Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Charles Durning on Acting and Trauma

There's some fascinating information about actor Charles Durning's pre-theatrical life in his New York Times obituary. I've always known he was an actor of admirable range and talent, but only from the Times obit did I learn that he was also a  traumatized survivor of some of the worst of WWII:

His combat experiences were harrowing. He was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.

By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, having suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well. He spent months in hospitals and was treated for psychological trauma.

Late in life, Durning spoke of one crucial wartime experience in an interview with Parade magazine. Quoting the Times obit again:

In the Parade interview, he recalled the hand-to-hand combat. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”

They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.
Mr. Durning said the memories never left him, even when performing, even when he became, however briefly, someone else.

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,” he told Parade. “There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Some Favorite Short Fiction

...continuing my year-end listmania:

Lucian, "True Histories" (in Penguin Classics volume Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches). Ancient Roman source for Baron Munchhausen tales, Terry Gilliam's film, and much else in Western comic / satirical / fantastical writing.

Boccaccio, The Decameron. One of the greatest (and funniest) collections of short fiction ever written. There are so many good tales here that I can't possibly choose just one.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe. The best Poe is the weirdest Poe, the Poe that will never go out of style.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" by Herman Melville. For me, one of the defining works of the American short story tradition (to the extent that such a thing exists).

"The Figure in the Carpet" by Henry James. It is wondrous to watch old Henry weave and try to guess what warps his woof.

"Ward Number Six" by Anton Chekhov. Hard to choose a single Chekhov story (and there are many I haven't read), but this one is exceptional.

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert. Again, can't choose one, so why choose? Read all three; they're short and great. Smutty secret: the French title, Trois Contes, puns for "Three Cunts." Think about that after you've read the book.

"Counterparts" by James Joyce. One of the best and darkest stories in Dubliners.

"Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges. Really everything in Borges's Collected Fictions in marvelous, and the book is an essential part of any library (because it contains every library, and all books).

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway. Perfect.

"The Death of Justina" by John Cheever. One of the greatest American short stories, period. This is Cheever at his most original and most Kafkaesque; after reading this, you won't need to read Don DeLillo, because much of DeLillo's America is anticipated here. If you think you know Cheever but you haven't read this, you don't know Jack about Cheever.

"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner. There's something about the narrative voice here that grabs me at the opening phrase and doesn't let go.

"In The Penal Colony" by Franz Kafka. Every time I read it, it's a different story, and every reading seems the first.

"The Terminal Beach" by J. G. Ballard. Everything in The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard is worth reading.

"Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor. Yeah, the title's ironic. Very, very ironic.

"A Small, Good Thing" by Raymond Carver. Minimalism has gone to its cemetery of blank tombstones, but Carver's stories remain, as easy as talking and harder than rock.

"Scale" by Will Self. Self at his outrageous, surreal, satirical best. Laugh-aloud funny and constantly surprising.

"Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" by David Foster Wallace. This novella, broken into story-length fragments in the eponymous book, is a great example of Wallace doing what he does best, voices.

"Helping" by Robert Stone (in his excellent collection Bear and His Daughter). Easily one of the best American short stories of the twentieth century.

"Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx. Read Annie Proulx's Wyoming stories. Read 'em all, in three volumes. They contain some of the finest prose written by anyone still on the upright side of the American sod. She is one tough broad.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Some Favorite Music

My Desert Island Discs, I guess:

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 2 CDs)

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem in title roles, with Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim. (Teldec, 4 CDs)

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)

Bob Dylan, Dylan (Columbia, 3CD career retrospective)

Beethoven, The Late String Quartets (opus 127, 130, 131, 132, 135), The Guarneri Quartet (RCA, 3CDs)

Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Goldcrest)

Louis Armstrong, The Definitive Louis Armstrong: Ken Burns' Jazz Collection (Columbia)

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Live/1975-85 (Columbia, 3CDs)

Bruce Springsteen, The Essential Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, 3CDs)

J. S. Bach, The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould, 1955 and 1981 recordings (Sony and CBS, respectively)

The Rolling Stones, Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (ABKCO, 2 CDs)

Frank Sinatra, Nothing But The Best (Reprise)

Frank Sinatra, The Capitol Years (Capitol (duh), 3 CDs)

Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine (Epic)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 2 CDs)

Alban Berg, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (To the Memory of an Angel), Pinchas Zuckerman with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez (CBS Masterworks)

Charlie Parker, The Definitive Charlie Parker: Ken Burns' Jazz Collection (Columbia)

John Coltrane, Giant Steps (Atlantic)

The Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin, 2 CDs)

The Band, Anthology (Capitol, 2CDs)

The Beatles, The White Album (EMI, 2CDs)

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (EMI)

Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, Original Cast Recording with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (RCA, 2CDs)

Olivier Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time, Gil Shaham, Jian Wang, Paul Meyer, Myung-Whun Chung (Deutsche Grammophon)

Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (Warner)

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 14, Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ladislav Slovak, with Magdalena Hajossyova, soprano, and Peter Mikulas, bass (Naxos)

Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz (Atlantic)

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits (Columbia)

Kronos Quartet, Black Angels (Elektra Nonesuch)

Nirvana, Nevermind (Geffen)

Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs / Six Orchestral Songs, Jessye Norman, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur (Philips)

Rchard Strauss, Salome, Hildegard Behrens in title role, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 2CDs)

Paganini, 24 Caprices, Itzhak Perlman (EMI)
Anonymous 4, 1000: A Mass for the End of Time: Medieval Chant and Polyphony for the Ascension (Harmonia Mundi)

Grateful Dead, American Beauty (Warner)

Morton Feldman. Durations I-V, Coptic Light, Ensemble Avantgarde (CPO, 1CD)

And although not technically music, very musical indeed:

In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry, poets from Walt Whitman through Li-Young Lee reading their own poetry (Rhino, 4 CDs)

