What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, April 21, 2017

April 17, 2017, Issue

I see in the “Briefly Noted” review of Richard Holmes’s new book, The Long Pursuit, in this week’s issue, that Holmes “swears by what he calls the ‘Footsteps principle,’ which entails going everywhere that ‘the subject had ever lived or worked, or travelled or dreamed.’ ” Reading this, I recalled Geoff Dyer, in Granta’s recent “Journeys” issue, describing travel writing that follows “in the footsteps of …” as “the literary equivalent of package tours in which destination and experience are so thoroughly predetermined that one is reluctant to make a booking.” I’m curious what Dyer would make of Holmes’s “Footsteps principle.” It seems to me that The Long Pursuit is worthy of more than just a “Briefly Noted” review. I wish The New Yorker would ask Dyer to review it. He’s a superb critic. He’d be an excellent sub for James Wood.

Other notes on this week’s issue:

1. The Maureen Gallace painting, “Sandy Road” (2003), in “Goings On About Town,” brought to mind Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderful “America at the Edges” (The New Yorker, October 19, 2015), in which he describes Gallace’s art:

Gallace’s means are narrow: she employs uniformly quick, daubed brushwork and colors kept to a mid-range of tones that makes whites jump out. Her end is description, not of how things look but of how they seem. What is a breaking ocean wave like? Gallace answers with stabs of creamy off-white and gray-blue shadow. It’s her best guess, as is the specific blue of the sky on the given day. In one picture, single blue strokes approximate tidal pools. Elsewhere, a slight touch of green in the sea hints at fathomless deeps. Qualities of light, too, feel gamely speculative. (To me, they tend to evoke morning hours, when the visible world, well rested, has something almost eager about it.) The houses often lack doors and windows. Gallace is plainly shy of anyone or anything that might even seem to return her gaze. She conveys a vulnerable aloneness wholly given over to absorption in appearances. Looking at the paintings, I feel that I am always just beginning to look.

2. The William Mebane photograph, illustrating Jiayang Fan’s delectable “Tables For Two: Tim Ho Wan,” is one of his finest. I’m a Mebane fan. His photo for Silvia Killingsworth’s “Tables For Two: Babu Ji” was #6 on my “Best of 2016: Photos.” His “Tim Ho Van” is sure to be a candidate for “Best of 2017.”

3. I find “Bar Tab” drink descriptions irresistible. There’s a dandy in David Kortava’s “Bar Tab: Skinny Dennis”:  “If you are going to stay and drink, Willie’s Frozen Coffee—a decadent caffeine-and-whiskey sludge named for Willie Nelson—is a must.”

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Nabokov-Wilson Feud

Vladimir Nabokov (Photo by Irving Penn)
Gary Saul Morson, in his “Will We Ever Pin Down Pushkin?” (The New York Review of Books, March 23, 2017), calls the battle between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin “one of the great quarrels of American literary history.” Morson appears to side with Wilson, opining, “Wilson’s criticisms were mostly on target.” Reading Morson’s piece, I recalled John Updike’s great “The Cuckoo and the Rooster” (The New Yorker, June 11, 1979), a review of The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, in which Updike held that Wilson had “a good eye for what was defective or lop-sided in Nabokov, but something of a tin ear for the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything.” Updike wrote, “Without minimizing the kindnesses and excitements that Wilson contributes, this reviewer found Nabokov’s letters the more alive and giving, certainly the more poetic and dense.” I realize that Morson, in his piece, is dealing with Nabokov’s translation, not his letters. Nevertheless, in considering the validity of Morson’s views (e.g., “Nabokov deliberately made his translation unreadable”), I suggest that Updike’s point about “the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything” should be kept in mind. It's possible Morson's ear is as tinny as Wilson's. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

My Boarding-House "New Yorker"

