April 29, 2013
I don't know if you heard, but apparently the number of female writers has become so scarce that there just isn't the supply to meet the demand anymore. No one is quite sure what did it -- overfishing? pesticide use? some yet to be discovered virus? -- but you can see the results in the April 29, 2013 issue of the New Yorker.
Although maybe it's not as dire as all that, because, somehow, and I'm not entirely sure how I did it, out of the twelve contributors to the debut issue of Bookslut's new sister literary publication Spolia, I managed to find six women. Seven if you count the interview subject.
I guess the most surprising part of this experience was that I was not immediately approached by editors of other major publications, demanding to know my secret source.
But anyway. One of the first writers I approached for the entire project was Daphne Gottlieb. I've been a fan of hers since her horror movie inspired poetry collection Final Girl. I asked her for a submission. Her short story "Bess" absolutely blew me away. I am thrilled that we had the chance to introduce it to the world. Recently I reclaimed my copy of Kissing Dead Girls from a friend who was "hanging onto it" for me. It had somehow gotten better with time:
Kali says, when I bring her a bottle of wine, What? You think you can get me drunk and take advantage of me? When I show up with fine Belgian chocolates, she accuses me of trying to kill her, since the chocolates have nuts. And, she sniffs, it's such a small box. I bring her daisies and she snorts that it figures I don't think enough of her to bring roses. When I bring her roses, she smiles. How beautiful, she says, these will look on your grave.
April 26, 2013
Brian Eno, nowhere near the time he was writing a book
Dmitry Samarov's blog post about musicians, actors or other artistic types who move eventually into painting, made me think of musicians, actors, painters and other artistic types who move into writing. Samarov himself is a trained painter who kind of fell into writing, and his book Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab came out two years ago.
"There are legendary types who dabble. But when Bob Dylan decides he’s a visual artist his efforts aren’t relegated to some dingy basement storage room, they grace the cover of art magazines and are given the museum treatment at blue chip art galleries. This has little to do with the actual artwork and everything to do with who the “artist” is."
Which is how actors get book deals for their god-awful novels. That is how Jewel published her poetry. (God, remember that whole thing happening? Remember there was even a satirical book of poetry published after that? I am so fucking old, you goddamn kids and your newfangled technology.) But there have been good forays into writing from other areas. A lot of the time it's just a good solid autobiography. Stravinsky wrote one. Isadora Duncan wrote one. Revolutionary/black magician Maud Gonne wrote one.
Although my favorite in that category is probably Brian Eno's A Year with Swollen Appendices, which is just a diary. And there's not a huge amount of context to the writing, he just swings from topic to topic, and I even read it before I was obsessed with his music. But there's something very amusing and inspiring just in watching him think. (Eno, of course, also creates visual art and helped make a really big clock once.)
But he still makes the music best. A song for bad days, for travel disorientation, and also sunny days in a city you love, in case you're in need:
April 25, 2013
Ernst Klimt, Pan tröstet Psyche, 1892
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” - CS Lewis
The Spectator does not think Alister E. McGrath's C.S. Lewis: A Life -- Eccentric, Genius, Reluctant Prophet is very good, but that does not stop them from writing a sweet remembrance of the man.
"But the fact is, Lewis was a genius. I was never in any doubt about that. The first grown-up book I read voluntarily, when I was 14, was A Preface to Paradise Lost, in which Lewis tackled the hugely difficult subject of the English epic, and made it enchanting. When I arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, aged 17, I was overwhelmed to find Lewis there, and friendly. We many times went the famous circuit of Addison’s Walk and Lewis’s obiter dicta remain with me for life. (‘Imagine if Wordsworth and Coleridge had gone to Oxford, not Cambridge: the whole of modern English literature would have been quite different.’)"
I however have always been most fond of Till We Have Faces, his retelling of the Psyche/Eros myth. It's a brilliant book. It's rare that a writer takes on a myth and really has much to add, except you know, that wicked witch was really just heartbroken or misunderstood, or, I don't know, Persephone wanted to go to the Underworld. (Yeah, no duh, that is kind of in the original.)
I wrote about Till We Have Faces in my literary advice column, which I prematurely announced was returning. Which is not to say that it isn't, because it is, it just had to be put on hold while we worked on Spolia. But my favorite thing about Lewis's book was that he changed the notion of the sister's betrayal in such an interesting way:
Because in the original story, the sisters are motivated by pure envy. They see their sister living in a lavish castle in the presence of a god, and they want to destroy it. It doesn't quite ring true, though, does it? I mean, sisters do sometimes envy and sabotage and undermine, but rarely so consciously. Rarely with such intent. In Lewis's telling, Orual, the sister, is the opposite of her sister. Psyche is beautiful and vulnerable. Orual is ugly and fierce. In stories like these, one compensates for a lack of beauty with wisdom or with strength. "If you are ugly enough, all men (unless they hate you deeply) soon give up thinking of you as a woman at all." That is both Orual's disadvantage and her advantage, and she becomes a great warrior. It's not envy that drives Orual. She has her own thing going on. The primary difference between Lewis's story and the older versions is that when Psyche invites her sister to Eros's home, Orual literally cannot see it. It looks like a barren wasteland to her. Psyche talking about her beautiful home, the cozy fire, the love of her husband looks like madness to Orual. She has nothing in her past to relate this to, so what her sister sees as bounty she sees as deprivation. She acts out of a protective instinct, even if it is terribly misguided.
Oh, it's one of those books you have to read.
April 24, 2013
In December of 1952 my first wife, Kirby, and I left Vienna to drive through the Russian sector of Austria into Yugoslavia. At the border crossing, on a two-lane macadam road with no other car in sight, we stopped to present documents that permitted us to enter Marshal Tito’s country. Walking back to our car afterward, we met a man heading in the opposite direction, toward Austria. He had emerged from a big black car, and he looked important, like a diplomat or a capo. Seeing the initials of national origin on our small Morris convertible, he addressed us in English. I held in my hand our confusing travel directions. We asked the man if Zagreb was straight ahead.
