Friday, December 12, 2014

Quick Hit: Baldwin and the Magazines

In a 1984 interview,  Julius Lester asked Baldwin about his early days after the war as a writer publishing reviews and essays "for publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review" Baldwin described the people he met through these publications as a kind of "Olympus":  
"Dwight MacDonald told me that I was "terribly smart." I certainly learned a lot from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps." 
Out of curiosity, I looked up all the bylines where Baldwin originally published the essays in his now classic first two collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name. Here they are: Commentary, Harper's, New Leader, Partisan Review, The Reporter, The New York Times Book Review, Encounter, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Le Preuve.  The Fire Next Time was published in its entirety in the New Yorker, Baldwin's first published essay in a national magazine was for The Nation, where his later work frequently appeared, and he was on their board during the last years of his life.

Of course no recent particular event and no particular magazine of note that maybe would have been predisposed to miss the work of an African-American who is probably the greatest essayist in American history and any prominent "serious" publications missing from the list  are just a coincidence.

(The limitations of my library's archive are such that I haven't been able to confirm if Baldwin ever wrote for the publication that shall not be named. If so, would be very curious to see where and when.)



Monday, December 8, 2014

The Dancer and the Dance

This summer I published a poem about Lee Miller in Narrative.  Miller isn't exactly obscure - people interesting in photography, war journalism, or surrealism are probably at least somewhat familiar with her life and work. But she isn't a household name either - I didn't know anything about her until I read Francine Prose's collection of biographic essays about women - many artists in their own right - who have served as "muses." I've been working on a group of poems, short fiction and short essays on other artists I'm interested in for a variety of reasons - people like Jay DeFeo and Isa Genzken and Maria Lassnig and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Again, none of these people are unknown, but they all have fascinating, not-common knowledge stories that having fascinating things to say about obsession, passion, bodies, sex, death, and all the other good stuff. I've worried, though, about how to talk about wanting to do this - it sounds a little old-fashioned: ah, those second wavers with their projects of "rediscovery"! Haven't we found them all by now? Not by a longshot, as it turns out.  

This was on my mind recently when I read this great piece by my friend Joanna Scutts about the usually disappointning results and diminishing returns of the seemingly inexhastable genre of novels about writer's wives, and how they tend to smooth over the uncomfortable details literary biographers deal with. Being in love with a difficult man - who can't relate, these books seem to tell us. In wanting to bring women's stories "from the shadows," are we most interested if the shadow takes the form of a great man? Are we more comfortable with stores of talent squelched and repressed than those who worked through these paradoxes?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Three New-ish Books to Buy

The last couple years I've started keeping track of the books I finish, movies I watch and my favorite magazine articles from the year. Except for the magazine articles, very few are current or even recent, but I've been trying to correct that a little, partly because buying or writing about new books is the best way to support authors and also to have more of a foothold in some of the discussions out there. So, herein your humble blogger pretends to be one of those folks with a steady gig who gets paid to say things like "3 Must Buy New(ish) Books!"

1) The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden, available in a new edition from Phraros.  This is not a new book per say; it was first published in 1976, and its stories appeared in the New Yorker in the years leading up to that. I've written before about how going to college during the canon debates of the 1990s distorted my perception about the idea of "forgotten" works - there was so much debate about a few titles and replacing this particular one with that particular one you could forget all the nooks and crannies of forgotten pathways that were always there to be continually rediscovered. Even a New Yorker writer can get lost. Hayden's book found its way back into print by way of the New Yorker's wonderful fiction podcast, for which Lorrie Moore selected the masterpiece "Day Old Baby Rats," and the immensely popular Cheryl Strayed, who picked the book for Pharos's series of reprints.  Reading Hayden reminds me of Virginia Woolf - you feel more alive when reading her, like you're starting to see in color what you've been seeing in black and white. I wrote more about the book a little while back and have since had the honor of meeting a few of her surviving family members. Grab this book and put in the hands of every short story lover you know.

2) Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich. First, grab the greatest short stories anthology that's lying around your bedroom and read Bernard Malamud's classic story. By the time you finish, before you've even started reading Ulinich's graphic novel, you will realize the genius of its premise. Malamud's story tells of a matchmaker who brags he needs a magic barrel to carry around the photos of all the beautiful young women he has to offer. Read what happens when the shy young rabbinical student comes to seek his mate and his dating foibles and you'll be astounded Ulinich is the first to point out what seems obvious: forget superhighways, tubes, and clouds: the internet is a magic barrel. Ulnich's drawings and words are such a perfect distillation of recognizable and particular experiences that for a few days after reading it I was seeing her distinctive lines in every face I encountered. When Lena Finkle expresses frustration with a novel she's working on and says, as an aside that the novel's contrivances seem ridiculous to her, I immediately thought, yes! Every novel I'd read recently seemed to have exactly the flaws she described. Only this particular picture and words seemed to have any hope of breaking and preserving the artifice in just the right measure. When you go diving in the Magic Barrel, you need the right guide.

