As Helen Oyeyemi tells it, the trouble with mirrors began once upon a time in a flat she kept in Prague—which, for whatever reason, happened to have a lot of them on its walls. “I must have felt a bit bullied by all my reflections, because I became hostile toward them,” Oyeyemi, who was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists last year, says via email from Prague. “And then I remembered that one of my biggest problems with ‘Snow White’ is the way everyone just believes what the mirror says. A more modern heroine, say post-1920s, would be asking a few questions about the ‘fairest of them all’ statement. For instance, on what criteria is the mirror basing this judgment, and what’s the source of the mirror’s authority?”
It would be easy enough to summarize Jeff Goldblum’s over-40-year career by calling him the most quotable movie scientist in recent memory: in films ranging from David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror remake The Fly (1986, as a scientist whom one should never arm-wrestle), to several of the 1990s’ most beloved blockbusters (as scientists who, whether pursued by dinosaurs or aliens, “must go faster!”), toWes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, as the titular seafarer’s—and his dog’s—”part gay” scientist foe), Goldblum has developed a reputation as a reliably eccentric intellectual who knows his way around a zinger and, occasionally, a woman.
Yet Goldblum is not so easily typecast. He has a tendency to turn up where you least expect him—leaping nimbly from the boards of the Old Vic to Law and Order: Criminal Intent tosinging Biz Markie on Jimmy Fallon. Remember him as the voice of Verminous Skumm, the polluting villain on Captain Planet (1990)? Or the noirishly hilarious Deep Cover (1992) sleaze? (“We’ll have barbecue jumbo shrimp, you motherfucker!”) Or the guy who came on screen after you won the Jurassic Park video game and told you to get up and go outside? Goldblum has a tendency to steal all and any scenes, no matter how small: in an especially Goldblum-y twist, his one-line cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977,as a party guest who’s “forgotten his mantra”) is often ranked among the best performances of his career.
Now 61, the veteran actor continues to delight—albeit with a few more lines—as Deputy Kovacs, the cat-loving estate lawyer in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which opens this week. Reached by phone during a busy press day at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, Goldblum displayed the same enthusiasm for his profession that led him, as a high schooler, to trace the words “Please God, let me be an actor” on his shower door every day. He’s also, as it turns out, equally enthusiastic about his new puppy, his music, his bi-colored facial hair, and, well, pretty much everything else: get him talking, and that famous Goldblum voice takes off at a rapid clip, free-associating and riffing on words like the accomplished jazz pianist he is.
But this has everything to do with his career as an actor, as it happens, and not just in improvisational roles like his recent turn on Portlandia. In acting as in jazz, as Goldblum might put it, the play (as a verb) is the thing. And unlike many of the roles that have catapulted him to his own idiosyncratic version of stardom, it’s not rocket science—it’s loving what you do. In other words, while he may not be planning to reprise his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm in the forthcomingJurassic World, it’s not likely he’ll be sitting around.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of travel literature’s most colorful, beguiling pedestrians, famously decided to walk across Europe when he was 18. Why not? He’d failed out of every school he’d gone to, after all, had given up on joining the army, and was living a somewhat-too-dissipated life in London among the aging remnant of the Bright Young Things. So, in the winter of 1933, equipped with a rucksack, walking stick, military greatcoat, puttees, and the Oxford Book of English Verse, he hopped on a boat to Rotterdam, Netherlands, pointing his hobnailed boots in the direction of what he’d always call Constantinople (not Istanbul), where he’d arrive in just over a year.
Eighty years later, we finally have the complete account of that trip. But it was a long road getting there—a kind of parallel journey. In 1962, Holiday magazine asked Fermor to write an article on “The Pleasures of Walking,” which he took as a chance to revisit the “Great Trudge” of his youth. He managed to cover the first two-thirds of the trip in a mere 70 pages, but the conclusion ballooned into a book of its own. Fermor wanted to call it Parallax, to underline the dual vantage of adolescence and middle age. His long-suffering publisher suggested A Youthful Journey instead. As it happened, it became neither as, busy building a house in the Peloponnese, Fermor abandoned the project altogether. By the time he took it up again, 10 or so years later on, he’d decided to start from the beginning again and write not one book but three. A Time of Gifts, which covers his walk from Holland to the middle Danube, was published in 1977. Between the Woods and the Water followed nine years later, taking him as far as the Iron Gates separating the Balkan and Carpathian mountains and ending with the words “TO BE CONCLUDED.” With the posthumous publication of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, it kind of is.
IN 1801, THE GERMAN POET and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, in the throes of what has been called his “Kant crisis,” took a house on an island in the Swiss river Aare, near Thun. A reading of Kant (which particular work has not been established) had led Kleist to conclude that truth was no longer graspable and reason illusory, effectively refuting the Enlightenment values by which he’d conducted his life thus far. As a result, he felt his world fly into a series of irreconcilable fragments, initiating what Nietzsche called a period of “upheaval and despair” from which he would never recover: 10 years later, at the age of 34, Kleist shot himself by the Kleiner Wannsee as part of a suicide pact with a woman named Henriette Vogel, whom an autopsy later revealed to be dying of cancer.
But it is in Thun that the Swiss poet Robert Walser — whose own despair in his art eventually drove him across the border of madness — imagines an encounter with Kleist. There, as Walser writes in the story “Kleist in Thun,” the playwright finds himself “somewhat unwell”:
The fields are thick with flowers, fragrance everywhere, hum of bees, work, sounds fall, one idles about; in the heat of the sun you could go mad. It is as if radiant red stupefying waves rise up in his head whenever he sits at his table and tries to write. He cursed his craft.