Dylan Thomas, The Caedmon Collection (Caedmon, 11CDs) The definitive collection of Thomas reading works by himself and others, including Shakespeare and Auden; someday, I might have time to listen to it all...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Favorite American Poems

Now that we've entered the time of year reserved for stale fruitcake, inanities from American Greetings, egg nog so thick you'll need a crash cart after three sips, and a seemingly endless manneken pis-like stream of repetitive "best of" lists, I've decided to hop aboard the overloaded bandwagon and make a few lists of my own, not for 2012 but for all time... To begin, here's a list of some of my favorite American poems:

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Emily Dickinson, "I cannot live with you" (poem 640)
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Hart Crane, "The Broken Tower"
Ezra Pound, "Canto LXXXI"
Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"
James Merrill, "Lost in Translation"
Allen Ginsberg, "Howl"
Galway Kinnell, "The Fundamental Project of Technology"
Sylvia Plath, "Ariel"
Robert Frost, "Desert Places"
Elizabeth Bishop, "In The Waiting Room"
George Oppen, "Route"
e e cummings, "next to of course god america i"
Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"
John Ashbery, "Soonest Mended"
Randall Jarrell, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"
Anne Sexton, "Red Riding Hood"
William Carlos Williams, "To Elsie"
Theodore Roethke, "Elegy for Jane"
Rita Dove, "Parsley"
Richard Howard, "Wildflowers"
Stanley Kunitz, "King of the River"
A. R. Ammons, "Corson's Inlet"

The least-known poem on the list is probably Oppen's "Route," one of the great masterpieces of American poetry. It should be as widely read and known as The Waste Land and "Howl."

I've long suspected this...

In yet another internet hideyhole, I've found an interesting 2006 interview with Samuel R. Delany (SF legend, literary fictionist, critic, pornographer, theorist, wild man, teacher, and all-around Dude Who Looks Like Santa), in which the Big Man has this to say about the contemporary publishing industry in the wake of its mergermaniacal 'contraction' (a contraction from which nothing of non-monetary value will be born):

Commercial publishers today are far more distrustful of good writing than they have ever been before, and usually won't consider it unless it comes with some sort of ready-made reputation or gimmick. In the last half dozen years, writers have shown me rejection letters from publishers such as Harcourt Brace that actually say, under the letterhead, "We're sorry. This book is too well written for us." This means that competition is of an entirely different order than it was, say, thirty years ago, when such a letter simply would not have been written.

Thanks to interviewer Josh Lukin and to The Minnesota Review for publishing this interview on their website.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Samuel R. Delany's Literary Pillars

In the spirit of the season, here's a link to a highly eclectic book list composed by a writer who bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. Samuel R. Delany, literary novelist, critic, teacher, and living legend of American science fiction, submitted this list to the blog Big Other back in July as part of BO's (there's something I like about those initials...) birthday celebration for William H. Gass (speaking of living legends). Inspired by Gass's essay "Fifty Literary Pillars" (collected in A Temple of Texts), Delany lists some of the books and texts that, he writes, "if I hadn’t read and reread over the years, I wouldn’t be myself." So I suppose we should consider this a list of the books that 'chose' Delany rather than ones he chose. An excellent criterion, and a very interesting, surprising list that doesn't contain too many of the usual literary suspects. Check it out. (And note that #32 on the list is Delany's former spouse.)
Samuel R. Delany

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tragedy (Sandy Hook Elementary School, 12/14/12)

Again we grieve.
Again we mourn.
Again the flags fly lower.
Again the politicians say the appropriate things.
Again we begin the conversation that will end too soon.
Again the frantic calls to 9-1-1.
Again the parents screaming.
Again the children running for their lives.
Again the guns designed to kill are used to kill,
And again we are surprised.
Again the place of safety becomes a battleground.
Again the children die.
Again the empty shell casings roll like marbles on the floor.
Again the boys and girls with eyes closed walking past the carnage
are again a symbol for us all.

How many more times will we say

How many more?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Ten Literary Sentences That Will Never Be Spoken

  1. That's the self-published avant-garde novelist's Porsche.
  2. Don't you find Lacan refreshingly clear and easy to understand?
  3. This year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry doesn't teach anywhere.
  4. I just saw Wilbur Smith seliing copies of The Big Issue under Hungerford Bridge.
  5. I read Philip K. Dick for his prose.
  6. I read Derrida for pleasure. (I do, in fact, but I'm very, very odd.)
  7. After his workout at the gym, Slavoj Zizek ate a light salad and ran three miles.
  8. The American poet was mobbed by adoring fans.
  9. Henry James is OK, but he could use a little more nuance.
  10. This Faulkner novel has too few adjectives.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck died today at age 91. Take Five and watch the man play back in '64:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Few Contentious Thoughts about Updike (occasioned by a reading of COUPLES)

How to read Updike: pay close attention to the descriptive and expository passages (and the sex scenes, needless to say) and skim everything else. Updike's novels really come alive only when his characters look at things, ruminate or fuck; those are the moments when the creaky gears of his novelistic machinery shift into high and he takes off as a stylist. The rest of the time, Mr. U is content to cruise along in banality. Banal people saying banal things in banal places--such is the America Updike inexplicably claims to love.

