WRB—September 9, 2023
“a long, digressive narrative”
A managing editor told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a...an email newsletter?
In today’s edition:
(working backwards from the bottom):
Decadence…Raymond Chandler…“the enormous Florida night”…pockets…City Lights…blurbs…fonts…fungi…Surrealism…Montaigne…Nabokov…
Two in Tablet:
Blake Smith on Shelby Foote as a Jewish writer, and one who learned a lot from Proust:
Faulkner had been in Foote’s way; Proust was the light to his path. He had read In Search of Lost Time several times through before beginning the Civil War trilogy, and it was from Proust he learned the abilities essential to such a long, digressive narrative—which turns apparently meandering and spontaneous but moves only with its author’s deliberate, far-seeing and much-remembering care—to its long, digressive sentences, and to the art of characterization by which Foote, following Proust, would supply a telling detail at just the right moment to surprisingly revise the reader’s understanding. Here he added something new to his acquired mastery in moving among different perspectives, and became, albeit with found rather than invented characters, a master novelist, one who lets personalities shine out in action and be mirrored in the reactions of others. Foote does this even for the smallest characters who appear only briefly to receive a command or charge across a field.
Maxim D. Shrayer on religion in Nabokov’s work, Nabokov’s religion, and the Holocaust:
In the judgment of Brian Boyd, the don of Nabokovians, “of all Nabokov’s novels, Pnin seems the most amusing, the most poignant, the most straightforward.” I’m not sure I would agree with the third part, and especially when it comes to the novel’s presentation of questions of Jewish identity, Jewish conversion, and mixed marriages of Jews and Christians. While in the published Part I of The Gift Nabokov is overexplicit about the origins of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in the pre-Petrine Russian nobility and a bit uncertain about the contours of Zina Mertz’s Jewish identity, he delivers the information about the ancestry and identity of professor Timofey Pnin only gradually and in puzzle pieces that, when we have finally fit them together, form a picture that’s hardly straightforward.
In BOMB, Ottessa Moshfegh interviews Sheena Patel:
I heavily borrowed from poetic structure and wrote parts of it like scenes in a film. I thought about how no one speaks down to an audience in television. Audiences are empowered throughout the story and are made complicit by becoming detectives. They have to piece things together and information is not given to them all at once. I tried to make each section a room or a moment—this part came very quickly and with certainty. The titles came later. I incorporated the memes into them because I was initially describing memes. I thought it was funny, but my editor didn’t and said it slowed everything down. Another writer agreed, so I cut the memes out but kept their spirit by putting them in the titles.
I had a grand idea of breaking the structure of the novel. I wasn’t coming to the publishing industry from the inside, I wasn’t coming to writing trained in any way, though I am an avid reader. I figured the only way I can do this is to break it.
- on the feud between Sontag and Paglia and its recent rediscovery:
Social media, if nothing else, has proved Sontag’s intimation of just how disastrous it is to give everyone a platform from which they can share their opinions and ideas, even if those individuals are “on the right side” of a movement; even if their politics conjugate with yours. Egalitarianism of rights, protections, and access doesn’t mean we should debase ourselves, and ultimately harm ourselves, with more nihilistic egalitarianisms, such as assuming one person’s position on a complex topic is as valid as another’s, or that one work of art is “just as good” as another.
In The Atlantic, Yiyun Li on rereading Montaigne:
“The mind that has no firm anchor point is lost for, as is commonly said, it is nowhere if it is everywhere,” Montaigne writes in “On Idling.” Considering this, it occurs to me that the happiness I feel while rereading his work has not much to do with any worldly matter but a sense of finally knowing where I am: I am not at that dreaded place called nowhere, nor am I—nor do I aspire to be—at that illusory place called everywhere.
Nowhere-ness—I don’t think I’m alone in having now and then been trapped by the feeling of being in no specific place; the world seems to have experienced a collective version of that during the pandemic. This is different from being lost. The latter implies an opposite state of existence, of being unlost, of being found again. Being nowhere, however, feels bleaker: The past and the future merge into an everlasting present, and the present is where time and space take on a permanent stillness.
