Among the architectural jewels here on the Outer Cape is the 1827 First Parish Truro church, high on one of the town’s hilltops, where this year we attended a moving Christmas Eve service. Into the ecumenical celebration was incorporated a traditional Moravian “love feast” with apple cider and gingersnaps.
Consistent with the social beliefs of the community, the United Church of Christ is “open and affirming,” inclusive of all backgrounds and orientations. During the holiday service there was an opportunity to voice aloud concerns, griefs and gratitudes. Such sharing is consistent with the congregation’s beliefs. As one of the co-pastors eloquently expressed it on the church website, “Community trumps isolation, hospitality overcomes fear, and the mystery of God compels us to treat every thing in Creation with dignity and respect.’
Even for attendees not “of the faith,” a distinct sense of holiness pervaded the silence following a communal singing of “Silent Night.” As the winter the skies outside darkened, candles both inside and out the historic structure did truly seem to flicker, as in the familiar carol, with “love’s pure light.”
It’s that time of the year again: the heralded arrival of the “best” lists. We at LNB, trying to maintain our holiday spirit, have begun to peruse these as comic material to be shared with like-minded friends. Far too often such rankings are a ludicrous collection of works by personal associates and useful colleagues — though sometimes even family enters into the picture. Perhaps most astonishingly nervy is the recommendation of the tenor Roberto Alagna in BBC Musicmagazine, who chooses his brother David Alagna’s Le dernier jour d’un condamné as one of the greatest operas “of all time” ! (NB: Brothers Roberto and Frédérico contributed to the libretto.)
But limiting the scope to 2017, here’s our favorite: In “Writers Choose the Best Books of the Year” from the current issue of Bookforum, Joshua Cohen writes: My favorite book of 2017 was my own, Moving Kings. Because I worked very hard on it. Because it’s good. Because if you can’t be proud of your won achievements, bought at the cost of health and youth and sanity, what’s the point?
The “purpose of literature” is obviously far too vast a topic for discussion here, but we’d like to consider the reason for this newsletter, which is, in effect, a sort of blog. We think of this page as a place to express admiration for excellence or to make observations about artistic (or, increasingly, political) disappointments. Some call this criticism. Alongside the presentation of new work, this task was once the purview of the paper periodical.
For us, the most disturbing example of “bad faith” is the use of such commentary exclusively as a form of self-promotion or widening of professional networks. Any artistic opinion carries with it a kernel of self-justification, of course. And, in fact, sometimes that self-centered seed blooms into a creation fully independent of its origins, cultural criticism becoming a work of art.
There are some excellent bloggers and electronic magazines. But much of what we read online arrives like a billboard’s neon flower, an image forever flashing yet eternally without scent. Not only is much of this “literary citizenship” plainly self-advertising, it’s also the future. Content, we are advised, must be geared toward promotion and marketing. The crucial question to be answered by the blogging writer before she hits the posting key is: What’s in it for me?
This month’s issue of Harper’s contains an excerpt from a letter written by Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem. Taken from a recently published volume of their correspondence, the missive delivers an early version of a now-familiar tragic narrative:
Here in New York I’ve heard some not unimportant details for the first time. It may be that I’m not all that qualified to give an account of [Walter] Benjamin’s death, because I had considered such a possibility so far-fetched that for weeks after he died I dismissed the entire business as no more than immigrants’ gossip. This despite the fact that in the past years and months we were very close friends… At the outbreak of war we were all together for a summer break in a small village near Paris. Benji was in excellent shape. He had finished part of his work on Baudelaire and was prepared to do some extraordinary things…
The newly published letter is significant because it reinforces the premise of Mary Maxwell’s essay, “Correspondences and Affinities” (which appeared in the July 2017 Yale Review) that Benjamin’s truly important work had, and would have, focused on the poet Baudelaire. Arendt opines:
Benjamin had just one wish: to learn enough of English to say that he absolutely didn’t like the language. And he succeeded. His horror at America was indescribable, and he told friends that he preferred a shorter life in France to a longer one in America.
We like to think that Benjamin would have felt less alienated in America than he feared. And though it may only be possible to re-write history through imaginative literature, in our better, alternate universe (as in Maxwell’s) Benjamin would have succeeded in escaping to New York City, where
the American Benjamin could most often be found, via the A train, in Greenwich Village’s postwar cafes. There he would take his coffee or brandy seated alongside New School academics and the young creatives of the city’s downtown. Having survived the red-hunting fifties, he would come into his influential own the following decade. At this historical moment Benjamin’s actual and fantastic chronology would overlap, for it was in the late sixties that American readers were introduced to Benjamin’s “early” writings in the pages of The New Yorker, brought to their attention by his friend Hannah Arendt. Most importantly, after the travel visa difficulties of the McCarthy era had been resolved, Benjamin would be able to make regular visits to and from his beloved Paris. Both there and in New York the now-elderly emigré would serve as intellectual mentor to a small circle of like-minded enthusiasts.
We were entranced by the show, “Henry James and American Painting” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, just transferred from its residency at New York’s Morgan Library. The accompanying book (essays by Colm Tóibín, Marc Simpson and Declan Kelly) is also excellent. The most astonishing, and perversely encouraging, document on display was a reader’s report, written by the Harper & Brothers employee, Henry Mills Alden. In response to James’s “Project of a Novel” proposal to the publisher for The Ambassadors, Alden had written to his superiors:
The scenario is interesting, but it does not promise a popular novel. The tissues of it are too subtly fine for general appreciation. It is subjective, fold within fold of a complex mental web, in which the reader is lost if his much-wearied attention falters… I do not advise acceptance.
