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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Kael v. Kracauer

Pauline Kael (Photo by Jerry Bauer)

Stuart Jefferies, in his “Human Spanner” (London Review of Books, June 17, 2021), a review of Jörg Später’s Kracauer: A Biography, mentions that Pauline Kael panned Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960). He quotes Kael’s “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?” (included in her 1965 collection I Lost It at the Movies), and says, “Kracauer was worse than a pedant, she said, he was a lunatic to take cinema so seriously. Perhaps Kael was the lunatic for making her own career out of writing about a medium she couldn’t take seriously.” Sorry, I can’t let that pass without pointing out that (1) Kael didn’t say Kracauer was a lunatic to take cinema so seriously; she said he was a lunatic because his aesthetic rejected art; and (2), saying Kael couldn’t take movies seriously is like saying Wayne Gretzky couldn’t take hockey seriously. Come on! She wrote some of the best movie criticism ever written: see, for example, “Bonnie and Clyde” (The New Yorker, October 21, 1967); “Raising Kane” (The New Yorker, February 20, 1971). Stuart Jeffries, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

July 12 & 19, 2021 Issue

My favourite piece in this week’s issue (“The Fiction Issue”) is David Wright Faladé’s “Lone Star,” a spare, lucid recounting of his experience, when he was sixteen, tagging along with his stepfather, a deputy sheriff of a Texas Panhandle town called Borger, on a trip to the state penitentiary in Huntsville. The purpose of the trip is to deliver a prisoner named Walter, who, like Faladé and his stepdad, is Black. 

The piece unfolds in five quick scenes: the pick-up of Walter at the Hutchinson County Courthouse; the drive through the early morning darkness; lunch at the Dairy Queen; the last short leg of the journey to Huntsville; and the crucial, clinching last scene at the penitentiary – Walter encircled by white guards, forced to strip and shower. 

Faladé’s description of the stop at the Dairy Queen is brilliant:

We ate lunch at the Dairy Queen of some small Texas town not unlike our own. Though we were obviously unknown, the cruiser and the Stetson, the jumpsuit and the shackles made our story plain. I pretended not to notice the stares. Walter himself seemed blissfully unaware, dipping fried steak fingers into a Styrofoam ramekin of cream gravy, jabbering on and tittering.

As is his depiction of the penitentiary scene:

Through the passenger-side window, I watched the guard unshackle Walter and order him to strip, others gathering around. With the white jumpsuit at his feet, he looked even darker and was solid—cut. The guard pointed him toward a line of hanging showerheads, out in the open, along a far wall. Walter covered himself as best he could, standing under the cascading water. The guards encircling him stared.

The meaning that Faladé extracts from this experience is in the anger he expresses in the final paragraph: “On the highway back, a knot deep within me would not release. I felt anger, and something more. Someone had betrayed someone else. I just wasn’t sure who.” 

Friday, July 9, 2021

July 5, 2021 Issue

An excellent Talk story in this week’s issue – Robert Sullivan’s “A Two-Hour Tour.” It’s about an expedition to a sunken island called Oyster Island located a half-mile southwest of the Statue of Liberty. Occasionally, “when the moon is both full and especially close,” the island appears for a couple of hours. This is what happened a few of weeks ago, “when an unusually low tide offered a two-hour window during which a small group landed there to explore.” What a great subject! Sullivan is the perfect writer for it. He’s a Talk story wizard: see, for example, his great “Say Cheese” (September 13, 2010). He’s also the author of three of my favourite books – The Meadowlands (1998), A Whale Hunt (2002), and Cross Country (2006).

In “A Two-Hour Tour,” he writes,

Six people arrived on the island’s west coast in two groups, the first from Brooklyn, via the East River, a few miles away; the second about twenty minutes later, via the North American mainland (New Jersey). For the second group, approaching from Liberty State Park, the island’s desperately low profile made the first group’s members appear as if they were walking on water. By the time the second group arrived, the islandness of the suddenly appearing landform was clear: a parenthesis-shaped beach, thicker and higher in the middle, with rocky bars tapering at each end. 

