by Niels Lee
A vapur, via
The nineteenth-century Ottoman writer Ahmed Rasim once sarcastically noted that those living in the Istanbul region of Kadiköy didn't bother to get up for sahur (the early morning meal during Ramadan), because it wouldn’t survive the daily ferry trip they had to take for work. If true, this is not surprising, since when the first Istanbul steamboats were introduced to the empire in the 1850s they were rarely on time, were boarded through notoriously unsanitary harbors, and often lurched from side to side causing passengers seasickness. Yet, the throngs of people who pushed on hungry till sunset still wouldn’t have complained much; before then, small sluggish rowboats with two to eight oars were used to cross or ride along the rough Bosphorus.
However Istanbul’s vapur became, over time, more than a mere means of adequate transportation. As individual ferry companies often docked exclusively at specific ports, each gained a significant following, with aficionados and enthusiasts writing poems praising their steamboat company of choice while satirizing the competition. Rivals of the Sirket-i Hayriye corporation often taunted its supporters with chants such as "these ferries are on the sea but they don't sail" and "these ferries which are on the sea are never repaired.” It would be a mistake to see these benign jabs as simply tongue-in-cheek. As the French critic Théophile Gautier once observed, there wasn't a coffee house (or a barber shop) without various detailed drawings of local steamboats. Given that one out of five commercial establishments in Ottoman Istanbul were cafes, ferry riding seems to have been a serious nineteenth-century pastime, not unlike our modern enthusiasm for sports.
The regional rival eventually died out, but not before the ferries became according to Orhan Pamuk, "such a part of everyday life that they assumed an almost totemic importance." New coal-fired ferries, presumably featuring increased measures to prevent passenger sickness, then appeared. Istanbulites during the middle twentieth-century loved to describe the intricacies of each model as if one were discussing the layers of Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine iconography. This was particularly true for the Pamuk’s father, who could identify each individual ship simply by its silhouette, pointing to a unique hump, chimney, hooked nose, stern, or hull. Pamuk never achieved such aptitude, but the then young artist instead fixated on the smoke coming from the funnels by painting the dark clouds, "the ferries' great gift to the skyline" he once called them, or walked along the city's waterfront to be engulfed by the smoke: "it was as if my world was being wrapped in a black veil."
Many of today's vapur still resemble their previous models—simple white and blue paint, well-aged wooden interior, a panoramic viewing platform, all within a classical frame that deliberately tries to avoid the aesthetics that words such as "modern" or "sleek" usually entail. To nobody's surprise, when the municipal government asked Istanbul residents in 2006 to choose their favorite ferry design for future reference, the majority opted for the more antique frame. As authorities increasingly embrace the construction of tourist traps that either overshadow or reconstruct the city's historical legacies, ferries provide such a certain nostalgic serenity that even selfie-stick swinging travelers take time to gaze at Istanbul from their decks.
A new ferry at left, with an old vapur at right, via Today's Zaman
So bafflement was widespread when ferry aficionados saw the three newly designed ferries that were inaudibly rolled out this summer by Istanbul's Mayor Kadir Topba?. Unkind words were used to describe these boats worth thirteen and one half million euros each—"floating plaza;" "shanty houses;" "tin cans;" "monstrosity of a box"—and deservingly so. The classic benches that flanked the starboard and port were replaced with a massive arch window design that attempts to mimic Bosphorus's waves and the minimization of open space in the bow and stern expectedly hiked the volume of huddled masses. While the modest topside does provide a wide view of the city, the ferry's bridge hovers gloomily above the passenger deck, which is the only place where one can get a truly 360 degree vista. The ferries' tacky and purportedly modern design led one Turkish maritime engineer simply to complain, "Can you picture this ferry in front of Haydarpasa?," the historic neighborhood home to the iconic Ottoman Haydarpasa Terminal and Selimiye Barracks that are both situated near the docks. Granted, the ferries offer better access for the disabled, capacity of up to 700 people, and higher speeds. All are commendable improvements in transportation efficiency, yet conceived with only pragmatic concerns in mind.
It’s fortunate that the local government has responded to the public outcry by canceling orders for six additional ferries and replacing them with new boats resembling the classical design. Such victories are few and far between, especially in a city where the government has been forcefully implementing their now $100 billion worth of infrastructure and development plans. For over a decade the ruling AK party has been demolishing Ottoman-era cinemas to build shopping malls, pressuring poor residents to sell their homes to construct high-rise apartments, and pushing for plans to build an massive artificial canal that will potentially salinate Istanbul's fresh water resources. Even those commuters lucky enough to avoid a "monstrosity of a box" ferry, now won't be able to gaze upon the famed Süleymaniye mosque without noticing three skyscrapers rising from the Zeytinburnu district, ruining one of the most iconic panoramic views Istanbul has to offer. With the AK party regaining its parliamentary majority in Turkey’s recent general election, Istanbul will for the foreseeable future have to bear the weight of these incongruous enterprises.
Turkey’s President Erdogan dreams of building Istanbul into a "Global city" and often presents his construction projects as "a gift to the world." But Istanbul has always been the envy of nations and the classical ferries have been part of the collective urban experience for over a century. No amount of reckless kitsch will propel Istanbul into a new era of commercial prosperity; it will instead push aside, if not bury, the familiar and traditional. Those devoted to a classical city can only hope that the vapur will maintain its historic mold, providing what Gautier described decades ago, an experience of Istanbul's beauty like no other:
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Writing in the Journal, David Aaronovitch desribes Pryce-Jones's life as "so cinematic that you see and hear, rather than read it". Aaronovitch praises the "mournful and funny" book's rich storytelling, calling it "captivating."
