Category: Profile

Interview: Hisham Matar

New Statesman interviews Hisham Matar
2017_18_q_a_hisham

 The novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist on travelling in time, living without TV and admiring Angela Merkel.

What’s your earliest memory?

Straight lines going up to the sky. I must have been in a pram in Manhattan. My mother was probably on her way to buy the latest Boney M record.

Who is your hero?

It is no longer that possible to have heroes. But before this tragic affliction took hold, and in chronological order, there were my paternal grandfather, Hamed Matar, who fought in the Libyan resistance under Omar al-Mukhtar and bravely took part in several battles against the Italian invaders; the mysterious Native American we called el-Hindi, who used to dive from great heights into the sea near our house in Tripoli; the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy; Malcolm X; the Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter; and Greta Garbo.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Great writing fills me with hopeful enthusiasm and never envy. The last book to do this was The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

I have admired many. Dag Hammarskjöld, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Merkel and the various men and women currently leading the peace process in Colombia are some.

(…)

Interview: James Little by LeRonn P. Brooks

Part of BOMB's Oral History Project, documenting the life stories of New York City's African American artists
464937842-04142017-james-little-bomb-35

James Little has worked nearly half a century at mastering the craft of painting. While our conversation here delves into his painterly “alchemy”—he makes all his own paints and mixes beeswax and varnish into it—it also documents a life in painting. Born into a family of artisans with high expectations in a segregated Memphis, the artist learned the value of hard work, creativity, and persistence. His experimentation with the transformative properties of his materials reflects these emphases, and his search for excellence mirrors the work ethic of the community that raised him. This is to say that memory has its textures and its colors—their own connotative ends; Little’s paintings demonstrate a quest for the perfection of craft, but do not covet certainty despite the precision with which they are ordered. His paintings are guided by intuitive responses to form, color, and feeling. This approach is not overly calculated, though its complexity may suggest so. His expression is personal—visceral exchanges between memory and its hues, between emotion and the logistics of its use, between logic’s place in the fog of the human heart, and the ways that rationale can be envisioned as painterly “surface.” Here, to speak solely of order is to imply, in some way, process, but this implication does not necessarily suggest the course of a method as the ends of his labor’s purpose. Little’s “purpose” cannot be narrowly defined by his methods nor is it all a simple matter of procedure.The imagination has its own speculative ends and its interchanges with the world are, in Little’s paintings, as vibrant and curiously bedecked as any prism thread with light. What follows is a conversation about artistic vision, practice, and the importance of perseverance. It is a document concerned with valuing painting as of form of experiential evidence, and the imagination as a vivid context for human worth, history’s propositions, and a life’s purpose. 

— LeRonn P. Brooks

LeRonn P. Brooks So James, I’d like to start by speaking about your childhood in Memphis, before you became an artist. What was the South like when you were a child?  

James Little Memphis was a very segregated city when I was growing up in the ’60s. It’s just north of the Mississippi border. My family is from Mississippi. My father, Rogers Little, his family migrated from Georgia. There were a lot of Irish, Native American, and black people in his family. My mother’s family came out of the Carolinas and the West Indies. Somehow, she ended up in Mississippi. That’s where my mother was born along with a lot of her siblings. When I was growing up we were very poor. And my father worked very hard, so did my mother. But we weren’t as poor as the majority of the people around us. You know, we actually lived pretty well. My mother was a great cook. Both my parents grew up growing their own food. They knew how to survive. They were very efficient, hard-working, and God-fearing people. But you know, that was kind of the way it was. 

(…)

D. T. Max profiles Hans Ulrich Obrist

In the New Yorker
141208_r25847-847

In the new issue of the New Yorker, D. T. Max, David Foster Wallace’s biographer, profiles Hans Ulrich Obrist. It’s a somewhat ambiguous portrait, with some back-handed compliments (from Ed Ruscha, for example). The story of how he started out is particularly impressive:

Obrist was born in Zurich and grew up in a small town near Lake Constance. His father was a comptroller in the construction industry, his mother a grade-school teacher. An only child, he found school “too slow,” and other Swiss found his vitality off-putting. “People would always say that I should go to Germany,” he remembered. His parents were not particularly interested in art, but on several occasions they took him to a monastery library in the nearby city of St. Gallen. He admired the antiquity of the books, the silence, the felt shoes. “You could make an appointment and, with white cloths, touch the books,” he said. “That’s one of my deepest childhood memories.”