I relish Sullivan’s details. For example:

A quick investigation of the island’s flora and fauna turned up razor clams; moon snails; lots of oyster shells without oysters; mussels, buried just beneath the surface of the island (seemingly held in place by large rocks, a possible geologic key to the island’s tenacity); a red-beard sponge, or Microciona prolifera; and, on the edge of the lee side, green seaweed that had colonized the inside of an automobile tire, a green harbor within a harbor. 

His description of the explorers’ picnic is terrific:

A picnic was laid out on a blanket on the island’s high point, at an elevation of maybe a foot above the water—though still technically below sea level. The view from what served briefly as Oyster Island Heights offered a panorama of the city: Todt Hill, on Staten Island; the hills of Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn; the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges fighting to outdo one another over the East River; the newly constructed hills of Governors Island; and the glass towers of downtown Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Jersey City, all mingling like a single spiny creature.

That last sentence is inspired! The whole piece is inspired! I enjoyed it immensely.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

3 for the Road: People

This is the seventh in a series of twelve monthly posts in which I’ll reread my three favorite travel books – Edward Hoagland’s Notes from the Century Before (1969), John McPhee’s Coming into the Country (1977), and Ian Frazier’s Great Plains (1989) – and compare them. Today, I’ll focus on their sense of people.

Everywhere they go in these great travelogues, Hoagland, McPhee, and Frazier make a point of talking with people. Hitchhikers, old-timers, fishing guides, woodsmen, fur trappers, miners, bush pilots, park wardens, camp cooks – the authors never miss a chance to talk with whomever they encounter. For Hoagland, especially, talking with frontiersmen and recording their stories is the main point of his journey. He says, “I would be talking to the doers themselves, the men whom no one pays any attention to until they’re dead, who give the mountains their names and who pick the passes that become the freeways.”

To get some idea of the number of individuals peopling these books, consider this table:



Notes from the Century Before

Lew Williams (editor of the Wrangell Sentinel); Joel Wing (Wrangell magistrate); George Sylvester (Wrangell roofer and fisherman); John Ellis (Wrangell outboard motor repairer, who takes Hoagland on an exhilarating boat ride); Tom Ukas (Wrangell totem-pole carver); Edwin Callbreath (Captain of the Judith Ann that takes Hoagland up the Stikine); Alec and Dan McPhee (Telegraph Creek old-timers); Gus Adamson (Telegraph Creek “river snagger”); Mr. Wriglesworth (Telegraph Creek old-timer); Mike Williams (Telegraph Creek old-timer); John Creyke (Telegraph Creek old-timer); A. J. Marion (Telegraph Creek old-timer); Benny Frank (Casca resident); Emma Brown (Benny Frank’s friend); Willie Campbell (“He’d been everywhere within three or four hundred miles, roaming alone. He’d seen all the lost, hidden lakes, crossing through notches, and killed every shade of grizzly, from silver to brown”); Bob Henderson; Steele Hyland; Lou Hyland; Cliff Adams; Armel Philippon; Hans Anderson (“an admirable old river bargeman”); Frank Pete; Alec Jack; Dogan Dennis; Jimmy Dennis; Jack Lee; Marty Allen (“Marty is a burned-faced fellow with sloping shoulders and a Roman nose, an Alberta nose”); Merv Hesse; Mr. Tommy Walker (“The delight of a hunt should be the stalk. The kill only puts a period to it, Walker says”); pilot Danny Bereza (“He’s a chattery, prim, preoccupied guy, and he popped through a pass from nowhere, materializing magically over Cold Fish Lake”); Jim Abou; Jim Morgan (“the last of a breed”); Rick Milburn; Walter Sweet (Atlin old-timer); Robert Craft (Atlin old-timer); George Edzerza (guide); Evelyn Jack (“eyelids like poplar leaves in a round flat face, and stiff black hair. Her nose is straight and short and her mouth, wild and cruel, turns down at the sides like a turtle’s mouth”); Norman Fisher; Bill Roxborough; Jim Nolan; Charlie Gairns; Father Decamp; Tahltan chief Eddy Frank; Surveyor General Gerry Andrews; Frank Swannell (“abrasive voice, a terse mind”); E. C. Lamarque (“still wearing the baggy wool pants of a woodsman”).