You can read more about Fault Lines here.
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Norman Lewis (1909–1979) Seachange, 1975 © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY Oil on canvas, 48 x 78 in. Private Collection
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This week: Edith Wharton, Orson Welles, and the Writing Center Series.
Fiction: "The Field of Honour,” by Edith Wharton (Previously unpublished; printed in the TLS of November 4, 2015): The discovery of a previously unknown work from an esteemed and beloved author is always an occasion in the literary world. Think of all the fuss earlier this year over the publication of a lost Fitzgerald story in The Strand. And so there is considerable excitement surrounding the publication of an Edith Wharton story dating to the First World War in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement. The story, titled “The Field of Honour,” details the war’s effects on personal relationships and also deals with the way the conflict worked to undermine traditional society and speed the pace of modernity. As Alice Kelly, the discoverer of the text, writes, the story is more than a wartime miniature; it is also “a commentary . . . on the relationship between France and America,” something that increasingly occupied Wharton’s expatriate mind as the war dragged on. Wharton’s keen social commentary is on full display in lines like “A queer stick he was—good-looking, tired, disillusioned, without a conviction, and crammed full of prejudice. What could a poor little artless American girl do with a man like that?,” but it is the exploration of the war’s disparate effects on man and woman, France and America, that gives the story its power. —BR
Nonfiction: Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, by Patrick McGilligan (Harper): By the time he was twenty-six years old, Orson Welles had achieved what few people do in their entire lifetimes. Citizen Kane, a movie Welles co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in, left a permanent mark on film history. In Patrick McGilligan’s new biography, Young Orson, he describes the young years of Welles’s development leading up to the making of Citizen Kane. Though perhaps “spoiled” and over-encouraged as a boy, to use his own descriptions of his younger self, signs of his genius were evident early on—even in his school plays. —RH
Poetry: Facts About the Moon: Poems, by Doriane Laux (W. W. Norton & Company): As daylight savings stumbles upon us and day too soon dwindles into darkness, I picked up Doriane Laux's "Facts about the Moon." Though the collection only briefly provides such facts, (according to Laux, the moon is slipping from us an inch and a half each year), her attention focuses mostly on natural binaries as they stand for metaphors of existence: life intersected with death, innocence as it decussates with maturation. But no matter one's age, it's easy to sense what Laux is reaching for in lines like, "I begin thinking about the moonlit path . . . solar eclipses when the moon covered the sun/ so completely there was no corona, only/ a darkness we had no word for." In finishing this collection, it seems this book might be an attempt to explicate this darkness, in which the moon might be a mere conceit for desolation. However, it's in moments when Laux uses nature and quotidian images to explore the omnipresence of this darkness that her phrases illuminate in piercing detail. Yet, through incisive observations, the poems resist cloying the reader with mawkish sentiment by ebbing in and out of nostalgia. In "The Ravens of Denali," which reads like a semi-spiritual lament (she refers to the birds as "Blake's angels") the poem concludes with "Denizens of the frozen north, the last frontier, harbingers of unluck and the cold bleak lack to come." It's November and forty degrees in Riverside Park where I sit reading this piece, so naturally I feel inclined to pause and consider if the black-birds are indeed the true occupants of such “unluck” as Laux suggests. Certainly the frozen North’s bleak cold has some effect on all of us if we choose to live in this "cold bleak lack to come." For Laux, this coldness washes her collection in sensual, wintry allusions. For readers, it pulls us into her stark revelations via a force as strong as the moon's lunar pull. —ID
Art: "Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis," at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Opening November 13): Norman Lewis (1909–1979) processed through the Harlem Renaissance and the New York School with a singularly innovative style. With the conscience of a social realist, he painted as an Abstract Expressionist, drawing inspiration from a circle of artists that included both Romare Bearden and Ad Reinhardt. Opening this Friday at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and curated by Ruth Fine is "Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis," a landmark survey (and the first posthumous retrospective) of this pivotal figure of both black art and American abstraction. —JP
Music: "The Golden Age of the Violin," at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center (November 15): The most peculiar concert program of the fall (and the "wildcard pick" from our season preview podcast) is coming to Alice Tully Hall this Sunday: "The Golden Age of the Violin," presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Oddly enough, the program does not feature the late-Romantic violinistic staples one might expect (the Brahms sonatas, the Franck Sonata, and many more) but instead comprises a set of curiosities mostly drawn from that same era. Strangest of all is the last item on the program, a piece by Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962), a violinist and composer and the first member of the violin pantheon to leave a substantial legacy of recordings. As a composer, he is mostly known for his light pieces for violin and piano: Schön Rosmarin, Tambourin Chinois, and others. On Sunday, CMS musicians will play a string quartet by Kreisler: who knew? —ECS
Other: "Writing Center Series: John Simon," at Hunter College (November 10): John Simon, the frequent New Criterion contributor, is one of the few remaining critics willing to take hard stands against the degradation of our culture. At ninety years old, he is a living treasure—a reminder of less fallow times, when one didn’t have to apologize for intellectually discerning taste. This week brings a treat for all our New York readers, who have the chance to hear John speak this upcoming Tuesday night at Hunter College. The lecture is free and open to the public and those in the New York area should not miss the chance to see Hunter’s Writer-in-Residence display his characteristic wit and erudition. —BR
From the archive: Perennial Paris, by John Simon: On the subject of both France and John Simon, we present his review of Graham Robb’s Parisians.
