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.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Julian Bell's Thrilling "The Flash of the Blade"

Lucian Freud, "Nude Portrait" (1972-3)

Most great critics have two sides – positive and negative. They can celebrate and they can eviscerate. Until now, I’d seen only Julian Bell’s affirmative side. But in his riveting “The Flash of the Blade” (The New York Review of Books, June 22, 2017), he’s on the attack. His target is Julian Barnes’s Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art. I admire Bell’s writing immensely. It’s fascinating to see him in cutting mode. His weapon of choice is irony. For example, he opens his piece by saying, “I enjoyed an essay about Lucian Freud that Julian Barnes published in 2013—a piece brought together with sixteen others on art and artists in his collection Keeping an Eye Open.”

But then in the next sentence, he says his enjoyment is sourced in his realization that Barnes’s comments “corresponded pleasingly to those in an essay on the artist that I myself contributed to these pages back in 2008.” He writes,

Remarking on Freud’s midcareer lurch toward the influence of Francis Bacon, or on the way that the tortuous stylisms of Freud’s later portraiture are thrown into relief by other people’s photographs of the sitters, or on his greater empathy with still life subjects, Julian the celebrated British novelist seemed, whether by coincidence or design, to walk step by step with Julian the British part-time art writer.

Is Bell hinting that he thinks Barnes’s essay is a rip-off? That word “design” is loaded. Then Bell makes another move – this one more overtly assaultive. He writes,

Barnes, however, had unlike me “met Freud a few times” before the artist’s death in 2011, and these memories sharpen his account, lending it the edge that fills a room when two nervy males enter it and circle it for advantage. Barnes was “struck by the fact that [Freud] never smiled, neither on meeting, nor at any point in the conversation when any other, ‘normal’ person might smile: it was classic controller’s behavior, designed to unsettle.” Barnes’s bid to posthumously outflank the painter leans on Breakfast with Lucian, an indiscreet memoir by the journalist Geordie Greig. Not only will Greig’s gossip “do Freud’s personal reputation harm,” Barnes declares, it will “harm the way we look at some of his paintings, and perhaps harm the paintings themselves.” He transcribes two tales of Freud’s misogyny too demeaning to bear further repetition and submits that

once we know these two stories, we can’t unknow them, and they seem to change—or, for some, confirm—the way the female nudes are to be read…. It is hard not to ask oneself: Is this the face and body of a woman who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?

“Can’t unknow”: what more could art writing aspire to than to make such an indelible dent on “the paintings themselves”? The butchering of Freud is all the more stylish for the sagacious shrug with which Barnes’s closing paragraph extracts the blade: “Perhaps, in time, all this will cease to matter. Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography.” Until that day, however, Barnes’s censorious vocal performance, his scolding more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, will linger resoundingly in his readers’ ears.

That “butchering of Freud” leaves no doubt where Bell stands. He’s against Barnes’s biographical readings of Freud’s work. He calls Barnes’s approach a “censorious vocal performance.” Later in his piece, he writes, “Close reading, however, is merely one weapon, occasionally reached for, in Barnes’s authorial armory. The story-chaser to him has the upper hand.” And later still, he cuts to his core criticism:

For if Barnes the close reader of paintings makes way for Barnes the inquisitive storyteller, the latter in turn defers to Barnes the moralist. Just as he “can’t unknow” the artist’s life, he can’t help couching it in plaudits, exonerations, and sideswipes.

“The Flash of the Blade” is a spirited attack on art criticism as moral judgment. I found it thrilling and laudable.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 19, 2017 Issue

This week’s issue contains four superb Talk of the Town pieces: Robert Sullivan’s “Facing History”; Tad Friend’s “Pulverizer”; Lauren Collins’s “Sideline”; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Incidents.”

Sullivan’s “Facing History” starts with the issue of whether a Brooklyn street named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee should be renamed (“When the city of New Orleans took down its last Confederate statue, of General Robert E. Lee, Representative Yvette Clarke, of New York’s Ninth Congressional District, had a local take. She tweeted, ‘We should do likewise with General Lee Avenue in Brooklyn’ ”). In the fifth paragraph, it shifts focus to another Robert E. Lee memorial:

General Lee Avenue is not the only Confederate memorial in Bay Ridge. Another can be found just a few blocks away, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Fort Hamilton Parkway. In the church’s front yard, there is a maple tree marked with an iron sign that reads, “This tree was planted by General Robert Edward Lee, while stationed at Fort Hamilton.” The sign was installed in 1912, also by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The piece then proceeds to tell the history of St. John’s Episcopal Church and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and ends with a visit to Goodfellows barbershop and a conversation with two dog walkers.

