Leaflet #7

A new issue of the newsletter…


Be not too bold

In his forthcoming memoir And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? (August, FSG), Lawrence Weschler quotes a psychoanalyst who remembers an occasion when his friend Oliver Sacks just went for it:

One day, I hesitate to mention this, but, ah well, he drank some blood. He kept staring at it and then, “Oh, the hell with it,” he exclaimed, and drank it down, chasing it with milk. There was something about his need to cross taboos.

Also bold: the US intelligence services, in their wiretapping. In his memoir Adults in the Room (2017), the sometime Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis writes of telling the American economist Jeffrey Sachs, over the phone, that he thought Greece was going to default on its next payment to the International Monetary Fund. Half an hour later, Sachs called back:

“You will not believe this, Yanis,” he said. “Five minutes after we hung up, I received a call from the [US] National Security Council. They asked me if I thought you meant what you’d said!”

No less bold: Russia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and China, in sustaining their economies. In the year 2009, in response to the international financial crisis, the governments that provided the most vigorous stimuluses to their domestic economies, measured as a percentage of GDP, were Russia (4.1%), South Korea (3.9%), Saudi Arabia (3.3%), and China (3.1%), Adam Tooze reports in Crashed (2018). If you thought that it was the Western democracies who were foremost in saving their people from the consequences of financiers’ recklessness, you would be wrong.

News: I wrote a review of Lucy Ives’s novel Loudermilk, a satire of the Iowa writing program, for the New York Times Book Review (“Ives’s novel is full of signs that she doesn’t think much of traditional literary shibboleths like three-dimensionality of character”) and a review of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, a new collection of sci-fi stories (“the symmetry of the story is so perfect, its structure so artful, and its spirit so enlightened that there’s something a little porcelain and eighteenth-century about it”) for the New York Review of Books.

Recommendations: Alex Abramovich on the history of organized crime in Russia (“The vor’s code was strict: in the Gulag, thieves maimed themselves to avoid work; outside the Gulag, a vor was expected to get by on stealing and gambling alone”). Giles Harvey on Olivier Assayas’s filmed satire of the French publishing world, Non-Fiction (“Léonard is left repeating truisms about the autonomy of fiction, which, though they are sound as far as they go, come off as self-serving”). Christian Lorentzen on the fading out of secrecy from novels: “Writers become the opposite of the spy: They must always be just what they appear to be, because their job has ceased to be distinguished from self-promotion.” Stephen Rodrick on the epidemic of suicide among middle-aged men: “ ‘No one up here wants to hear that you’re depressed and need help,’ Emily told me. ‘And no one wants to even talk about getting guns out of the hands of sad people.’ ” David Leavitt on writing and reading novels set in Lisbon: “I spent my days walking, and looking at old newspapers in the city’s hemeroteca, or newspaper library, and at old shipping records in the archives of the marina.” Melissa Anderson on the new Elton John biopic: “Rocketman exhibits about as much homo carnal abandon as Pete and Chasten Buttigieg at a Panera during a campaign stop.” Elaine Blair on the feminist writings of Andrea Dworkin: “ ‘Andrea you are so prescient,’ someone has written in the margin of my public library copy of Woman Hating.” Scott Sherman on the journalist Seymour Hersh’s autobiography: “One of [Hersh’s] editors at the Timestold me incredulously sixteen years ago that ‘he would call people and he’d say, “I’m Seymour Hersh, I’m doing a story on this…If he doesn’t call me, I will get his ass.” They’d call back.’ ” Andrew Martin on the new Sally Rooney novel: “There’s an extremely generationally accurate scene in which the central couple listen to Vampire Weekend while drinking gin and arguing, in 2012, about the Reagan administration.”


My second novel, Overthrow,will be published by Viking in August. It has recently been spotted in Instagramshelfies.” Order your copy now!

Leaflet #6

Mostly links.


Feet in venom

“We are like trapped flies with our feet not in honey but in venom.” —Eudora Welty, “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

Why are you so married to realism? my husband asked. Not my real husband, but the one I have in fiction.