When he was around twelve, he took the train to Zurich, where he fell in love with “the long thin figures” at a Giacometti exhibition. Soon he was collecting postcards of famous paintings—“my musée imaginaire,” he calls it. “I would organize them according to criteria: by period, by style, by color.” One day, when he was seventeen, he went to see a show by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss at a Basel museum. He was engrossed by their “Equilibrium” sculptures—delicately balanced metal-and-rubber constructions. He had been reading Vasari’s biographical sketches of the artists of the Renaissance, and it struck Obrist that he could try to meet creators, too. He reached out to Fischli and Weiss with this rap: “I’m a high-school pupil and I’m really, really obsessed by your work and I’d love to visit you.” He told me, “I really didn’t know what I wanted. It was just this desire to find out more.” Fischli and Weiss were amused by the precocious Obrist, and welcomed him to their Zurich studio. They were filming their now famous short film “The Way Things Go,” in which an old tire rolls down a ramp, knocking over a ladder and setting off a chain reaction. On his visit, Obrist discovered a sheet of brown wrapping paper on the floor with the entire Rube Goldberg schema drawn on it. “It was almost like a mind map,” he said.

Soon afterward, Obrist was entranced by a Gerhard Richter exhibition in Bern, and asked Richter if he could visit his studio, in Cologne. “That took courage,” he said. He travelled on the night train from Zurich. “When I arrived, he was working on one of his amazing cycles of abstract paintings,” Obrist said. They talked for ninety minutes. Richter was astonished by Obrist’s passion: “ ‘Possessed’ is the word for Hans Ulrich,” he told me. Richter recommended the music of John Cage. “We discussed chance in paintings and he said he liked playing boules,” Obrist recalled. A few months later, Obrist was in a Cologne park, playing boules with Richter and his friends.

Obrist doggedly arranged to meet other artists whose work he admired. He went to see Alighiero Boetti in Rome. The feverish Boetti may be the only person ever to complain that Obrist didn’t talk fast enough. (In his new book, Obrist writes with delight, “Here was someone with whom I had to struggle to keep up.”) When Obrist asked him how he could be “useful to art,” Boetti pointed out the obvious: that he was born to be a curator.

Obrist wasn’t sure what the job entailed, but he was intuitively drawn to the power of organizing art. As a teen-ager, he visited an exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich: “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “Tendency Toward the Total Work of Art.” It highlighted four selections from the past hundred years of modernism: Duchamp’s enigmatic glass construction “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” and one painting each by Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich. The works had been placed at the center of the Kunsthaus, heightening their effect. Obrist was struck by the intelligence of the man who had organized it: Harald Szeemann. Also a Swiss, Szeemann was one of several curators who had begun to bring a new inventiveness to the age-old job of selecting art to illustrate a theme. Obrist saw the show forty-one times. (Later, of course, he interviewed Szeemann.)

Obrist did not yet feel qualified to put his stamp on the art world. He had the autodidact’s anxiety about not knowing enough. For all his energy, he was not a revolutionary; he was an accumulator of information. But how to find out what artists were doing? “There wasn’t then a place to study,” he said. “I knew of no curator schools.” So he designed his own education. He enrolled at the University of St. Gallen, and majored in economics and social sciences. When not in class, he set out to see as many shows as he could.

Switzerland is well situated if you want to make impulsive trips around Europe. Obrist spoke five languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. (His English was given a boost by Roget’s Thesaurus, and he still keeps a vocabulary list in a blue notebook that he takes with him—among the latest words are “forage” and “hue.”) He took the night train to avoid hotel bills and arrived in a city the next morning. “I would go to every museum and look and look again,” he remembered. Then he visited local artists. He found that he could improve his welcome if he brought news of what he had seen, plus other artists’ gossip and opinions. “I would go from one city to the next, inspired by the monks in the Middle Ages, who would carry knowledge from one monastery to the next monastery,” he said. At Boetti’s suggestion, he also inquired about unrealized projects, as every artist had some and felt passionate about them. Above all, he listened. “I was what the French call être à l’écoute,” he told me. His youthful intensity sometimes raised concern. Louise Bourgeois, after meeting the teen-age Hans Ulrich, sleep-deprived and suffering from a cold, called his mother in Switzerland and urged her to take better care of her son.