It struck us as significant that almost everyone from the cast interviewed during the intermission of the Live in HD telecast of Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel (most notably the composer and conductor) insisted that it was impossible to determine the “meaning” of either Buñuel’s inspirational film or the opera itself. It would have been awkward to point out that the invitees to the dramatized dinner party have a lot in common with the Metropolitan Opera’s supporters. At least some members of the bourgeoisie, as they sipped their fortifying champagne cocktails, must have recognized something of themselves among the opera’s involuntary overnight guests. And so, when the familiar dulcet tones rang announcing the opera would soon begin again, these Guild members must have experienced a momentary sense of relief when they themselves were able to cross the Belmont Room’s threshold.
The infamously recorded conversation of our president (which, it goes without saying, should have cost him the election just over a year ago) revealed the psychology of the predator: “I do it because I can.” Such exercises of power, however, are not limited to politics, Hollywood, or even the offices of literary publications, though concrete examples can be found on the latter’s pages every day: Poems composed by accident on cell phones; “found” poetry; lines with no prosodic component whatsoever; entries culled from diary or daybook and arranged in arty, airy spreads; interviews with writers who have literally nothing of interest to contribute except the false modesties of self-promotion. How does such ordinariness find its way into print? Because the author can; because the poet can’t help him- or herself from exercising his or her position of literary power, depriving better work of its deserved reading; because editors shamelessly continue to allow familiar personalities and useful contacts to determine their publications’ content.
Calm has finally returned to Longnook Road. The “summer season” on the Outer Cape now extends well into October; many visitors have discovered that fall is the most perfect time for walks in the pine woods or along the whale-spouting ocean. But this year’s leaves have left, and with them, the ever-hurried tourists. Unveiled again are the sculptural forms of the forest floor and the lunar landscape of uninhabited dunes, all to be observed in a cocoon of near-silence. We are grateful. As Mary Maxwell wrote in her afterword to Nine Over Sixes: “Nature provides the increasingly rare luxury of quiet, the ability to hear oneself think.”
With our apologies to the Arrogant Brewing Company, maker of the truly excellent Arrogant Bastard Ale, we borrow, and modify only slightly, this manifesto from their website:
Here at LongNookBooks we believe that pandering to the lowest common denominator represents the height of tyranny—a virtual form of keeping the consumer barefoot and stupid. Brought forth upon an unsuspecting public, our products have openly challenged the tyrannical overlords who were brazenly attempting to keep Americans chained in the shackles of poor taste. Since the very beginning our products have reveled in its unprecedented and uncompromising celebration of intensity. There have been many nods to our list …even outright attempts to copy it…but only a paltry few contemporaries embody the true nature of literary arrogance.
In his writing workshops Robert Pinsky recommends to his students the creation of a “personal anthology.” This is a collection of poems that are important to the individual student, either on some private level or as an example of the art. He encourages his would-be anthologists to hand-write or type out the poems themselves, as he himself has done with his own version, a loose-leaf notebook he regularly refers to as classroom textbook.
We suspect that this assignment might have indirectly informed Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life, an anthology of her own selections, complete with background introduction and memoiristic commentary preceding each poem. We also suspect Bialosky never typed out any of these poems herself, but rather used the cut-and-paste option. Such a “cheat” is consistent with the kind of plagiarism of which Bialosky has been accused. Both are forms of laziness so much in use as to be considered acceptable.
In the end, for us the most shocking detail of her compositional procedure was that an executive editor and vice-president at Norton would rely at all on online references, let alone would quote from them without attribution. Informational as well as interpretational matter in the book has evidently been culled from websites such as Wikipedia, Academy of American Poets, and the Poetry Foundation. In interviews she has expressed pride at being a “non-academic”; is this the basis on which she might claim to have no access to a library?
The NYT defense of her methods by a group of “friends of literature” suggest that we are perhaps indeed seeing the end of traditional “authorship,” as well as the dissolution of what was once referred to as literary “authority.” We show ourselves to be hopelessly old-school when we admit to being troubled by the lack of proofreading on the book’s webpage at Simon & Schuster (for one thing, a blurb there is quoted twice). Believe us when we say we’re not happy at finding ourselves placed in that unbending category known as “sticklers.”
We’d like to post a quick footnote to the Hilton Als profile of Frank Bidart in the New Yorker‘s September 11 issue, a discussion timed with the publication of his recent, Half-Light: Collected Poems, finalist for the National Book Award. Why was the non-poet Als delegated this task? Als presents Bidart up front as a gay poet, thereby placing the sometimes difficult monologuist in a more familiar category. Or perhaps the New Yorker editors considered it unseemly to let Bidart’s protege, Dan Chiasson, write the review, though this would suggest an atypical scrupulousness on the magazine’s part.
In any case, Als makes much mention of the fact that Bidart’s first book Golden State bore blurbs by his mentors, Lowell and Bishop. (Chiasson’s first book analogously carried a blurb by Bidart.) But Als fails to mention the extraordinary importance of Richard Howard to Bidart’s distinguished career. It was Howard who chose the book for the Braziller series and wrote the 1973 collection’s prophetic introduction.
We’ve always admired Bidart for his bold, albeit sometimes near-incomprehensible, long poems. We remember one evening years ago when most the audience left half-way through one of his readings, their heads shaking in bafflement. Bidart continued nonplussed. And we return with gratitude to Richard Howard’s early understanding of the poet’s “dream letters,” of what was and what was to come: “The wrong turns, the missing links and mistaken signals are no more than evidence of what may be right, given, understood. Over this book is suspended, like a ceiling of swords, the threat and indeed the doom of the negative.”
Last Sunday we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon at the Truro Vineyards Vinegrass festival listening to a series of bluegrass performers and enjoying the sunny autumn weather. But our experience, with its throw-back small-town innocence and sense of physical security, has been retroactively imbued with the televised horror of that very evening. Eerily, on the other side of the country, at another not dissimilar music event, the country’s deadliest mass shooting by a single individual, Stephen Paddock, was being put into place.
