Archives: September 2017

The Creepiest Children’s Book

Rebecca Bengal on Dare Wright's The Lonely Doll
the lonely doll

Photographer and author Dare Wright’s first children’s book The Lonely Doll was first published in 1957. It tells the story of a doll named Edith and is accompanied by photographic illustrations taken by Wright. Rebecca Bengal examines this unsettling children’s book, which went on to be a source of inspiration to Cindy Sherman, Kim Gordon, Anna Sui and Antonya Nelson.

A couple of years ago, when asked, “If any book made you who you are today, what would it be?” the musician Kim Gordon cited the children’s book “The Lonely Doll,” from 1957. “It was my first view, my first idea, of New York as a glamorous place,” Gordon, who grew up in Southern California, in the sixties, told the Times Book Review. “The Lonely Doll,” which is narrated in photographic illustrations composed by Dare Wright, tells the story of a doll named Edith, who lives all alone in a house, praying for company, until, one day, two stuffed bears show up and befriend her. When the elder Mr. Bear leaves on an errand, Edith and her companion, Little Bear, set off to explore the empty house together. The book’s cover is rimmed in a bright-pink gingham pattern, but, inside, the carefully staged tableaux are shot in black and white, the poses of the toys at once tender and eerie in their precise artificiality. Gordon admired the gingham apron the doll wore and “the general air of existential blankness” that pervades the book. “When I tried to read it to my daughter, Coco, I thought, ‘This is so dark and terrifying,’ ” Gordon said. “But I’ve met many women who were influenced by that book.”

Indeed, in the six decades since it was published, “The Lonely Doll” has become a cult classic, beloved especially among a generation of women artists. The writer Antonya Nelson, who used to read the book to her little sister, has a short story in which a character named Edith describes “The Lonely Doll” to a man she’s just slept with—the “stilted” poses of the doll and bears, “committing the crimes of toys, punished eventually by an even bigger plaything named Mr. Bear, who bent the doll and little bear over his knee and spanked them with his paw.” “It spoke an ugly truth that made sense to me,” Nelson told me recently. The fashion designer Anna Sui, whose iridescent baby-doll dresses ignited her career, reportedly spent a decade tracking down a copy of the book, which she remembered from childhood. (First editions can fetch hundreds of dollars.) Cindy Sherman, writing about “The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright,” a biography by Jean Nathan, from 2004, acknowledged a psychic connection to the “obsessiveness and the role playing” of the author. “Although I never read ‘The Lonely Doll’ as a child or saw Dare Wright’s photographs before,” Sherman has said, “it’s as if I somehow did.”

Wright, who was born in 1914, in Ontario, and raised in Cleveland, worked as a child actor and model for fashion magazines before becoming a photographer herself. She shot editorials for publications like Good Housekeeping, converting a closet in her West Fifty-eighth Street apartment into a darkroom, and in her spare time she made glamorous self-portraits in gowns and costumes she had sewn. (One of her photos, showing the elegant author clutching her Rolleiflex camera, appears on the book jacket of “The Lonely Doll.”) “The Lonely Doll” was a best-seller in its time, and Wright went on to have a long career as an author, publishing twenty photo books for children, including nine more in the Lonely Doll series. But, during her lifetime, she granted few interviews, and readers knew little about her until Nathan published her biography, three years after Wright’s death, in 2001, at the age of eighty-six.

(…)

Metaphors on Vision

Stan Brakhage writing to Robert Kelly
Brakhage

To coincide with the upcoming republication of Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision – out of print for nearly forty years – BOMB Magazine are featuring an excerpt:  a letter written by Brakhage to the poet Robert Kelly describing his work on the groundbreaking film Mothlight, which Brakhage made without a camera, instead affixing bits of material directly to film strips.

To Robert Kelly,

August 22, 1963

I have been working almost entirely on Mothlight these days and finding it THE most difficult film to finish, at least per length (about 100’) I’ve yet been involved in (I had to pause after involved to decide whether in or with should follow; and this ambiguity illustrates my difficulty with the film itself—a difficulty engendered by the creation of a whole new film technique, a new niche into which few of my previous working techniques will function adequately enough to leave me free to be myself, to be, myself, adequately functioning instrument for the film’s simple passage thru me . . . technical considerations, as conscious thoughts, making me be by myself, eventually beside myself, at every turn; so that “involved with” would describe a great many of the moments in the making of Mothlight, tho’ I have always had sense enough once past eventu-or-crisis-ally to follow The Dance rather than take over as I was often tempted.)

