WRB—October 21, 2023
“You must become your father”
A good edition of the Washington Review of Books should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.
The Managing Editors spend a lot of time trying to transform feelings into language, usually down in What we’re reading. In the Marginalia Review of Books, Aqsa Ijaz on that process:
By the very virtue of being language—a variedly developed organism in different cultural ecosystems—languages not only reflect but shape the very phenomena they purport to express. Heim asks two pointed questions in her struggle of making sense of this wording of the heart that must be understood in its distinctive character: is it that the terrain of human experience is demarcated and described variously across different languages and cultures, but basically remains the same terrain? Or, is it that the language used for experience itself shapes what humans can experience, so that culture inflects or even determines what is possible for people to feel?
In our sister publication in Los Angeles, George Stanica interviews Zachary Leader about his biography of Saul Bellow (The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915–1964, 2015; and The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965–2005, 2018):
Absolutely, and it’s exciting too to find hamburgers and Heraclitus in the same sentence. Americanness and the immigrant experience are well connected in his mind, so the opening sentence of the novel, “I’m an American, Chicago-born,” not “I’m a Jewish-American immigrant or son of immigrants,” just “I’m an American.” The larger point of the novel is that the immigrant experience is seen as the Jewish experience, and he felt that the world he was depicting of the Jewish immigrants in Humboldt Park in Chicago was not adequately or properly depicted in literary fiction. So, at the end of the novel, when he calls himself a “Columbus of those near-at-hand,” he means, “I am discovering America like Columbus,” but by discovering a part of it that is near-at-hand. This immigrant experience is quintessentially American.
In China Books Review, an excerpt about an attempt by some students to start an anti-Maoist magazine in 1960 from Sparks: China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future by Ian Johnson (September):
Zhang convinced Lin to let them publish the poem and decided to put it in the first issue of their new journal. Students from Beijing also passed him materials about how Yugoslavian Communists were trying a hybrid form of socialism that allowed for capitalist-style incentives (something the Communist Party would embrace twenty years later). Zhang decided to add that material, too, to the inaugural issue, as well as essays by himself and others in the group. The journal needed a name. They quickly settled on Spark (星火), based on the idiomatic expression xinghuo liaoyuan, or “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” Mao had also used it in one of his essays, making it widely known.
A couple on photography:
In Spike, Conor Truax on photography and memory:
This is to say that the end of forgetting has not been without further fatality as well. The development of photography, too, has set forth the end of remembering: of ourselves, and of the world as it was in its chaotic, unintelligible reality. People are more believing of information as factual if it’s accompanied by photos, and so we’ve grown rely on photos as organized information, which we pre-suppose as knowledge, despite the fact that order is but a thin, insubstantial condition we try to cloak over the essential disorder of reality. We defer to photographs as memories, despite our memories of photographs being much poorer than our memories of lived events. How are we to compress the texture of our irreducible lives into the static, pattern-less configurations of a photo? “Actual space,” said Donald Judd, “is intrinsically more powerful than a flat surface.” Can you imagine inhaling a flat photograph and asking for actual air?
In Barn Raiser, Emily Shepherd on the quest to photograph a solar eclipse:
Then the air cooled, the ocean darkened, and a subtle but perceivable darkness seemed to grow from below rather than descend from above. And yet, if you didn’t know an eclipse was happening, you might just consider the strange light to be an effect of the clouds. The shimmering surf, normally blinding in the sun, degraded to a muted dappling. I grew slightly bored and inspected my pictures. They surprised me. Branded in the lower left quarter of them rested a tiny, crisp, neon-blue, inverted image of the sun.
We move out from photography to more general aesthetics with Katie Chambers on the Aesthetics Wiki in Prospect:
These aesthetics suggest that Gen Z is disillusioned by the present—and longing for the recent past. If we see these visuals as artistic responses to a difficult coming-of-age for this generation, it all becomes quite exciting and empowering. Except it’s not really about art—remember, these aesthetics are pitched to Gen Z as something to be. So it matters that the most mainstream aesthetics, including Tomato Girl, are almost always consumerist, unattainable and geared towards women. The “That Girl” aesthetic, which clogged every woman’s algorithm in early 2023 with imperatives to get up at 5am, drink green smoothies and smear £100 moisturisers into your already glowing skin, has birthed hundreds of variants. It only takes a quick glance at “Coquette”, “Babygirl” and “Baddie” to see that they’re all essentially repackaging old beauty standards under new nametags. Even Lobotomy Chic is catering for a sexualising male gaze. As its creator, Rayne Fisher-Quann, wrote about these women’s dead-behind-the-eyes pouts: “She still cares about being sexy, but knows there’s nothing sexy about caring too much.”
