Friday, October 20, 2017
Pick of the Issue this week is Joshua Yaffa’s absorbing “House of Shadows,” an exploration of the rich, tragic history of an old Moscow apartment building called the House on the Embankment. Yaffa writes, “No other address in the city offers such a compelling portal into the world of Soviet-era bureaucratic privilege, and the horror and murder to which this privilege often led.” The House on the Embankment is massive, “a self-contained world the size of several city blocks.” Yaffa describes it as “a mishmash of the blocky geometry of Constructivism and the soaring pomposity of neoclassicism.” Yaffa speaks from personal knowledge of the place; he lives there. In his piece, he describes his apartment (“Successive renovations had left the place without much of the original architectural detail, but as a result it was airy and open: less apparatchik, more IKEA. Tall windows in the living room looked out over the imperious spires of the Kremlin”), talks to friends and neighbors (“We spoke about the atmosphere in the building back then, what Tolya’s grandparents must have been thinking as the bright and just world they thought they had built began to cannibalize itself”), and recounts the building’s nightmarish history:
Volin, I learned, kept a suitcase packed with warm clothes behind the couch, ready in case of arrest and sentence to the Gulag. His wife burned an archive of papers dating from his time as a Bolshevik emissary in Paris, fearing that the work would brand him a foreign spy. They gave their daughter, Tolya’s mother, a peculiar set of instructions. Every day after school, she was to take the elevator to the ninth floor—not the eighth, where the family lived—and look down the stairwell. If she saw an N.K.V.D. agent outside the apartment, she was supposed to get back on the elevator, go downstairs, and run to a friend’s house.
Interestingly, even though Yaffa lives in the House on the Embankment and is intensely aware of its traumatic history, he’s not weighed down by it. When a former tenant says to him that the building “stands on mournful ground, and its residents are doomed to carry a very difficult sorrow,” he writes,
I, like many of my acquaintances in the building, don’t necessarily feel the burden of such heavy symbolism. A friend of mine, Nina Zavrieva, a consultant and tech entrepreneur, grew up in an apartment that first belonged to her grandfather, a lawyer who worked in the Politburo secretariat. Nina, who is thirty, told me that from a young age she was familiar with the building’s rich history. “I knew all this in theory, but I never really felt it,” she said. “I never internalized it.” I asked her if anything about the building felt different after all these years. She said that she wasn’t sure, then remembered something: the color of the façade had changed. “At some point, it was pink, then it became bright gray, but really I don’t think I notice anymore.”
I never really felt it. I find this detachment from the traumatic history of the building they live in fascinating. Unlike, say, W. G. Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn, immersed in melancholy contemplation of the past (“Everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life,” etc.), Yaffa and his friend Nina show a tonic pragmatism. The House on the Embankment isn’t a ruin; it’s a functioning apartment building. Life goes on.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Janet Malcolm’s “The Storyteller,” a profile of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, in this week’s issue, contains a delightful surprise. In the penultimate section, a vivid character from one of her earliest New Yorker pieces suddenly reappears. Here are the words that usher him in:
“Does the name Ben Maddow mean anything to you?” Maddow asked during one of our early interviews. “Yes, it does,” I said. In the early eighties, I had read a brilliant book—an illustrated biography of the photographer Edward Weston—by a man of that name.
The book is Edward Weston: Fifty Years. Malcolm not only read it; she favorably reviewed it in a piece titled “Two Photographers” (The New Yorker, November 18, 1974; re-titled “East and West” in her superb 1980 collection, Diana & Nikon), praising it for, among other things, its “enormous, almost novelistic, interest,” and concluding that it will “outlast many of Weston’s photographs.”
This is high praise, indeed, from a critic known for her disdain for biography: see, for example, her great The Silent Woman (1994) (“Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world”). Maddow’s Edward Weston: Fifty Years is one of the few biographies she’s admired. (Another is Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf: see “A House of One’s Own,” The New Yorker, June 5, 1995.)
Malcolm’s “East and West” imprinted Ben Maddow’s name in my memory. The passage in “The Storyteller,” beginning with the words “Does the name Ben Maddow mean anything to you?,” made me smile. Here is Malcolm, forty-three years after “East and West,” writing about Maddow again. Nothing in those intervening decades has changed her opinion of his book. She calls it “brilliant.”
