In Our Magazines
- AN INTERVIEW WITH Robert Damon Schneck
- An Interview with Peter Bebergal
- An Interview with Paula Young Lee
- Coming In from the Cold: Outsider Art in Literature
November 26, 2014
Go blind today already:-"Erblinde"/"Go Blind" by Paul Celan, whose Collected Later Poetry you must buy on December 2 and read every day after that
eternity too is full of eyes—
drowns, what helped the images
over the path they came,
expires, what took you too out of
language with a gesture
that you let happen like
the dance of two words of just
autumn and silk and nothingness.
November 25, 2014
It is not shocking at all, and that is what is shocking: to be back in America after two years, reading the stories and watching the news and thinking about donating to various campaigns from essentially the same safe vantage point behind my computer and feeling essentially the same combination of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion among similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion connected through expressions of similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion yet at the same time also feeling entirely different because of this essential sameness, this persistence, sensing that the difference in distance or time has done nothing to fatten up my paltry conclusions as I had been led as a child to believe distance and time would, that it's still totally and just awful, still horrible, still an actual tragedy, still saying I do think that, God, really, I do.
November 24, 2014
Image: From Goya's series Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810-1820).
Being myself "bitchy," as well as cognizant of Elaine Showalter after reading her for a seminar class on Virginia Woolf in which I gave it a try so apparently desperately college that my professor apologized to me before saying she could not give me an A, which not even Yale's grade inflation could pretend I deserved, I was passingly interested in Showalter's review of Richard Bradford's Literary Rivals: Feuds and Antagonisms in the World of Books, from which the takeaway is, say it with me now, "But where are the women?" Or, rather, that's what the takeaway should be, or seems like it's going to be; a fun breakdown of the Wordsworth/Coleridge relationship moves into a list of the rivalries featured in the book, and the latter is mostly male in the red-flag-waving way that almost always signals a criticism of that quality will follow (if the reviewer is female, that is). That criticism does follow, sort of: "Above all, Bradford doesn’t notice that his literary feuds seem to be 'fight clubs,' forms of competitive male bonding. His only example of feuding women writers is the well-known legal case of Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman." This, however, serves mainly to introduce an opportunity for Showalter to calmly go through some examples of female writers feuding, and the piece concludes with the coiner of gynocritics shying away into a "nevertheless," as in
Nevertheless, writers today are less likely to engage in open antagonism because the political risks are too great. Between trolls on Twitter, libel law and the pressures of political correctness, writers no longer dare to insult their rivals in the hyperbolically abusive terms that Mailer and Vidal favoured. Richard Bradford might see this as a loss to letters. It’s certainly a demystification of the cult of the warrior artist. But in the absence of slashing rivalries in the present, there’s a vacancy for a compendium of the most entertaining feuds of the past. And Bradford has stepped up to fill it.
Am I naive to wish this were not so aggressively passive? I mean, the point about political correctness and the Internet might be true—there seems to be a "vacancy" for criticism that falls between pussyfooting around and 11,000-word misogynistic absurdities, and there definitely exists an amount of nostalgia for the days of asshole critics past. But Bradford's exclusion of female writers seems like it should put the book in the territory of the egregious, the Okay. Now do it again, but this time, better category. To transition to her calm examples, Showalter uses another lame construction: "If Bradford knew more about women writers, he could cite many more precedents." I mean, if you're writing a nonfiction book, is research not part of your job? The point here should be the lack of women featuring in Bradford's supposed survey, no? Once you train yourself to recognize that kind of thing, you can't not see it. I'm trying to think of a fun comparison to illustrate this phenomenon, but the closest thing I'm coming up with is something to do with deal-breakers in sexual partners—e.g., when they don't seem to care if you get off, or "about female pleasure" if you want to pussyfoot around. That comparison probably works, because just as I often "nevertheless" away men who obviously don't care about female writers, I always find myself making excuses for that sex shit, too, mostly founded on "He has strong hands and buys me pizzas!" NEVERTHELESS, I shouldn't do those things, so I'm just going to make the hypothetical comparison without actually making it.
Contrast with Jessa's review of Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, in which she acknowledges that the book's author has done an admirable job in many ways before deeming the book an italicized, unequivocal failure for "insist[ing] that this is the history of homosexuality without including the stories of women."
November 21, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading (or Not)
Awards are stupid, but sometimes this truth is obscured by 1) the fun of awards shows, the first-world+late-capitalist necessity of constructing anticipation and something to do; see also: Christmas; 2) the fantasy that we will one day be the recipients of the stupid awards; and 3) the frequent goodness of the people winning the awards. I mean, Louise Glück—what a genius! She is a genius. Still, it's kind of absurd that our feeble human brains cannot go on functioning without the crutch conception of the world as a potato-sack race, but you know, capitalism. I'm all for some people being more talented and/or better writers and/or more in possession of an ineffable something special than other people—I really hate lameness! It needs to be stopped!—but it just seems that perhaps vaguely defined LEVELS, rather than INDIVIDUALS, provide a more productive framework for this need to classify and categorize merit. Honor is important, because how else will we go on if not for the hope of being differentiated from the idiots that plague us (see below), but can we try to cultivate honors that do not have such needlessly severe consequences, by which I mean both positive and negative ones? You all know this—is it not why everyone is much happier to bleed content about Ursula's hazier and (somewhat, thus) more deserved "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" than on the books/writers that/who won the ridiculous right to say they published the BEST book last year? I mean, she is also potentially on ANOTHER LEVEL, but I think the point stands even ignoring the disparity in yearly vs. lifetime achievements.
This is not unrelated to Jennifer Weiner's insistence on Jonathan Franzen's hegemonic grip on the New York Times as being so strong that to read her work you'd think they printed something about the guy every single day. Her focus on the New York Times as the "paper of record," despite attempts to dismiss its possible status as such by including that bitterly sarcastic quotation-marked distinction alongside her criticism of its misuse of power—that focus is both valid and not, given that getting with the times (OR NOT, amirite?)—and trying to value cultural capital over actual capital—means knowing that there are many publications that earn more respect and exert a stronger gravitational pull, at least for, ahem, liter-a-toor, than the New York Times does. I'm not denying the power of Institutions, because 1) that would be naive; 2) they do have the money and influence much of the money they don't have; and 3) indeed I exploit my association with them—not ruthlessly, but moderately, and I probably can't not. NEVERTHELESS (and ignoring that this focus of Jennifer Weiner's belies the not-so-literary aspects of her work that she is so quick to blame on patriarchal/institutional perception, because not ignoring it would require me to delve deeper into my idea of LEVELS so as not to contradict my point about the problems of hierarchies, which I don't want to do right now): no one important actually cares—by which I mean cares about something beyond their money/influence—about the National Book Awards or the New York Times. They are placeholders that sometimes do good things. There is a reason intellectuals and otherwise literary types sequester themselves in a small and cliquish industry that is largely irrelevant to anyone outside it, so it's stupid that we then persist in recreating the tedious categorical imperatives of the wider world.
Also, like, YA guy, really? Why are you an idiot? You have all of life's advantages, and still you are an idiot. IT'S NOT THAT HARD.
There are probably many obscure news and thought topics I could bring to your attention from this lofty vantage point as a loosely employed 24-year-old book blogger, but there are SO MANY OTHER Link Roundups! that I will just save my links! for another day. Read the Melville House blog if you're bitchy but ultimately right and Asymptote's if you fancy yourself a cosmopolitan sophisticate.
November 20, 2014
The affliction I'm speaking of is moral relativism, and you can imagine the catastrophic effects on a critic's career if the thing were left to run its course unfettered or I had to rely on my own inner compass alone. To be honest, calling it moral relativism may dignify it too much; it's more like moral wishy-washiness. [Ahem!] Critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage about things, be ready to pronounce on or condemn other people's foibles and failures at a moment's notice whenever an editor emails requesting twelve hundred words by the day after tomorrow. The severity of your condemnation is the measure of your intellectual seriousness (especially when it comes to other people's literary or aesthetic failures, which, for our best critics, register as nothing short of moral turpitude in itself). That's how critics make their reputations: having take-no-prisoners convictions and expressing them in brutal mots justes. You'd better be right there with that verdict or you'd better just shut the fuck up.
-From "Juicers," in Laura Kipnis's *~*new*~* Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation
November 19, 2014
Literary and historical heroines on Grindr. So far, my favorites are Molly Bloom and the Titanic.
November 18, 2014
In this part of The Thing Where We Watch All of the Henry James Adaptations and Slowly Die from the Inside but At Least Get Content Out of It (I am so good at branding), Gary Amdahl and Jessa Crispin watch 90 adaptations of Turn of the Screw, and slowly go mad from all of the off-screen whispering and spooky music. Also, you should buy our Henry James Tribute Album, because it is very good. (I am also so good at subtle salesmanship.)
“Is that how you like to appear? Dark and cold as if you are about to be evil?” Stephanie Beacham to Marlon Brando, playing—so the cast list insists—“Miss Jessel” and “Quint” in Michael Winner’s prequel to The Turn of the Screw, The Nightcomers. Much may be learned from this hilariously flawed and brutally pornographic variation on the timeless allure of appearing dark and cold as if about to be evil.
Assertion #1: we all like very much to appear dark and cold as if about to be evil. But not all the time. I have a speciality in this regard: I give the impression I am on an ice floe that has just calved away from its parent-ice, and the only thing that is saving my near and dear ones from unspeakable wrath is the gradually widening gap of icy water between us. But even I get bored with this. If only Frank Frazetta could have painted me, I could be done with this once and for all, leaving it where it should be, in B movies with billion-dollar budgets.
James was susceptible to this common urge, just as he was to the common tale of the plain woman who inherits a fortune and learns to fend off assholes and idiots at the expense of her sweetness. But he suggested, with crazy literary swagger, that appearance is only one small shiver of a reality that is neither good nor evil—nor beyond good and evil, at least not the way Nietzsche had it.
Assertion #2: we can learn more from bad adaptations of James than good. But who wants to do that? You and I are trying to be rigorously complete in our survey, but why should anybody else have to do this? If Miles and Flora had been forced to watch The Nightcomers, they could not but be traumatized, and not just because it’s poorly directed and acted, but because it caters to and decries at once the desire to watch one person being hurt by another.
Though James trades on psychological pain, he does not participate in the catering and decrying. His Demons are temptations of mind, not flesh. His tortures are constrictions of mind, not flesh. All the while is telling a ghost story, a horror story, he allows the reader’s mind to not simply remain unbound but to expand. That is to say: he writes about the torment of mind from the viewpoint of a free, capacious, healthy mind. He writes about fear and pain with the calm acceptance of an artist who does not ignore evil but who does not seek to profit from it. His profit depends on his ability to “make life,” as he put it. Fear and hatred and pain and violence are inherent in the life he made out of The Turn of the Screw, but they are not the focus, not the point, not the reason it exists. Movie-makers have been drawn to the characters and plot of Screw, its scenes and tableaux for all the wrong reasons: they make absorption in dread and violence the only way for a viewer’s interest to be gratified. It’s a kind of commodified catharsis, pseudo-catharsis, a cheap thrill in place of harrowed understanding. We are the People of the Cheap Thrill, and we get what we pay for. To expect Hollywood to “faithfully adapt” James is misbegotten.
Assertion #3: The Buddhist monk and writer Jack Kornfield wrote that one can be freed from the past through forgiveness. “Forgiveness is giving up hope for a better past.” Something like that. No act of forgiveness is dramatized or referred to in Screw—that’s part of how his ambiguity serves to intensify the already taut strings of the created life: it’s there but tragically never realized—but James’s art is all about living in a present that has given up hope for a better past, not to mention knee-jerk hopes for a better future; art that looks backward and forward with equanimity. Movies would rather die than do that. I think movies would die if they tried to do it. Even the best adaptations of Screw fail miserably because they cannot dramatize the open strong mind that presents the story to us. They can only animate characters.
Assertion #4: It’s too easy to beat up on the actors in these adaptations. It wasn’t Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fault in Washington Square: it was Agnieszka Holland’s fault. And if Brando was calling the shots in Last Tango with The Governess, he didn’t write script, the prequel that is doomed before it starts because “the story” must be told without it.
More on what the other two hundred people do to make a movie good or bad when we consider The Innocents, the 1999 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jodhi May, Redgrave’s 1974 production, the BBC of 2009, and Britten’s opera.
Yours in the loosened bonds of art,
On the night before Halloween, I was going through my regular ritual of reading and watching things that would freak me out so badly I would have to lie on the bed, eyes wide open, constantly checking my thought processes for hallucination and delusion. It's not really stories of murder and abduction that freak me out. I mean, whatever, someone can break in and kill me while I sleep, there's nothing I can really do to prevent that so I'm not going to be freaked out worried about it all the time. I've lived alone and traveled alone for too long, I know it's a giant waste of energy to freak out at every shadow and every strange sound. It's the stories of inexplicable madness and unexplained ends that freak me the fuck out. All of these women left in a dot dot dot -- Joyce Carol Vincent, Elisa Lam, and then the countless others who packed their bags one night and, without any sign of a struggle, checked out. What scares me is losing myself to myself, if that makes any sense. Of my mind just wandering off beyond my ability to bring it back.
It's like when I was a kid and all of those UFO stories were really big, and I used to read big volumes of abduction and experimentation because why not. At that age it is fun to experiment with darkness. And I was never afraid of being taken by aliens, but I was seriously scared that I might one day believe that I had been. Because then you would never get back to yourself, would you? You would have to haunt conferences and talk madness to people and insist on a reality that is totally at odds with everyone else's reality.
That's how I felt when I read Turn of the Screw for the first time, this terror of maybe losing myself inside a belief or an idea. I read it, by the way, hopped up on pain pills because I had fucked up my back and so that didn't help the feeling of slipping into something. But the terror of that is far greater, and far more difficult to convey, than the easy and boring sexual sadism of The Nightcomers. That whole opening metaphor of the toad and the cigarette -- "he likes it so much he'll kill himself not to stop" or whatever, I'm not rewatching the scene to get the line perfect -- is wearying. Just because you notice something, that there are women who sometimes like it when you hurt them, doesn't mean you have anything to say about it.
Did the Turn of the Screw need a prequel? Not this one, obviously, but even then. I hadn't thought, until watching The Innocents, how traumatized those kids must have been. They lose their parents, their new caregiver doesn't care about them, their governess dies horribly, the boy stumbles upon the dead body of the only adult who cares about him. When the little girl starts screaming in The Innocents and finds she can't stop, I was only wondering why she hadn't been doing that the whole time.
It's a different kind of trauma than the one the Governess was terrified would take them over. But there's that thing that kids do, performing this kind of chirpiness even though they are not okay, because it's expected, all the while keeping your reptilian secrets under your apron.
I can see why people want to expand on the tale, those few sentences about Jessel and Quint's relationship are provocative, and all of those off-screen deaths are tempting to put on screen, because instant drama. But the real terror isn't in, dead body on the floor. The terror is in what follows. It's the way your brain tries to recover and can't, it's the way you are left forever vulnerable after and the way people either dance around or take full advantage of that vulnerability.
That line at the beginning of The Innocents, the employer asks the governess, "Do you have an imagination?" Jesus, yes, she does. And the imagination is as destructive as it its creative. Certainly all of us know the wrong turns out imagination has taken us on. And "The Innocents" is the best at conveying that, but I have found myself resisting writing about what a good film it is. Let's talk about the lighting, I guess? Deborah Kerr's nightgowns? Those preternaturally adorable and so obviously some sort of monstrous fairykind children? It is a brilliant film, but it tells us little about James.
So you are right that the bad adaptations do more to show us what James does brilliantly. But I suppose I feel the best adaptation of Turn of the Screw would have been no adaptation of Turn of the Screw. Unlike Washington Square, which I believe could and should live in a thousand different forms, from films to ballets to paintings and whatever the fuck else (please no sequels, though), it seems a really great director would have looked at Turn and said, "Yeah, there's nothing to add here." It's one of his intricately built spider webs, trying to take one down off the wall and rebuild it in another area would necessarily left it with large gaping holes in some areas and tangled messes in others.
See? I can't somehow make myself write about the adaptations at all, although I will have something to say about Colin Firth the next time we converse.
I thought I saw someone in the window, I'll be right back I have to check,
This is where the prequels and sequels properly belong: in letters of friendly criticism. And by friendly I don't mean only letters between friends with a common interest that calls out for the kind of thinking that comes only of writing, I mean criticism like Emerson said it ought to be written: to the unknown friend.