My theory, for what it's worth, is that Updike is too Christian (which in American English usually means 'too conformist') to allow himself to seriously doubt any received opinion. It's as though sometime in his youth he read Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idees recues and took it as his textbook--or his Bible. The most obviously missing element in Updike's fiction is serious radical doubt, intellectually rigorous scepticism of the sort that makes Modernism modern. (And radical doubt is not the exclusive domain of atheists, as witness Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (especially the 'terrible sonnets'); Thomas Stearns Eliot, COE; and Flannery O'Connor, BMC (bloody-minded Catholic). As far as that goes, witness Mr. Western Mind himself, Rene Descartes, doubting himself into a pretzel and begging God to unbend him.) In fact, with only a few exceptions (all theological), intellectual rigor of any kind is AWOL from Updike's oeuvre. Couples is not "an intellectual Peyton Place" (as one early reviewer called it) because there's nothing intellectual about the novel. Rather, it's an intellectually glib Peyton Place. Glibness is Updike's most irritating quality, masquerading (often successfully) as magisterial effortlessness. All in all, I consider him a highly-talented fraud (which is not necessarily a bad thing for an artist to be; it's greatly preferable to being a minimally talented one), a pasty pasticheur, a jejune intellectual impostor, and perhaps our foremost striving bourgeois gentrifier of Modernism. He is a writer whose depths are always disappointingly shallow. Reading him is like leaping into a swimming pool and feeling your butt slam against the bottom while your head is still in the air. Despite all that, he remains a highly talented prose artist, a great describer who unfortunately didn't build novels very well. (A comparison with William H. Gass is begging to be born here.) Often his style is like elaborate art nouveau ornamentation affixed to a clapboard shack, but the ornament is no less lovely for that.

Despite all of this--and perversely because of some of it--I will keep returning to Updike's novels for the rest of my life. He is nowhere near being an artist of Proustian talent or Joycean inventiveness or Nabokovian wit or Pynchonian daring, but he does sometimes unfurl sentences that give a lovely light.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Three American Books for Election Day

Having just cast my electorally crucial Ohio vote for Barack Obama (and yes, the Electoral College is an absurd 18th-century anachronism [like chinoiserie porcelain and powdered wigs] that should've been constitutionally amended out of existence long before the 2000 election--but that's another blogpost), I've decided to mark Election Day with my reactions to three major books about America:

I'll probably be expelled from the Temple of Highbrow for saying so, but Franzen's Freedom is not a bad novel. In fact, parts of it are pretty good. While by no means the "Great American Novel" its adherents wanted it to be, it's a thoroughly competent, often enjoyable work of standard contemporary American literary fiction. I suspect that the American litworld is so blinded by Franzen's blazing mediocrity, his overwhelming competence, that it has confused these qualities with genius. (Updike, whom Franzen hates, induced a similar blindness by more impressive means, using his lapidary prose to conceal a host of weaknesses.) Reading Freedom is like having mediocre sex: you enjoy it while it lasts, but afterward you can't become terribly excited about it in either a positive or a negative way. It also doesn't last long in memory (at least not for me). It's neither great enough nor awful enough to inspire passion. It's OK, a good enough novel, but certainly nothing to write a rave review about. Like The Corrections, Freedom is good enough to read once. That is all.

Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution, on the other hand, is a great, essential, provocative work of American history, one of the best books about America and Americans I've ever read. Arguing compellingly that the republican revolution that swept away the bonds of monarchical society could provide no social binding force of comparable power, and thus permitted the cash nexus of capitalism to rush into the vacuum, it's a deeply interesting, contentious, enlightening, challenging book, everything a great work of academic history should be. I understand that Newt Gingrich praised this book upon publication, a fact that suggests Little Newtie didn't read it very closely and certainly skipped at least the last three pages, where Wood recounts the Founding Fathers' late-life hatred of the money-grubbing society their revolution had birthed. They would've really hated Donald Trump's America--and Mitt "corporations are people" Romney's too.

Take the time to read Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. An epic-length, comprehensive history of a period most Americans know too little about, it impressively covers events from the Battle of New Orleans through the Mexican War, with a damning portrait of Andrew Jackson, a deeply admiring one of John Quincy Adams, interesting accounts of the birth and short life of the Whigs, the political vicissitudes of John C. Calhoun, the Texas rebellion, the Indian wars, and much, much more than you'll be able to remember upon finishing the book. The whole is enjoyable and informative, but I do have two major complaints: Howe is insufficiently critical when writing about religion (especially a problem in his treatment of Mormonism, which is virtually devoid of critical thought); the author is also too naive in his distinction between historical narrative and argument; he seems not to appreciate that the former is always, at least implicitly, the latter. Every story about the past is also an argument about the past, every act of narration has an agenda, is ideologically situated. There is no such thing as a neutral ground of narration. When in his closing pages Howe tells us that "[t]his book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis," the reader's response should be to read Howe's book in search of the unacknowledged thesis (or theses) his story implicitly argues.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Draft of Two Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

The second of these should have been adopted in the wake of the 2000 electoral debacle; the first is necessitated by the brazen, scandalous strategies of vote suppression currently engaged in by Republican state officials across the country (see especially, the actions of the Scott administration in Florida and the Kasich administration in Ohio).

AMENDMENT XXVIII. Neither Congress nor any state legislature shall make any law, nor shall the President of the United States nor the Governor nor the Secretary of State of any state or territory sign any order, hindering the free and convenient exercise of a citizen's right to vote.

AMENDMENT XXIX. The Electoral College of the United States is hereby abolished, effective immediately. Henceforth, the election of the President and Vice-President of the United States will be determined by a summation of the popular vote totals of each state as certified by the Secretary of State of each state.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Who the Hell is Hattie Jackson? (A Political Question)

Because I live in Ohio, I've been subjected to countless political robocalls over the past month, and I've noticed that sometimes the caller ID reads "Hattie Jackson" when the call is actually a recorded message from the RNC. The Republicans are apparently attempting to disguise themselves to trick people into answering their phones, but why did they choose the alias "Hattie Jackson," a name that sounds like a white guy's version of an African-American senior citizen's name, a cross between Hattie McDaniel and Jesse Jackson? Is this a typically lame attempt by Republicans to target their telephonic propaganda to African-Americans? Why is Reince Priebus disguising himself as an elderly black woman?