3) The Best American Essays, 2014, edited by John Jeremiah SullivanVivian Gornick, Kristen Dombek, Mary Gordon, Lawrence Jackson, Ariel Levy, Zadie Smith. Sometimes they get it right.  Appropriately enough, my very favorite writer, Vivian Gornick, has "Letter from Greenwich Village," while the amazing Kristen Dombek has "Letter from Williamsburg."  I look forward to "Letter from Maspeth" in ten years. Hopeful a LaGuardian will write it. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fall Reading Challenge



Thanks to the wonderful Prof. Rebecca Hill, I'm taking part in a reading challenge for academics this fall. Teaching a heavy load, it's all too easy to set both writing and reading aside during the semester. Having a "writing" or "reading" day isn't realistic for me - it's more like an hour here or there. I don't know how we'll I'll do with this list, but filling it out was a lot of fun.

I'm starting with the American Quarterly issue and Kafka. I'm teaching the Metamorphosis for the first time in my composition class, and looking forward to rereading that one. Over the summer I tried to write a little about each book I finished and I'll try to do the same here and on goodreads, for stuff reading for the challenge and other stuff also. 

You can see more about the challenge and other people's lists on Rebecca's blog.  




Professors’ Fall Semester Reading Challenge 2014 - checklist version

Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  pp. #
Date read
Points
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.
Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and other Stories, 299 pages. 


Swapped for J. Baldwin, The Last Interview.

J. Baldwin Devil Finds Work
J. Baldwin No Name in the Street 





Oct.

achieved 35 points
 15
book written by a friend, colleague or acquaintance
Chris Schmidt, The Next in Line, 71 page (poetry)

Also Anya Ulrich, Lena Finkel 
Oct.


Oct.
achieved 20 pts.
10


10
 book by a former  student or former teacher
Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country, 304 pages

10
 Entire academic journal including reviews
American Quarterly, vo. 60, no. 2
Oct.
achvd 10
10
 Book reviewed in the journal above
Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 388 pages.

15
 book about a country or region that isn’t part of research or current teaching
Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, 336 pages

15
academic book you always meant to read or never finished
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 616 pages

15
 Novel nominated for a National Book Award, 2014 (long list, Sept, finalists in October)
TBA when list comes out

20
Book on current events written by a journalist
The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimah, 224 pages.

20
Pulitzer Prize winner before 1970 (any category)
Willa Cather, One of Ours, 206 pages

25
Book with “house,” “apartment” or “room” in the title.
Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes through the house: 395 pages.

20
3 books on same topic in different disciplines below:


35
 History
Stephanie Gilmore (ed) Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the US, 320 pages.


Literary Criticism
Lisa Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement, 224 pages.


Ethnography
Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project, 495 pages.


EXTRA CREDIT – Double up in any category above


10
Rules:
The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as it is unabridged and the print edition is at least 200 pages long.
Books must be started no earlier than midnight Sept.2 and finished no later than Dec. 31, midnight.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"That city which the people from heaven had made their home": Thoughts on Baldwin's "Another Country"

When I was volunteering at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the musicians who came to perform was a woman named Tift Merritt. I knew of her a little from my ex-boyfriend, and listened to a bunch of her music right around the time she played the show at Housing Works. Her most recent album at the time was "Another Country" and for a few weeks I kept listening to its title song, with its simple, sweet plaintive refrain:

I thought these things would come to me
Love is another country, and I want to go -

I want to go too. I want to go with you.I want to go too. I want to go with you.



She was incredibly gracious with the volunteers, and asked one of us if we had a copy of Baldwin's novel hand. (But only if it wouldn't be too much trouble). As I remember it, we managed to find one and she put it on her stand during her performance. 

I also remember her asking me if I'd read Another Country at the time and being embarrassed to say no, though my guilty student self may have invented that piece. I read Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room sometime in college. I think I read Giovanni's Room in preparation for my college year in France, knowing it was about ex-pats. I haven't read it since and I don't remember a lot of the plot, but I remember being devastated by it. I remember that the pages of the old paperback I'd found at my parents or grandparent's house fell apart as I read it, and how I tried to put them back together with scotch tape. When, after one move too many moves, I accepted that this particular copy had given up the ghost, I tore out a few pages and taped them on my dresser, the way writers do for inspiration, even though I never actually wrote at that desk. 