Long after I’d begun making strips of film, with no thought other than creating a frame at a time in relationship to all other frames within a given strip (the length of Mylar1 I’d cut off, rather arbitrarily, before beginning to stick a given collection of parts of a plant or plants, etc., onto it), the words came to me: “As a moth might see from birth to death if black were white:” and shortly thereafter the title: Mothlight. Up till then I had thought-up the title: Dead Spring: growing out of a simple pun on the process, the material involved, and the simulation of life which the eventual unwinding of this film would create of the material by way of this process, etc. But these new words, in their coming to me, made me aware of the extent to which the movements of this film were inspired by my previous thoughts, observations, and study (most recently D’Arcy Thompson’s Growth and Form) on the flight of the moth and moth sight, etcetera. I have been very involved with moths since a curious incident in early winter 1959: I was working on Sirius Remembered—it was late at night and Jane [born Mary Jane Collom; now Jane Wodening; married Stan Brakhage in 1957; divorced in 1987] had gone to bed—I was sty-my-eyed sinking into sty-meeeed in all self-possession when suddenly Jane appeared holding a small dried plant which she put down on my working table and, without a word, left me—and I soon began working again and then noticing that the plant was shifting and that I had, without thinking, been picking up whatever its flattened petals, and sometimes its stem, had seemed to be pointing to; but as soon as I took notice of this interaction my relationship to this plant broke down into speculation, etcetera, until I stopped working altogether . . . the next morning, much to my surprise, Jane had no memory whatsoever of having brought me the plant; and the following night I returned to my work table, and the plant thereon, in a struggling-to-be-open, preventing opening, frame of mind . . . in midst of attempts to work, what must surely have been the year’s last moth, and a gigantic multi-colored beauty at that, began fluttering about me and along the work table, the wind of its wings shifting the plant from time to time and blowing away all speculations in my mind as to movements of dead plants and enabling me to continue working and, later, to notice that I was again often, but not always, moving in relationship to plant-points and moth-moves and, in fact, every moving thing within the workroom; but finally I got hung-up like they say, on the moth itself, its movements, particularly when it began settling first on one then another strip of film hanging beside me . . . the next day I photographed this moth in extreme close-up as it fluttered against the window glass, with the specific idea in mind to use those images in Dog Star Man (which I already have) and Jane and I were referring to the moth as “The Moth Queen” and were quite excited by the entire several days’ events (which naturally distracted from continuing work on Sirius Remembered) . . . by the third day I was beginning to worry about the moth; and we agreed that night to let the moth outside, as it was warm weather; but that night when I went to the workroom I found the moth dead on my table beside the dried plant and, on closer inspection, found that the head of the moth was as if sliced almost completely off, swinging as if hinged to the body, and that the body itself was completely hollow inside . . . both plant and moth remained on my table, without undue attention but constant inter-relation, until the end of the editing of Sirius Remembered.

(…)

Metaphors on Vision is being republished by Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry.

How can Russia’s left work with Navalny?

Kirill Medvedev and Oleg Zhuravlev
Alexei_Navalny

Kirill Medvedev and Oleg Zhuravlev examines the current state of Russia’s left wing groups and their relationship with the prominent figure Alexey Navalny. The article was translated from the Russian by Joseph Livesey and seen in openDemocracy:

If he sounds like an alternative…

It is important to distinguish between Navalny’s rhetoric and his political agenda. The evolution of his rhetoric, from a sweeping critique of authoritarianism and uncovering particular instances of corruption, to condemning unequal income distribution and attacking oligarchs, has been genuinely progressive. These developments have had an influence not just on Navalny’s supporters, but also on the common sense of the whole protest movement. 