Monday, October 29, 2012


Surrealism: Desire Unbound, a 2002 catalogue (edited by Jennifer Mundy) of an exhibition at the Tate Modern and the Met, is a well illustrated, theoretically sophisticated, and absolutely essential book about this often misunderstood Modernist movement. It is that rare--indeed, almost unknown--thing in the contemporary artworld, an exhibition catalogue interesting enough to be read more than once. Consisting of scholarly essays on various aspects of the movement, it presents not a narrative history but a thematic survey focusing on the artists' transformations of erotic desire. Unsurprisingly, the theoretical take tends toward Lacan and Bataille, but the authors' interpretations resist dogmatism and revel in complexity, as worthwhile scholarship always should. More important and provocative than the essays, though, are the illustrations, many of which are marvelous. The full-page photograph of Meret Oppenheim's My Nurse from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm shows it to be an object much more multifaceted and polymorphously perverse than her better- known Le dejeuner en fourrure, the fur-covered teacup at MOMA. The large reproduction of Man Ray's great photograph of Oppenheim as phallic woman, Veiled Erotic, is endlessly fascinating, as are the photos of works by Hans Bellmer, Alberto Giacometti, Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Cornell, the last an artist whose works' multi-dimensionality usually resists photographic treatment. There's also an excellent reproduction here of a work very well-known, Magritte's The Rape, an image that should never cease to disturb and provoke. Overall, this catalogue is a fine antidote to the popular tendency to see Surrealism as the whacked-out comic relief side of High Modernism, HighMod for stoners, too 'far out, man' to deserve sustained attention. The artworks the Surrealists created are both more serious and more deeply, distressingly comic than that. Study the illustrations in this catalogue and you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Moment of Truth

Last night on MSNBC's The Ed Show, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a Republican supporting President Obama, added a rare note of blunt truth to our nation's political discourse:

Col. Wilkerson's words about the current Republican Party deserve repetition:

Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that's despicable.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Of all the novels frequently cited as exemplary masterpieces of Modernism (a list that also includes Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, To The Lighthouse, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Master and Margarita, The Great Gatsby, etc.), The Magic Mountain impresses me least. After spending a week at the International Sanatorium Berghof (cough, cough), I left that mythical institution never to return. I concluded early in my reading that Mann was indulging--in a manner much more subtle and refined than David Foster Wallace's--the fallacy of imitative form: writing boringly about boredom, statically about stasis, etc. In so doing, he constructs  a novel that's longer and duller than it has any reason to be. The Magic Mountain is one of the major disappointments of my reading life. (Perhaps I read it too late. It should probably be read around age 20--just as On The Road should probably be read at age 17--for if the reading is delayed into middle age, the reader will expect too much.) Which is not to say the novel is devoid of interest. There are some very good parts: the 'Snow' chapter, Herr Naphta, Hippe and the pencil motif, the climactic duel (bit of a 19th-century cliche, that; Mann is the most 19th-century of major twentieth-century novelists), the X-ray scene, several other scenes and passages. But these are all like Alpine peaks snowbound amidst too much deliberate tedium. The Magic Mountain might be interpreted as an anti-novel, a book written against itself and against a culture in which people have the luxury to read 706-page philosophical novels while the world crashes around them. The extent to which Mann's text supports such a reading is unclear to me, and since I wasn't impressed enough to re-read the book, it will likely remain so. But the narrator and his tone would probably be the interpretive crux of such a reading: that tone of annoying, deliberately irritating irony. The Magic Mountain might be interestingly read as a book written against its readers--but not by me. My ticket out of the Alps was strictly one-way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wily Willard and Slippery Mitt

Long ago in a state as strange as Michigan, two boys were born to the Romney clan. One was named Wily Willard; the other they christened Slippery Mitt.

Wily Willard was the son of a penniless refugee from Mexico; Slippery Mitt was born with a silver car elevator in his house.

Wily Willard was an upright youth, spartanly free of intoxicating substances; Slippery Mitt was an assaulter of longhairs (and perhaps even a drinker of tea).

Wily Willard fulfilled his religious obligations through missionary work and piously supported the Vietnam War; Slippery Mitt dodged the Vietnam draft by taking Joe Smith's gospel to the Champs-Elysees.

Wily Willard scared his dog shitless atop the family car; Slippery Mitt denied ever owning a dog.

Wily Willard became the Brain of Bain; Slippery Mitt donned suspenders and played Gordon Gekko.

Wily Willard bought failing corporations and transformed them into cash; Slippery Mitt bought successful corporations and translated them into Chinese.

Wily Willard wants everyone to know he helmed the Salt Lake City Olympics; Slippery Mitt hopes everyone has forgotten the bribery scandals.

Wily Willard called blind trusts "an age-old ruse" and explained exactly why they are never blind; Slippery Mitt used the 'blind trust' ruse in a presidential debate.

Wily Willard was "a severely conservative governor of Massachusetts" (cue raucous laughter); Slippery Mitt is a moderate in October and a reactionary in March.

Wily Willard is a "car guy" whose "dad ran an automobile company"; Slippery Mitt wanted to "let Detroit go bankrupt." (Can you spell 'Oedipus,' boys and girls?)

Wily Willard has decades of secret tax returns; Slippery Mitt has nothing to hide, so he's keeping it hidden.

Wily Willard has uncounted millions in Cayman Islands accounts; Slippery Mitt prefers Swiss banks and Chinese factories.

Wily Willard wants to be "a president off the 100 percent"; Slippery Mitt considers half the American population a horde of parasites.

Wily Willard is a self-made man; Slippery Mitt is an upper-class twit.

Wily Willard wants to restart the neo-con war machine; Slippery Mitt says the word 'peace' whenever Frank Luntz orders him to.

Wily Willard is a man of principle who "knows what it takes"; Slippery Mitt is an all-you-can-eat buffet of empty rhetoric.

Wily Willard can convincingly portray a human being; Slippery Mitt can't move in the morning until Ann inserts a Krugerrand into the slot between his shoulder blades.

