Category: New Yorker

The Creepiest Children’s Book

Rebecca Bengal on Dare Wright's The Lonely Doll
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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.

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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.

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The South African Parables of Ivan Vladislavic

Hermione Hoby interviews for the New Yorker
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For the New Yorker, Hermione Hoby talks with the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic about his fiction and the current state of South Africa:

In “Villa Toscana,” the first story in “The Exploded View,” a startling collection by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, a statistician named Budlender has helped redraft questionnaires for the South African national census of 1996. Apartheid was abolished in 1991; this is the first nonracial headcount in the country’s history. As Budlender, whom we understand to be white, drives to the homes of respondents to test this questionnaire, he interrogates the visual data of the road. It occurs to him that “people were always saying” that the city’s roads were filled with brand-new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Then again, he thinks, people were also always saying that “every second car in Joburg is falling apart.” So, he asks, “Were the roads full of new cars or old cars? There was a lesson in this, which only a statistician seemed capable of learning: as soon as you took into account what people were saying, you lost track of what was actually happening.”

Budlender’s “lesson” reminded me of questions I have asked my own South African relatives. My father left the country for Britain in 1973, after being advised that his anti-apartheid activism would see him “accidentally” killed. Since then, the country has gone through many convolutions, including the transformative Presidency of Nelson Mandela, and yet Budlender’s questions are the same ones that I have been asking my father—the same ones the country has been asking itself—with ebbing energy, for twenty years. Has crime declined? Yes and no. Has reconciliation succeeded? Depends on whom you ask. There remain counterfacts for every fact. This highly equivocal world challenges even a statistician; as Budlender himself concedes, “there were no reliable statistics.”

The novelist André Brink once called Vladislavic “one of the most imaginative minds at work in South African literature,” and the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has rhapsodized that his language is “as scintillating and fine-grained as a silver gelatin print.” Despite such endorsements, and despite winning a Windham-Campbell Prize for Literature in 2015, Vladislavic has not been widely read outside his country. Now, with the ascendancy of far-right regimes around the world, there is a new, anxious interest in South Africa’s political model—or, rather, in its cautionary exemplum. Optimism, never easy to measure, has surely faded since the hopeful upheaval of the nineties. President Jacob Zuma, who assumed office in 2009, has for months been facing calls to resign over what the normally neutral Nelson Mandela Foundation called “political meddling for private interests.” When living in a degraded political system, both monitoring and processing degeneration becomes hard. If the former is more the job of a statistician, the latter task might fall to the novelist.

When I met him a few months ago, in Johannesburg, Vladislavic, who is fifty-nine, commanding and soft-spoken, agreed that there might be some advantage to living where he does. “In a way, living here is a gift if you’re a thinking person, because you’re challenged constantly,” he said. “Even driving around in the leafy suburbs, you’re challenged to think about your own position.” Vladislavic had offered to take me for a drive in his Toyota Corolla (“the default setting of cars,” he called it) around the city, which is mostly flat and seems uncentered and inscrutable in the way of Los Angeles. He continued, “Our whole history has been about imposing order on things that cannot be controlled. Where people live, who they fall in love with, what they think.” His work, he suggested, could be understood, at least in part, as a reckoning with this way of understanding society—“between trying to control and letting things go, between order and chaos.” Part of the chaos is the lack of distinction between what can be measured and what cannot. “Villa Toscana” ends with Budlender in a kind of reverie among the perfume bottles at the home of one of his census respondents, around whom he has woven his own private fictions.

Vladislavic was born in central Pretoria, the son of a Croat motor mechanic and a housewife, into a predominantly Afrikaans environment. When he was nine or ten, his family moved out of the city and into the suburbs, where he first encountered the enmity between white Afrikaners and white English speakers. In 1978, he graduated from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (“Wits”) and has lived in Johannesburg ever since. His first novel, “The Folly,” an absurdist allegory, was published in 1993, two years after apartheid ended. In the book, an inhabitant of “the old South Africa” becomes engrossed by a new neighbor who, he notices, has begun to precisely demarcate with string the contours of a phantom building in the vacant plot beside his home. As the project billows to fantastical and unstable proportions, the novel’s social realism swells into magical realism. The house becomes a literal castle in the air—evidence that neither messy reality nor imagination can be accounted for by blueprints.