From our latest issue: Misanthropic nostalgia: On the green movement’s latest agenda.
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Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, admires Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground (1950) in Tehran. Photo: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Recent links of note:
Meet the intellectuals leading France to the right
Sorry Benedict Cumberbatch, but you're wrong about politicians
Whatever Happened to High Culture?: An inquest
Tehran's Modern art could travel to the US
From our pages:
State of nature
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Sakari Oramo, via
Earlier this week, I had a post about Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the Dallas Symphony who had guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic. I said that he was on my short list to succeed Alan Gilbert as the music director of the Phil.—“not that anybody asked for my short list—or long list.” I also said that I would “devote my next post to New York Phil. succession.”
Well, here I am.
My short list is without practical considerations—who would be available, who would be acceptable, etc. I am going entirely on musical considerations.
I suppose my short list would comprise five names. I will give them in alphabetical order: Gergiev, Honeck, Oramo, Salonen, and Van Zweden.
Valery Gergiev and Esa-Pekka Salonen are famous, and have been for many years, so I won’t elaborate on them now. Van Zweden, I discussed a few days ago. Manfred Honeck is the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. And Sakari Oramo is the chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.
I have long been puzzled as to why Oramo has not had a bigger podium—not that there’s anything wrong with Stockholm, and not that there’s anything wrong with Birmingham, where he was before. It’s just that Oramo is a superb conductor. He ought to lead one of the world’s leading orchestras.
His name looks rather Japanese, but he is Finnish. I would pronounce his name Sah-KAR-ee Or-AH-mo. Actually, his name is pronounced, so far as I understand it, SAH-kar-ee OR-ah-mo.
I think of something that Roger Kimball has occasionally said about Walter Bagehot, the nineteenth-century British writer: He would be better known if people could pronounce his name with more confidence. (“Badgitt.”) Because they are unsure how to pronounce his name, they hesitate to mention him, quote him, ask about him, recommend him, etc.
I have long thought the same about Leonardo Sciascia, the twentieth-century Italian writer. His reputation would be far greater in the English-speaking world, I think, if people could confidently pronounce his name (“Shah-shah,” approximately).
To resume the Succession Question: I hope that the Philharmonic will be able to hire on the basis of musical considerations rather than extra-musical considerations—such as race, ethnicity, sex, age, and politics. I am not naive: I know that there are extra-musical considerations and that an organization must put fannies in the seats. The decision to appoint a music director can’t be a simon-pure musical decision.
But shouldn’t it be enough to be a good, or an excellent, or a great conductor? Or almost enough?
I also know, or think I know, that the New York Times must be taken into account. In politics, there is an expression: “a constituency of one.” If you have just one person to please, or one person above all, you have a constituency of one. I imagine that something close to that applies to the New York Philharmonic.
New York is essentially a one-newspaper town, and everybody takes his cues from the Times. Everyone has his opinion shaped by the Times. In fact, people don’t even call it the Times: they call it “the paper.” “Did you see the review in the paper?”
The review of a given performance in the New York Times is called “the review.” Everybody knows what review. I’ll tell you a story from many years ago.
I took a friend of mine to a concert, which I reviewed a day or two later. A few days after that, I saw him again, and he said, with some dismay, “That concert? It wasn’t even reviewed!” He meant, of course, that no review had appeared in the one paper he read.
In pointing out these things, I mean no disrespect to the music staff of the Times, which is first-rate—that begins with the chief, Anthony Tommasini. I am simply reporting a fact of life, or something that I take to be a fact of life.
Back in Detroit, we had an expression: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” My guess is that something like this applies to the Times, where an organization such as the New York Phil. is concerned.
Anyway, I have given you my picks, and I may well have left out some obvious names. Whom would you like to see as music director of the Phil. (and why)? If you’re so inclined, let me know in an e-mail—email@example.com—or in the comments below.
For many years—maybe ten now—I have wanted Antonio Pappano—Sir Tony—of London to be the next music director of the Met. The buzz says that it’ll be Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Write me with your Met choice, too, if you like.
You have my short list, Met-wise—a short list of one! Which is a pretty short list.
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Julian Barnes, via
The explanation of one art form by another, Flaubert said, is a monstrosity. Julian Barnes twice quotes Flaubert's impossible dictum in this collection, if only to dissent. "We remain," he writes, "incorrigibly verbal creatures who love to explain things, to form opinions, to argue." And writers are the least corrigible of all. As Barnes says, when Proust visited a gallery, he would "comment on who the people in the pictures reminded him of in real life." And did not Flaubert, while objecting to the illustration of his novels, write "a great many private words in letters and journals" about art?
Julian Barnes is the Julia Child of French letters, an accomplished translator and domesticator of Gallic flavors for les Anglo-Saxons. In his fiction, Barnes seeks to reconcile the grand rhetorical gestures of the French intellectual tradition with the domestic diffidence of English fiction—the salon scaled down to the sitting room. His art criticism covers the same ground, and by the same pathways. Of the seventeen essays in this collection, twelve trace the French passage "from Romanticism to Realism and into Modernism," from Géricault to Braque, and a thirteenth is on one of Poirot's people, Magritte. Of the remaining four, three are on late twentieth century rosbifs, including Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin, and the last is on a lonely, light American, Claes Oldenburg.
