality, anyway? Some see black, some see blue, and the mob see wrong. There’s nothing less natural than the Washington Review of Books, and nothing more powerful.
[I feel like I have been hearing more about Henry James recently. Is this just me? Are we entering a season of James? Please advise. —Steve] [Everyone is excited about Rebecca West’s book being available, I assume. —Chris]proposes “a moratorium, for perhaps the next century or so, on all writing about France by Americans,” and offers one last entry in that genre in The New Statesman:
James himself confessed that such American men as these are a mystery to him, as he could never truly understand their lack of any complexly layered interiority. But this incomprehension itself yields up the most vibrant, comical and fascinating characters in James’s entire body of work. For James, “What would it be like to be a proud American industrialist?” is a philosophical question, almost like wondering what it would be like to be a bat, and we sense his puzzlement and fascination every time one of these men enters the scene. They belong squarely to James’s “American period”, and can have no place in his “modern period”, which concerns itself with the inner lives of its subtle and complicated, rigorously European or Europeanised subjects. It is at the moment James shifts to interiority as his greatest concern that he correspondingly ceases to engage with America, and Americanness, as a problem. He grows bolder, more experimental, anticipates Proust and Joyce. But he also loses what is most compelling about him: his concern to understand his own country, which does seem to have thrust itself into world history in much the same way Caspar Goodwood thrust himself, in the novel’s scandalous crescendo, upon Mrs Isabel Osmond: by knowing what it wants, and not thinking too much beyond that.
In our Irish sister publication, Ed Vulliamy on a collection of photographs, some taken by and some containing Zola:
The pictures from this third trip are the most compelling, and it seems to have been on this holiday that Zola took a closer interest in what Victor Billaud was doing. There is Zola, dressed in white, doffing his cap at his editor’s beautiful daughter, Georgette, who was betrothed to the writer Abel Hermant at a “sumptuous dinner” in Royan. The young lady, with her parents and a dog, pass by in a horse-drawn carriage. A group photograph in a garden shows the young fiancés at center, Zola propped against a tree, wearing a pensive, downcast expression. Another photograph shows a group at table in a garden, probably at Le Paradou, and servants (with a very different demeanor to the diners) at left. Zola is to the rear, in top hat, raising his glass—Santé! Most remarkable is a picture of Zola with a group of oyster-fishers and their children, outside a rustic stone cottage at Grève-a-Duret. The faces are extraordinary: they wear their manifest poverty and simplicity of life in their clothes and faces, but with strength and dignity. This is the only glimpse so far of Zola’s world on the page. Another cluster of clearly local children sit at the front of a group in front of a church—Zola at the rear, again looking away from the camera, apparently in thought. But in no photograph does Jeanne appear—she comes later, and with a vengeance. And so: on to Zola’s own photography, and photographs.
In Plough, Russell Moore on outlaw country as a kind of revival:
Outlaw country was so named not because it deals lyrically with bandits and thieves (although, naturally, it sometimes does) but because it started well outside of the cultural norms of the Nashville establishment. As one observer put it, “They resisted the music industry’s unwritten rules, which prescribed the length, the meter, and the lyrical content of the songs as well as how those songs were recorded in the studio.” But more than just the craft of the music itself, these renegades dissented against the expected cultural look and feel of country music, “Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars, we’ve done the same thing for years,” Waylon Jennings plaintively sang. “We need to change.” At the time, the industry seemed to have the winning argument. In order to reach emerging markets, they reasoned, country music must sound more like the music Americans liked. The formula worked. The outlaws asked, referring to the legend of the past Hank Williams, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” but they lost the argument; the market knew what it wanted and the executives knew how to give it to them.
[This country doesn’t make Great Awakenings like it used to. —Steve]
In Guernica, Emily Fox Kaplan with a personal essay detailing the story of her life and how her life shaped her understanding of the mechanics of storytelling:
And then there are the stories where, midway through, the premise shifts beneath you, where you realize that everything you thought you knew was false. You learn that these stories have what’s called an unreliable narrator. These are the scariest stories of all.
You prefer fairy tales, with their strange logic and their consistent casts of characters: unloved children and evil stepmothers, all happening some place outside of time. As you get older, you seize upon stories that play with their tropes: the castle as a metaphor for loneliness, the princess who saves herself.
And you’ll realize, too, that a person can tell a story any way she likes; that the same story—a little girl who loves to read—can be told as a horror story or a fairy tale, depending on the choices of the author.