Since then, like a lot of people, I've spent more time with his essays, and had come to accept the line that they were his true form. After reading this piece about why Baldwin is taught less than he was, I recently made a vow to teach something by Baldwin in every one of my classes. I asked one class who had heard of him, and only one student had. ("I went to the Baldwin school," she told me, "We heard a lot about him. To the credit credit of that school, there wasn't a trace of irritation in her voice.) Until recently teaching him mostly meant teaching the essays, but as I've been teaching more fiction writing and literature classes, I wanted to revisit that. Last semester I did "Sonny's Blues" and a lot of them had read it before, thanks to its status as an anthology staple. I realized my mistake too late to fix it - and then I realized I didn't know his other stories, or how many he had. (One collection, as it turns out, Going to Meet the Man).  

So I decided to start remedying this by reading Another Country, Baldwin's 1963 novel, the next work of fiction after Giovanni's Room. I had a falling-apart paperback of this one also. I think I inherited from  my grandmother's library. I like to imagine her reading it as a forty-something faculty wife, when she looked like a happier Mona Sterling in her impeccable blouses and tailored skirts. Like a lot of the feminist books from later in the 60s I've been researching, the books packaging combines commercial hype and political import in a way that's almost impossible to imagine today. On the back, Granville Hicks intones "The book itself is, and is meant to be, an act of violence."  (It isn't, of course, and that Hicks thinks so - and thinks this is a selling point - would be another post in of itself).


As this cover illustration suggests, Another Country is first and foremost a New York novel. Like so many writers, Baldwin left the place he was from to write about it. The middle section takes place in Paris, but he didn't write it there either. Below the final scene, charting the arrival in New York of a character's French lover to New York and these "people from heaven," there's a dateline reading "Istanbul, December 10, 1961."  I happened to finish Another Country around the same time I read this New Yorker essay about Erich Auerbach, who famously completed Mimesis, a founding work of my original discipline of Comparative Literature, in Istanbul.  Auerbach was fleeing the Nazis; Baldwin was fleeing racism, fame, and all the things that make it as difficult to write in New York as it is to write about New York. He came at the invitation of his friend Engin Cezzar, and the photographer Sedat Pakay took amazing photos of him there. 


One of the many fascinating things about Another Country is the lost New York it gives us. Baldwin's group of writers, artists and drifting souls (there's no one central character, and a lot of fascinating misdirection around this), hang out mostly in the Village. Some characters like to go to Harlem for "tomcatting," as they put it. One white woman has run away from the south, fleeing an abusive husband who has taken custody of her children. Brooklyn is the place of childhood everyone runs away from. And much is familiar: everyone in the group is suspicious of the writer whose novel is having some commercial success, and everyone drinks too much. They hang out at Smalls.

Baldwin's characters are exiles of a different sort than Auerbach or Baldwin. They flee their isolation and  the repression of their families. They run headlong against the cruelties of the culture they come from, unable to treat each other better than they have been treated, but blessed or cursed with enough self-knowledge that compels them to keep trying. Their other country is their own, and Baldwin takes pains to render his own New York strange as well, as when we are given the city through the eyes of another exile, the actor Eric upon his return to France:
So superbly was [New York] in the present that it seemed to have nothing to do with the passage of time: time might have dismissed it as thoroughly as it had dismissed Carthage and Pompeii. It seemed to have no sense whatever of the exigencies of human life; it was so familiar and so public that it became, at last, the most despairingly private of cities . . . The girls along Fifth Avenue wore their bright clothes like semaphores, trying helplessly to bring to the male attention the news of their mysterious trouble. The men could not read this message. They strode purposefully along, wearing little anonymous hats, or bareheaded, with youthfully parted hair, or crew cuts, accoutered with attaché cases, rushing, on the evidence, to the smoking cars of the trains. In this haven, they opened up their newspapers and caught up on the day's bad news. Or they were to be found, as five o'clock fell, in discreetly dim, anonymously appointed bars, uneasy, in brittle, uneasy, female company, pouring down joyless martinis. 
Geography and sex and ritual: Baldwin stirs them so that it is impossible to maintain our convenient fiction about which part of ourselves comes from an "external" society and which from "internal" desires. This, I think, is why their  jealousies, adulteries, and drunken rages seem large rather than petty. Sexual and racial repression is part of it, but I don't think this is just a case of "when nothing is permitted, everything matters." Hipster alienation and rebellion have become such a cliche it is startling to view characters for whom estrangement from their families and communities are a real, definitive rupture that could easily leave them destitute and isolated. At the same time, in New York they have the means to peruse their desires and realize what this does and does not do. It is one thing to parse out all we know or think we know about desire, repression and "the other," when we see Vivaldo, an Italian-American "unpublished novelist" from Brooklyn peruse Ida, an African-American singer whose brother is probably the person Vivaldo is actually in love with. It is another thing to try, as Baldwin does, to imagine what both such people think and feel as they undertake this doomed but sincere bond. Here is Vivaldo watching Ida perform:
She was not a singer yet. And if she were to be judged soley on the basis of her voice, low, rough-textured, of no very great range, she never would be. Yet, she had something which made Eric look up and caused the room to fall silent; and Vivaldo stared at Ida as though he had never seen her before. What she lacked in vocal power and, at he moment, in skill, she compensated for by a quality so mysteriously and implacably egocentric that no one has ever been able to name it. The quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does to so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms - while still eating them standing, nightly, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and gives life, and kills. 




Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Reading Lydia Davis, "Can't and Won't"


A woman is reading a book by an author she admires. It is inadequate, in fact, to say she admires this write, as the author is one of the few whose work prompts the often uncomfortable and shattering yet delectable experience which readers refer to as “identification.” This particular woman rarely feels this for the usual reasons– because one has a similar biography, a common experience, or even a similar temperament to the author. It comes instead when a writer displays their habits of mind in a particular way such that the woman feels her very brain is being invaded. This woman has experienced this before with this author, but never to the extent as with this book. The first delight came when she noticed that a number of these stories are labeled dreams at the bottom. This delighted her because the old saw about being bored by the dreams of others has never seemed correct to her. Go knock on her door, ready tell her a dream, and she is sure to let you in. Imagine then her delight to see excerpts from the correspondence of another author she admires, one this author had translated. Just the week before she had thought, one should read nothing but the letters and diaries of dead authors – on quiet shelves and in boxes these letters and diaries sit the way the prospectors thought California would be: all that the gold, just lying there for the taking. And imagine how that delight turns uncanny when she discovers the author has dedicated a story to her method of working through back issues of a certain glossy review, when just that morning the woman had been joking about her own organized stack, and even more so when the author included an imagined  letter to the head of a foundation, when just the week before this woman had written exactly such a letter. At this point the woman is working hard to keep herself in check, not to shout at the author on a crowded train to get out of her head, and worries about the fact that anything she writes in the next few weeks will be inevitably an imitation of that author. This seems a problem because 1) She is too old to be imitating other writers, or so she imagines, and 2) Such an imitation might be seen as parodic, as is often the case when writers have a style as specific as this author. Nevertheless it seemed the only fitting tribute to this author to see this necessary imitation through to the end before setting the author’s book back on the shelf with the neurotic precision she sees in a new light knowing she shares it with this particular writer she admires.

****************
Edited to Add: God knows I slack on the Times book review a lot, but after writing this I looked at some reviews and this one by Peter Orner is very good and describes a lot of what I was trying to. "To read Davis is to become a co-­conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation." Precisely.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Men Writing On Women

"In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct of morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathetic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the 'other' as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing. When someone writes a Mommy Dearest memoir - where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster - the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life." 
                                          Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story


When I read something and am trying to figure out why and how it works, or does not work, Gornick is the writer I go back to more than anyone else, and to this passage above all.  Gornick talks about this need for imaginative sympathy when discussing a passage from D.H. Lawrence that troubles her - it is not that his view of women is "incorrect" but that there is no attempt to imagine a woman as she might imagine herself - no exploration, only reaction. In a sense I go this passage when I am looking for "permission" to be troubled by an author, especially a renowned one, especially a man when it comes to women.

The passage came to mind for a different reason while reading Hilton Als' The Women. I've loved Als' writing for the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for a long time, and I've always been struck at what I can only inadequately term empathy - his deep love for artists and their work, for the imaginative intricacies of the craft and those attempt it, even when they fall short.

