Category: Review

At Tate Modern: Joan Jonas

Brian Dillon for the London Review of Books
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Brian Dillon reviews Joan Jonas at Tate Modern for the LRB:

Joan Jonas bought her first video camera, a Sony Portapak, also known as the Video Rover, on a trip to Japan in 1970. In the history of video art, there is no more celebrated piece of kit. It’s said that on its release in 1965 Nam June Paik was the first artist to start using this newly consumer-priced set-up. Andy Warhol’s videos of the same year (including a dazed portrait of Edie Sedgwick) were made with a large borrowed Philips camera, but he too began using the smaller and simpler Sony in 1970. William Eggleston bought two, stuck fancier lenses on them, and documented the Memphis demi-monde for his film Stranded in Canton. Jonas, who at this point had worked mostly in performance and made one short film, realised that the combination of camera, monitor and recorder would allow her to see results straight away in her studio. Already preoccupied by mirrors and mirroring – Borges was an influence – she turned the Portapak on herself and executed what Rosalind Krauss would later call a ‘weightless fall through the suspended space of narcissism’.

‘Narcissism’ is not exactly a judgment, more a description of process. In her earliest videos, which one comes across quickly in Tate Modern’s ambitious but sometimes frustrating survey (until 5 August), Jonas appears as Organic Honey: a feathered 1930s-style starlet, wearing a close-fitting mask from an erotica store on Manhattan’s 42nd Street. In blurry black and white, Organic Honey stares into a broken mirror, then back at the camera. She distorts her features by pressing her face to a large glass jar full of water, into which she tosses coins as if it were a lucky fountain. The enigmatic action is periodically accompanied by loud electronic buzzing. There are more mirrors: small and round, large and triangular, close-up and getting smashed with a hammer. Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972) is a study of pictorial space, the performing body and Jonas’s relationship with certain eloquent objects, whose outlines she draws frenziedly: old dolls and fans inherited from her grandmother.

Though she is commonly referred to as a performance artist, both the content and form of Jonas’s videos from the 1970s make a good case for seeing her as a major figure in the medium. Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (1973) is shown in the same room at Tate Modern. This time, Organic Honey examines her naked body with a handheld mirror, performs a belly dance, and jumps up and down in time with a regular upwards slippage of the video image. (Jonas tweaked the vertical hold on a monitor to make it break into something resembling the frames of a film, and then trained a second camera on this glitchy video feed.) Elsewhere in the exhibition, tucked a little shamefully into a corner, is the sparse installation Glass Puzzle II (1974/2000). Projected in black and white, Jonas and the artist Lois Lane pose (to a reggae soundtrack) in attitudes based on E.J. Bellocq’s famous photographs of prostitutes in Storyville, New Orleans, in the 1910s. There’s a child’s desk in the foreground of this video, and a later copy of it in the gallery. Nearby, a small colour monitor shows the two women standing beneath a horizontal pole that swings back and forth: a reminder that Jonas is as interested in minimally sculptural forms as she is in any sort of external reference point.

Glass Puzzle II operates very well as a single-channel video: a conceptually smart and formally arresting work in itself, and the record of an unrehearsed performance at Jonas’s SoHo loft. But like much of her art it has been reconfigured as a dispersed set of objects in the gallery, including props and images, which may function without the artist’s presence, and so provoke the question of where and how each of these categories – video, performance and installation – abuts or bleeds into the others. In 1976 Jonas had an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where she began calling her installations ‘stage sets’ – these could incorporate performances, or stand in for them. The Juniper Tree, from the same year, was originally conceived as a performance for children, and is based on the Grimm tale of the same title, which the poet Susan Howe, an old friend, had recommended. (A young boy is beheaded by his wicked stepmother, served up to his father, reincarnated as an avenging bird.) The ‘stage set’ version at Tate Modern, constructed in 1994, has a recording of Jonas reading the story, projected slides of various performances of the work and an assemblage of paintings, props and costumes. It feels dense and lurid and generous, even in the absence of Jonas and her collaborators.

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On Sophie Calle

Nico Israel for 4Columns
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For 4Columns Nico Israel reviews Sophie Calle’s exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, currently running at Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris.

“Fish for your ideas from your fishmonger,” recommends an old prefabricated sign Sophie Calle saw in an Arles fish market shortly after her father died, then later bought and placed near the entrance of her current Paris exhibition. Writing in chalk on the sign, menu-du-jour style, the artist briefly recounts how, depressed and devoid of ideas, she went to see Sylvain, her fishmonger, to ask him for his help. In a four-minute accompanying video, Sylvain listens sympathetically to her as Calle describes her plight, but he claims to know nothing about art. When pressed, he says he likes paintings and sculptures, especially the kind that are “well executed”; he has no patience for abstraction, much less the kind of conceptual photographs, films, texts, and installations Calle tells him in an uncondescending way that she herself makes (and is at that moment making with his participation). But he does, he notes, think you can do things with salmon; they used to make shoes out of the fish’s skin. Next to the video monitor appears a sculpture with a school of wax-molded and pink- and black-painted “salmons.” On nearby walls are photographs from numerous different American cemeteries of headstones that say, simply, “Father.”

