First I blame myself – I had only a few minutes at City Lights on my lunch hour, and picked this book off the shelf after I'd grabbed Colm Tóibín's OnFirst I blame myself – I had only a few minutes at City Lights on my lunch hour, and picked this book off the shelf after I'd grabbed Colm Tóibín's On Elizabeth Bishop. Old enthusiasms die hard. Ever since reading Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature & the Inhuman in college, I've had a soft spot for Steiner. I thought, something new, why not? What does he have to say in 2015?
As it turns out, nothing. This slim handsome volume contains a lecture given in 2004 – and there's nothing here that Steiner hasn't said many times before, and better or more provocatively. (For example, his polarizing, earnest-entertaining 1978 lecture "The Archives of Eden" in which he argued that Europe creates western culture while the United States merely stores it in museums. The metaphor pops up again in this book as "the edenic offers of the United States" to European PhDs.)
And last I blame myself. Like so many others of my generation who enjoyed the now unaffordable luxury of a long liberal arts education, I'm fascinated by European history, European culture in its prodigious variety. I've always been seduced by the idea of Europe.* But the substance of this lecture is the kind of fine speech best accompanied by sips of sherry, polite applause and a nap soon after. ________________
* Which means I enjoy such caffeinated profundities as
Europe is made up of coffeehouses, of cafés. These extend from Pessoa's favorite coffeehouse in Lisbon to the Odessa cafés haunted by Isaac Babel's gangsters.... Draw the coffeehouse map and you have one of the essential markers of the "idea of Europe."
I've sipped coffee with the crowds at Cafe A Brasileira – and sat next to its metal sculpture of Pessoa on the sidewalk outside. It's as much as museum as anything in the U.S....more
I read this liberating little book over three days of lunch and coffee breaks – it's a somewhat severe meditation on eight 20th-century American writeI read this liberating little book over three days of lunch and coffee breaks – it's a somewhat severe meditation on eight 20th-century American writers: Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, W.H. Auden, and Frank O'Hara. An odd octet, but it reflects Mendelson's interest in "the conflicts between the inward, intimate private lives of authors and the lives they led in public, the choices they continually made between wearing a mask and exposing their face." Of this group, I'm only familiar with Maxwell, Auden and O'Hara. At some point in my reading life, I sampled the others and waved them aside for boring me, which probably makes me an immoralist.
I can't say Mendelson changed my opinion, but he certainly illuminated my prejudices. It's tempting, even in a sally such as this, to pluck sour cherries from each chapter, but I'll limit myself to a few bon mots:
Instead of writing the novels he wanted to write, Trilling wrote fictions about other people's novels and made them seem like truth.
Kazin's breast-beating mythologizing was his favored method of consoling himself: he confessed to a grave fault that he didn't commit so that he could avoid thinking about the lesser one he did. To betray his people was daemonic and exciting; to betray his wife was merely tawdry.
"Saintly" is a word that recurs in everything written about Maxwell and his work. But in the same way that his friends ignored the primitive, amoral magic that governs the realistic-looking world of his fiction, they ignored his contempt for any ethical understanding of life.
Mendelson's morality is sharp in every sense, and informs his criticism throughout. Its import is best grasped in the contrast he makes (several times) between European and American writers. In the chapter on Mailer he notes:
No European writer imagines writing the Great English or French or German Novel because the great theme of European literature is the mutual relation of individual persons with each other and with the differentiated hierarchy of the social world… The European novel always exists in dialogue with other novels. The Great American Novel – if it could actually exist – would stand alone in its capacious greatness.
I was surprised to learn of Bellow's fascination with the work of Owen Barfield. (For a period in my 20s I was also fascinated, to the point that I ended up writing a master's thesis on the man.) And I was a bit shocked by his judgment that
The moral and emotional truths that Maxwell's wise-sounding realistic novels studiously deny are the same truths that his wild and naive-sounding improvisations – freed from his power, released from his circle – triumphantly and movingly affirm.
The best chapter is on Auden (not surprisingly; Mendelson is the author of Early Auden and Later Auden). Mendelson focuses on Auden's "religionless Christianity" (a term from Bonhoeffer), summed up in the duty to love one's neighbor.
Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it a secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.