Baudelaire, in the Salon de 1846, defined a good painting as "nature reflected by an artist," and the best criticism as "that painting reflected by an intelligent and sensitive mind." In his Introduction, Barnes admits that he knew little of art as a child. He encountered painting first as "bookish art," and then learned more about it as his interest in literature deepened, because the development of Modernist painting had a "clear narrative": the "journey out of Realism seemed easier to follow in paint than it was in print." The intelligence and sensitivity of Barnes's reflections remain "bookish," and not least because of the intimacy between painting and literature in French modernism, the shared search for Baudelaire's "prodigious harmony of new, unknown, delicate, charming tones."
Gustave Courbet, L'Atelier du peintre, 1854–1855, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Barnes sees like a storyteller. He amalgamates the characteristics of brushwork into a character portrait, then frames that image in its history. The "weighted absences" in Courbet's paintings—the ownerless hat in Demoiselles des bords de la Seine (1856), the corpse in Burial at Ornans (1849–50)—are linked to the "powerful silences" in Courbet's letters. The egotist who poses for a trick photograph—"talking to himself: both parties look engrossed"—is the artist who places himself at the center of L'Atelier du peintre (1854–1855), and the correspondent who never truly corresponds. It is hard, Barnes notes, to think of a major painter who "shows less interest in, or appreciation for, the work of others":
Having established furious selfishness as the keynote of Courbet's character, Barnes then describes Courbet's role as commissar of the arts in the Commune of 1871—fury and selfishness on behalf of the nation; and then his exile, and his death from alcohol-induced dropsy.
The characterization has run from the work to the man, the man to the times, and then back again, to Courbet's apotheosis as a human paint tube. A careful accumulation of images leads to the over-determination that makes character: the spitter of revolutionary bile becoming a fundament of foul waters.
Braque thought that the ideal viewer would say nothing at all in front of a painting. And Barnes wonders whether Proust's rattling through his address book might have been "a deft way of avoiding the direct aesthetic confrontation." But what about afterwards, when the image is in memory, and only words can describe it?
Barnes, who asked in Flaubert's Parrot (1984) if an artist can really be known from the work, has always been fascinated by the emergence of images from historical narratives, and their subsequent submergence. Delacroix, viewed through his notebooks, is shown to be the least Romantic of Romantics. The "largely hidden" personality of Braque is brought into the light by chiarascuro, by psychological comparison to Picasso, son semblable, son frère. Magritte is paired with David Sylvester, then fixed by free association with Dr. Johnson's opinion of Gulliver's Travels, and the Maigret novels by Maigritte’s fellow Belgian, Georges Simenon.
Théodore Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–1819, Louvre, Paris
The motives for the banning of Manet's The Execution of Maximilian (1867-69) are, Barnes says, "an inviting blank." But Barnes fills in the image’s three-stage development from "history painting" to what Manet insisted was "une oeuvre absolument artistique" by triangulating it with Goya's The Executions of the Third of May 1808 (1814) and Zola's ambivalent response to the censorship of the work. In an unsigned contribution to La Tribune, the novelist repeated Manet's claim that the image was "purely artistic," but four days later, Zola characterized the "cruel irony" of the picture as "France shooting Maximilian."
A chapter from A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989), reprinted here, describes the composition and decomposition of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819), not so much as a visual work, but as a verbal one. A construction of historical facts becomes a story, full of deletions and distortions, and the story an image. But the decomposition is immediate. A dying Géricault dismisses his masterpiece, "Bah, une vignette!" The bitumen that Géricault chose for its "deepest darkness" decays, turning the work into "a ruin." And the specifics of the story work loose from the impact of the scene. We are moved not by the contemporary scandals of the Medusa's sinking or the cannibalism on the raft, but by the aesthetic confrontation. The "muscle and dynamism" of Gericault's figures "shift us through currents of hope and despair, elation, panic and resignation."
"The painting has slipped loose from history's anchor." Perhaps, but only to berth in history's harbor, with the decaying but patriotic beauties of the Louvre. Time fixes the outline, but it changes the colors. Flaubert, orienting his art by another, told the Goncourts that when he wrote a novel, the plot seemed less important than the desire to render a color. The imperial fantasia of Salammbô was purple. Madame Bovary was "a grey color . . . the mouldy color of a woodlouse's existence." Baudelaire's bravura variation on Delacroix's Sultan du Maroc (1845) almost overpowers its subject: "grey like nature – grey like the summer atmosphere, when the sun advances like a twilight of dust trembling on each object." But Barnes never interposes between the viewer and the image. Nor does he retreat too far from it.
Eugène Delacroix, Le Sultan du Maroc, 1845, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
The "aesthetic confrontation" between a writer and a subject beyond words requires humility. If Barnes disarms with the modesty of one who knows that it would be presumptuous to tell about technical effects, he informs with the authority of one who knows the value of an honest, educated response. He is surely right in his judgment that future historians of British art in the late twentieth century will see that period as having been dominated not by the fakes and poseurs of the Young British Artists, but by painters: "Bacon, Freud, Hockney, Hodgkin, Riley (and Caulfield, Auerbach, Hitchens, Aitchison, Uglow . . . )."
A writer in an art gallery is a cuckoo in the nest. There are more colors than there are words, and the translation of colors into words is a compression of meaning that favors the writer. The integrity and humility of Barnes's responses is attested by his willingness to admit the limits of language, even when reflected by an intelligent and sensitive mind. "Everyone knows that yellow, orange, and red inspire ideas of joy, wealth, glory and love," Baudelaire wrote in 1846, "but there are millions of yellow or red atmospheres, and all the other colors will be logically affected by the dominant atmosphere, and in a quantity proportional to it."