The first appeal of this delightful piece is the appearance of spontaneity. It seems completely natural, as relaxed as conversation. Secondly, it brims with interesting facts. An inventory of its contents looks like this:

General Robert E. Lee – Representative Yvette Clarke – Bay Ridge – Fort Hamilton – United Daughters of the Confederacy – Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – Confederate-statue removals – June 19th, or Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of slavery – St. John’s Episcopal Church – Southern Poverty Law Center – Brooklyn Daily Eagle – the Robert E. Lee tree – two Brooklyn politicians – Shore Road – Indecision, the Bay Ridge hardcore band – Goodfellows, a barbershop on Fourth Avenue – two residents walking their dogs

The piece is like a Cornell box filled with fascinating objects. And yet it coheres; it tells a story. That’s another of its attractions: its “plot” unfolds from real life. This is true of all good Talk stories, including the other three pieces discussed here.

Tad Friend’s “Pulverizer” is a sort of mini-profile of the actor Anthony Michael Hall. Its opening paragraph snared my attention immediately:

“Left arm straight, head down,” Anthony Michael Hall murmured as he took his stance at the Chelsea Piers driving range. His 5-wood carved the air but only grazed the ball, which lolloped gently over the Astro-Turf toward the Hudson River. Hall glared after it. “First of all, plant your fucking feet!” he told himself. “Turn your hips. Be the ball!” When his next shot boinged sideways into the protective netting, he cracked up. “My mother taught me that, to laugh at yourself,” he said. The actor, who goes by Michael, had arrived wearing an outfit that seemed to embody this precept: black suit, white sneakers, tomato-red T-shirt, Ninja Turtle-green backpack. “I’m not afraid of color,” he explained. “It’s my Italian side.”

I read that, and I just kept going, devouring the piece in about four minutes, and then going back to savor this line: “The hairs on his forearm stood erect, like little soldiers.”

All four of these pieces end in quotation. “Pulverizer” ’s might be the most memorable. Friend quotes Hall saying, “On this movie I got down on my knees and prayed before takes, and then just grabbed my balls and tried somehow to be of service.”

In “Sideline,” Collins describes her recent visit with the writer Michel Houellebec at his Paris apartment. She writes,  

Houellebecq answered the door wearing a denim shirt and jeans—hiked up to a seemingly concave chest—and ushered a visitor inside, past a polka-dot shopping cart, some metal shelves stocked with bottled water, and a closet filled with three-ring binders. One had the feeling that Houellebecq, like a lot of his characters, might not get out much.

I relish the way Collins sketches detail – three quick strokes (“TV, recliner, lots of yellow”) and – voila! – Houellebecq’s living room springs to life. She’s an excellent noticer. At one point in “Sideline,” she says of Houellebecq, “He must have been chewing on his cigarette, because it hung from his mouth like a broken limb.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Incidents” also reports on a visit. She’s present with the artist James Turrell at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, as he views preparations for the opening of new wing showing nine of his works, including “an apartment-size piece” titled “Perfectly Clear.”

One of the pleasures of Kolbert’s piece is her vivid description of “Perfectly Clear”:

In front of him, a set of stairs led up to a rectangular opening cut into a wall. Beyond the opening was an empty chamber. Lights installed in the walls of the chamber were making it glow different shades—first fuchsia, then baby blue, then electric yellow. Everything outside the chamber also kept changing color, including Turrell.

One of Turrell’s associates, Ryan Pike, was tapping on a laptop that controlled the lights. At times, the chamber seemed to vanish, and it looked as if the opening had become a wall of radiant color. At other points, the chamber reappeared, and its back wall became visible. At still other points, the lights strobed and a sort of psychedelic plaid pattern appeared across the opening.

“We’re not getting much printout with this one,” Turrell told Pike, who tapped away more vigorously.