Mendelson concludes his study with Frank O'Hara, and naturally this was my favorite. Its few pages are packed with precise, vivid appreciations of the man and his poetry. "O'Hara was a major writer who tried to convince himself that he was a minor one." That's perfect. Frank we love you get up....more
Jan Morris is that rare writer who elicits affection in her readers, a warm feeling that's complicated but not compromised by the awareness that she uJan Morris is that rare writer who elicits affection in her readers, a warm feeling that's complicated but not compromised by the awareness that she used to be James Morris, the intrepid correspondent for The Times on the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. She's most celebrated as a travel writer, but I'm especially partial to her memoir Conundrum and her Pax Britannica trilogy (which I've been enjoying all over again as an audiobook).
Her latest (and apparently her last) book is pure whimsy – detailing her "infatuation" with Vittore Carpaccio, a Venetian painter of the Italian Renaissance whose name is more generally associated with an artful plate of sliced raw beef, devised (we're told) in 1970 by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry's Bar in Venice because the meat reminded him of "Carpaccio's characteristically red pigments." Immediately I was reminded of a book about another chromatic Venetian, Calasso's Tiepolo Pink, its title plucked from Proust. As evidenced by Eric Karples' Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time, Carpaccio also plays a role in Proustian reverie.
But back to Morris, whose book is short but conveys appreciation and personal delight on every page. I was charmed by her chatter about her favorite painting St. Augustine in His Study – for decades misunderstood as "St. Jerome in his study." But in place of Jerome's iconographic lion, Carpaccio set a winsome little dog in the center of the floor, and Morris shares our pleasure in this figure among all the other minutiae of painterly wit. As she's indulging both us and herself, she's happy to leave serious symbolism to the art critics. "So what?" she asks. The works appeal because of
their subtle confusion of truth and imagination, the dismissal of logic applied with such infinite accuracy. It is another world that Carpaccio is creating, reality of another kind. In its arcane mixture of fact, illusion, allegory and entertainment it reminds me of the Mabinogion, the great corpus of medieval Welsh legend or … Magic Realism.
Indeed, the generous illustrations included with her book reminded me of the fantastic drawings accompanying old editions of fairy tales or Mother Goose in which I'd lose myself by the hour when I first discovered books for myself. That old magic is everywhere in these paintings and Morris is alive to all of it.
No one is sure what Carpaccio looked like, but Morris suspects that he slipped his likeness into his own paintings and provides a short excursus on the theories, only to conclude "I have no hard evidence to support me. I simply recognize, on and off throughout his œuvre, what I have come to call the Carpaccio Face." Likewise, I was happy to see that she has inserted her own image into this book: mischievously she compares the experience visiting these paintings in Venice to being "rather like listening to a lively travel writer, concerned to tell us just what he sees around him, and transport us amusingly to see it too."
What she says of Carpaccio, I would say of her own work – that she is an artist of "that simple, universal and omnipotent virtue, the quality of Kindness."...more
As usual on a Sunday, I started the day at Peets, the cafe in my San Francisco neighborhood. I'd brought along American Reckoning; it seemed like theAs usual on a Sunday, I started the day at Peets, the cafe in my San Francisco neighborhood. I'd brought along American Reckoning; it seemed like the morning to finish a book I've been reading on and off for a couple months - and I finished with something like a deep inward groan, a sense of sadness and equally futile anger. Then I walked a few stores down to Books Inc. where Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer is prominently displayed on the new fiction shelf. I picked it up, flipped through it; the mood I'd brought from Appy's book only deepened. Then I came back home for breakfast and the New York Times, starting as usual with the Sunday Review. Immediately I saw and read Nguyen's essay Our Vietnam War Never Ended. Exactly what I'd been thinking all morning.
For many, like the southern Vietnamese veterans who will not find the names of their more than 200,000 dead comrades on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the war has not ended. That is because they are not “Vietnam veterans” in the American mind. Our function is to be grateful for being defended and rescued…
For those of us who vividly remember Vietnam and its aftermath, Appy's book is a bitter reckoning. I was lucky enough to be too young, just barely, to be drafted. The older brothers of my high school friends were not so lucky; they came home in body bags. My own background is carved deep in the American grain – conservative, Christian, Midwest, uncomplicatedly convinced of American exceptionalism. My father loudly defended Lieutenant Calley. It wasn't until the killings at Kent State and the revelations of Nixon's invasion of Cambodia that it even occurred to me to question the dominant narrative – although, as Appy documents, this narrative was under siege from every corner of American society.