Coming into the Country

Bob Fedeler (“He would resemble Sigmund Freud, if Sigmund Freud had been a prospector”); Stell Newman; Pat Pourchot; John Kauffmann; Gene Parrish; Jack Hession; Willie Hensley (“Detached humor played across his eyes”); Richard and Dorothy Jones; bush pilot Cliff Hudson (“Bearded, bespectacled, with tousled thinning curly hair, Hudson flew in ten-inch boots and a brown wool shirt that had seen a lot of time on his back”); Carol and Verna Close; Evil Alice Powell; William Corbus; C. B. Bettisworth (“he had a backpackery, environmental look”); Earl Cook; Austin Ward; Barry Quinn;  William Pyle; Louise Kellogg; Robert Atwood; Ed Crittenden; Bill Ray (“He had heavy eyelids, and was a little figgy in the jowls”); Don and Patty Bender; Arliss Sturgulewski; Donna Kneeland; Dick Cook (“acknowledged high swami of the river people”); Eagle mayor and postmaster John Borg; Steve Ulvi; Louise and Sarge Waller; Viola Goggins; Elmer and Margaret Nelson; Dale and Gloria Richert; Jim Dungan; Wyman Fritsch; Ed Gelvin (“Trapper, sawyer, pilot, plumber, licensed big-game guide, welder, ironworker, mechanic, carpenter, builder of boats sand sleds, he suffered no lack of occupation”); Ginny Gelvin; Stanley Gelvin; Brad Snow; Lily Allen; Leon Crane; Charlie Edwards; Rich Corazza; Barney Hansen; Joe Vogler; Wayne Peppler; Fred Wilkinson;  Henry Speaker; Bill Lamoreaux; Earl Stout (“He came to the upper Yukon fifty years ago”); Jack Boone; Diana Green; Jim Scott (“face of an overweight hawk”); Elva Scott; Michael John David (“He laughs aloud – a long, soft laugh. His voice is soft, too – fluid and melodic, like nearly all the voices in the Village”); Mike Potts (“relaxed in the pleasure of his chosen life”).

Great Plains

National Park Ranger Gerard Baker (“Gerard Baker had a double-bladed throwing ax, and he and I spent an hour or so fooling around with it”); Gerhard Stadler; Lydell White Plume; Jim Yellow Earring; Le War Lance; George Scott; Mrs. Homer Lang; Bill Gwaltney, seasonal Park Service Ranger; Moses McTavish (“Moses McTavish asked me if I wanted to see his tipi”); Kathleen Claar, founder and curator of the Last Indian Raid in Kansas Museum; Ephriam Dickson III; Alan and Lindi Kirkbride; Buzz Mauck; Alvin Bates; Juanita Robinson and her daughters Kathleen, Karen, Kaye, Kolleen, Krystal, and Karmen; airman D. Moir; Staff Sergeant John Swift (“His eyes roved beyond his listeners as he spoke, like a man at a cocktail party hoping to spot a closer friend”).

I want to emphasize that all these people are real. They actually existed. Most of them are likely gone now. But on the page they still live, and will continue to live so long as there are eyes to read. The writers have preserved them, rescued them from oblivion. That, for me, is one of the cardinal achievements of these three great books.    

Many of these folks appear only briefly. Nevertheless, each is individually sketched – two or three artful lines and, voilà, a singular figure springs to life:

At last Willie turned up, a stooped twisted man on a cane with a young tenor voice and another of those immense Tahltan faces, except that his was pulled out as long as a pickaxe and then bent at the chin. A chin like a goiter, a distorted cone of a forehead. He looked like a movie monster; he was stupendous. [Notes from the Century Before]

He is a big man, whose woolly beard and woolly crewcut surround pale-blue penetrating eyes. There is often a bemused smile. His voice is smoothly rolling and timpanic. He seems to drive it, like a custom-built car, to play it like a slow roll of drums. [Coming into the Country]

George is tall, red-haired, freckled, with deep squint-lines at the outside corners of his blue eyes. He drinks six or seven Pepsis a day. All the men in his family stick their tongues out to one side and bite them when they concentrate, like boys building models in old-time illustrations. [Great Plains]