If we look at Valery Balayan’s film Huizmisterputin, it is clear that opposition rhetoric as a whole has taken a lead from Navalny’s “populist turn.” In the film, we don’t see any more of the typical liberal dichotomy of the 1990s as a time of freedom, with the 2000s marked by transition to “dictatorship.” Instead, we see a critique of the entire post-Soviet political-economic order, and its basis in the expropriation of wealth from the population. We are shown Putin and his late mentor and former mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, using the Russian economist and politician Yegor Gaidar as a front to sell national assets abroad as early as the 1990s.

Another example of this shift in the protest movement’s overarching common sense is found in protesters’ “mass consciousness.” Interviews conducted by the Laboratory of Public Sociology at the most recent protests show that the rhetoric of ordinary protesters has shifted towards social issues. We hear in these interviews the same kinds of phrases used back in the May 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow—the country needs a turnover of who is in power, honest elections, and independent courts, along with which the solutions to other problems will fall into place—but that rhetoric no longer seems so dominant. Young people are openly critical of the social system that has emerged in the Russian Federation, where they see a minority who “have everything, while the majority have nothing.” 

When asked about the main issues facing the country, many of the interviewees answered: low pensions, unemployment, lack of a social safety net. It is clear that Navalny’s grassroots work—travelling around the country, conversations with locals, campaigning—is part of what laid the grounds for this expanded agenda, which in turn has led to a broadening of social support for the protests. 

However, Navalny’s rhetoric, which draws heavily on social justice themes, is not the same as his political agenda. It’s still not clear what his economic policies are, or what measures he proposes to reform the Russian economy and political system. His recent debate with ultranationalist militia commander Igor Strelkov (also known as Igor Girkin) again showed that Navalny’s basic “policy” is fighting corruption, something that alone will not bring about social justice. Projecting an image of being a “realist” in contrast to Strelkov the “zealot” (“Do you want to restore the monarchy and reunite Russians from all over the former USSR? Well I want Russians to have it good right here, right now!”), Navalny replaced realism with a neoliberal rationality, as if that is the only feasible version of political pragmatism. As if all it comes down to is saying: let’s see if we can make money some way or other, then politicians doing what’s necessary to deregulate the economy, and we’ll all make money!

Being realists ourselves, we are opposed to neoliberal approaches to economics and politics. The left is all for pragmatism, but we know that the pragmatism of an entrepreneur or a banker is very different, often completely contradictory, to the pragmatism of the state when it works in the interests of its citizens. But neoliberal “common sense” doesn’t distinguish between them. In our view, we should take advantage of Navalny’s use of leftist rhetoric, and his inclusion in public discussion of issues that are essential to the social-democratic agenda (not to mention the socialist agenda). At the same time, we can’t rely on his political program—even if right now it contains individual items that favor a redistribution of wealth, those could soon easily disappear. 

That’s why we need to draw a line between Navalny himself and the protest movement, just as we should see the difference between his rhetoric and his policies. We must take part in the protest movement and support the “shift” in his agenda to the left, but we mustn’t rely on Navalny as leader. We can only rely on a democratic movement with a clear set of goals for economic and socio-political change, based on the work of experts, not just opinions that sound convincing. 

(…)

The Austere Fiction of Fleur Jaeggy

Sheila Heti for the New Yorker
Fleur Jaeggy

Sheila Heti reviews Fleur Jaeggy’s story collection I Am the Brother of XX (translated by Gini Alhadeff) for the New Yorker:

Few writers push the reader away with the coolness, dignity, and faint melancholy of Fleur Jaeggy. In her new story collection, “I Am the Brother of XX” (New Directions), she praises her friend Ingeborg Bachmann, one of the most celebrated Austrian writers of the twentieth century, for needing “little encouragement not to speak.” Similarly commendable is a suicidal man, in one of her novels, who lives near a church, and who makes sure that “the striking of the hour coincided with the revolver shot. That way no one heard.” Elsewhere, we meet nymphs who have stepped down from their paintings into a darkened museum; they wish to try out life. But, “having descended to earth, they realized they were ill-disposed to living. . . . They abhor all manner of effusion.” How embarrassing to read Jaeggy’s stories, and to see one’s own life through her eyes. Yes, it’s “all manner of effusion.”

