WRB—September 30, 2023
“the disease of kings”
If you look at the Washington Review of Books, knowing when and why it was published, don’t the reverberations of the past and the aesthetic frisson of the present coexist?
[It was recently suggested to us that we, the Managing Editors, should express more of our personalities in these newsletters. (Cf. Eliot: “Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”) Here is an indication of mine: we’re leading off with Lucretius. —Steve] In Engelsberg Ideas, David Butterfield on the “life-saving” De rerum natura:
To the Roman reader, this “Hymn to Venus” channels the spirit of how an epic poem should begin: a lofty address to a deity in the hope of securing inspiration for poetic composition. As not only the personification of nature and love, but also the mother of Aeneas, the Trojan prince who founded the Roman race, Venus was the exemplary patroness for a poem striving to heal the Eternal City. The more the work’s arguments unfurl, however, the perversity of this de rigueur proem begins to loom large. Why would an Epicurean address a deity when the gods are explicitly said to be deaf to human appeal? How can Venus herself be the creative force of the world, when the world is the accidental product of random atomic movements?
In The Ringer, Paul Thompson on Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as the beginning of the end of an era:
Given all this, it would make sense if the album’s staggeringly huge hit were an outlier, misrepresentative of the thematic and formal messiness trapped in the shrink-wrap. But “Hey Ya!” is perfectly in step with the prior Outkast hits, which, despite their obvious pop bona fides, had been about hostile co-parenting situations, general alienation, and bombs over Baghdad. At the Staples Center, after the Lakers or Kings won, the P.A. system would pump Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”—a song people love to point out, in hushed tones, is scathing parody, and look at these people singing it sincerely. This was “Hey Ya!,” too: a sad song about generational malaise that wormed its way into drive-time programming blocks through André’s sheer charisma. It’s easy to imagine this mechanism working again and again, another lament Trojan-horsed onto TRL whenever Outkast needed a release date. But even compared to “ATLiens” or “Ms. Jackson”—or to moody call-and-response songs named after Rosa Parks—“Hey Ya!” sounds uniquely defeated, the end of a too-short rope.
In The Point, John Merrick on Alan Garner’s relationship to his native Cheshire and the hold the landscapes we first experience have on us:
If it appears that here Garner creates a false dualism between a cosmopolitan intellectualism and a form of rustic innocence, then that is decidedly not the case. As Garner recognizes, and as his own family attests, the world of the cloistered academic may have a different focus than the farmer or the stonemason but is no more knowledgeable for that. Nor is there simple innocence to be found in the fields of England. Yet such sentiments have led some critics, notably Jacqueline Rose, to read Garner as little more than a modern Romantic. For Rose, Garner’s vision of childhood is one of an untouched state of nature, a time before the corruption of a dead and decaying culture. On the child therefore lies “the responsibility for saving humankind from the degeneracy of modern society.” To read him this way is, however, to expect easy answers from this most difficult of writers. Modern society may be degenerated, but nature is no less corrupt. There is no escape from history, he reminds us. The task is not to hark back to a lost golden age, or to denigrate a metropolitan intellectualism by comparison with a purer, rustic way of life, represented by the child, but to hold together the broken pieces, however difficult that may be.
[Speaking of native landscapes, I once watched a friend of mine and his mother row a canoe out to approach a moose standing in the middle of a pond. (Do not do this.) They were lucky. The worst thing that happened was that the moose ducked under water and all the flies that had been bothering the moose started bothering them instead. —Steve] We feel that wild animals are somehow ours, and yet they are not, by definition. Sophie Newman wrote about this tension, manifested in P-22, the celebrated mountain lion “king” of Griffith Park, in The American Scholar:
Can you know a wild animal to death? What’s most interesting to me about P-22 is this paradox: our insistence on understanding the “essence” of wild animals seems to compromise their wildness. That we saved P-22 from death by rat poison only to kill him “humanely” years later is evidence of our irreconcilable presence in the wild, of our compulsion to mark it with our own values. Do animals suffer as we do? This is a bigger question than I can discuss here, but I think the short answer is that we don’t know. What we do know is nearly the entire life story of this mountain lion—from the moment he appeared on scientists’ radar to the time we decided that his injuries from a car crash were too severe for him to continue living. The possibility that he had suffered before the collision, because of what we as a civilization had done to interfere with his livelihood—this is almost too much to bear.
Uljana Wolf’s debut poetry collection, Kochanie ich habe Brot gekauft (2005), has been translated into English by Greg Nissan (kochanie, today i bought bread, October 26). Exberliner interviewed her about it:
For this book, the father figure merged two different experiences. Firstly, it became a symbol for non-speech and for the non-transmission of history and memory. The father became an example for how many post-war German families just closed up, and how trauma and experience and being implicated in history was not talked about, both in East and West.
