In the magazine
- An Interview with Amy Wilentz
- An Interview with Meg Wolitzer
- Sybille Bedford Goes to Court
- An Interview with Ru Freeman
- An Interview with Ruth Ozeki
- An Interview with Jay Ponteri
- An Interview with Katey Schultz
May 24, 2013
Image: From "The Audit is Done" by Janos Kass
I am in Budapest, because West Ireland was getting to me. The rain, the wind, the cold, the sweaters and the reading and the seaside and the tea and the whiskey sometimes in the tea... It was like the outward manifestation of my inner mood to the point where I was about two days away from filling my sweater pockets with stones and throwing myself into the sea. So, Budapest as antidote to West Ireland: heat, art nouveau, dramatic dresses, opera, and a totally unappealing (in the sese of diving in) river. Budapest over West Ireland.
(It is still remarkable to me that a change of location brings such a noticeable change in self. Perhaps I am too easily soluble, bits of me start dissolving in the atmosphere of wherever I am. But in Budapest I feel like myself. A friend I had lunch with here told me today, "You need to marry a Hungarian and stay here forever." I am now taking applicants.)
But here is the problem: I was going on to some friends about Hungarian literature, and there was no spark of recognition. Two people (two!) referenced Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, but I think they were confusing Odessa with Budapest. And any way, you shouldn't think of Jonathan Safran Foer in reference to anything Central European ever ever, because he is a spoiled American white dude. And he stole all of his tricks (and then turned them into sentimental nonsense) from the Central European writers who are better than he will ever be.
So. A few recommendations of my favorite Hungarians:
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
Although I recommend this wholeheartedly, I get some angry emails from friends I've forced it upon about halfway through. Because if it ends badly, they tell me, they will never fucking recover from the experience. I won't say, but I've still not recovered from this book, in a very nice kind of way.
My Happy Days in Hell by György Faludy
More for the first half about the encroaching sense of doom in pre-war Hungary, but also for the glory that was pre-war Budapest, and how that got lost.
Everyone loves Satantango, but I found its unrelenting grimness too much to push through, and I never finished it.
Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy
This book is fucking dark and sexy. That is all I will say about it.
Now if you will excuse me, I am on a mission to put as much goulash into my body as my body will allow. I am pretty sure I can do much better at this than I have so far.
May 23, 2013
Image: Karl Mannheim by Ludilo Zezanje
I have been reading the Gawker Unemployment Stories, and my heart breaks every time. People telling their stories of despair and anxiety, the instability of trying to find regular employment in today's environment. But what struck me were the comments, and how people find comfort in other people's experiences, because they know it's not them, it's the whole fucked up, crumbling system. As Karl Mannheim wrote, "It is important to remember that our society is faced, not with brief unrest, but with a radical change of structure."
For man, however, the catastrophe [of unemployment] lies not merely in the disappearance of external opportunities for work but also in the fact that his elaborate emotional system, intricately connected as it is with the smooth working of social institutions, now loses its object-fixation. The aims towards which almost all his strivings are directed suddenly disappear, and, not merely does he now lack a place to work, a daily task, and an opportunity for using the integrated labor attitudes formed through long training, but his habitual desires and impulses remain ungratified. Even if the immediate needs of life are satisfied, by means of unemployment relief, the whole life-organization and the family hopes and expectations are annihilated.
The panic reaches its height when the individual comes to realize that his insecurity is not simply a personal one, but is common to masses of his fellows, and it becomes clear to him that there is no longer any social authority to set unquestioned standards and determine his behavior. Herein lies the difference between individual unemployment and general insecurity.
Because while there's the relief of knowing it's not a personal defect that has caused your individual situation, there's the anxiety of realizing that this is not going away any time soon. And it won't be fixed, only temporarily relieved, with a new job. This is a time of "radical change of structure," and it's everyone's duty to figure out how to fix our broken economy and how we work and why, and what the definition of success is. There is no clinging to old paradigms when it's the entire floor that is giving way.
May 21, 2013
Image: Vampire by Edvard Munch
Here is how I know that all of the writers of the world have run out of ideas: Vampires in High School. In this marvelously fucked up age that we live in, we've apparently all collectively decided that the story we want to tell each other, and the story we want to hear, is how if we were granted eternal life in the body of a hot 16 year old, we would probably spend that eternal life in high school. Listening to inadequate and confusing versions of what World War I was all about. Showering with other 16 year olds after gym class or football practice. Facing lunchroom seating dilemmas. That is what we have decided we would spend hundreds of years doing.
Right after I read a horrible short story about a vampire in high school, I went and saw the new Neil Jordan film, about a vampire who goes to high school. I kind of yelled at my film-going companion for a while, about how we all, excitingly and terrifyingly enough, get to decide, the first generation ever, with some limitations of course, what we want to do, where we want to do it, and for how long. And our writers are responding to that by putting supernatural creatures, always the exciting deviants and margin-dwellers, into that symbol of neverending conformity, fucking high school.
Jesus Christ, people.
"is a mind-cracker. It's basically the diary of a bisexual, rebellious, punk-rock aesthetic teenage girl -- written in Butte, Montana in 1902. Truly, a time-displaced rarity in a cold, cruel landscape. Required reading."
May 20, 2013
Image: George Barbier's Designs on the Dances of Vaslav Nijinsky, proving I am not the only one obsessed with one particular region of his body
This week's Book of the Week is going on at our sister magazine Spolia, because I chose Lucy Moore's biography Nijinsky. Today there is an excerpt, and later in the week there'll be a Q&A with Moore. (Yes, I asked her to comment on Nijinsky's thighs. I am not generally that interested in that part of the male anatomy, but Jesus Christ. Disappointingly, "Thighs, Nijinsky's" is not an entry in the index, or I could type up the references contained within Moore's book.)
