French poets and artists, and a giraffe in a wine glass

My stepdaughter, A., is visiting for ten days. This weekend Max and I took her to French Book Art/Livres d’Artistes: Artists and Poets in Dialogue, an NYPL exhibition that runs through August 19.

Magritte’s giraffe in a wine glass impressed us all. And Paul Eluard’s accompanying Dadaist poem, “Musicien,” was weirdly intelligible even to our French-illiterate party. (A. is the only one of the three of us who can so much as pronounce “fromage.”)

You can see larger versions of the thumbnails here, but don’t miss the show if you’re in town. It’s free, and these photos only cover a small sample of what you’ll find there.

Kokkinos on adapting Thomson

The Age profiles Ana Kokkinos, director of The Book of Revelation, which debuts tomorrow night at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Kokkinos first read Thomson’s book in 1999, and had to beat off strong international interests to win the rights to adapt it…. “His previous five novels were all optioned (by film producers) but nothing happened,” she says. “This time he wanted the rights to go to a real filmmaker, because he knows his work is demanding and difficult to adapt.”

She wrote him a long letter, which led him to see Head On, Kokkinos’ previous film starring Alex Dimitriades as a gay Melbourne man who rejects his family’s traditional Greek values to explore his sexuality.

“I think Rupert had faith in our ability to adapt his ideas into cinema.”….

She describes The Book of Revelation as part of an intellectual tradition that includes Last Tango in Paris and Bunuel’s Belle de Jour.

But she laments that this approach has almost died out now. “In the 1970s and ’80s, there were individual voices like Bergman, Tarkovsky and Fellini who brought people to the cinema because they broke all the rules. It has become very rare now to see a film that speaks to you on many levels.”

Previously: Thomson and I discussed the cinematic potential of his books, and Hollywood’s predictably flat-footed response. Oh well, not to worry. There’s always Snakes on a Plane.

Mantel on character-author boundaries

Debbie Taylor interviews Hilary Mantel in the latest Mslexia. You can read a brief excerpt online at the magazine, but Book World pulls out a more interesting section including Mantel’s thoughts about the price of “identifying [] closely with one’s fictional characters.”

‘The more available you make yourself to your characters, the more you risk destabilising your own core,’ says Mantel. ‘Sometimes I’ll walk around the house thinking “Why am I so cold?”. And then I’ll realise that I’ve just killed one of my characters, and they’re cold, so of course I’m cold.’

Indeed, writers are rather like psychics, she suggests. ‘There is a part of you that has to be available day and night to this group of people who keep talking to you, who nobody else can see, but you’re in their service’. In that sense she’s like Alison? [the psychic in Beyond Black] ‘Yes, writing has to steal up on you. And that’s what people always say about ghosts, that you see them out of the corner of your eye.’

Elsewhere in the issue, Mantel discusses her writing process.

Frankenstein and Poe at the Morgan

I finally got out to the Pierpont Morgan Library on Sunday. It’s a weird jumble of ancient and modern texts and artifacts collected by J.P. Morgan’s tycoon father and displayed under glass in airy rooms or inside locked cabinets in musty ones.

nullMary Shelley’s own annotated copy of Frankenstein (at right; larger version here) sits alongside the only intact Caxton edition of Le Morte D’Arthur. Hemingway’s first short story collection abuts a case devoted to The Gutenberg Bible. Offerings from Chaucer and Blake lie nearby. Elsewhere in the same room are the ninth century gospels, but you can only see their bejeweled covers.

With the other volumes, you do at least get a look at whatever two pages the curator left them open to, but sometimes that glimpse is more frustrating than satisfying. Standing in front of Frankenstein, I actually spent a couple of minutes wondering how much I’d be able to leaf through before they hauled me off to jail if I broke through the glass.

Upstairs, we wandered through the manuscript room and marveled at Poe’s “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” which consisted of (and here I quote the placard) “small half-sheets of paper, pieced together with sealing wax to form a continuous scroll.” His careful penmanship was, as Kevin said, “as insanely perfect as one of his stories.”