He’s a lean-knit half-breed with high cheeks, walnut skin and a delicate nose – he looks like a honed Indian. His lips are so swollen from the sun that he can’t adjust them into an expression. They’re baked into testimonial form, or a sort of art form, like the curve of a fish backbone on a beach. [Notes from the Century Before]

The skin of his face was hickory brown – tight skin, across sharp peregrine features, wrinkled only with a welcoming grin. He wore hip boots, overalls, and gold-colored monkey-fist gloves. On his watchband were rubies embedded in an egglike field of placer gold. On his head was a brown Stetson – the only Stetson I’ve ever seen that was made of hard plastic. It had a crack in it that was patched with grout. [Coming into the Country]

Bill Gwaltney was wearing a Missouri River boatman’s shirt with bloused sleeves, white cotton broadfall trousers from an Amish clothing-supply house in Indiana, and a strand of red-and-blue glass beads of a design about three hundred years old. [Great Plains]

The heroes of these books get fuller treatment - more like oils than sketches. Here, for example, is Hoagland’s portrait of riverman Jim Morgan, “the last of a breed,” “the last of the wolfers”:

He is what he does. He’s a difficult man to convey on paper because he’s got nothing to say for himself. He’s like Willie Campbell. He’s the very best, the obscure common hero. He’s the man you want to see mountains named after, and yet he leaves it at that, he’s antidramatic. Answering my questions is not even much of a chore for him because he doesn’t connect up with them; he lives on a wavelength of silence. When we’re in the skiff, he drinks from his hat brim, dipping it into the river, and he moves through the muskeg and brush using none of my lunging motions, but with small ministeps. He splits firewood with a few quiet taps with one hand, holding the axe head. He keeps a blaze in the cook stove throughout the day, though our weather is up in the eighties, and he also wears long underwear: let the temperature change instead of him. He holds up his pants with suspenders. In one shirt pocket he carries his cigarette papers and in the other his bug repellent, which, like most old-timers, he seldom takes out. He has the same clear, extraordinary eyes as Armel Philippon and Alex McPhee, only more so. When these touch something they light on it. It’s mot that their big; it’s that their wide. They’ve seen nothing they couldn’t look at, and this not, I think, from innocence but rather because of all they have seen. Nobody has seen the whole world, but this is the quality of equilibrium with what one has seen. Of course a city man might have to go about with a half squint, if only to keep the soot out of his eyes. Morgan isn’t a smiler. Like Creyke, like Wriglesworth and Roy Callbreath and Jack Lee, he’s got swollen black lips that look as if they had been chapped for so many years that they’re almost impossible to adjust in any comfortable way. It’s hard enough opening and closing them, let alone trying to smile, and yet without moving his mouth, he’s another blithe man.

He is what he does - action is character. McPhee describes two of his heroes – the father-son team of Ed and Stanley Gelvin – in terms of their amazing resourcefulness and self-reliance. In one of Coming into the Country’s most memorable scenes, he shows Stanley Gelvin skilfully operating an enormous bulldozer in a remote area of Alaskan bush:

The sluice box should have a slope of exactly ten degrees. The D9 – larger than most cabins, lurching over mounds of its own rubble – seemed an unlikely instrument for so precise a job. Stanley – in his high seat, hands and feet in rapid movement among the multiple controls – suggested a virtuoso on a pipe organ even more than a skinner on a Cat. Gradually, a smooth ramp appeared. He had wired a carpenter’s level to the deck of the machine and had shimmed one end of it so the bubble would center when the Cat was on a slope of ten degrees. As he finished, and drove his fifty-five tons of yellow iron up the ramp, from bottom to top the bubble scarcely moved. Clanking off to fetch the sluice box, he hitched it to the rear of the big bulldozer, and pushed it backward down the narrow top of the dike. The sluice box weighs a couple of tons. He gently eased it down the ramp. Then he went and got the slick plate, and backed that down the top of the dike, too. He was grouchy – had been crabby all through the day – because he had no snoose. He was trying to quit, and had been six days without a dip of Copenhagan. Repeatedly, he shook his head in apparent dismay and made despairing remarks about the way things were going – heard mainly by the roaring Cat. The mouthpiece on the slick plate is nearly four feet wide and was designed to fit into the sluice box with very little clearance. Stanley backed the slick plate down the ramp. It weighs three tons, and he moved it steadily – without hesitation, without a pause for adjustment (just ran it downhill backward) – until the mouthpiece entered the box. It had not so much as brushed either side. The clearance was five-quarters of an inch one way and three-eighths of an inch the other. The day’s work finished, father and son flew home.