That detail of the associate tapping away “more vigorously” in response to Turrell’s comment is inspired!

All four of these pieces are terrific. Which is my favorite? I think it might be Sullivan’s “Facing History.” His visit to Goodfellows barbershop in search of local knowledge of the Robert E. Lee tree made me smile. It's such a Sullivanesque thing to do.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

My 25 Best Films of the Century So Far

Richard Brody’s “My Twenty-Five Best Films of the Century So Far” (, June 12, 2017) got me thinking about what my own list might look like. Here’s a quick stab at it:

1. “Lost In Translation” (2003, Sofia Coppola)

2. “Up in the Air” (2009, Jason Reitman)

3. “The Descendants” (2011, Alexander Payne)

4. “Incendies” (2010, Denis Villeneuve)

5. “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)

6. “The Kid with a Bike” (2011, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

7. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013, Martin Scorsese)

8. “The Social Network” (2010, David Fincher)

9. “Like Someone in Love” (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)

10. “Walk the Line” (2005, James Mangold)

11. “This Is 40” (2012, Judd Apatow)

12. “Monsieur Lazhar” (2011, Philippe Falardeau)

13. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005, Ang Lee)

14. “The Great Beauty” (2013, Paolo Sorrentino)

15. “The Trip to Italy” (2014, Michael Winterbottom)

16. “A Separation” (2011, Asghar Farhadi)

17. “Leviathan” (2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev)

18. “Paul à Québec” (2015, François Bouvier)

19. “The Best of Youth” (2003, Marco Tullio Giordana)

20. “The Secret in Their Eyes” (2009, Juan José Campanella)

21. “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004, Walter Sailes)

22. “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)

23. “Sideways” (2004, Alexander Payne)

24. “I Am Love” (2009, Luca Guadagnino)

25. “Le Grand Voyage” (2004, Ismaël Ferroukhi)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

June 5 & 12, 2017 Issue

Hooray! James Wood is back. He has an excellent piece in this week’s issue. Titled “The Other Side of Silence,” it’s a consideration of W. G. Sebald’s fiction. It focuses on an unlikely topic – Sebald’s comedy. As Wood notes in his piece, comedy isn’t usually associated with Sebald. When I think of Sebald’s novels, I think of death. But in “The Other Side of Silence,” Wood suggests that Sebald’s fiction has “an eccentric playfulness.” He provides several examples, including one from The Emigrants involving a “teas-maid,” which Wood describes as “an ungainly machine, popular at the time, that contained a clock and an electric kettle; it could wake you up with morning tea.” Wood writes, “Sebald approaches this cozy English object with mock-solemn gingerliness, as if he were an anthropologist presenting one of his exhibits.” I’d completely forgotten about this scene. But now that Wood has drawn my attention to it, I can see a mild, eccentric sort of humor in it. The same applies to his other examples of Sebald’s comedy.

I like the way Wood segues from Sebald’s comedy to Sebald’s use of photographs. He says, “The playful side of Sebald’s originality made him a consumingly interesting and unpredictable artificer.” This leads into a fascinating discussion of the way Sebald uses photographs in his novels. Wood says,

Few writers have used photographs in quite the way Sebald does, scattering them, without captions, throughout the text, so that the reader can’t be sure, exactly, how the writing and the photographs relate to each other, or, indeed, whether the photographs disclose what they purport to.

Brilliantly, Wood connects Sebald’s Austerlitz photos with what he says is Austerlitz’s central theme – retrieval. He writes that the effort of retrieval can be felt “whenever we stare at one of Sebald’s dusky, uncaptioned photographs, and it is not coincidental that photography plays the largest role in the two Sebald books that deal centrally with the Holocaust, The Emigrants and Austerlitz.”  

Referring to Austerlitz, Wood writes,

What does it mean to stare at a photograph of a little boy who is “supposed” to be Jacques Austerlitz, when “Jacques Austerlitz” is nothing more than a fictional character invented by W. G. Sebald? Who is the actual boy who stares at us from the cover of this novel? We will probably never know. It is indeed an eerie photograph, and Sebald makes Austerlitz say of it:

I have studied the photograph many times since, the bare, level field where I am standing, although I cannot think where it was. . . . I examined every detail under a magnifying glass without once finding the slightest clue. And in doing so I always felt the piercing, inquiring gaze of the page boy who had come to demand his dues, who was waiting in the gray light of dawn on the empty field for me to accept the challenge and avert the misfortune lying ahead of him.

