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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Two Interesting New Critics

Alberto Savinio, "Self-Portrait as an Owl" (1936)
I enjoy critical writing immensely. “The Critics” is my favorite section of The New Yorker. It’s always a pleasure to discover new critics – new to me, that is. Two such discoveries I’ve made recently are Lidija Haas and Gini Alhadeff. Haas’s “The Disbelieved” (The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2018) is a brilliant review of Porochista Khakpour’s “Sick,” a chronicle of Khakpour’s experiences with Lyme disease. Haas says that Khakpour “resists the clean narrative lines of many illness memoirs—in which order gives way to chaos, which is then resolved, with lessons learned and pain transcended along the way.” I like the way Haas makes a theme of this resistance. She quotes Susan Sontag’s warning in Illness as Metaphor that “nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning—that meaning being invariably a moralistic one,” then takes issue with it: “This idea implies an injunction against interpretation and against narrative shaping that’s all but impossible for a writer on the subject to obey.” She sees this longing for narrative logic and simultaneous distrust of it as a function of illness itself: “Pain and suffering are what they are – they resist meaning and the narratives that make it.” She talks about Sick’s “paranoid logic and spiralling, dizzying structure.” The more she says about this intriguing book, the more I want to read it – a sure sign of a great review.

Another sign is a review that seduces me to read about an artist I didn’t even know existed. Such a piece is Gini Alhadeff’s “Against Seriousness” (The New York Review of Books, May 10, 2018), a review of an exhibition of Alberto Savinio’s paintings at the Center for Italian Modern Art, New York City. The piece begins magnificently:

Alberto Savinio, the hidden spring of metaphysical modernism, lives on in his Self-Portrait as an Owl (1936). His face, with its marked eyebrows, dark eyes, thin lips, and air of melancholic diffidence, sketched in swirling feathers, resembles that of his brother, Giorgio de Chirico, who did a pencil drawing of the two siblings—or Dioscuri, as they liked to call themselves, after the mythical twins Castor and Pollux—at the start of their working life in Paris, one as a musician, the other as an artist. In Self-Portrait, Savinio wears a dark suit, and his shapely hand, the thumb hooked over a waistcoat button, takes up one fifth of the image. The scarf wound around his neck partly conceals a feathered chest. 

I read that and just kept going right to the end, devouring Alhadeff’s wonderful descriptions of Savinio’s surrealism. For example:

In one of these, My Parents (1945), his mother and father have become stone armchairs, very expressive ones, with just one eye each. The mother’s chest looks pubescent above an exposed ribcage, her arms replaced by a rolled upholstery trim, her head the skull of a camel or a horse. The father is headless, an expansive chest grafted onto an armchair with one immense, powerful eye staring out of it. The shadows they cast consist of dense handwritten lines that narrate a brief story of their lives: “My mother was called Gemma, she sang with a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice.”

“Against Seriousness” brims with such descriptions. I enjoyed it enormously.

Lidija Hass and Gini Alhadeff – two critics I look forward to reading more of. 

Postscript: I see Alhadeff has a piece on William Eggleston in the June 7 New York Review of Books. It’s tempting to read it online. But I’ll wait for the print version. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

June 4 & 11, 2018 Issue

Rivka Galchen has two excellent pieces in this week’s issue – “The Teaching Moment” and “Mum’s the Word.” “The Teaching Moment” is about a recent teachers’ walkout in Oklahoma, protesting low pay and cuts to education spending. As Galchen points out, Oklahoma is a deep-red Republican state. She reports, 

Oklahoma has essentially been under single-party rule for about a decade. The state legislature is eighty per cent Republican, and in the most recent midterm elections the Democrats didn’t field a candidate in nearly half the races. Governor Fallin is in her eighth year, and during her tenure nearly all state agencies have seen cuts of between ten and thirty per cent, even as the population that those agencies serve has increased. 

But, according to Galchen, the teachers’ walkout might be a political turning point: 

The walkout mostly failed to secure more funding for classrooms, but it was a baptism by fire for a movement of politically literate and engaged Okies. In the 2014 elections, eighty-seven Democrats ran for legislative office in Oklahoma; for this fall’s elections, the number has more than doubled. 

Galchen puts us squarely there with the teachers in the packed visitors’ gallery of the Oklahoma House of Representatives as they watch the Republicans vote down three proposed tax reforms that would generate new revenue. She writes:

As the session continues, Democrats try, within the constraints of parliamentary procedure, to bring to the floor a discussion of education funding. After all the scheduled bills for the day have been dealt with, the Republican floor leader asks the members of the House to stand at ease—take a break without adjourning—because of “some ongoing discussions between the majority and minority parties.” It seems impossible to me, I confess, having been among the teachers at the capitol, that the legislature won’t pass something.