You're right about the nature of fear and demonstrations of pseudo-violence. (No, wait, let's call it faux violence, because it is consumed in terms of fashion, not as the sharp stark meaningful opposite of truth.) Blood and brutality and pain and screaming are just disgusting, and if, for some reason, a watcher continues to wade through it, it becomes boring. It becomes so boring the boredom itself is disgusting. (The only way out is through comedy, which is why I briefly held some hope for the 1996 Kensit "Screw.") Anybody who's experienced real fear and real violence will confirm this.
Which brings me to trauma. I have witnessed and participated in trauma that is stretched out over a wide spectrum: my friend the motorcycle-riding drug-dealer who crashed his Harley and messed his brain up to the point where he could walk only after years of therapy, using a walker, and whose conversation was limited to:
ME: "How are you, Gerard?"
GERARD (thick CT accent, on bad days): Faih.
GERARD (on good days): Spahk-uh-ling.
And the Green Beret, suffering with PTSD before they were able to brand it, who murdered my uncle. ("Narrow Road to the Deep North," if anybody wants to read about that.)
Then there's the stuff that I feel is personally traumatic and which I keep to myself precisely because it is traumatic.
I am inclined, probably to your dismay, to not think of what happened to Miles and Flora as traumatic. I mean: I, the observer/reader, am inclined to see the events of the story as possibly something they felt to be what we now (specifically us and now) call traumatic, but which James presents as something else altogether.
Well, no, not altogether different: directly related but effectively different, emphasis on effect. And I would like to point to the weird etymology of "trauma." Now I'm no philologist, I just play one on the Internet, but...the word comes from the Greek for wound, but makes a mysterious detour in Old German before it arrives in English: daydream. There are wounds enough in daydreams to satisfy any sadist, any masochist, any unwell person of any sort. I used to have a saying (in fact it might be in "Narrow Road"): "Every daydream crests in a fistfight. And there was a time, a long time, in which I depended on my daydreams to propel me into daydreamy action in the non-dreaming world, just because I loved that sense of bifurcation: white figure on black background, suddenly black figure on white background...but the sharpest contrasts always blurred into gray. People, in other words, can take anything. What is the greatest miracle of all? That horribly wounded, degraded, brutalized people do not destroy themselves, do not hurl themselves into the abyss, don't overdose, blow their heads off when they know it will end the misery!
Of course some people do just that: wounded, they wound, and depart in flames. But the percentage is unbelievably small. Most of us learn to pin our misery on the fear of freaking out, just as you say. We hear about atrocity and it stands out in the clearest horror. We shrink back in fear, our imaginations run wild, and the fear becomes so magnified it paralyzes us. Sometimes this is a good restraint! Sometimes it is a bad restraint.
Back to James and particularly The Innocents. Screw is about A) the sad and wounding things that happen to children; and B) the exponentially more sad and wounding things that we can imagine happening to children. To the children that we are, the children that we have, the children that we do not have. I say "exponentially" because the imagination is rhizomatic in possibility and instantaneous in its choice of path at every fork.
Very briefly, because I am rattling on as usual: there are two kinds of Screw. One solidifies or manifests the qualities of fear, the other leaves them in ambiguity, in suggestion, below the surface. Johdi May's (beautiful) eyes must be widened in fear or fear of fear from the get-go. Pam Ferris (a lovely woman and terrific actor) must confine herself to one of her best bits: stern regard blanking into malevolence. Virtually all the boys playing Miles must be preternaturally predatory in their precocious charm. And all the Floras...! She cannot be bookish, or introspective, or god forbid sercretive, or even outright mysterious in an imagination she owns wholly, with all the good and bad that implies, no, she must be the receptacle for our imaginations. How else can the innocent become terrifying?
Here come the Buddhists again, and the non-dualists. (I should say I enjoy inquiries guided by these "not-two" philosophies, but am in no way a follower or practicer.) They say that evil and good are one, that fear and calm are one, that violence and...what is the opposite of violence? That they all come and go in the mind, shit happens, worse shit happens--no one knows what will come and no one can control what comes, and it is therefore in our imaginations only that the worst happens, because there we can hold it in place, run and re-run it, make prequels and sequels. Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself. That is how this miracle of "enduring" occurs.
James always gives us the tranquility of art to bear our imaginings. No movie can do that. The Innocents comes closest because its efforts are towards making that world seem as ordinary as possible, so as to show us something, rather than subjecting us to it.
yours in the surly bonds of imagination,
"Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself." Gary! Stop saying perfect things!
How many adaptations did the BBC do of Screw? Because I feel like I watched eight of them. There was the one with Colin Firth as the children's guardian, the one with Michelle Dockery as the governess... There was a lot of whispering. So much whispering. One would think that the BBC would know what to do with James. One would think there is some sort of reliquary at the BBC headquarters with chipped off bits of James's bones and perhaps one of his fingers. And yet neither of the productions really understood what to do with the material.
It was that weird two minutes with Julian Sands in the 1992 version with Marianne Faithful that really got the children's guardian and his disinterest in their well being. Nothing else in that movie worked, but that two-minute scene was perhaps the best adaptation of the bunch, barring The Innocents. Because that figure is so cold, the whole "Do not bother me with this" written on the letter forwarded from the boy's school, the "my London lifestyle is just not suitable for children." Colin Firth plays that character like Colin Firth and he's not believable for a second. Colin Firth totally wants kids, he wants to gaze into your eyes and hold your hand while the two of you walk through the park, Colin Firth wants to read you poetry as you lie in the bathtub. Julian Sands doesn't want the children to interfere with his opium addiction. (I miss Julian Sands. Julian Sands, come back to us. He's always so dangerous on the screen, I can't look away.)
But when the BBC versions were playing, I kept getting up to do the dishes, to check the mail, to sort through books, especially in the most recent Colin Firth-less version. I felt no dread, and not only because I had just watched five other versions of this film and knew exactly what was going to happen. But I do find it interesting that the BBC produced two entirely different and wholly unsatisfying productions of Turn of the Screw ten years apart. We are set for another in five years if they keep up the schedule.
I don't know. I feel like I've hit a dead end here, numbed by too many bad Turns of the Screw. Too much whispering and shadowy figures. I watched something horrid with Leelee Sobieski and that's just part of my brain I'm not going to have access to ever again.
Any last thoughts before we move on?
You're absolutely right about too many bad Screws! It's dispiriting! In a way I did not see coming, which makes the lack of spirit embarrassing. But never fear. I have another thought or two.
I temp-teach workshops in non-fiction and non-non-fiction. They are less workshops than sermons. I could not care less about the quality of their craftsmanship if it's in the service of stories of inconvenience while flying or the mass rape of debutantes at a cotillion ball by an army of robots. Oh, wait, sorry: that last gets you a Guggenheim and a Lannan. (Oh, when I think of all the great writers laboring in sci-fi hell, churning out much better stories in the 60s and 70s for a penny a page...) The sermons all have as a central theme my belief that there is only one story that has ever been told, that ever will be told -- what it's like to observe that you are alive -- and that of the countless variations of that one story there are good stories and bad stories. The bad stories are about a single suffering martyr of a hero trapped in a world of other people who have no existence outside their hatred of the hero. They are narrow-minded. The good stories are open-minded and cultivate the idea that other people are just like us, and cannot believe that their lives have to come to "this," just as we cannot believe it.
Two nights ago, we considered a story about a student's unhappiness at the hands of a step-mother, who was carelessly washing the student's clothes and would not allow interference. There were other grievances. The father appeared to be an asshole and an idiot. The mother was a refuge, but had only limited custody. The class went berserk with enthusiasm for the nastiness of the step-mother, and equally berserk with sympathy for their fellow-student. It was an unprecedented show: the heretofore silent class could not be quieted.
It is not surprising that marriages can be destroyed and even lives lost over issues like improper laundering, but it was very surprising that no one had the slightest interest in the unspoken story. One student shyly asked how, if the mother was so good and the father/step-mother so bad, they got custody. The writer said, "My mother made some bad choices. She accused my father of sexually abusing my brother and me, but he was proved innocent."
Back they surged, possibly in a kind of fear, to the laundry, and the character of the e-mail exchange between the step-mother and the student: the colors chosen to highlight text, the spelling of "socks" as "sox," and so on.
The One True Story includes everything and everybody, implicitly and explicitly. There is sympathy and acknowledgement and, finally, an acceptance: everything and everybody. The Countless Bad Stories are antipathetic and acknowledge nothing that runs counter to the version the Self tells and re-tells. The One True Story evokes all of existence with sympathy; the Countless Bad Stories seek to control existence, that of teller-writer and listener/reader alike.
James's art was precisely controlled but always in the service of the sympathetic imagination. The narrating Self was always in the service of the narrated other. He gave space for the observers of trauma to deal and heal, even when--especially when--his characters were nasty, vicious, weak. His adaptors do just the opposite: they confine and restrict so as to inflict trauma. They do so because most of the people watching enjoy safe trauma. They clamor for it. They want to see that the Improper Laundress is truly and sensationally depraved. This allows the (sometimes genuinely) traumatized and day-dreaming 14-year-old that we incontrovertibly remain to keep the Story of the Self free from danger or even interference as it loops endlessly from synapse to synapse around our three pounds of electrified Jell-O.
November 17, 2014
I won't have to pay money for it, but nevertheless: I'm going to read that Jonathan Franzen book, and I'm probably going to like it or be disappointed because I thought I would like it. ("Not strict realism," eh, I don't know—as long as there aren't any ghosts, please.) Either way, I will feel compelled to write a long and guilty/defensive justification of why it is not dismissable outright, because I am young and insecure about my position as heir to the blog of a vocal Jonathan Franzen hater, so this is just a head's up that you can start preparing your intrusively concerned, older, wiser, you'll-grow-out-of-your-Jonathan-Franzen-phase-sweetie reader emails now! I think perhaps the attention lavished (not so much anymore, though, at least not within "the scene," as I heard to it referred at baby's first publishing party last night) on Jonathan Franzen and thus directed away from other writers is, you know, not problematic but a problem. But at the same time, I think a lot of writers suck and that Jonathan Franzen doesn't, even keeping in mind his get-off-my-lawn-like uncoolness, and this is one of the great questions that keeps me up as my two-night-stands snore lightly and pointlessly beside me, what is merit and why does it matter?
I will concede, though, that, regardless of the sentimental position The Corrections holds for me as the novel that made me feel like I wanted to write fiction, or rather like I wanted to and could, Purity sounds fairly ridiculous, title-wise.
November 14, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Image: "Crossroads" by Alex Roulette, which has nothing to do with anything except that I discovered him via It's Nice That and really like him.
-More in great titles: "Bonfire of the Inanities," Jacqui Shine's history of the New York Times Styles section
Bohemia, said Flaubert, was “the fatherland of my breed.” If so, his breed, at least in America, is becoming extinct. The most exciting periods of American intellectual life tend to coincide with the rise of bohemia, with the tragic yet liberating rhythm of the break from the small town into the literary roominess of the city, or from the provincial immigrant family into the centers of intellectual experiment. Given the nature of contemporary life, bohemia ﬂourishes in the city—but that has not always been so. Concord too was a kind of bohemia, sedate, subversive, and transcendental all at once. Today, however, the idea of bohemia, which was a strategy for bringing artists and writers together in their struggle with and for the world—this idea has become disreputable, being rather nastily associated with kinds of exhibitionism that have only an incidental relationship to bohemia. Nonetheless, it is the disintegration of bohemia that is a major cause for the way intellectuals feel, as distinct from and far more important than what they say or think. Those feelings of loneliness one ﬁnds among so many American intellectuals, feelings of damp dispirited isolation which undercut the ideology of liberal optimism, are partly due to the breakup of bohemia. Where young writers would once face the world together, they now sink into suburbs, country homes, and college towns. And the price they pay for this rise in social status is to be measured in more than an increase in rent.
-Speaking of intellectuals, Europe still has some! The LARB has a great interview with the Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman (who is also greatly titled):
Be they military or civilian, life experiences cannot but imprint themselves — the more heavily the more acute they are — on life’s trajectory, on the way we perceive the world, respond to it and pick the paths to walk through it. They combine into a matrix of which one’s life’s itinerary is one of the possible permutations. The point, though, is that they do their work silently, stealthily so to speak, and surreptitiously — by prodding rather than spurring, and through sets of options they circumscribe rather than through conscious, deliberate choices....
And so a word of warning is in order: retrospectively reconstructing causes and motives of choices carries a danger of imputing structure to a flow, and logic — even predetermination — to what was in fact a series of faits accomplis poorly if at all reflected upon at the time of their happening. Contrary to the popular phrase, “hindsight” and “benefit” do not always come in pairs — particularly in autobiographic undertakings.
I recall here these mundane and rather trivial truths to warn you that what I am going to say in reply to your question needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
November 13, 2014
I got a copy of Chéri in the street the other day, because it was Sunday and Sundays often involve purchasing items in the street, as well as thoughts of affairs. It (the copy of Chéri) has an author bio for which I am so grateful that I am tempted to "close-read" it for you here:
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, twentieth-century France's greatest woman writer, was born in 1873. At first a music-hall dancer and mime, she began writing only when her husband, a literary hack whom she soon divorced, locked her in a room and ordered her to produce novels for him to sign. Madame Colette went on to write some eighty books that are as much admired for their dazzling style as for their unerring psychology. She died in Paris in 1954. Her last years were spent in an apartment in the Palais Royal. There, on a garden wall, a plaque now reads, "Here lived, here died Colette, whose work is a window wide-open on life."
I won't close-read it, because that's obnoxious, but I will say that I think this is the kind of copywriting we need, we as a people.
November 11, 2014
In the November issue of Bookslut, Ravi Mangla wonders why literature hasn't given us the outsiders that visual arts have given us and suggests language as the main culprit – more exactly, the high prestige dialects specific to literature.
Among the outsider artists mentioned by Ravi Mangla is also Henry Darger. While it's true his written work hasn't enjoyed the same attention as his illustrations, perhaps the very fact that his writing hasn't been edited and published (yet) guarantees his status as an outsider writer. For more on Henry Darger, here are a few suggestions:
A quick and accessible entry point into Henry Darger's world is the PBS documentary In The Realms of the Unreal (Jessica Yu, 2005). The documentary manages to seamlessly highlight the way Darger's Catholic faith (as well as his struggles with it) is (are) echoed throughout his 15,000-page novel, In the Realms of the Unreal.
Jillian Steinhauer recounts a visit to the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) to see the Darger archives:
It turns out the novel [In the Realms of the Unreal] wasn’t the only thing Darger wrote. There’s also a second novel, called Crazy House; an autobiography that apparently contains only a small amount of autobiographical information before turning — on a simple phrase along the lines of, “Oh yeah, there’s one thing I forgot to mention … ” says Miller — into another fantastical story; and, my favorite, a series of weather journals, in which Darger wrote on one side the predicted weather forecast for a given day, and on the other, what the weather actually was.
Jillian Steinhauer, On Henry Darger's 15,000-Page Novel | Hyperallergic
(Kevin Miller, a former Darger fellow at AFAM: “anybody that wrote a 15,000-page novel probably needs a good editor." What to make of this remark? It certainly raises the same question Vivian Maier's photography has raised: who has the right to edit the work of an outsider author who is already gone, who hasn't left any instructions regarding their entire life’s work?)
The weather journals ("book of weather reports on temperatures, fair cloudy to clear skies, snow, rain, or summer storms, and winter snows and big blizzards—also the low temperatures of severe cold waves and hot spells of summer") Jillian Steinhauer mentions are analyzed in detail by Lytle Shaw, in conjunction with the weather descriptions from In the Realms of the Unreal.
For Darger, moral anchoring points pop up now and again amid hundred-page descriptions of hurricanes, land battles and sweeping conflagrations: "Beautiful is the sun, which because of its wonderful splendor and radiance, was adored as a divine being by so many pagan nations. But more beautiful is the form of the Vivian Girls." Realms is full of descriptions of characters breaking down when meeting, or even hearing about, the Vivian Girls. For most readers and viewers, though, it is this very gap between the simplistic moral rhetoric, a rhetoric of pathos and obligation, and the multivalent, pathological detail that makes Darger's work so fascinating, and so disturbing. In "illustrating" his claims (I'm thinking here of his drawings, but one might make a related argument about his text), Darger invents a world whose psychotically proliferating detail—wearing outright its fascination with inventing new ways for grown-men marauders dressed in Civil War outfits to dismember little girls' bodies—renders those very same claims intensely inadequate as an explanation of what one is presented with. This patient rendering of carnage is made all the more unsettling and bizarre by its placement within highly elaborated atmospheric and horticultural settings, which demonstrate Darger's pleasure in cloud formations, lightning patterns, overflowing garden plots, happy diagrammatic houses, and verdant storybook hillsides.
