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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I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

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Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

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The Black Axe·

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

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Murder Italian Style·

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The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

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.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

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