WRB—September 23, 2023
“a hit of rapture”
She gazed at the unknown magical signs, with which some terrible spirit seemed to be marking out its mysterious sphere; and the earth seemed to give way beneath her when she noticed that the window happened to be open at the Washington Review of Books. She felt as if the whole dreadful power of the art of criticism, which had destroyed her sons, were raging over her head; she thought the mere sight of the notes would make her fall senseless, and after quickly pressing the screen to her lips in an impulse of infinite humility and submission to Divine Omnipotence, she sat down again on her chair.
Lee, Kirby, and Ditko are now dead white men. Classics, by definition, have aged, and some parts of these books aged badly. Despite the Thing’s example, conventionally ugly or visibly disfigured characters are usually villains, from the scarred and vengeful Madame Hydra to the big, round, glum Blob. Attempts to address the civil-rights struggle suffer from a milquetoast centrism. Villains explain their plans for no good reason; everything comes with exclamation points. Women (or “girls,” like the Invisible Girl) have feminine powers, like shrinking, or espionage, or invisibility; rarely do two or more women converse. Some plots make little sense. But these comics share such flaws with almost every other product of popular culture from that era, and many from our own; we keep reading them for what makes them stand out.Silver Age Marvel meant feelings (Cyclops and Marvel Girl’s lovesickness in the X-Men; the Thing’s depression in the Fantastic Four) and spectacle: a world to astonish the eyes, with new perspectives, shiny interstellar gadgets, and heroes always in motion.
[Burt dodges the actual tense questions about what it means for these collections to be “Classics” in the Penguin, “literary canon” sense. It’s The New Yorker after all, which “has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it.”
(As an aside to this aside, I don’t think you can overstate how much of the WRB tone, down to the elliptical running jokes and parenthetic direct address from the editors, is downstream of the huge amount of Marvel books I spent summers with as a kid. Cf. Jonathan Lethem: “This was mostly due to the relentless cheerleading of Stan Lee, in a venue called ‘Marvel Bullpen Bulletins’: a page of Marvel gossip and advertising featured in every issue of every comic, written in a style which might be characterized as high hipster—two parts Lord Buckley, one part Austin Powers.” from The Ecstasy of Influence, 2011.)
Does any of that merit the Penguin Classics nod? I don’t know if it’s really so deep, even if it’s a good excuse to dilate for a few thousand words in The New Yorker—there are already 2000-some PCs, including Dune (1965) and The Call of Cthulhu (1928). I have a lot of affection for all this stuff. It’s incredible baroque melodrama. It’s so fun! There just isn’t so much there. Good enough for Penguin Classics, good enough for me, but not so interesting that we have to tie ourselves in knots about where this schlocky fun fits in the civilizational-riches pecking order. —Chris]
One more from the new Harper’s [The arrival of the new Harper’s is a sacred day in the Rowan house. —Nic]. Joe Kloc describes an obsession with pulp:
Getting nowhere, I resolved that each time Gary or Lucille mentioned a bookshop I would check it for the Golden Fleece.
There was Long Island’s Booklovers Paradise, which one morning Gary and Lucille told me they’d sworn off, owing to the habits of a longtime proprietor about whom much local ink had been spilled: he was alleged to have kept the lights out, arbitrarily issued lifetime bans, repriced items at checkout, and solicited book sales from people whose names appeared in the newspaper, calling their relatives from the phone book when they didn’t reply to his emails. The cruelest of the old man’s critics described his disposition as “horrid”; his defenders called it anticapitalist.
When I phoned, he told me that he didn’t have the Golden Fleece and was dismayed that I wasn’t a curious enough person to accept another title in its place. “God forbid you buy a book,” he said as we hung up.
“In many ways, the strip is a series of jokes about the nature of jokes.” In The Atlantic, Sam Thielman writes about the legacy of Ernie Bushmiller and his comic strip, Nancy:
Bushmiller was hard to categorize. A lifelong newspaperman from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, he was also a self-made intellectual who secretly took figure-drawing classes to help him draw better cartoons. He could draw and paint in great detail, but instead, he used as little detail as possible. Various cartoonists and their teachers, including Bill Griffith, the creator of the Zippy comic, have explained Bushmiller’s drawing philosophy before. The oft-used example is that the perfect number of rocks to communicate the idea of “some rocks” in the background of a comic strip is three. One is “a rock,” two is “a couple of rocks,” but three is “some rocks,” and any number of rocks greater than three is superfluous.
[A reader told me yesterday that they found Sanjena Sathian’s Yale Review essay about choice lit from Wednesday fascinating. I mentioned they might find this piece even more compelling. Flagged for your perusal, J.A. —Chris]
Also in The Atlantic, Hillary Kelly reviews Susie Boyt’s new novel out from NYRB Press (Loved and Missed, September) [also-rans’d in last Saturday’s Upcoming books] and finds in this motherhood story “a hit of rapture so potent that we might overdose”:
The parenting novel is usually a place to let it all out: the drudgery, the indignity, the identity-snatching abasement of sacrificing a life of the mind, of the bar, of the lie-in, for the penal colony of toy-straightening and carrot-steaming. Writers going back at least to Mary Shelley have agonized over the monstrousness of creating a life only to have it devour their own. . . . the first two decades of the twenty-first century have produced a glut of novels obsessed with the stifling banality and identity-effacing nature of parenting, a state of being exacerbated in America by a lack of government help and impossible societal standards. . . .