From Lucy Moore's biography, a section on the debut of Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, with Nijinsky in the title role:
As ever with one of Diaghilev’s premieres, the first night, in Paris in June 1911, was plagued by hitches... On the night itself, a befeathered and bejewelled Misia Sert was sitting in her box, waiting for the ritual three knocks of the call boy that signaled the curtain was about to rise, when Diaghilev burst through the door, drenched in sweat and with his coat-tails flying out behind him. “The costumier refuses to leave with clothes without being paid. It’s ghastly. He says he won’t be duped again and he’ll take all the stuff away if he isn’t paid at once!” Sert raced downstairs, ordered her driver to go home and collect the requisite 4,000 francs, and “the show went on, impeccable and glamorous.”
Read the rest of the excerpt here.
May 16, 2013
Many days I just delete whatever does not look vaguely personal in my inbox. I don't read press releases, because I am sure that is the secret to a long and healthy life. Today I don't know why I stopped on this:
"I thought you would be interested to learn about a new study that finds a link between what a woman is reading while she is traveling and her willingness to indulge in a casual hookup."
Amazing! And scientific, I'm sure. I am sure they didn't just ask five women in an airport what they were reading and whether they put out, until they were escorted away by security/laid low with pepper spray in the face.
It is best not to linger on the fact that someone wrote this email. They typed it up and they pressed send and they did not immediately suffer a psychotic break from the experience. Nor the fact that there is an entire website devoted to churning out content like this. I would tell you what the website is, but then I would die.
Related: I am currently traveling in the west of Ireland, and occasionally reading The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves at the bar. There is no survey that will tell you the odds of your chances with me right now. So just try to pick me up. I fucking dare you.
May 15, 2013
Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time has won the 2013 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. It's his second win, the first being for 2000's The Mighty Waltzer.
As part of his Wodehouse Prize a Gloucestershire Old Spot pig will be named after Zoo Time.
"To win it twice is very heaven. I am only sorry my pig has to be called Zoo Time. It feels a bit tactless. But it could have been worse. It could have been Bring Up The Bodies."
Could have been Inferno, mate.
The Man Booker International Prize is the sexy foreign version of the annual UK/Commonwealth/Zimbabwe fiction bunfight. It totally smokes clove cigarettes and wears berets and could steal your boyfriend, if it could be bothered.
The Guardian has interviewed the ten finalists for the lifetime acheivement award, and the resulting profiles are charming, even if most of them seem allergic to smiling (not the lovely U R Ananthamurthy and Josip Novakovich though.)
Breaking news from t'twitter - the 2013 Orwell Prize has gone to A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa by A. T. Williams. Previously, the Telegraph reported that the prize committee has sent copies of all the shortlisted books to UK political party leaders/tragicomic reptiles David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband:
The three leaders may well bristle as they open up their copy of AT Williams's A Very British Killing, a forensic and shocking reconstruction of the death of Iraqi hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa, at the hands of the British army. Williams's meticulous analysis of the army figures involves, and the court martial in its aftermath, calls into question the ethics of British military practise in Iraq.
Things I will not be doing include linking to any of the Dan Brown nonsense. Yes. He is a terrible writer, congratulations for noticing. And your opinions on the matter are totally important and original, thank you for sharing them. Please fuck off now.
Also, not linking to a takedown of Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, because despite hating, really hating to the point of dark pleasure, her last novel The Emperor's Children, I do not have time to waste thinking about a novel that thinks being a 42 year old single woman is the worst thing that has ever happened ever, oh my god.
Why write this review? Why not just cut bait after fifty pages of overwritten banality and move on to something else? Because it was published. Because in spite of its ludicrous prose, milquetoast hero, and weak ending, The Gods of Gotham is the very sort of book that the industry craves: unchallenging, controversy-dodging, action-packed, with a love story as innovative as Microsoft Word Art and a hero with a high Q factor. And in this, it represents all of the pressures and temptations that come to bear on the novelist (note I do not say the "modern" novelist -- it has ever been thus and always will be), and for that reason alone, it bears calling out. Because this is what happens when writers give in.
Also, not that it even needs to be done anymore, here is an anti-Alain de Botton piece. (Alain de Botton! The intellectual (kinda) Dan Brown, as far as inspiring hit pieces goes.)
Let's balance this out with a little unbridled enthusiasm, yes? Verbunkos has one of the best things I've read about Claudio Magris's new novel Blindly: "Blindly remains, at bottom, a symbol of how an individual is integrated into history." Blindly is brilliant, although I love his nonfiction travelogue through Central Europe Danube more.
Another focus of my undying love and admiration is for Angela Bourke's The Burning of Bridget Cleary. She has an essay at the Dublin Review about trying to get rid of an old refrigerator. Except that it is, of course, about everything else in the whole world.
May 14, 2013
Image: One of Nabokov's butterflies
"All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. That's also an attitude associated with Vladimir Nabokov, whom more overtly political Russian writers criticized for focusing on wordplay and stylistic flourishes. But Andrea Pitzer's The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, which gets a rave review from Mike Innocenzi in this month's issue of Bookslut, ousts Nabokov from the Lord Henry Wotton school of aesthetics.* Drawing on recently declassified Russian intelligence files, Pitzer finds instead that the writer was "folding the details of his life into the story in such a way that no one [but those close to him] would recognize them." In the wake of this book, as Innocenzi notes, major Nabokov works like Lolita and Pale Fire beg for a rereading.
*Nabokov probably wouldn't have minded this, actually; in a 1964 Playboy interview, he referred disparagingly to Wilde as a "dainty poet."
May 13, 2013
Image by Colette Calascione
"You see," said Lili, "there's no real experience to be gained by promiscuity. We're all called to understand ourselves, and to do this it's necessary that we should understand one another. Leaping from bed to bed one learns nothing of any depth."
"What have you learned, Lili?" asked my mother, at last sitting down with a cup of tea before her.
"You challenge me," said Lili. "What have I learned? What have I learned of myself from learning through Robert...?"
Her husband lowered his paper and regarded her over the top of it.
"I don't know," she admitted. "But I've learned something. Isn't it obvious that too many relationships will teach one nothing except that men are much alike?"
My mother sniffed. She had no very high opinion of men.
"So are women," said Robert, turning back to the paper.
Lili looked affronted. "I am quite unlike other women," she observed.
"Yes, you are," agreed her husband, and Lili smiled.
