David Owen’s The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning: And Other Adventures in American Enterprise should be way, way more famous than it is. Somebody reissue it. The collection of essays— published in Harper’s and the Atlantic in the 1980s— is about advertising, market research, how to get people to do what you want them to do. Owen goes to Liverpool with a bunch of Beatles fanatics, attends a convention for convention planners, close-reads trade magazines, explains how divorce rates influence the toy industry. The conceit, in retrospect, is a little flimsy, but it doesn’t matter: his essays are among the least tortured journalism I’ve ever read, and his choice of subject matter—novel, seemingly slight—epitomizes the kind of obsolete intellectual audacity that, for whatever reason, you only ever really come across in out of print books.
Rebecca Mead’s new book is really great and I just finished it. Part biography, part memoir, part literary criticism, My Life in Middlemarch explains how a particular novel can forever alter a particular reader’s self-perception. Her point is that reading can be a life event, one as memorable and trajectory-diverting as a family trauma or professional success. This is true and not often talked about. That Mead is able to do it without fetishizing “bookishness” or dwelling on her own precocious childhood is all the more impressive—and fun to read as a tacit filleting of so many writers who are unable to resist those bad impulses.
I finished Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman—her biography of Sylvia Plath—four weeks ago, and it gave me the best kind of vertigo. Malcolm approaches her subject with an almost monastic devotion: as a researcher, she demonstrates the necessary patience to muddle around in the minutiae of her sources, and she scrupulously balances both Hughes’s and Plath’s lives and their work as she reconsiders the art of the biography. For a book born of such single-minded enthusiasm, it is a huge credit to Malcolm that The Silent Woman manages to be brilliant without also being alienating. As I paged through the book, I felt alternately awed by and aligned with Malcolm, like the assistant to a capable and charming boss. And as is the case for a good boss, there’s a control and quiet power to Malcolm, which is best evidenced by the ease with which she parlays peripheral details into useful evidence for her argument. An example: as a way to mark the parallels between Plath’s own troubled self-perception and the grotesque elements of Ariel, Malcolm parses “an extraordinary passage” from Plath’s journals wherein Plath celebrates “the illicit sensuous delight [she] get[s] from picking [her] nose.”
I doubt that Malcolm enjoyed writing The Silent Woman—if nothing else, it’s no fun sifting through licensing agreements from the estate of such a famous poet—and I could guess that she might be frustrated by the way it turned out. For all its precision and diligence, Malcolm’s work is in some way about the inevitable failure that accompanies writers’ attempts to engage impartially with people and their work. “Writing,” Malcolm resolves, “can never be done in a state of desirelessness.” Throughout The Silent Woman, it feels like Malcolm acknowledges that it isn’t desirable to get what you want, that what is interesting is the way we frame our failures. This is why I love The Silent Woman: it encouraged me to not only be careful and thorough in my own work, but to also feel convinced of its worth when it seems most difficult to do so.
Since No Regrets came out last winter, I have been reading through the contributors’ lists of books that changed their lives. Either by accident or unconscious design, I started with three diaristic books about how political and domestic life are bound by writing: The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricotte, and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. All three have left me with a feeling best described as gratitude.
Paley and Lessing are great companions to women on the left: they’re funny.Tweet
This is not to say they made me feel good. For the two and a half weeks I spent reading The Black Notebooks I found it difficult to get out of bed; the world both in and outside Derricote’s journals—describing her experiences of racism as a black woman who can “pass” for white—left me furious and sad. The most affecting and complex account of racial consciousness in America I have read, it’s a powerful book I’m glad I came to late rather than not at all.
Paley and Lessing, meanwhile, are great companions to women on the left; they’re funny. More impressively, like Derricotte, they’re honest—and not in that expressive, laxative way that contemporary critics have come to call “raw.” Their honesty is diligent, but not obsessive; slowly, they confront the ugly feelings of their time, look them up and down, and react without lapsing into protective cynicism. This is difficult, and probably the best gift a writer can give her generation. Though cynicism is a kind of gift, too: there’s one passage in The Golden Notebook I especially like in which Anna recalls the self-mocking comrades of her youth: “It is from that period of my life that I know how to watch the jokes people make,” she writes. “The anomalies and cynicism of that time were only reflections of what were possible.” This seems like a useful and generous way to read the left satire of Mary McCarthy, whom I’ve come to think of as Paley and Lessing’s bitter cousin.