Tragically, this list could go on forever. The idea that either of these assholes might raise his hand and take an oath at the Capitol in January scares the unholy fucking bejesus out of me.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Death of the Critic: Robert Hughes 1938-2012

This has been a bad year for great writers: Carlos Fuentes in May, Gore Vidal last week, and now word comes of the death of Robert Hughes. Of contemporary art critics, Hughes, John Berger, Arthur Danto and Robert Herbert are the ones I value most highly, and Hughes was the best writer in that superhumanly perceptive crew. Though I never met him, he was my master. As a student of art, I stole so many magisterial bon mots and Olympian opinions from the writings of Robert Hughes that even now it's sometimes hard for me to tell where he ends and I begin. Every time I look at a portrait by Courbet I think of Hughes's great, sensual line, "He painted though he were running his fingers through it." In him I found affirmation for my own insistence, drawn from experience, that nothing substitutes for a face-to-face encounter with a painting: "You cannot think and feel your way back into the way something was made by looking at a slide: only by studying the real thing." (Note that uncharacteristically unwieldy sentence's encapsulation of an entire ars critica: the duty of the critic is neither to flog and blog unargued assertions, nor to bemerde works of art with the latest, hippest critical theories, nor to find in art convenient confirmations of one's favored ideologies; the critic's task, the critic's gift, is to "think and feel [his or her] way into the way something was made".) In him I also found an object lesson in the tentative nature of all critical opinions (or as I like to put it, the principle that every interpretation should end with an implied "...or maybe not."): when Hughes first saw Philip Guston's late works, he failed to understand them, failed to really see them, and panned them accordingly; later he came to consider these same paintings among the most important of the late 20th century and saw his earlier misunderstanding as the most notable mistake of his critical career.

Robert Hughes leaves a body of work that's nothing short of heroic, and I recommend every word: The Shock of the New and American Visions are definitive; Nothing If Not Critical, a collection of essays and reviews, is as compulsively readable as (and even more enjoyable than) John Berger's Selected Essays; his book on Goya is marvelous, his autobiography to ca.1970, Things I Didn't Know, is a wonderful read; his contentious entry in the 1990s culture wars, The Culture of Complaint, remains valuable and thought-provoking. I've yet to read his works of history (The Fatal Shore, Barcelona, Rome), but the first was widely praised and the last provoked the professional ire of classicists, which is perhaps not a bad thing. Death's triumph robs us of the second volume of his memoirs (unless he finished it before his final illness), but more importantly it stills the most eloquent, intelligent and pugnacious voice in the contemporary artworld. I will miss this burly Australian generalist with his Sydneyfied vowels and his infallible bullshit detector. I miss him already.

Check out his friend Peter Carey's impassioned eulogy in The Guardian.

The entire BBC series The Shock of the New can be viewed online here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The 2012 Sight and Sound Poll: First Thoughts

All "best of" lists, even my own, are meaningless except as recommendations of films to be watched, books to be read, etc. and as representations of one person's (or group's) taste. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that. That said, I wish to dispute a few examples of the grouptaste represented by this decade's Sight and Sound Poll:

What, no Bergman?!? My own top ten list begins with a three-way tie for first place among Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Persona, so I'm rather shocked to see not a single title by Ingmar Bergman on either list. Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes From A Marriage, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and Fanny and Alexander are all on a level with most of the films chosen this decade.

No Kieslowski?!? Maybe it's still too soon for K's work to enter the canon of canons, but I predict that future decades will see The Decalogue or Three Colors: Blue, White, Red in the top ten. (Provided that S&S revises the rules to permit series films to be counted as a single film.)

No Kurosawa?!? The great, moving Ikiru would have been my choice for a Kurosawa film in the top ten. It is surely among the greatest films ever made.

No Truffaut?!? No Godard?!? No Malle?!? This decade's poll exhibits a serious bias against the French New Wave. My purely hypothetical list would've included Truffaut's Quatre-cent coups (The 400 Blows), Godard's Vivre Sa Vie, and Malle's Murmur of the Heart.

No Bunuel...This is less surprising. Luis Bunuel has never received the respect he so clearly deserves as the director of Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Los Olvidados, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Phantom of Liberty. Most non-Bunuelites know him solely as the director of Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or, brilliant Surrealist films but only a tiny fraction of his oeuvre. It's time to lift Bunuel out of the Rodney Dangerfield slot and give him a little respect.

I also disagree with the choice of Tokyo Story on both lists, finding its position at the top of the director's poll almost incomprehensible. Far from being one of the greatest films ever made, Tokyo Story isn't even Ozu's best film; it doesn't come close to the brilliant, beautiful Floating Weeds.

The critics need to re-screen Renoir's The Rules of the Game on a double bill with his Grand Illusion. They will discover, as I did a few years ago, that the latter is the greater film.

I didn't like Tarkovsky's Mirror at all the first time I saw it, but on the evidence of its strong showing here, I'll give it another look.

On the positive side, I wholly endorse the selection of Vertov's Man With  a Movie Camera while simultaneously wondering "No Eisenstein?!?"

In the interest of full disclosure, here's something like what my purely hypothetical 'top dozen' list would look like:

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
1. Persona (Bergman)
2. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Parajanov)
3. 8 1/2 (Fellini)
4. Murmur of the Heart (Malle)
5. The Godfather trilogy (Coppola)
6. The Decalogue (Kieslowski)
7. Short Cuts (Altman)
8. Ikiru (Kurosawa)
9. Belle de Jour (Bunuel)
10. Napoleon (Gance)

And looking over my own list, I ask "No Truffaut?!?" "No Eisenstein?!?" "No Godard?!?" Yes, listmaking is indeed absurd. So let's compound the absurdity:

11. Les Quatre-Cent Coups (Truffaut)
12. Vivre Sa Vie (Godard)
13. The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
14. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder)
15. Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio)
16. Grand Illusion (Renoir)
17. City Lights (Chaplin)
18. An Angel at My Table (Campion)
19. The Last Laugh (Murnau)
20. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (Fassbinder)
21. Playtime (Tati)
22. Pickpocket (Bresson)
23. Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov)
24. Peeping Tom (Powell)
25. Eraserhead (Lynch)
25. Goodfellas (Scorsese)

And since I've now lost all fear of absurdity, a prediction about a few recent films that might show up on future Sight and Sound lists:

The Tree of Life (Malick)
There Will Be Blood (Anderson)
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
The Matrix (Wachowski siblings--We can't call them brothers anymore because Larry is Lana now, and she's a pretty hot chick.)