Is there a word for the pale nimbus around the shadow of one’s head in the dew on the grass in the morning? Not an aureole so much as an argentiole.

Over an alcoholic lunch, one of the heroines of Isabel Bolton’s novel Do I Wake or Sleep (1947) wonders whether she likes what novel-reading has done to her perception:

From this experience she’d emerged with all manner of extensions, reinforcements, renewals of her entire nervous system—indeed she might say that she’d been endowed with a perfectly new apparatus for apprehending the vibrations of other people’s souls. She was saying all this most awkwardly, she knew, but she often wondered if we sufficiently realized the effect that Proust had had upon our awareness of one another, for whether we liked it or not, we were forced to take about with us wherever we went this extraordinary apparatus, recording accurately a thousand little matters of which we had not formerly been aware, and whether she was glad or sorry to be in possession of so delicate and precise an instrument, she had never been able to determine.

News: I wrote a review of Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer for the New York Times Book Review.

Recommendations: Christine Smallwood on Laura Dern (“She loves how, when Lynch comes up to her after a take and inhales in a certain way, she knows exactly what to try next”). Damon Krukowski’s podcast Ways of Hearing, which is now also a book. N+1’s Intellectual Situation on podcasts (“They create more culture by attending to culture, but without ever lapsing into criticism”). Anne Diebel on kidnapping as a business (“a corpse is not worth much, except in the Iliad”). Thomas Meaney on George Packer’s Richard Holbrooke bio (“Packer alternates between Fremdscham for Holbrooke’s lower gambits—such as offering at least one Wall Street banker ennoblement at the Council on Foreign Relations in return for business—and awe at the man’s sheer capacity to climb”). Andrew Kay’s good-bye to academia (“Hey, I’m not just some schmuck. I did a Ph.D. in English.” / “That might actually make you a schmuck”). Jacob Silverman’s good-bye to criticism (“Freelance journalism, as a career, is mostly an anachronism”).


Overthrow is coming from Viking in August 2019.

#Sevendaybookchallenge

In which I take the #sevendaybookchallenge in one day. Leaflet #5: Prettiness in books.


Prettiness in Books

You aren’t supposed to comment on the dust jackets you post in the #sevendaybookcoverchallenge, and you’re supposed to string it out for seven days, and it’s supposed to take place on social media, but whatever.

Even when the first printing of a first edition is pricey, the identical-looking second printing often isn’t. By leveraging one’s lack of the persnicketiness of a real collector, one can read in virtually as much luxe. I have a reputation in our household for reading even the nicest books I own on the subway or at the gym, so it’s just as well I’m a cheapskate. My memory is that I learned this life hack from a series on book-collecting that Jacob Weisberg wrote in 2005 on Slate, but re-skimming his articles now, I don’t see that advice. In any case, I didn’t spend more than fifty dollars for any book pictured here.

Now that there aren’t many brick-and-mortar bookstores left to browse in, it’s hard to find out about pretty books that one doesn’t yet know one wants. This is my service to the community.

Margaret Wolpe, dust jacket for Philip Larkin's A Girl in Winter, 1956

Designer: Margaret Wolpe. For Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter (Faber and Faber, 1947, 1956). “I want to reiterate that this is the second printing of the book, not the first,” wrote the bookseller who sold me this, before he sent it. I very much appreciated his honesty, but this was the version I was smitten with. In general this list is of my prettiest books not my favorite books but this one falls into both categories.

William Nicolson, dust jacket for Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, 1956

Designer: William Nicolson. For Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man (Faber and Faber, 1928, 1954). Nicolson illustrated the heads and tails of chapters inside the book as well. More books for grown-ups should have illustrations.

Robert Medley, dust jacket for Christopher Isherwood's Lions and Shadows, 1938

Designer: Robert Medley. For Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows (Hogarth Press, 1938). This one is in fact a first printing, and I got lucky. I only just now noticed that the collective shadows of the students standing on the right form the shape of a lion.