That brilliant passage is both a description of action and a portrait of Stanley Gelvin. McPhee admires the Gelvins enormously. He says,

The relationship between this father and son is as attractive as anything I have seen in Alaska – both of them self-reliant beyond the usual reach of the term, the characteristic formed by this country. Whatever they are doing, whether it is mining or something else, they do for themselves what no one else is here to do for them. Their kind is more endangered every year.

One of Ian Frazier’s heroes is Le War Lance. We first meet him in Great Plains. Frazier writes:

One day, on the street in front of my apartment building in New York (this was before I moved to Montana), I met a Sioux Indian named Le War Lance. I had just been reading a study of recent economic conditions on Sioux reservations. The authors seemed puzzled that so few Sioux were interested in raising sugar beets working in a house-trailer factory. As I waited for the light to change, I noticed that the man standing next to me resembled many pictures of Sioux that I had seen. I said, “Are you a Sioux?” He smiled and said, “I’m an Oglala Sioux Indian from Oglala, South Dakota.” He said his name and asked for mine. He had to lean over to hear me. He was more than six feet tall. He was wearing the kind of down coat that is stuffed with something other than down—knee-length, belted around the waist, in a light rescue orange polished with dirt on the creases—blue jeans lengthened with patches of denim of a different shade from knee to cuff, cowboy boots, a beaded-leather ponytail holder. His hair was straight and black with streaks of gray, and it hung to his waist in back. After I saw him, I never cut my hair again. In one hand he was holding a sixteen-ounce can of beer.

Le War Lance is one of Frazier’s greatest “characters." He figures centrally in Frazier’s On the Rez (2000), a sort of sequel to Great Plains

For me, the most significant people in these three books are the authors themselves. Their “I”s are present on almost every page. What are they like as characters? Can these works be read as self-portraits? What are the implications of their first-person perspective?  That’s the subject of my next post in this series. 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Mid-Year Top Ten 2021

Julian Master's photo for Nick Paumgarten's "It's No Picnic"

It’s time for my annual “Mid-Year Top Ten,” a list of my favorite New Yorker pieces of the year so far (with a choice quotation from each in brackets):

Best Reporting Piece

Nick Paumgarten, “It’s No Picnic,” March 1, 2021 (“At Hamido, the evening was mild, and the curve was still more or less flat; happy to be around people other than our families, we sat at a large table on the sidewalk, in the open air, sharing platters of bran-grilled orate, grilled octopus, fried sardines, baba ghanoush, and beers of our own bringing. Was all of this reckless? Probably”).

Best Personal History Piece

John McPhee, “Tabula Rasa: Volume 2,” April 19, 2021 (“I did not know Charlie Howard well, and the impact of his death stopped there. Not so with Julian, whose future has remained beside me through all my extending past. That is to say, where would he have been, and doing what, when? From time to time across the decades, I have thought of writing something, tracing parallel to mine the life he would have lived, might have lived. A chronology, a chronicle, a lost C.V. But such, of course, from the first imagined day, is fiction. Actually, I have to try not to think about him, because I see those arms reaching forward, grasping nothing”).

Best Cover

Mark Ulriksen, “Hoop Dreams in New York” (May 10, 2021).

Best Critical Piece

Peter Schjeldahl, “Home Goods,” February 15 & 22, 2021 [“My first Frick crush, some fifty-plus years ago, was Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845), the lady in blue satin who raises a finger to a pulse point on her throat as if her beauty were a self-charging battery”].

Best “Talk of the Town” Story

Adam Iscoe, “Back at It,” March 15, 2021 (“Quintana, a five-year veteran of the concession stand, wandered behind the candy counter. He found a thirty-five-pound bag of popcorn kernels in a storage closet. ‘At one point during the pandemic, I bought popcorn, just to try to relive the experience,’ he said, as he poured buttery salt powder along with the kernels into a popcorn machine. ‘It wasn’t the same.’ A minute later: pop-pop-pop. ‘Yeah, this is it,’ he said. Pop-pop-pop. ‘This is movie-theatre popcorn!’ ”).