In 1991, Obrist, in his early twenties, finally felt ready. By then, he estimates, he had visited tens of thousands of exhibitions and knew more artists than most professional curators. He chose to hold his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. “The kitchen was just another place I kept stacks of books and papers,” he recalled. The minimalist gesture seemed appropriate, both as a reaction to the engorged art market of the eighties and as a reflection of the economic slump across Europe. It was also a playful homage: Harald Szeemann had done an exhibit in an apartment.

The idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special. Among the friends he included was the French painter and sculptor Christian Boltanski. Under the sink, Boltanski projected a film of a lit candle; the flickering could be seen through the gap in the cabinet doors. “It was like a little miracle where you expect it least,” Obrist remembered. He publicized the exhibit through small cards and word of mouth; still, he was relieved that only thirty people came over the three months it was open. “I was still studying and couldn’t have coped with much more,” he said. Among those attending was a curator from the Cartier Foundation, a contemporary-art museum in Paris. Soon afterward, Cartier offered Obrist a three-month fellowship. Obrist took it, leaving Switzerland for good.

Obrist quickly became a figure on the European art circuit. He was a clearing house for news and relationships, and he was generous—no sooner had he met someone than he helped that person connect with others in his widening circle. If he stayed in a hotel, he cleaned out the postcards in the lobby and mailed them to everyone he could think of. “He had these big plastic bags,” Marina Abramović, who met him in Hamburg in 1993, recalled. “I always wanted him to empty them and list all that was inside. . . . He would have information of every single human being—every artist living in a favela!” She remembered him as astonishingly innocent, an adjective that many still use for him. Many artists saw his unchecked commitment as a counterpart to their own. The French artist Philippe Parreno said, “For me, there is no difference between talking to him and talking to other artists. I am engaged at the same level.” Obrist once conducted an interview with Parreno while driving him from the Dublin airport to Connemara, and became so deeply absorbed that he didn’t realize he was on the wrong side of the street.

Obrist continued to set up shows in unusual locations. He put on an exhibit of Richter’s paintings in the country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and a show in a hotel restaurant where Robert Walser, the Swiss writer, used to stop during long walks through the mountains. A third took place in Room 763 at the Hotel Carlton Palace, in Paris, where Obrist was then staying. In one part of the exhibit, called “The Armoire Show,” nine artists created clothes for the closet. With Fischli and Weiss, he toured the Zurich sewer museum. “They had toilets and urinals on plinths and had never heard of Duchamp,” he marvelled. This inspired him to put together “Cloaca Maxima,” which featured art about lavatories and digestion. The show opened in 1994, in and around the Zurich sewers.

Emmanuel Carrère on writing Limonov

In the Paris Review
Eduard Limonov

Emmanuel Carrère is a writer who doesn’t get enough attention. He is one of France’s best, a kind of Geoff Dyer-figure who blends fiction and non-fiction to great effect (although he is less comically inclined). The Adversary, in which the author recounts his attempts to write the true story of a pathological liar who ends up murdering his entire family to cover up his lies, is a good place to start. Limonov, his latest book published in English about the Russian dissident writer Eduard Limonov (pictured above), is also an excellent book. Carrère’s Paris Review interview, published last autumn, provides a good introduction to his work:

INTERVIEWER

We come to your last book, Limonov, which is again nonfiction. Who is Limonov?

CARRÈRE

Eduard Limonov is a Russian writer who is about seventy. I knew him in the eighties in Paris. The Soviet-era writers at the time were mostly dissidents with huge beards. Limonov was more of a punk. He was an underground prodigy under Brezhnev in Moscow. He had emigrated to the United States, been a bum and then a billionaire’s butler. He had a kind of Jack London life, which he wrote about in autobiographies that are actually very good, very simple and direct.