Brian Robb, dust jacket for Robert Bage's Hermsprong, 1951

Designer: Brian Robb. For Robert Bage’s Hermsprong; or, Man as He Is Not (Turnstile Press, 1951). A twentieth-century edition of an 18th-century philosopher-wit’s novel, the kind of thing Diderot would have written if he were English. Not only should more books be illustrated, but more books should be salmon-pink with filigree etching–style cover art.

Duncan Grant, dust jacket for Olivia, 1949

Designer: Duncan Grant. For Olivia’s Olivia (1949, second impression). An early lesbian novelette about being crushed out on one’s French schoolmistress. The book itself is also lavender.

Edward Bawden, dust jacket for Saul Bellow's The Victim, 1948

Designer: Edward Bawden. For Saul Bellow’s The Victim (John Lehmann, 1948). This is one of my favorite book covers. I have a theory that Mr. Sammler’s Planet can only properly be understood as a revision of/return to The Victim, but there is not room in the margin here to set out my whole proof.

James McMullan, dust jacket for Ashbery and Schuyler's Nest of Ninnies

Designer: James McMullan. For John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies (E. P. Dutton, 1969). Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere is funnier, but this has a better cover.

My novel Overthrow will be published by Viking in August. Buy your copy now to be sure of a first printing!

Leaflet #3: Undoing

Leaflet #3: To do or not to do: that isn’t necessarily the question.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that this was leaflet #4. Not sure whether to correct it or to give all future issues of the newsletter the same number.


Undoing

This morning, while walking the dog, I looked down to see two earthworms, whom the dog and I had startled, suddenly abandoning their copulation—like two shoelaces untying themselves—and retracting into the earth.

I logged out of Twitter last week, hopefully for a while. The trigger was punditry about Pete Buttigieg, the gay nerd candidate for President. He recently had a surge in polls and fundraising. Pundits were using his successes against him in a way that reminded me of old-school attacks on gays: he was being cast as a narcissist, seducer, and chameleon—as someone who could render his sexuality visible or invisible at will, on the one hand, and as someone whose accomplishments could be dismissed by exposing them as compensations of some kind, on the other. His public gayness was being discredited by revelation of his secret gayness. If he was so comfortable with being openly gay, one of the lines against him ran, why did he keep saying that his being gay needn’t affect how voters see him?

The pundits did not invent the double bind they were leveraging. It was described by the sociologist Erving Goffman in his monograph Stigma (1963):

Thus, even while the stigmatized individual is told that he is a human being like everyone else, he is being told that it would be unwise to pass or to let down “his” group. In brief, he is told he is like anyone else and that he isn’t—although there is little agreement among spokesmen as to how much of each he should claim to be. This contradiction and joke is his fate and his destiny.

“The stigmatized are tactfully expected to be gentlemanly and not to press their luck,” Goffman further explains; “they should not test the limits of the acceptance shown them, nor make it the basis for still further demands.” I rage-tweeted; I deleted my rage-tweets. No response brings liberation from a double bind, perhaps the most ancient form of trolling. Not responding doesn’t bring liberation from it, either.

“Mrs. Kemble has no organized surface at all; she is like a straight deep cistern without a cover, or even, sometimes, a bucket, into which, as a mode of intercourse, one must tumble with a splash. You mustn’t judge her by her indifferent book, which is no more a part of her than a pudding she might make.” —Henry James describing Fanny Kemble to his mother, 18 January 1879

I’ve been enjoying our friend Gabe’s new podcast, Faking It, which is about getting busted for not having read, watched, or listened to works of art that one has claimed to. In the latest episode, hilariously, Gabe’s wife, Christine, is interviewed about Gabe’s having convinced himself he had seen Finding Nemo; her extenuation is that if he had seen it, by now he would have forgotten it, so he might as well have seen it. Lately I’ve had the middle-aged complement to this problem. It wasn’t until halfway through last week’s viewing of Smiles of a Summer Night, when all the characters are invited to a country house, that I was sure I had seen it before. And it’s only now in act five of Troilus and Cressida that I realize I’ve read it already. I must have forgot Troilus because it’s the worst Shakespeare play; one wants to forget even in the middle of reading it. Is it so bad because Shakespeare got spooked by the possiblity of Patroclus as Achilles’s “male varlet,” which he introduces and then writes out? Because he wasn’t getting enough sleep or eating enough vegetables?