Lytle Shaw, The Moral Storm: Henry Darger's Book of Weather Reports | Cabinet Magazine
(Concerning language and editing, the note that accompanies this essay is rather significant: "All Darger quotes are verbatim, including grammatical and typographical idiosyncracies.")
For a more in-depth look at Henry Darger's life and work, there's Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge, recommended here at Bookslut by Coco Papy:
Elledge seeks to destroy the mythologies that have haunted Darger and his work, giving a radical new view that is equal parts empathetic and explanatory. As a society, we have a fetish for troubled artists, often romanticizing the all too real aspects of poverty, mental illness, and the costs of existing on the frays of society. It is equal parts naïveté and popular opinion, one that comes all too easily in death, an aggrandizing view that takes away the trauma of the actual lived life and co-opts what it means to be an artist.
Coco Papy, Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge | Bookslut
Michael Leddy writes about the influence of Darger’s work on John Ashbery, an essay that doubles as an attempt to find the connecting thread between Darger and other outsider artists who could be counted among Ashbery’s influences. Ultimately, the message we’re getting is that for an outsider’s work to matter it needs to be co-opted by insiders. By the mainstream culture.
The identification of insider with outsider becomes particularly poignant when we think further about Darger and Ashbery. Certainly there are artistic affinities between them — most notably their shared fascination with the primal reading-matter of comics and their collaging of found material. But I think that a deeper, more personal identification helps to account for Darger’s claim on Ashbery’s imagination. Girls on the Run signals such an identification early on:
Write it now, Tidbit said,
before they get back. And, quivering, I took the pen.
Drink the beautiful tea
before you slop sewage over the horizon, the Principal directed.
OK, it’s calm now, but it wasn’t two minutes ago. What do you want me to do,
I am no longer your serf,
and if I was I wouldn’t do your bidding. (1–2)
Michael Leddy, Lives and Art: John Ashbery and Henry Darger | Jacket Magazine
November 10, 2014
Everyone published their Berlin Wall content and their "amazing, rare photographs" today and this weekend (last night was the 25th anniversary of the Wall coming down), and it's unfortunate that it all falls (eh? eh?) under the umbrella of "content" because on one hand you see one set of photos of people with huge hair and jackets expressing obvious and genuine joy at their "freedom," you've seen them all. But on the other hand—and maybe this is the Lauren Who Just Left Berlin After Two Years There talking—it's a very singular and fucking amazing historical event that is very cheesily heartwarming even despite or because of its not-wholly-goodness. I would say "problematic" here, but you've read that essay!
I put "freedom" in quotation marks not to be snarky or make some kind of confusing political point that I'm not entitled or knowledgable enough to make, but because Jenny Erpenbeck's discussion of it in the Paris Review—their Berlin Wall content—rightly questions the conventional wholly goodness of the concept. And the essay has a great title!
What was I doing the night the Wall fell?
I spent the evening with friends just a few blocks from the spot where history was being made, and then: I went to bed. I slept right through it. And while I slept the pot wasn’t just stirred, it was knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning, I was told we wouldn’t need pots anymore.
There was a lot of talk of freedom, but I didn’t know what to do with this concept, which was suddenly drifting about in all sorts of different sentences. The freedom to travel. (But what if you couldn’t afford to?) Or the freedom of expression. (What if no one was interested in my opinion?) The freedom to shop. (But what comes after the shopping trip?) Freedom wasn’t just a gift, it was something you paid for, and the price of freedom turned out to have been my entire life up till then. Everyday life was no longer everyday life: it was an adventure that had been survived. Our customs were now a sideshow attraction. Everything that had been self-evident forfeited its self-evidence within the span of a few weeks. A door that opened only once every hundred years was now standing ajar, but the hundred years were gone forever. From this point on, my childhood became a museum exhibit.
November 9, 2014
Image: Albrecht Dürer, Christus als Schmerzensmann
On a personal note about the Daphne Awards…
The post-1945 era in literature is perhaps the spottiest in my literary history. The names that we associate most strongly with that era — Mailer, Roth, Updike, etc — are all of this macho pose, this high masculinity. They dominate our view of what the post-war novel is supposed to be, and everything else kind of hides in their shadow.
But long ago I decided I did not want to read literature where women were not women but just kind of walking around vaginas. And so that rules out all books by those macho guys.
(By the way, it’s okay to do this. People will freak out at you, oh my god how can you not have read Philip Roth he is like so important he is like a living god but you can just dismiss them, it is allowed.)
Reading through the nominees for the first ever Daphne Award, books published in 1963, was like an instant little history lesson. There were writers I already knew and loved, like Heinrich Böll and Hannah Arendt, and then there were writers I had never heard of, like Tarjei Vesaas.
It was a weird era. Coming out of World War II, so in some ways dominated by the voices of those who had fought in the war, and yet this younger generation who was merely raised during it scrambling to be heard. And coming in this still very stuck in the ’50s conservative era, the revolution of 1968 still to come. So things are shifting, things are seething. You have a lot of books about the war, trying to come to terms with it, and a lot of books about aftermath, and then some that are just like, oh my god can we talk about something else please?
Lots of bombast, and some big swinging dicks, but the novel that enchanted us all was Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, a book about surviving tragedy. And a nonfiction book, Primo Levi’s Reawakening, about surviving tragedy. And the poetry book, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, about surviving tragedy. (And then the children’s book, about a lion who is almost shot and killed until he gets a gun is about…) We were all on different panels, it was an accidental theme for what we were all looking for, I guess.
And The Ice Palace is exquisite. It’s about two young girls who bond deeply and then tragedy strikes. It is weirdly able to capture the thought processes of young girls, their rhythms and their inner monologues. At first everyone on the panel complained, I think this is a weird translation. It’s so start and stop, so brittle. But no, that’s just what happens to your brain when the world takes from you what you love, things go start and stop, you can only take in so much at a time.
Our list of winners is not macho. There are no walking around vaginas, there’s no display of bravado. It’s a list of compassion and humanity and witnessing.
I can’t wait to do this again.
November 7, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
In case you missed our Day of the Literary Dead celebration last night, this weekend's recommendations come in the form of the first Daphne Award winners, the best books of 50 years ago in
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
Thanks to all who turned up—see you next year.
November 6, 2014
The sooner you come to our Day of the Literary Dead/Daphne Awards celebration tonight at Melville House, the sooner I start writing about actual books again. Catch up on the nominees here, and remember that AbeBooks will be gifting someone at tonight's festivities copies of all the winners. Come! See you there! At 7:30!
November 5, 2014
What We're Reading
Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism: Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life by Marina Gržinić and Šefik Tatlić
Once the Berlin Wall fell, everything changed for the Eastern Europe now proudly called former Eastern Europe. But what happened next seemed more like an occupation than the unification that was advertised. Subtle at first and quite “shameless” later, the occupation took the form of massive privatization, aggressive immigration laws against the Other (freshly represented as second/third grade citizens and non-citizens), and the shinning brand of individualism in which the self is autonomous only as long as it’s an efficient and productive self that competes successfully against others. And this is precisely the starting point for Marina Gržinić’s book, a book that focuses on the structural racialization that had already been internalized in former Eastern Europe and its current policies of death—the let live and make die line of the war state that tries to erase those who are undesirable, those who do not conform and are not interested in doing so. It addresses the issue of Balkan nationalism and the revival of fascism both in disguise and in plain sight in former Eastern Europe, while also pointing to the ways art, culture, and its institutions have become just another system of production of goods for the global elite. Necropolitics, or using death to produce more and more profit: necropolitics as a version of contemporary racism; necropolitics as the perfect tool for dehumanization, for creating and enforcing the social differentiations and exclusion of the Other; necropolitics as an invisible lubricant for the current unrestrained advancement of globalization. Necropolitics in all its forms leads to the normalization of the current social reality and the erasure of the structural connections between that reality and neoliberal and global capitalism.
Today the EU as the fortress Europe is a regime that produces an accelerated legally sanctioned system of restrictions, discriminations and economic dispossessions; a space of intensified racialization that has at its core racism. Racialization refers to a process by which certain groups of people are singled out for unique treatment on the basis of real or imagined physical characteristics. Mostly it targets activities of those termed as (ethnic) minorities. It transforms societies into racialized societies. This process is today going so far that we have a process of racialization being imputed, without any “race” prerogatives but serving as a measure of class discrimination, subjugation and finally dispossession. We have today “different types of racisms’ that are “more vicious and more deadly” than ever. The EU is providing the grounds for not only a state of exception but for a racial-State, giving a free hand to detention, segregation and discrimination under the veil of the protection of nation-State citizens and even the protection of refugees from “themselves”, from their “drive” to try to illegally enter fortress Europe and therefore probably being in a situation to die.
November 4, 2014
Our Day of the Literary Dead party approaches. Not only does it offer you the opportunity to meet me in a weird outfit—grammar there intentionally vague—but it will also feature a talk called "So your favorite dead writer is a Nazi/rapist/murderer?" and an altar, which I'm sure I've spelled wrong at least once in trying to hype. PLEASE COME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And thanks to Volume 1 Brooklyn for mentioning us.
RSVP to the Facebook event here.
November 3, 2014
Gary Amdahl and I (Jessa Crispin) are going through all of the Henry James film adaptations to declare one the best of them all. So join us for corsets, emotional repression, and arch wit.
First up: we go through three adaptations of Washington Square:
The Heiress, the 1949 adaptation of the stage play adaptation of Washington Square, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson.
Washington Square, the 1997 adaptation starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin, and Albert Finney.
"Catherine," a BBC short adaptation from their Affairs of the Heart series
Catherine Sloper is a problem. Not only to her father, to whom she is so unbearably embarrassing, but also to the actresses asked to portray her. How does one do ugly and awkward? How does one inhabit the body of a woman who is loved by none, even her father, and is abandoned by all at the end of the film?
Well. If you’re Jennifer Jason Leigh (an actress I feel I should declare I have a great deal of love for), you portray her as mentally challenged. Leigh as Catherine frowns and squints and trips over things and falls down over and over again and leaves her mouth hanging open and does all but drool on herself. For a brief time she has a lisp, but then she drops it later on. She looks at all times as if she has just or is about to wet herself. Near the end, when he has left her, she runs chasing after his carriage in the rain, falls in the mud, and rolls around in her corset in the mud and horseshit wailing.
Which to me says, look, don’t worry, there’s a reason why Catherine will spend the rest of her days alone. I mean, look at her, she’s a mess, you wouldn’t fuck her either. Not even for her massive inheritance.
I should just say I take this shit personally. I identify with Catherine and all her abandonment issues, all of her ugly awkward weirdness to an insane degree, so I can’t be partial. And James may portray Catherine as the girl without any virtues that I love and treasure, but he doesn’t give her a goddamn lisp.
Which is the problem with Hollywood trying to do “ugly” at all. Just put a beautiful actress in bad lighting and no makeup and it’s fine. Of course Lynn Farleigh in Affairs of the Heart's adaptation is not great, either. She just mumbles and looks down at her shoes a lot, she is a beautiful woman pretending to be shy.
But then beautiful women have no conception of what ugly women’s experiences are like. What it’s like to go years without anyone even so much as flirting with you, of watching men fall over themselves for your prettier friend when you go out to bars together while you just silently down your drink, of even your parents preferring and doting on your prettier sisters. There are a lot of social graces ugly girls don’t ever learn, because we are not initiated into them. You learn how to interact smoothly by others by being invited into conversation, not by watching it from across the room. And so you hold your body weird and you’re never sure what to do with your face and your elbows get in the way of things and you’re not always great at modulating your voice or laugh or conversation.
Which is why I think Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine is remarkable, especially considering how beautiful and seductive she is in every other film she made. De Havilland’s Catherine has no idea what to do with her face, she moves her body a bit too fast and jerkily (without it ever drifting into the over the top stuff Leigh was doing), and all of her emotions are based on what is happening this very second, there is no potential future where things might improve, where another man might come along, where her feelings might lessen and become more bearable. It’s all just NOW NOW NOW, finally someone is paying attention to me, I need to lock that shit down. That openness of her face, trying to take in every moment of affection from her suitor, trying to convey her panic and desperation to her father, it is undignified in exactly the way it would be.
Obviously there is more to talk about then just, who is the best Catherine, but that is where I have to start.
I had not thought to bring myself into this, hoping that for once I could leave the tiresome asshole to wallow in self-pity to his heart’s content, but the door is wide-open and I do see the point, the value of letting him traipse in with his vaudeville gestures and profound comedy, because Catherine Sloper’s problem is his problem as well. Your problem is to Catherine’s problem as my problem is to yours. I will leave the elucidation of those ratios unwritten.
It is a common problem, and James picked it up precisely because he wanted a common problem. He says he heard it as an anecdote, implying he’d never heard such a thing before, but there must have been ten thousand such anecdotes floating around. A common problem and an old one. I don’t quite understand why, having picked it up and used it so admirably, he set it aside with apparent distaste, why felt the need of disavowal. Perhaps he found the problem as he worked it out to be much closer to his own problem than he had at first guessed it to be—and, being human, felt humiliated by the association.
I have never known if I was handsome or not. My social-sexual history could be characterized in very much the same way you characterized your own: you are the sophisticated, urban champion of an intriguing party in the court of world literature, while I am a gaping Jennifer Jason Leigh, a bumpkin autodidact privately assured that my references to Robert Klein routines will win me friends if only I can get a word in edgewise, somewhere, anywhere. Where I think you have really hit the target is in your description of de Havilland’s face, the demands made on it theatrically and cinematically, because that is exactly how I made up for the crippling ambivalence I felt when marketing myself socially-sexually, and which I still do feel, doubly so, triply, with my writing! As far as everybody around me—outside my brain—was concerned, I was the elf of the moment, acting with reckless improvisatory skill in response to whatever happened, with only a memory of weird but safe rehearsals in the past, and in the future only the imagination of applause as the curtain falls: your NOW, NOW, NOW!
This, as you say, the terrifying and humiliating present, is the problem of all the Catherines, not beauty or absence of beauty. In James’s story, it does not matter how beautiful or ugly she is. Dr. Sloper dislikes all women, probably because none of them are his dead wife. He says the reason is that they lack reason, that reason is beauty, making it impossible for any woman to be beautiful! But no one else in the story buys that—except maybe Catherine herself. Who wants to believe more what the father says than the daughter. But all the while she believes that, she is living another life, a Jamesian life beneath the surface, a life it is all but impossible to convey on stage and screen. And that is why all three of the adaptations (four if you count the original Broadway “Heiress” and its revivals) we are considering hold my attention only so long as they are moving swiftly from scene to scene…of the story on the surface.
There was stupefying pressure on Leigh and de Havilland and Farleigh to make non-entities of themselves when all they had to work with overwhelming entity! No wonder that the estimable Leigh was driven to drool and to idiocy, the even more estimable de Havilland to sweet blankness, and (in my opinion) the most estimable Farleigh to that spectrum that starts at demure and ends in bitterness. Their performances were perforce centered on the id, all possible cultural reference spiraling into the self because there was nowhere else to go.
Hollywood does not operate in a vacuum. They operate in a super-saturated medium that claims what is able to void as its product. Hollywood and Hollywood-like movies, 99% of all the movies that have ever been and will ever be in the world, can entertain adults only when they abandon interest in everything but the story they are telling. All the other elements of filmed stories will be present, but they will be in the service of the story.
There is your fidelity to James. There is your true Catherine: everything you and I and the actors and the directors bring to her is abandoned in our service to the story. Everything you and I bring to James our Literary Hero is abandoned in service to a story that is less and less “his” the more and more it becomes a good play or movie or TV show.
The idea is that anybody could play her, and they could play her under a 60 watt bulb in some damp basement with a Super 8 movie camera. The pared-down story does not become generic, it becomes essential. It is no longer Washington Square, the novel, but it satisfies. There was a moment in British television, in the 70s, when they had a mandate to tell stories, but no time and no money.
This has become too long. I look forward to your response, and remain
"Who wants to believe more what the father says than the daughter." All of my problems, summed up in one sentence. I feel like I owe you a big therapist bill for that.
No one wants to write about the sexually unwanted because there is not a huge audience that is going to be willing to project themselves into that, or even have empathy for that. We project our fears of abandonment and rejection, our fears that perhaps we are deep down disgusting and repulsive, onto the unwanted. We can laugh at them, we can delight when they are punished, because we want to annihilate that part of ourselves. Look at all of the reality programs about sad, lonely women desperately competing for husbands, and the way we laugh and laugh and laugh at them. So it is not surprising to me that James distanced himself from the book. He had enough empathy to write it, enough connection (the poor dear), and then wanted Catherine out of his sight. But then I am projecting, too, now.