I thought that Robert loved her and wouldn't mind her having lovers if she always came back to him. I wondered how it was possible to love many men when you had once loved one more than your immortal soul, and whether Lili had ever loved like that, or whether this was a torment saved for ridiculous people like myself.
"What are you thinking about, Margaret?" asked Lili.
"I was thinking about what you were saying," I told her, while memories of Nour flooded my being so that I felt I couldn't bear it but must instantly take that gleaming knife and open my body to let him out.
I love The Summer House by Alice Thomas Ellis so intensely, it is difficult to keep myself from typing out the entire novel here.
May 12, 2013
Still reading Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety, and it is still the best thing I've read on the subject.
"There is anxiety in any actualizing of possibility. To Kierkegaard, the more possibility (creativity) an individual has, the more potential anxiety he has at the same time. Possibility ('I can') passes over into actuality, but the intermediate determinant is anxiety. 'Possibility means I can. In a logical system it is convenient enough to say that possibility passes over into actuality. In reality it is not so easy, and an intermediate determinant is necessary. This intermediate determinant is anxiety.'"
His section on all that we do to avoid these feelings of anxiety/potential -- conforming to social or subculture norms to keep ourselves from having to make any real decisions, allowing stasis to take over and remaining in bad situations because at least they are familiar -- is quite good. It reminds me of a small passage from Claudio Magris's Microcosms:
"For some time you've done nothing but close doors, it's become a habit; for a while you hold your breath, but then anxiety grabs your heart again and the instinct is to bolt everything, even the windows, without realizing that this way there's no air and as you suffocate, the migraine batters your temples; eventually all you hear is the sound of your own headache."
May 10, 2013
Things to do before reading Sjón, the Icelandic author whose American debut Sessily Watt reviews in the May issue of Bookslut:
1) Know how to pronounce his name. It's "SHE-own," short for Sigurjón B. Sigurdsson.
2) Listen to his collaborations with Björk, a longtime friend. (Sidenote: If there's an Icelandic version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it must be the shortest game ever.) Sjón wrote the lyrics to several songs on her 2011 album Biophilia, including "Virus" and "Solstice."
3) If you're feeling ambitious, look up the Eddas, two collections of Norse legends compiled in the thirteenth century by Icelandic historians. Watt notes the strong mythological undercurrent in Sjón's writing; the Eddas are where Icelandic mythology begins.
May 08, 2013
The ladies of Middletown
Fell down a rabbit hole today, reading Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety. May is one of my favorites, his Man's Search for Himself is essential, particularly for those who want to puke when they try to read psychological writing today and it all sounds like fucking self-help.
Anyway, in the beginning chapters of The Meaning of Anxiety he talks about the Middletown anxiety studies. These originally took place in the '20s and '30s, but they seem particularly relevant today. May writes:
The citizens of Middletown, [the Lyndals] write, "is caught in a chaos of conflicting patterns, none of them wholly condemned, but no one of them clearly approved and free from confusion; or, where the group sanctions are clear in demanding a certain role of a man or a woman, the individual encounters cultural requirements with no immediate means of meeting them."
This "chaos of conflicting patterns" in Middletown was one expression of the pervasive social changes occurring in our culture... The Lynds observed that, since "most people are incapable of tolerating change and uncertainty in all sectors of life at once," the tendency in Middletown was toward a retrenchment into more rigid and conservative economic and social ideologies.
For me, it seems like this could be the basis of the weirdo "retrenchment" of gender roles in our contemporary society -- the pressure on marriage, the inflexibility of monogamy, the beatification (and simultaneous policing) of mothers... Right now with all of the news reports about how powerful men used the sexual revolution to become predators, raping young girls and women in the name of freedom, and how they're just now being held accountable (in a process that is looking more and more like a witchhunt, but we'll see how that progresses). It's like we all agree that the sexual revolution went all topsy turvy, and maybe we were best off in nuclear families after all.
Of course this comes out in other behavior as well -- gun culture, political inflexibility, etc, but the Middletown studies focus a lot on gender, so I'm thinking aloud about the gender aspect.
So the May reference led me to start reading whatever I could find online of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, but I might have to buy a copy.
While we're on the subject, let's watch this video of Rollo May explaining what existential psychotherapy is, and why we need to think about anxiety outside of a medical model:
May 07, 2013
Dame Jacqueline Wilson voiced frustration at publishers' insistence that her books should appear in pink covers because they know it is likely to boost sales.
She said the practice was “pigeonholing” girls while also putting boys off reading her stories.
This is a recurring discussion. I remember talking to Joanna Kavenna ages ago about the cover for the hardback of her (totally great) novel Inglorious, which had a woman's feet in a strappy high heel -- one of the straps being broken, I guess as a clever metaphor for the protagonist's entire life falling apart.
The paperback remedied this by using stripy colors... which is the exact motif another publisher used to satisfy Meg Wolitzer with the release of The Interestings, who had been complaining about the unseriousness of women's novels' cover design. In her Bookslut interview this month, Wolitzer reports:
Women are the buyers of fiction in this country, and we know that. I know writers who aren't concerned with this issue, because they know that their audience is women, and women love their work, and they're happy with that, and that's fine. I generally have women at my readings and I love these readers. But you have to ask yourself, Why will women read books about male characters and female characters, and men, with rare exception, won't? And that bothers me. So if your book looks like a women's and girls' book, even if it has something really startling in it, it's hard to get men to read it. What I feel about this cover -- I don't feel like it's a masculine cover. I feel like books should just look like a box of chocolate. You really want to be in that world. That is the point of cover art. Do you want to dip into what that world is? Of course, you may be totally wrong about what that world turns out to be, but in this case, it's oblique. What they tried to be true to is a certain kind of non-gendered cover, and also the spirit of youth and the seventies.
So stripy colors are the new faceless woman standing in a field/by a lake/in the rain with a broken high heel? Dame Jacqueline Wilson should get on that.
May 06, 2013
The 11th anniversary issue of Bookslut is up, and it is true to its Taurean nature. All Venus-worshiping and dirty.