Loved and Missed inverts that ratio. This is a novel about happiness as the predominant mode. From the start, Lily is a pink-cheeked wonder, the kind of baby who is described as “her usual irreproachable self” at seven months old. She grows up angelic, a sensible child who falls asleep to radio broadcasts about “low-level domestic disasters: how to get red wine out of pale carpets and upholstry, how to make your ageing grouting gleam” and applies herself dutifully to her studies. Ruth never so much as hints about Lily slamming a door or giving cheek.
In the latest issue of our sister publication in New York [I’m bringing back the pet publication names. —Chris], WRB fave A.E. Stallings reviews a recent “thorough and hefty” translation of the epigramist Simonides (Simonides: Epigrams and Elegies, 2020), “the first Greek poet known to have composed poems to be read by a reader rather than heard by an audience” and “the first poet to have demanded payment”:
But elegy, as its folk etymology suggests (ἒ ἒ λέγειν, “to say ‘ah ah’”), is, in its essence, something uttered or performed, limited in length only by the poet’s stamina and the audience’s appetite. The epigram, particularly when carved in stone, must be, as the inimitable Anne Carson points out, “economic” in its expression: monetized information, it has a limited amount of space in which to make its claims—a restricted number of words or even characters. That may sound a bit like Twitter—“character,” after all, is a metaphor from inscription, something stamped or carved—and there are other similarities. Both can easily be “shared” or even “go viral,” amplifying their influence.
[Imagine—in our lifetime, we may see the first Managing Editor to demand a payment. —Chris]
In the local Post this week,reviews the latest from Benjamin Labatut, the Chilean author whose last book (When We Cease to Understand the World, 2021) was buzzy enough to end up on Obama’s summer reading list [See WRB Feb. 12, 2022] [Goodness these old ’sletters are funny to read through now. We’ve come a long way. I stand by what I said about the Central Intelligence Agency. —Chris] and whose new book (The MANIAC, September) is similarly about the nutty professor type:
Is The MANIAC a work of fiction? Or do we call it fiction because we lack a better word for its creative conquest of fact? Most critics tasked with rendering Labatut recognizable liken him to the melancholic German writer W.G. Sebald, whose gently meandering novels contain long, dreamy meditations on destruction and decay. It is true that both authors toe the wavering line between invention and history, drawing on a wealth of historical and scientific details, but Labatut is that vanishingly uncommon thing: a contemporary writer of thrilling originality. Even more than When We Cease to Understand the World, The MANIAC is a work of dark, eerie and singular beauty. . . .
The worst part of these dark tales, though, is not that reason revolts when it is pressed too far but that the world turns out to be disordered, down to its very seams. . . . Tumult is not an affront to human reason but its logical culmination. The only way to transcend confusion is to transcend human cognition itself.
Katja Hoyer’s book on the German Democratic Republic (Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany, September 5) has led to a lot of commentary—more heat than light, mostly. But the review by Samuel Clowes Huneke in TNR assesses its value for the current left:
To Hoyer, the GDR’s spectral presence is evidence of Ostalgie, nostalgia for the East. It proves only that many retain fond memories of the country of their youth, even if few “East Germans long for a return to GDR socialism.” Dismissing the GDR’s socialist legacy in this way, especially in such an exciting narrative that restores the drama of East German history, strikes me as too simplistic. It evades the question of why we should care about East German history at all.
Of course, for Hoyer the answer is simple. East Germany is, quite simply, part of German history and the country she grew up in. To ignore it, or to understand it through Cold war clichés, would be to misunderstand German history as a whole. But for those who do not have an emotional attachment to the country, East German history must offer another appeal. The most obvious is that the GDR provides a striking case study in the history of socialism.z
[The reference to schnapps near the end is interesting—the Junkers historically manufactured it, and earlier German socialists viewed it as a tool of theirs and of other capitalists against proletarian solidarity. (They encouraged drinking beer instead.) I first learned about this in Mark Lawrence Schrad’s Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition (2021), the one-sentence summary of which is “everything you think you know about the temperance movement—especially if you’re an American—is wrong.” I highly recommend it. —Steve]
In our sister publication Down Under, James Ley reviews Hans Kang’s sequence of prose poems (The White Book, 2018), which “develops a network of metaphorical associations, its own symbolic language of grief”:
Han has observed in an interview that the existence of suffering, considered as a philosophical problem, is something of a cliché. It is a question that occurs to every moderately sensitive adolescent – the sort of existential question that maturity demands we set aside as imponderable. Yet its very naivety also indicates its fundamental nature. For Han, the existence of suffering demands a certain responsiveness to reality. The heightened awareness it generates gives her work its distinctive empathetic quality. Her writing has a sense of composure and a steadiness of authorial gaze that inclines it towards a concentrated symbolism, but it also seeks to understand pain in relational terms. The emotional and physical suffering of her characters is depicted as a function of their personal histories and social positions, and a measure of their estrangement from each other.