And what of Morris Townsend, her penniless suitor? Conman slash romantic hero. Can anyone really compete with Montgomery Clift’s magnificent brow?
Although to me all three actors’ performances rather blend into one another, none delve into pathetic slapstick. But then maybe men have more practice at feigning interest to get what they want. All three men rather look alike, too, just dreamboat dreaminess, all that has been dreamed of and longed for manifested. One wants to shout at Catherine to gird her loins, but at the same time, that fall is so lovely. Even if it ends badly, one would not want to deny her, it might never happen again. But I like that all three men come with their own fog special effects, the audience is never clear what is their percentage of scoundrel and what is their percentage of genuine. Would he murder her on their wedding night, seizing all her assets and heading off to the Continent? Or would he be satisfied to do his spousal diligence at pretending the loving husband. Knock her up, talk down to her patronizingly from behind a newspaper. She has a thornbush for a father, it’s not like she’s going to expect much in the way of affection.
But we have not yet solved the problem of which Washington Square is the winner, and part of that I think has to do with where each Catherine ends up. In “Washington Square,” Leigh is still kind of drooly but at least knows what to do with her hair now. In “Catherine,” yes, that tone of bitterness. And in “The Heiress,” that magnificence. Like the nun who closes herself off inside of her veil. Do I prefer “The Heiress” because I want to believe I have attained some sort of magnificence in my loneliness? Like I said, I have no distance. And I am probably more drooly than I would like to admit.
I do not mind when a movie takes a hatchet to the novel it springs from, a movie cannot move like a novel does. And perhaps that is why the unfaithful “Heiress” does more for me than the other, more loyal, two. By making the end of the engagement a more definite, shocking moment than a kind of disappearance and the slow leak of hope until all that is left is its deflated rubbery shell, only really works in prose. And Montgomery Clift banging on the door as she carries her light away from him and back into the recesses of the house, it stops my heart, every time.
It is up to you to illuminate the father. I can see no real father, just the Patriarch. Saturn devouring his child. For me it gets mythological too fast.
Montgomery Clift is far and away the best Morris Townsend. He made me realize how hapless Morris is, how stupid, and how much I see in him of myself. This is the problem in the ratio I declined to elucidate: I am Morris. The other Morrises are merely functional cads. Clift is handsome with just a hint of rogue and dash that he is oblivious of, owner and proprietor of a single trick: sincere charm. It is “charming” by luck, as are the good-looks, and “sincere” by nature: so natural that the dumb cluck really doesn’t see it as a trick. (If he were better-read, he’d be able to sit back and spot all the gambits.) This is why I think Catherine never really fell for him: we can accept that she is plain, but not that she is stupid. the beautiful Morris is nothing but a talking bouquet of flowers that delights her while it is still fresh, but which she sees wither before her very eyes—precisely because she is intelligent: she understands the nature of things.
Dr. Sloper is something else altogether: he is formidable. Albert Finney is not formidable. He was best as Geoffrey Firmin, Malcolm Lowry’s “consul.” In “WS” he is merely a partner in a physical comedy team: Hardy to Catherine’s Laurel. I just rewatched Affairs of the Heart’s “Catherine,” and I’ve already forgotten who played Sloper. Ralph Richardson was one of the very best actors of the 20th century. (If we judged by the work of the actors alone, “The Heiress” would win easily. Clift, Richardson, de Havilland? It wouldn’t even be a contest.) RR does something in the first scenes that is crucial: he appears to like Catherine well enough to be friendly towards her! I warmed to him instantly, in just the way Catherine herself does.
I do not see him devouring his child. I do not see him as mythic. This may be a stretch that snaps in two, but I see him as the brilliant and erratic William James, who, cast by his little brother in a role he had no idea he was playing, is struck a nearly fatal blow by the death of a young and beautiful wife, and becomes, as a direct consequence, austere and arrogant about everything else—not just Catherine, who, like all emotionally abused children, is simply the only other person in the room. Just to be clear: I am not saying WJ was anything like this. I’m suggesting HJ took certain qualities in WJ and made them monstrous. Sloper is brilliant and might very well have been as erratic as WJ had his wife lived and allowed him that special audience erratic people find in loved ones. Denied that audience, he trades the erratic brilliance in for a steady scalpel. Sloper is paradoxically as popular a man as he is forbidding, as brilliant as he is austere.
He does not devour his child because she is long dead. Everybody is long dead. His wife was everybody and she is gone, gone, gone. He can only be Dr. Austin Sloper, the brilliant and wealthy man of medicine so long as he marks himself off from everything else—from everything else in the scene or on the stage. That is perhaps Richardson’s particular gift: to draw his audience near and yet hold them off: a winning smile and then the eyes go dead.
"The Heiress" is an excellent film, no question. The only reason I cling to "Affairs of the Heart" is that it is like community theater, for which I have a very large soft spot, with truly great work-a-day actors in the major roles. If Grotowski had been a TV producer, his "poor theater" would have found expression in the BBC’s "Play of the Week."
Well, isn’t that what Catherine is doing, too? Putting all one’s hope into one person, until they become not a human but life itself? The sins of the father and all that. The potential of the person looms so large that you can no longer see their human qualities. If only Catherine could see Morris, before the break that shocked her back into herself, I mean. And she, in the end, has more potential than her father, because the spell for her breaks. Even if love for her is a broken thing, she gets clear eyes with which she can plan the rest of her long life.
We have to move on at some point, but I will only say this final thing about the film versions of “Washington Square”: did you notice there’s a moment when each Catherine finds her beauty? In “Washington Square,” Leigh blooms under the attention of Ben Chaplin, she starts doing her hair normally, her dress becomes simpler and more flattering, etc. But with “The Heiress,” it is only after the betrayal that she becomes comfortable in her body. To me, that says a lot about each film. “Washington Square” still thinks love solves things. (Deluded.) “The Heiress” knows it’s only when you regain your sanity that true growth can take place.
From here we go to even more sexual repression, in our “Turn of the Screw” adaptations. It gets dark here in New England so early. I hope I don’t start seeing specters in my big empty apartment.
"I had nothing to gain,"
Yes, it is time to move on, but I plumb fergot to say how much I disliked everything about Holland’s “Washington Square.” It was as bad as “The Heiress” is good. I will save this rant, however, for other stories and other movies, equally awful. Let’s Screw.
October 30, 2014
Image: Woman Writing in the Court of Shah Abbas
Taylor's most known book remains Angel, which was adapted by François Ozon in 2007. I still remember the one note I've made after having seen Angel (it went something along the lines: “Angel might be about a woman who writes romance novels but does it really have to be as cheesy and predictable as those novels?”) and in retrospect, I guess the biggest flaw of the movie is that it hasn't made me curious enough to find out more about the book it's based upon or about the book's author. So maybe we do need those recurring articles deploring the fact that her work is underrated.
François Ozon on adapting Angel (spoiler alert: his main concern was making Angel likeable):
My main challenge was to make Angel likeable. In Elizabeth Taylor's book, the character is often grotesque. The author takes a rather sardonic view of Angel, her books and her behavior. Taylor acknowledges her ability to write and her drive to become famous, but ridicules her constantly, describing her as bizarre and unattractive. I didn't think we'd want to spend two hours with such an utterly negative character on screen, whereas in the book the cruelty works. I felt it was important that Angel be charming and endearing despite her more obnoxious, even nasty, characteristics. Scarlett O'Hara immediately came to mind. She is truly a character you love and hate at the same time. I wanted Angel to be aware of her powers of seduction and use them, particularly with her publisher and Nora. My Angel is more manipulative than Elizabeth Taylor's. But in a playful, amusing way, not perverse. In the beginning, everyone criticizes her: her teacher, her mother, her aunt, the publisher's wife. We can deduce that Angel and her work are misunderstood. This inspires sympathy for her and piques our curiosity, especially when she's writing. I wanted to draw the audience in before revealing, later in the film, that what's she writing might not actually be great literature.
As Will Mawhood writes, Taylor has a rather uninteresting biography. However, that did not stop Nicola Beauman from digging deeper in hopes of finding something more sensational for her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.
Nicola Beauman must, then, have come to Taylor's life hoping against hope there was more to it than met the eye, for all that she is a diehard fan of the novels. After all, Taylor had instructed that her letters be destroyed after her death; perhaps she had something to hide. As it turns out, she was right to hope. In her later years, her subject was certainly the very model of middle-class conformity, a rope of pearls always at her neck.
But her early life was strange and muddled to a degree that, reading about it, one's hunch about propriety hardens into belief: routine didn't only help her work, it helped her. There was something rebellious and disordered in Taylor, something that, though Beauman never states this explicitly, it is possible she rather feared.
Rachel Cooke, The original Elizabeth Taylor | The Guardian
Yet another reason for which we need to be reminded Taylor's work has been underrated is her dismissal as a women's writer. The origins of the concept of écriture feminine sound like the stuff of myths -- now it's used merely to deny the value of a writer. Ecriture feminine is now delicate, flowery writing, not gender neutral, and definitely not universal. Unlike masculine writing, which is always universal. "She writes like a man" is still considered by some critics as the highest compliment they can bestow on a female writer. These are usually the same critics who claim they don't see gender, that they only care about good writing. But those of us who insist upon the inclusion of more female writers in literary publications, lists, etc. also care about good writing. That's the whole point. We discover a good female writer and at the same time discover her work is underrated or entirely overlooked. So we start compiling lists devoted exclusively to female writers - which is great for discovering writers we haven't heard of. What's not so great is that these lists still keep female writers in the margins. "Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits?" Not if in 2015 one goes back to worshiping His Masculine Holiness Philip Roth and the like.
It all goes back to critics writing for mainstream publications. It’s up to them to take a close look at their reading habits and make the necessary adjustments. Inclusion, though, is only the first step. There are definitely some (male) critics who need to learn how not to write about female writers. Mallory Ortberg at The Toast offers some advice for such critics.
To file under “how not to write about female writers” as well: a Washington Post review of Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. (In the August issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee talks about the book in “These Artful Jezebels”: On American Spies.) The review is deconstructed at Jezebel and what stands out is how easy it is to discredit a woman’s work. Just question her credibility. The lack of credibility / expertise must be one the most common and toxic accusations thrown at women who write nonfiction. And as Karen Abbott points out in her Letter to the Editor (as republished by Jezebel), the same standards don’t seem to apply to male writers.
Finally, we can’t talk about écriture feminine and its reception in recent years without at least mentioning Kate Zambreno’s Heroines.
“Much has been said lately about how women are reviewed less in the big literary sections,” Zambreno writes in Heroines, “but not about HOW they are reviewed.” I’m not sure that the “how” has not been addressed, but nevertheless, point taken. Because this hybrid work of nonfiction—call it a critical memoir, if you like—is about the way we talk about women who write, it seems as important, in a critical examination of the book, to look at its reception as it is to look at the text itself. And because some of the reviews have served essentially to trivialize and dismiss a book whose subject is in fact the historical, systematized trivialization and dismissal of work by women writers, it seems all the more urgent to question those responses.
Elisa Gabbert, The Madwoman and The Critic | Open Letters Monthly
October 29, 2014
Poems to Quote to Express Vindictive Ambiguity, Explicit Cruelty, and/or Some Sense of Bitterness, Resentment, and/or Ill Will Towards or In the General Direction of a (Former) Lover. Excluding Those by Sylvia Plath but not Anne Sexton
1. "I am trying to break your heart" by Kevin Young
2. "I think I should have loved you presently" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
3. "A Song: Strephon, Your Breach of Faith and Trust" by Laetitia Pilkington
4. "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" by Anne Sexton
5. "In Paris With You" by James Fenton
6. "The Reservoir" by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
7. "For My Lover, Returning to his Wife" by Anne Sexton
8. "The Old Playhouse" by Kamala Das
October 28, 2014
An Anecdote About Reading, Courtship Display
Image: Marx, from here.
Over the weekend, I went to a pie party, which was unfortunately not sexual at all but rather a party at which less figurative pies, sweet and savory (still literal), were baked and offered graciously to a small group of expat masters ('?) students studying English literature in Berlin and friends of expat masters ('?) students studying English literature in Berlin. If not a particularly relevant location to the works of Beckett, at least a city known for the wide range of themed potlucks lighting the windows in its affordable, high-ceilinged housing. People started talking about Marx—well, it was Heidegger conjunct Marx—because they always start talking about Marx, or Heidegger, but Party Heidegger is not a surefire assertion of the intellectual superiority of all involved in a conversation about him; Party Marx requires less large-scale stance taking, so any interpretation of his work can more easily serve as a signifier of One Who Lends A Nuanced Appreciation To The Great Theories of History, at least for people like the ones at this party, who have only sort of known what they were talking about for 2-3 years, if that. Heidegger is more fun because the stakes are higher, shouting and declaiming more likely, while with Marx it's all detail-oriented nitpickery, once you get past the "Do you think, basically, the right things?" (Or: "Are you an idiot?") In other words, to say the pie party wasn't sexual at all is incorrect, because at one point there was a circle jerk.
Until someone tried to take a large-scale stance, that is. Don't worry: I'm not going to comment specifically on the Marxism they were discussing, because as this anecdote will show, such an endeavor is folly, by which I mean to be sarcastically dismissive of a certain kind of educated twentysomething dick-measuring contest but not sarcastically dismissive of everything the educated twentysomething dick-measurers were saying/espousing. (Besides I wasn't paying attention until people stopped being polite and started getting real.) Rather: I'm just going to describe an uncomfortable portion of the evening, because it's somewhat related to both 1) the French minister of culture saying she hasn't read a book in two years and 2) the current debate over YA literature, on which my short takes are: 1) Make time, and 2) Omg, really? Still? With the time you people spend talking about those books you could be reading fucking Proust, or skimming Proust, or reading or skimming the fucking Wikipedia entry for In Search of Lost Time or À la recherche du temps perdu, depending on who you're talking to and how pretentious/smart you want to sound when talking to that relative person, and developing a counterargument beyond or at least a nuanced version of "Well I've read 'grown-up' stuff, too!" If I read one more fucking puerile headline—though admittedly probably written by a lame likely-former-classmate-of-mine intern—employ the word "grown-up", I don't know—the point is not the independent clause there. (In other words, "2) Make time.")
ANYWAY, the scene: dim lighting, some kind of music, casual references to German philosophers flurrying above unfinished slices of apple ginger tart, wine that is not great. Into a conversation about Marx/ism between one young literary dude and another young literary dude bursts a third young literary dude with a bold declaration, possibly at least partially to assert sexual viability: Marx/ism is a failure, an egregious, murderous, demonstrated failure, and we should not be wasting our time discussing him/it because what is important is forging ahead with the new. Third young literary dude does not have a startup (yet), but his assertion gave first and second young literary dudes a concerned pause similar to that which follows the sentence "I'm an entrepreneur." First and second young literary dudes make skeptical eye contact, perhaps one or both of them a small noise of displeasure; perhaps one or both of them glances in the direction of the female witness in order to assert sexual viability, establish some team-like feelings that may earn him a more private literal dick-figurative measuring session. "Can you believe that guy?" etc. Nevertheless, third young literary dude is extended some frowning peace offerings: "Oh, we're just talking about the [whatever—something specific in whatever text]. Have you read it?"
"No," says third young literary dude, a look of fear flashing through his eyes before squaring his shoulders and deepening his voice. "I don't see the point."
The takeaway: everyone is stupid, including me, for I didn't have the good sense to leave before people stopped being interesting and started playing video games, though I will say I slept with none of them.
October 27, 2014
Not only am I going to say, "Don't forget that the Daphne Awards party is next week at Melville House!" but I am also going to give you some new and exciting news: AbeBooks is sponsoring a giveaway of the winning books on on the night of.
In the meantime, RSVP to the Facebook event or just mentally prepare or something.
October 24, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
My beautiful friend in Philadelphia sent me an email with a beautiful line in it. Re: "Ben Lerner isn't terrible":
"Most everything today is anxious, and so little beauty finds its way into anxiety."
-The NYT Magazine piece about trans men at Wellesley and other women's colleges is a something I enjoyed reading because it was very uncertain and in-depth and has a cracking good ending, of which creative nonfiction teachers could take note. It's a spotlight on the difficulties of determining what should be included in an inherently exclusive system (that is also appreciated because it is in some ways inclusive), and the focus on Wellesley and women's colleges magnifies the potential conflict of interests between feminism and trans activism in a way that doesn't immediately make you think, "Fuck, are these feminists fucking serious?" the way that New Yorker piece about "the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism" did. (Is "transgenderism" a word? Sounds offensive, or at least stupid.) It's strange to read pieces like these in mainstream publications if you're used to reading about them on relatively obscure feminist websites/forums/etc., where the tone is (necessarily?) one of furious, indignant confidence.
