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, October 26, 2016

October 17, 2016, Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is a tussle between three sparkling reviews: Leo Robson’s “Doings and Undoings”; Dan Chiasson’s “Hell of a Drug”; and Peter Schjeldahl’s “Drawing Lines.”

In “Doings and Undoings,” Robson brilliantly assesses Henry Green’s oeuvre, describing his style as “terse, intimate, full of accident and unnerving comedy, exquisite though still exuberant, sensual and whimsical, reflexively figurative yet always surprising, preoccupied with social nuance, generational discord, and sensory phenomena while maintaining an air of abstraction, as reflected in those flighty gerund titles.” The piece contains two bravura analytical moves: (1) a comparison of Green’s Loving with Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (“Green was an obsessive cinemagoer, and Loving, in its plot and setting, has strong resemblances to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), which concerns upstairs-downstairs antics at a French villa over a shooting weekend”); (2) a tracing of Green’s originality back to his youth when his family home was turned into a hospital for convalescent officers:

Green wrote that he “began to learn the half-tones of class,” and then prevaricates: “or, if not to learn because I was too young, to see enough to recognize the echoes later when I came to hear them.” And he learned something even more valuable: how to listen, to surrender, to make himself a vehicle or channel. The soldiers, he recalled, “found in me a boy who looked on them as heroes every one and who enjoyed each story of blood and cruelty they had to tell.”

My favorite sentence in “Doings and Undoings” is Robson’s description of Green’s Caught:

During the early years of the Second World War—the so-called Phoney or Bore War, then the Big Blitz—while his wife, Dig, and son, Sebastian, were living in the countryside, Green remained in London, responding to air raids, frequenting jazz clubs, falling serially in love, socializing with other firemen—and writing one of his best novels, the charged, ornate, and wrenching Caught (1943), which amounted to a virtual live feed of all that activity.

That “which amounted to a virtual live feed of all that activity” is superb!

Dan Chiasson, in his excellent “Hell of a Drug,” reviews Frances Wilson’s Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. He writes,

Wilson’s book is on a collision course with her subject. This is always the case with biographies of great autobiographers. Somehow one needs to figure out how to do more than tidy up after the subject’s mind has swept, cyclone-like, through the details of his life.

My favorite sentence in “Hell of a Drug” is “The details of his life were like carrousel horses, disappearing around the bend and reappearing, in his visions as in his writing, with fresh intensity and vividness.”

In “Drawing Lines,” Peter Schjeldahl reviews the Guggenheim Museum’s new Agnes Martin retrospective. Schjeldahl has written at least one previous piece on Martin’s work – his great “Life Work” (The New Yorker, June 7, 2004), in which he memorably describes Martin’s 2003 masterpiece The Sea: “Scored, alternately continuous and broken horizontal lines cut to white gessoed canvas through a white-bordered square mass of tar-black paint.” God, I love that! Can Schjeldahl top it? I wondered, as I began reading his new piece. It turns out he comes mighty close with this beauty:

The show starts with a late climax: “The Islands I-XII” (1979), a dozen paintings in acrylic that at first glance appear almost identically all-white but which deploy differently proportioned horizontal bands and pencilled lines. Admixtures of light, almost subliminal blue cool some of the bands. The design stops just short of the sides of the canvas. When you notice this, the fields of paint seem to jiggle loose, and to hover. If you look long enough—the minute or so that Martin deemed sufficient for her works—your sensation-starved optic nerve may produce fugitive impressions of other colors. (At one point, I saw green, and then I didn’t.) It helps to shade your eyes. This causes tones to darken and textures to register more strongly. Looking at Martin’s art is something of an art in itself. Motivated by continual, ineffable rewards, you become an adept.

"Admixtures of light, almost subliminal blue cool some of the bands"  how fine that is.

I enjoyed all three of these reviews immensely. I'm particularly struck by Robson’s idea that Loving is at least partially sourced in Renoir's The Rules of the Game. For this reason, his “Doings and Undoings” is this week’s Pick of the Issue.

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