So I guess that makes Spolia an Aries? Not entirely sure about that, although issue one has a Minotaur, some ethnic cleansing, and the aftermath of war. Whatever her sign, Spolia this week is "Pay What You Can," so you can name your own price. And we're running excerpts from five of our favorite stories on the blog. First up is Daphne Gottlieb's stunning "Bess."
Here is to birthdays and raised drinks and new beginnings. It's been a pleasure to get to do this for 11 years.
May 01, 2013
I have been traveling and dealing with things and writing a book and so certain things I miss, or I hear about them and immediately forget until someone with a glass of cheap wine in their hand expresses incredulity that I missed a certain piece of gossip or information.
(But is it glorious being out of the loop, not having to worry about things like who the new editor of Whatever the Fuck is or who wrote the not very intelligent or well written or well considered essay in the New York Times saying Chicago is a shit hole, or who is involved with who or who got a book deal for the latest How We Live Now remainder-bait? It is glorious. I don't know how you writers in New York and London do it, just knowing all of these things and having thoughts and feelings about it.)
So breaking news to people like me who are weary with jet lag and rarely get the opportunity to step into English language bookstores anymore: The New York Times Book Review has a new editor. The old editor I was once on a panel with, and the less said about that the better because my jaw starts to get really tight and then I have a bad back for three days. So whoop de dah, who gives a fuck about him. But Michael Wolff introduces us to his replacement:
Paul has, pretty much, no writerly or literary credentials. She's written some straightforward, but non-literary nonfiction – a book about marriage, a book about parenting, and a book condemning pornography – and she's been the children's book editor at the Book Review for a short time. Her resume includes two years as a blogger at the Huffington Post, which, it doesn't seem entirely churlish to point out, is not a job, and a stint writing a column for the Times' Style section.
Anyway, it's a perfectly reasonable but not distinguished freelance journalism career. So why a major post in the world of literary journalism?
The book condemning pornography is my favorite bio tidbit. Because either a) she really thinks pornography is hurting society or b) she wrote it for the advance money, maybe knowing it was going to be remaindered in about six weeks. Either way, it doesn't exactly show a growling intellect or a dedication to great art.
But probably you already knew this, and have been blogging tweeting, gossiping, complaining about it endlessly (or you have known for years that the NYTBR is a powerless figurehead who hasn't quite gotten the message that no one is following out his orders and so don't really care). I'm going to go attack my whiskey stash and see if I can't forget that I ever knew this information.
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 09, 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 08, 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 05, 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 04, 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 03, 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 02, 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.
March 29, 2013
Medea, by George Romney
Hey there, how have you been? I kind of got eaten by the new issue of Bookslut, which is something that happens sometimes. Plus, we're working on a secret. Which we'll be able to announce next week, but this week if we'd try to announce it, we're so tired we would basically be like, your gift is over there, I didn't wrap it, I just kind of put a sheet over it. I hope you like it, I'm taking my whiskey bottle to bed now don't wake me for five days kind of thing.
Also, I'm supposed to be getting on a plane? Fucking bullshit if you ask me.
What you/I/we all need is a good story, and so here is "The New Mother" by Lucy Clifford for us. And it is bad form to psychoanalyze a writer by the works that they create, but "The New Mother" will make you wonder what in the world happened to Lucy Clifford as a child. The story starts here:
The children were always called Blue-Eyes and the Turkey, and they came by the names in this manner. The elder one was like her dear father who was far away at sea, and when the mother looked up she would often say, “Child, you have taken the pattern of your father’s eyes,” for the father had the bluest of Blue-Eyes, and so gradually his little girl came to be called after them. The younger one had once, while she was still almost a baby, cried bitterly because a turkey that lived near to the cottage, and sometimes wandered into the forest, suddenly vanished in the middle of the winter; and to console her she had been called by its name.
Now the mother and Blue-Eyes and the Turkey and the baby all lived in a lonely cottage on the edge of the forest. The forest was so near that the garden at the back seemed a part of it, and the tall fir-trees were so close that their big black arms stretched over the little thatched roof, and when the moon shone upon them their tangled shadows were all over the white-washed walls.
March 28, 2013
The Poetry Society's 2013 National Poetry Competition (UK) has awarded the 1st prize to Patricia McCarthy's 'Clothes that escaped the Great War'. You can read it here at the Guardian; you may need to explain to your co-workers that it's suddenly got very dusty in the area of your face.
Fellow semi-literate Canadianphiles take note: the CBC Bookie Awards wants you to give your favourite authors a Golden Beaver.
March 27, 2013
Book of the Week: Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist by Diane Radycki, an Excerpt
At the threshold of modernism Paula Modersohn-Becker risked everything in order to become “something.” Who she became was a daring innovator of gender imagery — the first modern woman artist to challenge centuries of traditional representations of the female body in art.
Before Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), no woman artist painted herself nude, or mothers nude, or girls nude. Not only did she reconfigure the nude, but she also resituated still-life painting. She arranged it in the kitchen as a site of domestic practice and the tasks of meal preparation. Given her originality, her long friendship with the great lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and her reputation among contemporary artists, it is surprising that she is not better known in the United States.
One reason may be her untimely death. In 1907, not long after painting her revolutionary nudes and giving birth to her first and only child, Modersohn-Becker died, age thirty-one, unknown, and ahead of her time. There would be no more of her work to put in perspective pictures never before seen. Another reason may be that until recently only part of her story was available. Even for those who know her work well, her artistic struggles and personal anguish — years in an unconsummated marriage, racking irresolution about motherhood, a disappointing affair, ongoing financial difficulties, and vulnerable isolation — come as a surprise.Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta, Rosemarie Trockel, Rineke Dijkstra, and VALIE EXPORT, among others) to recognize fully what Modersohn-Becker pioneered. The time is here for a new look at this groundbreaking artist.
Part 1, “Beginning and End,” presents two families: one the biological family that raised Paula Becker, and the other a circle with elective affinities that, after her untimely death, promoted her work. Her ancestry is bourgeois (Becker) and noble (von Bültzingslöwen), somewhat troubled and somewhat adventurous. (A horrific death that Paula witnessed when she was a child marked her “first glimmer of self-awareness” and her artistic imagination.) The other “family” — artists, gallerists, museum directors, and collectors — furthered her reputation posthumously in print and in exhibition.