Jaeggy is seventy-six years old. She was born in 1940, into an upper-middle-class family in Zurich, and grew up speaking French, German, and Italian. In Italy, where she has lived the past five decades, she has won nearly every literary prize of note—she writes exclusively in Italian—and is acknowledged as one of the country’s most original authors. She is also one of its most reclusive. Gini Alhadeff, who translated the new collection, describes her as a “monumental loner,” who “has few friends, rarely goes out, and turns down practically every request for an interview.” At home, Jaeggy writes on a swamp-green Hermes typewriter, which she goes to, she says, “as though to a piano. I practice. I do scales.”

Jaeggy spent her childhood and adolescence in boarding school, before modelling, gloomily, for several years in the United States and Europe. Then she moved to Rome, a period she describes in a characteristically distilled way: “I went out with some boys. I rode horses. A pleasant and at once meaningless existence.” It was in Rome that she met Bachmann, who was to become a lifelong friend, and the writer Roberto Calasso, whom she married, in 1968, before moving to Milan. Calasso went on to become the editor of Adelphi Editions, which under his watch became one of Europe’s most highly regarded publishing houses, its authors including Bachmann, Djuna Barnes, and Thomas Bernhard.

Jaeggy’s fourth novel, “Sweet Days of Discipline” (translated by Tim Parks), made her name, in 1989. She has described writing the book, which is semi-autobiographical, as “an exercise in self-punishment.” The story is set in the nineteen-fifties, at a Swiss boarding school, where life is repeatedly portrayed as a penitential, even psychosexual condition. The girls wash quickly, like prisoners; there is “a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive” of them. For those living there, “a sort of senile childhood was protracted almost to insanity.”

The plot follows the teen-age narrator’s relationship with a new girl, Frédérique. Frédérique is the daughter of a banker in Geneva and, being new to boarding school, she bears markers of the outside world—a male friend, elegant style. Her looks are “those of an idol, disdainful.” The narrator’s desire to win her friendship is immediate and strong. But, when she does, the dynamic is unsettling. In conversation, there is “an atmosphere of punishment,” and spending time with Frédérique entails “becoming accomplices, disdaining all the others.” In loving this new girl, the narrator transfers the object of her submission from boarding school, which she didn’t choose, to Frédérique, whom she did.

(…)

Extract: This Little Art

From Kate Briggs's new book out today
This Little Art

Extract from Kate Briggs’s new essay book This Little Art, published today. The essay is a genre-bending song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking on reading, writing and living with the works of others:

DRAGONESE

It’s Walpurgis-Nacht in the sanatorium and Hans Castorp, the hero of The Magic Mountain, has been made to feel hot and reckless by the atmosphere of carnival. Standing a small distance behind him, in the doorway of the little salon, is Frau Chauchat. She is dressed in a startling gown of thin, dark silk.

Was it black?

Probably.

Or, at most, shot with golden brown.

Cut with a modest little neck, round like a schoolgirl’s frock. Hardly so much as to show the base of her throat. Or the collar bones. Or, beneath the soft fringes of her hair, the slightly prominent bone at the back of her neck.

But all the while leaving bare to the shoulder her arms.

Arms so tender and so full.

So cool and so amazingly white, set off against the dark silk of her frock.

To such ravishing effect as to make Hans Castorp close his eyes. And murmur, deep within himself: ‘O my God!’

He had once held a theory about those arms. He had thought, on making their acquaintance for the first time – veiled, as they had been then, in diaphanous gauze – that their indescribable, unreasonable seductiveness was down to the gauze itself. To the ‘illusion’, as he had called it. Folly! The utter, accentuated, blinding nudity of those arms was an experience now so intoxicating, compared with that earlier one, as to leave our man no other recourse than, once again, with drooping head, to whisper, soundlessly: ‘O my God!’

 

Later, agitated by the silly drama of a drawing game, he’ll walk straight up to her and boldly ask for a pencil.

She’ll stand there, in her paper party cap, looking him up and down.

‘I?’ she’ll ask. ‘Perhaps I have, let me see.’

Eventually, she’ll fetch one up from deep within her leather bag: a little silver one, slender and fragile, scarcely meant for use.

Voilà,’ she’ll say, holding it up by its end in front of him, between thumb and forefinger, lightly turning it to and fro.

Because she won’t quite hand it to him, because she’ll give it to him and withhold it, he’ll take it, so to speak, without receiving it: that is, he’ll hold out his hand, ready to grasp the delicate thing, but without actually touching it.