Sight and Sound Poll 2012: The Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time

Big news for Hitchcock fans: Sight and Sound magazine has just released the results of this decade's poll of critics and directors, and the former have chosen Hitchcock's Vertigo for the number one spot, displacing perpetual winner Citizen Kane. In the director's poll, Ozu's Tokyo Story displaced Kane, which tied with Kubrick's 2001 for number two. Here are both lists in their entirety:

The Critics’ Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time:

Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939)
Sunrise: a Song for Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927)
8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)

The Directors’ Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time:

Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
=2 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
=2 Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1980)
Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
=7 The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
=7 Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1974)
Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)

The Last Literary Lion: Gore Vidal 1925-2012

"Yesterday the Reagan Library burned to the ground. Both books were destroyed. But the real tragedy is that Ronnie hadn't finished coloring them yet." -- Gore Vidal, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1980s

American literature just lost its last lion. Gore Vidal died yesterday in Los Angeles at age 86. Obituaries are proliferating online, so I'll keep this post more personal.

When I turned on my computer this morning, the news of Vidal's death hit me like a punch in the gut. It was not unexpected; he was old, his body and mind had been fading, and his best work was two decades behind him. But I still hoped that somehow he would be immortal. He was one of those who deserved to quaff the ambrosial nectar and live forever, to be unto eternity an outrageous thorn in everyone's side. Novelist, essayist, playwright, politician, screenwriter, wit, raconteur, cultural critic, political commentator, sexual rebel, WWII veteran, one-percenter, traitor to his class, gossip, bitch, WASPy scion, grandson of a senator, friend of a president (JFK), enemy of a president's brother (RFK), stepbrother of Jackie Kennedy, buttfucker of Jack Kerouac, Vidal was an almost incomprehensibly comprehensive man. He lived his life with such overplus that his prolificity as a writer seems almost impossible: all those novels, all those essays, those plays, those movies... Surely there were two or three 'Gore Vidals' living in that house on the Amalfi coast, a gang of compulsively typing doppelgangers who could be stashed away in a basement trunk whenever outsiders came calling... But no, Gore did it all, and (to paraphrase another of his old friends) he did it his way.

"To be demoralized by the withdrawal of public success (a process as painful in America as the withdrawal of a drug from an addict) is to grant too easy a victory to the society one has attempted to criticize, affect, change, reform. It is clearly unreasonable to expect to be cherished by those one assaults. It is also childish, in the deepest sense of being a child, ever to expect justice. There is none beneath our moon. One can only hope not to be entirely destroyed by injustice and, to put it cynically, one can very often flourish through an injustice obtaining in one's favor. What matters finally is not the world's judgment of oneself but one's own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive long in America." -- Gore Vidal, "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements," 1960, collected in United States: Essays 1952-1992.

The only way to mourn a writer is to read him. Of the novels, I recommend the marvelous Julian, the outrageous Myra Breckenridge, the deliriously revisionist Burr, the bestselling Lincoln (it reveals its TV miniseries roots at its weakest moments [it began life as an unproduced TV screenplay, then Vidal novelized it, then it became a TV miniseries several years later], but Mary Todd Lincoln's mad scenes are perhaps the greatest and most affecting scenes in all of Vidal's fiction), the wonderful Hollywood, the deliciously blasphemous Live From Golgotha, and Vidal's stated favorite among his 'serious' novels, Creation. The prose in Vidal's essays is consistently superior to his novelistic prose, so his overall masterpiece is probably the dictionary-sized essay collection United States, virtually every page of which contains at least one example of 'the quotable Vidal.' But of all his works, my personal favorite is the beautifully written and compulsively gossipy memoir Palimpsest.

I distrust the very concept of the 'hero,' but if I had heroes (and I do; we all do), Gore would be one of them.

He will be buried in Rock Creek Park Cemetery, Washington, DC, next to his companion Howard Auster. His grave deserves to be a pilgrimage site, like the tombs on the Appian Way. He was, after all, in many ways, more an antique Roman than an American--and thus the noblest American of them all.

"He was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again."

Monday, July 16, 2012

THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Is Antonio Lobo Antunes Europe's greatest living writer? The question is far from absurd, and the answer might well be 'yes.' (Of course, no one who suspects any other answer would bother to ask this particular question.) Since the death of Jose Saramago, Lobo Antunes is widely considered Portugal's GLW--and many Portuguese readers preferred him even during the Nobel laureate's lifetime. And when I consider the contemporary European literary scene as a whole, only a few other writers (Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Peter Nadas and the late W. G. Sebald come immediately to mind) have produced bodies of work comparable in beauty, originality and profundity to the novels of Lobo Antunes. So why is this other Portuguese novelist still something of a secret in the United States? Unfortunately, it seems that we American readers have only ourselves to blame. Grove Press published translations of Lobo Antunes' 1980s novels throughout the 1990s, and they are still in print and/or readily available on the used book market. Recently, both W. W. Norton and Dalkey Archive have published translations of 4 additional novels and a so-so collection of short nonfiction pieces (The Fat Man and Infinity). So as of this writing (and to the best of my knowledge) ten of Lobo Antunes' 21 novels are currently easily available in English translations by translators as distinguished as Gregory Rabassa, Richard Zenith and Margaret Jull Costa. Here's a list, with dates of original Portuguese publication:
  • The Land at the End of the World (1979)
  • Knowledge of Hell (1980)
  • An Explanation of the Birds (1981)
  • Fado Alexandrino (1983)
  • Act of the Damned (1985)
  • The Return of the Caravels (1988)
  • The Natural Order of Things (1992)
  • The Inquisitor's Manual (1996)
  • The Splendor of Portugal (1997)
  • What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire (2001)
That leaves 11 of his novels still untranslated, including all of his fiction since 2001 (quite a backlog) and, apparently, his first novel, 1979's Elephant Memory. But the ten translated novels should be more than enough to elevate Lobo Antunes to household name status among American readers. He should be as well-known as Garcia Marquez or Vargas Llosa and at least as widely read as Saramago, Sebald and Bernhard.

