Introduction

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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Interesting Emendations: Aleksandar Hemon's "Mapping Home"


When Aleksandar Hemon’s "Mapping Home" appeared in The New Yorker (December 5, 2011), I devoured it. I enjoy reading pieces about walking. In “Mapping Home,” walking is used as a way of coping with the “anxiety of displacement.” I used it the same way when I lived in Iqaluit, tramping the dusty gravel roads, the ancient Inuit footpaths, the tundra trails along the Sylvia Grinnell River. Like Hemon in Sarajavo, and later in Chicago, “I collected sensations and faces, smells and sights,” trying to comprehend the place, to know it (in Hemon’s felicitous words) “in my body.” “Mapping Home” is included in Hemon’s excellent new collection The Book of My Lives. It’s now called “The Lives of a Flaneur.” It’s as wonderful in the rereading as in the reading. There are a few differences between this version and the New Yorker original. One of my favorite passages – a description of Hemon’s wanderings when he returned to Sarajevo in 1997 – is slightly altered. Here’s the magazine version:

I randomly entered building hallways and basements, just to smell them: in addition to the familiar scent of leather suitcases, old magazines, and damp coal dust, there was the odor of hard life and sewage—during the siege, people had often taken shelter from the shelling in their basements. I idled in coffee shops, drinking coffee that tasted like burned corn, instead of the foamy pungency I remembered from before the war. Everything around me was both familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant. (Emphasis added)

And here’s the book version:

I randomly entered building hallways and basements, just to smell them: in addition to the familiar scent of leather suitcases, old magazines, and damp coal dust, there was the smell of hard life and sewage – during the siege, people had taken shelter from the shelling in their basements. I idled in coffee shops, drinking coffee that tasted unlike what I remembered from before the war – it was like burnt corn now. As a Bosnian in Chicago, I’d experienced one form of displacement, but this was another: I was displaced in a place that had been mine. In Sarajevo, everything around me was familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant. (Emphasis added)

Does it matter whether you say “odor” or “smell,” “burned” or “burnt”? Is the substitution of “unlike what I remembered from before the war” for “instead of the foamy pungency I remembered from before the war” significant? It is if, like Hemon, you’re a master writer. It’s fascinating to see Hemon reworking his composition. In another memorable passage, “residents of a nursing home on Winthrop” becomes “drooling residents of a nursing home on Winthrop” (emphasis added). In the original of his description of his weekend chess games at Rogers Park coffee shop, he writes, “I often played with an old Assyrian named Peter, who owned a perfume shop and who, whenever he put me in an indefensible position and forced me to resign, would make the same joke: ‘Can I have that in writing?’” In the book version this is changed to “I often played with an Assyrian named Peter, who, whenever he put me in an indefensible position and I offered to resign, would crack the same joke: ‘Can I have that in writing?’” Comparison of the two versions discloses several other changes as well. But I don’t want to make too much of these variations. Both versions are essentially the same. Both are superb. Both are consummate expressions of what it means to locate “a geography of the soul.”

Credit: The above portrait of Aleksandar Hemon is by Riccardo Vecchio; it appears in The New Yorker (December 5, 2011) as an illustration for Hemon’s “Mapping Home.” 

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