He shrugged, and told us, “There is only one road in Yugoslavia.”
That's from Donald Hall's wonderful story about driving across Yugoslavia in 1950. Can we demand more writing about Yugoslavia? There's a piece in the first issue of our new sister publication Spolia, Peter Vermeersch's account of being in Kosovo during the recent Albanian 100th anniversary of independence. There's Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which will make you want to go recreate her journey, but maybe you will hate her a little by the end of the book. (I did.) There is not enough of just being in Yugoslavia, too much about the break up of the Balkan states.
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is now six years old - damn, they grow up so fast! The process of translating the winning novels to English, and releasing them, is not so fast. But with any luck, we'll soon see more of the winning works on our shelves and/or fancy pants e-reader things. This year's prize went to journalist and author Saud Alsanousi for his novel The Bamboo Stick.
April 22, 2013
Salient biographical details of the singer-songwriter Judee Sill, who pops up in Mairead Case's essay about loss, growth, and art: Sill started robbing banks when she was 17, learned to play the organ in reform school, and battled heroin addiction for much of her life. She sang what she called "country-cult-baroque," with lyrics about crayon angels and enchanted sky machines. Case describes her as a "nerdy mystic;" if you're wondering what that sounds like, listen here:
Case also writes about Julian of Norwich, who could probably lay claim to the title of nerdy mystic too. Julian lived in the 14th century. Depending on whose account you believe, she was either a nun, a laywoman, or an anchoress (meaning she lived in a cell and never came out, except possibly for church). While lying on what she expected to be her deathbed, she had a vision of Jesus, and so instead of dying she got up and wrote what may be the first book in English by a woman. Nuns, as anyone who has ever seen The Sound of Music knows, are tough cookies.
Last night, on the advice of Lucy Ellmann, I watched the Bette Davis film Deception. It got me thinking about a piece I wrote a few years back, looking for the world of the mistress in literature. In the case of Deception, though, it's Claude Rains in the position of the mistress, although of course he's allowed much more dignity than a woman would be in his place.
For all the domestic novels that are written -- and with men like Euginedes and Franzen now writing them, too, the number has greatly increased -- the basic math always stays the same. The wife and the husband are solid integers and together equal one household. The mistress is a negative number, almost never fully seen, that subtracts from that household. Marriage is the solid construct, anything else is a dangerous deviation. It's so very heteronormative, and I apologize for using that word, but it's the only one appropriate. Even if the house doubles as a prison, there's so little variation in the set up. And what does the mistress generally want in these stories? For him to leave his wife and marry her.
But Claude Rains had such a wonderful set up in the movie. Sure, he was a bit of a tyrant, but he had his own household, which he managed well without the "female touch" anywhere around. He traveled. He composed great music. He brought his married woman music and clothing and fine wine. He had a parrot named Brunhilde. And when she decided she'd rather have the marriage only -- except for a few other favors on the side -- he felt scorned that she would deny the emotional part of what they had, that she could so easily just go back to the next and claim this other part of her life as illegitimate.
It's sad, only, that the movie, in order to keep up with those so important norms, decided the whole shebang had to end tragically. God knows when there is straying someone has to die. (And why always the mistress?)
As I wrote in that column about the storyline of the mistress:
Because if we believe that monogamous marriages that produce children are the strongest units of our society — and we do — then the mistress becomes the termite gnawing at the foundations. And we don’t much care if pests have feelings; we simply want them dead.
In our great literature of infidelity, we frequently hear from the adulterous wife (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) and the philandering husband (Kureishi’s Intimacy, The Age of Innocence). But literature written from the perspective of the mistress is few and far between. At most, the mistress is a stock character, there to provide comic relief in the predictability of her faith that he’ll get a divorce (see: Carrie Fisher’s character in When Harry Met Sally), or there as a catalyst for the really important characters — the husband and the wife. Perhaps it’s to be expected. After all, one of the primary responsibilities of the mistress is to keep quiet and keep her secrets safe. But also, perhaps, we don’t much care. We are free to assume that she is a desperate type, miserable and alone. Not marriage material herself, she becomes a vindictive force, out to ruin what she can’t have. And it’s true, those women do exist, the homewreckers. That real life women like Coco Chanel, Katharine Hepburn, and Elizabeth I were mistresses to married men has not done much to sway the belief that maybe there is another role at play here.
That was a couple years ago, like I said, and I have actively looked for the literature of the mistress since then. There's Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and while Henry James and W Somerset Maugham may have played around with it a bit, the fact that women were financially dependent on men makes that dynamic not really the same. Perhaps we have to look to Claude Rains and other such male mistresses from the past, to get a look at what that contemporary dynamic might be like.
April 19, 2013
Jean Raoux, Orpheus and Eurydice
After reading a lot of tedious books of music writing, I've finally found Peter Conrad's A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera, who can write about music without being either condescending or too obscure. It's a feat, yes? And his lush descriptions of operas are making me sad I am in the States, where opera tickets are in the hundreds rather than the tens. One of my favorites from his book so far:
Orphee boasts that his next violin concerto lasts an hour and a quarter; Eurydice is aghast at the prospect of having to listen to it, and squeals her protest in caterwauling high notes. Because this early heaven is so boring, Eurydice, when she has the good fortune to die, opts to remain in hell, where the entertainments are spicier.
And of course the book is out of print.
April 18, 2013
In her time as a New York Times movie critic, Adler only gave her blessing of a recommendation to one film, 2001, which she admits she did not really understand. And over her 50-year magazine-writing career, the many targets of her withering criticism have included group therapy, Robert Bork, and, in an 8,000-word takedown published by the New York Review of Books, her former New Yorker colleague Pauline Kael, whose book she deemed "piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." But in her interview with Guy Cunningham in this month's issue of Bookslut, Adler -- whose novels Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983) have just been reissued -- discusses some books she has enjoyed. They include:
The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James. Adler:
"I wonder how he knew what he knows, and I wonder how he was prescient about a certain kind of political reality. It's just stunning to me. That said, it's not factual. It has nothing to do with whether it's factually true. I mean, if you put a factchecker on it, where are you? Fiction is a different animal."