I associate this particular New Yorker with a room I briefly rented in a boarding house on Dorchester Street, Charlottetown – my first Prince Edward Island residence. I’d brought the magazine with me from my parents’ house in Halifax, where I’d been living while I attended Dalhousie Law School. It was my first summer on the Island. I was articling with a Charlottetown law firm. In my memory the room’s wallpaper is like the wallpaper in the magazine’s Robert Weber cover. But I’m sure that can’t be right. What is true, I’m certain, is the feeling of homelessness I experienced lying in a strange bed, in an unfamiliar house, in a city and province that were totally unknown to me. But, by immersing myself in The New Yorker, I found I could forget all that. One piece in that August 1, 1977, issue transfixed me – Howard Moss’s “Great Themes, Grand Connections,” a review of Robert Liddell’s biography Cavafy. It contains this memorable line:

Secrets contain within themselves a hidden spring – the compulsion to reveal them – and this compulsion has something in it of the quality of history: the story not yet revealed, the truth under the appearance of it, the onion skin of façade endlessly waiting to be peeled away.

I’m not sure I agree. For me, meaning is found on the surface, hiding in plain sight like the purloined letter in Poe’s story. But Moss’s notion that “secrets contain within themselves a hidden spring – the compulsion to reveal them” is intriguing. Forty years after I first read it, in my boarding-house room on Dorchester Street, I’m still pondering it.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

April 10, 2017, Issue

Two excellent pieces in this week’s issue are Ben Taub’s “We Have No Choice” and Calvin Tomkins’s “Troubling Pictures.” Taub reports the desperate six-month journey of a Nigerian teenager named Blessing, travelling a perilous migration trade route from her home in Benin City to Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, to Tripoli, and then by dinghy out into the Mediterranean, where she’s eventually picked up by a rescue boat and taken to Messina, on the eastern coast of Sicily.

The piece brilliantly conveys a raw intimacy with Blessing’s circumstances, much of it based on first-hand observation. Taub visits Benin City and searches for Blessing’s mother, Doris:

One day, I went to the Uwelu spare-parts market, where adolescent boys lift car engines into wheelbarrows, and bare-chested venders haggle over parts salvaged from foreign scrap yards. A dirt path at the western end of the market leads to a shack where I saw a middle-aged woman dressed in purple selling chips, candy, soda, and beer. I asked if she was Blessing’s mother, Doris. She nodded and laughed, then started to cry.

He goes to Agadez and reports on the “connection houses,” migrant ghettos, and Nigerian brothels. He attends a meeting of a dozen of the biggest human smugglers in the Sahara – “half were Tuareg, half Toubou, and all had fought in recent rebellions.” He describes Blessing’s migration across the Ténéré, an expanse of sand roughly the size of California (“Their journey through the desert had been a blur of waiting, heat, thirst, discomfort, beatings, dead bodies, and fear”). He reports her fate in Brak (“One day in Brak, the madam sold Blessing and Faith to the owner of a connection house, to work as a prostitute”). He describes her rescue at sea (“Her feet were pruning; they had been soaking for hours in a puddle at the bottom of the dinghy”). He visits her at Palanebiolo, the makeshift migrants’ camp outside Messina (“We headed back up the hill, to Palanebiolo. Blessing moved with slow, labored steps. Her joints ached and were still swollen from her time in detention in Libya”). He visits Ballarò, an old neighborhood of Palermo, center of the Nigerian sex trade in Sicily:

One night in Ballarò, I met with a former drug dealer from Mali at an outdoor bar that smelled like sweat, weed, and vomit. Sex workers walked past in red fish-nets and six-inch stilettos. On the corner, two men grilled meat over a trash fire. Italians and Africans exchanged cash and drugs, unbothered by the presence of witnesses. “This is the power of the Nigerian mafia,” the Malian said. “It gives work to those people who don’t have papers.”