Last week in Cambridge we had the pleasure of attending the Radcliffe Institute’s panel discussion, “The Museum, the City and the University.” What was particularly satisfying was to hear three museum directors (Peggy Fogelman of the Isabella Stewart Gardner; Jill Mevedow of Boston’s ICA; and Martha Tedeschi of the Harvard Art Museums) share their particular perspectives on the roles and purposes of cultural institutions. While it was acknowledged that each of these museums have a mission somewhat different from those of fellow panelists Matthew Teitelbaum (Boston MFA) and Paul Ha (MIT’s List Center), the meaningful yet polite parrying that took place on the dais made clear that the three women have independent yet thoughtful views (as distinct from prepared remarks intended to please their boards) about the relation between arts and citizenship. Such voices need to be heard more often; their frankness was refreshing.
Given our longtime admiration for the Woodberry Poetry Room, it was with particular delight that we discovered that The Longnook Overlook: A Review of the Arts, published in 2014, has been chosen for inclusion in Harvard’s Blue Star collection, the Woodberry’s “non-circulating collection of rare or limited-edition monographs, chapbooks or broadsides.”
At this summer’s end LongNookBooks is preparing for the publication of Mary Maxwell’s latest poetry collection, Oral Lake, due out at the very beginning of 2018. Here’s a preview from the final section, “August,” that seems to us redolent with the current moment: Summer was over before the boat returned / to Oral’s other side. The maples’ bronzed leaves / had set themselves down onto reflected sky // by the time school began again. M’s father / rowed by himself those afternoons, wood dipping / in quiet, measured communion. Evening came // on sooner and sometimes unexpectedly. / Sweaters were worn by those under eaves, seated / in rockers that creaked like old hip bones…
The phrase “coterie writer” is one that can be associated with either admiration and disdain. But whether it’s employed as a dismissal or an honorarium, one thing that must be noted is that, fairly consistently, it’s just such a writer who consistently becomes the “classic” embraced by several generations following his or her own more widely read contemporaries.
Nothing has given us more hope than Sandra Bernhard’s show at Provincetown’s Crown and Anchor. Her performance was full of the gallows humor and rough-voices song-styling we associate with thirties Berlin. That kind of drag-queen raw nerve, we now see, is exactly what is needed at this cultural moment. As she observed about the desperation Trump has sown in world citizenry: It’s just not funny anymore. But not only did we enjoy Bernhard’s hilariously self-involved “sharing,” we experienced that unique combination of fury and hilarity political humor can bring out in a like-minded cabaret audience. Her encore medley, delivered with a take-no-prisoners passion, brought us close to tears and sent us out onto Commercial Street with something that felt a lot like courage.
There’s now more than something to be said for keeping a “low profile” online. Extraordinary examples of ad hominen hostility are regular features of reader’s comments as well as on personal and professional social networks. Who you are is also increasingly determined by what an individual looks at, where one purchases goods, and what political and social opinions are expressed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. A person’s “electronic trail” may be easily read (and misread) through programs which analyze user statistics. The verb “profiling” was once only used to describe the visual delineation of an object, but now, in addition to the more nefarious methods of law enforcement, a disturbing new twist has been added to electronic “invasion of privacy”: Facial recognition software can reportedly perform the literal reduction of a person to his or her digital silhouette. If this really works, a new paranoia may be detected in our eyes.
Some decades ago now, Richard Olney (a subject of Justin Spring’s forthcoming The Gourmands’ Way) asked us if we knew the work of Sybille Bedford, a good friend and colleague of his. (She contributed the “World Wines” section of the Wine volume of his Time-Life encyclopedia, The Good Cook.) We had to admit that she was a well-received name whose work we were not, at that point, familiar with. Olney clucked disapprovingly. The sound echoes across the intervening years.
Despite our continued chagrin, it has nevertheless been a great pleasure for us to read her exquisite prose while concomitantly seeing her literary stock rise. At the Provincetown Artsfundraiser this summer, we knew her readership was finally lining up with her reputation when Alec Wilkinson mentioned her as one of his favorites — most likely a recommendation of Wilkinson’s New Yorker mentor, William Maxwell. It is especially satisfying to see four of her books re-printed by New York Review books; most recently they brought out two of her novels, A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error, in one volume.
Here on the Outer Cape we are well aware that, politically and socially speaking, we live in a bubble within a bubble (Cape Cod) within a bubble (Massachusetts). But we were stunned by the local results of last fall’s Presidential election, with 23% of both Wellfleet and Truro voters casting their lot with Trump. The grim realization that nearly one in four of our neighbors was a Trump supporter was bad enough, but now we see that, given recent national follow-up polls, it’s likely that 12% or more of those Trump votes were actually Sanders supporters registering some moronic form of protest. The “farm-to-table” atmosphere of our liberal communities suddenly feels unpleasantly close. and we can’t help but scowl in disgust at those who are still sporting “Feel the Bern” next to their “Buy Local” bumper stickers.
Louis Menand’s piece, “The Defense of Poetry,” in last week’s New Yorker both described and illustrated the effect of pop-culture journalism on poetry criticism. What the books under review all exhibit, though Menand himself never expresses this directly, is a certain contemporary maleness substituting for critical attitude. Described as “erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy,” Menand summarizes the approach as “Brooklyn.” While Menand writes about the difficulty of such a critic keeping “his or her balance” on the “high-low tightrope,” he never actually points out that none of the acrobats (Robbins, Lerner, Zapruder, Orr) in question are actually women. Oddly, the New Yorker’s own Pauline Kael (whose topic, of course, was mostly cinema) is identified as the “Jedi Master of this mode of criticism,” though that tokenism seems oddly anachronistic, given that she’s been dead now for seventeen years.