C’est à visser, tu sais,’ she’ll say. You have to unscrew it.

And with heads bent over it together, she’ll show him the mechanism. It would be quite ordinary, the little needle of hard, probably worthless lead, coming down as one loosened the screw.

They’ll stand bending toward each other. The stiff collar of his evening dress serving to support his chin.

She’ll speak to him in French, and he’ll follow her.

He’ll speak to her in French uneasily, feeling for the sense. 

 

A little further on she’ll command, a bit exasperated and more impersonally now: ‘Parlez allemand s’il vous plait!’

 

And in the copy of the novel I have open next to me as I read and write, Hans Castorp replies in English. Clavdia Chauchat has asked him, pointedly, in French, to address her in German, and his reply is written for me in English. I mean, of course it is. It’s an everyday peculiar thing: I am reading The Magic Mountain in Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation, first published in 1927. A novel set high up in the Swiss Alps, one of Germany’s most formative contributions to modern European literature (so the back cover of my edition tells me) and here they all are acting and interacting – not always, but for the most part – in English. And I go with it. I do. Of course I do. I willingly accept these terms. Positively and very gladly, in fact. Because with French but no German – I look at my bookshelves: also, no Italian and no Norwegian, no Japanese and no Spanish, no Danish and no Korean (and so on and so on) – I know that this is how the writing comes:

An unassuming young man named Hans Castorp travels up from his native city of Hamburg to Davos-Dorf. When the train stops at the small mountain station, he is surprised to hear his cousin’s familiar voice: ‘Hullo,’ says Joachim, ‘there you are!’ 

(…)

The Confessions

Joshua Cohen for Wired
The Confessions - Joshua Cohen

For Wired, a new short story by Joshua Cohen called ‘The Confessions’, where it is explored what might happen if one’s secrets became public information:

DEAR MONICA—THAT’S how you start a letter, with a salutation, I’d almost forgot.

Monica, my dear, my love, my girl woman pony heart—I’ve written you a letter! On paper! With pen! A letter!!!

(How many exclamation points do I have to use nowadays to come off as normal???)

Hope you can read my scribbles.

Now I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking that if I’ve gone to all the trouble of cursiving and sending you a Marriott Marquis stationery/Marriott Marquis ballpoint letter all the way from the middle of my business trip to New York, I must have something serious, something grievous, to tell you, because letters are for serious grievous occasions, like Latin is for funerals.

In my mind, I can see you sitting down now, green couch, den, and preparing yourself with a breath to hear that I’ve been diagnosed with over 70,000 incurable rare cancers, or that I’m leaving you for someone else, but don’t worry. Or do worry, but about yourself: Because while I’m fairly sure that I’m in decent health, I’m just as certain that, at the end of this, you’ll be the one leaving me.

OK. My computer. It seems as if my computer has been hacked and all the crap on it, or all the crap related to all the accounts related to it, or whatever—everything I’ve ever done on it—has been made public.

I was alerted to this fact by a phone call from HR—apparently, the attack has struck throughout the company. Striking most of management too, along with all the road reps. I’m just putting that out there, the extent of the attack, not so as to evade responsibility by spreading guilt or victimhood around but just as reassurance, to reassure you more than myself: I’m not alone.

We’re not.

It’s all out there, all of us now: not just my company emails and files but my personal emails and files, all our chat logs together, our banking.

I’m sorry, Monica, I apologize. You’re about to find out many things.

I love you. That’s the most important thing. That I love you and our life together. That I love what we have very much. I see your face every night when I shut down my head, in a new bed in a new room in a new hotel, wherever the company gets a discount. Your voice is the sound that every morning wakes me.

But sometimes I just lose it. I’m ashamed, but I do.

It happens when I’m too far out, when I’ve been gone for an extended stretch and everything like a dream just fades away for me.

I forget who I am, what joy I have.

I have sex with other women. This has never happened in LA, only on the road, and there is never any emotional involvement on my part. The sex is always safe. Or mostly safe. I promise to get tested.

Better that you find this out from me than online.

You don’t want to go online, Monica, you don’t want details. It sounds perverse, I know, but: Trust me.