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The Heretical Things Statistics Tell Us About Fiction

Dan Piepenbring for the New Yorker
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For the New Yorker Dan Piepenbring reviews Ben Blatt’s book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing and looks at what he has discovered:

In high school, writing term papers on the family PC, I’d often turn to Microsoft Word’s “readability statistics” feature to make sure I sounded smart enough. With a few clicks, Word assigned my papers a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: a number from one to twelve indicating how many years of education the average reader would need to have completed in order to decipher my language. I had no idea how Word made this calculation, but I noticed that it rewarded prolix sentences with a higher “grade.” So that’s what I wrote. I put my every word choice under close scrutiny. Soon my paragraphs buckled under the weight of clauses and polysyllables, but I, a ninth grader, was generating prose that only twelfth graders could read—which made me pretty hot shit, my thinking went.

Those Flesch-Kincaid trials came back to me as I read “Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing,” by Ben Blatt, which looks at the canon as a statistical gold mine to be dredged for patterns, variances, and singularities. In “literary experiments” on diction, punctuation, cliffhangers, clichés, and other aspects of style and usage, Blatt uses data to probe the body of conventional wisdom that surrounds creative writing. What if those who allegedly loathe adverbs are actually completely, totally addicted to them? What if it’s quite O.K. to use intensifiers very often, because Jane Austen is rather fond of them? What if I like exclamation points! Blatt’s jacket bio cites “his fun approach to data journalism”—a bit of prolepsis, maybe, aimed at those of us who’d sooner watch paint dry than look at anything quantitatively—and his book is laden with charts, lists, and tables printed in a gentle purple. The lessons here are valuable because of their workmanlike cast, not in spite of it. Put aside the “fun approach” and “Mauve” makes some enticingly heretical observations: that every great writer is a technician, every novel a mere agglomeration of prose effects.

The book is built on agreeable miscellany, and parts of it are willfully trivial. On the face of it, there’s not much to be gleaned from the fact that James Joyce uses 1,105 exclamation points per hundred thousand words, or that J. R. R. Tolkien leans too often on “suddenly,” that most accursed of adverbs. Blatt’s findings are more absorbing when he ditches the bean-counter approach. American writers of Harry Potter fan fiction are actually more liable to use “brilliant” than their British counterparts, who employ the word with native agility. And, in a study of erotica written by New Yorkers, Blatt notes a preponderance of the following words: subway, popsicle, senator, butthole, museum, landlord, thrusted, Jacuzzi, sin, and shrugs. Most of these choices are intuitive, even laudable—but what explains those last three? I grasp that a New Yorker might lust for a senator with a popsicle in his butthole; a shrugging sinner in a hot tub doesn’t quite rate.

Blatt’s research on diction and gender is especially revelatory. Looking at a broad swath of twentieth-century lit, he tallies the verbs most often used to describe one gender over another. The results find rich deposits of sexism running through the language. Male characters are most likely to mutter, grin, shout, chuckle, and kill; women are doomed to shiver, weep, murmur, scream, and marry. Male authors are far likelier to write “she interrupted” than “he interrupted.” A grim typology begins to emerge. Men are raffish, jolly, murderous sorts, while women are delicate and meek, except when they deign to interrupt men, as they often do. There’s some sexual self-loathing across the board, too: when writers assign verbs to someone of the opposite gender, they most often reach for “kiss,” “exclaim,” “answer,” “love,” and “smile”; characters of the same gender “hear,” “wonder,” “lay,” “hate,” and “run.”

The high point of the book is Blatt’s effort “to test whether something like a literary fingerprint exists for famous writers.” It does, he finds­—across their oeuvres, “authors do end up writing in a way that is both unique and consistent, just like an actual fingerprint is distinct and unchanging.” Even the way that writers deploy simple pairs of words—“and” and “the,” “these” and “then,” “what” and “but”—is often enough to identify them. The numbers bear out a romantic idea: that a writer is always ineluctably herself. Soon, Blatt zeroes in on writers’ “favorite” words—hence his title, indicating Nabokov’s predilection for “mauve.” The words must be used in half an author’s books, at least once per hundred thousand words; they can’t be proper nouns. His discoveries are startlingly apt. Almost without fail, the words evoke their authors’ affinities and manias. John Cheever favors “venereal”—a perfect encapsulation of his urbane midcentury erotics, tinged with morality. Isaac Asimov prefers “terminus,” a word ensconced in a swooping, stately futurism; Woolf has her “mantelpiece,” Wharton her “compunction.” (Melville’s “sperm” is somewhat misleading, perhaps, when separated from his whales.)