And secondly, I read fairy tales obsessively as a child, and even as a teenager: the Grimm stories but also Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian fairy tales. So the father figure merged this sort of mythical, magical way of displaying constellations between generations with the specifically German experience of non-speech.
The WRB is partial to reporting from people who go to insane-sounding events and places and report back that they are, in fact, insane. [At least, I, who am constantly rereading “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” love that stuff. —Steve] Kyle Ferrer found himself in charge of proofing a cigar blog’s coverage of the Premium Cigar Association’s annual Convention and International Trade Show and wrote about it for The Baffler:
Walking through the Roman arcade, back to the Palazzo, we spotted a cigar senator rolled to a stop in a motorized scooter. Brooks Whittington, halfwheel’s other cofounder, had interviewed the same man two days prior, and he had walked in and out of the halfwheel booth on his own two feet. Now, he was tile-sledding with his thumb. His left leg was half-dangled from the platform, and in the scooter’s nest lay a big bottle of liquor. This forced me to assume the rig was a result of too many distillates, some kind of etherized prank. A bet gone the other way.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one aching from the steaking. After the cherubic chair-victim waved us home—a chipper enough sendoff, as far as I could tell—Charlie said flatly, “The disease of kings.” I queried, because Charlie often likes to ellipse his meaning. “The disease of kings,“ he repeated. “Gout. Your boy’s got gout. Didn’t you see his foot?”
Also in The Baffler, Adam Morris reviews a translation of Victor Herringer’s second novel (The Love of Singular Men, translated by James Young, September 5):
Aside from the allusion to David Copperfield, Heringer refers in this passage to another great nineteenth-century novelist: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The “posthumous” birth recalls one of Machado’s best-known novels, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, whose protagonist narrates from beyond the grave. And indeed, Heringer’s sardonic sense of humor and plainspoken irony recall the trademarks of his forebear. These resonances are deliberate, but it’s another of Machado’s novels that Heringer intends as his counterpoint: Machado’s masterpiece Dom Casmurro. Both novels are narrated by lonely old men in Rio’s northern sprawl. Both narrators loved deeply and lost. And both narrations are tinged with nostalgia for a halcyon period to which both men yearn to return. But here the thematic comparisons end: while Dom Casmurro offers a parable of the corrosive and enduring power of jealousy, The Love of Singular Men memorializes a great love cut short by a hateful, violent world.
In our sister publication in Los Angeles, Sumana Roy reviews Akshya Saxena’s book on Indian English (Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India, 2022):
If the [India International Centre] is geriatric, the [Jaipur Literary Festival] is young; if the IIC is a 19th-century novel, the JLF is magic realism. To put it less aphoristically, the first must be observed and commended from a distance—its audience is far away, experiencing events secondhand, in photos and newspaper reports, witnessing canonization with awe and desire. The second is close, intimate, “breathing the same air as …” What has for long been understood as “Indian English,” particularly “Indian English Literature” has been produced by the IIC school. The novels, the English-language newspapers published from the nation’s four metropolitan centers, the English-language television studios, and the literary criticism—these constitute the IIC school. Book-reviewing culture is for the IIC school; for the JLF school, an iteration of the personality cult will do. The former’s stock is a review in a “well-respected” forum, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the London Review of Books; for the latter, an author photograph accompanying an interview in a newspaper or on a website will do, or even an Instagram post. The constituency of the first reads English; the constituency of the second is happy to see English. The IIC brings prestige—books must be launched there to allow them this life—while the JLF confirms popularity: writers must get themselves invited there to feel the equivalent of a bestseller.
Down in Critical notes we link to a piece on the declining cultural status of classical music. The WRB will do its part to resist this trend: here is William Boyd’s review of Jeremy Eichler’s book detailing how four composers reacted to the Second World War in their art (Time's Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance, August) in The New Statesman:
This could be a personal defect, of course, and in no way is my reaction meant to derogate Eichler’s key contention. But it strikes me that the facility he describes is not unique to music. Isn’t this ability to “live with the presence of the past” true of all great works of art? Aren’t all such works, to borrow Eichler’s phrase, “archives of emotion and meaning, history and memory”? If you look at Picasso’s Guernica, knowing when and why it was painted, don’t the reverberations of the past and the aesthetic frisson of the present coexist? If you read, say, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—cognisant of the authors’ lives, the books’ composition and the roller-coaster of their reputations—aren’t you, in a similar way, connecting with history? And if you were watching Swan Lake, or Gone with the Wind, or a performance of The Cherry Orchard, or looking at Rodin’s The Thinker, wouldn’t this same collision be taking place?
The art book is not quite a book.
Hanuman Editions, “a publishing project chasing the specter of a contemporary, planetary avant-garde,” is launching this fall.
Thirst-trapping, now with books! Get your jokes off! [Dante reports that the first man to write verse in the language of sì did so to woo a woman whose Latin wasn’t great. Imagine all the work that guy could have saved himself if he had been born several hundred years later. Why adapt poetry to a new language when you can take a picture with a book? —Steve]
McDonald’s is bringing mumbo sauce to locations nationwide in October.
The National Portrait Gallery will show two films related to the Spanish-American War Sunday at 2 p.m.
The Washington Bach Consort will perform his St. John’s Passion at the National Presbyterian Church Sunday at 4 p.m.
Rhizome DC will be showing two films from RANDOM MAN EDITIONS Sunday at 7 p.m.
The first National Week Without Driving starts Monday.
Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin will perform a live score at a showing of Dario Argento’s Demons (1985) at the Howard Theatre Monday at 8 p.m.
The Shakespeare Everywhere Festival runs from October 7 to December 31.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts reopens on October 21.
The Washington National Opera will perform the world premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s new opera, Grounded, from October 28 to November 13.
Charles Tolliver will present John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass live at the Kennedy Center October 21.
“Poem” by Larry Levis
So I find myself
trailing a forefinger through the dust
on a banister,
where my wife
holds the instep of the moon
in her sleep.
[Today is Levis’s birthday, so I couldn’t help but feature a poem of his. This one is from Wrecking Crew, his (sadly out-of-print) first collection, published in 1972.
It’s so lovely and concise, like many of the short poems in this collection. I love that final image—the instep of the moon—but I also love how the poem starts mid-moment with so I find myself. It puts the speaker and the reader in the same moment, both suddenly dropped in-scene. And the way that climbing upstairs pulls away from the rest of the lines in that brief “upward” movement also creates a neat, understated parallel between form and content. —Julia]
October 10 | New Directions
by Olga Ravn, translated by Jennifer Russell
From the publisher: After giving birth, Anna is utterly lost. She and her family move to the unfamiliar, snowy city of Stockholm. Anxiety threatens to completely engulf the new mother, who obsessively devours online news and compulsively buys clothes she can’t afford. To avoid sinking deeper into her depression, Anna forces herself to read and write.
My Work is a novel about the unique and fundamental experience of giving birth, mixing different literary forms—fiction, essay, poetry, memoir, and letters—to explore the relationship between motherhood, work, individuality, and literature.
[As I said when we linked an early review a few weeks ago, I really loved Ravn’s last book (The Employees, 2022)—it helps that it’s a one-sitting read. Well-said by John Crowley in the Boston Review: “Ravn’s open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations is poetry, and her love for her imagined persons is like Walt Whitman’s love for his.” This one is longer. Hillary Kelly mentioned it in The Atlantic recently as the last in a long line of novels “obsessed with the stifling banality and identity-effacing nature of parenting.” Speaking of, out last week and marked by a skeptical New Yorker review from Merve Emre, Minna Dubin’s book on motherhood (Mom Rage: the Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood, September). —Chris]
More speaking of moms:
Dorothy [, a publishing project]: The Long Form by Kate Briggs
Jennifer Kabat in this week’s 4Columns: “[Briggs’] first novel, The Long Form, gives us twenty-four hours with a new mom and a newborn, a story made out of many, many details: sleep deprivation, sore nipples, a walk in the park to lull baby to sleep, showering, bathing, crying. For Briggs, the inciting incident, the crucial, meaningful detail, is impossible. In her book, everything in a life feels essential and irreducible.”
Also on Tuesday:
Liveright: Lazy City: A Novel by @ Rachel Connolly
[Longtime readers may recall that Connolly did not like The Crane Wife (2022), which I assume Julia will want to quibble with. —Chris] [C.J. Hauser was right. I stand by this. But on a serious note: I think The Crane Wife is imperfect but on the whole enjoyable, and Connolly does a good job at praising what the book gets right. —Julia]
New Directions: The Love Poems of Catullus
[Steve, I assume, has something gross to say about this. —Chris] [Having made many translations of Catullus and passed them around to my friends, I have nothing gross to say about that noble enterprise. —Steve]
McNally [Editions]: Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke
Bookshop [.org]: Our Strangers: Stories by Lydia Davis
“Only available at independent bookstores and libraries, by request of the author.” Lily Meyer in The Nation this week: “Davis does not stray from form. Its longest stories are a handful of pages; its shortest, a handful of clauses.”
Penguin Press: The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut
See comments from Chris and linked review from @ becca from last weekend.
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