I will never cheat on you again. Or even be in contact with these women. I will go, alone or with you or both, to counseling of your choosing. And I will stop taking Modafinil (Provigil), and I will stop posting on men’s rights subreddits (under all my names). All of that brute shit I wrote about your parents I didn’t mean. And I will repay the money, about $70,000, which I took from the 401(k). I never did make those investments. And what investments I did make failed.

I’m currently on the phone, on hold, trying to cancel the Visa.

And now I’m off—to figure out how to contain that other damage: the professional damage. I want to keep my job. I want to keep my wife. I’ll be back in LA by Wednesday, this letter should land there by Mon or Tues. How many times have you reread it already? Or is it shredded? If you prefer that I don’t come home, just say so, but don’t email. Tie a ribbon that isn’t yellow to the front yard oak and I’ll stay away—Monica, I’ll check every day until it’s gone.

Loving you,

Austin

(…)

At Tate Britain

Brian Dillon for London Review of Books
Tate Britain - Queer British Art

Brian Dillon reviews the Tate Britain exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 (on until 1st of October) for London Review of Books:

On 28 April 1870, Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham attended the Strand Theatre in London, where they made a spectacle of themselves, catcalling from their box to various men below. As the giddy pair left and approached their carriage, a plain-clothes detective stopped them: ‘I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire.’ Stella was indeed one Ernest Boulton, music hall artiste and rent boy, and Fanny was Frederick Park, a trainee solicitor. At Bow Street police station they were arrested and charged with sodomy. Stella, it transpired, had been living as the wife of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton MP, who promptly died of cholera before the case went to trial. In Westminster Hall, before the Lord Chief Justice, a jury acquitted Fanny and Stella: there was no evidence of buggery, and nobody could determine that cross-dressing was a crime.

There are two studio photographs of ‘The Funny He-She Ladies’, as the newspapers called them, in the Tate’s survey of a century and slightly more of queer British art, from 1861 to 1967, the year male homosexuality was decriminalised (the show closes on 1 October). Here is Lord Arthur doted on by curl-headed Ernest and Fred, who are in masculine mufti, and then crinolined Fanny and Stella à deux: all over each other like sentimental sisters. It was just nine years since the death penalty for the crime of sodomy had been abolished in England and Wales, and 25 years before Oscar Wilde’s trial. (The exhibition includes Wilde’s cell door from Reading Gaol.) As Neil McKenna points out in his catalogue essay, Boulton and Park would almost certainly have called their evening get-up ‘drag’; but they would not yet have thought of themselves as ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’: terms not established till the 1890s. Queer British Art begins at a moment when its theme is both overdetermined – the insistence on anal sex as evidence – and ambiguous, frequently unnoticed or elided.

Consider the range of male artists and male bodies that opens the exhibition. When Simeon Solomon’s painting Bacchus – doe eyes, ringlets, Cupid’s-bow lips parted – was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1867, it caused no critical stir. But a year later, at the Dudley Gallery, Solomon’s watercolour of the same subject was thought by the Art Journal to depict ‘a sentimentalist of rather weak constitution’. Such euphemism was common enough, but critical reaction sometimes more direct: in 1869, the Times noted that Frederic Leighton’s smooth and golden Icarus, who is billowed about by luscious drapery, also seemed to be showing ‘the soft rounded contour of a feminine breast’. The ‘subtler threads of temperament’ that Walter Pater had adduced in Winckelmann’s Hellenism were more than hinted at in works like Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus (1877), where the goddess is in most physical respects, as writer and artist W. Graham Robertson put it, ‘a fine, upstanding slip of a boy’.

There are considerably fewer female artists, and women’s bodies, in this show than there are men – a fact the Tate curators acknowledge, along with the infrequency of non-white faces: ‘We have been constantly frustrated by the comparative scarcity of material.’ In a section somewhat dutifully titled ‘Defying Convention’, we find John Singer Sargent’s 1881 portrait of an austerely boyish Vernon Lee, and Alvaro Guevara’s Dame Edith Sitwell from 1916. Laura Knight, three years earlier, had been condemned by the Telegraph for a self-portrait with a nude model that lacked ‘the higher charm of the “eternal feminine”’. A few such notable nudes aside, there is a tendency to allegorise lesbian desire in objects and interiors: as in Ethel Sands’s The Chintz Couchof 1911, or the frothy Lilac and Guelder Rose by Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) from 1937. Even Claude Cahun – who here counts as British for having lived on Jersey – is represented not by her shaven-headed self-portraits but by photographs of her delicately Surrealist sculptural assemblages under glass bell-jars.

