Jenny Hendrix

Things I've written, mostly.

This One is the Whole: Italo Calvino's Letters

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…]

In Iceland Everyone Believes in Fairies, and People Write Amazing Novels Like These

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.”

Another century of so on, another refutation, this one from Icelandic novelist Sjón: “Balderdash! Let the sword turn into an adder and the adder a salmon and the salmon a birch twig and the birch twig a sword and the sword a tongue. … Let it all run together so swiftly that it cannot be separated again.” [From the Mouth of the Whale]

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…]

An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

The ending of “The New Veterans” in Karen Russell’s story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” leaves one with a sense of the limits of fantasy — strange for a writer so deeply dedicated to the imaginative. On its face, the story’s plot is fantastic enough: a masseuse treating an Iraq War veteran named Derek Zeiger finds that she’s able to alter his traumatic memories by manipulating the tattoo on his back, moving pictures and erasing parts with her hands.

After a while, it seems she’s erased his memories too, changing Zeiger’s horrific story into one of triumph. But the masseuse ends uncertain: “Most days, she doubts she helped the sergeant at all. She thinks it’s far more likely that she aggravated his condition, or postponed a breakdown.” Only in her “wildest imaginings” can Zeiger’s story be both true and beneficial, and she doesn’t know which version to chose.

The collection’s title story, which is, as advertised, about vampires in a lemon grove, contains a similar moral. A vampire named (in a characteristic gesture for Russell, who treasures such sparks of postmodernist humor) Clive recalls his years “on the blood,” before he learned from his wife — “the first and only other vampire I’d ever met” — that the old stories about them were lies: “I listened to the village gossips and believed every rumor, internalized every report of corrupted bodies and boiled blood . . . I slept in coffins, in black cedar boxes, and woke every night with a fierce headache.” As in “The New Veterans,” the story’s ending both confirms and belies its myths. For the purposes of narrative the vampires must have a nature to struggle against (“We lift the lemons and swing them to our faces. We plunge our fangs, piercing the skin, and emit a long, united hiss: ‘Aaah!’”) if this is to be more than a comic exercise and lead us to its central truth: that love, like vampiric hunger, is defined by its inability to be satisfied. But the ending again casts doubt. [Read more…]

The Brightest Thing in the World

AT THE END of Matthew Goulish’s The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Essays from the Institute of Failure, the author quotes the second-to-last entry in the journal of the 30-year-old naturalist W.N.P Barbellion, written as he lay dying of disseminated sclerosis in June of 1919:

Rupert Brooke said the brightest thing in the world was a leaf with the sun shining on it. God pity his ignorance! The brightest thing in the world is a Ctenophor in a glass jar standing in the sun.

I have no way of knowing if the Scottish-born novelist and short story writer Ali Smith has read The Brightest Thing in the World, or if she is aware of the existence of W.N.P. Barbellion, born 72 years ahead of her on a point at the opposite end of the British Isle’s North-South axis. But reading her latest book, Artful, the image of that Ctenophor — a creature retrieved from the memory of a dead man — sticks in the mind. For one thing, Artfulis one of those books that, as you open it, expands like jelly in a jar — moving like an accordion, or (to borrow an image from the French novelist Jules Renard) a caterpillar over a leaf. Smith, like Goulish and Barbellion, is also reaching for that thing that survives loss, the pliant, gleaming thing, the brightest in the world. It’s my suspicion that, somewhere in all of this, she may have found it. [Read more…]

The Mystery Behind Frank O’Hara’s Most Famous Poem

IN SEPTEMBER 1966, a reading took place at New York University’s Loeb Center, near Washington Square. Less than two months had passed since Frank O’Hara’s death on Fire Island, and the event took on the flavor of a memorial for the recently departed poet. In his memoir, the poet’s longtime roommate Joe LeSueur recalled listening in shock as Kenneth Koch read a remarkable poem of O’Hara’s, which, until that moment, it seemed no one had ever heard. “We were not only moved by the poem,” LeSueur wrote, “but mystified as well. Why had he kept it a secret?” [Read more…]