Achilles rejects his fellow warriors with the absolute condemnation of a god. Nothing will mend the fearful consequences of this rift; but, Wilson suggests, the last two books of the poem tentatively propose two ways in which something can be salvaged. In Book 23, describing the funeral games in honor of Patroclus, Achilles, though he has slaughtered a dozen Trojan children over Patroclus’s funeral pyre in another act of excessive savagery, manages to limit the risks of competitive frenzy in the games, distributing prizes shrewdly and generously so that there are few actual losers. This, suggests Wilson in her introduction, is “a model for how a group of ultra-competitive people might be able to share wealth and power without deadly quarrels.”
Two in the NYRB:
Anahid Nersessian reviews a new translation of the poems of Joyce Mansour (Emerald Wounds: Selected Poems, tr. Emilie Moorhouse, ed. Emilie Moorhouse and Garrett Caples, July):
In Mansour’s work,” Moorhouse writes, “love and death are inseparable,” but this doesn’t seem quite right. It’s not so much love and death that are inseparable here but desire and disgust, the main affects in the Surrealist canon. Like Dalí’s paintings or the writing of Georges Bataille—who also saw poetry as “a kind of grave”—Mansour’s poems are chockablock with corpses, eyeballs, amputations, and genitals described as “cannibalistic tissues.”
At their best, the poems are unsettling and darkly humorous, combining the cheerful abjection of a ladies’ magazine with psychoanalytic satire: “Husband neglecting you?/Invite his mother to sleep in your room.” They can also sometimes suggest the gross-out game Would You Rather, in which players choose between imaginary scenarios like sliding down a razor blade into a vat of lemon juice or having fifteen nails hammered into your tongue—or, to use Mansour’s words, dying “beneath the rotted teeth of a rabbit” or “cross[ing] blades with the festooned wolf spider.”
[Love and death, desire and disgust—that’s the WRB’s music. —Steve]
Elizabeth Kolbert reviews two books about fungi (Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic, by Emily Monosson, July; and Meetings with Remarkable Mushrooms: Forays with Fungi Across Hemispheres, by Alison Pouliot, September 5):
Under the best of circumstances, fungal diseases in humans are tricky to treat. This is because fungi are much more closely related to us than it may seem. Like people and indeed like all animals—but unlike viruses or bacteria—fungi are eukaryotes, which is to say their cells contain a clearly defined nucleus. The similarity in structure, Monosson explains, “makes fungal cells difficult to target and kill without damaging our own cells.” There are only three groups of antifungal drugs in use today, compared with more than a dozen types of antibiotics.
When C. auris was exposed to antifungals, the mystery of its origins only deepened. Disease agents usually develop resistance to drugs after being doused with them for decades; C. auris seems to have skipped a step. In the summer of 2021 there were two outbreaks—one in Washington, D.C., the other in Texas—that proved resistant to all three classes of fungus-fighting drugs. “C. auris is a novel human pathogen, and so no one can explain how it came by its remarkable drug resistance,” Monosson writes. Tom Chiller, the head of the CDC’s Mycotic Disease Branch, has called C. auris “a creature from the black lagoon.”
In The Bulwark, Eve Tushnet reviews two novels about life online (We Had to Remove This Post, by Hanna Bervoets, tr. Emma Rault, 2022; and Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell, 2021):
As with Post, the best thing about Little Eyes is its central concept. The kentuki is a brilliant invention. It’s cute and creepy: “The animal looked like a simple and artless plush panda bear, though really it was more similar to a football with one end sliced off so it could stand upright. . . . They weren’t pretty, but even so there was something sophisticated about them that she still couldn’t put her finger on.” It’s not much like what social media is, but it’s totally recognizable as what social media is like. The kentuki is a pet and a voyeur. It’s mysterious—the thrill of the unknown!—and it’s never clear which side of the connection has the upper hand. People do things in front of the kentuki that they wouldn’t do in the warm presence of another person, even though the whole point is that with a kentuki you’re never alone.