The boy does seem to be demanding something from us, and I imagine that this is why, when Sebald came across the photograph, he chose it. Presumably, he found it in a box of old postcards and snapshots, in one of the antique shops he enjoyed rummaging through. In 2011, while working on an introduction to “Austerlitz,” I had a chance to examine the Sebald archive—manuscripts, old photographs, letters, and the like—at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, in Marbach am Neckar, and there I found the postcard that bears the boy’s image. Eager for a “clue,” I turned it over. On the reverse side, there was nothing more than the name of an English town and a price, written in ink: “Stockport: 30p.”

Amazing! The origin of Austerlitz is sourced in the image on this found postcard. In the novel, Jacques Austerlitz is rescued by the Kindertransport; he averts the misfortune lying ahead of him. Of Sebald’s writing, Wood says, “What animates his project is the task of saving the dead, retrieving them through representation.” I value this observation immensely. For me, it’s one of art’s raisons d'être.

Other highlights in this week’s issue: Matthew Trammell’s “Night Life: Step Out” (“Rich saxophones and organs stood in for synthesizers, drums jangled and twitched, and vocalists like King Krule gave the beats another sheet of voice”); Richard Brody’s “Movies: Mother’s Day” (“The movie’s version of the event continues with Crawford inflicting further cruelties in a state of theatrical, self-dramatizing possession—emphasized by her Kabuki-like mask of cold cream”); Shauna Lyon’s “Tables For Two: Atla” (“After the great pea-guacamole controversy of 2015, it takes cojones to add mint to an otherwise innocent, chunky scoop, which arrived, one afternoon, dramatically hidden under an elephant-ear-size purple-corn chip”); and Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Show Don’t Tell” (“Giving a blow job to a Peaslee, it turned out, wasn’t the best I could do, the closest I could get”). 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May 29, 2017, Issue

Reading Adam Kirsch’s absorbing “Pole Apart,” in this week’s issue, I recalled his “Czeslaw Milosz” (included in his 2008 essay collection The Modern Element), a bizarre piece, in which he criticizes Milosz’s poetry for its specificity. He writes,

Poetry is ill suited to grasping “particular existences.” Painting does it much better; even fiction does it somewhat better, because it can afford to be lavish of description, to dote on differentia. But no poem could remain interesting at the length necessary to describe something – be it a leek or a woman – with even moderate specificity. What remains is the bare act of indication, which paradoxically diminishes the particularity it claims to affirm, through endless repetition of the gesture.

To which the only possible response is Och! No such nonsense mars his new piece. Kirsch takes a different view, praising Milosz’s art for its “instinct to strip away the inessential, to zero in on the heart of the matter.” He says of Milosz,

He could see “the skull beneath the skin,” in the words of T. S. Eliot, whose work he knew well. But, where Eliot often used this kind of moral X-ray vision to express contempt and disgust for the world, Milosz had seen too much death to find skulls profound. Instead, he sought a poetry that was truthful and perceptive enough to be trustworthy even when annihilation seemed imminent.

That “Milosz had seen too much death to find skulls profound” is brilliant.

Postscript: Three other lines in this week’s issue that I enjoyed enormously:

Shroudlike disguises figure into her work from subsequent decades, too, counterbalanced by absurdly tailored pieces, including cinched whirlpools of deconstructed menswear and gingham frocks deformed by asymmetrical humps. [“Goings On About Town: Art: Metropolitan Museum”]

It causes the wasp-waisted barmaids in strappy green minidresses to grunt audibly as they muddle handfuls of cherries, and scoop ice as if shovelling a driveway. [Talia Lavin, “Bar Tab: Fishbowl”]

The Thai Tea (Belvedere vodka, Thai tea, orange bitters) is refreshing and strong, but the Rum Cannonball (Bacardi, pineapple, grenadine) has the toothachy sweetness of an alcohol-soaked Jolly Rancher. [Talia Lavin, “Bar Tab: Fishbowl”]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

John McPhee's "The Crofter and the Laird"

Recently, I went to Scotland to do some cycling. I took John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird (1970) with me. I chose it because (1) it’s about Scotland, albeit a remote part of the country not on my itinerary; (2) it’s one of the few McPhee books I haven’t read; and (3) it’s physically lightweight and, therefore, easy to carry in my bike bag.    