"You've used exactly the same blue as in Edinburgh," Barnes ventures after examining the walls at Howard's Hodgkin 2002 Royal Academy exhibition.
"It's not exactly the same blue," Hodgkin reminds him. A good writer on art always gives the artist the last word.
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Lillian Ross, via
At one point in her otherwise disposable book At Home in the World, Joyce Maynard sketches a brief but piercing portrait of Lillian Ross, the long-tenured and widely admired staff writer at The New Yorker.
In the early 1970s, Maynard accompanied her then-beau J. D. Salinger on a lunch date with Ross and William Shawn (the editor of The New Yorker). The setting was the rarefied Algonquin Hotel, but the encounter was far from polite.
On learning that Maynard had penned a memoir (which would be published at age 20), Ross remarked: “I wouldn’t have known a person could do that at your stage.” And when Maynard protested that she was, in fact, an established writer—having contributed articles to Seventeen magazine on Julie Nixon Eisenhower and the Miss Teenage America Pageant—Ross had more to say.
“I ask her about interesting people she’s interviewed lately,” Maynard writes. “She shoots Shawn a look across the table. ‘Nobody who would interest you,’ she says. ‘Nobody nearly as interesting as Julie Eisenhower or Miss Teenage America.’”
Perhaps Ross had a point, although—in Maynard’s defense—her articles sound no more déclassé than those written around the same time by such “New Journalists” as Tom Wolfe (who fixed his gaze on Junior Johnson in “The Last American Hero”) or Joan Didion (who rolled out the red carpet for The Duke in “John Wayne: A Love Song”).
Even so, the appearance of Ross’s new book Reporting Always: Writings from The New Yorker considerably diminishes Ross’s standing as an evaluator of dignified story ideas.1 True, none of the pieces gathered here concern a Nixon daughter or a beauty pageant for adolescents—though “Symbol of All We Possess,” on the Miss America pageant, is included!—but their subject matter is often just as frivolous. Among the personages who populate these pieces: fashion photographer Mario Testino, tennis star John McEnroe, and broadcaster Gayle King. For those unacquainted with American daytime television, the last name on the preceding list refers to a friend of Oprah Winfrey’s.
What’s more, Ross favors a dry, slightly stuffy prose style that often generates unintended laughs. The second and longer of two—count ’em, two—profiles of Robin Williams, 1993’s “Mr. and Mrs. Williams” was occasioned by the release of the late actor’s unbearable comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, the making of which is recounted by Ross with a solemnity befitting a presidential address or a papal mass.
Consider Ross’s straight-faced summary of the film’s puerile plot. “In order to be with his kids, Daniel gets himself professionally disguised, with mask, wig, false bosom, fake behind, spectacles, and dress, and, calling himself Mrs. Doubtfire, goes to work as Miranda’s housekeeper,” Ross writes, referring to Williams’ character, a divorced dad. On the basis of this passage, Ross’s gift is not for reportage, but for describing Hollywood schlock in the most bland, irony-free terms imaginable. (“Spectacles”!)
Throughout, Ross comes across as tone deaf to the fifth-rate status of the work in question. Discussing a wholly unoriginal courtroom scene in which Daniel petitions for joint custody of his tykes, Ross writes: “Williams seemed to me to be reaching a higher level of acting than I’d ever seen him reach before.” Even those with the good fortune to have never seen this film are unlikely to be convinced that Williams’ courtroom theatrics reach the level of, say, Paul Scofield’s in A Man for All Seasons.
To be sure, Ross has profiled plenty of notable figures; included here are her strong, memorable portraits of Ernest Hemingway (1950’s “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?”), Charlie Chaplin (1950’s “Feeling Lost”), and Federico Fellini (1985’s “With Fellini”). Yet the juxtaposition of these worthies with the likes of Williams gives the book a confused, muddied quality. Does Ross really consider actress Ellen Barkin (whose ritzy townhouse is detailed in a 2005 piece) to exist on the same plane as the author of In Our Time? And Ross was not simply saddled with these assignments, either. “It is a privilege to write about whatever I choose and to get to know anybody I am interested in,” she writes in the introduction. “I choose my subjects carefully.” Not, alas, carefully enough.
Furthermore, a steady dose of Ross’s style reveals its limitations—and contradictions. In the introduction, she cautions against the use of tape recorders in conducting interviews. “I have found that literal gabble often misleads and obscures the truth,” she writes—yet there are loads of “literal gabble” to be found among the offerings that follow. Several pieces—including those on Barkin and King, as well as a 1954 profile of Julie Andrews—are substantially composed of their subjects’ quotations, which are sometimes interesting and often not.
Ross is upfront about her preference for standing aside and letting others do the talking; she writes in the introduction that some stories are meant to unfold like “little scenes” from a movie. She continues: “I enjoyed showing everything using dialogue and action, with no authorial intrusions and no presumptions about what was going on inside the subject’s head.” Too often, however, the resulting pieces read like shapeless vignettes; snippets of incident and swaths of quotations cannot compete with “who, what, when, where, and why.”
Ross prefers the micro over the macro. For example, 2005’s “Two Dames” chronicles a brief press tour undertaken by Maggie Smith and Judi Dench to promote their new film; the actresses’ schedules are carefully recorded (“The start of the next morning had Dame Maggie giving an interview to Time, while Dame Judi traveled to ABC to do Regis and Kelly”), but background and context are too briefly sketched. Even “With Fellini”—an entertaining, well-constructed piece—is marred by its too-narrow focus: Ross joins the director of 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita en route to Darien, Conn., where he is the guest of honor at the home of a bigwig at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Most good features writers would have used such an incident as a jumping-off point for a fuller profile, but Ross settles for crisply written crumbs.