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Adler:
"It came from two unlikely sources that I realized that I had to read it. And as happens to me quite frequently, I would get to page 150, say, and couldn't go another page. I didn't know what it was... And then I got it. And I thought it was the masterpiece of our lifetime."
The complete works of Janet Malcolm. Adler says:
"[T]he ethics are so high. An almost uncanny thing that happens to me in a piece by Janet Malcolm is that it is so fair, and so true, that I have the freedom to believe something else. And that's happened with at least three pieces of Janet's. Where I thought, 'This is just absolutely brilliant. And somehow, on the basis of what you've written here, here's what I think really happened.' I don't know of any writer for whom that is true, except for Janet."
April 17, 2013
Should Hilary Mantel be on the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist? Apparently the Guardian didn't get the memo that Hilary Mantel is the Tony Stark of literature and forgot to bow down. (But seriously, did anyone bitch like this over, say, the last time Coetzee or Roth had an award-season purple patch?)
The shortlist in full:
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 125002417X
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson*
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
NW by Zadie Smith
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
*Unrelated, but have you lot seen the cover art they slapped on this in the UK? I've seen more subtlety in Mariah Carey videos.
A friend was complaining to me about his inability to get into a book -- any book -- these days. "I feel like I'm reading it from over here, when I want to be in there."
We decided it's seasonal, because in the spring for whatever reason, no matter how deep my to-be-read pile, I want all new books. Before I left Berlin, I did a massive culling of my book collection. There is something strangely satisfying about admitting to yourself that you are just never going to read Adam Bede, at least not on a timeline that it makes sense for you to cling to the horrible paperback copy you bought for $1.50 three years ago. Even more satisfying: admitting you are not going to read that book that won all of those awards and everyone said you would love. Let it go live with someone who can get past page two without suddenly needing to go catch up on laundry.
But I am now in the US, where they sell more than a small shelf of English books, mostly 50 Shades and their kin, and this is bad for me. I went into my favorite Chicago used bookstore (on Broadway, near Wellington, their selection is perfect), and despite them not having a Daphne du Maurier novel I haven't read yet, I left with armfuls.
Peter Conrad's A Song of Love & Death: The Meaning of Opera (I hear good things about his Verdi and/or Wagner, but I feel like I can't spend any more time in my life right now reading about Wagner. And this is someone whose alabaster bust of Wagner, sitting on the nightstand by her bed, whispers dark thoughts to her as she sleeps.)
Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety
Roberto Calasso's Literature and the Gods
Henry James's The Reverberator
Curtis Hoffman's The Seven Story Tower (I don't know why. I liked the cover?)
H V Morton's In the Steps of St. Paul
April 16, 2013
Design for Final Backcloth by Natalia Goncharova
"Bess" by Daphne Gottlieb
"Gone," a Kosovo Travelogue by Peter Vermeersch, translated by Florian Duijsens
Four Poems by Phil Sorenson
An Interview with Jane Pritchard
"Filling in the Archive: The Afterlife of Natalia Goncharova" by Leah Triplett
The Paintings of Natalia Goncharova
"A Natalia Goncharova Catalogue" by Greer Mansfield
"Living with Art: An Essay" by Lightsey Darst
Four Poems by Olivia Cronk
"A Rendition" by Alan DeNiro
"Of Saucepans and Star-Showers" by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Leo Shtutin
Four Poems by Hoa Nguyen
For information on purchasing issue one, please visit Spolia's website.
The poetry prize went to the lovely Sharon Olds for Stag's Leap. Nonfiction prizes went to Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall for best history work, and The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss for biography, while the General Non-fiction award went to Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove.
April 15, 2013
"The example I would typically use in an undergraduate setting is desegregation of schools. Prior to desegregation actually occurring, a poll of a sample of Americans (black and white) indicated that most Americans (black and white) opposed sending their children to school together. Almost immediately post-integration, a new poll indicated a majority of Americans (black and white) supported desegregation in principle and in practice. Change the behavior, and attitude change will follow. This isn't persuasion so much as it is self-persuasion, that oft-misused term cognitive dissonance in which we find ourselves saying, "Well, I'm doing X, so I must believe X is [fun/ethical/the right thing to do/etc.]." This is quite different from saying, "Well, I'm doing X, so I might as well enjoy it," which implies an awareness of not really liking X or, perhaps, liking X less than we might admit to others but making the best of a bad situation. Cognitive dissonance isn't making the best of something; it is full-on self-persuasion that happens in an instant."
A little while ago, I requested someone write an article about the language of feminism, and the way feminists police each other online, mostly through language.
Feminism is not the only subculture to have this problem. You see it all over the nerd/geek/gamer culture, and oh by the way, you can't say "gamer" anymore because some people find it offensive. Some people find "nerd" offensive, some people find "geek" offensive. And you find online that people form these incredibly tight, homogeneous groups where everyone uses the same small pool of approved words, until you can't even think in other language.
So Stephanie was inspired by my request to a thinking-out of these issues, and there are so many moments I love in her response. Starting with the above quotation. Also this:
I believe this is where we may get into trouble with some of the language we've adopted, though certainly not with all of it. Terms like "rape culture" are polarizing rather than binding. I believe they should be binding, but until they can be, they limit our ability to discuss fruitfully what should be ours: a taking back, a moving forward, a bridging of a gap between the wounded and the Boadiceas who would avenge them. Avenge. There's another forbidden word.
Read her full response here.
The question would be: why would you choose a 100 year old ballet company as the theme for the first issue of a brand spanking new publication? Wouldn't it be more innovative to be futuristic, to put in a bunch of fresh, never before published, hot young writers?