-You know how models from Eastern Europe are seduced and shuttled to America with promises of fame and glamorously earned fortune? Now they're being seduced and shuttled to China, too. I haven't watched the documentary, but maybe it's something to (hate?-)watch. (The article itself is whatever; I'm just into the possibly nuanced take it's possibly exposing to its audience.)
"I didn’t get the sense they were being exploited, except in the fact that the implied promise is so great and it clearly isn’t being delivered. When you’re told you’re going to go abroard [sic] and be a model, what springs to mind is not being jammed in a big bus and being driven around to have mysterious people make remarks about your body in a language you don’t understand. That doesn’t seem to be what it says on the tin."
-I think the conclusions the writer comes to are a bit point-missing, but this essay about Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace and the will to keep going is an affirmation of my love for both of them.
-An essay about the "cult of personality" and the misconceptions it creates in development work, emphasis on Cambodia and sex slavery. The writer, Laura Agustín, has a great blog ("The Naked Anthropologist") about "migration, sex work, trafficking, and the rescue industry." Spoiler alert: she does not like Nick Kristof.
October 23, 2014
October 22, 2014
The new issue of Spolia is the long-planned and -awaited Henry James tribute. Have you guys heard of Henry James? To be introduced through this would be to introduced in reverse, and I think it would work. It costs $5; it comes in a PDF and other kind of e-form that I don't understand how to use. Regardless: it's fucking impressive. Buy it here.
-Eimear McBride (yeah) with short fiction after "The Private Life"; it's so good, says the girl who loves Ben Lerner:
Hot in his hand so. Hello. Nice to meet have a seat. Am I late? Not, no. Plump in his proffered -sinus chubby with cigs- low flat seat ahead.
Do you mind if I? No, not a bit. Click and turn. Dictaphone. Can I say at the outset that I think what you’ve done is not like anything else. Thanks. But grilled flesh, she thinks she can smell it and it soon might be her own.
To forestall, vivid up she into seen and smiles at his eggish pingueculae flirting away to the roots of her eyes. She lights to it. Must. Gives as if in his cavern of questions she’ll sprawl in the nip dishing toes through private pools. And does intend she? Does she? Well. Sales will wait and see.
-Poems by Jenny McPhee
-Some male writers
-Jessa Crispin on Washington Square, "the only book that James chose not to include in his collected work":
There is a certain type of spinster life that is represented in novels and movies, the glamorous life of the unattached. There is Paris, there is society, there is the freedom to decide what to do with one’s own wallet. There is a steadfast wisdom, born from watching others fling themselves to and fro in the name of love, seeing the madness from the outside. But there is also the sad, bitter, turned-inwards old women, the women who never overcame their disappointments or resentments and now their faces are pinched into a permanent scowl.
But James abandons Catherine on the brink of her becoming. She’s gone from this un- to a creature with the potential for something. We see the things she has said no to, we have not yet seen the things she will say yes to. We do not know the type of life she will choose to have.
But we also do not know if a life alone would be better than a life with the scoundrel.
October 21, 2014
What We're Reading
by Will Mawhood
Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough
I picked up Let Our Fame Be Great in a rather wonderful bookshop in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the hope of getting a sharp perspective on the wonderful, weird place I had found myself in. I was initially disappointed to find that the "Caucasus" in the subtitle referred not to the independent states of the South Caucasus, but the land on the other side of the mountains: Russia’s troubled, and predominantly Muslim, North Caucasus region (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia…). This was not somewhere I had even considered going, or knew anything about, apart from being vaguely aware that horrific things happened there on a near-daily basis.
As I found out, this is possibly one of the world’s most staggeringly complex places: a predominantly mountainous and inaccessible region, so remote as to be fortress-like, where almost every valley seems to have its own language and culture. Bullough is an excellent guide, able to unpick the differences between the many, many groups residing in these mountains, and always ready to detail, with an enthralled eye, their customs and peculiarities. (We learn, for example, that the Circassians are very big on firing into the air at weddings, despite the occasional fatality resulting from bullets falling back to earth.)
The North Caucasus’s recent history has, though, mainly been defined by its relationship with its sprawling neighbor to the north. Russia has traditionally viewed its inhabitants in a way that will be very familiar from Western colonialism: seeing them at best as charmingly free-spirited and uninhibited, at worst as savages deserving only of brutality.
Bullough’s greatest achievement is to tell stories that have hitherto been muffled, both as a result of the region’s inaccessibility, and due to the deliberate silencing policy of the Soviet regime—and, increasingly, of Putin’s bullish modern Russia. So we learn about the Circassians, the original inhabitants of the eastern coast of the Black Sea, almost completely wiped out by the Russian army in the mid-19th century, their descendants scattered far and wide; the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus mountains, deported en masse to Kazakhstan by Stalin in the 1940s on trumped-up charges of banditry; and the endless, horrible cycle of violence that is Chechnya. Bullough is clearly passionate about the subject, and is at times unashamedly partisan—at one point comparing Russia’s decision to send troops into Chechnya to contemporary Germany doing the same thing to western Poland—but he clearly knows Russian culture and literature inside-out and appreciates the best of what it has taken from and brought to the region. A fine book (so far), and a profoundly alive one considering how desperate much of the contents are.
October 20, 2014
October 17, 2014
Image: "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist" by Lucas Cranach the Elder. No reason.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-Maybe it's because I'm in the melodramatic throes of radical relocation (Jessa says it's because of Pluto; the perks of working for Bookslut are hypothetical astrological sources for anything that might be happening in your life), but the Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakeable Love for New York run-up campaign seems to be speaking to me, even though the essays have seemed to come down on the side of "New York—terrible, but I just do!" Jon-Jon Goulian's essay about Transient Wade from Columbia is a good personal essay; don't write personal essays unless they're good, OK?
-I read some pieces from the Lena Dunham book because some paperbacks showed up at the bookstore, to be prominently displayed for immediate purchase. Sounds like a memoir written by someone whose parents kept the house stocked with New Yorkers while driving home the importance of individuality. I don't understand how she integrates so many incredibly specific (and often funny and insightful, don't get me wrong) anecdotes and still manages to remain voiceless, but here we are, earning back that advance. Why is everything just, like, so acceptable? For the record, I do not think "people are buying it, so..." is an appropriate conclusion to come to in realms outside, say, shades of lipstick. Blue lipstick never hurt anyone. Except when it contains carcinogens or was tested on animals.
-Here's a little thing about the weird death mask of Chopin's hand. Spoiler alert: there's also one of his face, but it was very disappointing.
-An analysis of the public apology at Aeon, through a legal lens but definitely applicable to, say, male literary figures espousing oblivious misogyny. By which I mean a legitimate question: what do we want them to do after they do something stupid? E.g., Grisham, who just seems pathetic.
-Oh, I'm supposed to give you something long and multifaceted to savor in your sun-drenched weekend breakfast nook. I think this weekend you should reread something you didn't really "get" because it has difficult language.
-Tom Whalen's "Why I Hate the Prose Poem," from Twitter.
October 16, 2014
I was not really in love; I simply enjoyed the company of women during my lonely travels in the South. Although Flannery was both conventional and religious, we eventually became so close that she, while the car was parked, allowed me to kiss her. At that moment, her disease revealed itself in a new way: there was no strength in her lips. I hit her teeth with my kiss, and since then I've thought of it as a kiss of death.
October 15, 2014
Image by Chang Chao-Tang
In the October issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst writes about Last Words from Montmartre by the (queer) Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin. Reading this conjured up a mental image – a memory actually – of Shiang-chyi in What Time Is It There? / Ni na bian ji dian, wandering through the streets of Paris, ending up in the bed of a woman but failing to connect. It might be just a statement about the lasting impression that Tsai Ming-liang cinema can leave or it could be an alarming sign that I have paid no attention to Taiwanese literature. As a first step toward giving Taiwanese writers the due attention, let’s take a closer look at the work of Qiu Miaojin.
Over at Guernica, there’s an excerpt from Last Words from Montmartre. It is the twentieth letter, from June 17 and it recounts the day the narrator and her lover Xu bought their pet Bunny: “Xu sat down in an open seat next to me and played with the rabbit in his little paper box….Watching the two of them, I resolved that they were my companions for life and that I would fight for them on the treacherous journey of life, until death.” Those “[h]ints of the meta” that Lightsey Darst mentions are also visible in this excerpt: “Oh…if one were to call this book an unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right. I am confused about whether it’s a matter of our love trying to capture me, or to capture her, or of us trying to capture our love.”
The sense of love that the narrator from Last Words exhibits seems to be shared, to a certain extent, by Meng-Sheng in Notes of a Crocodile, who is involved in a gay relationship that would best be described as cruel. The intensity, the obsession, the temptation to self-destruct from Last Words – it’s all there, in Notes of a Crocodile as well.
“The second you see each other, you start to fight. Would you call that love or vengeance?”
“Didn’t Hsia Yü have a poem called ‘Sweet Revenge’? I only mention it because I thought you might have heard of it. It’s like the title of the poem. Because mutual love means vengeance, and because it’s vengeance, you’re going to fight, and because you’re fighting, it’s mutual love. It’s a combination of those three things. It’s like if the intensity of lust reaches a certain level of frustration, and the fixation of that lust isn’t cast off by release or eradication, the void of nothingness isn’t removed, and it never attains the lightness of air. Much the opposite, it only increases suicidal despair and attachment to the object of lust. At that point, the body thoroughly assimilates it through the death wish. In the very beginning, I was self-destructive. My lust was simply assimilated, and never found its way out. That’s the scariest thing. There was one day when it suddenly flared up, and I grabbed a pair of scissors and began stabbing myself. That was something that happened before Meng-Sheng and I broke up. Before that, I learned to lower the scissors and give part of my destructiveness to Meng-Sheng. There was no cure. I still longed to be with him. The love I had stored burned away, and all that remained was a fire that he could put out. It brought about all kinds of connections.”
Qiu Miaojin, Excerpt: Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile (translated by Bonnie Huie) | Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Eileen Myles on Last Words from Montmartre:
I’d put Last Words in a category that includes much of Kathy Acker and Henry Miller. Stein, too. Their goals were very different, but what they made was art with a demonstration in mind more than narrative pleasure. These writers confound some readers (and all readers sometimes) because theirs are not really modern texts at all, but ritual ones. And as Musil proposed, in his own struggle to understand the relationship between modern art and magic, ritual songs and poems arise differently:“The form of the ritual text is the same as the ritual act.” In Last Words, from page 1 till the end of Qiu’s book (and life), it’s all being. Even being being ended. Having felt “the juices” of an eternal love for a brief time, Qiu chose to only engage that eternal love (not the lover). She’s existing in a heightened once. Is this even a book, I wondered at one point. Not because it was unreadable but because its flowery will is so very hard to bear. It’s a deeply personal text. Yet it bears reading and rereading an abundance of times. That’s the effect of ritual art. Of cult. Always again. Like spring. Having failed in the attempt to have an eternal love, she now only addresses the eternal, thus revealing herself. It’s a little divine. These are not letters she mails to “Xu,” because, as she explains, that would only incur further wounding. She sends them to us.
Eileen Myles, Missive Impossible | Bookforum
In Stigmatic Bodies: The Corporeal Qiu Miaojin, Fran Martin focuses on Qiu’s early writing (the two short stories “Platonic Hair” and “Zero Degree”) and offers a wider context – how Qiu’s writing was reflective of the shifts in views on gender and sexuality in the late '80s / early '90s Taiwan.
October 14, 2014
Random Unrelated (Though Is Anything? Etc.) Recommendations
-Choire Sicha's Bookforum review of the Rich Kids of Instagram book, which I am NOT linking for purchase or even italicizing. Thanks to the Rich Kids for putting it on the Internet even though that is not the nature of paywalled content. What is paywall to Rich Kids.
-Not that Guardian piece in which Will Self walks along the Berlin Wall. He's pompous and wields his vocabulary ineffectively, which is NOT to say all vocabulary is bad, Jesus. Also, why was he even there? A very tenuous linking of public figure and timely historical event. Can we get Choire instead?
-Cool-named Rainbow Chan's cool mix for The Lifted Brow, which is a great magazine you should read and I don't just say that because they published me once. Australia! They also have good coffee.
October 13, 2014
At the bookstore yesterday, my friend was working on a paper. I asked her what it was about.
"Globalization," she said. She is Swedish.
"What about it?" I asked.
...So now she stood, with Ahmed beside her, and listened to how if she went to bed early having taken this medicine, she would be less nervous in the morning.
Kate thought that this would not be true: what was waiting for her, the moment she gave it a chance, was not going to be patted and pushed out of sight by sedatives. She was going to have to return to London, to be alone somewhere for two months, and to look, in solitude, at her life. Of course, she had been invited to various countries by various men and women whose good friend she had become—friendship in the style of this way of living, casual, non-demanding, tolerant, friendship that was in fact all negation. It did not criticize. It did not make demands. It took no notice of national or racial differences, which, inside these enchanted circles, seemed only for the purpose of agreeable titillation. And it was, sexually, democratic. Hearts did not get broken. Of course not, careers were more important than love, or sex: probably this was the sexuality of the future; romantic love, yearning, desperation of any kind would be banished into a neurotic past. Such friends, such past or future lovers, could part in Buenos Aires after intensive daily contact, not exchange another word for months or years, or even think of each other; and meet again in Reykjavik with discreet and carefully measured pleasure for another bout of adjusted intimacy. Rather like actors and actresses in a play, who suffer or enjoy such intense closeness for a short time, and then scatter, to meet again, wearing different costumes, ten years later.
-From The Summer Before the Dark, Our Lady of Excellent Passages, Doris Lessing
October 10, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Someone came in to the bookstore where I work today and asked if we had "Capital by Thomas Piketty." Remember when everyone was frantic about that? The good old days. We didn't have it.
-How many Prousts of our time are there? Modiano sounds a bit more whimsical, though still very French.
The Nobel academy was unable to reach Mr. Modiano before the announcement. During a halting, nearly hourlong news conference at Gallimard’s headquarters, Mr. Modiano said he learned he had won when his daughter called him as he was walking in the street. “I was a bit surprised, so I continued walking,” he said. He said winning the prize felt “unreal” and that he vividly remembered when Camus won the Nobel for literature in 1957. (Sartre won in 1964.) He also expressed puzzlement over being chosen. “I would like to know how they explained their choice,” he said.
-Bijan Stephen has "A Brief History of the Personal" [Ad] at Hazlitt.
It’s the self, commodified in yet another way: a personal is a meticulously crafted self-portrait that, like any good painting, reveals the future as much as it does the present—we’re seeing ourselves as we are while we reveal who we want to become, what we want to be seen as.
-I hate the trend against "feminist scrutiny" (ahem, cough), and bell hooks agrees with me. Kat Stoeffel is being vaguely snippily doubtful here: "Unoriginality, it seems, is still a greater artistic crime than deference to the patriarchy." But I think making shitty art is much easier to avoid—and thus more annoying—than deferring to the patriarchy, though at this point I think we can hold public figures to standards in both. One could argue that women making original (/good) art is fighting the patriarchy in itself, and if there are no standards—how can anything good happen?
-Here's a paragraph from an essay I'm working on:
I’ve already mentioned Gay’s inconsistencies regarding being an "example." She does not want "to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal" because "[p]eople who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose" and "get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up." This is another thing I want to agree with, but I don’t know if it’s avoidable; in espousing a kind of Fuck you! I do what I want! feminism, Bad Feminist has placed Gay on the very "Feminist Pedestal" she rejects. Her philosophy is a seductively permissive one—which is why, I imagine, so many people love the book.
-I also have an essay about the alt lit rape scandal up at Dazed Digital; if the title "Ten essential thoughts on rape in Alt Lit" sounds insensitive to you, it's a riff on the fact that I used to do a top-ten column for them. I don't know why people capitalize "alt lit," but whatever. I link to a hilarious and mostly irrelevant Camille Paglia article.