I relish that last sentence. Galchen’s reporting style is at once factual and personal. You can tell she identifies with the teachers. I do, too. 

“The Teaching Moment” is one of the most heartening political pieces I’ve read this year. I enjoyed it immensely. 

The other Galchen piece in this week’s New Yorker is “Mum’s the Word,” a delightful personal essay on her four-year-old daughter’s preoccupation with death. It contains a fascinating passage in which Galchen appears to liken her daughter’s thinking on death to a cluttered kitchen drawer. She says,

A few weeks later, we have dinner at a friend’s house. The friend’s brother has just died. I don’t think my daughter knows. There’s a giant boxer-faced dog there, under the table, gnawing on rawhide. “Did you ever give a dog a bone, Mama?”

I said that as a little girl I had a dog who loved bones. I had another dog in college who—

“Are they died now, those dogs?”

Fair enough. I have a strong childhood memory of my mother removing the cluttered kitchen drawer from under the Kermit the Frog telephone; she removed that drawer and shook its entire contents into a garbage bag. Terrible! I was fond of opening that drawer, knowing that anything could turn up: a pink auto-insurance key chain, a plastic watch (not ticking), a scrap of paper that read “bears—robinhood.” I will always let the clutter live, I thought. I will always be open to these surprises.

These days I love an empty drawer.

I’ve read that passage at least a dozen times. I’m not sure I get it. The daughter’s question (“ ‘Are they died now, those dogs?’ ”) triggers Galchen’s memory of her mother cleaning out a cluttered kitchen drawer. From that memory, Galchen draws a moral: don’t mess with your kids’ thoughts, “let the clutter live,” “always be open to these surprises.” Is that what it means? It’s one of the damnedest things I’ve ever read. Kafka would’ve loved it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Amis v. Wood

Martin Amis, in his “Bellow: Avoiding the Void,” included in his superb new essay collection The Rub of Time, compliments New Yorker book reviewer, James Wood, calling him “one of Bellow’s most well-attuned critics.” Both writers admire Bellow immensely. Amis says, “Bellow is sui generis and Promethean, a thief of the gods’ fire: he is something like a super-charged plagiarist of Creation.” Wood, in his “Saul Bellow’s Comic Style” (The Irresponsible Self, 2005), writes, “Saul Bellow is probably the greatest writer of American prose of the twentieth century–where greatest means most abundant, various, precise, rich, lyrical.”

But there are at least two writers Amis and Wood disagree on – Nabokov and Updike. Amis loves their work; Wood, not so much. Of Nabokov, Amis writes, “I bow to no one in my love for this great and greatly inspiring genius” (“Vladimir Nabokov and the Problem from Hell”; included in The Rub of Time). In “John Updike’s Farewell Notes” (also in The Rub of Time), Amis calls Updike “perhaps the greatest virtuoso stylist since Nabokov.” 

Wood’s view differs. In his How Fiction Works (2008), he says, “Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself. Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye.” Of Nabokov, he says: “Bellow notices superbly; but Nabokov wants to tell us how important it is to notice. Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing, hence on behalf of itself” (How Fiction Works). He’s even more critical of Updike. In John Updike’s Complacent God” (The Broken Estate, 1999), he says, “Updike is not, I think, a great writer; and the lacuna is not in the quality of the prose but in the risk of the thought.”

Are these criticisms valid? Do Nabokov and Updike “freeze detail into a cult of itself”? Do they “exaggerate the noticing eye”? Is Updike too serene? Amis doesn’t address these points. He faults some of Nabokov’s and Updike’s late work. In “Vladimir Nabokov and the Problem from Hell,” he calls Nabokov’s Ada “a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat.” In “John Updike’s Farewell Notes,” he says of Updike’s My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, “Updike’s prose, that fantastic engine of euphony, of first-echelon perception, and of a wit both vicious and all-forgiving, has in this book lost its compass.” But, overall, he passionately embraces their writing. Here, for example, is his assessment of Nabokov’s Letters to Véra:

It is the prose itself that provides the lasting affirmation. The unresting responsiveness; the exquisite evocations of animals and of children (wholly unsinister, though the prototype of “Lolita,” “The Enchanter,” dates from 1939); the way that everyone he comes across is minutely individualized (a butler, a bureaucrat, a conductor on the Metro); the detailed visualizations of soirees and street scenes; the raw-nerved susceptibility to weather (he is the supreme poet of the skyscape); and underlying it all the lavishness, the freely offered gift, of his divine energy. [“Véra and Vladimir: Letters to Véra,” The Rub of Time]

That “unresting responsiveness” is inspired – a powerful counterclaim to Wood’s provocative charges.  