I wanted the Ballets Russes because in the age of super specialization, of well-guarded subcultures that police their boundaries with shibboleths and a dress code, of people wearing their authentic selves (as if we even knew what the self was) as a uniform, Diaghilev seemed like a pretty good spiritual godfather to call upon to walk us through this project.
Diaghilev brought together the worlds of music, writing, dance, design, fashion, theater, art, and society, with a large group of the politically exiled and the artistically adrift, and created a movement that has never matched its influence or genius. Surely there have been movements in painting, movements in literature, everyone in their own cubbyhole, maybe waving at one another in the distance on occasion. Nothing compares to the level of collaboration and cross-pollination that was the Ballets Russes company. And he did it in the totally improbable medium of ballet.
Which is why Spolia has no specialty. No specific realm. It's being run simultaneously in Berlin, in New York, in Milwaukee, in Colombia. Our first issue references San Francisco, Kosovo, Switzerland, Russia, Finland, Paris. There is poetry, an art portfolio, short stories and journalism. It specializes in nothing, it embraces all.
We are so proud of the first issue. It will cost you $5 for a download, all of your specific ereader needs are covered.
Diaghilev was "a great charlatan, although one with flair," as he describes himself. It's what I aspire to. We hope you enjoy our first issue and, as Bookslut turns 11 in two weeks, we hope it is as long lasting as this publication has turned out to be.
April 10, 2013
We are pleased as motherfucking punch to announce to you our latest project, Spolia.
Spolia, meaning to use rubble as building material.
Spolia, meaning using the booty you got when you sacked Constantinople to spruce up your Venetian palazzo.
Spolia, meaning the sword you get to take from that king you just vanquished.
All of those definitions, but particularly the first, seem appropriate for those trying to create a literary culture in the End Days of Publishing, or whatever it is that is going on right now.
Spolia will be a monthly subscriber-only magazine, publishing poetry and fiction and essays and translation and art portfolios. The first issue, out next week, has Daphne Gottlieb (The Final Girl), Mikhail Shishkin (Maidenhair), Hoa Nguyen (As Long as Trees Last), and, I'm excited to say, introduces the divine Peter Vermeersch to an English audience. Among others.
We have a manifesto. Of course we have a goddamn manifesto.
We have an amazing line up of writers that will be contributing to future issues, as well as other tricks up our sleeves. We are all excited about what is to come. We hope you join us.
April 9, 2013
The IMPAC shortlist has been unveiled, and what with a bit of Murakami here and a dash of Houellebecq there, it's coming over all 'University Boyfriend's Bookshelf' on us. Just add a bong and a Beck CD.
The full list:
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
Pure by Andrew Miller
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón
The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold
Caesarion by Tommy Wieringa
Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat. That’s because, firstly, outrage is part of the very currency of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism, which depends not on content but on the sheer circulation of messages. Even when the Mail was vilified for its headline, such vilification only becomes the libidinal juice of the Mail’s communicative capitalism (there will be more messages, more posts, more tweets; we will read even if we don’t “want” to; we will read because we’re not supposed to). Secondly, since there is an infinite supply of things to be outraged about, the tendency towards outrage indefinitely locks us up in a series of reactive battles, fought on the enemy’s territory and on its terms. (How many of us on the left, faced with our social media timelines when we wake up in the morning, don’t feel a certain weariness, as we ask ourselves, what are we supposed to be outraged about today?).
From Mark Fisher, "The Happiness of Margaret Thatcher"
Ovid Banished from Rome, J M W Turner
Exile has been fundamental in my life. I started my exile when I was two-and-a-half years old. I left Argentina to go to New York, and I became an American and I adopted everything American. My father had to leave the States for Chile, and then I became a Chilean, and then I had to leave Chile because I became by then a “world person.”
The forces of the world and the local, of going home and losing home, have constantly buffeted me. And though I don’t desire this to anybody, it’s not a fate I wish upon anybody. It is a fate that I have now embraced. Rather, it’s a destiny that I have embraced because it has allowed me to write the way I write. I think to be in exile is a curse, and you need to turn it into a blessing. You’ve been thrown into exile to die really, to silence you so that your voice cannot come home. And so my whole life has been dedicated to saying, “I will not be silenced.”
Living abroad is the best way to understand yourself and your background. If a Russian author lives in Switzerland, he can see Switzerland and his own reflection. How can you live your whole life without once looking in the mirror? Observing from a different perspective helps you understand your own country and yourself.
The everyday language in Russia has been changing very quickly in the last years as the everyday life has. But what sounds fresh today will stink rotten tomorrow. As a writer you must make a choice: try to catch up with the slang or create your own language that will be fresh and alive always, even after you pass. My “exile” helped me to realize that I should make the right choice. I think my experience living outside Russia somehow makes my books more readily accessible to non-Russians. Several Russian generations in the 20th century spent their lifetime in jail. They developed their own way of thinking and speaking. The leakproof prison reality gave birth to a very special subculture. And Western readers cannot identify themselves with Russian exotica. It is time not to rummage in exotic Russian problems but rather writing about the “human being” to bring Russia back to the world. Russian literature is worth it.
I deleted my ethnic, national and state identity because there was nothing much to delete there. But I found myself in a very ironic position: in Croatia I am not a Croatian writer anymore, but abroad I am always identified as a Croatian writer. That means that I became what I didn’t want to be and what I am not. Still, what I can’t delete as easily is my experience. Even if I could, I would not erase it or exchange it for a less traumatic one. That experience is rich and enriching, as well as pretty unique. Not so many people in the world were born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore. I got a flavor of Eastern Europe and of the Balkans. I got more than a flavor. My mother is Bulgarian. We used to spend many summers at the coast of the Black Sea. I learned the Bulgarian language. Being a scholar of Russian literature, I spent sometime in Russia—the Soviet one. I learned that language. I experienced the taste of life under communism. Later I experienced a war and fascism, because it was fascism. The word nationalism is just a euphemism. I also experienced life in Western Europe and the United States. For the several years I have lived abroad, I have had the experience of dislocation, call it exile or something else. I have had the experience of the disappearance of one’s own environment, the destruction of the basic values of human life. I also experienced the process of reinventing and reconstructing one’s own life in a new environment.