I've inserted my story in this review because Appy's book is fundamentally about how the invasion of Vietnam affected everyday Americans, not refugees like Viet Thanh Nguyen. It's not a military history of the war, which comes in many flavors (for me the best is Gabriel Kolko's Anatomy of a War). Instead it's a summing up, a reckoning of accounts. It follows, documents and judges decades of politicized arguments about how the U.S. invited itself into Vietnam, how it waged a war that its own sponsors knew it could not win, and how we ingloriously extricated ourselves and left behind shattered countries (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), poisoned landscapes, murdered populations. The only victim, according to the still dominant narrative, was our righteous, perhaps nobly-mistaken, American self.
Appy's overview is swift and unsparing. Sadly, our current political life is so polarized it will only irritate those who refuse its lesson, and grieve those who take it to heart. His story takes us through the long, dispiriting aftermath (the chapters on the Reagan years are scorched with irony), up to the present where pattern repeats itself not as tragedy or farce but with the resilience of a cancer. In the words of Kevin Tillman, who was in the same Ranger unit as his brother Pat in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Somehow we were sent to invade a nation because it was a direct threat to the American people, or to the world, or harbored terrorists, or was involved in the September 11 attacks, or received weapons-grade uranium from Niger, or had mobile weapons labs, or WMD, or had a need to be liberated, or we needed to establish a democracy, or stop an insurgency, or stop a civil war we created…
Our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them. Somehow that overt policy of torture became the fault of a few "bad apples" in the military.
This is a fine angry history, calmly told, supported throughout – but for me it poses, again, the haunting horrible possibility that we are incapable of learning from history or of taking responsibility for what American exceptionalism has actually meant for the world. Are we paralyzed by our own poison, are we incapable even of creating candidates for political office who are not simply genetic repetitions of the past? Do we prefer blindness to insight? Books like this one give me hope; books like this one enforce despair. I'll end as I started, with the words of Viet Thanh Nguyen:
We can argue about the causes for these wars and the apportioning of blame, but the fact is that war begins, and ends, over here, with the support of citizens for the war machine, with the arrival of frightened refugees fleeing wars we have instigated. Telling these kinds of stories, or learning to read, see and hear family stories as war stories, is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex. For rather than being disturbed by the idea that war is hell, this complex thrives on it.
My first compliment goes to Knopf, the publisher of this deliberately white, hefty little tome. Its glossy stock made it too heavy to carry around, whMy first compliment goes to Knopf, the publisher of this deliberately white, hefty little tome. Its glossy stock made it too heavy to carry around, which was fine because I took my time with it anyway, listening to Schubert’s lieder with each chapter, following the German poetry as best I could. Up to now I’ve regarded Winterreise as a cold slog. Bostridge completely transformed my appreciation.
The book of course has its conceits, in terms of format and indulgences. As other reviewers noted, some of Bostridge’s digressions are silly or slightly absurd, as if he’s reaching too far to “embroider” (his word), but almost always I appreciated his eccentricity, the capacious range of reference, the splendor of citations and illustrations – after all, this is High Culture and we might as well enjoy the trimmings. Some stand-outs: a brisk tour around the linden tree through German literature; the musical illumination of Will-o-the-Wisp; another excursus on ice flowers in German literature (including photographs of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley); the melancholy semantic echoes in einsamkeit (loneliness), which draw us in turn to the weird paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; the inspired choice of a typographical poem by e. e. cummings to introduce the discussion of “Last Hope.” Yet every conceit is grounded by Bostridge's evident love for the music and his long history of performing it.
Schubert based his song cycle on the poems of Wilhelm Müller – and, as Bostridge remarks with reference to his re-creation of Goethe’s “Erlkönig”
Schubert never lets go of the musical or poetic logic… it is difficult to go back to the poem without the music and not feel, somehow, robbed.
When it comes to Müller’s poetry, Schubert's transmutation of Romantic agony is sublime. It’s impossible for me to read the utterances of this tortured soul wandering through his snowy landscape without hearing “the self-indulgence of endlessly perpetuated, inner-directed pain.” As with, for example Cioran, there’s the sense that one is celebrating misery itself. But the music moves us past the ridiculous, into something more mysterious, the Joycean “ineluctable modality of the visible” in which everything is a signature of something more furtive, more profound, more “German.” You’ve got to decide to go with it, as with any work of art. This “anatomy of an obsession” is beautifully done, a work of art in itself....more
François Furet's final book is the record of his unfinished conversations with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, but it's better described as a contemplatFrançois Furet's final book is the record of his unfinished conversations with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, but it's better described as a contemplative afterward to his controversial, magisterial The Passing of an Illusion (one of those prized books I keep on my shelf, imagining that someday I'll finish it). Furet's meditation on "the democratic imagination" is chastened and not altogether encouraging.