The net effect is that I’ve started keeping a notebook again. I also feel a renewed obligation to write the truth, and well.
Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Dog, a book of film criticism, started out as a Tumblr, and was originally written publicly and in real time. Like a lot of good blogs, Tupitsyn’s entries sometimes veer into the diaristic, making reference to her life and personal history, and this may be why at their best, her observations about film crystalize into moments of disarming emotional lucidity. Writing about Johnny Depp’s decision to alter his “Winona Forever” tattoo to say “Wino Forever,” after his breakup with Winona Ryder, Tupitsyn says: “In order to break the promise of love—of forever—the addict steps in as the figure of unreliability. Just as melancholy is mourning in advance, the addict is the person whose promise is broken in advance.” Love Dog is filled with these sorts of insights and pronouncements that are unnervingly spot-on, but their intimacy never stops being surprising. Reading this kind of work can feel instructive and also a little bit incriminating, like seeing someone naked by accident.
In that essay alone, Tupitsyn references Derrida, Freud, and Avital Ronell, all within the space of a paragraph. For her, this is about typical. There are writers for whom this density of influence would seem insecure, like they were loading up on authoritative thinkers in order to hide the weakness of their own ideas. But Tupitsyn is as frank and comfortable inhabiting an intellectual lineage as she is in harnessing it to analyze a teen heartthrob’s tattoos. In Love Dog, there is no self-conscious novelty in combining high and low culture, and no winking deviousness in the proposition that every cultural product is worthy of serious inquiry. Like all good criticism, Tupitsyn’s takes the esoteric or ineffable elements in art and renders them obvious, instinctive. What is so envy-making about her writing is that she does this with such graciousness that she makes it look easy. Love Dog reminded me of what the best critical writing can do for a reader, when she is willing to abandon her presumptions. It made me want to pay better attention.
Giuseppe Ungaretti was born in Alexandria in 1888. He was raised by a Tuscan mother and a Nubian nurse, and educated in a Swiss School. This cultural millefeuille set up the background for his first lines of poetry. Ungaretti’s work is preoccupied with place, and reverberates with an urge to locate his roots. But it is also suffused with a broader feeling of restlessness, of being from everywhere and belonging nowhere. After World War I, Ungaretti’s estrangement deepened into a wound; he christened himself “uomo di pena,” a man of pain.
Ultimately, he was a hermetic poet. In the tradition of the Symbolists and poètes maudits, he chose basic units like syllables, words, and phrases as his tools. Much of his work is composed of short fragments that remind me of Sappho: they are tainted with yearning and anguish, yet are gentle, like murmuring water. As he was leaving Alexandria for Paris in 1912, Ungaretti wrote, “E il mare è cenerino/ trema dolce inquieto/come un piccione”—“and the ocean is ashen/trembles tender agitated/as a pigeon.” Selected Poems is a bilingual edition, and its form encourages readers to read the Italian texts on the left (out loud, if possible), even if they don’t speak the language. In the case of Ungaretti, that becomes an advantage. In an autobiographical note at the end of Selected Poems, Ungaretti quotes Racine, who said, “poetry seduces by means of the music of its words, by means of a secret.” The literal secret of an unknown language will bring the reader closer to Ungaretti’s own point of focus, which is a struggle to embrace the “intimacies of the unspeakable,” to transform “the unknown into a sense of the infinite.” In our terms, enigmatic declarations seem to translate into empathy. Ungaretti’s interest is in the world at large, where everyone has a niche somewhere in-between the lines, and everything varies “by degrees into an endless delicacy of color.”
With the f-word so much in the air lately, I’ve returned to Robert Paxton’s single-volume masterpiece, The Anatomy of Fascism. Defending a relatively delimited understanding of everyone’s favorite political epithet, Paxton nevertheless stresses the collaborative and reactionary character of the 20th-century Italian and German regimes. Collaborative because for all the subsequent focus on charismatic leaders and mass spectacle, it was Hindenburg and King Emmanuel III that appointed de Fuhrer and il Duce respectively. Reactionary because neither decision is comprehensible without the perceived threat of imminent revolution from the left.