This jarring combination of mourning and humor, collaboration and imposition, intimacy and abjection characterizes much of Calle’s art in the show, which includes both new pieces and reactivated work from earlier in her career. The exhibition venue, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, occupies an imposing seventeenth-century mansion full of taxidermied wild animals, trophies, and bric-a-brac; in 1967 André Malraux (of Le musée imaginaire renown) turned it into a public institution dedicated to investigating the relationship between human beings and animals. The museum was renovated and extended about a decade ago, and since then a couple dozen artists have responded to the space in shows that usually occupy small parts of the capacious mansion; Paris-born Calle was invited by curator Sonia Voss to take over the whole museum. The resulting exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, allures, ensnares, and slays.

The show’s title appropriates a slogan from a 1960s ad campaign for a French bullet company in which a valet congratulates his gentleman employer for being an excellent marksman. In the French hunting lexicon, doubler means to kill two animals with two consecutive, near simultaneous shots—and in the exhibition Calle repeatedly reflects on the deaths, in 2014–15, of both her father, a well-known surgeon and art collector, and her housecat Souris (Mouse). There is a photographic portrait of her father shortly before his death superimposed over a prose poem/lament about him, whose intimacy is astonishing. Nearby are pictures of black-and-white Souris in life and death. In her accompanying writings, Calle notes that Souris was the “name she pronounced most in her life”; she also transcribes the unintentionally callous words her friends and acquaintances used (in notes, voice mails, etc.) in response to the passing of her animal companion of eighteen years. Calle is almost certainly aware of critiques about man-centered ideas of “nature,” and of the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals (not to mention of maudlin sentimentality)—but isn’t interested in them. What she is interested in is mourning and longing; where the exhibition really surprises is by putting mourning and longing in the conceptual frame of la chasse et la nature.

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The Poet and the Jailer: Cracking the US Prison System

Steven Zultanski on Jackie Wang for frieze
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For frieze, Steven Zultanski reviews Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, forthcoming from Semiotext(e).

Neither a straightforward scholarly book nor a squarely literary experiment, Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in February, confronts mass incarceration in the US by delving into the processes that feed into and maintain the prison system: anti-black racism, predatory lending, algorithmic policing, privatized prisons, credit scams, data analytics and histories of exclusion. Its argument is trenchant, but it’s also beautifully written; it slides between topics with conceptual agility and stylistic flair, tying histories together without conflating them. In this way, Wang is able to build a complex portrait of systemic violence while avoiding overwhelming paranoia. The result is a book that moves between bleak but clear-eyed analyses and, occasionally, surprising moments of hope.

Today, Wang argues, supposedly ‘race-neutral’ technologies (credit scoring, data mining, law enforcement software) justify and continue long-standing racist policies, providing them with a veneer of scientific legitimacy. Moreover, such faux-objective, technocratic practices are a means of rationalizing expropriation: states, cities and municipalities attempt to solve their budgetary dilemmas by extracting money from residents – in the form of fines – and building their local economies around policing and jails (while the budgets for infrastructure and services are cut). Along with an ideology that holds up the computational as disinterested and unbiased, these policies are buffered by dominant discourses that frame poverty and incarceration as matters of personal responsibility. The burden of recurrent capitalist crises is thus recast in moral and rational terms and shifted onto the shoulders of the poor:

‘Having a bad credit score is seen as a moral failing rather than merely an index of structural inequality … I hold that risk is a new colour-blind racism, for it enshrines already-existing social and economic inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity … Furthermore, risk scoring is a practice that fractures the population into the categories of deserving and undeserving.’

While this analysis goes a long way toward examining the social logics that uphold mass incarceration, Wang takes the argument further; she continually spins her inquiry in new directions. Through parallel discussions of credit scores, which don’t simply record one’s economic history, but supposedly anticipate one’s future behaviour, and algorithmic policing, which forecasts future crimes based on the location of past crimes, resulting in the increased policing of certain areas, Carceral Capitalism forefronts how technocracy is not merely analytical, but predictive: criminality and poverty are self-fulfilling prophecies of capitalist rationality.