Then came the fall of the Soviet empire and things got strange. He went off to the Balkans and started fighting with the Serbs. He became a kind of crypto-fascist. It was a little like finding out a friend from high school had joined al-Qaeda. But time went by and I didn’t give it much thought. Then the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, and I went to cover it. I was amazed to discover that in the little world of liberal democrats around Politkovskaya, Limonov was considered a fantastic guy. It was as if Bernard-Henri Lévy and Bernard Kouchner suddenly said, Marine Le Pen, now she’s great. I was so intrigued that, in 2007, I decided to go see Limonov. I spent two weeks with him trying to understand this strange political and personal trajectory.

INTERVIEWER

The mystery of fascism? Was that what intrigued you?

CARRÈRE

I remember the exact moment I decided to go from reporting to writing a book. Limonov had spent three years in a labor camp in the Volga, a kind of model prison, very modern, which is shown to visitors as a shining example of how penitentiaries have improved in Russia. Limonov told me that the sinks were the same ones he had seen in a super-hip hotel in New York, designed by Philippe Starck. He said to me, Nobody in that prison could possibly know that hotel in New York. And none of the hotel’s clients could possibly have any idea what this prison was like. How many people in the world have had such radically different experiences? He was really proud of that, and I don’t blame him. My socioeconomic experience is relatively narrow. I went from an intellectual bourgeois family in the 16th arrondissement to become a bourgeois bohemian in the 10th. So these trajectories of the little boy in the African village who becomes the UN secretary-general or the little girl from east bumfuck in Russia who becomes an international supermodel fill me with wonder. I have to admire that amplitude of experience, the ability to integrate completely different values and ways of thinking. Limonov’s story, from that point of view, is fabulous. It’s a picaresque novel that also allowed me to cover fifty years of history, the end of the Soviet era, and the mess that followed. I’m surprised that the book has received the unanimously warm reception of the last one.

Nobody’s Protest Novel

A critical perspective on Tao Lin's literary career thus far
Tao Lin

This is quite possibly the most in-depth critical analysis of Tao Lin’s work that exists. Written by Frank Guan for n+1‘s latest issue, it covers everything he’s ever written. Also, typically for an n+1 essay, it blends memoir with criticism:

Under pal, fluorescent lighting, I encountered “Tao Lin” for the first time in the computer lab of Potter Hall, the dormitory I was registered to live in for my senior year of college in Northern California, lasting from September 2008 to June 2009. I can’t be more precise than that about the time: it wasn’t an especially profound engagement, and the lab, unscheduled, open all the time to anyone who had a key, seemed as immemorial as the climate outside, just past the windows, not to mention I was reading an ephemeral source of news.

The Gawker article was half bemused and half dismissive; it was probably the one by Moe Tkacik posted on August 22, 2008, but read sometime later than that date. The point was that I learned of the existence of Tao Lin, a novelist selling shares of his not yet published—Gawker claimed it hadn’t yet been written—novel. I thought something neutrally along the lines of “Asian” and “Andy Warhol,” and didn’t hear or think about him for about the next five years.

It was a strange last year of school, a period of partial disembodiment and general, even multitracked, confusion; I spent most of my time on or near a futon in a graduate housing residence where my friend Ben Wang, pursuing a master’s in chemical engineering, and his girlfriend, Mariko Kotani, occupied a bedroom. I had known them since our freshman year, but they had graduated on time. Helplessly grateful for their hospitality, I failed to say so to them as often as I should have. I just hoped they understood, silently. Ben lent me his old laptop, a Dell, I think; I used it to watch Koreans expend enormous energies playing, live, professionally, and on competing teams, a real-time strategy computer game called Starcraft: Brood War. I also played Civilization III and, when Ben and Mariko were awake and interested, the World Tour version of Guitar Hero. I was in some classes, but none of the reading material, aside fromFrankenstein and certain lines by several marginal Victorian poets (“So far between my pleasures are and few”), was especially memorable.

Given my time at college, grad school seemed preposterous. The job market for my kind was laughable. In every way, I was exhausted. New York, perhaps? But media sometimes have overarching messages, and Gawker’s seemed to be, Don’t go to New York, ever; to hold out hope, I creatively misread this as, Don’t go to New York with nothing. I decided to finish my translations into English of a notorious French poet, then go to New York, where I would, “somehow,” I thought, get them published.