In The New Criterion, Sean McGlynn on Thomas Love Peacock's early novels:
Peacock delights in having his characters give prolix speeches of meaningless academic jargon to perplexed audiences (readers, too, may need a good dictionary at hand). Pretensions are punctured while opportunities are exploited for mockery. One entire chapter is given over to phrenology. During his lecture, Cranium, displaying an array of skulls, compares Christopher Wren’s with that of a beaver, both being builders—not something one is likely to encounter in any other novel. Further on he produces a human skull displaying a “striking” lack of “benevolence” and “attachment,” and “equally striking” signs of “destruction, cunning, avarice, and self-love. This was one of the most illustrious statesmen that ever flourished in the page of history.”
All this is to say that the experience of reading Kafka is enormously enriched by interpreting him precisely as a link in a great chain of multiple and interrelated traditions (ancient philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity, to name the three most significant ones). He is a startling and idiosyncratic representative of Western intellectual reflection, it is true, but he is a representative—a monumental, even epochal one—all the same, as Auden had already pointed out in 1941. Kafka’s creative engagement with the classical tradition is frequently in evidence, from short pieces like “Prometheus,” “Poseidon,” and “The New Advocate” (about Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great, becoming a lawyer) to more subtle references like the antagonist Klamm in The Castle, almost certainly intended to evoke not only the German adverb klammheimlich (“secretively”), but also the German word’s apparent Latin antecedent, clam (“secretly, hidden from, unknown”), the former pointing up the methods of the Castle toward those outside, the latter its intrinsically mysterious nature. Kafka’s encounter with biblical tradition is at least as creative and far-reaching, as the Hebrew and comparative-literature scholar Robert Alter documented two decades ago in “Franz Kafka: Wrenching Scripture.”
From this rather standard opening, the novel swoops around, driven by the author’s adrenaline and curiosity about seemingly everything. It moves backwards—to Jack and Elizabeth’s very different but equally traumatic family histories—and forward, to their life together as a more and more incompatible married couple, circa 2008, with a young son named Toby, whom Elizabeth anxiously hovers over, far from her “fantasy of quality parenting.” Hill frequently stops to offer up sociological nuggets, describing a picture-perfect kitchen that Elizabeth covets, “where all the dishes matched, where there were no greasy streaks on any surfaces…. It was a kitchen that seemed designed more for reflection and meditation than actual food prep.” Or he provides chunks of information, diving into the history of condensed milk (interesting) or, as it may be, algorithms and websites (less interesting).
Boys Alive resists a certain kind of reader—I’m one, I confess—by offering a series of episodes rather than a single plot. Some of these anecdotes are sweet (if you’re the sort who is charmed by the dumb things kids the world over get up to): group of boys are so enchanted by a dog that some of them “started laughing and rolling around on the grass like the puppies.” Some are grimly comic, as when Amerigo tries to outrun a gambling bust and ends up dead (it’s funny, trust me). Some are horrific, as when a drifter recounts watching a pair of men immolate two women: “We’re hearing screams and more screams and we go in there and see these two whores all on fire.”
New Best American Essays dropped.
Jon Fosse’s American publisher operates out of a house.
Yet another piece on new directions at Barnes & Noble.
[Chris says this thing on flambé is “just kind of interesting. You can judge. —Steve]
More book covers: this time, designed by Janet Halverson.
The Chameleon, a new play by Jenny Rachel Weiner, will be performed at Theater J until November 5.
The winners of the 10th Annual Misbin Family Memorial Chamber Music Competition for amateur musicians will perform at the National Gallery of Art Sunday, October 22 at 3 p.m.
Some new art exhibits in D.C. this fall.
Some film festivals in D.C. this fall.
“The More Extravagant Feast” by Leah Naomi Green
The buck is thawing a halo on the frosted ground,
shot in our field predawn.
Last night we pulled a float in the Christmas parade.