It's a mystery that the political passions of democratic men and women in the twentieth century caused them to detest the bourgois societies in which they lived, to the benefit of extremist ideologies like Fascism or Communism. This hatred of bourgeois society, combining feelings of shame with criticisms of its contradictions, is as old as the bourgeoisie itself… How it brought so many minds, primitive or sophisticated, from such diverse horizons, to embrace the Fascist revolution or the Communist utopia is an enigma I'm seeking to understand. It's a question we try to avoid in our era because, on the one hand, Fascism is seen only in light of its criminality, making it impossible for us to imagine what made it so attractive (and it was indeed attractive), and on the other hand, we continue to cloak the crimes of the Soviet regime with the excuse of anti-Fascism.
For Furet, the "mystery is how badly things went" – "how did we go from this lack of legitimacy to the camps, to millions of deaths, to the violence unleashed on bodies and minds?" This is the tragic character of the twentieth century, which only 15 years after its end is already occluded. "Soon, no one will even know what Communism was." Human rights, he observes, has become our new civil religion. "It's not much of an idea, and is of no help in formulating any thoughts about the world situation or our near future." Like Robert Pogue Harrison in Juvenescence, Furet detects a damaging amnesia at the core of our culture.
in seeking to create individuals cut off from tradition and their history, we're on our way toward a world peopled with individuals who are prisoners of technology, superstitions, lifestyles, and so on.
Liberalism seems incapable of evolving beyond the enlightened self-interest in which money, more than anything, is the measure of value. Our passions are smaller, our sense of history attenuated. But this ideological indifference, I suspect, is a luxury that will not long endure....more
During the decade I lived in Chicago I used my membership at the Art Institute for every good reason (escaping work, cruising) but most of all for theDuring the decade I lived in Chicago I used my membership at the Art Institute for every good reason (escaping work, cruising) but most of all for the collections themselves, including some masterworks by Van Gogh. I particularly recall a haunted self-portrait, and my sentimental favorite, Bedroom at Arles (the second version, as I discovered from Bell). Last summer in Amsterdam I made the obligatory visit to the Van Gogh Museum, which true to cliché left me gaping with wonder and emotion. Bell includes a small reproduction of one of the final paintings, Wheatfield under Thunderclouds – it's pretty, but nothing prepares you for the size and power of the original.
In Van Gogh's case more than most, the paintings are entwined with the painter's troubled life, swirls and studies of anguish applied to canvas, colors that ravish perception. Like Beethoven or Michelangeleo, Van Gogh is the archetype of the Tortured Artist, which made him difficult to bear. "It appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvelously gifted, fine and delicate, and the other selfish and heartless." (This from his brother Theo)
The desperate downward trajectory, the story of a genius watching himself disintegrate even as he creates great art, reminded me also of Nietzsche. Julian Bell's short study neither wallows in grief nor exalts it; it's a fine appreciation of what Vincent achieved, of his brother who made that work possible, and of his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who saved him for the rest of us....more
I was lucky to find a new copy of this book in a used bookstore when it first came out – it's a book made for browsing, lingering, then stopping withI was lucky to find a new copy of this book in a used bookstore when it first came out – it's a book made for browsing, lingering, then stopping with a specific song. Gioia's commentary on the composition and popular history of these standards never wastes a word. It's a quick sketch leading you back to the music. I've spent more nights than I know hunting down recondite recordings based his recommendations, which are my favorite part of the book. Most recently, intrigued by Richard Brody's reprise of Clint Eastwood's "Play Misty for Me," I was compelled to comb through the internet for Gioia's favorites, particularly Ahmad Jamal's "1965 trio outing with its funky undercurrent" – and he was right, Jamal brings a wry sense of humor to what easily becomes a cornball classic (e.g., Ray Stevens). Fans of George Benson and Fosse's All That Jazz will smile at the phrase from "On Broadway" slipped in about 90 seconds into the track.