The more pertinent point of reference, as Menand goes on to note, is rock-and-roll writing from the age of New Journalism. Such casualness derives from all-boy chemically-fueled discussions of liner notes and readings of Rolling Stone interviews. This is not all a bad thing (drug-use can produce excellent poems — e.g. Coleridge, De Quincy, Baudelaire ), but the approach’s gendered nature needs to be acknowledged. We ourselves have always had the distinct impression that many of the poets and poetry critics under discussion were in their early twenties unsuccessful as actors and indie band members; failing to be handsome or charismatic enough for those careers, they opted out for the poetry reading and online blog. Hence springs such voices’ embrace of the pop song as fully equivalent to the poem, an opinion recently validated by the Swedish Academy.
Such writers don’t pretend to be the cultural critics of yore; Irving Howe, they’re not. Instead literary critics have become commentators, as on a news show, delivering their own book-world spin. Our own “takeaway” from the his piece is the deleterious effect such writing has been on usually careful thinkers and stylists such as Menand. Following a mushy paragraph on the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, Menand goes all the way back to that proto-hipster Philip Sidney and his despair at poetry being the “laughing stock of children.” But as with the other contemporary defenders under discussion, in the end we are returned to the present day and Menand’s own history, “I started out as a poet, too, but I eventually realized that whatever my poems were expressing, it wasn’t me.” Menand’s summation, to put it mildly, underwhelms. Not only does he self-gratifyingly conclude, by inference, that poems carry no qualities more meaningful or long-lasting than a pop song, in the end they’re really no different than “putting words in the right order” on a postcard. After proposing that poets are just like other kinds of writers, he finishes up his fifteen columns with this: “The reason people write poems is the reason they write. They all have something to say.”
Though it was made back in 2007, we highly recommend José Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia. An experience closer to music than that of a film, the movie has no real plot and no fixed characters. It is simply “about” time spent in Strasbourg. Admittedly, memories of our own youthful travels and “touristic” exiles in France were implicated in our emotional response to the film; but any viewer’s history, and shifting memory of that narrative, would likely be drawn into the compact story of a young foreigner’s attempt to recapture lost connections. Something like distant cafe music or a troublingly familiar perfume, erotic desire is presented as a form of ephemeral madness.
For those familiar with its former home in Merion, the reconstructed Barnes Collection in downtown Philadelphia is a surreal experience. The original building’s rooms have been reproduced exactly within a contemporary shell on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a location that is considerably easier to visit than suburban Merion. In some sense, the move doesn’t matter, in that the extraordinary collection of paintings is still mostly comprised of the “real thing” and remains a joy to behold. But while the eccentricity of Dr. Barnes’s arrangement is intact, the masterworks’ new context felt to us somehow like only a step or two away from “virtual reality.” We found it all quite discomfiting.
“Even a fox / knows one big thing / at the end of the hunt,” writes the brilliant Anthony Rudolf in his European Hours. The book is subtitled a “collected poems” but it is decidedly not that. Instead the book’s selections gesture towards Rudolf’s wide-ranging contributions to literature (as a publisher, as a writer of prose, as a translator, as a critic…); his beautifully written poems resonate with the sometimes discordant notes of a person deeply in tune with a life of letters — as well as one well aware of the obligations of historical memory. The wise-cracking gesture to Archilochos (and Isaiah Berlin) provides just one example of the sureness of Rudolph’s intellect and ear.
Perusals of summer’s online discussions and postings suggest that elitism has become the literary world’s #1 concern. Priority is given to “accessibility,” as though by law each literary text needs to make allowance for ramps and dedicated parking. And while we generally applaud such regulations in the social and political sphere, it continues to be our belief that literature is the one place where there should be no such strictures or quotas. In this time and place, or so it seems to us, serious artists of all stripes are working under extraordinary “handicaps.”
Received ideas as to the class implications of literary style have also now entered far into the territory of wrongheaded writing advice. “A sense of entitlement is not how you…reach [readers],” we are told, “hunger & humility make the difference.” Our reaction? Tell that one to the perennial best-selling Dante Alighieri. What is being proposed here has nothing to do with writing; the two options presented are simply alternate forms of social pose as applied to the publishing marketplace — –the topic, by no coincidence, of the books and blog of the above quoted “author” consultant. The issue under discussion is not literature but self-marketing.
Yale Review has announced the retirement of its longtime editor Sandy McClatchy. The future of the venerable periodical (as well as numerous literary journals these days) is somewhat in question. And so it is a particular honor for LongNookBook’s Senior Editor Mary Maxwell to appear in the current July issue. We ask ourselves: Where in the future would such an essay on the sonnets of Walter Benjamin and the Baudelaire translations of Richard Howard find a home? The relationship system of which editor and poet McClatchy has been an integral part is something quite more than that of professional “network. “ As Maxwell writes in Yale Review’s pages: Howard’s translations are indisputably the work of a poet, which is something that simply can’t be said for Carl Skoggard’s English versions of Benjamin’s sonnets. But then, what is it that makes a person a poet? To create good poems, obviously one needs an ear and a subject; the poetic vocation itself is considerably harder to define. Thinking of Benjamin and Baudelaire, I extrapolate that it involves a life’s work determined to reveal “a world of secret affinities.“
Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam has returned from returned from the Pompidou in Paris to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A “painting in ten parts,” based on Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, and completed in 1978, the work evokes incidents from Homer’s epic poem in Twombly’s characteristic synthesis of words and stylized images. The ten large canvases follow one another much like a developing narrative, though the human figure, as well as any specific battle actions, remain completely absent. Instead the qualities of named Greeks and Trojans are recalled in graffiti-like verbal and or painterly gesture. It is all very Roman, rather than Greek, we would observe, very much a product of the Italian city Twombly for many years called home.