“We Have No Choice” has an inspired structure. It begins in medias res with the loading and launching of the tightly packed dinghy carrying a hundred and fifty migrants, including Blessing. It then expands its scope to report on the network of sex work that girls like Blessing, migrating from Benin City, get caught in. Taub was on the Médecins Sans Frontière boat that rescued Blessing. He appears to have listened to her story, retraced her steps from Benin City to Messina, and then woven her experiences with his own personal observations. It’s Taub’s first-person perspective that, for me, gives his piece its awesome power and authenticity.

Tomkins’s “Troubling Pictures” is also exhilaratingly written in the “I.” It’s about Dana Schutz’s paintings, particularly her controversial Emmett Till painting, “Open Casket,” currently on view at the Whitney Biennial. I enjoyed this piece for its vivid descriptions of Schutz’s studio. For example:

Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushes, metal tubs filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, cans of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris.

And this delightful bit:

When I went back again a few days later, the studio floor was littered with discarded paintbrushes, dozens of them, some still oozing paint—I got bright orange on one of my shoes.

Tomkins’s “I” is much more prominent now than it used to be back in his The Bride and the Bachelor days. His recent pieces are more journal-like – records of his personal art world experiences. I enjoy them immensely.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

April 3, 2017, Issue

For me, the most striking item in this week’s issue is Riccardo Vecchio’s exquisitely drawn and colored portrait of the poet Bill Knott, illustrating Dan Chiasson’s “The Fugitive,” a review of Knott’s I Am Flying Into Myself: Selected Poems. Vecchio is one of The New Yorker’s all-time greats. His portrait of Hank Jones for Gary Giddins’s superb “Autumn in New York” (The New Yorker, June 4, 2007) is my pick for best New Yorker illustration of the Remnick era.

Riccardo Vecchio, "Bill Knott" (2017)
Riccardo Vecchio, "Hank Jones" (2007)

Six sentences in this week’s New Yorker that I enjoyed immensely:

1. The show’s duelling series demonstrate Oehlen’s savvy ability to take the piss out of painting via his non-allegiance to style. [“Goings On About Town: Art: Albert Oehlen”]

2. Davies resurrects footfalls and shadows, the pattern and texture of carpets, the sound of his mother’s singing voice—the inner drama of undramatic things that are lodged in memory for a lifetime. [Richard Brody, “Goings On About Town: Movies: The Long Day Closes]

3. It’s a pleasure to hear Duterte dip a toe in groovier waters on songs like “Baybee,” a velvety yacht jam that shows just how much pop can be wrung out of bedroom studios. [“Goings On About Town: Night Life: Jay Sam”]

4. Roberta’s mere presence, as she delivers the tarte tatin, a rose of butter-caramel apple slices hugging a hazelnut crust, rescues the experience from the dispassion of the suits—as does François’s wink and pour of gifted Calvados. [Becky Cooper, “Tables For Two: Augustine”]

5. I sometimes pretend that the ringing in my ears is a sound I play on purpose to mask the ringing in my ears—a Zen-like switcheroo that works better than you might think. [David Owen, “Pardon?”]

6. He is, at his best, a poet of home-brewed koans, threading his philosophical paradoxes into scenes of slacker glamour. [Dan Chiasson, “The Fugitive”]

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tribute to Lionel Stevenson (1940 - 2017)

Lionel Stevenson, "Buck" (1972)
Prince Edward Island photographer Lionel F. Stevenson, who died April 3, 2017, at age 77, worked in the classic tradition of the great Parisian street photographer Eugène Atget, producing images of people, places, and things that are at once elegant and plainspoken. Lionel was closer to Atget than most photographers. In 1969, he worked with the legendary Berenice Abbott, helping print her photographs for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Abbott met the hermitic Atget when she was in Paris in the 1920s. She did much to spread the news of his genius. When he died in 1927, she salvaged his prints and negatives. The connective chain that runs from Atget to Abbott to Stevenson is evident in their work. All three are meticulous artists. All three are masters of line and light. Anthony Lane says of Atget, he “stopped to absorb the detail that others failed to notice” (“A Balzac of the Camera,” The New Yorker, April 15, 1994), a perceptive observation that applies to Abbott and Stevenson, too.

