Only a few seconds have passed in The Raven before that familiar shot of a quill pen at work is interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector. Edgar Allan Poe puts pen to paper twice in James McTeigue’s film, for a total of maybe a minute. Even so, the writing process has to be given pizzazz by being made part of the deadly “game of wits” to which the author has been challenged by a killer; for some reason—it’s not really clear—one of the rules is that Poe has to write up each of the crimes. The film, though, isn’t content to just let him work. Poe’s more often riding a horse through some misty wood, knocking back a tankard, or chasing the killer across a rickety scaffolding, gun less-than-firmly in hand. He trades barbs with the “philistines” and “mental oysters” that are his critics. At one point, he prods a dead cat with what might be a pen. From the writer’s perspective, The Raven seems like a fight against the opinion of its villain, who muses, near the end: “That’s life: so much less interesting than fiction.”
This is a common problem for the literary biopic: The writing life just isn’t that compelling. What’s interesting happens inside the writer’s head, and, candlelit curlicues aside, there’s little cinematic interest in putting pen to paper. Maybe some of us writers are poor, drunk, or insane, but such states are also boring unless sublimated somehow.
So filmmakers sublimate. [Read more…]
The Paris Review Daily
April 2, 2012 | by Jenny Hendrix
Djuna Barnes, best known as a cult feminist-ish lesbian experimental novelist, once described herself—with unaccustomed hauteur—as “the unknown legend of American literature.” In her early career, she claimed to have worked for every English language publication in New York City, excepting only the Times, and by the time she left for Paris in 1921, had published some one hundred articles. As it turns out, Barnes is one of the great carnival barkers of the nonfiction world—a kind of Tom Wolfe of her day.
A new exhibition of Barnes’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, running under the header “Newspaper Fictions,” concerns Barnes’s New York years, beginning with the day when, fresh from the slopes of Storm King Mountain—where she’d shared a log cabin with her mother, grandmother, polygamist father, his mistress, and her odd-monikered brothers Saxon, Zendon, Shangar, and Thurn—she allegedly marched into the offices of the Brooklyn Eagle, dressed in a milkmaid’s calico, and declared, “I can draw and write and you’d be foolish not to hire me.”
James Joyce, perhaps the greatest influence on Barnes’s fiction, liked to advise, “Never write about an unusual subject, make the common unusual.” Barnes, for one, paid this dictum no mind: like Nathanael West and Flannery O’Connor, she adored a misfit. Her writing—full of immigrants, circus animals, freaks, socialists, hipsters, servants, and suffragettes—revels in the atmosphere of the “yellow nineties,” a period characterized by Wildean decadence and art for art’s sake. One of her articles begins, “There is something in the smell of Summer that makes one think of the smell of the sea, and the smell of salt and of heavy wet winds and of fish and the tangled mats of wet seaweed that come to shore, beaching themselves like wigs, somehow forgotten by tragedians strolling tragically by the sands.” Her journalism is dense with ornament of this kind, luring the reader into a baffling linguistic dream. Sometimes—out of either fancy or carelessness—it grows utterly surreal, as when she comments of Wilson Mizner that he “has a laugh like a French pastry shop.” [Read more…]
The Lifespan of a Fact
by John D’Agata (author) & Jim Fingal (fact-checker)
EVERYTHING IN John D’Agata’s essay “What Happens There,” and in About A Mountain, the book it became, seems to exist at once: the height of the world’s tallest sign; the nine levels of Tae Kwan Do; a list of pinball machines named after television shows; the presence, or not, of the word “suicide” in a number of ancient tongues. Before we have finished contemplating a ban on lap dancing, we are offered the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco sauce. The story, one begins to suspect, is not these facts themselves, but something about the act of crowding, this packing-in of significance. Given the nature of this emporium, who would be surprised to discover that some of the goods D’Agata is peddling are dubious—counterfeit, or at the very least ersatz?
At the Paris Review Daily
James Salter, Robert Rauschenberg, 1963, black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 inches.
If you are neither looking to buy art nor quite understand the glut of it before you, what do you do at the Armory Show? To an ill-informed visitor, it’s like being at the Louvre, but without the benefit of history to fall back on. The show’s aesthetic labyrinth is thus the source of a certain amount of bafflement. I dealt with this quandary partly by writing down what it was I happened to see and enjoy, as though to come back to it later: Ai Weiwei’s porcelain owl houses; some distorted nudes by the photographer André Kertesz; a series of vegetables in gelatin-silver prints by Charles Jones; the Turkish artist Irfan Onurmen’s tulle portraits; totem poles by Charlie Roberts; a photograph, called L’Oiseau dans l’Espace, by Brancusi.
I arrived late on the last day of the show and spent the first twenty minutes of my visit searching for the press office (ah, the other pier), explaining why I did not possess any sort of business card, failing to locate the down escalator and descending alone in an elevator twice the size of my kitchen. I eavesdropped on a couple trying to decide if they could afford two seventeen-thounsand-dollar Weegee prints, agreeing they had space in their home. Then a young man told his friend just how badly he wanted to fuck someone’s sister (“so bad”). Next to the champagne bar, beneath a huge neon sign reading scandinavian pain, I allowed a kind Norwegian to apply a temporary tattoo to the underside of my wrist with a damp paper towel. I was surprised at how intimate this was—he might have been taking my pulse.