In Compact, Slavoj Žižek on Mandelstam’s poetry about Stalin:
To any reader acquainted with Freud and Lacan, the notion that “the suppression itself may become a surprising index of the power that is being suppressed” can’t but recall a famous psychoanalytic formula: “Repression and the return of the repressed are one and the same thing.” That is to say, it is only against the background of repression—exclusion, prohibition—that acts that would otherwise be perceived as flat and indifferent echo the repressed content. This ambiguity reaches its climax in the Ode’s final lines, about rising from the dead and the sun shining. As Brinkley and Kostova observed, “the poet who rises from the dead to say the sun is shining, the poet who establishes his proximity to the dictator, prophecies that turn out to have been fulfilled, since through the Ode the poet has risen from the dead to say the sun is shining, he has linked his name with Stalin’s.
The word “presumption” leaps out as I am reminded that Boswell said biography is a “presumptuous task.” Here the problem of biography is complicated by the narrator’s musings: “I lay awake, thinking of some of the happy days of my life, but the thought that any one of them might be the happiest day of my life I found unhappy.”
Also, as a wife who from time to time divagates on her husband’s strengths and weaknesses, she goes on: “Of course I didn’t like the idea that on the happiest day of Melville’s life, his wife was at home nursing their newborn son despite suffering from a breast infection so painful the walls in her room had been draped with sheets because the pattern of the wallpaper made her dizzy.”
In First Things, Rowan Williams reviews Gary Saul Morson’s book on Russian writers (Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter, May):
What holds so much of the intelligentsia mindset together is a dread of real, embodied difference: the impenetrability of another consciousness; the uncontrollability of imagination; the strange transmutations of language itself; the alienness and the familiarity of the past (individual as much as collective); perhaps ultimately—though Morson does not go this far—the difference of God and the world, the ultimate gap between what is conditioned and what is unconditioned. The title of Morson’s book in effect puts before us the diverse responses we can make to difference: the wonder that accepts limitation, and the hunger for a world in which we are never out of control, never at a loss, never discovering, retelling, or rethinking. This tension runs through the whole story Morson tells, from the beginnings of Russian radicalism in the mid-nineteenth century to the nightmares of Stalinism, from the battles of Herzen, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky against antihuman theorizing to the more recent work of writers in the same tradition, such as Svetlana Alexievich and Eugene Vodolazkin. Morson starkly juxtaposes the endlessly inviting exploration of human complexity by such writers with the feverish and monomaniacal obsessions of nihilists and apocalyptic radicals of all shades.
In The Atlantic, Megan Garber reviews Marie Darrieussecq’s memoir recounting her inability to sleep (Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia, translated by Penny Hueston, September):
The approach is classically American: the Protestant ethic, applied to the work of slumber. Now, though, all of that messaging comes with merch. Sleep is going the way of other types of buyable “wellness” (beauty, thinness, good health in general). Life’s tenderest hours are moving further into an environment where “you get what you deserve” is not a wan aphorism, but a totalizing rationale. More sleep, better sleep, classier sleep—in the process, the need for rest loses ever more of its universality. And sleep inequality, that matter of justice, is cheapened to a matter of branding. In another world, Darrieussecq suggests, sleep might be a tool for empathy, a reminder of how intimately we are bound together in our wakefulness and weariness. But we live in this world. And, here, her book’s bluntest insight is all too true: The world is divided into those who can sleep and those who can’t.
In The New Yorker, Mary Norris reviews a biography of Edith Hamilton (American Classicist: The Life and Loves of Edith Hamilton, by Victoria Houseman, October 3):
Houseman stresses that Hamilton earned the respect of the academy despite her lack of academic credentials—she had honorary doctorates from Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Rochester, and was twice invited to address the Classical Association of the Atlantic States—but there is a lingering sense that she was never fully admitted to the club. The knock on her scholarship seems to be that she used classical Greece to promote her own political views, or vice versa. She was an early supporter of women’s suffrage and a committed pacifist. Chances are that if she had not pointed out the relevance of the classics to her own time, which included the rise of Nazism, she would have been criticized for that. It is easy to suppose that academics begrudged her the book sales; her most scholarly book sold the fewest copies. The saddest moment of Houseman’s biography comes near the end, when Hamilton accepts the mantle of “popularizer.” As Professor Yogi Berra might have put it, nobody likes a popularizer.
Louise Glück died yesterday at 80. R.I.P.
A charming anecdote that took place at Second Story Books.
Jude on slow reading:
Difficulties are compounded by the fact that I like very long books, and that I re-read compulsively. This is not an efficient way to become widely read; it is a downright bad way to stay on top of literary fashion. One of the several reasons I fit poorly into my M.F.A. program was a failure, followed by a refusal, to know what was going on. These literary people absorbed new books, new magazines, new reviews telepathically. They were the world’s fastest readers, which must be why they could lavish so much time and attention on how they dressed. They had smarmy comments about the latest stories in magazines I had never heard of, let alone seen, let alone read! They had an opinion about everything! They knew everything!