[I don’t know how “kentuki” is supposed to be pronounced, but in my head it’s “Kentucky.” —Steve]
Ernaux’s latest autobiographical excursion, The Young Man, 35 pages of large type, is surely her shortest yet, and fixes on a period in her life when she was seeing a man half her age. No advert for cradle-snatching this, though she did get a kick out of scandalizing people by cavorting with her lover at the beach. She supported him financially for a time – yet not enough evidently to save him from relying on a mattress on the floor of a cold flat, an unpredictable hotplate, and a fridge that froze the lettuce. Meanwhile, Ernaux reveled in feeling younger just by looking at him, a trick she suspects inspires many an age-gap involvement.
The Millions is getting a redesign.
Fusion, a journal of ideas that “explores pressing issues from a perspective rooted in the tradition of liberty,” has launched.
One company dominates the font market.
More on the shady world of blurbs.
Penguin Random House is gradually phasing out Anchor Books.
How to be a TikTok poet.
ChatGPT attempts to find a passage from Proust. [Two mentions of Proust in this edition—this newsletter bends to the reading lists and fixations of the Managing Editors because the world does. —Steve]
Paul Yamazaki, who has worked at City Lights for 53 years, is receiving the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
The artist behind the cover of a 1976 paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time has been identified.
The best sentences the staff at The Paris Review read this summer.
“What Should Men Do with Their Hands?” [I recommend constantly fidgeting with a pen. —Steve]
This was prompted by Hannah Carlson’s Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close (September 12), which was reviewed in the Journal.
A used book sale will be happening at the Juanita Thornton Shepherd Park Library today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and tomorrow from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market will be showing Hitchcock films throughout October.
Some tips to get cheap theater tickets.
“Insect Life of Florida” by Lynda Hull
In those days I thought their endless thrum
was the great wheel that turned the days, the nights.
In the throats of hibiscus and oleander
I’d see them clustered, yellow, blue, their shells
enameled hard as the sky before the rain.
All that summer, my second, from city
to city my young father drove the black coupe
through humid mornings I’d wake to like fever
parceled between luggage and sample goods.
Afternoons, showers drummed the roof,
my parents silent for hours. Even then I knew
something of love was cruel, and distant.
Mother leaned over the seat to me, the orchid
Father’d pinned in her hair shriveled
to a purple fist. A necklace of shells
coiled her throat, moving a little as she
murmured of alligators that float the rivers
able to swallow a child whole, of mosquitoes
whose bite would make you sleep a thousand years.
And always the trace of the blacktop shimmering
through swamps with names like incantations—
Okeefenokee, where Father held my hand
and pointed to an egret’s flight unfolding
white about swamp reeds that sang with insects
until I was lost, until I was part
of the singing, their thousand wings gauze
on my body, tattooing my skin.
Father rocked me later by the water,
the motel balcony, singing calypso
with the Jamaican radio. The lyrics
a net over the sea, its lesson
of desire and repetition. Lizards flashed
over his shoes, over the rail
where the citronella burned merging out
shadows—Father’s face floating over mine
in the black changing sound
of night, the enormous Florida night,
metallic with cicadas, musical
and dangerous as the human heart.
[This is from Hull’s 1986 Ghost Money, the first of two collections published during her lifetime. (A third collection, The Only World: Poems, was published a year after her death in a car accident in 1994.)
Maybe calling a poem as “well-balanced” isn’t the most exciting, or fair, description, but it’s what came to mind when mulling over the line whose bite would make you sleep a thousand years. There’s something so careful in Hull’s beautiful syntax and tone here, and the whole poem transforms the interesting-but-ordinary things Hull describes (the bugs, the family, the wilted orchid in the mother’s hair) into something both more otherworldly and, somehow, more comforting (murmured of alligators; the trace of the blacktop shimmering / through swamps with names like incantations… there are so many of these moments in the poem). It’s just beautiful. —Julia]
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