“You see,” he said, “most of what this is about is the fact of making it happen at all.” [Read more…]
There was something noble about the communitarian experiments of the 1960s, those concatenations of midwives, naturists, grubby children, and burn-outs as naively utopian human families. Yet the whole idea remains mildly repellent. It’s not merely the reality of body odor and wolf-reared babes, or the futile resistance to time, but something in the stench of failure that hung on such places even in their sunny, kum-ba-yah heyday. Of course, as laboratories of disappointed dreams, these would-be utopias are especially fertile ground for literature.
And so it’s to the commune that Lauren Groff goes in “Arcadia,’’ her second novel. It tells the story of an intentional upstate New York community, ministered over by Handy - a folk musician, guru, and possible charlatan - and filled with the colorful human types above. At first a vibrant, wholesome place, Arcadia inevitably falls prey to corruption and personal bias. “Arcadia,’’ like Groff’s first novel, “The Monsters of Templeton,’’ is a tale about history. But, like “Monsters,’’ what it seems to be mostly about is its writing. [Read More…]
JENNY HENDRIX on Ramona Ausubel,
E.C. McCARTHY on Michael Ondaatje,and JARDINE LIBAIRE on Dinaw Mengestu.Top Hat © Cornel Rubino, 2012
Lost and Saved
No One Is Here Except All of Us
Riverhead, February 2012. 336 pp.While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks — when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain — that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.River, Goat, Rain, Child, Cabbage, Mother, Mustard, Stranger, Letter, Compass, Letter, Letter, Star: How easy it is, from a string of nouns, to pick out a constellation, a story. Identity itself often seems this kind of narrative, daisy-chained from a million disparate moments, objects, emotions. Who we are, as Ramona Ausubel puts it in her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, can almost be summed up by the physical things we know are real around us, a pinprick connecting us to a history of pins.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?— Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
Ausubel’s is a novel of almost remembering, a story of remnants and skeletons and the stitching together of now from the flotsam of then. “This book is about what we pass on,” Ausubel writes in her author’s note, “and the right of the next generation to keep telling the story long after the facts have melted away and what is left is truth, glittering in a sky deep and dark enough to hold everything lost, everything saved.” Those four words might have provided Ausubel a title: her novel is stuffed with things simultaneously lost and saved — those saved by virtue of their lost-ness, and those lost in the act of becoming saved.
The book takes place largely in the Romanian Jewish village of Zalischik, located on a peninsula in the Dniester River (perhaps a relative of the peninsular Sitka in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union). Village life is an idyll, almost a cartoon: cabbages are picked, potatoes dug, children wear “scrubbed cheeks that looked like juicy, pluckable fruit.” Characters, except for the narrator and her family, are indicated only by their occupations — “butcher, baker, saddlemaker” — and serve largely as faceless vehicles for given attributes like bigness or envy.
As war threatens to consume the country, and indeed the world, the village’s nine families, with the help of a pogrom survivor they’ve found in the river, decide to start over by erasing the past and the rest of reality with it. Zalischik already seemed unanchored from history, and now the characters slip the last of the moorings. Time and all obvious markers of era are banished, clocks, typewriters, and radios thrown into the river. Jobs, ages, husbands, and even a child are shuffled up and reassigned.
Like everything else in this novel, the change is about a story. This forgotten village’s Jewish former identity was founded in a mythology “of wandering, of being lost, of starting again,” and so too is their new one: “When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.” In the village’s new truth, today is the first day of the world. Their existence becomes both a radical act of denial and a Herculean labor of faith.
Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition
By Marni Davis
NYU Press, 272 pages, $32
Sociologist Nathan Glazer has written that “a people’s relation to alcohol represents something very deep about it.” That this statement rings especially true for Jews is the premise of University of Georgia professor Marni Davis’s new book, “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition.” As Davis explores the cultural meaning of alcohol in Jewish life at the turn of the century, and in the decades surrounding Prohibition, she doesn’t pass judgment on the motives of the anti-alcohol movement. Instead she focuses narrowly on the way debates over what Prohibitionists called “the sum of villainies” impacted the acculturation of Jewish immigrants and played a role in their “becoming American.” The book, while academic in tone and occasionally overburdened by data, is a comprehensive look at a little-discussed historical subject that can’t help but have a spring in its step.
The issue of Jewish acculturation in the 19th century was a thorny one. Group identity and a sense of distinctiveness were as much a part of the American Jewish experience as was the desire to be — and be seen as — a good American citizen. Alcohol, equally thorny at that time, exacerbated this tension as Prohibition created incompatibilities between the law of the land and Jewish religious law. Jews’ tendency to side with the “wets” unearthed deep-seated ambivalences over what it meant to assimilate.
Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, conceived by modernist architect Lucio Costa, was built in the late 1950s on what had been an unpopulated desert. Costa envisioned a city in which urban design enabled the existence of an ideal society, a utopian notion that deflated when confronted with reality. Brasilia’s futuristic archways now slouch toward violent suburbs riddled with decay and corruption.
Novelist and former diplomat Joao Almino may be the poet laureate of Costa’s failed vision. Disappointment flickers in the background of his novels, all of which deal with attempts by a shifting group of characters to live inside Brasilia’s broken shell. Isolated by that city’s architecture, Almino’s characters wander its parks and stare across its artificial lakes, caught between hope and frustration, incompleteness and failure. [Read more..]