Pleasant discoveries

Not only does Elif Batuman have a blog, but she has just posted a long and favorable review-essay of a self-published collection of short stories by Ezra Koenig, a former student of mine who happens to be the front man of Vampire Weekend, a preppy Afro-pop band whose new album goes on sale tomorrow, 29 January 2008. Pitchfork calls the album “one of the most refreshing and replayable indie records in recent years,” and Elif calls Ezra’s short stories “really fun.” I happily concur with both assessments (though I don’t think the stories are for sale anywhere), and also recommend the “takeaway concerts” that Vampire Weekend recently did for La Blogothèque. (I’ve linked to the French version of the page, because the descriptive prose is wonderfully plummy. The geniality of the French comments caused me to spin a largely evidence-free theory that perhaps the Francophone blogosphere has a sunnier and more generous disposition than the Anglophone one. Please don’t disabuse me right away, anyone.) Be forewarned that, in general, watching Blogothèque concerts causes one to overlook the inconvenient truth that one is without musical talent and wish that one were twenty-five and living in Paris as an indie rocker. Fortunately, with practice it is possible to keep the daydream so vague that one need not specify an instrument.

While I’m on the topic of recommending miscellaneous pleasures, I’ll also link to Amy Elkins’s photographic portraits of shirtless young men of unorthodox body-types in front of floral wallpapers (the one reminiscent of the young Beau Bridges as he appeared in the bathtub scene in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord is currently hanging in the Yancey Richardson gallery in New York, which is how I happened across Elkins’s work), and to Alan Hollinghurst’s very funny review (online for subscribers only) of Sheldon Novick’s second volume of Henry James biography.

“Steamboats” is moving

All nine of you who read this blog regularly, please adjust your bookmarks. I’m moving to a new location: steamthing.com. Mostly because of the elephant, which you’ll see if you click through. But also because it’s a shorter URL to type, because there’s the promise of allowing comments again (if the anti-spam tools work as advertised), and because this server goes down a lot. I’ll leave this site up for a while, anyway, as an archive, but not forever.

At rest in the park

Peter has been reading Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection The Disappointment Artist, and he reported to me yesterday morning that, according to Lethem, Montgomery Clift is buried in Prospect Park. Not only that, but I walk past his grave whenever I take the dog to the Nether Mead.

Forgotten New York confirms it. When the park was laid out, it surrounded a Quaker cemetery but didn’t absorb it, and the cemetery survives, like a mitochondrion inside a eukaryote. It’s still private property. Since it was nice here yesterday, I took my camera and walked around the barbed-wire perimeter. Just up from a baseball field, in a sort of alcove under some trees, there’s a decent sight line, but not a great one. A sleeping man in a camouflage shirt, boots, and a trucker’s hat roused himself for just long enough to assure himself that my presence was no more than documentary. No sign of Clift per se. (The whole thing is completely invisible in Google Earth, by the way, because their satellite pix were taken in summer, and the tree canopy covers it.)

Since I had the camera out, I also took this, an exposed cross-section of the layers that compose our street. We have no running water during the day this week, which is so nineteenth-century it’s eighteenth-century.

Byron’s lapdog

In the department of hitherto-unnoticed nineteenth-century antecedents to indie-hipster pop songs of the early twenty-first century, today we consider the fetching and puzzlingly mild Swedish rocker Jens Lekman.

Lekman sings a song titled “When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog,” on an album of the same name, in which he imagines a relationship with his beloved somewhat like the elegiac, cross-species love in David Garnett’s novel Lady into Fox (which you should drop everything in order to read, if you haven’t already):

You can take me for a walk in the park
I’ll be chasing every single lark
I’ll be burying all the skeleton bones
Peeing on every cold black stone

As it happens, this trope has been deployed elsewhere—notably, in the out-of-control screed that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in the Atlantic in 1869, when she heaped shovelful after shovelful of sexual condemnation onto Byron and championed his wife. In Stowe’s narrative, after Lady Byron concludes that her husband is not only incest-prone but also insane, she has a moment of regret before she leaves him—and his sister—forever:

On the day of her departure she passed by the door of his room, and stopped to caress his favorite spaniel, which was lying there; and she confessed to a friend the weakness of feeling a willingness even to be something as humble as that poor little creature, might she only be allowed to remain and watch over him. She went into the room where he and the partner of his sins were sitting together, and said, “Byron, I come to say good by,” offering at the same time her hand.

Note that sometime in the course of the intervening century and a half, the Romantic poet-figure went from having the dog to being the dog.

Note: Peter adds that I ought also to have referenced Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Dame Muriel

Kill Fee reminds me that I posted an essay on Muriel Spark last year, and that now is the time for me to re-link to it. Here are the New York Times (“bleak and side-splitting”) and the Guardian (“curiously posh-Scottish camp”) obituaries, and here’s Stacey D’Erasmo’s 1997 interview.

UPDATE: Maud Newton has a great round-up of Spark criticism, including excellent essays by Ben Anastas and James Wood.