Such displacements, whether on the part of curators or artists themselves, might seem timid, but they have the fortunate effect of posing the question, more frankly than the Victorian male nudes, what a queer aesthetic might look like, as distinct from mere subject matter. The answers are in some ways predictable: there is a room at Tate Britain given over to theatre, in which one may view Noël Coward’s monogrammed scarlet dressing gown and Oliver Messel’s designs for the 1959 film of Suddenly Last Summer. Style, poise, extravagance: these we might expect. (Consider Glyn Philpot’s 1935 painting of Glen Byam Shaw, who is playing Laertes but looks as though he’s stepped off the set of a New Romantic music video fifty years later.) But it’s a certain texture that seems to signify most, as for example in the theatrical photographs of Angus McBean, who was jailed during the Second World War for his homosexuality. McBean’s 1937 portrait of Beatrix Lehmann twins the actress’s face with incongruous block and tackle, and frames this ‘surrealised’ arrangement with silk drapery. His 1941 study of Quentin Crisp is an astonishing instance of the retoucher’s art, the subject’s burnished flesh so perfect it is hardly there at all.

(…)

John Ashbery’s Whisper Out of Time

Ben Lerner for the New Yorker
Lerner-John-Ashbery-Montpelier

Following John Ashbery’s death earlier this month, Ben Lerner remembers the poet, for the New Yorker:

There was in the person and there is in the work such a mixture of genius and modesty, ambition and gentle irony, innovation and deliberate unoriginality, that it sounds a little off, maybe a little stuffy, to speak of John Ashbery’s greatness. A major poet, a master, the most important writer since X—none of that seems right for a poet so enamored of the minor: his love for “other traditions” (as he titled his Charles Norton lectures), his interest in “mild effects” (to quote a phrase from “The Skaters”), his method of “wandering away” (the formulation appears in several books; “wandering” is Ashbery’s version of Whitman’s “loafing.”) It’s as if, when you say he wrote some of the greatest poems in English, his poems respond, “Who, me?” Well, yes, you.

Today I walked around listening to one recording after another on my phone. Ashbery doesn’t change his voice when he begins—when he began—to read his poetry. There is no dramatic heightening, no shift, however subtle, into a declamatory mode. It’s just John reading. And what he’s reading sounds simultaneously like something you’ve heard a million times before, like the songs we know best, and like an intercepted transmission from another world or era, a whisper out of time. I have some ideas about how he accomplishes this weird effect—how he makes the (mild) shock of recognition and the (mild) shock of the new coexist—but I’m too sad to try to summarize them here. And they’re insufficient anyway. (“When one goes at ideas directly, with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem,” he once said. “I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg.”) The poems are like those mirrors in Cocteau’s “Orphée”: at one moment they reflect this world, then suddenly they’re portals to another (although in Ashbery’s poems we rarely find ourselves in the underworld).

The first time I met John (a decade ago), he thought I was someone else. This became slowly clear to me because he kept asking me questions about the poet Landis Everson, about whom I knew basically nothing. (It turned out that John thought I was the writer Ben Mazer, who edited Everson’s collected poems.) There was something appropriate about being misidentified by the poet who’d become my hero, in part because of the beautiful fungibility of his “you”: the way sometimes the poems address you, are alone in the room with a particular reader (yes, you), and sometimes address all possible yous, expand until we feel the mundane miracle of address as such—that there are other people, that there might be a common language. “The poem is a hymn to possibility; a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen,” Ashbery wrote, sixty years ago, in a review about Gertrude Stein’s “Stanzas in Meditation”; it remains among my favorite descriptions of John’s own work. After I quoted these lines while introducing him at a reading in Brooklyn a few years ago, he wrote to me: “The fact that you would someday be born and later would read my Gertrude Stein review, which I typed laboriously in my furnished room in Rennes, and that you would apply my words to me, well it all makes me feel somewhat dizzy.” I’m dizzied by my luck at having overlapped with John Ashbery, one of the good things about being born when I was (here he would probably make a joke: “Television is pretty good, too,” or “Antibiotics can come in handy”).