By the way, it is interesting how people in power, Western European and American politicians, the media and even academics accepted a brutal ethnic divorce between the former Yugoslav republic as “unavoidable,” almost as a “natural” end to the “communist federal state.” At the same time nobody noticed that a whole population—of a million Yugoslavs either ethnically indifferent or with multiple identities or from mixed marriages—silently disappeared. Nobody offered them any rights or supported their voice in the least.
In exile, it becomes clear that our emotional property changes its value, and with time it tends to lose it, like an old currency. It also becomes clear that one can’t reconstruct a lost home, a past life. The job of collecting is a nostalgic and consoling activity, but it can’t bring to life what is lost.
A small exile reading list:
April 8, 2013
Diana the Huntress by Artemesia Gentileschi
The Book of the Week choices and conversations have been hyper feminist lately, haven't they? We had a conversation with second wave feminist Dana Becker about work/life balance, we had a talk with art historian Diane Radycki about how sexism shapes the canon and how female artists are still at a disadvantage, and we had a talk with Lucy Ellmann about violence against women.
All that and I haven't even burned a bra recently. Although I did accidentally spill very hot tea over one accidentally the other day.
(Honestly, I've been so exhausted and stressed out trying to manage several projects at the same time as traveling internationally that I think I said to my friend last night, I mean, why can't I just settle down and quit my job and have a kid or something, but that was after a full bottle of Spanish white.)
But then I woke up to read something like this:
When you came out of prison you married your first wife. Three children were born. You subjected your wife to physical violence throughout your relationship. She never reported anything to the police. She was too afraid to do so. She knew of your past. She believed she could not leave you. She simply hoped that the time would come when you would leave her. And that time came when you took up with a very young Heather Kehoe. She was 16 when she ran away with you, you were in your 40s. She spoke tellingly of life with you: sometimes you were charming, always domineering, always in control. Your initial plan in the early days of your relationship was to find a house big enough to accommodate the children of your first marriage who were to be removed from their mother. In the event they remained living with their mother. Heather Kehoe had two children. You controlled her through physical and sexual violence, threats and emotional abuse. Eventually she ran away from you. You prevented her from taking the children and they remained with you for some six months.
And it makes you want to make posters and say idiotic things about women as victim and male as aggressor and blah blah blah until you come to your senses. But let's have a little counter argument, shall we?
Susan Jacoby has a good piece about paying tribute to the men who supported us pre-feminism. And her story about her father sounds an awful lot like the story of my father, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this piece if Jacoby was not the type of writer that makes it really hard for you to agree with her or want to support her. Because she is strident. Her stuff about atheism and rational thought is prickly as fuck and very certain in a way that does not win converts. She shames when she should suggest. But whatever. She has good points.
Next up we have Susan Faludi's complicated tribute to feminist writer Shulamith Firestone, and also the complicated legacy of second wave feminism. I like Faludi a great deal, and I like that she lets this be complex. There is little complex writing about feminism, it is an all or nothing subject for the most part.
And here is an article that I want to read that no one, as far as I can tell, has yet written: the weird language policing in the feminist internet. The trigger warnings and use of the phrase "rape culture," the talk of "privilege" and how if you don't use the proper language in these discussions that go on in comment sections your point is rendered invalid. Also, how you can shame a person with one of these accusations: sustaining rape culture, exercising privilege. Or how a woman shamed Laurie Penny into changing the language of a column, because she had used the word "crazy" and the woman started a campaign against Penny because, as a woman who had struggled with mental illness, she found the word offensive. Someone write that please. We would print it in Bookslut.
April 5, 2013
A heroine is beautiful — eyes like the sea shoot opaque glances from under drooping lids — walks with undulating movements, her bright smile haunts one still, falls methodically in love with a man — always with a man, eats things (they are always called ‘viands’) with a delicate appetite, and on special occasions her voice is full of tears. I do none of these things.
Mary MacLane's I Await the Devil's Coming, the early 20th century memoir that I wrote the introduction to for the reissue, is getting a lot of attention. I wonder if that is mostly because she is immensely quotable.
She's good enough with a turn of phrase to turn us all into 14-year-olds, writing her aphorisms like song lyrics on our school notebooks.
April 4, 2013
Book of the Week: Mimi by Lucy Ellmann, an Excerpt
So I was walking down Madison Avenue reading an article about some Italian reporter who claimed Philip Roth had said something mean about Obama. The guy had interviewed a whole lot of famous writers and they’d all said mean things about Obama and unanimously praised Berlusconi. But it was all BALONEY.. The Italian reporter was probably just some louse in the pay of Berlusconi, one of the worst guys in the world.
It was at this point that I slipped on the ice at the corner of Madison and 36th, thereby transplanting myself in an instant from the realm of the lofty, vertical and intellectual to that of the lowly and prostrate. I blame the sun in my eyes. I slalomed for half a block, trying to grab hold of fire hydrants, golden poles and other injurious ironmongery, along with the recoiling calves of fellow pedestrians, my well-iced ass drawing me ever closer to the Christmas Eve traffic, that herd of the hopeless hurling themselves toward family get-togethers or finally giving in on the purchase of some exorbitant toy.
The Good News, I thought as I slid, was that there was now not the slightest chance of my backsliding instead into a half-hearted reconciliation with Gertrude, whom I had only just managed to discard—since even she would have to concede that I was now in no condition to present myself at the mass rally of the faithful currently stringing popcorn and glueing sequins on felt at Gertrude’s Connecticut country cottage, in the annual effort to assuage her sense of having somehow missed out on something during her lonely if lavish childhood.