Cumulatively, these facts and figures make “Mauve” an effective craft book. By reminding us that literature is just strings of words and punctuation, Blatt has taken the whiff of the godhead out of it. Writers like to emphasize the psychology in their work, their strenuous labor toward depth and verisimilitude; they’re less inclined to talk about how few decent synonyms exist for “good.” The stats speak a cold truth: there are dozens of prosaic choices behind every artful sentence. Dwelling on this can inoculate writers against the preciousness of the workshop. “Mauve” has no truck with showing instead of telling, no druthers about sense of place or voice. Even in great books, it says, one word follows another, all of them slaves to grammar, sequence, and probability.

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Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia

Stephen Greenblatt writing for The New Yorker
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Stephen Greenblatt writing on what The Merchant of Venice taught him about ethnic hatred and the literary imagination, for The New Yorker

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Last year was the five-hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Venetian ghetto. The Venetians had some uncertainty and disagreement about how to mark this anniversary, and one could see why. Starting in 1516, Jews, who had previously lived in the city wherever they chose, were required by law to reside and to worship in a small, poor area, the site of a former copper foundry. (The Venetian word for such a foundry was geto.) There they were permitted to run pawnshops that lent money at interest. They could emerge during the day to engage in a limited number of occupations—including buying and selling old clothes, laboring on Hebrew books in print workshops, teaching music and dance, and practicing medicine. But at night they were obliged to scuttle back to the ghetto, where they were shut in behind locked gates, guarded by men whose salaries the Jews themselves were required to pay. Jewish physicians were permitted to go out during the night to attend to their Christian patients; no one else could leave until morning.

This is hardly an arrangement to celebrate in the twenty-first century, but it was an early attempt in modern history at a form of modus vivendi that would permit Venetians to live in proximity to an intensely disliked but useful neighbor. The usefulness was not universally acknowledged. At the time, in Italy and elsewhere, itinerant preachers were stirring up mobs to demand the expulsion of the Jews, as had been done recently in Spain and Portugal and, centuries earlier, in England. A scant generation later, Martin Luther, in Germany, urged the Protestant faithful to raze the Jews’ synagogues, schools, and houses, to forbid their rabbis on pain of death to teach, and to burn all Jewish prayer books and Talmudic writings. At the time that the ghetto was created, there were people still living who could remember when three Venetian Jews, accused of the ritual killing of Christians for their blood, were convicted of this entirely fantastical crime and burned to death. In Venice, locking the Jews up at night may have given them a small measure of protection from the paranoid fears of those with whom they dealt during the day. The ghetto was a compromise formation, neither absorption nor expulsion. It was a topographical expression of extreme ambivalence.

Shakespeare could in principle have heard about it, when he sat down to write his comedy; the ghetto had been in existence for some eighty years and there had been many English travellers to Venice. Indeed, there is evidence that the playwright took pains to gather information. For example, he did not have his Jewish characters swear by Muhammad, as fifteenth-century English playwrights did. He clearly grasped not only that Jewish dietary laws prohibited the eating of pork but also that observant Jews often professed to find the very smell of pork disagreeable. He marvellously imagined the way that a Jewish moneylender might use the Bible to construct a witty Midrashic justification of his own profit margin. He had learned that the Rialto was the site for news and for trade, and that Shylock would conduct business there.

But Shakespeare seems not to have understood, or perhaps simply not to have been interested in, the fact that Venice had a ghetto. In whatever he read or heard about the city, he appears to have been struck far less by the separation of Jews and Christians than by the extent of their mutual intercourse. Though Shylock says that he will not pray with the Christians or eat their nonkosher food, he enumerates the many ways in which he routinely interacts with them. “I will buy with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following,” he declares. To audiences in England—a country that had expelled its entire Jewish population in the year 1290 and had allowed no Jews to return—those everyday interactions were the true novelty.

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Turkey’s Writers Face Yet More Trials

Aysegul Sert writing for the New Yorker
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Aysegul Sert writing about the current state of author prosecution in Turkey for the New Yorker:

On a sweltering afternoon in Istanbul last summer, loud noises woke the Turkish novelist Aslı Erdoğan from a nap. “Open, police! Open, or we will break the door,” a voice called. When Erdoğan, an award-winning writer, unlocked her door, the cold muzzle of an automatic rifle was placed against her chest. Soldiers in black masks and bulletproof vests barged in, shouting “Clean!” as they moved through each room. Erdogan, who is fifty years old, was alone in her apartment. The men, Turkish special forces soldiers, left after the arrival of dozens of members of the Turkish counterterrorism forces. As Erdoğan watched, men scoured every corner of her apartment. Erdoğan, who is not related to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was informed that she was going to be charged with supporting terrorism. The basis for the criminal case, she was told, was her five years of writing articles and serving on the advisory board of a daily newspaper, Özgür Gündem, which the Turkish government said was linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and which was shut down in 2016 but later reëmerged under a different name. After spending seven hours searching through the thirty-five hundred books in Erdoğan’s home library, the officers took six books on Kurdish history with them as evidence.