In spite of the presence of pieces on au courant figures like Wes Anderson and Clint Eastwood, much of what is included here is hopelessly dated. How else to describe 1960’s “Movement” (about the Beats) or 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper,” in which a man (revealed to be William Shawn, but not disclosed as such in the original piece itself) waxes poetic on the glory of the Beatles? “The high point of the high point for me is the delicate way, in ‘A Day in the Life,’ Lennon—John—sings the words ‘oh boy,’” Shawn says, but for many readers this may be the low point. In fact, some may even ask: Is anything here more interesting or cultivated than Julie Eisenhower and Miss Teenage America?
1 Reporting Always: Writings from The New Yorker, by Lillian Ross; Scribner, 352 pages, $27.
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by Walker Mimms
From Thomas Stanley's 1665,The history of philosophy, via
It’s a beautiful line:
But it’s a mean one. It comes from Timon of Phlius, the Greek poet and philosopher who watched as the greatest poets of his age set off across the Mediterranean to write under the patronage of Ptolemy II. Theocritus, Apollonius, and Callimachus are probably the scribblers in question. And the new Library of Alexandria, then the greatest storehouse of human knowledge, was almost certainly the birdcage. It wasn’t just competitive scribbling Timon despised in these poets. It was, in his view, pedantry. When they could have been forging new directions in Greek verse, they instead burrowed in the stacks and set to work on a massive scholarly edition of the old poets with Alexandria’s first librarian, an important Homer scholar. Books had infected them, sneered Timon from afar.
This attitude is unthinkable today, now that the paper book has finally met its rival and one of our treasured research libraries, like countless others in its shadow, is under the knife. We should be sticking up for these institutions. But, paradoxically, Timon is the starting point of an important new collection that reasserts the importance of the brick-and-mortar library in age when Google Books makes a very threatening case for its obsolescence. The twelve essays in The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (edited by Alice Crawford) follow the library from Alexandria to the present day.1 Along this journey, the twelve decorated historians stop to treat basic, incidental questions that are fascinating in their own right—like how books were made in the past, how much they cost, how they were stored, how they were acquired, and by whom—but the book’s greater reward is its treatment of a much more difficult, more important question, which thrusts our current situation to the fore: how did readers throughout history feel about libraries? This question couldn’t have come at a better time.
Timon’s complaint was one answer. And he resurfaces throughout the collection in various guises, most poignantly in the essay on medieval libraries. An illustration from a late fifteenth-century manuscript copy of Jacques le Grand's Le livres des bonnes heurs depicts two scholars in a hushed reading room, each studying a book chained to the desk they share. Above their heads, a shelf on the stone wall displays a total of four volumes. This, Richard Gameson argues convincingly, was the medieval view of erudition:
The opposite of this depth? The Book Fool: a character in Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools (1494) whose woodblock caricature adorned many editions of that book—a madman scribbling and wrangling in his own birdcage, surrounded by towers of the books he’s collected but not taken the time to read.
Andrew Pettegree exposes the untold neglect suffered by the great Renaissance libraries when print started to oust the expensive and glamorous manuscript. Robert Darnton’s riveting essay follows an eighteenth-century band of Swiss book traders as they smuggle Fanny Hill, bound inside Bibles, in sixty-pound backpacks through the Alps into France, risking nine years of hard labor if caught. Two essays explain the evolution of exclusive book clubs in Georgian England into subscription and public libraries in the Victorian era, the model for our current system, where the librarian became a filter for the geyser of print that sprung from the new steam-powered press. From here we’re taken into more familiar but well narrated territory: the politics of twentieth-century university libraries manuscript collection.
The history of books and libraries is a fragile one, and the specter of a digital takeover certainly haunts it. The essays in The Meaning of the Library don’t ignore this. Most of the contributors have extensive experience with digital archives and offer suggestions for a peaceful coexistence between the page and the screen. But this book isn’t about that realm.
Another new book, Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age, by Laura Mandell, Director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities at Texas A & M, takes up where The Meaning of the Library leaves off.2 It’s a “manifesto” of the digital humanities that promises no less than “to shape the digital instantiations of our cultural heritage by keeping, if we can, the best parts of book culture and letting go of the worst.” That’s a tall order for 180 pages.
This book is not designed for readability. But in detangling Mandell’s argument—part philosophy of language, part historical analysis—you get something like this: When print first exploded, books, products no longer of a pen but of a machine, became dehumanized in the eyes of their readers. This created all kinds of problems that still plague us today. The authorless, sterile realm of print floated far above the level of everyday human discourse and gave writers the illusion that they had special authority, that their books had an immediate, real impact on the world just because they were now mass-produced, widely available, and uncontested unless a note appeared in the fine print of the next month’s “Letters” section, at which point, well, who would care? Mandell thinks this original, illusory “print authority” is responsible for the self-important, ineffectual scribblers who today fill our libraries, bookstores, and newsstands.
The digital age is the final frontier for Mandell, our chance to wipe the slate clean of this mess. Very well. But when she says that the anonymity of print engendered literary recklessness, or that the endless ocean and slow pace of print inhibits meaningful scholarship, the Internet is hardly the solution that rushes to mind. It’s true that the seismic shift from manuscript to print is a rich subject in the study of human consciousness. Mandell has entered an interesting discussion there. And it’s true that early print culture laid the foundation for modern critical discourse, for better and for worse. But the belief that the illnesses of criticism are somehow endemic to the print medium, and that its relocation to the Digital Ward can somehow cure it—these assumptions are unsupportable by the scope of this book.