Willa Cather, on the other hand, wrote like someone with two broken arms. I’m good at parsing out the meaning of illegible cursive, but I could only make out every fifth word of her letter to a friend. I felt sorry for the friend. According to the placard, Cather was pouring her heart out about something; but the poor woman would never know what Cather was on about, only that she was distraught and would love to see her at xokho dokem when lsokme New York omwhtom winter.

We saw manuscripts from each of the four Brontës. (Tim Bradford’s “Writers’ Workshop: Healthy Competitiveness with the Bronte Sisters” sprang to mind.) Pope’s An Essay on Man and Austen’s Lady Susan were also on display, as was Hemingway’s letter declining an Art of Fiction interview request from George Plimpton. “I might say, ‘Fuck the Art of Fiction,'” Hemingway wrote. (He later did the interview.)

nullWe also learned that Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Fanny Kemble, and Henry James “were among the first major authors to use typewritten texts as elements of composition.” They’d send their handwritten manuscripts out to a typist, get the pages back and revise them, and then send the whole thing back off for a new typed copy. A revised manuscript of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is pictured at right.

We each paid $12 to get in. So, after we exhausted the literary offerings, we felt compelled to pore over every last musical score and Rembrandt self-portrait. We revisited the Near Eastern cylinder seals display. Then we lingered in Pierpont’s ostentatious study, trying to feign interest in the garish bowls and pock-marked vases and other ancient and ill-explained tchotchkes (or maybe I was just tired by then) he bought during his lifetime.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

A Grand Illusion, one of the best South Florida blogs, takes note of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s “Merchant of Venice moment”:

“Is the value of human life less in Lebanon than that of citizens elsewhere?” he asked. “Are we children of a lesser god? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood?”

You really have to wonder if he was aware of the irony, and if he was, then I admire him even more.

Reasons for pursuing English Ph.D. dropped in pursuit of it

Thomas H. Benton argues that succeeding as an English Ph.D. entails giving up the things that attracted you to the subject in the first place.

In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: “So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?” I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

  • Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
  • Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
  • A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
  • A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas….

  • Radical Shelley poem still under wraps

    At the Guardian, a reader wonders when the public will get to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s scathing, 20-page anti-war poem, “Poetical Essay,” recently uncovered after “completely elud[ing] Shelley scholars for nearly two centuries.”

    [I]t seems as if the poem is explosive stuff, supporting the Irish in their attempts to get rid of British rule, while mentioning on the way the injustice of the British presence in India. People from many constituencies are interested — poets, poetry lovers, students of romanticism, students of leftwing and anti-colonial movements and many more besides. So why is it that we are not yet allowed to read the poem? When and where was it rediscovered? Who are the privileged people who so far have been permitted to read it? Why don’t they spend the half-hour it would take to scan it and put it up on the web for all of us to read and enjoy? Presumably money is involved. The “owner” of the poem (past or future) will no doubt find a way of selling it, while the ghost of Shelley howls with contemptuous laughter.

    Tony Christini of Imaginative Literature and Social Change observed in email several weeks ago that:

    Shelley was so talented and such a progressive partisan in his writing and accomplished so much before dying young that Upton Sinclair [The Jungle] considered him to be the greatest of all writers, greater even than Shakespeare, as Sinclair explains at some length in his best book of criticism, Mammonart.

    The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s Weekly Events

    The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that appears Mondays at 12:30pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to by the Thursday prior to publication, with the event’s date in the subject line.

    MONDAY, 7.24: AmandaFilipacchi reads from Love Creeps at The Half King. Fun fact: “Named one of the “top 25 books of the year” by The Village Voice, Love Creeps has been optioned for film by Michael Stipe’s Single Cell Pictures, which produced Being John Malkovich.” Highly recommended. 7:00pm, FREE.