Deluded, our first year together, by the elation of conquest, I had actually helped with the decorations, standing at some personal peril on an antique stepladder to wrestle with garlands, or “garland” (as Gertrude perversely called them), miles of coiled strands of once-living foliage dotted with little white lights and big red velvet bows. These we distributed all over Gertrude’s mansion (or “cottage”) in carefully stage-managed fashion, leaving no architectural feature or Picasso print unemphasized. Receiving in return my very own gunky Christmas stocking made of organic hemp hessian adorned with locally carded wool gently shorn from the happiest of pedigree sheep, then dyed in such deep shades of carcinogenic crimson that your hands come out all pink and stinky when you delve in to get at the presents.
My solution to Gertrude’s Xmas Xtravaganzas in the ensuing wearisome years was to put myself in charge of Eggnog production, turning it into a great art and making the stuff so goddam strong I could usually achieve a nauseous stupor before Gertrude noticed what was going on, entitling me to private porch time—where, if necessary, a guy can vomit into the bushes—a ritual marred only by the guests who followed me out there, and Gertrude’s invariable questions concerning:
1. The number of mixing bowls used.
2. The number of days the whole alchemical procedure entailed.
3. The proliferation of abandoned egg whites.
For, to throw away spare egg whites would have shaken her already precarious handle on domesticity and Rombaueresque frugality. No holding her back on the Tiffany party-bags though, was there?—those pale blue offerings (otherwise known as guilt trips), bestowed on every blasted gadfly and flibbertigibbet she invited, and blindly accepted by them in conjunction with, but complete contradiction of, the egg-white omelettes and meringues.
Irma Rombauer was in fact responsible for my own Eggnog recipe, but I’d cranked it up a notch. Good old Irma, who had the whole nation swinging behind her there for a while, dressing up in checked aprons to open a million cans of mushroom soup, hash, canned oysters even! (Was nothing fresh in 1950?) There they were, saving those leftovers, planning Luncheons, making their One Minute Frosting,
Ice Box Cookies, and Milk Toast for the recovering invalid (did they recover? on that?). Without Irma, none of us would have known what a vol-au-vent was, nor seen our mothers stuff old chicken scraps into one. And what about the dangers of undercooking... well, just about anything? King Spock and Queen Irma, our native pair of know-it-alls, who made a fortune telling everybody how to do it the easy way, from bedwetting to borscht.
Thus, by zigzagging horizontally down Madison Avenue I had saved myself many psychological and physiological torments in the wilds of Connecticut. The Bad News was that I was still on my ass in the gathering gloom, and in Manhattan a man without an upright position hasn’t got a chance. Any minute now I’d freeze permanently to the sidewalk where the Jews and Muslims would find me Christmas morning—Cause of Death: sprained ankle. But I was underestimating New York. Of course there was a wacko broad ready to yank me up before checking if I’d broken anything.
“Ya can’t sit there all day, buddy, looking up people’s skirts,” she declared.
“I was beginning to think that myself,” I replied, as a firm, untrained hand inserted itself under each armpit from behind.
Once standing (gingerly) on one foot, I was able to inspect my savior—a plump middle-aged gal with brown eyes, and brown curls poking out of her Eskimo hood, her entire torso encased in one of those full-length puffy white numbers that imitate (or are?) bedding—before she plunged into the river of yellow cabs, apparently in order to hail me one. At 4:30, Christmas Eve! 3:30 maybe, 7:30 sure. But 4:30? “Ya gotta be kiddin’, pal!” Time for all good Yemeni taxi-drivers to be home with their fretful families. Sometimes Manhattan goes parochial on you, not cosmopolitan at all but subject to strange suburban rites. The mask slips and you see... AMERICA lurking below, what you came to New York to get away from! So it was handy to have a fine example of a Manhattan madwoman on my side, ready to wade into Madison Avenue until a cab either stopped or ran her over, complete with her bags of touching Christmas treats: chocolate éclairs no doubt, or profiteroles maybe, to be consumed later in solitary squalor under the glare of her pet spider and the bare bulb needed to keep the thing alive.
It worked! Soon ensconced in the fetid folds of a taxicab and distracted by pain (acute), shock (temporary), hypothermia (imaginary), hypochondria ( just the usual), and rudeness (innate), I failed to thank the woman. But the sight of her out the back window abruptly erased the sad sack impression I’d formed at first. With her circular face surrounded by fake fur, her pink cheeks radiant (in fact kind of sweaty) from her exertions on my behalf, and a slight smile forming on her lips, she now looked more like something Gertrude would cover with glitter and stick on top of the tree.
Copyright 2013 by Lucy Ellmann. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.
April 3, 2013
I am having some sort of jetlag-induced psychotic break, manifesting itself in crying fits and talking to myself out loud in grocery stores, but at least I have a lot of really good books to keep me company. Surprisingly good airplane reading: Jacob's Folly by Rebecca Miller. For being a book about a man reincarnated as a fly -- and yes, I had to overcome some inner prejudices in order to even pack that book -- it's propulsive reading.
I think self-creation is something that I come back to always. In my novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I come back to that theme, as well. It's treated in a very different way, but the idea is that people are born in a certain set of circumstances, and really create themselves into something else. I think both Jacob and Masha -- and, to a degree, Leslie, in a different way -- have to do that. I always find that so touching and amazing to me when people don't just fulfill what people think they're going to do, but really take their fate into their own hands and go against what their whole community is telling them they're going to be.
I've always liked Miller as a writer, but this novel is particularly good, and on another level from her other material.
April 2, 2013
Book of the Week: Mimi by Lucy Ellmann
Mimi walks and talks like a screwball comedy. It's all madcap zaniness, about a plastic surgeon who slips on the ice one New York City Christmas and is rescued by the titular heroine, Mimi. She is curvy and brilliant and a bit of a pill. She is a fast talking dame who walks right into the heart of this Bette Davis movie-loving man. It looks like your typical zany romantic comedy. Which is why it's surprising when you realize it's secretly about violence against women.
Ellmann did not write a polemic, nor a sad-sack tale of the abuse women have suffered at the hands of the men they love. It's funny and warm and just kind of nuts. But when the back stories of the women are revealed, it's clear that the book also has a strong dark streak.