One of the great adages of the painter Janice Biala went something like this: “You don’t have to make an effort to be contemporary. Whatever style you choose, abstract or figurative, in oil or with acrylics, whether you like it or not, every brushstroke of yours will mark you in time.” At LongNookBooks, we have found that this equally applies to literary style, especially when it comes to poetic translation. Is there a more succinct way to document developments of 20th-century poetry that to look at translation approaches to classical lyric? Such a study also says a lot about the knotty matter of influence: Despite the dull deviations of one hundred years of “complete” classroom versions, from H.D. to Mary Barnard to Jim Powell to Anne Carson, the most successful translations of Sappho concretely exhibit themselves as belonging to the century of Pound.
Whatever the legal outcome of James Comey’s Senate testimony, it’s increasingly obvious that the President’s dynamic of interpersonal relations betrays his long association with organized crime. And, indeed, what is Vladimir Putin but a state-funded mobster? The “obstruction of justice” approach to impeachment may not fly, but Robert Mueller and his team are proceeding on another track. And while there is little doubt that we are dealing with “high crimes” in the White House, the immediate cause for Trump’s eventual resignation will come from his other forms of lawbreaking.
Trump likes to pretend he doesn’t scare easily but even he must be aware he’s facing a fatal nemesis in Michael Dreeben. Taking his lead from Watergate’s “deep throat,” Mueller’s hiring of a team of Treasury agents suggests that he is indeed “following the money.” And so just as Eliot Ness got Al Capone through prosecution of tax fraud, we have no doubt that Trump and several of his colleagues will end up in prison for comparable reasons. Otherwise, following a coup of “you’re fired!”s, America might well end up as a Mafia State, with Rudolph Giuliani appointed as director of the FBI.
How are we to cope with the current political climate? One answer, culled from centuries of literature, is to return to our gardens. “Like a wandering vine, the subject of garden-making winds through the shelves of books and boxes of archives” in Yale’s Beinecke Library. And like a life-affirming bouquet, “Happiness: The Writer in the Garden” is the result of a particularly thoughtful culling. As the exhibit’s curator notes, “writers of all dispositions seem to agree that the work of shaping the natural world into manageable plots brings particularly rewarding forms of joy and satisfaction.”
Given our own geographic location here in New England, we took special note of the displayed words of Edith Wharton: “To one who has fought for years the gales of the Rhode Island sea-coast, and the late frosts and burning sun of the Massachusetts mountains, who has watched the sight of painfully nursed “colour-effects,” and returned in the spring to the blackened corpses of careful sheltered hemlock hedges and box borders.. there is a foretaste of heaven in the leisurely progression of the French summer.”
And so with Wharton’s Pavillion Colombe and the Paris Agreement in mind, we are thinking of the world’s climate in both its literal and figurative dimensions. Just now it feels like everything is up for grabs. So as the weather warms up, we are looking, as we would advise others to, at the colors of our late spring lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons. For as Wharton wrote, there is something about temperate seasons “where the picture stays in its frame… that creates a sense of serenity in the mind inured to transiency and failure.”
One of the great perks of living on Outer Cape Cod is the opportunity to visit the remarkable modernist homes scattered between ocean and bayside. This spring the Cape Cod Modern House Trust opened two structures for public visits: the 1970 Kugel/Gips house, designed by Charlie Zehnder and the 1960 Hatch cottage, designed by Jack Hall. Both are evidently inspired by the work of master architects Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff and Charles Jencks (all of whom also built summer homes nearby).
The recently published Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape is the definitive, photograph-packed guide to these buildings, though we at LongNookBooks retain a special affection for the smaller A Chain of Events: Modernist Architecture on the Outer Cape, which came into being as the catalogue for a 2006 show of the same name at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. There is something about the physical form of this well-written gem of a volume that beautifully evokes the concomitantly homemade and sophisticated quality of the movement’s almost primitively constructed “dune shacks.” Author and architect K. Michael Hays nicely summarizes the structures’ pervading ethos as a form of “aesthetic materialism.”
It’s hard to describe in words how these inspiring buildings integrate interior and exterior experience, a difficulty which makes site visits such as offered by the Trust so crucial to an understanding of the meanings of the architecture. For the first wave of émigréarchitects, the home created in their American refuge became, as Breuer himself wrote, a “center of emotional faith.” Or as Mary Maxwell wrote in Cultural Tourism’s “Marcel Breuer”: Design not / as mere decoration but a mode of interpretation, thinking through / post-industrial society, acknowledging the interdependence of humans // and their environment. On a candlelit deck, distinctions between indoor / and out dissolve in the duck. Beyond where the electric lights dare to / extend, brutal monsters from childhood fairy tales are still lingering.
The challenge unspoken but implied by Alexander Theroux’s 650-page Collected Poems is “Let them ignore this!” But lo and behold, that’s exactly what the rank-closing poetry community has done since the 2015 volume appeared from Fantagraphics. The work is consistently excellent as well as consistently “incorrect” in the manner of Frederick Seidel. But a list of periodicals where many of the lyrics originally appeared is long and distinguished. (Mary Maxwell, in fact, was responsible for one of them being published in Provincetown Arts when she served as poetry editor there in 2005; it was Guy Davenport who’d drawn her attention to Theroux’s presence on the Cape.) Some of Theroux’s public-relations problems have evidently been brought about by his own behaviors; even now he’s the subject of an academic sexual misconduct lawsuit dating back thirty years. But as he has truly written in his own “Epitaph”: “He was envied by les pauvres / Who kept him from public recognition, / Never mind fame. / Such is the malignity of dwarves.”