[We don’t have these problems anymore—you can just subscribe to the WRB. —Chris]
Abrams is centralizing managing editorial and book design in one role. [At the WRB, managing editorial and book design have been united from the beginning. —Chris]
The troops read a lot of books during the Second World War.
Oxford University Press is launching a new translation series, the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature.
The public spaces created by the removal of Dave Thomas Circle will be named the Mamie “Peanut” Johnson Plaza.
Researchers at the University of Maryland have produced an apple variety ideal for the D.C. area.
“Taking Down the Bridge” by Corey Van Landingham
Treasure Island is on fire. Or
so it seems, torches smoking
through the cantilever truss,
hiding even the men
who wield them.
When it is finished, next year,
perhaps, carefully dismantled
in roughly the reverse of its creation,
58,000 tons of steel will be released
and the new bridge—
gleaming white of the future—
will stand alone. But now,
almost dusk, the old bridge is cut
in two, as if the center, in fact,
could not hold, had fallen into
the Bay with its weekday
sailboats. At Zeitgeist,
yesterday, we drank beer
outside and listened to the youth
of San Francisco get everything
wrong. You told me
how you would bring old relics
into the classroom—an antique
shoehorn, ophthalmologist’s lancet,
a wine key made of bone—
and tell your students to become
archeologists, to discover the objects,
for the first time, create
a use for them, a name, saying
this is what poetry does.
“How wrong that now seems,”
you said. “Why must we make
Hegel understood this, I guess,
the demolition of the concrete
as necessary for progress.
That Being and Nothing unite
as Becoming. But the earrings
that will one day be made from
the bridge’s picked-apart skeleton—
the eager group
at the bench next to us
will wear them beautifully.
And they will reflect
nothing, in their conserved rust.
Imagine, I want to tell you,
what of us, a century from now,
they will haul in to hold—
your ancient, hulking cell phone
that could be a paper weight,
a time machine,
a device for measuring love.
[This is from Van Landingham’s 2022 Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, her second collection. I mentioned it, briefly, back in a spring What we’re reading and gave it a closer read this past week. I’ll admit: I didn’t connect that strongly with this collection, although I did come to appreciate it more after re-reading it. The lyricism of the individual poems is accomplished, and the collection as a whole manages to take some pretty different thematic elements and make them work together well. Many of the poems are either about drones and surveillance or are love poems (which often, themselves, incorporate technology or other forms of being watched). It’s a cohesive collection, and in that sense, it’s skillful. Still, though, many of the poems didn’t quite land for me; I’m still trying to nail down exactly why that is. While I have some gripes about individual poems, I do think it’s an issue of individual taste more than anything. There is something, at times, that feels self-consciously contemporary about Van Landingham’s style (this poem less than some of the others in the book); that’s something that often turns me off from a poem, but I’m not sure it’s inherently a bad thing.
This, though, is one of the poems I had no objections to. I just love the lines But the earrings / that will one day be made from / the bridge’s picked-apart skeleton— / the eager group / at the bench next to us / will wear them beautifully. / And they will reflect / nothing, in their conserved rust. It’s a great image, and a strong way of representing the artifact’s loss of meaning than Van Landingham is discussing here. It also shows one of her strengths throughout the collection: how well she uses this somewhat formal, elevated diction. There’s a lot of elegance in her writing. That formality of diction comes through, too, in the brief moment of dialogue we see in this poem. “How wrong that now seems… Why must we make / everything new?” It’s not how most people would talk to a friend over a beer, but in Van Landingham’s hands, it still doesn’t feel unnatural. —Julia]
October 17 | Random House
by Teju Cole
From the publisher: A weekend spent antiquing is shadowed by the colonial atrocities that occurred on that land. A walk at dusk is interrupted by casual racism. A loving marriage is riven by mysterious tensions. And a remarkable cascade of voices speaks out from a pulsing metropolis.
We’re invited to experience these events and others through the eyes and ears of Tunde, a West African man working as a teacher of photography on a renowned New England campus. He is a reader, a listener, a traveler, drawn to many different kinds of stories: stories from history and epic; stories of friends, family, and strangers; stories found in books and films. Together these stories make up his days. In aggregate these days comprise a life.
Tremor is a startling work of realism and invention that engages brilliantly with literature, music, race, and history as it examines the passage of time and how we mark it. It is a reckoning with human survival amidst “history’s own brutality, which refuses symmetries and seldom consoles,” but it is also a testament to the possibility of joy. As he did in his magnificent debut Open City, Teju Cole once again offers narration with all its senses alert, a surprising and deeply essential work from a beacon of contemporary literature.
Also on Tuesday:
Sublunary Editions: The Gold Seekers by Augusto Monterroso, translated by Jessica Sequeira
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