Best Illustration

Andrea Ventura, “Tom Stoppard,” for Anthony Lane’s “O Lucky Man!” (March 1, 2021).

Best “Goings On About Town” Review

Hannah Goldfield, “Tables For Two: Dame,” January 25, 2021 (“Tucked beside them, in their charming paper boat, was a wedge of lemon; the faint perfume of malt vinegar hovered in the air”).

Best Post

Rachel Syme, “Fashion Was Back at the 2021 Oscars,” April 26, 2021 (“Amanda Seyfried’s epic, voluminous Armani Privé tulle trumpet gown was the bright red of a heavily syruped cherry snow cone”).

Best Sentence

Microtonal tunings, electronic processing, and rough string attacks engender ferocious climaxes. – Alex Ross, “Wind Songs” (March 1, 2021)

Best Paragraph

I know the neighborhood so well—know the old Hartford Courant building, the countless vape shops, the Hamed Fabric, with its clearance sale, the Money Change/Weed World/NY Gift & Luggage, and Daytona Trimming, with its boas—on account of the carrying, and then the strollering, and then the very slow walking, and then the normal-paced walking of these same streets year and again with this child of mine. When she was a baby, the only way to reliably get her to fall asleep was to push her round and round these blocks in her stroller. Amid the honking, shouting, and backfiring, and the music coming from the Wakamba bar, her eyes would close, then stay closed. – Rivka Galchen, “Better Than a Balloon” (February 15 & 22, 2021)

Best Photo

Jerome Strauss, “Cherry Blossoms,” for “Above & Beyond” (April 19, 2021)

Best Detail

Esposito’s has a take-a-number ticket dispenser. The slips of paper come out like interlocking Escher frog tiles. – Rivka Galchen, “Better Than a Balloon” (February 15 & 22, 2021)

Best Description

Frilly segments of baby bok choy are wilted in hot water until tender but still crunchy, then covered in steamed pickled garlic, fried garlic, and the house “brown sauce,” made from mushrooms, rice wine, and soy sauce. Skinny, slick florets of gai lan, or Chinese broccoli—which Lee describes as “kind of like if broccoli rabe and asparagus had a baby”—twist themselves around fat, nubby rice rolls tossed in charred scallions and black vinegar. Longevity noodles—coated in a blend of roasted garlic, shallots, chili, ginger, and fermented black beans—are strewn with both bok choy sum (a flowering bok-choy variety) and sweet, delicate pea leaves. – Hannah Goldfield, “Tables For Two: Fat Choy and Spicy Moon” (March 22, 2021)

Seven Memorable Lines

1. As a mot juste for “The Progress of Love,” I nominate “silly.” – Peter Schjeldahl, “Home Goods” (February 15 & 22, 2021)

2. The British nude is as real as the British breakfast. – Adam Gopnik, “The Human Clay “ (February 8, 2021)

3. In vain, I searched the eyes of passing scooterists for some inter-modal camaraderie, but I found only a shared sheepishness. – John Seabrook, “Scooter City” (April 26 & May 3, 2021)

4. Morandi drains our seeing of complacency. He occults the obvious. – Peter Schjeldahl, “Movements of One” (February 1, 2021)

5. For her fond biographer, Frankenthaler’s art delights the eye, as it was designed to, and that’s enough. Enough? It’s everything. – Adam Gopnik, “Fluid Dynamics” (April 12, 2021)

6. The cage matches of Eros and Mammon that are fairs leave me dyspeptic, even as I avail myself of a generously supplied V.I.P. pass because wouldn’t you? – Peter Schjeldahl, “A Trip to the Fair” (May 24, 2021)

7. Nothing goes well in a piece of writing until it is in its final stages or done. – John McPhee, “Tabula Rasa: Volume 2” (April 19, 2021) 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

June 28, 2021 Issue

Peter Schjeldahl, in his disappointing “Drawing Conclusions,” in this week’s issue, reviews MoMA’s “Cézanne Drawing,” a show of some two hundred and eighty works on paper, without describing a single one of them. He admits he’s not crazy about Cézanne’s art. He says, “I, for one, have struggled with him all my art-loving life.” He says,

You don’t look at a Cézanne, some ravishing late works excepted. You study it, registering how it’s done—in the drawings, with tangles of line and, often, patches of watercolor. Each detail conveys the artist’s direct gaze at a subject but is rarely at pains to serve an integrated composition. 