I could multiply such happy trivia many times over. Gioia's Standards is packed with delight and discovery, braced with the intelligence and lack of pretension his subject deserves....more
There's not much going on behind God's back. I admit I was dubious from the outset about this book – a Finnish cop named Ariel Kafka investigates murdThere's not much going on behind God's back. I admit I was dubious from the outset about this book – a Finnish cop named Ariel Kafka investigates murder and corruption within Helsinki's Jewish community. Despite the fine writing and some droll humor, Nykänen's plot takes a long time to go a short distance....more
Once in a great while I stumble onto a new book by an author I'd forgotten, and discover his work all over again. Twenty years ago I got lost in RoberOnce in a great while I stumble onto a new book by an author I'd forgotten, and discover his work all over again. Twenty years ago I got lost in Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests. In the next decade I brought home The Body of Beatrice and The Dominion of the Dead, read a chapter or two and buried them in the back of the book closet. A few days ago I came across Juvenescence and it has transformed my week, in part because it led me as well to Harrison's podcast Entitled Opinions which I have been enjoying immensely. This book wins an extra star just for that pleasure.
Juvenescence is the best book I've ever read on aging, tipping a whole shelf of self-help books onto the floor. "This book is at best ambivalent toward the unprecedented juvenescence that is sweeping over Western culture." Harrison doesn't question that "70 is the new 50" – but he does make us wonder if this is the Good Thing everyone supposes, particularly for the young.
our youth-obsessed society in fact wages war against the youth it presumably worships. It may appear as if the world now belongs mostly to the younger generations, with their idiosyncratic mindsets and technological gadgetry, yet in truth, the age as a whole, whether wittingly or not, deprives the young of what youth needs most if it hopes to flourish. It deprives them of idleness, shelter, and solitude, which are the generative sources of identity formation, not to mention the creative imagination. It deprives them of spontaneity, wonder, and the freedom to fail.
Here Harrison has articulated a host of my own inchoate ruminations. Over the last few years I've watched the San Francisco I loved disappear, replaced by the purr of high-tech buses pouring back into the city from Silicon Valley late at night, dropping serious twenty-somethings onto almost deserted streets, streets that used to throng with hippies, drag queens, activists and artists. I marvel at millennials buying condos in this unaffordable city; then I remember how I survived my 20s & 30s on temp jobs, surrounded by a wealth of friends, books, bars and cafés, when conversations (and much else) wandered into the wee hours. I don't envy the young, any more than they would envy me.
Harrison posits a polarity between youthful Genius and older Wisdom. His development of this theme is interesting but not always convincing. Twice (pp. 30, 132), while arguing for the critical importance of solitude and passionate thinking in our Genius years, he cites Poe's hypnotic poem "Alone."
From childhood’s hour I have not been As others were—I have not seen As others saw—I could not bring My passions from a common spring— From the same source I have not taken My sorrow—I could not awaken My heart to joy at the same tone— And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone— Then—in my childhood—in the dawn Of a most stormy life—was drawn From ev’ry depth of good and ill The mystery which binds me still.
But Poe's poem does not stop after "still" – instead after an em dash it wends its way into real weirdness:
From the torrent, or the fountain— From the red cliff of the mountain— From the sun that ’round me roll’d In its autumn tint of gold— From the lightning in the sky As it pass’d me flying by— From the thunder, and the storm— And the cloud that took the form (When the rest of Heaven was blue) Of a demon in my view—
Poe was haunted. For a generation that grew up with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, that's apparent – but maybe this is a point Harrison doesn't want to press too hard.
If you've followed this review this far, I'll throw in a final snippet, a passage that will ring true to anyone in middle age (or beyond, I expect) who revels in the unfathomable richness of reading.
Such is the paradox of human age in the cultural sphere: we get younger by becoming older. One of the blessings of the human condition, which is otherwise tragic and fraught with afflictions of every sort, is that, once it gets underway, the learning process never comes to an end, or at least never need come to an end.
Harrison also cites a poem by D.H. Lawrence, which concludes with the line "Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending." Surely he has described himself....more
A dolorous account of frustrated erotic adventure. Galgut, who's had some strange adventures of his own, tells the story of E.M. Forster (aka Morgan)A dolorous account of frustrated erotic adventure. Galgut, who's had some strange adventures of his own, tells the story of E.M. Forster (aka Morgan) as he falls in love first with a young Indian he's tutoring in Latin, then with an Alexandrian tram conductor met in Egypt during his work in first world war – neither of whom cares about his libido. Along the way he publishes Alexandria (a curious guidebook I hunted down 30 years ago after a rapturous reading of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet); he writes the homosexual fantasy Maurice (unpublished until a year after his death); and most famously A Passage to India.