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
September was a banner month. Two of my heroes produced new works. John McPhee published Draft No. 4. And Bill Charlap released Uptown, Downtown. I’ve already posted my response to McPhee’s superb book (see here, here, and here). Today, I want to comment on Charlap’s brilliant album. The choice of material is inspired – Gerry Mulligan’s “Curtains,” Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Uptown, Downtown,” Isham Jones and Gus Kahn’s “The One I Love Belongs to Someone Else,” Michael Leonard and Herbert Martin’s “I’m All Smiles,” Rodgers and Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel,” Gigi Gryce’s “Satellite,” Jim Hall’s “Bon Ami,” and Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” Each number is stocked with surprising notes and rich melodic imaginings. Charlap’s playing is fresh, sparkling, and perfect. He’s an improviser of the greatest subtlety and invention. His sidemen – bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington – are excellent. My favorite cut is “Curtains,” a gorgeous, swinging, shimmering thing that went straight into my personal anthology of great piano jazz.
Friday, October 6, 2017
Pick of the Issue this week is Alex Ross’s charming “Cather People,” an account of his recent trip to Red Cloud, Nebraska, to attend the opening of the National Willa Cather Center. He stays at a bed-and-breakfast, roams the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie (“When I was last there, in June, the sky was a blaring blue and the hills were a murmur of greens. The air was hot and heavy enough that thoughts evaporated from my mind. I lay under a cottonwood tree and listened to leaves and grass swaying”), talks about Cather’s letters (“The letters echo her voice—‘confident, elegant, detailed, openhearted,’ as Jewell and Stout describe it”), speaks with Cather scholars, and recalls visits he made a few years ago to places in New Mexico that figure in Cather’s novels. One such place is Acoma. Ross writes,
The vistas around that shiver-inducing place, which a small group of Acoma still inhabit, have hardly changed since Cather saw them almost a century ago, and, as usual, her description is definitive: “This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.”
“Cather People” is a delightful blend of travelogue and literary criticism. I enjoyed it immensely.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
|John McPhee (Photo by Andrea Modica)|
Sam Anderson, in his superb “The Mind of John McPhee” (The New York Times Magazine, September 28, 2017), calls McPhee’s writing process “hellacious.” I agree. But you can’t argue with the results – “The Pine Barrens,” “Travels in Georgia,” “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,” “The Encircled River,” “Atchafalaya,” “The Keel of Lake Dickey,” “A Fleet of One,” “La Place de la Concorde Suisse,” “Coal Train,” on and on. They're among the glories of New Yorker writing.
Anderson’s piece is part interview with McPhee, part tour of Princeton with McPhee as guide, and part tribute to McPhee. It brims with interesting details, e.g., the faded poster outside McPhee’s office door (“It is a print in the style of Hieronymus Bosch of sinners, in the afterlife, being elaborately tortured in the nude – a woman with a sword in her back, a small crowd sitting in a vat of liquid pouring out of a giant nose, someone riding a platypus”); the 10-CD set of Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons, on the center console of McPhee’s minivan; the twice-a-year fishing trips with three of his New Yorker colleagues: Ian Frazier, Mark Singer and David Remnick.
Singer centrally figures in “The Mind of John McPhee” ’s most moving passage:
When I asked Singer what kind of fisherman McPhee is, he started describing the sight of his friend on the river — “He gets out there in a little canoe and sets up below a rapids, he’s got the fly rod in his left hand, he’ll paddle to sort of maneuver around” — and the description got more and more wistful until, finally, it turned into a pure declaration of love. “You just sort of see him in silhouette,” Singer said, “and it’s just — ” He paused, took a breath and was silent for a moment, and then he actually put his hand over his heart. “You know,” he said, “you just want to tell this guy how much you love him.”
Singer’s “Joe Mitchell’s Secret” (The New Yorker, February 22, 1999) is the best profile of a New Yorker writer I've ever read. Sam Anderson’s “The Mind of John McPhee” is a close second. I enjoyed it immensely.