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Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula M. Becker by Marie Darrieussecq (trans. Penny Hueston)

Jonathan Gibbs for Minor Literatures
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Jonathan Gibbs reviews Marie Darrieussecq’s biography of Paula M. Becker for Minor Literatures:

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Modersohn-Becker is not widely unknown, outside Germany at least; there are exhibitions, from time to time, and a biography and a monograph in English, but Darrieussecq’s book is primarily a work of recuperation, and avowedly so. Like Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (Les Fugitives), about the American actor and director, it is not just a work of scholarship, but a creative act, a tribute from one artist to another. Indeed, a tribute from an artist lucky (or privileged) enough to have lived to see success, to one who died before she could produce all she was capable of.

The facts, then: Paula Becker was born in 1876 in Dresden. She studied art in Paris in 1900, when Cézanne was setting the city alight with his pre-Modernist visions, and where women could finally enrol in proper art academies – although they paid more than men to do so, and the male life models wore underpants. (To protect what? The models’ modesty? The artists’ morals?)

1900 was also the year that Paula met the poet Rilke, who was visiting the artists’ colony in Worpswede, where she was a regular. Their intense friendship survived, on and off, for the rest of her life, through letters, exchanges of their work, and frequent meetings. Rilke, whom she painted, and who wrote the poem ‘Requiem for a Friend’ about her on the first anniversary of her death, was, of course, less exclusive in his intensities, especially with women. In fact, he married Paula’s friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff (disastrously). Paula married one of the Worpswede painters, Otto Modersohn, in 1901, only to leave him five years later, returning to Paris to paint. In 1907 they were reunited, and Paula became pregnant. She died of an embolism, weeks after the birth of her daughter. She was 31 years old. Her last word, after her collapse, was “Schade”: what a shame; what a pity.

It’s that sense of pity and waste that drives Darrieussecq’s book, the sense of injustice both in the conditions of women artists’ existence at a time when art and society were taking great bounds forward, and in her treatment since. Why hasn’t everyone heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker? She was, Darrieussecq points out, the first woman to paint herself naked, the first woman to paint herself naked and pregnant.

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It is this forthrightness, this political claim-staking, as much as the revealed facts of Modersohn-Becker’s life, that make this such a striking book. It is striking enough in its presentation. Darrieussecq writes in fragments, skipping through the parts of the life that tell her nothing she needs to know. She drops in references to her own life, her own work, her take on what she sees in the paintings. (The translation, by Penny Hueston, is as clear and unfussy as the original.) Darrieussecq complains that the Museum Folkwang in Essen is hiding its sole Modersohn-Becker in the basement, along with work by other woman painters. A footnote says the museum later moved the painting upstairs. Another (translator’s) footnote tells us that, thanks to Darrieussecq’s book, Paris saw its first major retrospective of Modersohn-Becker last year, at the Musée d’Art Moderne.

The act of recuperation does not merely benefit its subject, brought finally into the light; the benevolence reflects onto the recuperating agent, and refracts outwards to the reader. You feel better for having read it. It is constructed so well that you feel better reading it, too.

Sculpting Space: Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner

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Osman Can Yerebakan reviews the current exhibition of Ruth Asawa’s works at David Zwirner New York for BOMB Magazine

In contrast to her tumultuous biography, Asawa’s art contains a reclusive serenity, shrouding a life spent with struggle due to race and identity. California-born Asawa and her siblings grew up in a Japanese immigrant household that was devastated by a six-year separation from their father as the result of his internment along with many other Japanese Americans during World War II. Asawa herself was interned for a year in California and Arkansas. She later attended Milwaukee State Teachers College in order to realize her dream of becoming an art teacher, an attempt hindered by the systematic aversion for employing teachers of Japanese descent. A visit to Mexico to study art played a key role in the formation of her illustrious career. There, Cuban-born industrial designer Clara Porset introduced her to Black Mountain College, where Asawa eventually worked with Josef Albers, immersing herself in a modernist avant-garde that challenged the artistic norms of the time. For the twenty-year old artist, innovation manifested itself in wire, an everyday, humble material that rarely went beyond utilitarian purpose. In Asawa’s hands, lines of thin copper, brass, or iron transformed into harmony.

The premiere of Asawa’s grand oeuvre at David Zwirner does not disappoint. A generous selection of her wire sculptures suspend from the ceiling often slightly above eye level—just enough to let the viewer absorb their meticulous details and celestial presence. Visually, they separate into two categories: circular and vertical. However, at times Asawa blurs the distinction with upright pieces comprised of multiple spheres. In order to plunge into Asawa’s mystical universe, close inspection is essential. Her intricate braids of wire—a material associated with masculine and industrial labor as opposed to yarn’s pigeonholed femininity—float in the air as effortlessly as bubbles. The in-between aesthetic of knitted wire renders them ghostly, yet salient. The sculptures’ unobtrusive postures allow for transparency and fluidity, and they permeate space similar to a puff of smoke.