And I went home to my family’s countryside estate. It was almost like an old Eurasian novel—except by “countryside estate” I mean the cheapest house in the “estates” section of a subdivision of a white-flight suburb roughly fifteen miles northeast of Louisville, a house whose installments the family had only just paid off, its first one ever in America. Still, why not treat it like a novel, if only, like The Idiot, to skip time without explaining? Three years passed; I flew from Louisville to LaGuardia, with a changeover at Baltimore, in August 2012; if the Baudelaire had been published, don’t you think that I’d be telling you about it?

I met Tao Lin in person this past summer at a spacious Dumbo bookstore called the Powerhouse Arena, where an event to celebrate the launch of his new novel was being held. I hadn’t come because I’d heard more about him. A close friend of a new friend (they had both been interns at the same publishing house) of a friend (they had both attended Yale) had become an editor, edited Taipei: it was his event, his victory as well. I debated buying a copy and decided, curiously, that I would. When I offered Tao a black ballpoint pen to sign, he held up, in a wordless and, I thought, amusing way, the black marker he’d been using.

Five days later I referred to myself, in an email to a friend, as being “absurdly grateful” for the book. I told her that I planned to write about it. I typed that I was absolutely sure that no one could explain Taipei more thoroughly than me. The book possessed a firm and eerie tone, a tone predicated on a lucid knowledge of the difficulty of its own transmission, and there was warmth to it as well, albeit tenuous—warmth engaged in a quiet, violent struggle to emerge from lukewarmth. The book was difficult—not ostentatiously so, but in a necessary manner: it was, unmistakably, I felt, created by a human being not because he could afford to show it off to others, but because, in relation to himself, he couldn’t afford not to comprehend or to express: powerfully, elaborately, and succinctly, without vanity or malice, it said the things he had to, and it left.

Oscar Murillo and the ‘current state of the art world’

In New York Magazine
Oscar Murillo

Apparently art collectors ‘have come to understand Murillo as a new Basquiat’. After all, he is ‘black, ambitious, and engaged with both art history and graffiti’ — and ‘he even shared a hairstyle with the late artist’. Nonetheless, this is an interesting piece on the ‘current state of the art world’, and how collectors are skewing the process by which an artist might be elevated to ‘greatness’:

The 28-year-old Colombian-born art­ist Oscar Murillo has had a very good couple of years and has paid for it with a very bad couple of months. Until April, when he installed an elaborate chocolate factory inside one of blue-chip David Zwirner’s big-box spaces in Chelsea, he’d never had a solo show in New York. And yet astronomical sales of his scribbly, urgent, and defiantly un-precious paintings—which he makes using a broomstick and sometimes stitches together from multiple canvases, often feature “dirt” among their listed materials, and are tagged with large enigmatic words (YOGA, CHORIZO, MILK)—had made him perhaps the most talked-about young artist in the world.

Back in September, a Murillo that had been bought for $7,000 in 2011 was auctioned for $401,000 at Phillips; in February, a three-year-old painting, with BURRITO written on it, sold for $322,000 at Christie’s, and the prices of stacks of his other works had soared, too, appreciating by as much as 3,000 percent in just two years. It may seem crass to describe the arrival of a new painter by tracing the trajectory of his sales (not to mention none of that resale loot went to the artist but to those who had bought his work when it was cheap). And yet his story is impossible to tell otherwise; even the critical backlash is driven less by skepticism about his paintings (which many haven’t had the opportunity to see in person) than by a general anxiety about what fast money is doing to the art world and to those non-financiers who used to curate and adjudicate it. As the art adviser Allan Schwartzman predicted about Murillo earlier this year, “Almost any artist who gets that much attention so early on in his career is destined for failure.”