“Later, the judge asked me about those books,” Erdoğan recalled in an interview earlier this month, in Istanbul. “Is it a crime to read about Kurds in this country? Aren’t they a part of this nation? Not to read about them should be a crime,” she said, as she calmly smoked a cigarette.

When Erdoğan was arraigned before a judge and told the charges she faced, she fainted. She was charged under Article 302 of the Turkish penal code: disrupting the unity and integrity of the state. She was held in solitary confinement for the next five days—the first two of which she was deprived of water—and then jailed with other female prisoners. On Erdoğan’s hundred and thirty-third day in prison, she was given her first opportunity to defend herself in court. Looking thin and tired, she delivered a statement to the judge hearing her case: “I will read my testimony as if there is still rule of law in this country,” she declared. The courtroom microphone was off, though, and the journalists present could barely hear her. Later that night, Erdoğan was released from the Bakırköy state prison, in Istanbul, to a cheering crowd of family and friends. She is out of prison but barred from travelling outside the country, and her trial resumed last week. It was her fourth court appearance since December. She faces a life sentence if convicted.

In a separate trial that began last week, seventeen journalists stand accused of serving as the media arm of the failed July, 2016, coup. They include Ahmet Altan, age sixty-seven, a prominent novelist and journalist; and his younger brother, Mehmet Altan, sixty-four, a distinguished academic and the author of forty books. Prosecutors initially accused the Altans of sending “subliminal messages” to the plotters of the failed coup. “It was the first time in my career that I heard this term,” their lawyer, Veysel Ok, told me, smiling. “It was probably so for the prosecutor who wrote the indictment as well.”

All told, the brothers have spent nearly three hundred days in jail awaiting trial. Based on the charges currently filed against them, the brothers each face three life sentences if convicted. They stand accused of “attempting to overthrow the Turkish Grand National Assembly,” “attempting to overthrow the Government of Turkey,” “attempting to abolish the constitutional order,” and “committing crimes on behalf of an armed terrorist organization without being a member.” Prosecutors are using phone records, and articles the Altans wrote about various topics, among other things, as evidence against them. The oldest article dates back to 2012, four years before last summer’s failed coup. After five consecutive days of hearings, the judge ruled last Friday to continue the pretrial detention of all defendants. The trial is adjourned until September 19th.

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W. G. Sebald, Humorist

James Wood writing for the New Yorker
WG Sebald from the New Yorker

In the New Yorker, James Wood explores the eccentric sense of playfulness in W. G. Sebald’s writing.

I met W. G. Sebald almost twenty years ago, in New York City, when I interviewed him onstage for the PEN American Center. Afterward, we had dinner. It was July, 1997; he was fifty-three. The brief blaze of his international celebrity had been lit a year before, by the publication in English of his mysterious, wayward book “The Emigrants.” In a review, Susan Sontag (who curated the penseries) had forcefully anointed the German writer as a contemporary master.

Not that Sebald seemed to care about that. He was gentle, academic, intensely tactful. His hair was gray, his almost white mustache like frozen water. He resembled photographs of a pensive Walter Benjamin. There was an atmosphere of drifting melancholy about him that, as in his prose, he made almost comic by sly self-consciousness. I remember standing with him in the foyer of the restaurant, where there was some kind of ornamental arrangement that involved leaves floating in a tank. Sebald thought they were elm leaves, which prompted a characteristic reverie. In England, he said, the elms had all but disappeared, ravaged first by Dutch elm disease, and then by the great storm of 1987. All gone, all gone, he murmured. Since I had not read “The Rings of Saturn” (published in German in 1995 but not translated into English until 1998), I didn’t know that he was almost quoting a passage from his own work, where, beautifully, he describes the trees, uprooted after the hurricane, lying on the ground “as if in a swoon.” Still, I was amused even then by how very Sebaldian he sounded, encouraged thus by a glitter in his eyes, and by a slightly sardonic fatigue in his voice.