Within a year of her death in 1907, Rilke wrote his moving Requiem for a Friend. In 1911 the first feature article appeared in the feminist literary monthly Frauen-Zukunft (Women Tomorrow). Among its contributors were Thomas Mann, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and George Bernard Shaw. But it was not until after World War I that Modersohn-Becker attracted a large and loyal readership, specifically with the publication of her letters and journals. Meanwhile, memorial exhibitions of her work, which were organized by friends as earlyas 1908, moved on from local venues to galleries, art fairs, and exhibition spaces throughout Germany — and made contradictory claims about her art. Nineteenth-century or modern? Provincial or international? Juvenile or genius? A favorite daughter or a great artist?
Part 2, “Mittel (Middle, Means, Medium),” begins answering these questions by returning the reader to her life story. Paula Becker grew up in a rapidly modernizing Dresden and in the historically independent Hansa city of Bremen; she trained at professional art schools in London (co-educational) and Berlin (girls only), and privately in Worpswede. Thereafter, she was back and forth between Worpswede and Paris, between a rural art colony on the north German moors and the teeming capital of the avant-garde with its competitive heat. This was a period of close friendships with the sculptor Clara Westhoff and with Rilke (who were married), and of courtship and marriage to the landscape painter Otto Modersohn. Eleven years her senior and a recent widower with a two-yearold daughter, Modersohn was a founder of the Worpswede art colony. He was also, she was soon to discover, threatened by the art scene in Paris.
Part 3, “I Painted This,” details the risks Modersohn-Becker took. Rapidly absorbing Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, and van Gogh, she defied expectations,explored imagery, scrambled genres, and ran the course of all young Turks in Paris in the early twentieth century. For models the painter chose unlikely females — those without fashion or sexual currency — the young and the old.
Under her brush, blood-and-soil peasants were the bodies of existential awareness. “She was,” her husband admitted, “understood — by no one.”
At age thirty — her self-imposed deadline for “becoming something” — Modersohn-Becker experienced a crisis. Stifled in the art colony and frustrated by five years in an unconsummated marriage, the artist had a brief affair and then fled to Paris in the dead of a cold February night, without a word to anyone but the Rilkes (although she did consult a lawyer about divorce). The mounting tension is documented in a succession of iconic portraits: the best friend; the poet-confidante; the electrifying advocate of free love; the judgmental younger sister; the liberating new model; and, not least of all, herself nude, goddess and creatrix. Once settled in Paris, she forsook her married name and painted feverishly, while simultaneously weighing her options for single motherhood.Through Rilke, who at the time was Auguste Rodin’s secretary, she was crisscrossing paths with radical thinkers and artists, Pablo Picasso among them. She had her eye on the Salon des Indépendants and on the careers of other women artists, particularly Berthe Morisot.
Girl Portrait, Paula Modersohn-Becker
Modersohn-Becker painted the life she was living as a woman and artist. She experimented with her medium and her working methods, and photographed herself nude, bust and full figure. The breakthrough came when she transformed the genre of the nude. Over a century later, it remains startling,even shocking, to see paintings of mothers and self-portraits as full frontal nudes. Her majestic and monumental Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude is the body of maternity mapped onto the bodies of fecundity and spectacle. Her manifesto, Self-Portrait, Age 30, 6th Wedding Day, is the nude body of the woman artist as subject and object. A life-size, three-quarters portrait of herself nude, it is as astonishing today as it was when she painted it in 1906. Modern female body imagery begins here, with Modersohn-Becker. Its next famous practitioner, Frida Kahlo, was not born until the year Modersohn-Becker died.
Part 4, “Beginning and End Continued,” parallels Part 1 and concludes her story twice: first, with the end of claims on her work as unfinished and provincial, even as she continued to elude categorization; and, second, with the end of her mortal life. Whereas for the pre–World War I art world her painting was puzzling and divisive, in the postwar tumult of the Weimar era — of mavericks, iconoclasts, and social critics, as well as of German women’s enfranchisement — her work looked stunningly prescient. She was taken up in 1919 by two astute dealers on the postwar scene in Berlin and Düsseldorf — the young J. B. Neumann and the seasoned Alfred Flechtheim — and from that point her fame grew steadily. In Bremen the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, the first museum devoted to a woman artist, opened in 1927. Neumann and Flechtheim brought her to the attention of Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1931. Paris and London followed next.
In Germany, however, the avant-garde was finished. As proof, in 1937 the National Socialists organized their massive exhibition of banned modern art, which held up for derision, among others, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, E. L. Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian, and Modersohn-Becker, a rare woman in the temple of degenerates. The Führer was infuriated not only by her transgressive imagery, but also by the claim, carved in stone at the entrance to the Modersohn-Becker Museum, of a woman artist’s immortality.
The final chapter returns to the last year of her life and the dark side of independence: identity crises, poverty, and isolation. After six months of anxious highs and lows, as well as relentless pressure exerted by family and friends, the impecunious Modersohn-Becker agreed to let her importuning husband join her in Paris. She became pregnant and they returned to Worpswede, where she painted the first self-portrait pregnant in the history of art. The woman artist looks straight out at the viewer and brandishes her twin flowers of creativity and procreativity. Deal with it, she challenges us. She died three weeks after giving birth, from complications that arose from the pregnancy.
The artist who died in 1907 had a different story after her death than she has today. By 1936 The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker had introduced well over forty-five thousand German book buyers to a charming daughter, wife, artist, and mother — indeed, so relentlessly charming was her story that Rilke argued against its publication. As he explained to her family, he and his wife found the personal and artistic struggles of their friend missing in the writings selected for the general public. Lost for generations to come would be the First Modern Woman Artist, the story that is told here. This story is the missing piece in the history of twentieth-century modernism.