 

 

John Jeremiah Sullivan on Donald Antrim

A profile in the New York Times magazine
21antrim1-master675

One of the best essayists we have on one of the best writers of fiction we have in the New York Times Magazine:

Of the qualities that set Antrim apart from the group of writers he’s often casually lumped in with or excluded from — the Eugenides-­Franzen-Lethem-Means-Saunders-Wallace cluster of cerebral, white-male, Northern fiction makers born around 1960 — it may be this predilection for characters “not necessarily redeemed” that offers the neatest distinction. It’s not that those other writers don’t ever do evil characters or antiheroes or that they all write tidy, hopeful plots. It’s not even that Antrim’s­ characters are beyond the pale in their badness, in a Cormac McCarthy manner — they aren’t psychopathic (except insofar as being human may involve being a little bit psychopathic). It’s more the case that Antrim’s fictional universe is different. It doesn’t bend toward justice, not even the kind that knows there is none but sort of hopes art can provide absolution. His universe bends — it is defi­nitely bent — but always toward greater absurdity (in both funny and frightening guises).

Some critics have lamented over the years that his characters don’t really “change,” but they do; it’s just that they devolve, they go mad. Mr. Robinson, man and book, certainly does, in a closing passage that is both unprintable by this magazine and unwritable by any other novelist I’ve heard of, except maybe the Mississippi writer Barry Hannah in his early-1980s “Ray” period. That echo calls to mind another thing dividing Antrim from his better-known peers, that he doesn’t really come from the North, despite having made his whole career there, living in Brooklyn in a small apartment he calls “a good place to be for now for 22 years,” where he reportedly gives unforget­table dinner parties (great cooking, great stereo) throughout which everyone sits on the floor. He works in a spartan room with a plain, black desk and shelves of books, papers on the wall and a two-volume O.E.D. (the pretty one, with the little drawer for the magnifying glass).

On Alain & Catherine Robbe-Grillet

Les Robbe-Grillet

Great piece by Adam Shatz on the life and work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and his wife Catherine, also known as Jean de Berg, written on the occasion of the release of A Sentimental Novel by Dalkey Archive Press: 

The virile looks, however, were deceptive, as his wife Catherine discovered. She was the daughter of Armenians from Iran; they met in 1951 in the Gare de Lyon, as they were both boarding a train to Istanbul. He was instantly taken by her. Barely out of her teens, not quite five feet tall and only forty kilos, Catherine Rstakian ‘looked so young then that everyone thought she was still a child’. She inspired in him (as he later wrote) ‘desperate feelings of paternal love – incestuous, needless to say’. The relationship began immediately, but with one condition, imposed by Catherine: there could be no penetration, since she had undergone a painful clandestine abortion the year before and didn’t want to risk another. Six years later, on a boat from Zadar to Dubrovnik, she changed her mind, only to learn that her fiancé was impotent. He had other things in mind for his ‘petite fille’, as he called her. ‘His fantasies turned obsessively around sadistic domination of (very) young women, by default little girls,’ she wrote in her memoir of their life together, Alain. He gave her ‘drawings of little girls, bloodied’. (‘Reassure yourself, he never transgressed the limits of the law,’ she adds.) Shortly after they were married in 1957, they drew up a contract in five pages, outlining the ‘special rights of the husband over his young wife, during private séances’, where she would submit to torture, whipping and other humiliations. If she performed her duties with ‘kindness and effort’, she would be paid in cash, which she could use for ‘expensive holidays, private purchases, or lavish generosity on behalf of third parties’.

Catherine Robbe-Grillet never signed the contract, which ‘clashed with my erotic imagination’: ‘A Master imposed himself, he didn’t negotiate.’ Writing under the male pseudonym Jean de Berg, she had explored her erotic imagination in an S&M novel,L’Image, published in 1956 by Minuit. He respected her wishes, and never asked for an explanation. When they moved into the Château du Mesnil-au-Grain, a 17th-century mansion in Normandy, it was Catherine, not Alain, who became the house dominatrix – France’s most legendary practitioner – as if she were ‘substituting myself for Alain’. He was remarkably solicitous of her needs, and she of his. He welcomed her lover, Vincent, so long as Vincent agreed to be his disciple (there could only be one Master in the house). She also shared her mistresses with him, and dressed up as Lolita when they had dinner with Nabokov. She was ‘content, even proud’, when Alain fell for Catherine Jourdain, a stunning blonde who seduced him on the beach in Djerba, where he was directing her in his 1969 film L’Eden et après; she read every letter he wrote to Jourdain. The affair appears to have been the closest thing to a conventional heterosexual relationship he had, but he was overwhelmed by her ‘voraciousness’ in bed, and she failed to be ‘the docile slave he dreamed of’. When the affair ended, Robbe-Grillet lost interest in sex. He felt burdened when Catherine offered him a close friend of hers as a birthday gift in 1975; the next year he announced his retirement from ‘all erotic activity between two people or with several’. From then on, she says, he ‘isolated himself in an ivory tower populated with prepubescent fantasies, in the pursuit, in his “retirement”, of the waking dreams in his Roman sentimental – reveries of a solitary sadist.’