Words seem to bestow a lot of the power here, which makes sense in a literary community. I mean, they don’t work so well IRL – Katz said she was not consenting to sex in several ways, and Dierks didn’t listen to her. But online: we praise "conversation" and are "inspired" by "responses". Sure, no one really takes the Internet seriously, since we can just delete or ignore whatever we want on it. Like what we do to "make him finish faster", it’s our "at least", a compromise: men continue to do what they want with us, and after it’s already "happened", we get to feel like we’re making a difference by publishing many furious editorials about the injustices we face, because what else can we do, realistically, with what we’ve got to work with? Sarah Jean Alexander’s outing on Facebook suggests that words (or "GOSSIP", even) – rather than real-life actions: in-the-moment screaming, in-the-moment repeated and firm refusals, going to the hospital for a rape kit, or taking immediate legal action – are the best weapons women feel we have against the power structures we’re up against. This is, again, unfathomable to some people, but those people usually don’t know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, or they are willfully forgetting what that’s like.
October 9, 2014
"Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior." This is St. Vincent's Annie Clark on the lyrics of "Digital Witness." She continues: "We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress."
After having reviewed their book for the August issue of Bookslut, in the September issue, James Orbesen talks to one half of the Gold brothers, whose book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness returns upon what is now known as the Truman Show Delusion. Last week I mentioned the Japanese reality TV show Susunu! Denpa Shonen, whose first contestant, Nasubi, wasn't even aware that his struggle for survival wasn't watched just by the show's producers but also by an entire nation. On This American Life, the interview with Nasubi had as a prologue a short interview with Dr. Joel Gold. And what better way to introduce an episode about our culture's obsession with watching / being watched than a discussion on the Truman Show Delusion?
What The Truman Show had to say about broadcasting your life to a network of viewers was strangely prescient: Six years before Facebook existed, the movie told us we were as drawn to the idea of being the center of attention as we were horrified by the same prospect. In 1998, we may have been more concerned with the film’s commentary on what it meant to be a voyeur looking in on a captive, a person who had been purchased for entertainment purposes before being born and was then held in his meticulously crafted cage for more than 30 years. We used to worry about the Truman Burbanks, but now we worry we are the Truman Burbanks.
Tess Lynch, Reimagining 'The Truman Show' for Our Current-Day Delusions | Grantland
But before Truman Burbank, there was Ragle Gumm. Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint (a reference to Hamlet which points to a shift in perception) presents a constructed reality built to accommodate Ragle Gumm's fantasy. It is meant to protect him but also to exploit him, and ultimately, to keep him trapped.
In his essay on reality and paranoid delusions, Mike Jay, the author of A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, gives a historical background to the (obviously unconscious) practice of incorporating modern technologies and modern fears into one’s delusions.
In their instinctive grasp of technology’s implicit powers and threats, influencing machines can be convincingly futuristic and even astonishingly prescient. The very first recorded case, from 1810, was a Bedlam inmate named James Tilly Matthews who drew exquisite technical drawings of the machine that was controlling his mind. The ‘Air Loom’, as he called it, used the advanced science of his day — artificial gases and mesmeric rays — to direct invisible currents into his brain, where a magnet had been implanted to receive them. Matthews’s world of electrically charged beams and currents, sheer lunacy to his contemporaries, is now part of our cultural furniture.
Jay also offers this insight:
Rather than being estranged from the culture around them, psychotic subjects can be seen as consumed by it: unable to establish the boundaries of the self, they are at the mercy of their often heightened sensitivity to social threats.
Mike Jay, The Reality Show | Aeon
To come full circle on the links for the September issue of Bookslut, let's go back to Vanessa Manko's The Invention of Exile and its character’s “suspicious mind:”
[...] Austin never gives up his desperate attempts to reunite with Julia and his children. Fourteen years pass by and Austin becomes more and more preoccupied with becoming a US citizen, eventually driven to a sort of obsessive madness. His inventions and his letters become a self-made barrier between the rest of the world and him; they take over all of his thoughts and actions. Austin's mental preoccupation reaches a head shaking extreme when the reader first realizes that an FBI agent who at first seems like someone who actually is following Austin, is really an image conjured up by his own madness. In regards to his inventions and drawings, the "agent" tells Austin "it's like building a fortress only to realize you aren't protecting yourself from anything, you've simply locked yourself inside." Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and red tape that prevent him from returning to America continue to make it impossible for Austin to feel complete. A bartender refers to him as "the inventor who cannot invent himself out of Mexico."
Rebecca Silber, The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko | Bookslut
There's a fashion blog for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Germans are looking consistently sharp, unsurprisingly. If I had known it would be a chance to incorporate my vanity into my publishing endeavors, I might have gone.
October 8, 2014
Image: "My Wife, Nude..." (1945) by Salvador Dali.
A Good Female Character Who Is Also the Wife of a Genius And Manages To Appreciate It Without Letting It Subsume Her Own Personhood
The first time we'd embraced, a few months earlier, I'd been afraid that I would break him in two. After the massive, brushy torso of my first husband, I was unused to his brittle, hairless body. I didn't initiate him into sexual matters, but I had to teach him about intimacy. At the start of our relations, sex was a release for him, a concession to biology. A detail to be addressed lest his mental acuity suffer.
Earlier, she puts an apple in his mouth like he's a pig on a spit.
On my nights off, I waited for him outside the Café Reichsrat across from the university. It wasn't my sort of café, being more for talking than drinking. The talk was always of rebuilding the world, a project I saw no need for. On that night the meeting was to focus on preparations for a study trip to Königsberg. I was perfectly happy not to be going, as a conference on the "epistemology of the exact sciences" was no sort of tryst....
I was cooling my heels under the arcades when he finally emerged from the café, long after most of the others had left. I was thirsty, hungry, and planning to make a scene, just on principle.
-From The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec, out to be bought from Other Press on October 14. I'm on page 45, so I reserve the right to withdraw these assessments, but so far I think: fun but not stupid! Particularly apt on genius man/"ordinary woman" (if not also very self-aware) relationship and on older woman/young, wisdom-seeking woman relationship! And I want to know what happens.
October 7, 2014
Some Books I Like
3. Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolaño
4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
5. The Half-Inch Himalayas by Agha Shahid Ali
6. Roget's International Thesaurus, 7th edition
8. Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser
October 6, 2014
Image: "Loving Care" (1993) by Janine Antoni.
Good whatever-time-of-day-it-is! I feel a deep and constant self-loathing for not posting links for you on Friday, bereft as I know you are of links, but the long and short (but mostly long—I can't help myself) of it is that I have been trying to write a Concise yet Definitive Explanation for/Response to the alt lit "rape" scandal, since my effortless cool, passionate youth, and history engaging with alt lit and Internet feminism combine to make me quite suited to this task, just like everyone else, but isn't it funny how Concise yet Definitive Truth in writing, as in life, is impossible and yet we are doomed to forever be seeking it until we go crazy or give up? ISN'T THAT HILARIOUS?
Anyway, enough about my prolonged and inevitable failures; hopefully you will be able to engage with them in all their "problematic" glory soon, like tonight or tomorrow. A new issue of Bookslut is here! I'm nosy, and so partial to Mairead Case's reading diary. I find what is hugely popular in countries that are not my own—but relatively unknown there—very interesting, and so I'm partial to Noah Charney's piece on Miha Mazzini, "the best selling novelist in Slovenian history." I went to a launch party last week at which several people told me in impressed tones that Deborah Levy was present, and so partial to John Wilmes's review of An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell.
Also, don't forget that you have a mere one month to decide what kind of "crazy" your outfit will go for our Daphne Awards party, which I assume is the first thing you think about when you wake up and the second-to-last thing you think about when you go to sleep, the last thing being obviously misogyny in small, once-alternative literary scenes.
October 2, 2014
Three thoughts about A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
1. It is brilliant, and it is experimental, and I think the reason it is brilliant is that its experimentation is emphatically not hard. The language makes complete sense despite being agrammatical. (Aggrammatical? Also sort of implies "aggressive," which works, too.) Sorry I'm not directly quoting any foundations for these presuppositions; you know what I'm talking about. I spent all day writing a piece about rape and then I got an email from this girl saying she wasn't around when I needed her because I was "on balance hugely negative," which she finds "taxing." These two things are I'm sure at least tangentially related to Eimear McBride's nine-year struggle to publish this brilliant and not-even-hard book about a horrific female existence, but let's keep going.
2. Sort of weird (by which I mean: not) that the New Yorker and the New York Times and the Washington Post all thought the best person to discuss "what all the fuss is about" over this book would be a man. That condescending lede-cliche is a great example of how the Washington Post was particularly mistaken.
3. I forgot the third thing. What was the third thing? Oh:
I don't want to spoil anything, and I also want to convince those skeptical of unanimous praise that here their skepticism is wrong. So I'll just say the ending is brilliant in the same way the experimentation is brilliant: emphatically not hard, as in it's not surprising or original plot-wise, but it is the only ending that would make sense. It is a perfect ending.
October 1, 2014
The Artist's Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse by Adolph Menzel
In the September issue of Bookslut, Nic Grosso is in conversation with the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik about her first book that has been translated into English: The Blue Room (Like sant som jeg er virkelig). The room in the title is the room where Johanne is locked in by her mother.
In literature, there are many famous rooms that trap characters within their four walls (Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, just to name a couple), and one of the most intriguing aspects to follow in these books is the question of limited space. How does the author manage that limited space? Does the reader stay in the room, trapped as well, feeling the claustrophobia? Or is the reader taken down memory lane alongside the trapped character?
Elaine Showalter tries to explain the public’s attraction to captivity stories, a genre that poses complicated ethical questions. (“We feel guilty being attracted to these stories, almost complicit in the exploitation of women.”)
What makes these books so powerful? They have some affinity with classic Gothic fiction, in which women are imprisoned in castles with a lush décor symbolic of female sexuality — crimson draperies, jeweled caskets, veiled portraits. Angela Carter’s 1979 novel “The Bloody Chamber” dwells lovingly on scented hothouse flowers, a ruby necklace, mirrors and marrons glacés. But the realistic cells of captivity narratives are small, barren, dirty and dark. Donoghue’s “Room,” described by Jack, the 5-year-old son of a woman abducted at 19, contains only a few objects — Wardrobe, Rug, Plant, Rocker — that Jack and Ma have made iconic and comforting through the power of imagination.
Elaine Showalter, Dark Places | The New York Times
In the late 18th century, following his participation in a duel, Xavier de Maistre was sentenced to forty two days in his room in Turin. That time in that space brought to life his Voyage autour de ma chambre / A Journey Around My Room. This little, light book undermines travel writing and remains a literary oddity worthy of being discovered.
In general, narratives set in a room are told in the first person, which is why the second-person narrative Un Homme qui dort / A Man Asleep, by Georges Perec really stands out and demands attention. Naturally, this choice only emphasizes the man’s growing indifference toward the outside world. In the 1974 film adaptation (by Bernard Queysanne and Perec), we see him withdraw in his room while a female voice-over announces:
Tu n'as envie de voir personne, ni de parler, ni de penser, ni de sortir, ni de bouger. C'est un jour comme celui-ci, un peu plus tard, un peu plus tôt, que tu découvres sans surprise que quelque chose ne va pas, que tu ne sais pas vivre, que tu ne le sauras jamais.
Georges Perec, Un homme qui dort
In Japan, the people who withdraw from society and lock themselves in their rooms are known as the hikikomori. The place to start is Saitō Tamaki’s Hikikomori: Adolescence without End. But for a better understanding, it would be helpful to take the issue out of the Japanese context and filter it through works like Perec’s Un homme qui dort.
In the cruelest experiment in reality TV history, in 1998 Japanese producers locked a man in a room with no clothes on and with no food. He would have to earn his food and other items necessary for survival by entering sweepstakes. Nasubi (or the Eggplant-Man), the first ever contestant in Susunu! Denpa Shonen, was not even aware his show was actually being broadcast and that an entire nation was mocking his struggle for survival. But here’s what might be difficult to understand for westerners: the door was never actually locked. Nasubi could have left at any moment.
September 30, 2014
Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please:
Did you guys know that I am a young person? Yes, it is true; despite my incisive wit and prescient wisdom, I am but a humble millenial, ears forever perking to the sound of bored indie rock bands, nose hyper sensitive to the smell of third-wave coffee that takes 24 minutes to be prepared by a shitty screenwriter whose parents bought her a loft space in Williamsburg in which to take cocaine. And as a millenial, a young person, it is my great pleasure to announce:
There's going to be a party!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And it is not just any party, ladies and gentlemen, no, but a party at which significant honors will be conferred, at which libations will be consumed, at which we will celebrate authors departed and consider those authors who will one day be. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, after months of anticipation and woeful commiseration about the state of the publishing industry, we finally see a light at the end of this tunnel of two-dimensional characters and unnecessary memoirs: the winners of the first annual Daphne Awards, celebrating the best forgotten, ignored, or otherwise snubbed books of 50 years ago, are soon to be announced, in a live and public forum. Being a millenial, I am also easily distracted by occasions for which I can imagine possible outrageous outfits, so here is where I turn things over to the older and wiser Jessa Crispin, who, since abdicating her Bookslut throne, now speaks in a sagacious omniscient third:
The Daphne Awards
WHAT: BYOB Day of the Literary Dead
WHEN: November 6 (full moon), 7:30 pm
WHERE: Melville House headquarters
145 Plymouth St, DUMBO
Brooklyn, NY 11201
DRESS: "Go crazy"
[Editor's note: In the run up to the event, watch this space for many-a hairstyle slideshow.]
How does one throw a party for a book award when (almost) all of the writers nominated are dead? Do it on a full moon, round about Samhain/Day of the Dead/All Soul's Day.
Bookslut is gathering at Melville House headquarters to announce the Daphne Awards, celebrating the best book that should have won a literary prize 50 years ago. But we'll also be marking the writers lost that year and this, all the writers who have come and gone and yet still feel like our ancestors. There will be readings and wine, conversation and feasting. We will also have an altar.
The Daphne Award was born when, after about a bottle of wine and an argument about this year's nominees for all of the major prizes, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin decided to look up who won 50 years ago. It was a great year for literature. Julio Cortazar's immortal Hopscotch was born. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are both found publication. And yet: the award went to John Updike. A middling John Updike, even! The Centaur took the prize. Nonfiction was no better. Despite Eichmann in Jerusalem changing the way we all think about how the Holocaust could have happened, the award went to some Keats biography.
Acknowledging that occasionally greatness takes time to recognize and understand, the Daphne looks to use its hindsight to good advantage. A shortlist was quickly compiled. For fiction, Sylvia Plath and Julio Cortazar were joined by Heinrich Boll, Jim Thompson, and Tarjei Vesaas. In nonfiction, Arendt is going up against Primo Levi, James Baldwin, and Jessica Mitford. Poetry and children's book winners will also be announced.
Guests are asked to please bring an offering of spirits for the spirits and the living. There will be a feast, but mostly for the dead. Food for the living can be summed up as "potato chip bar."
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
Five Senses by Judith Wright
Poems by Gwen Harwood
At the End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson
The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Mr. Rabbit by Charlotte Zolotow
Harold’s ABC by Crockett Johnson
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
The Moon by Night by Madeline L’Engle
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
September 29, 2014
Image: "Olympia" by Manet.
Lena Dunham sucks. She obviously doesn't have any kind of media coach, because if she did she wouldn't make egregiously selfish oversights and then have to immediately and sort of blandly unapologetically backtrack on them. "Some good points were raised"—girl, I KNOW they taught you about the passive voice at Oberlin. And as for the comedian just grateful to open for her—can we just not?
An exciting and alcoholic announcement coming this week; I'd recommend checking back hourly.
September 26, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
I'm going to be honest, everyone: I'm in London and haven't read anything online in, like, four days. They have been some of my happiest in months, which I only attribute 40% to everyone speaking English and 10-15% to every moment having the potential to be a moment in which Indian food is enjoyed; the rest is likely related to the laid back vacation mindset, but whatever: the point is that I am not up on "the conversation," for which I apologize and feel guilty. I can only offer you:
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same.
-It's TS Eliot's birthday, and I spent yesterday afternoon at the Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. (Best line from a letter: "Never did any woman hate 'writing' as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James." Preliminary assessment: still pining for good old days of incestuous intellectual circles.) Thus, a theme emerges: go through the Modernism Lab wiki at Yale. And then read the Hermione Lee biography of Virginia already, for God's sake.
-Emily Gould has a good top ten list of books to read in the fall at PAPER. I feel like I want to read most of the books on it, though my personal experience with top ten lists tells me it includes lies and disappointments.
-I asked my very smart friend with the PhD in something dealing with German literature, etc., whom I've mentioned before and will likely mention again—see: very smart—what reading I should recommend, and he said that we should be thinking about the University of Colorado professor who is suing the university for $2 million in damages after they "banished" him "for a joke he made about suicide." This article doesn't offer much more detail than that, but let's all look for it.
