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, April 14, 2017

My Boarding-House "New Yorker"

I associate this particular New Yorker with a room I briefly rented in a boarding house on Dorchester Street, Charlottetown – my first Prince Edward Island residence. I’d brought the magazine with me from my parents’ house in Halifax, where I’d been living while I attended Dalhousie Law School. It was my first summer on the Island. I was articling with a Charlottetown law firm. In my memory the room’s wallpaper is like the wallpaper in the magazine’s Robert Weber cover. But I’m sure that can’t be right. What is true, I’m certain, is the feeling of homelessness I experienced lying in a strange bed, in an unfamiliar house, in a city and province that were totally unknown to me. But, by immersing myself in The New Yorker, I found I could forget all that. One piece in that August 1, 1977, issue transfixed me – Howard Moss’s “Great Themes, Grand Connections,” a review of Robert Liddell’s biography Cavafy. It contains this memorable line:

Secrets contain within themselves a hidden spring – the compulsion to reveal them – and this compulsion has something in it of the quality of history: the story not yet revealed, the truth under the appearance of it, the onion skin of façade endlessly waiting to be peeled away.

I’m not sure I agree. For me, meaning is found on the surface, hiding in plain sight like the purloined letter in Poe’s story. But Moss’s notion that “secrets contain within themselves a hidden spring – the compulsion to reveal them” is intriguing. Forty years after I first read it, in my boarding-house room on Dorchester Street, I’m still pondering it.

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