The book is equally compelling for keeping the bar high about which histories qualify: Franco’s regime in Spain, for example, is described as authoritarian Catholic rather than Fascist. As for the eternal question “Could it happen here?” Paxton claims that it already has, or almost: the earliest organization to fit his description is the Ku Klux Klan.
I began writing a book last June, and since then I have been progressively less and less able to read. I mean, less able to read books that have no direct bearing on my book. Research reading chugs instrumentally along: I underline, I type up notes, I quote, I cite. I write 500 words every weekday, no exceptions, is the rule. And meanwhile, I’ve read the first 100 pages of Wings of the Dove five times. They’re wonderful pages—I know them nearly by heart. I cannot bring myself to read page 101. I read a couple of books by friends, but they’re my friends. I also read everything by Elena Ferrante, but she’s Elena Ferrante.
What’s going on here? Sometimes I think I am getting stupid and narrow, or that since reading and writing are now, for the first time in my life, something like a job, I’ve developed an aversion to taking work home. But I have also come to believe that reading and writing are more similar experiences than I had previously thought, at least when done well. When reading, as when writing, I feel animated and happy, full of arguments and mental asides and humor, and the prospect of seeing my friends later on at a bar somehow becomes more and less exciting at the same time. When writing, as when reading, I also feel relaxed, easy, competent. “This is what my education was for!” I think to myself. I write for about four hours at a stretch, so what’s going on may just be simple arithmetic, there being only so much time in a day for the mind to inhabit these feelings. The other hours are for eating, doing a job, watching basketball, conversation—you don’t want to push yourself. Still, I’m walking around all the time like, “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably . . .” It’ll be nice to finally know where Henry James was going with that.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed examines two worlds: the oligopolistic Urras and its anarchist counterpart, Annares. Shevek, the protagonist, believes that Annares has lost its fervor for individual dissent and is failing its commitment to anarchism. In his own gesture of protest, Shevek abandons Annares for a university position in Urras. Once there, however, he discovers that the Urrasti plan to use his research for military purposes. He flees the university, colludes with an underground anarchist sect, and then, under threat of persecution from the Urrasti government, returns to Annares with his faith in anarchism restored. As the ending makes clear, The Dispossessed should read as a reprisal of the anarchist project. But, by tracking Shevek’s negotiations with anarchism and capitalism, The Dispossessed also suggests that anarchism’s practitioners remain ambivalent about its political prospects. Personally, I have never felt a strong attraction to anarchist culture. I see my own experience in co-ops as a tragicomic attempt at some sort of “communitarian” living and, like Shevek, I wonder if the anarchist mindset could ever take a step back and examine its foibles. Process can be beautiful, but it is mostly a drag: conversations degenerate into conversations about conversations and no one reaches any conclusions. The tension between the mess of cooperative decision-making, on the one hand, and the utopian allure of smoothly functioning libertarian ideals on the other, is something I rarely encounter in anarchist literature. It was refreshing to see Le Guin not only acknowledge that tension, but also negotiate it so thoughtfully.
Norma Klein’s My Life as a Body is a book I’ve thought about a lot and have read and reread, at least once a year, since I was 13. And even if you’re starting way later than in your teens, I’d recommend you do the same with almost any book by Klein, a writer who died in 1989, when she was only 50, and who, during the 1970s and ‘80s, wrote a slew of YA novels, all now unfortunately out of print (although a new edition of her saucy 1982 novel, Domestic Arrangements, is being reissued by the Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint this August). My Life as a Body tells the story of Augie Lloyd, a smart, awkward high-school senior, and her love affair with Sam Feldman, a rich, handsome wheelchair-bound new student in her Upper West Side private school. I realize this synopsis makes the book sound like real schlock, but trust me when I say it’s totally not. It’s complicated and ambiguous and smart, and it’s actually a good entree into Klein’s work because it includes many of the essential components that make her novels so amazing: a disdainful but self-reflective feminist protagonist; lots of unapologetic intellectual snobbery; pretty explicit, pretty realistic (and pretty hot) sex scenes; a mild hatred or, at the very least, a healthy suspicion of capitalism; and multiple NYC-Jew protagonists: In a word, everything I am currently interested in, have ever been interested in, and will most likely always be interested in.