(…)

 

Launch Party for THIS LITTLE ART by Kate Briggs

at Caravansérail Bookshop-Gallery
This Little Art

Please join us at Caravansérail Bookshop-Gallery for the launch of Kate Briggs’s new book This Little Art on 20 September from 6.30-8.30pm. There will be a short reading at 7.30ish; there will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please do RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. 

An essay with the reach and momentum of a novel, Kate Briggs’s This Little Art is a genre-bending song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking on reading, writing and living with the works of others. Taking her own experience of translating Roland Barthes’s lecture notes as a starting point, the author threads various stories together to give us this portrait of translation as a compelling, complex and intensely relational activity. She recounts the story of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations of Thomas Mann, and their posthumous vilification. She writes about the loving relationship between André Gide and his translator Dorothy Bussy. She recalls how Robinson Crusoe laboriously made a table, for him for the first time, on an undeserted island. With This Little Art, a beautifully layered account of a subjective translating experience, Kate Briggs emerges as a truly remarkable writer: distinctive, wise, frank, funny and utterly original.

‘Kate Briggs’s This Little Art shares some wonderful qualities with Barthes’s own work – the wit, thoughtfulness, invitation to converse, and especially the attention to the ordinary and everyday in the context of meticulously examined theoretical and scholarly questions. This is a highly enjoyable read: informative and stimulating for anyone interested in translation, writing, language, and expression.’
— Lydia Davis, author of Can’t and Won’t

‘In This Little Art, Kate Briggs looks at the “everyday, peculiar thing” that is translation, testing it out, worrying at its questions. She deftly weaves her recurring threads (Roland Barthes, Crusoe’s table, The Magic Mountain, aerobic dance classes) into something fascinatingly elastic and expansive, an essay – meditation? call to arms? – that is full of surprises both erudite and intimate, and rich in challenges to the ways we think about translation. And so, inevitably, to the ways we think about writing, reading, artistry and creativity, too. As a translator, I’m regularly disappointed by what I read about translation – it feels self-indulgent, irrelevant in its over-abstraction – but This Little Art is altogether different. It comes to its revelations through practicality, curiosity, devotion, optimism, an intense and questioning scrutiny, as the work of a great translator so often does.’
— Daniel Hahn, translator of José Eduardo Agualusa and winner of the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017

‘Not so much a demystification as a re-enchantment of the practice of literary translation, that maddening, intoxicating ‘little’ art which yokes humility and hubris, constraint and creativity – in Briggs’s passionate telling, you can
practically hear the sparks fly.’
— Deborah Smith, translator of Han Kang and winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016

‘Briggs interrogates and celebrates the art of translation. She wears her erudition lightly in this highly readable essay that makes intriguing connections and raises more questions than it answers. Urgent and pertinent questions that challenge
us as readers, writers and translators and offer much food for thought.’
— Ros Schwartz, translator of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Georges Simenon and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This Little Art maps the current landscape and disputed territories of literary translation with exquisite precision. With xenophobia on the rise across the western world, the complex art of translation has achieved a new level of relevance for English-language readers and Briggs has crafted an excellent exploration of the reasons why.’
— Idra Novey, author and translator of Clarice Lispector

‘Just as there is something intimate about the act of translation – the translator is inhabiting the text being translated, reading it as closely as possible – there is an intimacy to This Little Art, Kate Briggs’s wonderfully evocative essay on translation. We feel the author is talking to us from across the table about the most important things – novels, language, beauty, art – but in a confidential, friendly way, in a way that makes us listen more closely. Translation, Briggs shows us, is a conversation – between the author and translator, between the translator and reader – and it is this conversation that keeps literature alive. I hope this book will produce not only more readers appreciative of the art of translation, but also more translators willing to engage in the courageous and daunting task of true close reading, that most intimate act we call translation.’
— Charlotte Mandell, translator of Maurice Blanchot, Jonathan Littell and Mathias Enard

Fitz Carraldo Editions