Recently enjoying a 2012 bottle of Lytton Estate Mataro, we fondly recalled our visit that very year to Sonoma’s Ridge Vineyards. John Olney, nephew of the late (and much beloved by us) Richard Olney, took us on a tour of the Lytton Spring facilities. (As an aside, we here note that Richard Olney will feature in Justin Spring’s forthcoming The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy).The varietal Mataro is usually blended by the younger Olney in Ridge’s Lytton Springs offering, but 2012 merited a separate bottling, with 15% Petite Syrah adding “structure and dark fruit.” The result is immediately delicious but also encouraging of deep thoughts.
In short, the bottle is something of a rarity. As we pondered its depths, we couldn’t help observing that our experience of the wine market is analogous to how we read poetry. What we like doesn’t correspond to what others greet with social media effusions: Out there are a lot of over-rated formalized fruit bombs; syrupy Malbecs to go with Wall Street steaks; baby-shower white wines with no discernible character at all; and hipster-labeled grape juice that really does taste like it might have fermented in a Brooklyn garage. These too common experiences, in short, are pretty close to how we would describe the poetic work of many of our contemporaries. There are still some profound and wonderful works being made available, but it takes a kind of disciplined willfulness to ignore the hype surrounding what really should be identified as undrinkable.
A publishing conference in Boston we attended this past weekend confirmed two fundamental problems related to the literary marketplace: First of all, the independent publisher’s most serious competition is not “the big five” but “monetized distractions” (Twitter, Netflix, Candy Crush) as one moderator so eloquently, and quite chillingly, put it. Secondly, we observed once more that there seem to be far more aspiring writers than readers of literature, and even these individuals aren’t buying books. At a large circular table of fiction aspirants where we were seated, not one was familiar with, let along had read, the works of either of the conference’s keynote speakers. Most were looking at their cellphones even as the the hyper-articulate Aleksandar Hemon and Claire Messud spoke of the novel’s urgency in a time of constant informational access.
Barry Levinson’s 2014 The Humbling, based on the Philip Roth novel and with a screenplay by Buck Henry, feels like a Mike Nichols project. (It would make a great triple feature with The Graduate and Catch-22.) Despite the bitter misogyny beneath Roth’s story, there’s a kind of acid truth to all the characterizations. We can see why not everyone was enthusiastic about the film; you either find Charles Grodin’s straight-man silences hilarious or you don’t. The movie’s humor is as black as the kohl crayon the actor played by Al Pacino applies to his eyes as he prepares to go (disastrously) onstage.
We love New York’s Albertine bookstore and reading room, which occupies the first two floors of the former Payne-Whitney mansion on upper Fifth Avenue. A project of the French embassy’s Cultural Services, the Italian Renaissance structure alone would provide reason for a drop-in. Its entrance foyer — with the now-obligatory security desk — boasts a replica of Michelangelo’s Young Archer; the original sculpture is on loan to the Met. Given the shop’s carefully curated tables and shelves, it’s easy to overlook steps leading to an upstairs salon complete with ceiling painting of the constellations, stars and planets. Couches and a coffee table complement a children’s corner. In short, books are only one element of a visit’s pleasure.
But it was downstairs that we bought our copy of Richard Howard’s Like Death, just published by New York Review of Books books. It’s a translation, of course, of Guy de Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort, the French novel after which Ford Madox Ford said he modeled The Good Soldier. It has been said that by doing so Ford wrote “the best French novel in English.” But we think Richard Howard’s prose comes in at a close second. His are simply exquisite sentences, whose composition cannot be wholly credited to the French master: “When they neared the lawn they heard the breathing of the cows which, now awake and scenting their enemy, were raising their heads to look. Under the trees, farther on, the moon was dripping among the branches a shower of fine beams that seemed to wet the leaves and reached the ground in little yellow pools along the road.”
The shaky scaffolding of “The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin” at New York’s Jewish Museum is structured by the various sections (“convolutes”) of the great writer’s unfinished masterpiece. In actual practice none of the artworks or textual quotations in the show have anything to do with the impulse of Benjamin’s project. In addition to our theoretical objection to the exhibit’s falsely applied principles, in practice nearly every piece forced into the curator’s theoretical framework feels dead on arrival. Merely an excuse for coterie payback and self-promotion, the show is a profoundly dispiriting experience. Is it really possible that the concept of “appropriation” has become morally neutral? In this new world, there’s no reason to be ashamed of thievery; conceptual art has become a kind of cannibalistic grave-robbing.
Happily, in the light-filled exhibit room just next door may be found Charlemagne Palestine’s tender-hearted “Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland,” an enthusiastically silly installation paradoxically full of profound feeling. The various stuffed creatures, according to the artist, are “shamanic representations of the soul.” Benjamin, a sensitive observer of childhood’s spiritual tendencies, would have been in complete agreement about the auratic mode embodied by the faces of these toy Ursidae. Full of a “desire to make light of an unbearable,” as he himself put it in his essay “Old Toys,” we ourselves felt a kind of regressive escapism as we entered the teddy-bear “craziness.” With such a sense of gratitude were we liberated from the horror of Benjamin’s desecration by Palestine’s world of play.
We joined in mourning the late Robert Silvers at this year’s Paris Review Revel, just as the last issue of the New York Review of Books edited by him was appearing on the newsstand. Silvers, of course, was an integral part of both periodicals; like relatives at the holiday celebrations of second cousins, editors and contributors regularly appeared on the pages of both. While the exact editorial future of the NYRB remains somewhat in question, the Paris Review finds itself in the midst of an muscular revival. Both “papers” (as Silvers referred to his projects) continue to play crucial parts in our own reading and writing lives.