During dinner, he returned sometimes to that mode, always with a delicate sense of comic timing. Someone at the table asked him if, given the enormous success of his writing, he might be interested in leaving England for a while and working elsewhere. (Sebald taught for more than thirty years, until his death, in 2001, in Norwich, at the University of East Anglia.) Why not New York, for instance? The metropolis was at his feet. How about an easy and well-paid semester at Columbia? It was part question, part flattery. Through round spectacles, Sebald pityingly regarded his interlocutor, and replied with naïve sincerity: “No, I don’t think so.” He added that he was too attached to the old Norfolk rectory he and his family had lived in for years. I asked him what else he liked about England. The English sense of humor, he said. Had I ever seen, he asked, any German comedy shows on television? I had not, and I wondered aloud what they were like. “They are simply . . . indescribable,” he said, stretching out the adjective with a heavy Germanic emphasis, and leaving behind an implication, also comic, that his short reply sufficed as a perfectly comprehensive explanation of the relative merits of English and German humor.

Comedy is hardly the first thing one associates with Sebald’s work, partly because his reputation was quickly associated with the literature of the Holocaust, and is still shaped by the two books of his that deal directly with that catastrophe: “The Emigrants,” a collection of four semi-fictional, history-haunted biographies; and his last book, “Austerlitz” (2001), a novel about a Jewish Welshman who discovers, fairly late in life, that he was born in Prague but had avoided imminent extermination by being sent, at the age of four, to England, in the summer of 1939, on the so-called Kindertransport. The typical Sebaldian character is estranged and isolate, visited by depression and menaced by lunacy, wounded into storytelling by historical trauma. But two other works, “Vertigo” (published in German in 1990 and in English in 1999) and “The Rings of Saturn,” are more various than this, and all of his four major books have an eccentric sense of playfulness.

Rereading him, in handsome new editions of “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” and “The Rings of Saturn” (New Directions), I’m struck by how much funnier his work is than I first took it to be. Consider “The Rings of Saturn” (brilliantly translated by Michael Hulse), in which the Sebald-like narrator spends much of the book tramping around the English county of Suffolk. He muses on the demise of the old country estates, whose hierarchical grandeur never recovered from the societal shifts brought about by the two World Wars. He tells stories from the lives of Joseph Conrad, the translator Edward FitzGerald, and the radical diplomat Roger Casement. He visits a friend, the poet Michael Hamburger, who left Berlin for Britain in 1933, at the age of nine. The tone is elegiac, muffled, and yet curiously intense. The Hamburger visit allows Sebald to take the reader back to the Berlin of the poet’s childhood, a scene he meticulously re-creates with the help of Hamburger’s own memoirs. But he also jokily notes that when they have tea the teapot emits “the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine.”

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The Art and Activism of Grace Paley

Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker
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Alexandra Schwartz explores the relationship between Grace Paley’s politics and her fiction.

She spent her life as a protester. How did she find time to reinvent the American short story?

There’s a case to be made that Grace Paley was first and foremost an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist who managed, in her spare time, to become one of the truly original voices of American fiction in the later twentieth century. Just glance at the “chronology” section of “A Grace Paley Reader” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a welcome new collection of her short stories, nonfiction, and poems, edited by Kevin Bowen and Paley’s daughter, Nora. 1961: Leads her Greenwich Village PTA in protests against atomic testing, founds the Women Strike for Peace, pickets the draft board, receives a Guggenheim Fellowship. 1966: Jailed for civil disobedience on Armed Forces Day, starts teaching at Sarah Lawrence. 1969: Travels to North Vietnam to bring home U.S. prisoners of war, wins an O. Henry Award.

Such political passion may seem in keeping with those times, but Paley didn’t slow down once the flush of the sixties faded. In the mid-seventies, she attended the World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she infuriated Soviet dissidents by demanding that they stand up for the Asian and Latin-American oppressed, too. In the eighties, she travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with mothers of the disappeared, got arrested at a sit-in at a New Hampshire nuclear power plant, and co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And that’s not the half of it. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” The F.B.I. declared her a Communist, dangerous and emotionally unstable. Her file was kept open for thirty years.

Paley was an archetypal Village figure, the five-foot-tall lady with the wild white hair, cracking gum like a teen-ager while handing out leaflets against apartheid from her perch on lower Sixth Avenue. She also lived in Vermont, where her second husband, Bob Nichols, had a farmhouse. In May, 2007, they drove to Burlington to protest their congressman’s support for the Iraq surge. Paley was eighty-four, undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Three months later, she was dead. “My dissent is cheer / a thankless disposition,” she wrote in her poetry collection “Fidelity,” published the following year. That incorrigible cheerfulness carried her to the very end. No one was more grimly adamant that the world was in mortal peril, or had more fun trying to save it from itself.