A few months ago I sat down and read a number of the biographies published in English and Russian about Vladimir Putin. They were all interesting in different ways, but the one that I find myself thinking about right now, as Russian troops occupy Crimea, is Angus Roxburgh’s The Strongman: Putin and the Struggle for a New Russia from 2011. Despite the title, the book is not yet another installment in the Putin legend about how he is so big and bad. To the contrary: the book is primarily a diplomatic history of the Putin years, showing how badly Putin wanted to establish good relations with the US. There is a touching moment when he first meets George W. Bush and Bush proceeds to declare, at the press conference afterward, that he has looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul. “Putin could hardly believe it,” Roxburgh writes. “He turned to Bush and said in a quiet, boyish voice in English, ‘Thank you, mister . . .’” On September 11, 2001, Putin immediately began thinking how he could help. He canceled military exercises in the Pacific, and it was Putin, against the advice of the hawks in his cabinet, who leaned on his allies in Central Asian states to allow the US to set up bases there for the invasion of Afghanistan.
From that high point, things deteriorated, primarily though not exclusively over the Iraq War—about which, as it turns out, Putin was right. This was followed by the twin traumas, for Putin and Russia, of the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, in which Western NGOs played a small but, from the Russian perspective, outsized role. And relations reached their nadir (as of Roxburgh’s writing) with the 2008 Russian war with Georgia.
The book is by no means an apologia for Putin: Roxburgh, who ended up working for a Western PR agency that was hired by the Kremlin to improve its image abroad, shows how alternately ignorant, closed-off, and aggressive Putin and his people were. And yet, especially now, when relations have reached a point lower than any since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the book reads as a tragedy. Was there, perhaps, an opportunity for things to have turned out differently? It’s possible that the interests of the US and Russia were going to bring about this situation eventually anyway. But still it’s strange and sad, now, to read about a time when things looked like they might have gone another way.
“How does it feel to be a problem?” W. E. B. Du Bois poses this question in the opening paragraph of his 1903 book Souls of Black Folk, a book that provides a personal and historical perspective on race and class. Known as the first black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, Du Bois wrote during a time of black disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and segregation in schools. Published only a few years after the Atlanta Compromise, the book advocated for racial integration and a black educated culture when the prospects for both seemed dim. We follow Du Bois as he travels along the valleys and hills of the Black Belt in the South, staying with families in dilapidated houses and offering lessons for solemn but eager children. Du Bois provides a lesson in history and a moving portrait of the wretched life that American blacks inherited from slavery. It is a life cast under the “shadow of a Veil,” slipping into a reality as “other.” Yet Du Bois is steadfast in his view that blacks are the most American of all, as they have known what it means to struggle for freedom.
—Elisa Wouk Almino
Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams about a Midwestern literary scholar, is woven out of the disappointments that comprise its protagonist’s life: a failed marriage, emotional estrangement from his daughter, university infighting that hinders his career.
Yet embedded within the narrative is the story of a man who grows to discover a love of literature. Williams’ descriptions of the experience of reading both elucidate and evince the pleasures of literary language; the “minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words” in which Stoner finds joy are re-enacted in Williams’ own perfect fusion of words.
And sentences like this offer an alternative to the novel’s mundane model for human existence. Stoner’s clinical survey of his life is mitigated by Williams’ beautifully-crafted prose: “He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality.”
Stoner is often described as a “quiet” work, and this is true. The life it portrays is unremarkable—failed, even—preserved for posterity only in the pages of Williams’ novel. But its quietness is counterbalanced by the strength and sonority of its language. In Stoner the “assaulting diversion of triviality” becomes the means for writing as exquisite—and valuable—as you will find anywhere.