Printed, and slightly condensed, with permission by Yale University Press
March 26, 2013
Book of the Week: Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist by Diane Radycki
Paula Modersohn-Becker was a contemporary of Matisse, of Kirchner and Picasso, of the great modernist painters working in Berlin and in Paris. And yet for a very long time she has remained obscure. She was not recognized in her own time -- she died in her early 30s after giving birth to her first child -- but what she did paint in her short life was radical and new. She painted women's bodies. Not in the way that her male contemporaries did, but in the way women like Frida Kahlo would, and she created art in the way that Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta and Claude Cahun would, by exploring the self and the female figure and using her own image to examine the place of women in the world and in society.
Her life story, explored in a volume of her letters published in German in the years after her death, also illuminates the role of the woman as artist, as mother, as wife, and as creator. She was married to a painter, but she left him and his daughter to move to Paris to make a go of being a painter full time. She longed for a child of her own, but she was strongly ambivalent about the role of the mother and how it would interrupt her work. Her letters explore these ambivalences and ambiguities in a bright and alert manner. Her charm comes through, and her story remains highly relatable to women trying to decide between ambition and motherhood, or trying to gain respect and reputation in a critical establishment that denigrates, or ignores, women's work.
Diane Radycki's Paula Modersohn-Becker explores all of these pressures on the female artist's life at the turn of the century, and the way modernism has been defined as masculine. She also brings Modersohn-Becker more fully to life, adding a darker tone to the relentlessly cheerful letters she sent home to worried parents. And the paintings and sketches are all beautifully reproduced, introducing us all to this important and beautiful painter.
I spoke with Radycki over the phone about her subject, and what Modersohn-Becker has to say to the female creator of today.
My first exposure to Paula Modersohn-Becker wasn't with her artwork, but with her journals and her letters, which you edited and translated. It's rare to read an artist who can write coherently and expressively about her work, and about the particular frustrations with the artist's life. What was your first exposure to her work?
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Selfbildnis mit Modell
It was an in undergraduate art history class. At the time, back at the University of Illinois, the class was being taught by a painter who had seen her work in Germany and was himself surprised by it, taken by it, moved by it, and brought it into the class. What he told us was that there was nothing in English about her, and as he couldn't read German there was nothing he could tell us about it except that chronologically she fit in with the German Expressionists. Everything I saw of her, any pictures, looked so different from German Expressionism that it just didn't work. It left me with a lot of questions about her, what was she doing? She seemed to be stuck in a place where she didn't belong. Later, I was very surprised there was nothing more done on her. I translated those letters and diaries, thinking it might jump start some work on her. It did, but more in England than in the States. I thought when it was time to do a PhD thesis that I would do that -- the criticism of her, but it kept misplacing her. If she had no true place, no authentic place in art history, that might account for the fact that she remains unknown or resistant to any understanding of her place in art history.
What I was shown, the Self-Portrait Nude with Amber Necklace, and I think the slide that came up right before was that Kirchner self-portrait, where he's got that incredibly bold striped robe on, and the model is cowering in the back, and he's looking very lascivious. And I was thinking, "What was that? If that defines German Expressionism, what does that have to do with her?" How do you put those two things together? Well, you don't. It took the 20th century and the rise of women's artists exploring their bodies, their lives, the female nude from an entirely different perspective, for me to understand exactly what she did and what she had pioneered. It was something no one could understand at the time.
Do you think part of the reason she remained obscure is because she didn't fit in with her time, or what has come to define that era for us?
I think the second is really true. In the end, I think I have to say she was so in advance with what would happen with female imagery and the challenge to traditional imagery. Turn of the century and everyone is so excited about making modernism. But what we're really looking at is male interpretations, formal interpretations. What she hit on wouldn't really be understood or advanced in any way for generations to come. The next woman to use her body in any meaningful way was Frida Kahlo, and Frida Kahlo was born the year Modersohn-Becker dies. The women we look at in art history, none of them took on the female body as a subject matter. The wonderful women of the '20s, Jeanne Mammen and Sonia Delaunay, they did not explore that imagery either. After World War I, that was when her reputation began to rise in Germany. When the war so affected everybody that there was a really different audience, no one would have been able to see what was to come after her, but when they looked at her, when they really were war weary and very skeptical of authority, here she is, challenging authority, traditions, conventions. They saw it. In Germany at least, that's the beginning of her reputation. And the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, that is the first museum dedicated to a woman artist. I honestly think her time is coming now. But it did take the women's movement and women's imagery.
The diaries and letters that have become a way to introduce her to the public, because they are so lively and they are so charismatic, you write that they give a very skewed view of her life. And even her friends the Rilkes objected to the publication of her letters, because they leave out all of the hardship and suffering.
Jeanne Mammen, Langweilige Puppen (Boring Dolls)
All you need to do is put yourself in her place, because most of these letters were letters home. What are you writing your mom and dad about your life? You're telling them about your real struggles? Mom and dad and brothers and sisters and people in Bremen. They were the ones who wanted to advance her reputation for her, they were the ones who promoted the publication of her letters and diaries. But it was from materials they had, and it was a dutiful wife and mother and daughter that they knew. But they didn't know all of her. And that's what Rilke objected to. Later Rilke does say in a letter in the '20s that he reread that volume and said maybe he was wrong. Maybe the charm of her has its own worth. It's true, a woman wanting to respond to the love and expectations of family, besides an internal struggle. That too up until the 1920s, that too kind of crimped what our idea was of her.
In a lot of ways, the struggles she goes through are these universal struggles women creators still go through: wanting to have children but knowing what that can do to your career, the establishment of teacher and critics are still dominated by men. One doesn't want to turn her into a feminist archetype, but the fact that she was so torn about having children and that is ultimately what kills her, giving birth, it's a very feminist narrative she played out.
I wouldn't say giving birth killed her, it was state of medicine at the turn of the century that killed her. This idea of sequestering pregnant women so they shouldn't go out and you shouldn't see them. Pregnancy was a kind of illness. Don't exercise! Don't move around! That killed her. She wouldn't have died now. She was 31, first child at 31, and that was very dangerous at the turn of the century. Today, you could have your first child at 41, we know other things about the female body.