Here’s a Knausgaard profile, in Esquire, if that’s your bag.
“The Deloitte survey shows that Gen Z Americans were three times more likely to get caught up in an online scam than boomers were.”
TPIF has a new grant program “to support young and mid-career professionals looking to make the leap to their first book and contribute to conversations about the moral and political challenges of today.” [The Public Interest Fellowship. —Chris]
Authors are friends nowadays, apparently. [I don’t believe it. Have you met authors? —Steve]
Domain suffixes can be quite lucrative. “Following a deal with GoDaddy in 2022, some reports said Tuvalu could make $10 million per year from the .tv domain—one-sixth of its GDP.”
The McMansion Hell lady: “In the same way that images of emaciated fashion models distort our perceptions of our own bodies, staging distorts our idea of what home is and what a good house looks like.” [Wagner did a similar piece for The Nation this spring. See our extensive notes on the subject in WRB Mar. 18, 2023. —Chris]
“No one was tossed into the glistening swimming pool for a stray political comment or caustic personal remark. (Has the intellectual class, traumatized by Trump, lost its edge?)” [The Spectator gossipist notes “neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times has seen fit to review Peretz’s book.” Nic did, though, a few months ago: “The book is a fascinating document, and, in its way, the definitive history of one of the two great political magazines Washington, D.C., produced in the twentieth century. (The other magazine is The Weekly Standard.)” —Chris]
“the warm, humid, teeming basement of a trendy Mexican restaurant off D.C.’s luxe Logan Circle” [Perhaps understated. —Chris]
Today at the NGA, “Poetry is a country”: Art and Poetry Celebration, with an 11 am keynote from Poet Laureate Ada Limón.
You can do anything you like these days, but visiting every coffee shop in the District with evaluation in mind and ordering at each one “cold brew with a splash of oat milk and two sugars” seems, to us, in some way a misallocation of energy. [A few months ago one of the baristas at The Coffee Bar bummed a smoke off me. He said I could come get a coffee in exchange, but that offer has probably expired at this point. —Chris]
This weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse, the DC Shorts International Film Festival.
“Waking an Angel” by Philip Levine
Sparrows quarreled outside our window,
roses swelled, the cherry boughs burst
into fire, and it was spring
in the middle of a bad winter.
We have been good, she said, we have
avoided the fields, tended
our private affairs without complaint,
and this is surely our reward.
I wasn’t so sure. There were
hard grey spots on the underbelly
of the ring-tailed coon that died
in the garage, there was sand
as white as powdered glass overflowing
the vessel of the hyacinth,
there was sand on my own tongue
when I awakened at one or two
in the dark, my nostrils inflamed,
my voice crying out for her.
She wouldn’t move. I put my cold hands
on her hips and rocked her gently;
O, O, O was all she said
through set, dry lips. She was slipping
away from me. I was afraid to look
at what dense wings lifted her
out of my bedroom and my one life,
her voice still trailing O, O, O,
like a raiment of victory.
[This poem is from Levine’s Not This Pig (1968), his second published collection. —Julia]
September 26 | NYRB Classics
The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
by Gustave Flaubert, edited and translated from the French by Francis Steegmuller
From the publisher: “If there is one article of faith that dominates the Credo of Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence,” Francis Steegmuller writes in the introduction to this selection of Flaubert’s letters, “it is that the function of great art is not to provide ‘answers.’” The Letters of Gustave Flaubert is above all a record of the intransigent questions—personal, political, artistic—with which Flaubert struggled throughout his life.
Here we have Flaubert’s youthful, sensual outpourings to his mistress, the poet Louise Colet, and, as he advances, still unknown, into his thirties, the wrestle to write Madame Bovary. We hear, too, of his life-changing trip to Egypt, as described to family and friends, and then there are lively exchanges with Baudelaire, with the influential critic Sainte-Beuve, and with Guy de Maupassant, his young protégé. Flaubert’s letters to George Sand reveal her as the great confidante of his later years.
Steegmuller’s book, a classic in its own right, is both a splendid life of Flaubert in his own words and the ars poetica of the master who laid the foundations for modern writers from James Joyce to Lydia Davis. Originally issued in two volumes, the book appears here for the first time under a single cover.
Also on Tuesday:
Encounter: Sparta’s Sicilian Proxy War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 418–413 B.C. by Paul A. Rahe
[The most memorable thing from Paul Rahe’s undergraduate course on ancient Greece was how much he enjoyed an extended off-color joke. The second most memorable thing from Rahe’s class is how quickly he would grade papers. The third memorable thing is that the whole course was run off typewritten handouts that had been dittoed, clearly, for much longer than any of the students had been alive. —Chris] [In my experience, classics and enjoyment of extended off-color jokes tend to go together. —Steve]
Norton: The Iliad translated by Emily Wilson
Woke madness, or something. Do we really need to provide you more coverage of this? It’s been célèbre for weeks. [I’ve been waiting to re-read Homer for this to come out. —Chris]
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