It wasn’t until we saw “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” at the Metropolitan Museum that we could put our finger on the correct word for certain Broadway productions these days. After a raucous evening attending Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 we were at a loss at how to describe the experience. Literally everything comes at you (bags of pierogies, play-along maraca eggs, wandering chorus members shouting in your face) while the self-descriptive sung War and Peace narrative moves the activated audience toward the title’s strobe-lit astronomical conclusion. Such immersive encounters are very much like those of a seasonal fair or traveling circus, full of acrobatics and freakishness and even an updated lesbian chanteuse (i.e. Sonya). Despite all this, Josh Groban’s self-hating Pierre does somehow ends up transformed and transforming; during its last moments the sideshow is redeemed. As with Seurat’s delicately articulated trombonist, we find ourselves powerfully identifying with the lone figure performing in the glare of the over-bright footlights.
Albert Goldbarth’s latest offering, The Adventures of Form and Content, is a sort of “flip-book.” Its format would be nothing more than a gimmick if it weren’t also an allusive throwback to the tactile potentialities of paper, ink and glue; the poet remains committed to the analog medium. It’s an eccentric collection (making it typically Goldbarthian) with occasional pieces treating certain matters comprising one half; when the reader flips the volume over, more of Goldbarth’s “kitchen-sink” essays may be found running the other way. In both cases the paired upside-down approaches repeat a disclaimer by the self-proclaimed “Luddite”: “No computer was used in the research for, writing of, or submission of these essays.” Like Siamese twins, form and content (as well as much poetry and well-written prose) are joined at the book’s spine.
To our ears American accents as performed by British actors tend to have a slightly “off” quality. Particularly grating are those found in BBC comedies, such as The Durrells in Corfu. Most cringe-worthy is the stereotypical businessman, played loudly New York or harshly Midwestern, a received portrayal that teeters on the cusp of offensive. Our reaction is one we have when we hear recordings of ourselves: Do we really sound like that?
American productions fare better. Mattthew Rhys’s accent on The Americans has something a little “foreign” in his emphases, but this is wholly consistent with the Russian-born character. Dominic West in The Afffair is completely credible. Damien Lewis on Homeland, it seemed to us, was also pitch-perfect. (In Billions, he was a bit less so; at times his accent was a near-burlesque of New Jerseyese.) The voice of Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, by contrast, was unplaceable and irritating. Was it intentional — and meaningful — that he sounded less and less American as his character became increasingly heroic?
The Boston Opera House is a fantastic throwback to Boston’s vaudeville days. The various mirrored lobby levels lend a sense of theatrical excitement to any evening, even before the stage curtain goes up. We were there recently for Boston Ballet’s premiere of William Forsythe’s Artifact. We were up for it; we wanted to shake up New England traditionalists; we longed to be challenged and intrigued. But in the end, to be perfectly honest, we just didn’t get it. Forsythe’s abstract and algorithmic movements, though apparently inspired by Balanchine, lacked any sense of feeling or intellectual motivation. The company’s dancing was for the most part technically excellent; the choreography was elaborate, mature and ambitious. “Step inside,” Dana Casperson directed us at the program’s start. Yet as much as we tried, we just couldn’t make it through that door.
We recently heard a terrific pep talk by Harvard’s Gina McCarthy, one-time head of the beleaguered EPA during the Obama administration. While acknowledging the issue of climate change as most pressing,McCarthy argued that one of the current administration’s other policies that might have comparable impact on our nation’s quality of life is the imminent threat to our National Parks. An advocate for “No Child Left Inside” even before she joined the federal government, McCarthy spoke energetically of the need for all children to spend a substantial portion of their days outside. The daily experience of nature is fast becoming a luxury, and its lack will have disastrous long-term consequence. Since this is not strictly an “environmental” issue, but one of universal public health, it seems to us that such a common-sense approach to public policy might be one many Republicans should be able to support. Commitment to the National Park Service should be the starting-point for an across-the-aisle coalition of resistance to current White House denizens.
Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries was well-performed by her eponymous company at the Joyce, but we had the distinct sense that the dancers just didn’t get it. What was missing was the piece’s mystical drive, as a religious event is supposed to be taking place on the stage even as we watch. Graham’s dance is not the re-enactment of a ritual, but the revelatory act itself in performed reoccurrence. As audience members what we endured instead was a kind of ethnographic distance. High modernism has become as foreign as archaic Cretan bull dances.
Returning to New York City to see a Broadway show is a curious experience. Times Square is certainly not the dicey locale we remember: We’ve become aliens in what we once thought of as our homeland. Instead we found ourselves feeling like unpaid extras in a television commercial, being directed to cross the human vehicular traffic again and again. We even joined the masses funneling into Hamilton, to which we’ve come so late its premise and songs are over-familiar. For us, the time there marked a distinct cultural moment, if not exactly a theatrical one. To be clear, we would have been among its greatest enthusiasts if we’d seen it at the Public Theater back in 2015, for it’s undoubtably triumphant in expanding the possibilities of the American musical. But though we wanted to leave the theater ebullient, we just couldn’t, an inability the result of the politics of the moment. It’s not the show that’s tired, it’s us.
Watching a DVD of Alfonzo Cuarón’s 2006 Children of Men. contemporary viewers experience cinema as prophetic nightmare. Based on a 1992 novel by P.D. James, the film is set in the future, though its 2027 feels terrifyingly close to our present 2017. In the director’s dystopic vision, refugees are hunted down and placed in concentration camps; civilians live in war-zone conditions, subject to terrorist events attributed to revolutionaries but actually instigated by the government; art ministries fight to save religious masterpieces from mobs and iconoclasts. James’s original story was a kind of Christian allegory; with humankind having become infertile, hope is manifested in a single pregnant female. Cuarón narrates the progress of his anti-hero (played by Clive James) in documentary style, filling astonishing long single-shot sequences with Battle of Algiers grittiness. Whether a viewer regards the film’s ending as hopeful or not, Cuarón’s film needs to be seen as a warning against history’s ever-threatening cycle of police-led and counter-revolutionary violence.