Over the weekend, Peter and I visited the AIPAD photo show, and I took photos of some of the photos and posted them on my blog. I hadn’t put it together that decades before Joel Meyerowitz photographed Giorgio Morandi’s painting studio, it had been photographed by Luigi Ghirri. To photograph objects that Morandi spent many years painting, to attempt to capture the reality that his art made mythic: it’s eerie that in the photos Morandi’s as-it-were-votive objects somehow remain mythic, even under Ghirri’s light, ironizing eye.

Luigi Ghirri, Atelier Morandi, Bologna vie Fondazze, 1989–90 (1992), Polka Galerie

Leaflet #3: Temporary

Newsletter #3: Time lags, deadline philosophy, childish scribbles.


Temporary

Once, when I was little, my family went on a drive-through safari, the kind where humans stay safely in a car while lions and giraffes roam freely. I remember that I objected angrily when my father paused the audio tour, which was on a cassette player. We were going to miss what the park ranger was saying! In those days, radios and televisions couldn’t be paused, and I didn’t see how a cassette player could work any differently. To hear the whole tour, surely we had to keep the device always on, no matter how far ahead of us the taped narrator got.

It isn’t obvious that writing takes place in time, maybe because reading doesn’t take place simultaneously or even necessarily at the same tempo. My childhood confusion is the writer’s secret weapon. But while there may be enough time, thanks to this décalage, to hide some of a writer’s flaws, there’s never enough to hide all of them.

Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better. And an aspect of this is that any artist has to decide how fast to work.

That’s from Iris Murdoch’s highly entertaining novel The Black Prince; a genre writer is justifying his mediocrity, and Murdoch is making a joke about her own prolificacy. But it happens to be true! Every piece of writing has a deadline—a moment past which it will no longer be possible to slot it into the context for which it was conceived. “Don’t take too long,” the editor of my first book, which was scholarly, said to me when I was dilly-dallying on a revision. “I don’t want those endnotes to get stale.”

Maybe women writers, historically more subject to interruption, have more often been thoughtful about the way writing is vulnerable to time. Here’s the novelist-heroine of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A View of the Harbour:

“But it was through no fault of my own,” she thought, her mind reverting to those cracked and riven chapters of hers; all of her books the same, none sound as a bell, but giving off little jarring reverberations now here, now there, so that she herself could say, as she turned the pages (knowing as surely as if the type had slipped and spilt): “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”

The time of reading leaves marks, too. A couple of weeks ago, at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, a bookseller let me page through a first edition of Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again(1595). About halfway through the book, on a mostly blank verso, a child had scrawled in pencil, in large, loopy characters,

John

Cotton

1653

11 66 55 33

Tho-

mas

Cotton

The bookseller seemed a little startled. I said I thought the scribbles were charming, but I don’t think I looked enough like the sort of person who would actually be able to afford to purchase the volume to reassure him. “I don’t know,” he said. “It comes off a little strong, don’t you think?” When I got home, I asked Google but was unable to find a John or Thomas Cotton who was seven or eight years old in 1653. It also wasn’t until I got home that I wrote down the child’s inscription, from memory, which tends to be fallible. I see that the bookseller’s catalog entry does now mention it—I don’t know if it was added after the fair, or if it was there all along and I just now noticed it—and it records the inscription a little differently: “Thomas Cotton / 1653 / 165 / John / Cotton.”

The problem is more general, of course. Marcus Aurelius:

Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?

Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.

A person is more or less a firecracker, in other words, and one’s sparkle, as a writer or in any other capacity, comes from the process of one’s self being used up.