Like Atget and Abbott, Lionel had a democratic eye, photographing everything from farm gates, fishing boats, barns, sheds, and street scenes to sand dunes, pig races, rocks, trees, and flowers. He was a superb portraitist, showing his subjects at ease in their home and work environments. My favorite Stevenson portrait is of New Glasgow blacksmith Elbert Nelson Hill, who lived from 1891 to 1984. It’s called “Buck.” It shows Hill sitting in his forge, in his work clothes, arms folded across his chest, shirtsleeves rolled up, legs crossed, two horseshoes balanced on his left knee. His lips are pursed. His glasses catch the light. His cap sits high on his forehead. His belt buckle glints. Behind him, over his left shoulder, light throngs a window.

The portrait bears the unmistakable stamp of individuality – not a blacksmith, but this blacksmith, at this moment, at ease amidst the tools and furniture of his workplace, so absolutely and immutably there, down to the safety pin that holds his shirt closed and the shining belt buckle with its prong precariously stuck in a hole that Hill himself must’ve punched in the very tip of the leather.

I first encountered “Buck” in the summer of 2014, when I was a patient at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown. It hangs on the wall in the sitting room at the junction of Units 1, 2, 3, and 4. I was immediately drawn to it. I relished its subject – not a celebrity or a politician or a tycoon, but a blacksmith, a man who works with his hands, a vanishing breed of craftsmen. And I loved its look. It had an air of artistic seriousness. It reminded me of the work of master photographers such as August Sander, Walker Evans, and Paul Strand, work that I’d seen only in reproduction. But here, in a hospital of all places, was the real thing. My eyes devoured it.

During my hospital stay, I made a point of visiting “Buck” everyday. I’d stand in front of it, loops of heart monitor wire dangling beneath my T-shirt, looking and looking, soaking up its calmness. Sitting there in his forge, gazing into the camera, Hill seems so relaxed and natural. He doesn’t appear to be posing; he’s just being himself. Calmness in art is an elusive quality. Not every artwork has it. Vermeer’s paintings have it. Atget’s photographs have it. Stevenson’s “Buck” has it in abundance. As an anxious heart patient, I found it consoling.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to talk to Lionel about the genesis of “Buck.” “I was just photographing around the forge,” he said. “I asked Buck if I could take his picture. He took a seat on the stool. He had two horseshoes on his knee. He’d just finished welding the corks on them. I was using a Kodak 8x10 view camera. He was illuminated by the light coming in the garage door. I could visualize the print – him sitting on the stool. I knew my exposure and my camera and what I would do. There were two negatives – each slightly different. I chose the stronger one, the one I thought best expressed Buck’s personality. It’s probably my best portrait.”

I said to Lionel that I thought “Buck” showed an avid realism. He laughed and said, “That photograph is as abstract as hell – it’s black and white.” He went on to say, “Every photo is abstract.” He asked me if I was familiar with Magritte’s “This is not a pipe.” I nodded yes. “Well,” he said, “when you look at ‘Buck’ – it is not Elbert Hill. It’s a photograph of Elbert Hill.”

Lionel’s passing removes from our midst one of our finest photographers. Our only solace is the knowledge that his wonderful pictures will live on, instances of flux forever held.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Fan's Note

James Wood (Photo by Juliana Jiménez)

Thirteen New Yorkers so far this year, and not one of them contains a book review I’d rate above C+. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. I did enjoy Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “The Island Within” (March 6, 2017), a review of Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, and Dan Chiasson’s “The Mania and the Muse” (March 20, 2017), a review of Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. But even those two pieces lack the kind of formalist analysis I crave, the kind of formalist analysis that, it seems, only James Wood can provide. Where is he? The last piece by him to appear in the magazine is his brilliant “Scrutiny” (December 12, 2016), a review of Helen Garner’s essay collection Everywhere I Look. That’s almost four months ago. Has he quit or been let go? I hope not. He’s irreplaceable.