Fado Alexandrino is his breakthrough novel, the work in which the dark, claustrophobic monologue style of his earlier novels (an original combination of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Camus' The Fall, among other precursors) opens out into a symphony of interpenetrating voices and stories, but the grand Fado is also a few hundred pages too long to be a good introductory text. The best place to begin an exploration of Lobo Antunes' oeuvre is probably Margaret Jull Costa's recent translation of the novel known in Portuguese as Os Cus de Judas and which Costa chooses to call The Land at the End of the World. The Portuguese title is better: translating literally as 'the asshole of Judas,' it colloquially means 'the most godforsaken place imaginable'; an acceptable (but still unsatisfying because it loses the theological element) American English equivalent would be 'the asshole of nowhere.' In the present context, Judas's asshole represents both the remote backlands of Angola during Portugal's long colonial war and the dull, dreary, postfascist Lisbon of the late 1970s, which the narrator despises almost as much. The novel is easy to describe--a veteran of the Angolan war relates his experiences in 1970s Africa and Portugal in a Fall-style monologue--but in a Lobo Antunes novel (especially his earlier ones), the 'story' is always only part of the story. The real story here, the thing that impresses me so much that I want to read every word this man has ever written, is the amazingly beautiful, deeply thoughtful and utterly original prose style. Lobo Antunes' compulsively metaphorical prose combines with his profoundly materialist sensibility to constitute a style that might be best described as 'baroque lyrical naturalism.' Even his most eccentric lyrical flights remain anchored (for the most part) in the hard, resistant facts of the body and the world, the tragic realities from which Lobo Antunes, at his unforgiving best, refuses to contrive Saramagoesque fantastical escapes. It may be this very refusal of escapism at the heart of his surrealism that makes Lobo Antunes unpalatable for some readers; an imaginative exit is always more exciting and viscerally satisfying than the multiple no exits of reality. Other readers may be turned off by the Bernhardian obsessionalism with which he returns again and again, in novel after novel, to the African colonies and the Salazar dictatorship and the Portuguese Revolution and its aftermath and his generally negative view of the entire freaking world--but then again, those same readers might have advised Faulkner to get the hell out of Yoknapatawpha and stop whining about 1865. (My Faulkner comparison is entirely deliberate, for Lobo Antunes is yet another of those great 'foreign' writers upon whom the man known to some southerners as "Wiyum Fognuh" exercised a decisive influence.) Whatever the reasons, the undeserved American oblivion of Antonio Lobo Antunes deserves to end. He's not only the 'macho Saramago' and the Lusitanian Faulkner; he's also the Portuguese Norman Mailer and the closest thing his country has produced to a native Joyce. He is one of those rare writers with enough raw talent and original imagination to move the art of the novel several steps beyond where he found it. And that may be the most any novelist can hope to achieve.

Addendum: Here, copied from the otherwise scandalously lame Lobo Antunes Wikipedia page, is a seemingly complete list of all the man's novels. Those of us who don't read Portuguese are missing some intriguing-looking titles (Treatise on the Soul's Passion; Archipelago of Insomnia, etc.):

  • Memória de Elefante (1979) Elephant's Memory
  • Os Cus de Judas (1979) The Land at the End of the World (available in English)
  • Conhecimento do Inferno (1980) Knowledge of Hell (available in English)
  • Explicação dos Pássaros (1981) An Explanation of the Birds (available in English)
  • Fado Alexandrino (1983) Fado Alexandrino (available in English)
  • Auto dos Danados (1985) Act of the Damned (available in English)
  • As Naus (1988) The Return of the Caravels (available in English)
  • Tratado das Paixões da Alma (1990) Treatise on the Soul's Passions
  • A Ordem Natural das Coisas (1992) The Natural Order of Things (available in English)
  • A Morte de Carlos Gardel (1994) The Death of Carlos Gardel
  • O Manual dos Inquisidores (1996) The Inquisitors' Manual (available in English)
  • O Esplendor de Portugal (1997) The Splendor of Portugal (available in English)
  • Exortação aos Crocodilos (1999) Exhortation to the Crocodiles
  • Não Entres Tão Depressa Nessa Noite Escura (2000) Don't Go Through That Dark Night So Fast
  • Que Farei Quando Tudo Arde? (2001) What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire? (available in English)
  • Boa Tarde às Coisas Aqui em Baixo (2003) Good Evening to the Things From Here Below
  • Eu Hei-de Amar uma Pedra (2004) I Shall Love a Stone
  • Ontem Não te vi em Babilónia (2006) Didn't See You In Babylon Yesterday
  • O Meu Nome é Legião (2007) My Name Is Legion
  • O Arquipélago da Insónia (2008) Archipelago of Insomnia
  • Que Cavalos São Aqueles Que Fazem Sombra no Mar? (2009) What Horses Are Those That Make Shade On The Sea?
  • Sôbolos Rios Que Vão (2010)
  • Saturday, July 14, 2012

    Judging Books by Their Covers

    I'm writing this post from a literary fortress walled with about five thousand books. Good books, great books, bad books, dirty books, clean books, crappy books, jungle books, city books, old books, new books, unread books, re-read books--and all are real books. By which I mean they're constructed from ink and paper, not bits and bytes. They are printed on pages identically cut and glued together or bound like submissive lovers. Now that death knells for the paper book are beeping and burping from every e-reader in the world, I've decided to skip the oblivion phase and go directly to nostalgic revival. Return with me now to a time before Kindles and Nooks. Remember how wonderful paper books were? How their batteries never ran down, how they could be tossed from high windows and still function properly, how you could drop them in the bathtub, fish them out, let them dry, and continue reading them (although they did gain a few new curves in the ordeal)? Remember the fetishistic feel of your thumb sliding across the upper corner of a page to pinch that skin-like texture between thumb and forefinger and lift, lift and turn, turn the page? Sontag didn't go far enough. Along with an erotics of art, we need an erotics of reading, something much sexier than any porn novel and with far more than fifty shades of gray. And one part of such an erotics must be an examination of the book cover as art. Since this art form seems destined for the dire fate of album covers (which reached a fairly high level of aesthetic value in the 1970s and 80s before the coming of compact discs fatally downsized the medium), I've decided to scan and share a few real book covers within easy reach of my writing desk.