Okay, fair enough, but let’s hear about those details. Schjeldahl doesn’t give us any. Instead, he uncharacteristically opts for generalizations – albeit some pretty cool ones (“Thingness magnetized him”; “Cézanne’s scattershot approach triumphed in his conflations of surface with depth”). No wonder he struggles. He’s departed from his own dictum: “As for writerly strategy, if you get the objective givens of a work right enough, its meaning (or failure or lack of meaning) falls in your lap” (Introduction to Let’s See, 2008). Or has he? In the same piece, he also says, “Nothing ruins a critic like pretending to care.” 

For a tonic antidote to Schjeldahl’s Cézanne struggles, I recommend this superb description of Cézanne’s Pines and Rocks (1896-99) by John Updike:

Pines and Rocks, for instance, fascinated me, because its subject – these few pine trunks, these outcroppings of patchily tinted rock – was so obscurely deserving, compared with the traditional fruits of his still lifes, or Mont Sainte Victoire, or his portrait subjects and nude bathers. The ardor of Cézanne’s painting shone most clearly through this curiously quiet piece of landscape, which he might have chosen by setting his easel down almost anywhere. In this canvas, his numerous little decisions as to tone and color impart an excited shimmer to the area where the green of the pine shows against the blue of the sky, to the parts of the ochre trunks where shadow and outline intermix, and to the foreground, rendered in parallel diagonal strokes, of earth and grass. Blue, green, and ochre – these basic shades never bore him, and are observed and captured each time as if afresh. In the intensity of the attention they receive, the painter’s subjects shed their materiality: the pines’ branches here and there leap free of the trunks, and the rocks have no heaviness, their planes all but dissolved in the rapid shift of grayish-blue tints. What did it mean, this oddly airy severity, this tremor in the face of the mundane? It meant that the world, even in such drab constituents as pines and rocks, was definitely rewarding of observation, and that simplicity was composed of many little plenitudes, or small, firm arrivals – paint pondered but then applied with a certain nervous speed. Cézanne’s extreme concentration breaks through into a feeling as carefree and unencumbered as that which surrounds us in nature itself. In its new, minimal frame, Pines and Rocks seems smaller than the canvas I remember from the Fifties – but the grandeur of its silence, the gravity with which it seems to turn away from the viewer toward some horizon of contemplation, is undiminished. [“What MoMA Done Tole Me,” Just Looking, 1989]

Paul Cézanne, Pines and Rocks (c.1897)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

June 21, 2021 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Elizabeth Kolbert’s absorbing “The Deep,” an essay on deep-sea mining and the threat it poses to fragile deep-sea ecosystems. Reading it, I learned about extraordinary “bioluminescent creatures” that live in the vast darkness at the bottom of the sea, creatures such as the stoplight loose jaw (“a fish with photon-emitting organs under each eye”), the humpback blackdevil (“sports a shiny lure that dangles off its forehead like a crystal from a chandelier”), and the giant red mysid (“a hamster-size crustacean” that “spews streams of blue sparkles from nozzles near its mouth”). I also learned about hydrothermal vents. Kolbert writes,

Some of the seas’ most extraordinary animals live around hydrothermal vents—the oceanic equivalents of hot springs. Through cracks in the seafloor, water comes in contact with the earth’s magma; the process leaves it superheated and loaded with dissolved minerals. (At some vents, the water reaches a temperature of more than seven hundred degrees.) As the water rises and cools, the minerals precipitate out to form crenellated, castlelike structures.

Kolbert is a superb nature-describer. She says of the scaly-foot snail: “It’s the only animal known to build its shell with iron, and around its foot it sports a fringe of iron plates that looks a bit like a flamenco skirt.”

Kolbert’s piece flags a serious concern that deep-sea mining will wreck the ocean floor “before many of the most marvellous creatures living there are even identified.”