“Life is like a line: there is a beginning and there is an end,” explains Jonathan Laib, Director at David Zwirner, in his catalogue essay for Christie’s 2015 exhibition, Ruth Asawa: Line by Line, “and Asawa has shown us another truth, another illustrated concept; the idea that there is no beginning or end, that there is a continuation.” Ceaseless wire compositions—nearly all labeled Untitled with extensively descriptive subtitles—defy logic and labor, stunning the viewer with their unassumingly organic forms that in reality are the product of arduous repetition. Particular sculptures convey resonance with the human silhouette through their voluptuous curves and contours that seamlessly bend inward, as Asawa triumphs over her uncluttered medium, merging ardor with the ethereality of tightly woven wire.

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Experimental Zones

Charlie Fox for frieze
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Charlie Fox reviews ‘Basquiat: Boom For Real’: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first UK retrospective at London’s Barbican Centre

Back in 1982, the critic Rene Ricard discerned that Basquiat’s ‘earlier paintings were a logical extension of what you could do with a city wall’. His canvases are experimental zones where he explores the picture as an exploding galaxy of information (Pegasus, 1987) and the portrait as some digressive freak-out: Five Fish Species, 1983, dedicated to William Burroughs, is littered with factoids, quotations and dates drawn from the master’s dark biography. They operate like fields of strangely musical noise: words repeating, odd mixtures of art brut or antique material in duet, favourite themes (fame, death, cities, economics) resurrected or ripped apart. Skunks, leeches, Titian, boxing matches, dogs, Straight, No Chaser (1965) by Thelonious Monk, notebook scrawls about ‘the germs on a spoon behind the oven’: Basquiat turns his brain inside-out in encyclopaedic fashion. This data is also a wormhole of personal code and allusion: severed ears, the word ‘tar’, a feast of snakes hinting at poisons in his system and creeps trying to win his fortune. Sometimes he finds sucker-punch eloquence in drawing little more than a bone or tooth.

The same contrary energies are at play through his raid on art history. Basquiat figured out early that painting could be a patricidal game. (Hoban’s book seethes with his alternate bad feelings towards and eagerness to please his father.) For Untitled (World Trade Towers) (1981), he stages what he calls elsewhere ‘a flashback to his childhood files’ – revisiting the moment when he was hit by a car, aged seven – in the spirit of Cy Twombly with amphetamine psychosis. But for a few gobbets of blood-red gore, the scene is all scary monochrome: electrified Roman numerals mix with wonky alphabets and blurred shadows. Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) maims juicy parts of the genius’s back catalogue, turning the head of Vitruvian Man (1490) into a blast of static. Homage deforms into parody: wicked jokes at the expense of dead elders.

The raw facts of being the rare black kid within the white art world are also at play in his rambunctious attitude to the canon. (One creepy tidbit sees him alter a headshot of Warhol, creating Drella in blackface.) He provided acid commentary on the art world’s crook economics and ominous exclusions from the beginning. Site-specific riddles, Basquiat’s Samo graffiti comes from the same wish to unsettle or seduce the bougie crowd. A room of Henry Flynt photographs track him like a character from downtown folklore, half secret agent, half ghost, the cryptic one-liners appearing between cracked windowpanes and filthy paving slabs, words faint as ectoplasm: ‘Samo as a result of overexposure’. (Is the critic Greg Tate correct that everybody should hear ‘sambo’ stashed inside ‘Samo’, short for ‘same old shit’?) Like Warhol, Basquiat was always conscious of art’s proximity to prank. He scribbles factoids about his big daddy predecessors on brown paper for Untitled (Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Duchamp, Pollock) (1986–87), knowing his hand transforms mere art historical rehash into treasure. It indicates his typical wily self-consciousness about his status as a commodity – Basquiat garlanded his work with copyright symbols – but also his fixation on art history and whatever afterlife it assures.

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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 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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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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Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture Was Worth the Wait

Sam Adams writing for Slate
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Sam Adams reviews Bob Dylan’s long-awaited Nobel Lecture for Slate.

Bob Dylan’s reluctance to even acknowledge he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature, let alone show up to accept it in person, produced plenty of accidental comedy—to say nothing of a pronounced debate over whether songwriting could be considered a branch of literature. But his acceptance speech, which was delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, was charming, and his Nobel Lecture, released in both print and audio form, is thoroughly engrossing.

Not surprisingly, Dylan’s Nobel Lecture is largely concerned with the relationship between literature and music, tracing, in what he admits is “a roundabout way,” a path through the songs and the novels that made the deepest impression on him. Dylan writes (and talks) about internalizing the vernacular of the folk and blues music that first inspired him:

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

And he goes on to pay tribute to three of his favorite written works: Moby DickAll Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. A great storyteller himself, he approaches Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel not as a critic or an analyst, but by slipping into the story and taking his place among his characters:

All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom—Plato, Aristotle, Socrates—what happened to it?  It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions