WRB—October 7, 2023
“opposition to Lifestyle”
So they transformed him from a Managing Editor into a wizard, and told scores of fantastic tales about his powers—how he had built Washington on a foundation of eggs, how he had made a magical fly which kept all real flies out of the Washingtonian meat shops, and how the only human being to deceive him was a beautiful woman on whom he took a phenomenal revenge.
Two from the new issue of Liberties:
- ’s New York memoir:
We invented Mumblecore. We invented Flash Mobs. We invented Poptimism. From Ground 0 and its neighboring generational precincts many now distinguished careers were launched. Some of us wrote these books and some of us reviewed them and we concluded that many of them weren’t bad. Of course, it wasn’t just us. People were writing stuff like this in other countries, such as Scandinavia. The Norwegians, they were just like us, except with a superior welfare state and a scarier history of intimacy with their formerly Nazi neighbors. Knocks about this writing included that it was narcissistic; that some of it was whimsical and unserious; that it lacked ideological commitment even if it voiced political avowals; that opposition to Lifestyle required being in thrall to Lifestyle by making it your subject, even in a negative capacity; or, worst of all, that they were blogs on paper. One zone where idealists and nihilists find common ground is narcissism. We will always remember the Bush administration as the happiest days of our lives.
We’ve been leaning into classical music in the past few newsletters. To continue that trend, Anna Ballan on Mahler as the inheritor of various traditions—the Romantic, the Wagnerian, the Jewish—and later interpretations of his work through those traditions:
This farewell, this leave-taking—what is it? For Leonard Bernstein, Der Abschied is a farewell to tonality: the high water mark of tonal expansion before dissonance would flood it completely, and Mahler’s intensely pained farewell to German Romanticism. “It was Mahler’s destiny to sum up the whole story of Austro-Germanic music and tie it up,” he proclaimed of the end of Das Lied. “And not in a pretty bow, but in a fearful knot made out of his own nerves and sinews.” To be a Romantic in an increasingly post-Romantic age requires negotiation with the death of aesthetic culture as you know it. This is, for Bernstein, what Mahler attempts over and over, unable to loosen his grip without anguish; part of him would cling to a tonal temperament “forever.” Like Hans Castorp humming Schubert’s “Der Lindenbaum” in the corpse-ridden landscape of the Great War, headed toward his own extermination, this is an elegy for Romanticism as an era, a mood, a climate of feeling, and for the music that had once expressed its spirit. That spirit, felt to be ebbing in an increasingly mechanized age of world war and mass culture, had to be mourned. Yet, in what I will call the Bernstein reading, there is a Romanticism that steadily and remorselessly blooms in the soul of twentieth-century man—even as it outwardly might be elegized.
[Ballan delves into the last chord of Der Abschied, a C major chord with an added A that hints at A minor. (Regular readers will know that this is the kind of thing I am constantly asking for and constantly not getting.) Paul McCartney uses a similar device in his song cycle, one in which the relationship between C major and A minor is part of the architecture, with the piano intro to “Golden Slumbers,” which also has a melancholy text about the desire to return home. There is no new thing under the sun. —Steve]
- ’s New York memoir:
In the beginning, there was Tolkien. Then, there were thousands of fantasy novels. Dan Sinykin relates the life of the man who made that happen, one Lester Del Ray, who “liberally dispensed cards that said: Lester del Rey, Expert,” in Slate:
Lester had been a working writer for a couple of decades, deploying pseudonyms that included John Alvarez, Marion Henry, Wade Kampfaert, Erik van Lhin, Edson McCann, Charles Satterfield, and Philip St. John. Judy-Lynn wanted to bring Lester on as an editorial consultant, and as the most envied editor in science fiction, she had professional capital to spare. A big manuscript had come in over the transom, a work of epic fantasy by Terry Brooks. Judy-Lynn didn’t know much about sword-and-sorcery books, but Lester did. She passed The Sword of Shannara to him. He read it: It was a page-turning Tolkien rip-off. Many editors might have been dissuaded by the derivative imitation—many critics later were—but not Lester. He saw possibility. He saw a whole new genre to populate. Lord of the Rings stood alone in the marketplace. The Narnia books were for children. “There’s nothing else out there for them to read,” he told Publishers Weekly, about Lord of the Rings fans. “They just have to reread their Tolkien.”
[Sinykin’s book on the publishing industry, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, came out yesterday and was an Upcoming book in WRB—October 4, 2023.]
We hear a lot about the people responsible for novels (novelists) and not so much about the people responsible for novels (first-person narrators). What are they up to? Richard Hughes Gibson answers that question for the latest in his “Critical Miniatures” column in The Hedgehog Review:
I bring up Orwell’s essay now, however, to consider another problem of motivation in the house of fiction: why characters write. The problem is more acute in stories narrated in the first person, since, fairly or not, that mode of narration more directly raises the logistical question of how we readers have access to the story. Is someone speaking? Was this story written down at some point? If so, why? And by whom? Some writers get around these issues by signaling that the book belongs to a genre in which first-person reportage is customary or even necessary. For example, once we read the subtitle to Jane Eyre, An Autobiography, all logistical problems dissolve. Of course, an autobiographer is writing about herself! The problem now shifts to whether Jane’s life keeps our attention. Other writers acknowledge logistical impasses without purporting to solve them. Margaret Atwood cleverly does this in The Penelopiad, her Penelope lamenting that words from the Underworld rarely reach the ears of the living: “Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.”
The activity you are currently engaged in is called “reading.” [Let’s not go crazy here. —Chris] Or, perhaps, “looking at a screen connected to the Internet.” The latter activity corrupts the former, according to David Samuels in Tablet:
Still with me? Great. Now focus for a moment on how you are reading this article. If you are over the age of 40, you will soon recognize that your eyes move across the screen in front of you very differently than they move across a printed page of text; I’m assuming that you still read physical books in order to buy more time for my argument, though the numbers suggest that you don’t read printed books very often, even if you still buy them. In any case, the screen-reader in you is demonstrably more distracted. At the same time as you are unlikely to be able to remember anything you are reading, your attention is heightened, and made more anxious, by your anticipation of the release or denial of a warm jolt of serotonin that signals social approval or belonging. Because, from the platform’s point of view, the texts you consume are simply semisentient spyware, your attention is also accompanied by the—quite accurate—sense that someone is looking over your shoulder. What was once the private, interior experience of reading no longer feels quite so private. The transformation of reading into a public experience means that it is subject to different rules; what is acceptable in private is no longer encouraged or experienced as appropriate.
[Should we bring back the joke about the WRB Print Edition? —Steve] [I think about it all the time, but it’s too inherently tedious to pull off for such a groaner. —Chris]
“Ferrante before Ferrante” is great work by the person responsible for the headlines. Vivian Gornick reviews a novel fitting that description (Lies and Sorcery, by Elsa Morante, 1948; translated by Jenny McPhee, October 10) in the Times:
What made this door-stopper of an Italian soap opera feel like great literature to large numbers of sophisticated readers 75 years ago? The same thing that makes it wonderful today. The writing, pure and simple. Each plot development is surrounded by acres of commentary whose richness and intensity—deep, dense, psychologically penetrating—provides the story with transformative values, converts melodrama into metaphor.
At the heart of the book lies Morante’s stunning grasp of the damage done by commonplace emotional deprivation, the kind experienced when those relations that have historically promised to relieve the human heart of its native isolation fail to do so. For Morante the consequences of such damage are of mythic proportions, deranging at best, murderous at worst.
An excerpt in The Brooklyn Rail:
More than anything else, what my parents left me was an enigma. Their deaths were preceded by circumstances that might not have seemed extraordinary or fantastical to an adult, but to me as a little girl certainly did. Even after years had passed, what had happened to my family remained a mystery. I saved relevant documents and testaments but far from clarifying things, they obscured them even more, especially since they provided ample fodder for my imagination. My parents’ fleeting passage, defining the beginning and the end of my childhood, so struck me that in my memory I transformed their middleclass drama into the stuff of legend. And, as happens to peoples without history, I was ennobled by that legend.
In Commonweal, Christian Wiman reviews Michael Edwards’s book on the Bible as poetry (The Bible and Poetry, translated by Stephen E. Lewis, August) [The Upcoming book in WRB—August 9, 2023]:
Auden once defined poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” The phrase is a little bland for the conflicting intensities of Job, but you get the idea. The poem not only balances competing meanings but demands them, and any attempt to strangle its polyvalences with a single interpretation or to explain away complicated passages with paraphrase is a violation of the poem’s integrity and achievement. Edwards goes so far as to say that such attempts, however well-meaning, are ultimately “diabolical.”
- reviews a new biography of Lou Reed (King of New York, by Will Hermes, October 3):
And that was Lou Reed. He was one of the century’s great icons of sexual fluidity, but some of his lovers still insist that he was fundamentally straight. He was an avant-gardist who loved doo-wop and Ricky Nelson. He was a mean, abusive drunk and professional grump who, to the right people, was the most passionate and generous friend they’d ever meet. He was the edgiest hipster who ever lived past 30 and a certified cheeseball who once wrote a musical tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. He was a consummate artist whose greatest works often have a defiant artlessness about them. He wrote a song about taking speed, “White Light/White Heat,” that was also a paean to the spiritual teachings of the New Ager Alice Bailey—that’s what the white light was. He was the late twentieth century’s participant-observer, but his observing nearly got him killed, and when he withdrew, he did so with a speed and finality that could look like betrayal. He needed two poles to generate a field. “Here comes two of you,” he sang on the Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light” (1969), and if he chose either one of them, it was usually temporary.
[I’ve always thought the perfect Lou Reed line is also in “Beginning to See the Light”: it’s “There are problems in these times / but woo! None of them are mine!” —Steve]
- reviews John Szwed’s biography of Harry Smith, eccentric collector of folk recordings (Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith, August):
Yet one suspects that Smith may have disparaged the bodiless, boundless internet. He was a thoroughly analog creature. Research, data-gathering, interviewing—these were, for him, profoundly physical acts that demanded his whole being. He spent hours in esoteric bookstores, befriending the clerks and frustrating acquaintances who wanted to move on and get an egg cream at the diner next door. He lived on the road for weeks at a time, even months, as he ingratiated himself with Native American tribes, recording each song and custom the elders recalled until they had no more to offer him. This was midcentury America, after all, the Age of the Gizmo, when recording devices and film cameras were becoming commercially available to the middle class, delighting enthusiasts everywhere. And there were no digital cameras operated solely with the push of a button back then. The film had to be loaded, gears had to be wound—just the sort of rituals of physicality that Smith exulted in.
- reviews a new biography of Lou Reed (King of New York, by Will Hermes, October 3):
Congratulations to Jon Fosse on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.
A book club just finished Finnegans Wake. It took them 28 years. [I’m almost 30 and I haven’t finished it yet; sounds like they made good time to me. —Chris]
The Journal is putting big pictures of cats on A1, among other changes under its new editor in chief. [The way the Times covers its competitors is deeply funny, especially when they’re struggling—it takes on the tone of Bill Hader going “Oh! That’s terrible!” with barely concealed glee. My personal favorite example comes from a story last year on the struggles of the local Post: “Many news outlets, in addition to The Post, have experienced declining readership since former President Donald J. Trump left office. But two of The Post’s top competitors—The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—have added subscriptions since Mr. Trump left office.” —Steve] [Frankly I don’t care for the cat. —Chris]
Authors are turning away from speech marks. [Have they tried bracketed italics? —Chris]
“We are no longer achieving an acceptable level of whimsy.” [Speaking of de-decimalized currency—yes, I do believe £.s.d. could help you achieve whimsy. Don’t they teach kids about ’60s B-sides these days? —Steve]
- : “It’s easy to imagine that Facebook is now completely overrun by out-of-work magicians porn-moaning while they make bad casseroles and comment sections full of old people praying to potato memes. Which, yeah, is definitely happening.”
Chris found this paragraph really distressing:
I’m struck by how clear it is now, in retrospect, how the entire era of “viral media” that defined the 2010s was really just the death gasps of 20th-century mass media. These sites dressed themselves up as something new and bold and hired a lot of talented young people who “got the internet,” but it was just a temporary solution. And that’s especially clear now that many of the big sites of the 2010s are replacing human writers with AI and many of the formats that defined Peak Facebook have now turned into their own form of spam.
“Frustrated by their experiences trying to find printing time during the height of the pandemic, independent press publishers Keith Riegert and Alyson Forbes were determined to find a more efficient and reliable way for independent presses to work with printers. Their answer is Perfect Bound.”
The history of emoji in Japan.
A D.C. chef helped make McDonald’s mambo sauce possible.
Buses are slower and more crowded, and it could get worse. [Taking the bus is more of a “it’s the journey not the destination” process these days. Wonderful time to read if there isn’t any yelling. —Chris]
A new collection at the Phillips Museum, African Modernism in America, 1947–67, opens today.
The Kreeger Museum is having an open house with jazz, art-making, and food trucks today.
The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.
Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.
She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:
My head gripped in the bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than the blows that hateful
Words would bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved. . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,
And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.
[This is from Hayden’s 1962 A Ballad of Remembrance, his first collection. In the Collected I’m reading, it’s on the opposite page from “Those Winter Sundays,” which, if you haven’t read it, is worth reading, and if you have read it, is worth reading again.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
The common elements between the two poems are obvious: the child’s fear, the sudden yet careful compassion in the final two lines, Hayden’s eye for detail.
Every stanza here feels acute and emotionally loaded in its own way. The first one sets up the scene with a level of detachment that’s almost casual. She’s doing it again, the speaker observes. And then into the second stanza, which is full of movement. I love what Hayden does there with the syntax in the line pleads in dusty zinnias—it sounds as though dusty zinnias is a language. The striking (pun not intended) sonic moment in the third stanza is worth noting, too: strikes and strikes the shrilly circling.
Hayden then moves so smoothly into the speaker’s own memories of his boyhood. Those two stanzas ramp up the emotional language in the poem even further: gripped in the bony vise / of knees… the face that I / no longer knew or loved.
The way Hayden handles this moment, by the decision to move into his own memory, reminded me of a passage on empathy vs. sympathy from an American Poetry Review article by David Wojahn that, early in September, I referenced in a different context:
It is a poem of sympathy, not empathy; it strives for "fellow feeling" but acknowledges the immense difficulty of such endeavor, and all the quietly pyrotechnical devices which the poem employs are offered as evidence of that difficulty.
Those stanzas have a wholly different effect than if the speaker had moved toward empathy and told us what the boy feels; instead, Hayden can tell us exactly how it felt when he experienced it.
But Hayden isn’t saying what it felt like solely for the sake of the reader, I think. It also seems to be a gesture that’s oriented towards, and extended to, the little boy. Look at the line Well, it is over now, it is over. That sentence refers to Hayden breaking free from his own memory, but it also refers to the boy’s current situation: after that line we see the boy now in his room, crying. The repetition in those lines is important. It is over now, it is over: isn’t that what you’d say to soothe a crying child? It’s a gentle, consoling gesture that then allows the speaker to move from that sympathy with the boy to empathy for the woman in those final lines. Those heavy last two lines suggest so much, but the rest of the poem has prepared us well for them. —Julia]
October 10 | Penguin Press
Every Man for Himself and God Against All
by Werner Herzog, translated by Michael Hofmann
From the publisher: Werner Herzog was born in September 1942 in Munich, Germany, at a turning point in the Second World War. Soon Germany would be defeated and a new world would have to be made out the rubble and horrors of the war. Fleeing the Allied bombing raids, Herzog’s mother took him and his older brother to a remote, rustic part of Bavaria where he would spend much of his childhood hungry, without running water, in deep poverty. It was there, as the new postwar order was emerging, that one of the most visionary filmmakers of the next seven decades was formed.
Until age 11, Herzog did not even know of the existence of cinema. His interest in films began at age 15, but since no one was willing to finance them, he worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory. He started to travel on foot. He made his first phone call at age 17, and his first film in 1961 at age 19. The wildly productive working life that followed—spanning the seven continents and encompassing both documentary and fiction—was an adventure as grand and otherworldly as any depicted in his many classic films.
Every Man for Himself and God Against All is at once a personal record of one of the great and self-invented lives of our time, and a singular literary masterpiece that will enthrall fans old and new alike. In a hypnotic swirl of memory, Herzog untangles and relives his most important experiences and inspirations, telling his story for the first and only time.
See the review this week fromin the local Post: “I feel the same sense of awe when I contemplate the phenomenon of Werner Herzog as I do when I contemplate the pyramids.”
Also on Tuesday:
Slant Books: Searching for Home by Robert Pack
Greg Wolfe writes to us: “I’ve got real affection for the late Bob Pack—he was a literary institution for decades until all the cool kids came in and took over and promptly forgot about him.” That’s a compelling pitch.
Liveright: The Upside-Down World by Benjamin Moser
Andrews McMeel: The Mysteries by Bill Watterson
Readers will recall Nic’s wonderful Bill Waterson essay in the last issue of TAC: “It is often said that ‘Let’s Go Exploring’ ends Calvin and Hobbes on an upbeat note, exhorting readers to remember that life, after all, is a tabula rasa, and you can make it whatever you wish. But this gets it backward. The end of Calvin and Hobbes is not about filling a blank sheet. It is about taking a colored sheet and making it blank again.”
Behind the paywall: More Rebecca West. Rebecca West is back. And Gilbert Highet is back too. “the true Ovidian charm.” “The ecstasy of love.” Quibbles! Why not subscribe and learn more!
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