Thursday, May 31, 2018

May 28, 2018 Issue

The piece in this week’s issue I enjoyed most is Thomas Mallon’s “Shots in the Dark,” a review of Christopher Bonanos’s Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous. Mallon approaches Weegee from various angles – voyeur, exhibitionist, street photographer, artist. He calls him a “night-crawling creature of newsprint.” He notes that Weegee staged some of his pictures. But he also says,

There were plenty of occasions when circumstances arranged themselves without need of manipulation—ones Weegee recognized for their unlikely, organic beauty, and took pains to capture before they could disappear from his viewfinder. “Extra! Weegee!” reproduces his photograph of a church fire on West 122nd Street, where the water arcs made by several fire hoses appear to be flying buttresses, permanent parts of the structure they’ve just come to save. In a nighttime picture, a thin man near a lamppost looks like one of Giacometti’s elongated sculptures. A shot through the open doors of a paddy wagon reveals two men on opposite sides of the van’s spare tire, covering their faces with hats; the result is a comic mystery and a sort of Mickey Mouse silhouette, in which their hats look like ears.

My favorite passage in Mallon’s piece describes the transformative power of Weegee’s art:

With flashbulbs, and even their riskier, flash-powder antecedent, he was able to own and preserve the instant when—Fiat lux!—he spun the world a hundred and eighty degrees. For a split second, the immigrant scrapper could be God, or, at least, Lucifer.

“Shots in the Dark” is an excellent appreciation of Weegee’s gritty, grisly aesthetic. I enjoyed it immensely. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

May 21, 2018 Issue

Notes on this week’s New Yorker:

1. Jane Freilicher’s “The Painting Table” is one of this blog’s touchstones (see here). This week’s “Goings On About Town: Art” contains a wonderful description of two of her other paintings: 

“Early New York Evening,” made in 1954, frames a vista of reddish-brown apartment buildings between a vase of irises in the foreground and four distant smokestacks in a violet sky. In an interior painted the same year, the threshold between a living room and a bedroom becomes an adventure of yellow highlights and lavender shadows. 

2. Richard Brody’s capsule review of Howard Hawks’s Fig Leaves (1926) is excellent, featuring this inspired observation: “Though the film is silent, Hawks’s epigrammatic rapidity is already in evidence—the characters talk non-stop with such lively, pointed grace that viewers might swear they hear the intertitles spoken.”

3. Adam Gopnik is a natural-born first-person writer. His best pieces are all first-person, e.g., “Cool Runnings” (The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2016), “Bread and Women” (The New Yorker, November 4, 2013), and “New York Local” (The New Yorker, September 3 & 10, 2007). His “Bottled Dreams,” in this week’s issue, has a great subject –a vintner’s quest to create a truly American wine. But, for me, the piece is spoiled by its detached third-person perspective. Where is Gopnik’s inimitable “I” –  the “I,” in “Cool Runnings,” who attends a football match (“Later that day, I crowded, together with what seemed like the entire remaining population of Reykjavík, into Ingólfstorg square to watch the Iceland-Austria match”); the “I,” in “Bread and Women,” who bakes bread with his mother (“I was taken by the plasticity of every sort of dough, its way of being pliable to your touch and then springy—first merging into your hands and then stretching and resisting, oddly alive, as though it had a mind of its own, the collective intelligence of all those little bugs”), the “I” in “New York Local,” who visits a community garden in the Bronx called The Garden of Happiness (“I had come to the Garden of Happiness not only to see a New York City chicken committee in operation but also to get myself a chicken”)? In these pieces, Gopnik is personally present. In “Bottled Dreams,” his voice is there on the page, but that’s all. When Grahm gets in his Citroën and drives out to look at the Popelouchum property, is Gopnik with him? It’s unclear. Is Gopnik present for the wine-tasting session in Bonny Doon’s back office? Again, it’s unclear. Is Gopnik with Grahm when he returns, for the first time in a quarter century, to his original vineyard in Bonny Doon? I’m not sure. Perhaps its implicit in the details Gopnik uses to describe these scenes that he was personally present. Nevertheless, I miss the verification of his authenticating “I.” 

4. Anthony Lane, in his review of a new movie version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, says that the film’s director, Michael Mayer, and its screenwriter, Stephen Karam, “have pruned, or purged, the drama until it runs just over an hour and a half, and, in so doing, mislaid its nervous languor.” This criticism is mild compared to Pauline Kael’s evisceration of Sidney Lumet’s 1968 The Seagull: see “Filmed Theatre” (The New Yorker, January 11, 1969; included in Kael’s classic 1970 collection Going Steady). Kael called Lumet’s version a “disaster” (“The movie version of Chekhov’s The Seagull is a disaster, not because it is a filmed play but because it is a badly filmed play”). She says, “Technically, the movie is slovenly.” But apparently even a slovenly production of The Seagull is worth watching. Kael puts it this way: The Seagull is a terrible movie, but it is a movie of The Seagull.”