Morgan's life, in Galgut's telling, was as gay as a poached egg on a rainy Sunday afternoon – and the reader is tempted to imagine a miserable grayness afflicting "minorites" across Edwardian England. Surely there was plenty of that, but for relief I'd recommend Graham Robb's Strangers or the recent delightful biography of C.K. Scott Moncrieff. For all the bright sunlit Merchant Ivory Productions made out of his books, Forster seems to have sidelined himself to the shadows....more
The celebrated canon of fairy tales has been done to death in the last generation by Freudians, Jungians, women who run with wolves, Iron Johns and thThe celebrated canon of fairy tales has been done to death in the last generation by Freudians, Jungians, women who run with wolves, Iron Johns and the prodigious Jack Zipes. Much to my relief, Marina Warner delivers on her promise of “a short history,” moving swiftly across two centuries of interpretation. Her short chapters are larded with unexpected illustrations (how could I not have known those by David Hockney?) and scintillating nuggets from Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Borges, Michel Tournier, Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, each of whom recreated fairy tales for the 20th century.* Warner does full justice to the anarchic inventions of Carter, whose revisionist tellings are better than the originals.
unlike most fairy tales, and certainly unlike the majority of the erotic fantasies selling fast today, her writing dazzles: her prose is unabashed in its festivity, lacerating scorn, and salty pungency. She puts on a performance of brilliant kinetic energy, displaying masterly handling of register, irony, allusion, phrase and lexicon. She is playful, richly layered, and exuberantly fearless as she attempts to reconfigure new possible worlds – where heroines will not submit but will understand their own appetites and act to fulfill them…
Carter’s originality has saved her from assimilation by the politically correct: in 1979, the same year that she published The Bloody Chamber, she also “issued a deliberate and outrageous provocation, an essay called The Sadeian Woman [in which] she upheld the pornography of the Marquis de Sade as a feminist tool of illumination.”
Warner includes a quick survey of fairy tales in film; her evocation of the films of Lotte Reiniger led me directly to YouTube. Her compressed account can only skim the surface but prompted associations of my own. (When she mentions the 17th century version of Sleeping Beauty by Giambattista Basile, she notes that the heroine “is raped while she lies unconscious” – an aspect omitted by Perrault but resurrected by Pedro Almodóvar in Talk to Her.) Maybe the best compliment I can give her book is to say that I need never read another history; I’d rather experience the tales themselves in all their inexhaustible metamorphoses.
___________________ * I’d hedge a bit in the case of Lewis – I could never stomach Narnia but still remember Till We Have Faces after 40 years....more
My first memory of color per se is from a picture book in which farm animals suddenly turned into creatures of exuberant, improbable hues, a transformMy first memory of color per se is from a picture book in which farm animals suddenly turned into creatures of exuberant, improbable hues, a transformation that captivated my imagination. Years later when I discovered the vibrantly colored animals of Franz Marc, the magic was undiminished - and even now when I read about something as mysterious as Kandinsky's "the spiritual in art" I think of Marc's blue horses first.
Michel Pastoureau's "memoir" is a far more sophisticated version of this type of memory, referencing color to personal experience. The autobiography is aleatoric – as is, it seems, the character of color itself. Most of us grow up with a sense of color as "given." But as Pastoureau points out,
color only exists if it is perceived, that is to say if it is not only seen by the eyes but also, and most importantly, apprehended and coded by the memory, one's knowledge and one's imagination.
One's imagination is in turn conditioned by culture, climate and geography. For example, in the Indo-European tradition from Aristotle to the Middle Ages, the chromatic scale was constructed from light to dark: white, yellow, red, green, black. Blue did not appear (between green and black) until the high Middle Ages; the spectrum as we generally understand it did not appear until Newton's optical experiments in 1665-6. Newton's spectrum was then projected back onto the rainbow, "the representation of which has always remained a matter of trial and error." Our standard seven-color watery arc (or six, if you're flying a flag in San Francisco) is an invention as much as it is a meteorological phenomenon.
I only became aware of Pastoureau's work last year, when I was seduced by the cover of Green: The History of a Color in a bookstore, with its emerald photo of Jane Fonda.