At the end of the story Walser turns back to himself, reflecting, seemingly apropos of nothing, of Thun: “I know the region a little, perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there.”
For a couple of years, I wrote a horoscope column for my college paper under the name “Claire Connection.” (The pseudonym was meant as parody, but—as I discovered when an actual astrologer by that name wrote my editor a threatening email—it wasn’t.) Despite the flippancy with which I approached the task then, I do still find myself turning to the horoscopes from time to time. Because you needn’t buy what astrology’s selling to be interested in the conjunction it forces between human make-believe and the arbitrary structure of things, a curious relation that the discipline (if one may be allowed to call it that) throws into relief: We’re unwilling to give up on freedom, serendipity, and plain old hard work—but we don’t want to just be a fluke. There’s a deep reassurance to be had in feeling oneself part of some great cosmic cycle. [READ MORE…]
TO A STRAIGHT WOMAN, the phenomenon of inter-male friendship possesses a certain anthropological interest. Yet the tendency, I’ve found, is — quite in contravention of scholarly norms — to be at once jealous of it and somehow touched; to falsely exoticize it, in other words, viewing it as an unattainable utopia of uncomplication and purity, as we might succumb to viewing some remotely primitive tribe. Jealous because we feel the need to fill this role for our lovers or husbands, to be total besties, as it were, as well as romantic and sexual partners, and also because we’re sure (we are!) that we’d do a better job at it than any man would do. Touched, possibly, tear in our eye, by its being so mysterious, and, well, maybe noble in some utterly incomprehensible way. So imagine this reader’s delight upon hearing that it’s this very mystery into which Norman Rush delves in his long-awaited third novel, Subtle Bodies, and that — hosanna, as one of his characters puts it — he’s given us a female perspective, too. Specifically, the novel nudges at the question of what happens to male friendship when men are no longer equals — to solve, even more specifically, for “x” (women are, for once, the “y”) in the equation of friendship plus time, a calculation involving both the limitations of sympathy and its consequences. [Read more…]
IN 1976, ITALO CALVINO, in his capacity as an editor at the Einaudi publishing house, flipped through the correspondence of his late friend and mentor Elio Vittorini, which was being prepared for a book. “His letters to Guarnieri form one of the meatiest parts of the correspondence,” Calvino wrote to Carlo Minoia, the volume’s editor, in a letter that appears in a new collection of letters of his own. “First because it is about friendship, holidays, girls; then there is the flare-up in Spain, which bursts to life very suddenly, after a dark period […].” (According to the notes provided by the editor of Calvino’s correspondence, a sentence has been omitted — it’s unclear by whom — that deals with Vittorini’s private life.) “The letters to [Vittorini’s] family are of great biographical interest,” Calvino continues. “For the work letters […] we’ll see what might be useful in covering any period or phase of his work that is less well documented; otherwise let’s leave them out.”
These workmanlike missives from one editor to another (which arrive with us in book form courtesy of yet another) are only noteworthy in that they offer a sort of tease, a brief glimpse of what the new 500-plus-page collection of Calvino’s selected correspondence, titled Letters 1941-1985, might have been, while also representing perfectly much of its spirit. Though we’ve seen plenty of friendship by the time we’ve arrived here on page 465, there’s been nary a sign of holiday-making or girls, and there has been, in fact, very little bursting into life (besides, of course, Calvino’s own lively intelligence). Instead, there has been much having to do with work. Calvino does report, peripherally and obliquely, having hidden in the mountains with the Italian Resistance (“I’ve been a partisan all this time, I’ve been through an unspeakable series of dangers and discomforts”), resigned from the Communist Party (“I find myself facing history without intermediaries for the first time”), and witnessed the 1968 student protests in Paris (“Basically I find myself in the ideal position of being a spectator: things are happening that interest me profoundly”). But Calvino’s marriage, his infamous affair with the actress Elsa De Giorgi, and his meeting with Che Guevara are not mentioned at all. One wonders, in passing, if Michael Wood — who made this selection from Luca Baranelli’s much more extensive (though still incomplete) Italian collection, Lettere 1940-1985 (2000) — included this particular one as a form of wishful thinking, a kind of Easter egg hinting that, really, it would have been nice if there’d been more girls. [Read more…]
It’s an old conversation, this one:
In the 13th century, according to one account, Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson wrote in his Skalda, a handbook of poetry: “A metaphor is thought to be well conceived if the notion that has been adopted is maintained throughout the verse. But if a sword is called a serpent, and later a fish or a wand, or changed another way, people call it monstrous and regard it as spoiling the verse.” [From the Mouth of the Whale]
To which, some seven centuries later, Pierre Reverdy replied that no, “the image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be.”
The big U.S. debut being given to Sjón this month by the publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is an affirmation of this broader, more inclusive sense of the figurative strange. Of course Sturluson’s monsters have been on the move for some time now, with vampires and other fantastical beings (both metaphorical and non-) making themselves at home on our couches and in our refrigerators, as well as our lakes and lemon groves. But as it usually manifests in the work of this country’s younger, literary-fictional types, the language of myth and fable feels more accurately something like whimsy: seemingly there because we like these odd, shiny things rather than out of any kind of urgent creative need for, or real sense of commitment to, the sword that can be both twig and tongue. We don’t have much cultural or linguistic truck with myth over here; never did. Maybe it’s that we are too cynical, or too puritan, in our thinking. Or maybe this kind of mytho-poetic belief, as in Snorri’s time, seems an ugly and hazardous rejection of some unspoken literary rule. [Read more…]