In fact, if Mandell’s book sets any example, it perpetrates the same crimes of language it’s supposed to condemn. Mandell shrouds her premises in tortured, theoretical language, the over-“adumbration” of “catachreses,” and an obsessive over-quotation of other critics (an attempt to mimic in print the web’s information overload?). A paragraph on “Johnson’s leakage”—perhaps a digression on the lexicographer’s many secretions? Nope. It’s simply F. V. Bogel’s interpretation of Johnson’s Life of Richard Savage: “a conventional sign like quotation marks may only imperfectly inhibit a leakage between categories such as utterance and quotation, use and mention.” Ah, of course!
The image of Gameson’s silent scholars, chained books in hand, floats back into view. How does that version of scholarly depth compare to the one Mandell espouses in her closing remarks? (Her students are tasked with hyperlinking poems according to a color-coded legend: literary element, repetition, symbol, theme, ambiguity, emotion . . . ) Or to the online “crowd-sourcing interpretation tool” she advocates for use in elementary, middle, and high school programs? These tools can be useful, but are they really the answer to the shallowness and self-reference that afflicts criticism? In a strange reversal of fortune I find myself standing alongside Timon, watching from the shore as the convoys set sail. But instead of Alexandria, it’s a vaguer birdcage that awaits—one with equally wonderful opportunities but even loftier, shinier promises. These two books show us, one by its merits, one by its missteps, how careful we need to be in entering it.
1 The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, ed. Alice Crawford; Princeton University Press, 336 pages, $35.
2 Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age, by Laura Mandell; Wiley-Blackwell Manifestos, 240 pages. $90.
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Marlis Petersen in Lulu/ Courtesy: The Metropolitan Opera
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This week: Churchill and Champagne, Berg and Blackness
Fiction: The Mark and the Void, by Paul Murray (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): It’s been just over seven years since the defining moment of the 2008 financial crisis: the collapse of Lehman Brothers. And while there have been plenty of nonfiction assessments in the intervening years, the fictional renderings of the crisis have been slower to appear. The standard bearer to date has been John Lanchester’s Capital, which surveyed the crisis through the lens of a single street in London, touching on the widespread effects of international financial turmoil. But the financial crisis was a global one, and it was not just New York and London that suffered. Dublin, too, experienced its share of commotion, with the once-mighty “Celtic Tiger” economy kneecapped by the tightening of credit markets. This is, nominally, the subject of Paul Murray’s new novel, The Mark and the Void, which follows his 2010 Man Booker-longlisted effort, Skippy Dies. In The Mark and the Void, Murray pillories both sides of the deals that brought down the Irish economy, reserving scorn for both the lenders and those who personally overreached. This is no hectoring, though. With wit and a taste for the absurd, Murray draws characters who, had we not lived through the comic outlandishness of 2008 (remember Fabulous Fab Tourre?), might seem to be mere caricatures. There’s a lot going on in The Mark and the Void, but then again, financial markets are complicated too. That the characters, living in a world of such complexity, stand out so acutely is a credit to the author. —BR
Nonfiction: No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money, by David Lough (Picador): The field of Churchill studies is a large one—that should come as no surprise. He was not only at the center of many major historical events, but was the driving force behind them. But our fascination with the man goes beyond his monumental place in history. Put simply, he was also a fascinating man, full of life and the source of many a great dining-room anecdote. One might think that, more than fifty years after his death, there is little more to study or say about Winston Churchill. That supposition naturally would be mistaken. Entering into the fray is David Lough, a former private banker turned historian, who has turned his eye toward Churchill’s often-precarious personal finances. Using previously unstudied material from Churchill’s private records, Lough examines the way Churchill spent profligately—almost ruinously—only to see his fortunes rebound following the Second World War. Deliciously titled and minutely researched, the book should appeal to all those with a curiosity about the man behind the legend that was Churchill. Which is to say, nearly everyone. —BR
Drama: "Books at Noon," featuring David Hare, at the New York Public Library (November 4): David Hare is nothing if not prolific. The author of over thirty plays (such as Skylight and Via Dolorosa) and fifteen television, movie, and radio scripts (including The Hours, The Corrections, and The Reader), he also has directed twelve plays and movies. It makes one wonder where he finds the time to write a memoir, as he just has with his new book, The Blue Touch Paper, out today from Norton. This Wednesday he’ll be speaking at midday under the center arch in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building’s Astor Hall, offering devoted fans and those new to Hare’s manifold work a chance to hear from the man himself. —BR
Art: Lulu, by Alban Berg, at The Metropolitan Opera (November 5–December 3): The season premiere of Lulu provides us with a twofer for this week's Critic's Notebook, since this opera is as much anticipated for its art as its music. In 2010, the South African artist William Kentridge brought his vision for the Shostakovich opera The Nose to the Metropolitan, to entirely worthy acclaim. Three years earlier, The Magic Flute received its own Kentridge treatment at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Kentridge is an artist who uses his process of drawing and printmaking to create stop-action films, which in his opera productions become backdrop projections. Their use so artfully incorporates the music and themes of the original works that Kentridge has proven the exception to the rule: new productions are not always infelicitous to their source material, and new technologies sometimes do have a place on the opera stage. It can feel like Kentridge crafts productions that Mozart and Shostakovich and Berg might have always intended, or at least would be delighted to see. Through December 19, Marian Goodman Gallery gives us another way to experience the work, with an exhibition of Kentridge's "Drawings for 'Lulu.'" —JP
Music: Lulu, by Alban Berg, at The Metropolitan Opera (November 5–December 3): There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the opening of Alban Berg's Lulu at the Met this week. Not least, of course, is the new production by William Kentridge, the South African artist whose previous staging of Shostakovich's The Nose was one of the most powerful, dark, and imaginative pieces to play on that stage in the last decade. His Lulu promises to be similarly impressive—inventive, evocative, and stark, the aesthetic revealed in the company's production photos will not shy away from the blackness or sensuality of the work. The score itself is one of the great musical achievements of the twentieth century, though admittedly is not for all hearers. Not quite as bleak as the composer's other operatic masterpiece, Wozzeck, it is nonetheless an aesthetic and emotional ordeal, unlikely to lift the spirits but a perfect bet for listeners eager for a challenge. Marlis Petersen, today's most celebrated interpreter of the title role, leads a cast that also features Susan Graham and Johan Reuter. Lothar Koenigs, replacing James Levine, conducts. —ECS
From the archive: Last of the Whigs: Churchill as historian, by Robert Messenger: On Winston Churchill’s enduring legacy as an historian.
