Sentences

Sentences — May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

No, by The Last Post, I’m not suggesting, over this first weekend of May, that you curl up with Ford Madox Ford’s novel of that name; rather, I mean to say that this particular post will be my last in this space. One year ago, with the very generous welcome of this old and excellent magazine, I began compiling these notes on reading and writing. The ambition was simple: to take some of the sorts of things I tend to exchange with writer friends via email and place them, regularly, before the public. My expectations were low: I did not …

Sentences — April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

“What is the hardest task in the world?” The question is Emerson’s, in his essay, “Intellect.” His answer? To think. I would put myself in the attitude to look in the eye an abstract truth, and I cannot. I blench and withdraw on this side and on that. I seem to know what he meant, who said, No man can see God face to face and live. For example, a man explores the basis of civil government. Let him intend his mind without respite, without rest, in one direction. His best heed long time avails him nothing. Yet thoughts are …

Sentences — April 27, 2009, 5:07 pm

It’s Very Childlike

What is literary criticism for? The question came up years ago as the subject of a London Review of Books 25th anniversary forum that included Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode, Zadie Smith and James Wood. “The ‘What is it for?’ question is interesting, it’s very childlike, isn’t it?” Eagleton said. “You know: What are people for? What is the moon for? —we’re all card-carrying functionalists.” Nonetheless, the question is useful, if not for obtaining its answer, than for segregating our expectations about the form. My early sense of the medium was as a question answering form: input a novel, output a …

Sentences — April 24, 2009, 2:30 pm

Weekend Read: «Cliquez ici pour visualiser le séquence!»

I’ve been unabashedly ludditic this week, arguing for (or, at least, expressing a love of) the handmade book. Just to reassure you that I’m every bit the modern guy, I should also confess to having spent an inordinate amount of my e-lunch-hours this week in virtual France. If you haven’t heard, a six-year project has come to fruition in which the 4,500 manuscript pages of Madame Bovary, archived at the University of Rouen, have been loosed on the Web. As the Independent reported: The project was launched six years ago as a tool for literary scholars. The municipal library in …

Sentences — April 23, 2009, 4:53 pm

Currents from the Moor

If the illustrated book for adults can, when the illustrations are undertaken by a hand less sophisticated than those of the author, produce an effect on the reader of distrust of the whole, the handmade book is one which aspires to, and regularly manages to, exalt the ideal of the book. Not that long ago, all books were handmade; now, most of the work is performed by armies of cleverly machined presses and binderies. Lost, in that consumptive progression, is not the beautiful book–for many special books made by machine do manage to be beautiful objects that function well. Lost …

Sentences — April 21, 2009, 3:04 pm

Woefully Too Small

Writers labor to make the visual world visible in fiction. There are many ways to do it. Here’s how William Makepeace Thackeray, age 33, made us see the world, in an incidental moment in Barry Lyndon: On Sunday, no sooner was my mother gone to church, than I summoned Phil the valet, and insisted upon his producing my best suit, in which I arrayed myself (although I found that I had shot up so in my illness that the old dress was wofully too small for me), and, with my notable copy of verses in my hand, ran down towards …

Sentences — April 17, 2009, 3:25 pm

Weekend Read: “Sure as the stars return again”

A friend called the other day from a bench in New York’s Hudson Valley to report that the weather was, at last, perfect for reading outside. As his first book of spring, he’d chosen Walt Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. It took a few days for his good weather to reach where we are, but today has been, at last, an outdoor reading day. Not least of the pleasures of reading outside is one of the most prosaic: the light’s really good. No pettifoggery with lampshades or lightbulbs required. Yes, as I say, prosaic stuff, whereas Whitman’s 1855 …

Sentences — April 15, 2009, 3:40 pm

Our Idleness, Pride, and Folly

TAX An impost; a tribute imposed; an excise; a tallage. Charge; censure. To TAX To load with imposts. To charge; to censure; to accuse. —A Dictionary of the English Language, 1766, by Samuel Johnson To TAX To law, impose or assess upon citizens a certain sum of money or amount of property, to be paid to the public treasury, or to the treasury of a corporation or company, to defray the expenses of the government or corporation, &c. We are more heavily taxed by our idleness, pride and folly, than we are taxed by government. To load with a burden …

Sentences — April 13, 2009, 5:35 pm

Lodged Within the Heart

A great sense of occasion is present when a friend publishes a book, but there’s a particular pulse of pleasure I’m getting from the arrival of Erik Reece’s An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God. Erik has published two fine essays with this magazine, the second of which, “Jesus Without the Miracles”, I got to read in manuscript on a packed and rainy miserable ride on a commuter train some years ago. Against my better impulses as a civically-minded human, I did dial my cellphone that afternoon while squeezed between other unhappy commuters, and did tell …

Sentences — April 10, 2009, 7:05 pm

Weekend Read: Frederick Seidel, “A Poet of Great Innocence”

Every day in America, on public radio stations across the land, a short program airs called “The Writer’s Almanac.” Hosted by the writer, musician and impresario Garrison Keillor, the show’s five minutes begin and end with a ceremonious progression of melancholic piano chords. Between these bookending strains, in his lulling baritone, Keillor catalogues the high-points of the date in literary history: which writer was born, what book appeared, who passed away. And then, before bidding us adieu (“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”), Keillor reads a poem. Though the authors he includes vary in age and gender, …