— Rebecca Jacobs
Have you ever considered having sex with Jesus? Margery Kempe did, 560 years before “Like a Prayer.” One ordinarily presumes that a medieval female mystic would be a quiet sort of virgin. Not Marge: born in the 1370s, she had fourteen children, saw Jesus in her visions regularly, brewed her own beer, and caused a lot of drama, in public, constantly. A literate friend finished copying down Margery’s oral record of her life in 1438, making The Book of Margery Kempe the first autobiography in English. In it, she describes how Christ not only didn’t mind how much sex she had (“oftyntymes have I telde the that I have clene forgove the alle thy synnes”) but in fact loved her so much that “Therfore most I nedys be homly wyth the and lyn in thi bed wyth the.” In the soul, mind you: “take me in the armys of thi sowle and kyssen my mowth, myn hed, and my fete as swetly as thow wylt.”
Have you ever considered having sex with Jesus?Tweet
Margery would have had a problem with the church if she had framed kissing Jesus as literal, pornographic Biblical fan-fic. But because these eroticized religious experiences took place in the “sowle,” they represented a form of Christian spirituality involving the believer’s deepest emotional and physical responses; something that medievalists call “affective piety” (and I might call “shagging”). Rereading Margery’s book, I’m struck anew—both by how conversational her visions were but also how little she cared about irritating people. Margery would wail and flail in public, whenever and wherever the mood seized her. Her fellow pilgrims complained, but our plucky mystic carried on unperturbed. Small wonder: the lady dated the most popular guy in medieval Europe.
Seven years after first dipping in, I’ve swum the length of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs (1969). The four hundred some page collection of poems is narrated, the author explains, by “an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry… who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.” Never mind the fractured perspective—“Bah,” as Beckett said, “any old pronoun will do, provided one sees through it”—Henry’s life corresponds in its outward features to Berryman’s, and any reader supposes, fairly or not, that Henry’s bad dreams are more or less Berryman’s. Even so, resort to an alter ego makes sense. How, except by speaking through a mask, could any halfway socialized person say things as frankly distraught as these often are, as aggressively self-pitying or -loathing, or simply as scared, sad, and sorry?
To claim that The Dream Songs form a single long poem, as Berryman did, was less justifiable. A series of semifictional diary entries, the book tells no story except the one common to all diaries, namely the passage of time. Like most volumes of poetry, it hangs together through a consistency of form, style, sensibility. The nature of Berryman’s preoccupations make Henry good company in bad times. Life, friends, is awful. We must not say so. In hours when it feels like that, The Dream Songs’ lurid frankness on the matter is some comfort. I was in the middle of what they call a rough patch when I first read them. Ordinarily I never write of myself in the third person— I swear!—but on the blank last page of my copy I wrote: “He was so unhappy that he could no longer read, except for poetry.” And: “On TV a woman giving an enema to a puppy, for God’s sake.” No John Berryman, he—but you see the need for a certain kind of company.
My devotion to The Dream Songs soon flagged, partly because I was feeling better and partly because many of the poems turn out to be so-so: rhythmical grumbles with one or two good lines, or zero. Then, four years ago, I started the book again, unprompted by any trouble and just wanting a lyrical fix. Inside The Dream Songs is a truly great book, but it does not consist of 385 poems—more like a third or a quarter that many. Maybe sometime, as a public service, I’ll make a list of the Greatest Hits of Henry Pussycat (to give the speaker’s full name). They would show a poet whose blendings of gorgeous Elizabethan diction and deliberate drunktastic solecism turn the gutter of “madness and booze” into a midcentury asylum for a high style that otherwise has no home. The best of The Dream Songs—in another sense, the worst—say nearly unspeakable things in a language nobody else has ever used, or could. Numbers 28, 36, and 384 in particular are inconsolable, and probably unimprovable.
Possession of his gift sometimes cheers Henry. He becomes “Industrious, affable, having brain on fire” (#58). His initiatives to buck himself up can hearten the reader, too: “He said: I’ll work on slow, O slow & fast, / if a letter comes I will answer that letter / & my whole year will be tense with love” (#279). More often, the consolation of these poems is to withhold any. Number 370: “Leaves on leaves on leaves of books I’ve turned / and I know nothing, Henry said aloud.”