    TUESDAY, 7.25: Katharine Weber reads from her acclaimed new novel, Triangle, which Entertainment Weekly deemed a “crackerjack historical mystery, [that] may be the most effective 9/11 novel yet written — and it isn’t even about 9/11,” at McNally Robinson. 7:00pm, FREE [Full disclosure, as always: I’m delighted to be working with Katharine to publicize Triangle].

    WEDNESDAY, 7.26: Julie Phillips reads from her new book, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon: “It’s a biography of a woman who wrote science fiction under a man’s name for ten years and had all kinds of intimate correspondences with other writers, all of whom thought they were getting letters from a man.” At KGB. Highly recommended. 7:00pm, FREE. And, says Christine Boyka Kluge, “Join us Wednesday, July 26, 7pm, at Night & Day, for our Brooklyn PP/FF Anthology Party! If you haven’t heard about PP/FF, it’s the newly released Starcherone Books anthology featuring 61 of today’s leading practitioners in the in-between prose-poetry/flash-fiction form that editor Peter Conners has named “PP/FF”… featuring readings by contributors Kazim Ali, Brian Clements, Peter Conners, Geoffrey Gatza, Christine Boyka Kluge, Ted Pelton, Anthony Tognazzini, Jessica Treat, & Mark Tursi. FREE. Also on Wednesday, you can finally tell your kids what you tried to tell your mom back in the day. Get the facts and learn how to stay on message when author and illustrator Ricardo Cortes reads from and discusses It’s Just a Plant at Housing Works. 7:00pm, FREE.

    THURSDAY, 7.27: At Eyebeam, the Panorama Screening Series Presents Living Culture: “Living Culture interweaves work that is aesthetically informed by genetics with documentation of artworks that appropriate scientific methodologies and political commentary about the ethical nature of scientific discovery… Despite the difference between documentary and aesthetic approaches, it is interesting to see how artists, filmmakers and activists have appropriated a range of similar biotechnological development strategies in order to grapple with such intricate topics as ethics, identity and human physicality.” Highly recommended. 7:00pm, FREE.

    FRIDAY, 7.28: On Friday I’ll probably check out “Spring Awakening: A New Musical, book & lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, based on the play by Frank Wedekind, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, directed by Michael Mayer. Written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind and banned for 70 years, Spring Awakening is the haunting and powerful tale of tragic young love. Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and playwright Steven Sater breathe new life into this expressionist masterpiece with their beautifully dark musical adaptation.” Nice. Through August 5. 8:00pm, $60.

    SATURDAY, 7.29: jen bekman presents “Meditations in an Emergency,” a group exhibition of work in various mediums inspired by and interpreting Frank O’Hara’s poem of the same name. Participating artists, all of whom are represented by the gallery, include Agnes Barley, Mara-Bodis Wollner, Christine Callahan, Christine Collins, James Deavin, Benjamin Donaldson, John Glassie, Anne Hall, Addie Juell, Holly Lynton, Dana Miller, Katie Murray, Leon Reid, Eliot Shepard, Tema Stauffer and Jeffey Teuton [Full disclosure, as always: I am the gallery’s PR director]. Through August 4. The gallery’s hours on Saturday are noon – 6:00pm, FREE.

    SUNDAY, 7.30: With the tagline “Sometimes one button less is more . . .”, the Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses take the stage at the Bowery Poetry Club. 4:00pm, $6.

    Remainders: booze, sex, death, etc. edition

    • Wine, not vodka, pervades Pushkin’s opus — where most histories of Russian literature begin. “This is not a fluke,” says Victor Sonkin. (Via Languor Management.)
    • Jonathan Yardley implies in a recent review that Raymond Carver’s characters are more “decent and likeable” than the author. But the Rake observes that very few of the people who populate Carver’s stories “seem to rise above ‘unpleasant,’ and the vast majority of them seem trapped in lives characterized by contemptible choices. (There are at least a couple major psychopaths there, too, including the guy who kills two girls with a rock in the last sentence of ‘Tell the Women We’re Going.’)”
    • Chris Lehmann to Jonathan Ames: “Do you think [Dashiell] Hammett grew to feel imprisoned by the detective genre, as Raymond Chandler famously did?”