It was lit by a thousand tiny lights.
My daughter rode in my lap and was thrilled
when the float followed us. Ours is a small town.
Everyone was there. And their faces,
not seeing ours, fixed between us, were an open sea,
a compound sea of seas that parted
under our gaze. And Santa was bright,
though my daughter shied from the noise of him.
She studied the red and white fur of his suit.
She woke this morning when the rifle fired outside.
I lifted her to see the sunrise
and her father, kneeling above the buck’s body
in the middle distance. She asked if they would be cold.
I brought him gloves and warm water, knelt with him
in the spare light by the buck, who steamed, whose liver
and heart, kept so long dark,
spilled onto the winter grass,
whose open eyes saw none of it, realized
nothing of my husband’s knife
slicing open his abdomen, his rectum. The puncture
of his diaphragm startled me more than the gunshot,
opening a cavern of deep blood that poured
over his white belly. I did not
understand the offering, but loved it,
the fur red, white, incoherent. Somehow cleaner.
When I come back in, she asks me to draw a picture
of her father on the hill. I pick her up—the miracle
of her lungs that grew inside me,
kept long dark—her working heart
let out into the rounder world,
the more extravagant feast. The miracle
of her dad on the hill as we draw him
in his big coat, warm. Afterward,
how he and I hold each other
the collections of muscles
and organs held
somehow together. The miracle
of bodies, formed whole like fruits,
skins unruptured and
containing the world.
[This is the title poem from Green’s 2020 collection, her first. It’s also included in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume IX: Virginia (2022), which is how I discovered it.
I heard Green read this poem this past Thursday at a reading celebrating the anthology (in the foyer of a historic Charlottesville house, with each poet standing just inside the open front door as he or she read, with the sound of crickets and the dark evening behind them… it was a beautiful setting for a reading).
The poem has such a lovely, quiet tone. When I saw that it was written in couplets, it made so much sense—the couplet always strikes me as gentle and contemplative. I love the way she moves through the poem, constructing delicate links: we get the red and white fur of the Santa suit, and then later, the dead buck’s fur red, white, incoherent. The more important linkage, though, is the one between the dead deer and Green’s husband and daughter. First there’s the deer’s liver / and heart, kept so long dark, and then Green’s reflection on her daughter’s body with its lungs that grew inside me, / kept long dark. And the final scene of Green and her husband’s new awareness of each other, holding each other / differently, continues that linkage, —Julia]
October 24 | Liveright
Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World
by Mary Beard
From the publisher: In her international bestseller SPQR, Mary Beard told the thousand-year story of ancient Rome, from its slightly shabby Iron Age origins to its reign as the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean. Now, drawing on more than thirty years of teaching and writing about Roman history, Beard turns to the emperors who ruled the Roman Empire, beginning with Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 BCE) and taking us through the nearly three centuries―and some thirty emperors―that separate him from the boy-king Alexander Severus (assassinated 235 CE).
Yet Emperor of Rome is not your typical chronological account of Roman rulers, one emperor after another: the mad Caligula, the monster Nero, the philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Instead, Beard asks different, often larger and more probing questions: What power did emperors actually have? Was the Roman palace really so bloodstained? What kind of jokes did Augustus tell? And for that matter, what really happened, for example, between the emperor Hadrian and his beloved Antinous? Effortlessly combining the epic with the quotidian, Beard tracks the emperor down at home, at the races, on his travels, even on his way to heaven.
Along the way, Beard explores Roman fictions of imperial power, overturning many of the assumptions that we hold as gospel, not the least of them the perception that emperors one and all were orchestrators of extreme brutality and cruelty. Here Beard introduces us to the emperor’s wives and lovers, rivals and slaves, court jesters and soldiers, and the ordinary people who pressed begging letters into his hand―whose chamber pot disputes were adjudicated by Augustus, and whose budgets were approved by Vespasian, himself the son of a tax collector.
With its finely nuanced portrayal of sex, class, and politics, Emperor of Rome goes directly to the heart of Roman fantasies (and our own) about what it was to be Roman at its richest, most luxurious, most extreme, most powerful, and most deadly, offering an account of Roman history as it has never been presented before.
Behind the paywall: Chris on Kafka and fathers, and Steve on murder ballads, archetypes, and Taylor Swift. Why not subscribe?
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