From our latest issue: The intolerable dream, by Gary Saul Morson: Don Quixote at 400.
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Jaap van Zweden, via
The New York Philharmonic had a guest conductor on Saturday night: Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. And the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In addition to being a conductor, this Dutchman is no mean violinist, having been appointed concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra when he was a teenager.
(The orchestra had not yet acquired its “Royal.”)
His program on Saturday night was Britten, Mozart, and Beethoven. The Britten was the Sinfonia da Requiem, paid for by the Japanese government in 1939. (Semi-long story.) Britten was a pacifist hero, you know. Just ask his fans.
In any case, the Sinfonia da Requiem is a fine work, and it was conducted very, very well by Van Zweden. (Or should I say “Zweden” or “van Zweden”? This is an old, sometimes contentious debate, and I’m afraid I don’t know the maestro’s preference. Or whether he has one.)
From Jaap’s baton, the Britten was precise and intense. Obviously, this was a conductor of intelligence and command. The Sinfonia da Requiem can be lifeless, limp, as other Britten works can be, poorly performed. But definitely not on this occasion. Moreover, the score was clear even when it was cacophonous.
The Philharmonic’s No. 1 trumpet, Matthew Muckey, did deft and stylish work. And the orchestra as a whole was first-class.
Let me say something else about this intensity business. By “intense,” I of course don’t mean frenetic or loud. There can be an intense quietude, for example. At any rate, Van Zweden, in his intensity, reminded me of Mariss Jansons when he conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Or Osmo Vänskä when he started out with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Frankly, I don’t see how Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem could be better advocated. The music was correct and moving, done full justice.
The Mozart on the program was the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488. Its soloist was Inon Barnatan, the Israeli. I will touch on this performance briefly, perhaps emphasizing the conducting (as this is a Jaap-centered post).
The orchestra begins the concerto, of course, and, in the opening measures, the music breathed just right. It was as though the music were continuing, rather than beginning. This can be a hard trick to pull off, but Van Zweden and the Philharmonic had no problem.
For his part, Barnatan sculpted his Mozart nicely. Beautifully.
About the second movement, Adagio, I will say this: Never have the pizzicatos toward the end been so consequential. Never have they been so “involved” in the music (overall). I may never hear this section quite the same way again—Van Zweden has spoiled me for conventional performances.
In the closing movement, Barnatan demonstrated an elegant spunkiness. And then a Mozartean gaiety. You can go a long while without hearing this popular concerto performed so well, by pianist, orchestra, and conductor.
After intermission, there was a symphony: the Fifth. Ask not by whom. It wasn’t Bruckner’s, Mahler’s, or Shostakovich’s. It was the Fifth. And let me suggest something to you: if you had to name one test piece for a conductor, you could do worse than to designate Beethoven’s Fifth.
As expected, the first movement was precise, intense, disciplined—all those Van Zwedenesque things. But it was also somewhat dry—dry of sound. This was especially true of the horns. I don’t say that this dryness was bad or wrong. I’m saying it was so.
The tempo of the second movement, Andante con moto, is hard to get right. Van Zweden got it right. He neither dawdled nor rushed. Beethoven’s phrases were sometimes more carved, or etched, than sung, but they were no worse for that. And the woodwinds were uncannily balanced. They did not stand out, as they usually do. They blended. Let me emphasize that this is very rare.
I swear, the third movement had an unusual Sorcerer’s Apprentice feel. It really did. Never mind that this was Halloween Night. The music had that unusual feel regardless.
The finale was wonderful, needless to say. A little dry. And let me register this criticism—or rather this observation: There was not a lot of spiritual glory in the finale. It was more like a slightly angry, secular hymn, if you can imagine. Did that make it wrong? No, of course not. But it was a little different.
I often quote Robert Graves, who said, “The thing about Shakespeare is that he really is good.” (I paraphrase a bit.) Well, the thing about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is that it really is good. It will not fail to thrill, if led by such as Van Zweden.
In Dallas, he is known as a taskmaster. There is a place for such men on a podium. The New York Philharmonic will need to appoint a successor to its music director, Alan Gilbert. One could do a lot worse than Jaap van Zweden. He’s on my short list (not that anybody asked for my short list—or long list).
I will devote my next post to New York Phil. succession.
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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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