Shortly after I hunted down Black. The history of Blue (almost everyone's favorite color) was more difficult to afford, but I closed my eyes and cashed in Amex points on Amazon.
Fortunately, this lollipop of a book is an excellent introduction to the Pastoureau perspective, as charming as one would hope from a French author, lucid and full of light – though deliberately exclusive of illustrations. For those you'll have to turn to the coffee-table tomes, and you'll be happy you did....more
Another stylish book by semiotext(e), nothing but a fabulous list of things that no longer exist or never did, a list best read as a poem, a disturbedAnother stylish book by semiotext(e), nothing but a fabulous list of things that no longer exist or never did, a list best read as a poem, a disturbed meditation on the void, a fever dream of Guy Davenport. At moments Lefebvre's list divagates into commentary, at times into absurdism.
In 1969, David Hockney develops a passion for the tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, reads three hundred and fifty of them, plans to illustrate twelve of them, but only illustrates six • On December 30, 1999, a painting by Picasso is stolen from the office of the director of L'Humanité; Still life with Charlotte [Nature morte à la charlotte], 1924, disappears from a storeroom of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris • At twenty-nine, Sigmund Freud burns all of his manuscripts • In 1944, the Berlin studios produce Life Goes On, the last Nazi propaganda film, never recovered • The man Peter Handke
A list haunted by disappearance: music, literature, paintings lost, stolen, destroyed, imagined but never composed. And behind the art, the ghosts of the creators gone, murdered, dead by their own hands; of mysterious initials, thieves and saviors.
In 1959, Balthus asks Giacometti to give the canvas Coffee Pot with Three Fruits [Cafetière aux trois fruits] to a waiter named Henri, whom they both know; forty years later the painting is mysteriously found in Giacometti estate; Henri still hasn't been identified
Seeking the Cave makes a great first impression, thanks to Milkweed Editions (the publisher) and Mary Austin Speaker (the designer). The text, illustrSeeking the Cave makes a great first impression, thanks to Milkweed Editions (the publisher) and Mary Austin Speaker (the designer). The text, illustrated with red letters and set in Centaur, promises an evening of delight in the company of James P. Lenfestey. The Minnesota poet crosses the Pacific to travel to the cave of Cold Mountain, guided down the highways and byways of China by translator Red Pine. All this is evident at a glance. It took only a moment for me to snap it up at Green Apple on a Sunday afternoon.
Lenfestey's gentle generous spirit animates every page, and to criticize his book can only sound mean-spirited – yet (in my view) the writer is not worthy of the material. He cites – and in some cases, meets – the small company of poet/translators who have enriched the lives of English readers: Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, Kenneth Rexroth, David Hinton, Robert Bly and Bill Porter (aka Red Pine). Alongside Han Shan, he adverts to the unrivaled T'ang poets but in a manner that reduces them to the trivial. If this sounds harsh, judge for yourself:
Ahh, Li Bai, you swashbuckling Byronic exotic in love with poetry and wine! Ahh, Du Fu, you heartbroken poet-official bearing the weight of the fallen world on your slim shoulders, idolizing Li Bai's ethereal gifts. What a thrill to feel your sacred presences.
The author would have been better advised to simply give us one of their poems. Instead he gives us many of his own, which sparkle with happy feelings and little else. Nor does the book tell us much about contemporary China. The religious characters only encourage me in skepticism.
OK, now I've proved myself a curmudgeon.
The short bibliography is helpful. Most of the books I already know, but he pointed me to a couple I'd never heard of – and for that I'm grateful....more
Crime was one of the more original books I read in 2011; I also appreciated Guilt. These books presented themselves as non-fiction, even if the writinCrime was one of the more original books I read in 2011; I also appreciated Guilt. These books presented themselves as non-fiction, even if the writing was suspiciously fine. When I came across The Collini Case a few days ago, I bought it without hesitation.
Given the bloat of most legal thrillers, I appreciated the author's characteristic brevity. Even so, this tale dragged a bit, its characters are colorless, and the denouement is underwhelming. I'll be spoiling nothing by saying the crime at the core of the book is completely predictable. Ferdinand von Schirach's skill appears only in the twist that comes at the end, in which the cliché is delivered with historical clout. As in his previous books, the passion for justice is palpable. But as fiction this case is feeble compared to the punch of his first book....more