Friday, May 18, 2018

May 14, 2018 Issue

One of the defining characteristics of great lyric poetry is spontaneity. It has the look of casual notation, of immediate expression – the equivalent of an artist’s sketch or a jazz musician’s improvisation or a street photographers quick snapshot (think of Allen Ginsberg’s “Manhattan May Day Midnight” or John Updike’s “Bird Caught in My Deer Netting” or Elizabeth Bishop’s “Santarém”).

The poems in this week’s New Yorker may have taken years to write, but they appear spontaneous – that’s one of the things I love about them. Sharon Olds’s “For You” starts out with morning coffee (“In the morning, when I’m pouring the hot milk / into the coffee …”) and ends unexpectedly, miraculously in elegy (“Trayvon Martin, song was / invented for you, art was made / for you, painting, writing, was yours, / our youngest, our most precious …”). 

Christian Wiman’s “Eating Grapes Downward” enacts the impromptu notebook-style writing mentioned in its opening sentence (“Every morning without thinking I open / my notebook and see if something / might have grown in me during the night”), doodles along for three stanzas, musing on such things as a “cousin’s cartoon mustache like Rollie Fingers” and a “miniature cow” named Mona, and then, at the beginning of the final stanza, seemingly going nowhere, offhandedly asks “What else?,” and, in reply, suddenly conjures this amazing passage:

Oh, and Mona, who seemed less cow
than concept, really, half animal, half irony,
sticking her rubbable muzzle
through the fence like a Labrador.
We stayed a long while petting the impossibility of her.
We gave her—if you can believe it—grapes
left over from our lunch,
and when they were gone, and we were almost,
her moo blued the air like a sorrow
so absurd it left nothing left of us
but laughter.

That “blued the air like a sorrow / so absurd” is inspired!

“For You” and “Eating Grapes Downward” brim with spontaneity. I enjoyed them immensely.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

T. J. Clark on Cézanne’s Portraits

      Paul Cézanne, Woman with a Cafetière (c.1895)  
T. J. Clark’s dazzling “Relentless Intimacy” (London Review of Books (January 25, 2018), attempts to light a fuse under traditional Cézanne criticism. The piece begins thrillingly:

Look first at Woman with a Cafetière, who presides over the next to last room of the Cézanne Portraits show, staring down even the saturnine Ambroise Vollard. Then meet the gaze of Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, infinitely courageous in her alarming throne-room, oppressed – or is it enlivened? – by a glorious Vermeer curtain, a bucking dado, a chairback like a coffin lid, exploding fire tongs, white lightning in the grate, a painting – or is it a mirror? – perched on the chimney breast. It matters that both portraits are of women, and I shall come to that. But it matters just as much that still, more than a century after they were painted, these images so effortlessly keep their distance, resisting our understanding, refusing (as the philosophers say) to ‘come under a description’. In particular they strike me as putting the strange word ‘expression’ to death.

The orthodox line on Cézanne is that his portraits are “inexpressive,” that he’s “detached” from his subjects. For example, Peter Schjeldahl, in his recent “High Anxiety” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2018), a review of “Cézanne: Portraits” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., writes,

Once, at the Metropolitan Museum, I counted dozens of people clumped in front of several paintings by van Gogh while one or two or none paid a whole room of Cézannes cursory attention as others walked through with passing glances. I empathized. A glance at his work warns of slow going ahead. That’s because he didn’t paint for the pleasure of other people but for his own, always elusive satisfaction. I’m used to feeling lonely when looking at his work—as humanly unconsidered as Hortense, who, through hours and days and years, displays not the slightest flicker of happiness. 

Note that “as humanly unconsidered as Hortense.” The reference is to Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne), the subject of at least twenty-eight Cézanne portraits. 

Clark rejects this view. He says, “Cézanne is not in the least ‘detached’ from his sitters, he is relentlessly intimate with them.” Cézanne’s intimacy, he argues, is in his details (“Avert your gaze from Madame’s mummified torso and attend to the earth-quaking room instead”), e.g., the spoon in Woman with a Cafetière:

The spoon in Woman with a Cafetière is upright with its own identity: it has a halo of shadow to keep the rest of reality from contaminating it. The woman’s hands (or her hair with its geological parting) have the same weight and distinctiveness as the spoon. And yet spoon, hair and hands are fitted like cogs or levers into the pictures naïve, elaborate of the world-all-at-once: the table so eager to be there for us, pushing its way through the picture plane; the flowers tumbling down the wall, changing colour as they hit the floor; the long central seam of the woman’s dress splitting open under her fist.

This is magnificent critical writing, and what makes it magnificent is its concentration on detail. Another strand of Clark’s argument – his theory that “the famous ‘inexpressiveness’ of his [Cézanne’s] sitters has to do (not wholly, but indubitably) with their situation in class society – is less persuasive. But his argument from particulars is exhilarating. “Relentless Intimacy” is one of this year’s finest critical essays.