    We begin with Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul:

    An early edition used one of Balthus's nymphets on the cover, but this is the cover image I will always think of when I think of Lolita. Barnaby Hall's remarkable photograph on this early 1990s Vintage International edition outdoes both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne by giving us a Lolita of the correct age. This entire edition of Nabokov's novels featured great photos by Hall, all of them wonderfully appropriate. Here's Transparent Things:

     The design--more prominent here--is by Marc J. Cohen, who also designed Lolita. This cover is even better, and all of the Hall-Cohen covers are superior to the current Vintage run, featuring a series of photographs of paper shadowbox constructions by Chip Kidd.
    I understand the reasoning (if anything, the foregrounding of trompe l'oeil artifice on these newer covers is too obvious to be truly Nabokovian), and they do function to illustrate an important aspect of Nabokov's aesthetic, but their minimalism clashes too jarringly with another important aspect of that aesthetic, its maximalism.

    Turning from Vlad the Inscriber to James the Joyous, here's my favorite cover illustration for Ulysses. Again, it's from a Vintage International printing of the early 1990s (when the publisher was on something of a roll).
     Angela Arnet's illustration marvelously signifies Leopold Bloom, that man made out of Joycean words, as a literal man of letters with eyeglasses to read the title he spells. It's a clever and very Modern conceit, and its humanity contrasts with the oddly Soviet-looking artwork chosen for the Gabler edition, a Ulysses that makes me want to build a dam for Lenin:

    All the New Directions covers of W. G. Sebald's novels benefit from a decision to design them as seamless collages of tinted versions of photographs from the texts. The covers are thus as enigmatic and thought provoking as the books they bind:

    Compare this to the following UK cover of Sebald's Vertigo, which appears to have been created under the misapprehension that the book was a novelization of the Hitchcock film:

    As an example of what is being lost forever with the death of paper books (and the trashing of vintage paperbacks), check out this perfectly lovely vintage Penguin paperback of Thomas Wolfe's short stories.

    The design is perfectly understated (as Wolfe never was), the illustration perfectly grandiose and nostalgic (as TW often was). It's one of the prettiest old paperbacks I own.

    At the other end of the artistic spectrum, check out the pulpy, sensationalistic cover Signet used to market a European literary novel (in translation, no less) to the 1950s American audience:

    As another memento of a time when highbrow literature was available in cheap paperback form, here's the 75-cent Fawcett Crest edition of Sartre's The Words, marketed as a "famous bestseller," just like Peyton Place

    Back to beauty. Here's another of my favorite covers, the intriguing High Modernist Nikolai Punin illustration for Antonio Lobo Antunes' Fado Alexandrino:

    Completely different but equally effective is the gorgeous Wanda Wulz self-portrait looking off toward the spine of David Grossman's Be My Knife:

    My award for most effective and aesthetically pleasing series design must go to the Library of America. Their signature basic black dust jackets with a significant but non-jingoistic red-white-blue stripe (which in Ashbery's case surely signifies both the poet's nation of birth and his French literary inheritance) and a small author portrait at upper right are both tasteful and ultra-cool. They are what the fashionable American writer will be wearing this season.

    This 1970s Bantam paperback of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is a good definition of 'groovy.' The nostalgic hipster in me prefers it to the posthorn covers.

    Lawrence has inspired some very good covers, but this ca.1990 Bantam Classics edition is my very personal favorite. It encourages me to study botany:


    I would prefer to see Rep. Paul Ryan's face on the cover of Bret Easton Ellis's misfired (in my opinion) satire, but this sober male model is very creepy indeed--and too big to fail.

    The entire Modern Library Proust six-pack is beautifully designed, right down to the box, but the photo chosen for the Captive-Fugitive volume makes it my candidate for the sexiest literary book cover currently in print. Love that leg:

    A breathtakingly beautiful color photograph distinguishes this recent edition of Naipaul's Indian travel book. Whoever chose this photo made an amazingly good decision.

    The Viking Portable Joyce was the second Joyce book I ever owned--I purchased the Penguin Portrait as a teenager; its cover featured the same Berenice Abbot portrait of the author--and I will probably always visually associate his work with the cover image of a gull-crazed sky over choppy Irish waves.

    Need I mention that this edition of Kundera's Laughable Loves is from the Seventies? Inside the sexy cover, I highly recommend the great short story "The Hitchhiking Game," a work of Kunderan existentialism. 

    This Routledge Classics edition of Slavoj Zizek's Enjoy Your Symptom! appears at first to be unimaginatively spartan, austere, minimal--everything Zizek is not. But then we notice that thing (a specifically Lacanian 'thing') in the upper right corner. What the hell is that? Closer examination confirms that it's the lipsticked rim of a mouth opened wide to cry out its subject's ecstasy at the moment of ultimate jouissance. And it's more than that, of course: the tiniest hint of tooth at the top edge transforms it into another kind of 'thing,' a vagina dentata opened to engulf and destroy the author's phallic name, the ultimate nom de pere...and so on and so forth, until we find ourselves living in the end times.