The book, which originally appeared in The New Yorker (December 6 & 13, 1969), proved to be an excellent companion. It’s a portrait of Colonsay, “a small island in the open Atlantic, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland,” and a number of its residents, including crofter Donald Gibbie McNeill, who has tenure of a hundred-and-forty-one acre farm, and laird Euan Howard, the Fourth Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, who owns the island. McPhee calls the crofter-laird relationship “the grand anachronism of the Highlands.”

The Crofter and the Laird contains an abundance of information about Hebridean clan history and clan legends. But, for me, the most engaging parts are McPhee’s descriptions of his own personal experiences on Colonsay. For example: accompanying Donald Gibbie on a lobster-catching excursion (“But suddenly out into the sunlight – hanging onto the wire and snapping at it like a fence cutter – came several pounds of glistening, mottled, dark blue-green lobster, in shape and appearance identical to the most expensive creature in Penobscot Bay”); starting a fire in the kitchen stove (“In the early mornings, I go outside and break up the coal with an axe”); helping the laird prepare his launch for use by a group of marine biologists (“The launch is perhaps twenty-five feet long, has a large rust-covered inboard engine, and appears to be planted in the shed, an inertia of tons”).

At times, what’s described in the book matched what I saw on the bike trail. For instance, one day, traveling the West Loch Lomond Cycle Path, I spotted two highland cows in a field next to the trail. I saw them through McPhee’s eyes: “wooly mammoths, gigantic Saint Bernards, slow-moving hair-farms.”

Sipping a delicious decaf latte at Berkmyre Café in Kilmacolm, I thought of Donald Garvard, in The Crofter and the Laird, “stirring mayonnaise into his coffee.” Everywhere I went, I saw the “profusion of rhododendron” mentioned in the book – frothy purple rhododendron blossoms spilling over the tops of ancient stonewalls bordering the bike paths.  

In Edinburgh, I attended the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The show was called “Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place.” It featured, among other works, Eardley’s great Catterline in Winter (1963). It got me thinking about evocation of landscape and the various narrative techniques McPhee uses in The Crofter and the Laird to convey a sense of Colonsay, e.g., perspective, detail, quotation, anecdote. Of these four, detail, for me, is the clincher. McPhee has a superb eye for detail. In The Crofter and the Laird, he notices the color of a peddler’s purse (“He opens the draw-string of a pale-blue woolen moneybag, puts the two coins inside, and draws the string shut”) and the type of band that the laird uses to fix his launch’s engine (“He rummages for a Jubilee clip”). Telling the story of the laird’s great-grandfather, Donald Smith, driving the last spike in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he mentions that the spike is “now on Colonsay, in a small showcase in the laird’s house.” It’s an interesting particular, and most writers would be content to leave it at that. But McPhee goes further. He says, “And there is a groove in it where iron has been removed so that bits of the spike could be set among the diamonds in the brooches of various Strathcona women.” That level of detail enlivens the book throughout. I enjoyed it immensely.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

May 22, 2017, Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Fred Kaplan’s “Kind of New,” a profile of jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. Reading it, I was astounded to learn that Salvant considers herself “not a natural performer.” For me, one of her most compelling qualities is her naturalness. I’m a huge fan of her singing, particularly her renditions of American Songbook classics like Richard Rodgers’ “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and Henry Warren’s “I Only Have Eyes For You” (see my “Cécile McLorin Salvant: The Sound of Surprise,” March 10, 2013). In Kaplan’s piece, Salvant says of her brilliant accompanist, Aaron Diehl, “It was exciting to see somebody play Fats Waller with a fresh take yet very much in the spirit of the music. I’d been trying to do this for years—take something old and make it yours but still authentic—and here was someone who’d figured it out.” Take something old and make it yours but still authentic. That’s what Salvant does, too. Kaplan’s “Kind of New” is an arresting portrait of a truly original jazz artist. I devoured it.