    Signing statements help Bush rack up despot comparisons

    The American Bar Association denounces Bush’s “signing statements” — i.e., announcements of refusal to adhere to portions of laws he doesn’t agree with — as de facto line item vetoes that improperly deprive Congress of the opportunity to override them.

    The bar association panel said the use of signing statements in this way was “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers.” From the dawn of the Republic, it said, presidents have generally understood that, in the words of George Washington, a president “must approve all the parts of a bill, or reject it in toto.”

    A Republican legal activist recently compared Bush’s reasoning to that of King Louis XIV (“I am the State”), but the ABA sees shades of King James II.

    Alarcón on being read in Peru

    Daniel Alarcón, who moved to Alabama from Peru as a kid, nervously anticipates the appearance of his short story collection, War by Candlelight, in the country of his birth.

    Certainly the world of Peruvian letters does not need me. There are writers of my generation attacking the same themes I have attempted to address, and many are doing so with real verve and skill. A publishing renaissance is underway in Lima, and this year Peru can celebrate that two of the three major prizes in the Spanish-speaking literary world — the Alfaguara Prize and the Herralde Prize — were won by Peruvians, Santiago Roncagliolo and Alonso Cueto, respectively.

    In a few months, my first book of stories, War by Candlelight — published last year in the United States — will be published in Peru…. My incomplete knowledge of the place will be on display before critics who are least likely to be forgiving. To be panned by an American reviewer would probably have more of an impact on my career, but similar treatment at the hands of Peruvian critics might do more spiritual damage. I’ve taken what I know about a place, written it in English, and now those people depicted in the stories will have their say. Exoticism will not color their understanding of the work, and the stories will be read on their own merits. These readers will not be seduced by a pretty sentence or a well-observed detail: They will know instantly if the book is true or not, whether I have added something of substance to the discussion of Peru’s national trauma or have simply plagiarized our suffering.

    In 2005, Eyeshot published some of Alarcón’s dispatches from South America.

    Weekend remainders

    • George Saunders visits the U.K. and falls in love with the place. So smitten is he with the mother country, in fact, that he’s calling for “the reconciliation of Britain and the United States into one nation, to be called the United Anti-Terror States Of Britain.”
    • From Carla Blumenkranz’s My Life and Times in American Publishing, on her internship with a grasping young editor: “She showed me how to read manuscripts she didn’t want from agents — by shuffling the pages until they looked like they’d been read — and how to respond to the unsolicited — ‘Sorry to say that Trouble in Venice just didn’t speak to me the way I’d hoped it would.'” Eventually Blumenkranz was intructed to “find the new Jesus.” Just read the piece; you’ll see. (Via Light Reading.)
    • Tayari Jones, who’s advocated separate book sections for African-American authors, visits an airport bookstore and finds novels by E. Lynn Harris and Eric Jerome Dickey prominently displayed. She’s thrilled — until she remarks on the placement to the cashier, and the woman tells her, “We put them back here because a lot of those books just walk out the door!”
    • Scott Driscoll talks with Maryann Burk Carver about her new book, What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. In his review of the same memoir, Jonathan Yardley says Ms. Carver “occasionally sounds like a schoolgirl nattering away,” and notes that “once [Raymond Carver] got semi-famous, he tossed her aside for several women…. [H]e was a drop-dead drunk until he went off booze in 1977 and at least twice beat her severely….”
    • Irfan Khan calls Ashoke Ganguli, his role in the screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, “the most unobtrusive character I’ve played.”
    • Aidan Smith meets with AL Kennedy, transcribes her quips, and proves the author-comedian is a fucking riot. Does she like hearing the sound of laughter? “Yes, but if there’s too much of it, I start to get resentful. You lot are having a good time, why am I not?” (Previously: my interview with Kennedy, and what it was like to talk to her.)
    • Another week, another Twain article. This one is a feature on the Twain House and Museum in Hartford.