I really wanted to respect her, from where she was coming. She knew about feminism, obviously there were feminist movements there in Germany. One of her aunts was active in feminism. Her real focus was on art and creativity. Certainly she realized how difficult it was being on her own, without financial wherewithal when she went to Paris. Virginia Woolf says "money and a room of one's own," and she says money first. Most of us just look at the title, A Room of One's Own. I really believe it was money and loneliness that undid her. There wasn't anybody, she didn't have a female friend in Paris who understood what she was doing. Some of the men could see they were looking at things they hadn't seen before. But they weren't feminists, and they couldn't offer her the kind of friendship that we now all have created for ourselves. Those things weighed on her.
The loneliness really came through. She was there, by herself, she had left her husband, and that was a daring thing to do. What was the art scene in Paris like for women artists? What was the support system for a woman like her?
Marie Laurencin, Bacante
It's 1906, it's 1907, it's Picasso. In Germany it is Kirchner and in Paris it's Matisse. 1905 is going to be the Fauves. But can you name a woman? Marie Laurencin? She does remarkable things, but she has yet to be taken with any seriousness. I found exhibition catalogues for her that included images that we don't associate with her. Lesbian flirtations and there's an image of women behind the veils of contemporary fashion. Fashionable hats that she's labeling The Cage. The Prison. Everyone's looking at the prettiness of her, and the titles have somehow disappeared. There's a wonderful image she does, perhaps the only one I've seen in the early 20th century, and there's a woman with a black eye. A beautiful woman who has been abused, and hit.
As far as I know, Paula had no female support. Her friend Clara Westhoff happened to be in Germany at the time. Rilke was there and then not there. There is her sister, for a while, but as you come to read what her sister's correspondence with other family members is, you can see she's on the side of the family. "I've lost a sister, I've lost a daughter. Here stands a painter willing to turn her back on all of us." She loves her still, but her sister is conflicted, and her sister is not an artist and so there's no understanding there. She took advantage of a husband who loved her and missed her and said, "Send me money." Every other letter to him she says, well, if you really do care, send money. She came to marriage with money, but the money goes to him. When she left she was so desperate she would not allow that reality to interfere. She just escaped, and then she had to deal with it.
Another thing we don't know is why she went back to her husband. There's that blank spot. Do you have any ideas of what that decision was, other than exhaustion from trying to make it on her own?
It's hard to know when one's not inside a marriage. She leaves it in desperation and frustration. When she does the turn-about and goes back home, she's looking for relief from the poverty and loneliness in Paris. Why she would think the marriage would work now when it didn't work for her before, that's always a good question. The little bit of facts that we know, she's conflicted, she's writing her older sister who's married, she writes about how she does not want to go back to him. What the family knows that she seems not to know, is that her one confidante, the sculptor Bernard Hoetger, and she thinks he's totally on her side, and it's revealed that through the younger sister, he gets put in touch with [Paula's] husband. So when she approaches the Hoetgers with her problems, she doesn't know that he's already aware of them. She's expecting support for going forward as an artist, because he's been very supportive. And she's ecstatic that someone finally sees what she's doing. What she doesn't realize is that he has dual loyalties. He's got loyalties to his art and to his manhood. And he identifies with the husband. A German woman, a German wife does not leave a husband and a step-child. What we do know is that she spent a long evening with her, and her word is that he "preached" at her, or "harangued" her. And he really threw her off base.
I would guess, and do not record this at all as fact, but I would guess that he was sensitive to how devoted she was to her art, and I would put money on the belief that he thought she could go forward with her art in the way she wanted to, in terms of needing support herself. And here was this husband who loved her and missed her and through it all was sending money. And he was saying, I would guess, this is the best way to go forward. This is Plan B. The next letter to that sister in Frankfurt said, well, I'm going back. And her letters to her husband never explained. She said, well, I spent the evening with Hoetger and he talked me into this, so, okay, you can come. That's it. She didn't explain to anyone. Boy, the beauty of her! Women still feel they have to go through life apologizing. Not her!
You know, let's give it to her. Let's not end that story there with her defeat. She looked at what her options were, and she decided on that one. There was no indication that she wasn't thinking about how to make it work. There's a letter to Rilke after she's returned to her husband, saying, I'm thinking about going to Italy. She is going to make this work for her. If I were strategic, I would say to you, she realizes how much she means to him. She's not coming back with her tail between her legs. If you want me back, these are my terms. And he wants her back. He was of a different aesthetic, but he was talented and he recognized that she was a genius. He thought he was marrying an art student, a bit of an adoring fan, and son of a gun, he married a genius. He was up for it! He didn't want Paris, but he loved her.
She did have supportive men, around her. Her father treated her like she was not an idiot. He was supportive in his way. And the husband saw her talent. Her male friends saw her talent. It's heartening, reading about that.
The Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Woolf has that artist haunted by that phrase, "Women can't write, women can't paint." One can only assume that's what Woolf felt, too. Never did Modersohn-Becker feel that. Never did she feel she couldn't paint. She could paint. It just took the world a lot of time to catch up with her.
March 25, 2013
Over at Architect Magazine, I review Maria Semple's novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette, about a reclusive and Salinger-esque architect. And while the non-stop whimsy and stylistic trickery grated, at its heart I was really taken with its story of a woman who stepped away from her creative life, after a series of shattering rejections and disappointments wrecked her.
The elusive house and the elusive architect became stuff of legend; Fox retreated to Seattle when her husband’s tech company was sold to Microsoft. She never built another house and allowed the fixer-upper they moved into to fall apart around her. Her husband, Elgin Branch, a genius of his own sort, plays an interesting contrast to Fox. His creations are constantly used up and spat out by Microsoft. The tech he created for veterans with catastrophic injuries becomes just another video game toy at the company, and yet he still gets up every day, goes to work, and tries again. His frustration at the separation between the two of them spills out at one point. “What you went through with the Twenty Mile House—I go through shit like that ten times a day at Microsoft,” Branch yells at her. “People get over things. It’s called bouncing back ... Do you realize how selfish and self-pitying that is?”
It’s easy to join Branch in wondering why Fox can’t just get over the disappointment of a project gone wrong and start again. Or, it would be, if Semple didn’t do such an insightful job in her book at showing how failure has a tendency to compound. When one setback follows another—a fall breaks a woman's leg, and another a week later snaps her crutch in half—a person of a certain temperament might take it as a sign that the gods didn't want her walking in the first place.