The Catholicism of Evelyn Waugh

Tory, class apologist, snob, born-again Catholic, anti-Semite, admirer of Mussolini and Franco, employer in the mid-1960s of a Victorian ear trumpet, and general Pooterish misanthrope, Arthur Evelyn (“Eve-” like “Christmas Eve”) St. John (“Sin-jin,” like in Mad Men) Waugh (“waw,” as a British person might say “war”) is a difficult man to love. And yet his novels—with one notable exception—have never been out of print. In fact, they are being reissued this very month in print, audio, and, for the first time, digital editions. Just in time for America to revisit Waugh’s warm appraisal of the British upper crust before reigniting our own love of same come January, when Downton Abbey’s third season is set to air.

Waugh’s career is generally divided in two: the satiric and somewhat more cynical work of his early years, and the “Catholic” work of his later, with Brideshead Revisited the purplish dividing line between. He’s lauded for his humor and for the stylishness of his prose, which is precise and elegant even when parroting the idiom of the day (“shy-making,” “wet,” “shaming,” “righto,” and so on). But these plaudits usually come with an asterisk, thanks to Waugh’s snobbishness and dogmatic beliefs.  Add to this the fact that he’s been effusively praised by some of the wrong people (Clive James, William F. Buckley) and criticized by some of the right ones (Edmund Wilson, George Orwell), and Waugh’s endurance seems almost surprising.  [Read More…]

'Magnificence,' at the Boston Globe

In his essay “Why Look At Animals?” John Berger mourns the lost reciprocity of human-animal exchange. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, he writes, animals were not just meat, leather, and horn, but “with man at the centre of his world.” As animate metaphors, they could explain the mysterious. As distant relatives, they represented where we had come from and where we would return at life’s end. As separate from us, they were a way for our world to look back.

“Magnificence,” the final installment in Lydia Millet’s interconnected sequence of novels, teems with turn-of-the-century emissaries from this vanishing natural world. The glass eyes of Millet’s bestiary aren’t able to return a look — they are long dead, lost, extinct — yet Millet negotiates a reunion of sorts regardless. In the turmoil of one woman’s middle age, these lost ones become a way of discovering what can be and should be saved in a world where all life, and all hope, is endangered. [Read more…]

The Deep, Dark Forest, at Slate

It’s tempting to look at the glut of fairy tale material that’s washed up on our pop-cultural shores of late and conclude that the genre is having “a moment.” Adaptations, like waves, are coming in sets: two TV showstwo films based on “Little Red Riding Hood,” two on “Snow White” (a third was canceled in production), two on “Beauty and the Beast,” not to mention upcoming projects like Hansel and Gretel: Witch HuntersTim Burton’s PinocchioJack the Giant Killer, and the “Sleeping Beauty” riff Malificent, in which, in a magical bit of casting, Angelina Jolie will star as an evil queen.

But really these stories have never gone away, nor, despite parental grousing—“Cinderella” has too much housecleaning; “Jack and the Beanstalk” is unrealistic; and do they have to call them “dwarves”?—were they ever in danger of doing so. There have been who-knows-how-many retellings of the classic tales over the past two centuries, many of them by heavy hitters in the artistico-literary sphere. One such, the novelist Philip Pullman—whose own His Dark Materialstrilogy is as unwilling to condescend to the young reader’s supposed delicacy as any Grimm story—has written a timely book of 50 fairy tale retellings, titled simply Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm. [Read more…]

"Finish This Book" in The Believer's Art Issue

FINISH THIS BOOK

BY KERI SMITH

CENTRAL QUESTION:Is life better if you think of everything as art?
Author’s place of birth: TorontoAuthor’s stated inspirations: Georges Perec, Buddhism, John MuirTitle of author’s blog: The Wish JarMost common sentiment expressed in comments on author’s blog: gratitude;Author’s reasons for blogging, according to an interview with PBS: same as those for making artAnswer to coded message in code cracking exercise 2: The power of imagination makes us infinie [sic]Documenting and observation methods employed while writing this review: portable sleuthing kit, infraordinary, divination, deception, home baseObstacles encountered: attaching fake mustache with Scotch tape, access to wilderness, shyness

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