Yesterday we heard Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XXI perform a program of “Musica Nova 1500-1700: Venetian Influences in Musical Europe,” a kind of follow-up to the “La Serenissima: Music and Arts of the Venetian Republic” festival just finishing at Carnegie Hall and other New York venues. The performances were as excellent as anticipated, but what we were most struck with were the observations made by Savall during the pre-concert interview.: Sixteenth-century Venice was a tolerant and secular state, as well as the “origin” for the “new” music that found its way to France, Spain, Germany and England, carried there by an fully international cadre of musicians and composers. Therefore, classical music as we know it wouldn’t exist without the period’s astonishing diaspora of traveling artists. Our “takeaway,” immediately relevant to the future of our own republic, is this: The continued circulation of cultural riches requires fluid borders.
Though the late, lamented Harry Mathews was included in several significant anthologies (Padgett and Shapiro’s An Anthology of New York Poets; David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry; Waldman’s Out of This World Poetry Project collection), it was astonishing to us that his New York Times obituary made no mention of the great writer’s poems, despite his early presence and importance to the New York School. This is particularly disappointing given how fully contemporary Mathews’s lyrics are at this very moment; though some date back fifty years, stylistically they could be easily swapped with the work of numerous younger, currently lauded poets. And though in 1992 Carcanet published his A Mid-Season Sky: Poems 1954-1991, years ago it was long past time a Mathews Collected Poems should have appeared in America. Now that his oeuvre is truly complete, some New York publisher really needs to get moving!
What greater pleasure is there than to share an enthusiasm? Here’s one of ours: the singer and composer Theo Bleckmann. His interpretations of a wide (and wild) variety of music are more than somewhat unorthodox; he has a less than perfect voice, which is part of its appeal; and the sheer volume of his recorded output can be overwhelming and therefore off-putting. Among such offerings are “covers” of Kate Bush, Guillaume de Machaut, and Charles Ives. All this acknowledged, we cherish our stack of Bleckmann collaborations from Winter and Winter. One CD we listen to with friends quite often (as it’s conversation-friendly) is his Schumans’s Favored Bar Songs, what we would term as selections from the “Great International Song Book,” complete with background noise of small talk, clinking glasses, and appreciative applause. But perhaps the best introduction to this remarkable artist is Bleckmann’s simply titled, Love Song, a sampler meant to be savored and passed around.
We are mesmerized by The Young Pope, which we are watching in haunting alternation with the live news coverage of CNN. As a media commentator, asking whether any of the show’s narrative sounds familiar, describes the series: “An inexperienced leader who trusts only in himself and wins a surprise election to one of the most powerful positions on Earth, then vows to do away with established traditions, isolating himself from the people with divisive rhetoric?” The Young Pope’s creepy opening credits (filmed through the disturbingly aestheticized lens of director and writer Paolo Sorrentino) runs with the guitar prelude to “All Along the Watchtower.” An evening of television brings us back to the apparent relation between the series and our current political situation; and so, in answer to the question, “What should we do?,” we answer with Dylan’s immortal words: “Let us not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.”
The other day we found ourselves in the basement of the Harvard Book Store, and there spread before us, like the feast of our dreams, was a set of remaindered New York Review of Books books. Does anyone really need a college education when the NYRB classics are so affordable? We could easily spend the rest of our days going through the publisher’s list. Forthcoming titles making us salivate include Maupassant’s Like Death, translated by Richard Howard; Sybille Bedford’s A Favorite of the Gods with introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, and Elise Partridge’s last poems. So many of our favorite volumes are newly available, we’re tempted to re-read them, but this would mean we wouldn’t have time for all those slightly less familiar names that beckon the gluttonous: We still haven’t read Henry Green, Vicky Baum, William Dean Howells, Benjamin Fondane, Rebecca West … The NYRB list makes us aware of just how hungry (and poorly read) we really are.
After the debacle of the November election, here’s the strategy we’re newly re-embracing: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. These days reverse snobbery and anti-intellectualism are our among our most serious adversaries. At a time when serious literature, classical music and conceptual art (as but three examples) are objects of Trumpland mockery, the concomitant political reality is that among those institutions dismissed by “real America” as unnecessary playthings of the “cultural elite” may be listed the EPA, the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood. A true social meritocracy, of course, is still the ideal and, in our opinion, achievable through a renewed commitment to (non-vouchered and non-chartered) public education. But in their attempt to avoid appearing snooty, American cultural figures mistakenly continue to bend over backwards to be appear populist and inclusive in ways that have turned out to be self-defeating.
As Albert Murray, one of our culture’s most eloquent exponents, has put it, the greatness of America is in the uniqueness of its fine art as an “extension, elaboration, and refinement of the vernacular into a higher level…Culture can be separated into three levels, folk—pop—fine, and the last is where the masterpieces come; that’s the ultimate definition of a culture.” Tied as is it to the market, pop art will continue to thrive under a Trump administration. At this crucial moment it is folk art and high culture (most urgently in the latter’s experimental and avant-garde forms) that need active and articulate support. Again, here’s Murray: “What art provides is the most fundamental human equipment for existence. It provides images, representative anecdotes, emblems that condition us to confront what we must confront, and it disposes us to do what we must do, not only to fulfill ourselves but also to survive as human beings in a given place, time, circumstance, and predicament.”