So, how did you spend yesterday's Day of Blood?
Yesterday was the sacred day of Cybele, and it was traditionally celebrated by going into a frenzied state and castrating yourself. From Words as Eggs:
Cybele fell in love with Attis, selected him as her priest, and demanded of him the vow of chastity. When Attis broke his vow, she brought on him a frenzy during which he castrated himself. Subsequently, in the celebrated cults of Cybele, the Galli, or her priests, would flagellate and castrate themselves. This was popularly known as "The Day of Blood." Cybele is often pictured with a whip and a towered crown as emblems of her power.
Strangely, I spent yesterday reading a novel about a man with a castration anxiety that he talks about a lot. (Also, I had dumplings for lunch, which kind of look like... I wasn't reminded of the Day of Blood until this morning, and now all of yesterday seems like an unintentional day of devotion to Cybele.) Actually, I'm hoping Lucy Ellmann will agree to talk about her book, Mimi, because while I enjoyed the book a great deal, she outlines a solution to the problem of gender relations that is silly at best. (Give women all of the power.) I do not believe that women are inherently peaceful and men are inherently violent, but Mimi quite baldly puts forth this thesis. (And by constantly bringing up the man's castration complex, and then by showing him happy when his ambitions and career are destroyed, Ellmann seems to suggest that he is happier after he submits to his castration. I find this wildly problematic.) And yet there are parts of the book that are very, very good. I think it would make for an interesting conversation.
But in the meantime, let's celebrate the (day after the) Day of Blood with the upside of castration! Castrati. And the sex and opera romp Farinelli.
March 22, 2013
I am forever bothering my friends, asking them what they're reading. But as interesting to me as that is what people are not reading. What they refuse to read. What words in the description on the back make them drop the book as quickly as if they had read the words WE COATED THIS BOOK IN A TOXIN THAT IS SLOWLY NOW BEING ABSORBED THROUGH YOUR SKIN.
Someone emailed, recommending a book to me, using the words "experimental," "600 pages," "Brooklyn," and "postmodern" while listing a dude's name as the author, and I wrote back: You could not have used any worse words to describe that book to me. I can take one or two of those elements in a book, but I am thoroughly allergic to the combination.
Recently I gave up on two books: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Secrecy by Rupert Thomson. I have heard both are excellent. Thomson's Divided Kingdom is great, as is his The Book of Revelation. I got about three pages into Life After Life and suddenly Hitler is there and I just couldn't do it. And there were urgent messages being delivered on horseback in the Thomson. And I just cannot do historical fiction. My throat closes up when I get near a copy of Wolf Hall, and the whole world got together to just hand over shiny things to Hilary Mantel the other day, telling her she is the queen of all the writers of ever. It's great, right? Objectively it is great. I don't have to read it to say it is great, it is great, don't make me read it if there are people on horses and men in castles.
History, nonfiction, yes, please, give me that. I am reading Joan of Arc and in love with that. But when you start fictionalizing things and putting hopes and dreams in people's heads, I don't know why I just don't want anything to do with it.
Historical Fiction Anne Boleyn
In the last issue of Bookslut, the wickedly smart Batya Ungar-Sargon reviewed The Autobiography of Us, a novel about the 1950s. Except not really the 1950s, it is the 2013 version of the 1950s, which is different from the 1982 version of the 1950s.
We cannot accept that even as Mad Men is our fantasy of the 1950s (with residual effects in the 1960s and even the 1970s), so too was it their fantasy of themselves, rather than a reality. For every Leave it to Beaver, there was an Auntie Mame or a Revolutionary Road (1961) or The Bell Jar (1963); for every movie or novel dictating the standards of the correct, there was another exposing the myth of the American family as corrosive, destructive, the tool of PR campaigns for vacuum cleaners and briefcases. To understand The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966) as representative of some kind of 1950s reality would be the equivalent of someone going to our theaters and concluding that vampires walk the streets of Seattle. While it seems that both Auntie Mame and The Donna Reed Show were fantasies -- representative of a culture flexing its ideological muscles -- our remakes of the 1950s seem incapable of imagining people back then as, well, imagining. This category error -- of mistaking a culture's fantasies for its reality -- represents only the conservatism of our own cultural moment (there's a reason the 1980s didn't produce Mad Men; when the '80s tried to make a film about the '50s, they ended up with Mommie Dearest).
And over at the Smart Set, Nathaniel Popkin also has some issues with the way novelists imagine the past in historical fiction.
In the first page of the earlier A Time for Everything, translated by James Anderson, Knausgaard presents a fictional 16th century Italian writer and theologian, Antinous, about whom little is known. (A real life Antinous was a lover of Hadrian — little is otherwise is known about his life outside what Margerite Yourcenar presented in her exquisite historical fiction Memoirs of Hadrian. More recently he has been repurposed as “the gay god.”) “But if one is to attempt to understand Antinous, it isn’t to the inner man one must turn,” writes Knausgaard. “For even if one succeeded in charting his inner landscape as it actually was, right down to the smallest fissure and groove in the massif of his character… Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we could understand and recognize, we would still come no closer to him. Antinous was, first and foremost, of his time, and to understand who he was, that is what must be mapped.”
And there are exceptions that I will make for historical fiction, but not many. We all have our specific allergies. I've made peace with mine.
March 21, 2013
When James Joyce was nearly blind and working on the first draft of Finnegans Wake, the book he permitted himself during his daily reading window was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a best-selling satire by Anita Loos.
The book has the interest of biographical color rather than any usefulness for explaining the Wake. But Loos uses language in an interesting way; her book is a prime example of modernist techniques seeping into popular use. And the dialect humor is close to what Joyce worked for in certain chapters of his earlier books.
And without Loos we also would not have Irmgard Keun's divine Artificial Silk Girl, which was directly and obviously influenced by Loos. Keun gets at something nastier than Loos, though, working as she does with the poverty and instability and creeping atmosphere of violence in Weimar Berlin.