    Until soon


    Have a good weekend, chickadees. I’ll be back on Monday, if not before. Meanwhile, did you know there’s a graveyard for the Gashlycrumb Tinies at Edward Gorey’s house? You can read more about the place — and the upcoming Dracula blood drive — at the Boston Globe. (Via Bondgirl; photo credit: Terry Ballard.)

    Here at the broken record that is, I’ll remind you that some of Gorey’s best work is available online. Reading The Unstrung Harp, his send-up of writer’s block and other afflictions of the tortured wordsmith, in pixels doesn’t measure up to lingering over the pages, trying to keep from snorting your drink out your nose and marring the drawings, but it’s still an excellent antidote to writer drama of all kinds.

    Shteyngart on Shteynfarb

    Gary Shteyngart engages in a little self-mockery in his latest novel, Absurdistan.

    Rouenna was looking over the control panel of the new washing machine I had airlifted out of Berlin. “How does this work, boy-o?”

    “The instructions are in German.”

    “Duh, I can see they’re not in English. Show, don’t tell.”


    “Show, don’t tell.”

    “Meaning what?”

    “It’s something Professor Shteynfarb always says in my fiction class. Like instead of expositing about something, you just gotta come out and say it.”

    “You’re taking a writing class with Jerry Shteynfarb?

    “You know him, spuds? He’s awesome. He says I have a really authoritarian voice. And you got to have an authoritarian voice to write phat fiction.”

    “He said what?” I dropped a tub of detergent on my weaty left foot…. I immediately saw Rouenna and Shteynfarb together in bed.

    Let me give you an idea of this Jerry Shteynfarb. He had been a schoolmate of mine at Accidental College, a perfectly Americanized Russian émigré (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process. After graduation, he made good on his threat to write a novel, a sad little dirge about his immigrant life, which seems to me the luckiest kind of life imaginable. I think it was calles The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job or something of the sort. The Americans, naturally, ate it up.

    Stay tuned for more on Absurdistan, and for some notes on the bang-up reading and interview Shteyngart gave Upstairs at the Square last night.

    Thursday afternoon miscellany

    • Did Thomas Pynchon post a description of his forthcoming novel on his Amazon page?
    • Scott McLemee speculates that Philip Rieff, best known as Susan Sontag’s ex-husband, may have been the model for the “modern post-religious man” Sontag denounced in Against Interpretation.
    • In a positive review of David Mitchell’s latest book, Ruth Franklin bemoans the empty, hyperbolic praise that predominates in contemporary book reviews. “[H]appy reviews are all alike. A book’s plot is engaging, the characters feel true, the writing is interesting. So what?”
    • James Hynes heralds the “macabre aura” of London’s Whitechapel and Spitalfields, working-class neighborhoods whose literary reputations have for the past thirty years revolved around Nicholas Hawksmoor and Jack the Ripper.
    • Nadya Labi revisits the would-be Harlequin romance she wrote at 16.
    • “[T]he literary anecdote is a kind of oxymoron: the unpublished truth about a man or woman who lives by publication. The anecdote catches the writer unawares and perhaps catches the writer out.”

    And He called it Mortal Kombat

    Biblical scholar Geoff Haggerty returns to the original Hebrew for a new translation of Genesis. Alter’s got nothing on this guy.

    In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was without form, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said, “Let there be Sonic the Hedgehog.” And there was Sonic the Hedgehog. God saw Sonic the Hedgehog, and it was good. He totally loved it so much that he played it all night. Thus there was night. Morning followed. The first day.

    Then God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. No, not a firmament. Let there be a dolphin in the midst of the waters. A dolphin who can change his shape and use sonar as a weapon. And God made the dolphin and called it Ecco….