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Project Exodus

Anthony Lydgate writing for the New Yorker
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Elizabeth Colbert on NASA’s latest OSIRIS-REx mission, for the New Yorker:

The ancient Egyptians believed that the universe emerged from an ocean called Nun, boundless and inert. At the beginning of time, a mound pierced the surface of the waters and rose from the void. Upon the mound stood the sun god Atum, who summoned the cosmos into being. Slowly, nothing became everything. Atum had two children, who had two children of their own: Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. They fell in love, as divine siblings often do, and conceived two sons and two daughters. The firstborn, Osiris, was the rightful ruler of Egypt, but his younger brother, Set, was consumed with jealousy. He murdered Osiris and dismembered his corpse, scattering it in pieces across the kingdom. The remains fertilized the Nile and made the desert bloom.

The story of our solar system, as astrophysicists know it, is not so different. It begins with another vast expanse of inert stuff—a cloud of gas and dust. Some 4.6 billion years ago, the cloud stirred, perhaps troubled by a passing star or the shock waves of a nearby supernova, spreading out into an immense disk that began to spin. At the center of the disk was a white-hot mass of plasma, which devoured most of the material around it and became our sun. Its energy and gravity sorted the rest of the disk by kind. The hardy substances, like rocks and metals, remained close to the center, where they coalesced into the inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The more fragile compounds retreated to the far reaches of the disk, beyond what astronomers call the snow line, forming the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and the frigid remainders beyond (Pluto, the comets, and the embryos of planets that never materialized). The story ends, of course, with life. It’s what happened in the middle—what made the desert bloom—that still has scientists flummoxed.

For a cell to survive, it requires three ingredients: nucleic acids, like DNA and RNA, to guide its development; amino acids to build proteins; and a lipid envelope to protect it from the elements. When life on our planet got its start, nearly four billion years ago, Earth was short on these ingredients. Where did they come from? The prevailing theory centers on a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. It suggests that, at the time, the solar system had not reached its current equipoise; the giant planets were on the move, and their gravity jostled free large numbers of asteroids and comets. Some drifted away into interstellar space, but others rushed inward, battering Earth with rock and ice. The onslaught lasted many millions of years, and though it brought unimaginable ruin it may also have seeded our planet with the chemical precursors of life. Very little now remains of that primordial Earth, but over the years meteorites have provided tantalizing clues of what might have fallen here, Osiris-like, from above. The Murchison meteorite, for instance, which struck rural Australia, in 1969, has been found to contain more than a hundred varieties of amino acid, along with the building blocks of lipids.

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Darling Nikki

Maggie Nelson writing for the New Yorker
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Author Maggie Nelson recalls her first and most formative encounters with Prince, for the New Yorker:

 In 1984, when I was ten, my father died. He was a small man, five-five tops, jammed with energy. I understood. Energy felt to me then, as it does to so many kids, like an unstoppable force run through a kaleidoscope of affect—at times electric, then liquid, popping, burning. Above all, it felt uncontainable. The miracle is that our skin contains it, for the most part. Was I sexual at ten? I don’t know. I know my father died, and then, suddenly, there was Prince.

1984 was also the year of “Purple Rain.” We saw it in the theatres and then my sister and I watched it innumerable times downstairs in our TV room. Our lair. I had already watched and would watch a lot of rock musicals—“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Song Remains the Same,” “Tommy,” “The Wall.” I liked parts of these movies and had moments of cathexis, but nothing really stuck. Maybe because they were full of white British men whose angst was fundamentally inscrutable to me, and seemingly tethered to Margaret Thatcher, whoever that was, or grossly thefted from American blues. Maybe it was because the girls in the movies were sticks—who wanted to be Strawberry Fields, chained up while Aerosmith sings “Come Together” at you menacingly? And while, God knows, I wanted to be the hippie chick conjured in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” I already knew that was just some guy’s dream, because the hippie girls I knew that fit the part either had to go along with their hippie-fascist boyfriends in a haze of suppressed agency or they spoke up and the dudes lost interest “pronto.” Anyway, that girl was pretty and probably liked to get fucked in a field of flowers, blond ringlets spread out on a velvet blanket strewn with empty goblets, but she wasn’t seething with electric energy, she didn’t talk, she didn’t grind.

Then there was “Purple Rain.” Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace. I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front and wore it with skintight crushed-velvet hot pants, laid a full-length mirror on the floor, and slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage. Half naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince is telling us a story. An important one.

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