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.

Friday, February 20, 2015

February 16, 2015 Issue

Sunday’s blizzard dumped a humongous load of snow here. Roads are impassable; mailboxes are either buried or decapitated by the plow; there’s been no mail delivery. As a result, this week’s New Yorker hasn’t arrived. I’m not crazy about reading the magazine’s electronic version. I prefer the old-fashioned paper-and-ink version, which I can underline and make notes on. But I don’t want to get too far behind in my New Yorker reading. In the circumstances, I’ve decided to pick one short piece from the online edition. My choice is Ian Frazier’s Talk story "Russophilia." It’s Frazier’s first piece of the new year, and it’s a beauty. Writing in the third person (in accordance with Talk custom), he calls himself  “the Russophile” and describes a Russian gala concert he recently attended at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. Frazier is indeed a Russophile, as anyone who's read his great Travels In Siberia (2010) well knows, and in “Russophila” he savors the details of the Russian crowd – their clothes (“The men wore dark coats and hats, and the women came in furs of every description”), their pocketbooks (“The pocketbooks they set down for guards to inspect were of shiny leather, studded, strapped, embossed, metallic-looking, with black-and-white checkerboard patterns, zebra stripes, and paisley swirl”), their perfume (“When undone, scarves with modernistic prints sent out gusts of international perfume”). His description of the performers contains this wonderful line: “Enter an equally blond woman in a Gypsy-ish outfit who sang a song with a mariachi rhythm while legions of silhouetted saguaro cacti and purple skulls with pinwheel eyes advanced across the screens.” The best part of “Russophilia” is its vivid conclusion:

Almost nobody left the gala concert early. When, after three hours, all was done, and Krutoi and company had withdrawn to sincere, dignified applause, the place took forever to empty out. It made no difference if you turned right or left; both directions were packed. Finally, the crowd began to reach the street, and many immediately lit cigarettes. The night had become even colder. Snow crunching underfoot, nostril-freezing air, and heavy cigarette smoke: all at once, an exact duplication of a midwinter night in Russia, there on Flatbush Avenue.

That “The night had become even colder. Snow crunching underfoot, nostril-freezing air, and heavy cigarette smoke: all at once, an exact duplication of a midwinter night in Russia, there on Flatbush Avenue” is marvelously fine. It contains echoes of one of my favorite passages in Travels In Siberia, a description of Frazier and his friend Luda leaving St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater after a ballet performance:

Afterward, Luda and I jostled through the remarkably long and slow line of people returning their rented opera glasses, and the equally full line at the coat check, and then we were outside in the cold among dissipating perfumes and faint cigarette smoke, and snow was falling steadily straight down. It was billowing in the streetlights overhead and making cones of the lights of the waiting taxicabs, and as we stood deciding whether to walk or take a cab, snowflakes came to rest among the fibers of fur in her hat. Each flake was small but unbroken, and detailed as a cutout snowflake made in school.

What is the Russian word for “exquisite”? Google Translate says it’s “изысканный.” Very well then – изысканный!

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