I corresponded with Ellmann about her novel, and how exactly one decides to write a screwball comedy about abuse, murder, and rape.
While I was reading your book, the headlines in the news were mostly about the death of one of the Indian men accused of gang rape, the Steubenville verdict, and a story about American soldiers reckoning with sex crimes committed in Vietnam. I thought of Mimi's decision not to follow the news, because she feels frustrated that she can't change any of it. Do you read the news? And how do you read about the violence against women without falling into that impotent despair?
I follow the news, to my increasing grief, but I think Mimi’s position is understandable. Much of the news is after all just about men, their gatherings and their sports and their other preoccupations. The news has varying and questionable relevance to women. The reports of rape and murder on the other hand are, I think, a form of torture directed at women, which subliminally reinforces patriarchy. Newspapers delight in regaling us with sexist crimes and they sell well.
The Delhi or Steubenville rapes, the massacre in Newtown (crimes against children are always crimes against women too), and our subjection to perpetual war, sicken me to the point of defeatism and despair. They’re meant to! The message in all these stories is that women are powerless. So there are some good reasons for resisting this litany of fables for our times. How many times do girls have to be frightened with Bluebeard?
Walking through a park in Canterbury, England, the town where I was living when I began this book, I noticed a tree decorated with a few ribbons. Below was a note of someone’s name. When I looked her up, it turned out she’d been raped and murdered on that spot a few years before. Later on, I was sitting in the backyard reading newspapers full of the same sort of stories, and I realised I’d really reached my limit: I could not bear the fact that these things kept happening to women all around me, all my life.
That’s primarily why I wrote Mimi. It stemmed very much from stuff in the news, as well as the more ancient history of crimes against women. To keep my original purpose in sight, I assembled scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, separating them into sections such as gun massacres, rapes, murders, war, the sexual abuse of children, and "family annihilation" (that rather feeble term for fathers who kill their children in order to hurt ex-partners). A remnant of these scrapbooks appears in a list of newspaper headlines in the novel’s Appendix. Most of them date from 2011, the year in which the book is set -- so it’s a list of merely one year of horror.
It’s important to get angry about this. Mimi doesn’t have to -- she’s not writing a novel. But I was.
It's interesting and refreshing to read a book that is essentially about violence against women that is not tragedy tragedy tragedy lecture tragedy tragedy. The rather madcap energy pulls you in before you realize what is going on. Do sad, sad stories about tragic events ever really motivate us? Or do they numb us somewhat, making it all seem a little useless?
"Tragedy tragedy lecture tragedy" puts that unfortunate type of fictional decision very well. I’m continually perplexed and disappointed by writers who think utter seriousness is the only way to address troubling issues. That’s a damn lie. Joyce was the most serious, most thoroughly analytic, and most artistic of writers, and yet he was also incessantly funny. People with no sense of humor are actually ill-equipped to deal with reality. "Numbed" is the word. They rarely make good writers. Even Tolstoy, or Charlotte Bronte, or Conrad and Henry James, have irony. Profoundly pained though he was, Faulkner was a sucker for sarcasm.
I don’t think that the tragic exists in a vacuum, so in Mimi I juxtaposed fun stuff with less fun stuff. I wanted to entice the reader into a warm, lively, even loving scene, before presenting him or her with the more challenging aspects of the book. But this wasn’t just craven guile with a nod towards sales. I really believe in comfort, and wit, and hope! Pessimism is too easy, and ultimately too dangerous a position to adopt. It allows you to give up trying, and makes your anger limp.
All the great novelists of the past were funny. The po-faced ones don’t last. Think of Cervantes, Austen, Sterne, Zola, Proust, Jelinek. They aren’t buffoons, but wit is never absent. Think of Thomas Bernhard, so hilarious and furious at the same time! And you only have to read a page of Dickens to be thrilled with his vision of the world in all its complexity, goofiness, tenderness, horror and tragedy. It’s real. He doesn’t diminish anything or simplify it for us. The trick is to include it all, not to delete stuff or over-define it.
Mimi has such a screwball tone, fast talking dames and all. You reference a lot of Bette Davis films. What were your other touchstones and reference points?
In Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn plays a real ditsy broad. Sexy too. The comedy is acute when she steals Cary Grant’s car from the golf course, or trips him on an olive, or burdens him with a leopard. That, down to the bare bones of its plot, was a big influence. Screwball comedies like Some Like It Hot and Harvey helped me see how you can compress the action into a nuttier time scale. A lot can happen in a day, if you let it. And years of watching Woody Allen movies and Seinfeld gave some New York flavor to the comedy in Mimi.
I thought of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny to get Mimi’s tone of voice, but was also taken with her later performance in The Ides of March, in which she plays a quick-talking political reporter. Both fed into the loud-mouth gal from the Bronx I was creating.
Idealistically or not, I like the idea of witty women speaking, and being heard. My mother was one. Her book, Thinking About Women, has influenced my own thinking about women all my life. Other literary sources include Jane Eyre, who has a lot to say to Rochester -- there’s a feminist flavor to the discussions they have. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, perhaps the first voice of modern feminism. And Valerie Solanas, whose S.C.U.M. Manifesto lets rip in an unforgettable way -- it’s exhilaratingly furious, and funny, whatever its flaws of repetition and illogicality.
But Harrison’s apartment, and some of the rhythm in which he and Mimi talk to each other, come from Bette Davis’s Deception, a movie I’ve always found very touching, as well as rather sophisticated (by Hollywood standards) in its depiction of the classical music scene. I’d love to do a remake of it some day, with everything turning out okay for everybody.
And okay, I want to talk about the manifesto. I really liked the whole men have to talk about this culture of violence and domination out loud thing. And yet I admit that I had some problems with reading about a male narrator who confesses to a strong castration anxiety, but who then seems to be happier giving up his career and ambition for his lover. And I read some reviews, all of which were taking from this novel the idea that men would be better off submitting to their own castration. Was that your intent? It made me, as a lover of men and their focus and ambition and drive, disappointed with how the novel ended.