Sentences — April 8, 2009, 6:18 pm

My Book is a Painting

Readers familiar with Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, Lectures on Russian Literature, and Lectures on Don Quixote, know that Nabokov had a very vivid way of reading the texts that he taught his students. A poor but passionate illustrator, Nabokov would sketch visual details from the various works he taught. Reproductions of his sketches appear in the published version of the lectures, and thus we see his drawing of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in his metamorphosed state (whether “vermin” or “insect” or “cockroach” or Nabokov’s preferred “beetle” is another matter), a floor plan of the Samsa apartment, as well as the sort …

Sentences — April 6, 2009, 5:28 pm

Tricks of Demeanor and Speech

“How one pines for a translation of Proust by the hand of Nabokov,” wrote Christopher Hitchens a few years ago in a review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way. Hitchens’s remark seems so sensibly surefooted that you hardly notice the subtleties he merrily tramples past. Yes, it might well seem that Nabokov, who admired Proust, whose French was fluent, and whose own English prose–with its sensitivity to color, its priority on evoking sensory states, its resourceful music, and its syntactical complexity–would have seemed the ideal medium in which to reproduce Proust’s French effects. And yet, to pine for such …

Sentences — April 3, 2009, 3:32 pm

Weekend Read: “He wanted the overtones as well”

This week, I’ve posted around the uncontroversial contention that literary criticism is nothing if it isn’t reading closely, quoting abundantly, and parsing carefully. In the course of commenting on such concerns, one reader wrote to say he thought I was suggesting that Guy Davenport wasn’t a good literary critic. Although I still find myself unconvinced that I made any such suggestion, if even one reader could suppose such a thing, I feel I’m duty bound to make the following statement: Find me a better literary critic than Davenport in the past 50 years and I’ll buy you a pony. The …

Sentences — April 1, 2009, 4:52 pm

The Evil Thoughts of Man

Monday, I mentioned close reading as a practice indivisible from literary criticism. The thought was sparked by a letter I’d just received in response to an essay of mine in The New York Review of Books on Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy. To give you a little context on the reader’s letter, here’s a paragraph that he referenced from Morrison’s novel: One day… an eagle laid her eggs in a nest far above and far beyond the snakes and paws that hunted them. Her eyes are midnight black and shiny as she watches over them. At the tremble of …

Sentences — March 30, 2009, 5:16 pm

Another Sensibility

Though it’s amazing to imagine, there are some people who are against close reading in literary criticism. A friend who attended a panel on long-form book reviewing recently reported that many of the panelists, a number of them editors who oversee the publication of long review essays, preferred their reviewers to limit the practice (to be clear, close reading is an editorially encouraged feature of reviews of fiction that run in this magazine). I wasn’t privy to the debate that may have followed, but the notion that one wouldn’t spend a good percentage of one’s critical real estate on a …

Sentences — March 27, 2009, 3:41 pm

Weekend Read: “What went wrong in Germany”

Jonathan Littell’s second novel, The Kindly Ones, has gotten a good deal of attention. There has been no shortage of reviews, from which composite one can glean a picture of the book and of the author’s ambition. I should say I have read some of the novel, have not finished it–though I have had long conversations about it with someone close to me as she marches slowly through its pages. I’ll finish the book at some point, though not with the expectation that I’ll find a novel I’ll treasure (of course I welcome the possibility of being surprised). The long …

Sentences — March 25, 2009, 3:16 pm

Similar Incapacities

Above you’ll see the prettiest of gatefold title pages of one of the most useful (out of print) books I know, The Craft and Context of Translation. As the fine print boasts, the book is a symposium on the subject, put together by William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck held in 1959, and put forth in 1961 by The University of Texas Press. Only 1500 copies of this lovely and useful book were printed, and it seems that a wise publisher would reprint this volume of essays by Shattuck, Arrowsmith, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Howard and others. The benefit of this gang …

Sentences — March 23, 2009, 4:09 pm

“Grammar and Style!”

Some of my favorite passages of English prose appear in Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. Written in French and translated into English by Beckett and Patrick Bowles, the novel’s language is, to my ear and mind, perfection at every turn. I prefer the English version, probably because I knew it first. When I got to the French original, I couldn’t help but think of it as subordinate to the translation. “Translation” is a funny word to think of when thinking of Beckett: he chose to write in French to escape the mastery he had in English. Why Beckett would have wanted to …

Sentences — March 20, 2009, 1:54 pm

Weekend Read: “Frenzy finds its weapons”

There is no translation of any worthwhile book that hasn’t had its sometimes vigorous detractors. Jerome, who gave us the Vulgate, was forced to flee Rome to finish his work in Bethlehem when the Roman clergy got wind of his decision to translate from Hebrew sources (and, worse still, into the everyday Latin of Romans). Tyndale, who gave us the first English Bible with wide distribution was strangled and burned at the stake for his trouble (the charge was heresy). So it goes. The Aeneid is a different sort of holy book. It has found its English voice countless times. …

Sentences — March 18, 2009, 4:33 pm

Remote in Time, or Alien in Language

I’m inhabiting a pleasant little temporal interim right now, the lucky space that opens up when a new Bob Dylan record is announced. Dylan’s readers (more upon that apparently errant word in a moment) have been very lucky lately that his records have been coming out not merely with such regularity but with such great quality. Like Roth, he’s proving to be an inspiringly enduring manufacturer, to such an extent that calling current Dylan “late Dylan” miscasts the ageless place that the last 15 years of song have been coming from. Even the casual reader (that word again) of Dylan’s …

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That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

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I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

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The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

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That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

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