The Women is a beautiful example of one of my favorite genres - a collection of biographical essays, reflections on the meanings of lives, extensively knowledgable but unabashedly subjective in its interest and these lives and their meanings. The subjects of the essays are first, Als' own mother, second, Dorothy Dean, the third Owen Dodson.  Because Dean and Dodson are not household names, the convention would be to briefly attach a label to each by means of introduction. The difficulty of accurately doing so is, in some sense, the subject of these essays. Dean's wikipedia entry leads with "an African American socialite connected to Andy Warhol's the factory . . . and Max's Kansas City, where she worked as a door person." The back of Als' book describes her as "brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men." And so Als' empathy and identification with her reflects and refracts her own. Dodson can perhaps be more easily classified as a poet, novelist, and playwright. Yet Als' focus is more on the disappointments of his later years, when Als knew him as a mentor and lover, and on his identification with women, as suggested in his inclusion in a book by this name.

What unites these figures is the ways they responded to and crafted themselves out of their disappointments. We tend to think of those who don't find suitable outlets for their talents burning out in a blaze, as Virginia Woolf imagined the fate of Shakespeare's sister, or retreating into silence. But we all know from our experience what is more often the case: frustrated talents (frustrated by a tangle of external and internal circumstances which, Als demonstrates, are impossible to pull apart) drink too much, pester their more successful friends, host parties, read and edit manuscripts, take refuge in snobbism, sleep with people whose work they admire, and so forth. In the case of his mother, who lacked Dean and Dodson's the artistic and social outlets, love and disease become the vehicles. When tragedy comes, it comes slowly and excruciatingly: "In the end I think my mother's long and public illness was the only thing she ever felt experienced as an accomplishment separate from other people." And a doctor who examined Dean after she had lost her home declared that she "must be delusional: 'She keeps saying she went to Radcliffe.'" Which, of course, she had.

And yet very often, Als suggests, they are more effective mentors than those with smoother paths could ever be - and richer subjects.

The feminist complaint against stereotypical female characters is by now well known. But less recognized, as Als' own criticism has shown, is how male writers, especially queer ones, have been actively attacked for imagining women more fully. In this fascinating piece about A Streetcar Named Desire, Als recalls Mary McCarthy's attack on the play: noticing Williams' identification with Blanche DuBois, she accuses him of deceit, just as Blanche is accused of in the play. Seeing only the grating aspects of Blanche's femininity, she misses Blanche's discomfort with convention, her inability to play the role:
Perhaps McCarthy, like Stanley and Mitch, was ultimately too uncomfortable with Blanche’s queerness. She is unmarried, but she has loved. She has no money, no property, and no social equity, and yet her memories of the boys she took to her breast are a kind of sustenance, too. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” Blanche to the Young Man she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….”

The other other artist I immediately associate with these two traits - empathy for, and identification with, the feminine and female characters, Pedro Almodovar, famously dedicated my favorite of his films, All About My Mother, "To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. . . To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother." Gender and its associated identities are here both performative and not: a woman or a mother is something a man might become, but it is not an empty category.

Another wonderful Almodovar film, Talk to Her, tells the story of a male nurse who talks to a woman in a coma, a dancer who has been struck by a car. He says he has learned his care taking skills from caring for his mother. In one sequence, we are presented an invented old surrealist film the nurse remembers: a man drinks a potion that renders him tiny. In his new state, he crawls across his lover's body and blissfully disappears into her vagina.  In his New Yorker review, David Denby says that one way of looking at the film, "I suppose, is as a story shaped by a homosexual's longing for women, a longing that can only be expressed as irony or as a nightmare." I suppose. But only if one supposes that longing for women is the only stance a male director can take towards women - as opposed to curiosity, empathy or identification. (The extent to which heterosexual longing for women is so often expressed as irony or nightmare comes through in Denby's swift takedown of Brian DePalma's Femme Fatale, with which his review of Talk to Her is paired.)

Back when New York magazine asked a number of writers about Philip Roth's legacy, Keith Gessen took a lot of flack for saying "Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?" As I wrote then, critics were right to note that taking male heterosexual desire as a central theme doesn't mean one isn't a misogynist - but it doesn't mean one is, either. Or, to reframe the question aesthetically, away from the moralism that gets people so upset, it doesn't mean one can credibly create real female characters - and it doesn't mean one can't. It is of course too simple to say that Als, or Almodovar, or Williams, or Allen Ginsberg, who beautifully gave his mother the last lines of his elegy to her - are successful in imagining women characters with empathy and nuance because they don't, by and large, want to fuck women. It is probably far too simple as well to say that their experience of sexual other-ness or outsider-ness, allows them this success. All I can say for sure is that their work confirms for me how essential and undervalued these qualities are in writers and artists and how much our categories of gender, sexuality and desire - completely real and completely imagined at the same time - can both get in our way and get us there.