-I just read Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley, but you wanna know what? 10:04 deals with similar themes less obnoxiously! I'm all for in-depth discussion of philosophy and intellectual history in fiction/whatever, but I do not feel it was as successful as it could have been!
-Let's save the discussion of "successful" and/or notions of "good" in art for some other time.
September 25, 2014
Image: Susan Sontag in a bear suit, by Annie Leibovitz, which I got here.
An Interview with Daniel Schreiber: Part 2
So continues my talk with Daniel Schreiber, the author of Susan Sontag: A Biography, out from Northwestern University Press last month. To read the first part of the interview, in which we talk about loving/hating Sontag, gossip, and the problems that arise with biography, click here.
LO: Do Germans see her differently than Americans?
DS: She spent so much time in Europe. In Germany especially, and in France, Sweden, Poland, Italy and Spain, she has always been this American ambassador of culture. She was always the person to get an opinion from when something happened in the US—the person to ask for an explanation. So she was very much admired here. Of course she was also admired in the US, but we don’t have this portion of people—we don’t have these neoconservative people who reviled her.
LO: Ha—you don’t have them at all?
DS: No, we do, but they hate other people; they don’t hate Sontag. And we have fewer of them, which is great.
LO: And would you say they’re relegated a bit further to the edges of politics than in America?
DS: Yeah. Our neoconservative extremists have more to contend with. That being said, there is this kind of racist Tea Party-extremism on the rise all over Europe, including in Germany. They are not a cultural force, but sadly they seem to be becoming a political one.
LO: What other American cultural figures would you say were also important to Germans, alongside Sontag?
DS: Mostly male writers, funnily enough. Philip Roth.
DS: He’s huge here. Still is. And Paul Auster is really big.
LO: But in terms of cultural critics...
DS: Sontag was, in a way, the last intellectual. I wrote about it in the book. I believe that very strongly.
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same. They don’t have this...
DS: Glamour—that’s the way Sontag did it. That’s the way Sontag was able to have this position for that long, because she brought a new sensibility to it—staging and creating this person. And that’s why she became this media persona.
LO: Do you think her being that way affected the decline of intellectualism?
DS: No. That’s just a cultural movement, you see it everywhere. In Europe it happened a bit later than in the US. People in general are not interested in smart people anymore.
LO: I guess it might be appropriate to mention those lowbrow/middlebrow/highbrow delineations being discussed a lot now. Just in terms of arguments one reads about this—do you mean middlebrow people are not interested in highbrow culture anymore? Or that highbrow culture is seen as inaccessible, not populist enough?
DS: I guess these delineations don’t exist anymore. What used to be middlebrow would now be considered highbrow, and what used to be highbrow is now part of academia. And academia is not readable for people. Lowbrow took over, and you know—it’s a question of money and education. If more people want to read books that aren’t complex and they buy books that aren’t complex, that’s it. People used to really understand that you could make a living as a writer, by writing books—of course you could do that! But that’s dead. Today—I mean, we don’t even have to say.
LO: Do you have an opinion on that? Or do you see it as "That’s the way it’s worked"? Do you feel a loss? When I was reading your book, I felt really nostalgic, which is ridiculous because I wasn’t alive for it.
DS: Of course I have a certain sense of nostalgia for those times and for those lives—I’m fascinated by those lives. But, now, to be upset about it, as a writer—that would be silly. You just have to accept it the way it is.
LO: Do you think Susan Sontag would accept it?
DS: Oh, no, she didn’t accept it. All her later essays were about the great power of literature; in the very, very end much of her writing was very old-fashioned and out of touch. She wouldn’t accept it.
LO: I also read a review of your book in the Gay and Lesbian Review, and I’m wondering about the reception of Sontag and your book within the queer population. I think a lot of the time you see queer writers lauding her because she was bisexual or non-conforming...but it sometimes feels like a bit of an overcompensation. Do you know what I mean?
DS: I know exactly what you mean. The way Sontag presented herself with her writing and her public persona—so many people were able to project onto it. And let’s put it this way: she didn’t do anything to stop it. She was happy to be applauded for many things.
But if people in the LGBT movement would read her correctly, they would have a hard time making her a part of their cause. The same is true for feminism. Obviously she was a feminist and the way she lived her life was mind-boggingly brave, impressive, and amazing for a woman at that time. But as for the movement, she was outside it. And she was outside the LGBT movement as well. She was a part of the Manhattan elite, in the end; she didn’t have any interest in her private life being discussed openly. It was a cultural practice that was common in Manhattan to keep your sexuality an open secret—to live it out sort of openly, but to have the agreement that we don’t talk about it. Since there were so many gay men and lesbian women in Manhattan, it was possible to maintain that.
It changed with the 80s; the movement had to become more outspoken because of the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS book [AIDS and Its Metaphors] is really the only book I don’t like by her. Her language is really out of touch—she speaks about "the homosexual" all the time. It seems like it’s written for a wider American audience, but it’s insincere: she obviously had a very different experience, and she obviously was gay herself, and she obviously was touched by the deaths of so many of her gay friends in a very different way than she wrote for that imagined audience.
If you read her diaries, for instance, you see she had this really difficult relationship with gay men. Most of her friends were gay, but it was a real sort of love/hate relationship she had with them. I have no idea why. It always seemed like a form of projected self-hate. As for her own sexual life, she was very promiscuous and very outgoing, for the time especially, but as with many personal things in her life, I feel she didn’t come to terms with it in a way that made her really happy. The AIDS book was not a success; gay men in particular didn’t like that book.
LO: Now there are a lot of contemporary feminist and queer writers say you have a responsibility to talk about your private life for the benefit of future generations, or whatever.
DS: I don’t think that’s true. I don’t feel like anyone should. I understood her not doing it. We can look at this today and see: this is what happened, we can now see there she wasn’t being sincere. But I would have done the same thing if I were her. She was born in 1933—she grew up during the 30s and the 40s! And she really fought hard to make her living as an intellectual in New York. As a single mother. As a lesbian single mother. I mean, come on. I wouldn’t have been like, "Hey, I’m a lesbian, but I also like to sleep with guys sometimes!" either.
LO: I agree. I mean, she could barely wear pants! She was wearing jeans in college, and everyone was like, "Oh my God, can you believe that woman?"
DS: If you speak to people like Edmund White, who was very outspoken, her main point was that she was afraid that she would be the lesbian writer, and the thing is that she was right. Edmund White is the gay writer, and it would have been the same for her, I feel.
LO: People get pigeon-holed like that now as well. Her media awareness seems very prescient: you see that construction of persona so well with social media now—you wonder what she would have done with it. I think you hear that a lot, with dead intellectual people: "How would she have done Facebook?"
DS: I think she would have enjoyed it. She would have run with it. She would have hired a few young gay guys to do Facebook for her.
September 24, 2014
Image: Susan Sontag in 1966. I got it here.
An Interview with Daniel Schreiber: Part 1
When I told my flatmate that I was going to meet the German writer Daniel Schreiber for coffee, she said, “Oh, he’s so cool! And he’s a proper journalist!” Schreiber wrote a biography of Susan Sontag (as well as a memoir, Nüchtern out in German last month), and having read it, I’m inclined to agree. The book came out in Germany in 2007, under the name Susan Sontag: Geist und Glamour, and it did well, but English didn’t get a translation until last month, when Northwestern published it under the less sassy Susan Sontag: A Biography.
I get why it was translated less sassily, but I'll still say that "Geist und Glamour" is a good subtitle. It examines the entirety of Sontag’s life through the lens of her public persona—how she constructed it, why she constructed it, where it intersected and diverged from her private life—and I think it really succeeds in creating an image of Sontag as both open and mysterious, as well as in absorbing you in the good old days of incestuous intellectual circles. It’s kind of appropriate, then, that at the beginning of our conversation Daniel said, "Don’t judge me" before ordering an amazing-looking apple pastry. Or maybe that's a tenuous, introduction-y excuse for me to share use that anecdote. I was judging him, but in a good way.
Lauren Oyler: In America Susan Sontag seems to have become kind of trendy in the last couple of years—I wonder if Maria Popova has had a lot to do with that.
Daniel Schreiber: I think she had a lot to do with it, actually. I love her website. She has this attitude—“I want to read books that challenge me and talk about them in a way that doesn’t have to be opaque, that doesn’t have to be pseudo-academic.” And it’s no surprise that she’s also such a fan of Sontag’s work. Sontag had a very similar attitude.
LO: Popova also really liked your book. Has there been much biographical work on Sontag since your book came out in 2007?
DS: Mine was the first biography since Sontag’s death. But all in all my book is the second biography. The first one [Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock] came out when Sontag was still alive; it didn’t cover all of her life. To be honest, it was a very tendentious book. I don’t know whether you’ve read it…
LO: Well, I read your book, and you talk about how she was incensed by it.
DS: She was, and partially because she was Susan Sontag but partially rightly so. [Rollyson’s and Paddock’s] book did an important job in terms of contributions to research; without that book, I wouldn’t have been able to write the biography in the way that I’ve written it, so I’m actually very grateful to those guys. But they did lack an intellectual understanding of most of Sontag’s writing, and they had a very clear-cut political agenda. It was very clear from the beginning that they hated Sontag, that they wanted to destroy her.
LO: Why did they hate her?
DS: They were neoconservative. They were very motivated politically. It’s the same way that the Wall Street Journal hates Susan Sontag.
LO: Did I just read their review of your book? With the lede something like “With Susan Sontag, you either hate both the ideas and the woman or you just hate the woman, and it’s clear that Daniel Schreiber is in the second group”? Would you say that’s fair?
DS: Not at all. It’s so outrageous that I almost wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal. It’s ridiculous on two levels: I do not hate Susan Sontag, not at all. And then, the quote the writer tried to prove his assumption with, you know—it doesn't say what he says it says. In the preface, I write about ambivalence and about how biography has to acknowledge that. To get [what he got] from the text—I couldn’t tell whether he'd read the book or not.
[The WSJ quote is: "Writing on Sontag, the German critic tells us, was both wonderful and difficult: 'Wonderful because I had the chance to immerse myself in almost everything Sontag had ever written or said....Difficult, also, because Sontag's character made it impossible for me to adopt the tone of unbridled admiration authors of literary biographies usually adopt.'"]
LO: Sontag’s work is not exactly straightforward itself.
DS: It’s very important to talk about this with Sontag, which is what I try to do. The book tries to keep a very neutral attitude towards her, and as I said in the preface, writing this book was really about learning to live with ambivalence, because I really admire Sontag and I admire her work and I admire the way that she came up with being that person. It’s so impressive! And if you read the tiniest bit about the time she was doing this, it’s mind-blowing.
But on the other hand, she could be very difficult, and mean, and downright cruel sometimes. To pretend that this side of her didn’t exist would be wrong. People are not one or the other.
One or two reviews have suggested that I’m not apologetic enough about her—because she had such a hard childhood and her mother was an alcoholic. And it’s awful to grow up with an alcoholic mother, of course, and there were poor phases in her childhood, but all in all, growing up in the 30s and 40s—there have been more difficult childhoods. I don’t think you need to apologize that she was the way she was because she achieved a lot, and she lived her life in a very impressive way. To now pretend that she was also this super nice, sane person—she wasn’t.
Tim Parks wrote an essay for the NYRB about how literary biographies in the US usually take this hagiographic tone; it’s sort of like you have to do it, in a way. I felt the pull to do this, because it’s much easier to write a hagiography. But writers are people, too.
LO: Where does your interest in her come from?
DS: I moved to New York in 2001, shortly before September 11. Then I moved back to Germany for a year to work at the university [Freie Univeristät in Berlin] and to do a PhD. And after a year of working here, I realized it wasn’t for me, and I moved back to New York. It was really crucial for me to read intelligent texts—I loved to read intellectual writing. But I didn’t want to read academic writing, because that seemed so fake to me, and as writing it’s also not beautiful. So many of those texts are not interesting to read, and so much is about power struggles and what’s in fashion. Sontag was this insanely smart, intellectual woman who was able to write in a very, very, very intelligent way without being unentertaining or dull. I was really impressed by her. I met her once!
LO: Yeah? I was about to ask.
DS: "Meeting" is too much. I saw her at a talk she gave after September 11 at the journalism department of NYU.
LO: Just, like, in a line or something like that?
DS: Yeah, standing in a line. I was 23 back then, utterly impressed and utterly petrified. She was so brilliant—and so impervious, I think, after the talk. But it was great!
LO: Would you say the reception of your book has been different in Germany versus in the US?
DS: Yes, of course it has been. In Germany the book was surprisingly successful. It was on TV, and it was even on the bestseller list for a couple of weeks. So that was great, and it was really well reviewed by mostly everyone, too. But that was seven years ago. And now it’s fantastic that the New Yorker recommended it, which was unimaginable; it was wonderful. But it’s a small university press. And it’s a book by a German guy.
LO: And you wrote that you didn’t have access to the diaries at the time.
DS: No I didn’t. The Sontag archive at UCLA wasn’t open to the public until ten years after her death. But, of course, I had access to a part of her diaries, to other archives—for instance her publisher's, FSG. And of course I talked to many of her close friends and peers. But to be frank, my book is not a biography in the sense that it's a 700-page tome that tells you about what she felt in this week of her life or that. That's not something I wanted to write. It's a book that's mainly focused on the public persona and her work and of course it does give as much private information as possible, but it was really about the persona: what she did to become this person, what she achieved with it, where there were problems with it—and whether all that made her happy.
LO: She’s such a gossip-worthy figure in intellectual circles that I’m sure it was tempting.
DS: Everyone has gossip about her. Everyone you talk to has met her and has their story about her, very often about how outrageous she could be.
LO: Did you find it difficult to decide what to believe? Did that stuff color you as you were writing?
DS: To be honest, I did journalistic work there. If there was only one person saying something—if I couldn’t fact-check it—I just didn’t write it.
LO: You said in the preface that you wouldn’t have done anything differently if you’d had access to the diaries before they were published, except maybe put more emphasis on her addiction to amphetamines. Do you still feel that way?
DS: It was really shocking for me to read [that she was addicted for so long], to read about the extent of her addiction. I had known and written about it, but back then I didn't find it that important. A lot has happened in my life as well that has led to me seeing things a bit differently today. People always think, "Oh, you take drugs, and then you’re normal when you’re not on them." No! It changes you. It might explain a lot—how she acted towards people, how she always felt she had too little, how she always felt like she wasn’t happy, how she always felt like people were treating her awfully when they weren’t.
Part 2 of the interview will be posted tomorrow; it's about European vs. American perspectives on Sontag, the death of the intellectual, and Sontag's relationship to feminism and queer politics.
September 23, 2014
Image: Woman's Head by Alexei von Jawlensky
Where / what is home? That’s the nagging and confusing question the immigration experience poses. Finding an answer becomes all the more urgent as all too often a person risks remaining just a number in statistics on immigration. In the September issue of Bookslut, Rebecca Silber reviews Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile. It’s the story of Austin Voronkov, a Russian immigrant who falls victim to the Palmer Raids from 1919-1920 -- the consequence of the so-called Red Scare. For more on Russian immigrants in the US, here are a few suggestions:
Reading this review coincided with my listening to a podcast on anarcha-feminism that mentions Emma Goldman -- also a Russian immigrant, also a victim of the first Red Scare. The only difference: Emma Goldman really was an anarchist. Her US citizenship made no difference, she was deported to Russia. Though optimistic at first, the new Russia, the Soviet Union, did not fit Goldman’s vision. And as an anarchist, Goldman did not fit into this new Russia. Goldman wrote about her Russian experience in My Disillusionment in Russia. About her deportation she writes:
It was on December 5, 1919, while in Chicago lecturing, that I was telegraphically apprised of the fact that the order for my deportation was final. The question of my citizenship was then raised in court, but was of course decided adversely. I had intended to take the case to a higher tribunal, but finally I decided to carry the matter no further: Soviet Russia was luring me.
Ludicrously secretive were the authorities about our deportation. To the very last moment we were kept in ignorance as to the time. Then, unexpectedly, in the wee small hours of December 21st we were spirited away. The scene set for this performance was most thrilling. It was six o'clock Sunday morning, December 21, 1919, when under heavy military convoy we stepped aboard the Buford.
For twenty-eight days we were prisoners. Sentries at our cabin doors day and night, sentries on deck during the hour we were daily permitted to breathe the fresh air. Our men comrades were cooped up in dark, damp quarters, wretchedly fed, all of us in complete ignorance of the direction we were to take. Yet our spirits were high -- Russia, free, new Russia was before us.
- Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia
A place of transit for prisoners who would end up in labor camps during the Stalin regime, Magadan is also the connection between the nine stories from Kseniya Melnik’s Snow in May. Melnik discusses her childhood Russia, remembered through the prism of nostalgia, the real Russia (“whatever that is”), and other writers’ Russia in the short essay "Selling Your First Soul":
Almost thirteen years after I’d emigrated as a teenager, I travelled back to Stavropol, my mother’s hometown in the South of Russia, to see my sick grandmother. I felt I was taking a creative risk: how would my writing change in the face of such a strong dose of reality?
After a three-day trip from Alaska and my initial awe at the transformation of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport (clean bathrooms! free wifi! flat-screen TVs!), we finally reached Stavropol. From then on, whether we were at the hospital, the pension fund, stores – you name it – we were assaulted by absurdities of Ilf-and-Petrovian caliber. The drunken operator of the only functioning elevator in the hospital, off for her fifteen-minute break. The only place to make copies of documents for the passport bureau – at a nearby parking attendant’s booth. No Internet at the Internet Café, and so on.
I was finally observing it all first hand. I would out-Shteyngart them all!
Kseniya Melnik, Selling Your First Soul | Granta
Speaking of Shteyngart: during these past few years, the author has indeed become one of the most known voices in the story of Russian emigres.
The Shteyngarts come to the United States as part of the wave of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate under an agreement Jimmy Carter made with the Soviet government. In Shteyngart’s précis, “Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal.”
Andy Borowitz, Mr. Shteyngart’s Planet | The New York Times
While in New York, Sergei Dovlatov still wrote in Russian. Twelve books in twelve years. He left the Soviet Union in 1978 and arrived in New York in 1979 to join his wife and daughter, part of the so-called “third wave” of Russian immigration (an anxious transit anticipated in Pushkin Hills and more fully described in A Foreign Woman and the memoir, Ours, which traces the stories of four generations of his family).
James Wood, Sergei Dovlatov and the Hearsay of Memory | The New Yorker
Vanessa Manko on living in a never-ending state of longing:
That's really where the book began for me. I had an image in my mind of a man alone in Mexico City, walking down the street, not connected to anybody. Living in exile, broken and alone. I began to make the empathetic leap into what that would be like. It was partly based and inspired by the life of my grandfather I never knew. I grew up with different versions of the story but never knew the man himself. When I finally did research and began to understand what had happened to him, that I had a grandfather, a Russian in exile living alone in Mexico City, it brought up all sorts of questions.
Vanessa Manko interviewed by Royal Young, Vanessa Manko Goes Long | Interview Magazine
September 22, 2014
Interview with Peter Schneider
By Corinna Pichl
Peter Schneider is best known for his novel The Wall Jumper, which explores life in divided Berlin on both sides of the Wall. Schneider came to West Berlin as a student half a century ago, and he got involved in the student revolts of the 1960s. His political activity led to him being initially denied a career as a schoolteacher after graduation, before he established himself as a writer.
In the new essay collection Berlin Now, Schneider looks at Berlin with his decades-spanning perspective to offer a sense of how the city became what it is today, 25 years after the fall of the Wall. On love in Berlin, he starts off by evoking Christopher Isherwood's 1920s, then goes on to tell the story of a bugged Nazi brothel, and then describes the phenomenon of sex tourism across the border and reflects on differences between East and West regarding gender roles.
Other themes addressed in the book include minorities in Berlin and new forms of racism, the ongoing drama surrounding the Berlin airport [editor's note: still not open], and the story of the tearing down of the old GDR Palace and the resurrection of the Prussian Palace in its place.
We live quite far apart from each other, so I asked my questions over Skype.
[Another editor's note: She also conducted the interview in German and translated it into English, because she is great.]
Corinna Pichl: Why did you want to write a book about Berlin now?
Peter Schneider: Berlin plays the leading role in all my texts, and in the US I was especially successful with Wall Jumper. The book came out in 1982, and it was the first prediction of the "Wall in the head"—I coined this phrase—that this "Wall in the head" will keep standing longer than the thing made of concrete. I wrote this in 1982, and now my American publisher wanted to know: what does Berlin look like after the fall of the Wall? I hesitated at first because, as I said, I had already dealt with Berlin, and I thought: you know everything I know. Then I decided that I could only do it if I pretended not to know anything. To research and go see everything that interested me again.
CP: During your research you also went to the clubs in Berlin. I found it interesting how you described the crowd waiting in front of Berghain, as dressed discreetly and alike.
PS: It was like that when I went there. Maybe it is different at other times, but I was very surprised. It seemed to me that they had all been warned through information in the Internet that you don't get in if you're dressed very conspicuously. The only one, who was really noticeable, was this Sven Marquardt [the doorman]. He would never get into Berghain. He is a star now; he has written a book, too, and it got two pages in Der Spiegel, which doesn't review real books anymore. When I left I asked him if he would give me an interview, and he just said: you have to ask my agent. Even as a doorman you can become a star in Berlin.
CP: Would you say that today's generation is more conformist than earlier generations?
PS: I would never say that. Today's generation is in a completely different situation, and people are as conformist and non-conformist as we used to be back then. That we rebelled against our fathers' generation in this way was a unique historical situation; it was only possible for the generation after the Nazis. Today's generation is in a completely different situation. And the revolts take place elsewhere and maybe not in politics.
CP: At the beginning of the 60s, you moved to Berlin as a student from south Germany, and you became active in the protests of 1968. In your book, you describe the difficulties many West German leftists had in dealing with the totalitarian, but also leftist, GDR state. How did you resolve this conflicts? Have your political attitudes changed a great deal over the years?
PS: These [attitudes] changed significantly. Back then, in 1967-68, we believed we could make a revolution, that we could replace capitalism with something else, etc. We were particularly interested in the fate of the so-called "Third World" countries: Why were there extremely poor countries and rich ones like ours? The "Third World" is less of a topic today. Today they are called "emerging" or "BRIC" countries. These are euphemisms; the exploitation is still taking place, of course.
I do not believe in revolutions anymore. I believe that revolutions will take place over and over again because there is no other way when oppression gets too bad and when violence is the only way to defend oneself—this happens again and again. But revolutions don't actually bring anything good, because new tyrants occupy the place of the old.
I believe that radical reforms are the best means to change a society. This is one of the important positions that I changed. But there are a lot more.
CP: You also describe the alternative art scene in West Berlin in the 80s as closed in on itself and separated from the rest of the world.
PS: It was turned inwards. Self-regarding. The whole impetus to engage with the outer world, to change society, from before was gone all of a sudden. This was, of course, related to the failed plans for revolution; it was a logical consequence.
CP: Do you still see this tendency today?
PS: No, I think today there are many things on the Internet that we didn't know back then and that continue a lot of ideals that we had. For example, the open-source community, which is based on the conviction that inventions belong to the public, to the world, and must not be bought and marketed by huge Internet companies. There are many developments like this—they make me very interested. Also, all these exchange services, like car-sharing, this sharing without getting money for it—these are great developments that don't have a revolutionary ethos, but which I find very exciting.
CP: You also tell the story of Bar25, [a legendary club on the Spree] whose space could have been saved from being sold to real estate companies. Do you think the sale of free spaces to investors is unavoidable?
PS: Unfortunately, this is the course of the real estate market, and if nobody puts a stop to it, then what's happening now will keep happening. You could say the same thing about the economic crisis of four years ago: if this isn't opposed with rules, then financial markets will again bring the world close to collapse.
I believe that it is indeed possible to do something, and I believe that Berlin—the Senate does deserve some praise in this regard—followed other principles in some cases. There's the Kater Holzig club, which is Bar25 all over again: they got their property at Jannowitzbrücke because the Senate was told that it belongs to Berlin, that it is a piece of culture that we can preserve and that we can't just sell to the highest bidder. This is the right way to do things. It should be this way in many cases, but so far this is the exception, not the rule.
CP: You also write that the western part of the city might be resuscitated when it gets too expensive in districts like Neukölln.
PS: Not exactly Neukölln—it will take a while until it gets as expensive as Charlottenburg. But Prenzlauer Berg is definitely expensive enough already that people are moving to Wilmersdorf instead. Of course, there are constant migrations within the city, and it has been this way since the 1920s; in the middle of the 20s, bohemia moved to the west all of a sudden, even though things were still happening in the east.
This could definitely repeat itself. I don't believe in the predictions that say Charlottenburg is a retiree's paradise now, that it will never recover from that. It's all going to change again.
September 19, 2014
Image: "Charakterköpfe" by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Weekend Recommended Reading
I'm in a wacky mood because I haven't slept and spent all day writing an invective. My best advice for you this weekend is to not read and sleep instead. Also don't subhead any New York Times opinion pieces with "There Are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends." David Brooks's writing is indistinguishable from my mother's sorority sisters' Facebook status updates.
-Scotland—you have so many thinkpieces already. All I can add is that haggis is disappointingly not that disgusting and Edinburgh is cheaper than London if you're looking for a vacation spot where people call you "love" at "the shops."
-The response to 10:04 hasn't been as obsessive as I would agree with. BEN LERNER IS A GENIUS AS WELL AS GREAT!! I want to shout it from the rooftops! I was going to pitch an involved, meta-nonfictional review about it to several new-wave intellectual publications, because I love that book so much and feel no one has done it justice, but I don't really want to actually write the review, so I'm not. Anyway, read everything he's written and then this long conversation he had with Ariana Reines!
-Two long and worthy things at The Baffler: this about Kickstarter and this about the work fetish. Yes, I know, AGAIN with the work fetish, but it's good! It was originally published in German, a language I should have really learned by now, in Die Zeit, and it has a postscript responding to the (significant) comments it received there.
-"It all started with a BDSM black latex mermaid suit, as the best stories often do. Permaid, the Persian mermaid who mysteriously washed up off the shores of Malibu in a giant clam shell, is fast becoming the it girl-fish of LA, touring hot spots and not spots and always causing a stir wherever she kicks up her wipe-clean black fins."
-Pair this Electric Literature piece about locura (madness) in early modern Spain with this brilliant and sickening one about military sexual trauma. "Son, Men Don't Get Raped."
September 18, 2014
Latvians—they're just like us!
September 17, 2014
Image: Starification by Hannah Wilke
In the Disappearance issue of Spolia, the excerpt from Breanne Fahs’s Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) is an attempt at retracing Valerie Solanas’s steps during her final years.
In the interview from the May issue of Bookslut, Breanne Fahs further discusses the disappearance of Valerie Solanas and how that parallels her work on the SCUM Manifesto:
I had originally called this biography A Life of SCUM, and I did this because Valerie's story is so deeply connected to and mapped onto the story of SCUM Manifesto that it was impossible to separate the two. Valerie always imagined that, if only she could publish a correct edition of SCUM Manifesto, if only her words were not plagued by typos and misspellings and sabotaging errors (mostly from her publisher Maurice Girodias), if only she could somehow get out her pure and precise SCUM Manifesto to the world, she would be able to achieve greatness. This story propelled her along for some time, all through her years in prison and mental hospitals, and even the years after that. But once she actually did publish, in 1977, the correct SCUM Manifesto, and once it, too, did not seem to "land," did not seem to connect in the way she had hoped, she, along with the manifesto, seemed to disappear. I found this timeline really poignant and incredibly sad. It was as if at the moment that SCUM Manifesto could no longer prop her up and hold her together, at the precise moment that SCUM Manifesto in its fully realized version failed to connect, Valerie also ceased to exist. She disappeared into the ether because she, in some ways, finally let go of SCUM Manifesto (though not fully; her last recorded conversation had her asking Ultra Violet about the manifesto and asking her to get a copy for her from the Library of Congress). Valerie defined her life by her writing, and defined herself as a writer; once she no longer did so, her madness consumed her.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by Coco Papy, An Interview with Breanne Fahs | Bookslut
(The interview is to be accompanied by the reading suggested by Ami Tian on the Bookslut blog on the radical feminist legacy of Solanas.)
The effort to piece together the puzzle that was Valerie Solanas’s life is doubled by the effort to separate her image from the shooting of Andy Warhol. It is interesting, though, to read about a biography of Valerie Solanas in Interview Magazine, which is basically a part of Warhol’s legacy. On Warhol’s interest in Solanas:
I love the odd relationship that they had. I think they are such polar opposites in certain ways, and almost identical matches in other ways. You have Andy Warhol operating in this mode of "I will be distant and detached, and coolly observant of everything." Then Valerie, like I said, is this live wire. She is total passion, earnestness, hotness, like heat. I think both she and Andy had a lot of similarities—they both come from this working-class background, they are running away from a certain kind of life that they grew up in. Certainly they share some kind of queer identity, somehow. There are all these things that seem like they should have felt more aligned than they did, but temperamentally they were just so different. This creates this, I think, one of history's most absurd and bizarre pairings.
After the shooting, Andy acts like Valerie shooting him was in her nature, and therefore she can't be blamed for it, and therefore he can't be all that angry at her. Valerie was kind of apologetic and sheepish about the shooting, but at the same time she said things like, "You're just trying to get publicity for yourself by pretending to be kind to me," and other blasphemous statements like, "I should have done target practice." She also realizes the cost of shooting him and how it kind of derailed her bigger purpose as a writer. It placed her in history as the woman who shot Andy Warhol.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by Hannah Ghorashi, Layers of SCUM: Uncovering Valerie Solanas | Interview
More on Valerie Solanas’s short and troubled connection with Warhol and the Factory:
Paul Morrissey loathed Valerie, and said plainly to me that he hated that I was writing this book. He screamed and ranted and carried on when we spoke on the phone, seething with resentment and saying that I should write about Lady Gaga instead. Some of the Andy Warhol crowd still harbors similar feelings, while others have taken a more nuanced and semicritical look at Andy. Certainly, the women associated with the Factory have been much more critical of Andy’s treatment of women in general, while the men in the Factory seem to have this unreflective and fanatic worship of Andy that I find troubling artistically and personally. Still, Andy did have streaks of generosity and goodwill, taking into his scene misfits, losers, freaks, drug addicts, gender trouble-makers of all sorts and eccentric artists. That said, I wholeheartedly believe that he made promises to Valerie that he later revoked or simply forgot about, and for Valerie that constituted a serious offense.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by John Williams, A Sad and Remarkable Life: Breanne Fahs Talks About ‘Valerie Solanas’ | ArtsBeat, The New York Times
Partly responsible for the difficulty of separating Valerie Solanas and her work from the Andy Warhol affaire in our recent collective memory is also Mary Harron’s movie I Shot Andy Warhol. (Personally, I can’t remember which one came first for me: reading the SCUM Manifesto or watching I Shot Andy Warhol.)
Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol offered some backstory to Solanas’s gripe with — and eventual assassination attempt on — the celebrated artist, but Fahs goes deeper, by explaining how much influence Warhol’s Factory and its superstars (or, as Solanas called them, “stupidstars”) wielded in New York’s art scene at the time. “Andy created women as offshoots of the male imagination, something Valerie could never (and would never want to) live up to. She was a dangerously real product of a world hell-bent on treating women as mirrored distortions of the male ego,” writes Fahs, and indeed, within the Factory’s silver-lined walls Solanas was given about as much consideration as a stray wad of chewed gum. And yet, marginality was everything to Solanas. Why was she attracted to Warhol and the Factory scene in the first place? Fahs attempts to puzzle that out, surmising that Andy, who hardly treated Solanas well, nevertheless “stood in for a variety of emotionally charged, missing, or distorted figures” in her life.
Andi Zeisler, Andi Zeisler on Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) – A One Woman Army | Los Angeles Review of Books
In her review of Breanne Fahs’s book on Valerie Solanas, Jennifer Pan focuses more on the radical politics of Solanas, managing to emphasize the relevance of her work in the context of both second wave feminism and today’s feminism.
During a time when the most visible expression of feminism centered on the assertion that women were as just as capable as men of waged employment, Solanas’s recognition of the political possibilities of failure was an unexpected – and radically provocative – gesture: one that, at once, recognized the centrality of women to capitalist production and also championed the destruction of that very system. Likewise, the feminist discourse that is commonly dismissed as “trashing” today often serves as a flashpoint for resistance against liberal feminism and includes, among others, women of color criticizing the systemic racism that continues to pervade much of these liberal feminist spaces.
If calls to end trashing are efforts to close the gaps between various factions within feminism, then Solanas has helped to remind us that trashing can also be the insistence that these gaps cannot be filled – that feminism must represent a multiplicity of claims and seek to redress several interlocking forms of exploitation.