Castration?! NO!!! I condone no form of violence or non-vital surgery. I think men could be a lot nicer in some ways, but I never suggested castration was called for. Some of my best friends are men! Harrison as a character is based in fact on the nicer men that I know and, as far as I’m aware, they all sport a full set of genitals.
Harrison’s just a worrier. He worries about a lot of stuff: Athlete’s foot, Velcro, castration, unwalked dogs, women pushing strollers uphill, triple plays, all kinds of things. I wanted to suggest some of the standard anxieties of the pampered American male. If you’re saying you think it’s emasculating for a guy to behave well, I find that really sad. What I propose in the book is that it’s not emasculating at all, and pretty sexy. Harrison’s a hero, in a real sense. He has switched teams, he’s decided to play for the losing side: women. But what’s wrong with that?
The question isn’t about how unlikely it is that a guy would give his life, money and property to the woman he loves, but why more men don’t do something radical to correct the imbalance of power that leaves men so lonely, and women abused. I’ve complained about male violence a lot in previous novels, but this time I thought up a solution. My feeling is that if women were respected more, they would be raped and killed less. Money being the simplest way of bestowing respectability, give women the money. They can’t make much more of a mess of things than men have.
But don’t worry, everybody can hang on to their genitals. They’ll come in handy in the new freer age of sexual enlightenment that I think would ensue, in which men will take on the role of true consorts instead of exploiting women’s bodies for mindless and selfish purposes. It’s time the world was less about what men (mistakenly) think they want, and more about what women want. This would ultimately be more satisfying for both sexes. Why not divert some of that old male ‘focus, drive and ambition’ into saving women, and making them happy? What’s so bad about that as a plan? Who does it hurt?
I kept thinking as I was reading Mimi, I really wish a dude had written this. Or something similar. It's not really in our male discourse, violence against women. It's mostly confined to female spaces. It's part of that thing where we teach girls how to avoid being raped, rather than teach boys not to rape girls. Are there male writers who have written on the subject who I have overlooked?
No, you’re right! I hadn’t really thought about it much before, but where are the books by men about how they abuse women? It’s hard enough to find women even close to being central characters in most fiction by men. They write now and then about Medea, or Lady Macbeth (and how despicably these women behaved) but they hardly ever face up to the hateful crimes committed by billions of men. It’s quite an omission.
None the less, Chaucer loved women and gave them good parts. And lots of great writers -- Hardy, Zola, Chekhov, Ibsen, Flaubert -- have attempted to do women justice, and to blame men squarely for their moral failings. Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist is shown to be a wife-beating monster. In The Man of Feeling, Henry Mackenzie tenderly -- feelingly -- describes the bitter fates of women and pleads for something better (this book was famous for the amount of weeping that goes on, both male and female). I think we know where Stevenson stood (pretty much anyway) on the subject of Mr. Hyde’s behavior. Tennessee Williams compassionately ponders the blighted possibilities of contentment left to his female characters.
Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic focuses on a battered wife, in a novel about civilization, or the lack of it. In describing a man’s jealousy-driven murder of his wife in "The Kreutzer Sonata," Tolstoy starts examining the whole gender divide, reaching some intense and peculiar conclusions. It’s an amazing story, and very relevant to any discussion of spouse-harm. Othello is a gut-wrenching depiction of similar male mayhem. Kubrick takes this destructive trait in men to its limit, with Dr. Strangelove salivating over the prospect of collecting a few hundred nubile young women for the bunker, while the rest of humanity is offered up to the atom bomb.
But it’s in opera that women’s plights are most thoroughly investigated by male writers (maybe because there always has to be a big soprano role). Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Rossini all presented women as human beings deprived of, but deserving, liberty and happiness. Their female characters are abused, abandoned, tricked, imprisoned, forced into unhappy marriages, consumption and suicide... or killed by some creep. They may not be role models exactly, but they powerfully exist, they matter to the story, and we feel for them. For hundreds of years people have been going to the opera and pitying these women. That exerts some useful moral force on society, I think.
Also, your answer about respect for women: I was watching a
roundtable about Philip Roth for his birthday and don't ask me why I
was doing that. But up for discussion was whether Roth is a crazy
misogynist. And someone's argument that he wasn't was that he so
obviously loved women, worshiped them! And I thought they were being
delusional, but maybe the question was wrong. Maybe it should have
been "Does Philip Roth respect women?"
This is the same argument used for beauty contests -- that the judges and viewers love women, because they like looking at them dopily standing around in swimsuits. It’s a weak argument. Other men like looking at women hanging upside down -- it doesn’t mean they love them.
I think Roth probably is a misogynist but he got careful. I’ve seen passages of effortful fairness to women in his work. He never dared write anything as awful as The Breast (1972) again. I was fourteen at the time and wrote him a disgusted letter. Don’t know if he got it. Portnoy’s Complaint is great, for its intricate vision of the Jewish-American family, the godlike mother, the entire family’s concern about defecation, etc. -- and Roth’s wonderfully explicit of course about the ramifications, so to speak, of adolescent sexuality. But it goes off the boil in the second half, with all that Monkey business. The Monkey is not a particularly amiable or credible woman. Roth seems to reserve true compassion only for men, such as the father in Patrimony, which I love, or Bucky the gym teacher in Nemesis, which was a pretty bad book.
So here we are, talking about Roth some more! Has he done much for women? I’d say not. But it may not be a writer’s job to save the world anyway. Just as a writer, I’d say he’s patchy, and not greatly artistic. He’s got a lot to say, sure, and energy, but I often don’t really know why he cares about the stuff he’s writing about, and his preoccupations tend to assume that malehood is supreme.
This saddens me. I wish he and Woody Allen had both been able to get a grip and really appreciate women. I’d welcome their productions with total joy, I think, if they had.