Lunch with Bob Silvers

New York Review of Books Turns 50

The New York Review of Books turns 50 years old this year. Emily Stokes had lunch with Bob Silvers to talk about it:

As an editor working at a literary magazine, I find Silvers’ work ethic inspiring, if hard to mimic; he is in the office seven days a week, often until midnight, where he keeps a bed in a cupboard. He edits every piece in the NYRB himself. Contributors speak of his long polite memos revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure subjects, as well as a disregard for normal working hours; many have stories of receiving clippings and queries from “Bob” in the middle of the night or as they sit down to Christmas lunch.

(…)

Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by “reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted”, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles. “You see something in a piece that you can’t understand, and you have to say, ‘Can it be clearer?’ Issues that are left out, you have to raise them. You see dead or tired metaphors, you have to get rid of them.” He pokes at the sprouts in his little bowl, explaining how various phrases are tired or misused – “compelling”, “key”, “massive”, “context” – before looking down. “On the table!” he cries. The metaphorical table, he says, is now terribly overburdened, “with ‘issues’, ‘phrases’, ‘treaties’, ‘wars’ … ” He dips a sprout into his soup, absent-mindedly.

Ian Parker on Edward St Aubyn

Ian Parker on Edward St Aubyn

Ian Parker in the New Yorker on the novelist Edward St Aubyn — a man who ‘has the air of someone who is puzzled, and rather impressed, to find that he is not dead’:

Toward the end of his three-year course, a generous but too hopeful professor suggested to him that, with effort, he could do very well on his final examinations. Not long before this conversation, St. Aubyn had stopped breathing in the back of an ambulance between his London apartment and Charing Cross Hospital, after an overdose. Feeling that he “had to confess,” St. Aubyn said, “Well, there is a problem—I am a heroin addict.” The professor was concerned. “He said, ‘Do you have a television?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Oh, do get one, they’re very relaxing.’ ” St. Aubyn laughed. “The Oxford University recovery program. I bought a television and took it back to my Oxford flat, and watched a lot of daytime television.” The university awarded him the lowest possible class of degree: a pass.

On our walk through Oxford, we passed Keble, his college, and he mentioned that, in 1982, during the vacation before final exams, he had attempted replacing heroin with whiskey and Valium. Waiting in a pharmacy to fill his Valium prescription, he met Nicola Shulman, the daughter of well-known journalists. Shulman became his partner until the end of the decade. She was having a sunnier experience at Oxford. The election of a Conservative government, in 1979, and the success of such period dramas as “Brideshead Revisited” had made it newly fashionable for students to participate in moneyed, black-tie frolics. (Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty” captures the moment.) Shulman’s extended circle, which St. Aubyn joined, included Hugh Grant and Nigella Lawson, whose father was one of Margaret Thatcher’s ministers. The previous summer, Lawson had been photographed dangling a croquet mallet out of a sedan chair carried, on poles, by four young men.

St. Aubyn could play the part. He was not quite an aristocrat; an English peer, when recently asked to identify St. Aubyn’s place in the country’s upper classes, paused for a long time and then said, “Well, he’s upper-middle-class, isn’t he?” But St. Aubyn said “huff” for “have,” and “orf” for “off.” Oliver James is sure that St. Aubyn has never worn a pair of jeans: “He always dressed like, and had the manners of, a toff.” And St. Aubyn was attractive, thanks, in part, to his mixture of vulnerability and predatoriness. One observer described him as a “golden lamb” with “very beautiful soft skin and wonderful wavy hair.”

 

Fitz Carraldo Editions