Thursday, September 28, 2017
Burkhard Bilger is a superb describer. His wonderful “Feathered Glory,” in this week’s issue, is packed with sensuous imagery. The piece profiles Paris plumassier Eric Charles-Donatien. A plumassier designs feathered clothes and accessories for the fashion industry. Bilger writes, “A plumassier tries to make people as beautiful as birds.” “Feathered Glory” begins brilliantly:
There is such a thing as too much beauty. So the stuffed bird on the counter seemed to be saying. It was a Himalayan monal, Lophophorus impejanus, Liberace of land fowl. Its head was emerald, its neck amber and gold, its back a phosphorescent violet that flared to a sunburst at the tail. A pouf of feathers jutted from its head like a tiny bouquet. Named for Lady Mary Impey, the wife of the Chief Justice of Bengal in the late seventeen-hundreds, it had a stout, ungainly body swaddled in bright plumes as if for an audience with the maharaja. It was a turkey that wanted to be a hummingbird.
Bilger’s writing is like Charles-Donatien’s featherwork – layered and loaded with color and texture: “black fox fur embedded with a glossy ridge of blue-black feathers”; feathers “gilded to look tarnished bronze, then layered like fish scales”; feathers resembling “seashells, armadillo plates, blackened fingernails”: outfits embellished with “a coat of arms, an embroidered badge, a feathered breastplate, tufted sleeves.” He says of Charles-Donatien:
But most of all he created new techniques and textures: he roughed up the feathers to look like fur, or stitched them so close to the backing that they felt as smooth as snakeskin; he mixed them with beadwork in collages, or lacquered and bent them like armor plates.
In the piece, Bilger visits a Paris taxidermy shop (“A family of polar bears stood in one corner, a young giraffe in another; a flight of white pigeons hung from the ceiling, and baby owls peered from the shelves”), the ethnological museum at Quai Branly (“There were mourning masks from Melanesia with cascading beards of cockerel feathers; headdresses from Brazil and the Marquesas Islands, surmounted by feathered fans and diadems; skulls from Papua New Guinea topped by black plumes from a cassowary—a huge, reclusive bird that can gut a person with a stroke of its talons”), and Charles-Donatien’s studio (“A Bach flute concerto played in the background, the notes flitting about in a ghostly flock”). He views a new Vera Wang collection at a private showroom (“With Charles-Donatien’s help, Wang had taken the classic elements of Napoleonic style—peacoats with officer’s stripes, gauzy gowns with Empire waists, fleurs-de-lis and fur stoles, like a French hussar’s—and reimagined them as sexy evening wear”). He goes with Charles-Donatien to meet a lady with a vanload of antique feathers for sale (“The seats inside had been replaced by stacks of wooden crates, plastic bins, and battered drawers, all filled with bundles of yellowed newspaper”). I enjoyed all these excursions immensely.
My favorite passage in “Feathered Glory” is Bilger’s descriptive analysis of Wang’s new collection of outfits:
If you looked closely, you could see patterns in the designs: a heraldic eagle, a pair of rising phoenixes. These were refined, modern designs, yet they had a rude vitality—as if they might peel from the cloth at any moment and take flight.
That phrase “as if they might peel from the cloth at any moment and take flight” is very beautiful. The whole piece is ravishing! I enjoyed it enormously.
Postscript: Rebecca Mead’s “Transformer,” a profile of the Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, lacks “Feathered Glory” ’s rich texture, but it has a memorable closing scene – the members of Between Music playing their instruments in their water tanks as van Herpen’s models walk around them. It generates one of Mead’s finest sentences: “A mustachioed violinist, in quasi-Edwardian garb, crouched almost fetally under water, his bow rising above the surface, like a shark’s fin, then falling below it.”
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Among the many pleasures of John McPhee’s new book, Draft No. 4 – his reminiscences of his dealings with William Shawn, his tips on how to dissolve writer’s block, the cool structural diagrams of “The Encircled River,” “Travels in Georgia,” and “A Fleet of One,” among other great pieces – the most piquant for me is the reappearance of many of McPhee’s most vivid characters: Fred Brown (“The Pine Barrens”), David Brower (“Encounters with the Archdruid”), Floyd Dominy (“Encounters with the Archdruid”), Thomas Hoving (“A Roomful of Hovings”), Andy Chase (“Looking for a Ship”), George Hartzog (“Ranger”), Euell Gibbons (“A Forager”), Don Ainsworth (“A Fleet of One”), Henri Vaillancourt (“The Survival of the Bark Canoe”), Luc Massy (“La Place de la Concorde Suisse”), on and on. All these great characters! Memories of their stories come flooding back – stories that are part of me, almost as if I’ve lived them! I lived them vicariously through McPhee’s brilliant writing. Draft No. 4 is an exquisite way of re-experiencing them.