Monthly Archives: October 2016

Reflections on Fame

[On Cynthia Ozick]

Today I remain utterly seduced by the dazzling architecture of her stories, the distilled clarity of her sentences, and the urgency of her arguments. But my love for her is haunted by one point of strange discomfort: her obsession with fame, which in one form or another suffuses nearly everything she writes. (In this collection she loudly clarifies that she really means “recognition,” since “Fame is fickle”—but we knew that. Fine, then: high-end, enduring fame.) Her early masterpiece, “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” is a novella-à-clef about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s cheap glamour overshadowing better-yet-untranslated writers; her novella “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories)” involves, among much else, a fable about a magic crown that grants its wearer eternal literary fame (spoiler: this isn’t a good thing); The Messiah of Stockholm is about the forgotten genius Bruno Schulz and failed writers and charlatans vying to steal his legacy; Heir to the Glimmering World includes a scholar and a scientist both robbed of their greatest discoveries, forced to become wards of a famous-yet-thoughtless millionaire . . . I could go on, but instead I will simply point out what Ozick’s entire oeuvre brilliantly enacts: Despite the underlying assumption of Western civilization that we owe our world to the genius of Great Men (yes, men) whose names still resonate today, the truth is that merit and credit are only rarely linked. This sad truth is genuinely fascinating, because it unearths our most buried questions about the purpose of living as mortals in a world that outlasts us. But it also can become a perverse obsession for creative artists of every stature, because, as conventional wisdom and the degrading experience of reading Amazon reviews suggests, nothing good comes of it. Or does it?

Cynthia Ozick: Or, Immortality Dara Horn | Fall 2016 Jewish Review of Books  from here 


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The formation of a writer

Rachel Cusk began writing when she was a child. Here she  talks about her  time at boarding school,  the “foundational ordeal” of her life, and her art.

“It formed my character more than almost anything else. It was very exposing, not being able to hide in your home, not being protected by your parents, and it was something I couldn’t cope with at all. I think if my writing comes from somewhere, it’s there: those years I spent at school, where my inner life became so clearly defined and separated from what was around me. I talked to myself an awful lot, in my head. So when I started actually writing things, proper things, it was very fully formed – my voice, or my style – because it had been keeping me company for eight years.” (from here) 



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The power of memories that never leave

[On  the Russian composer Dimitr Shostakovitch }

 He doubted he could stop drinking, whatever the doctors advised; he could not stop hearing; and worst of all, he could not stop remembering. He so wished that the memory could be disengaged at will, like putting a car into neutral. That was what chauffeurs used to do, either at the top of a hill, or when they had reached maximum speed: they would coast to save petrol. But he could never do that with his memory. His brain was stubborn at giving house-room to his failings, his humiliations, his self-disgust, his bad decisions. He would like to remember only the things he chose: music, Tanya, Nina, his parents, true and reliable friends, Galya playing with the pig, Maxim imitating a Bulgarian policeman, a beautiful goal, laughter, joy, the love of his young wife. He did remember all those things, but they were often overlaid and intertwined with everything he wanted not to remember. And this impurity, this corruption of memory, tormented him.’

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time, p168

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The particular and the universal

. . . . the great paradox of national letters: writers who seem rooted in the particular but whose works are deemed universal. Arguably the greatest German writer of the 20th century was Franz Kafka who was, of course, Czech. His tales of alienation, of guilt, of not being what you seem, could perhaps only have been written by a German-speaking Jew who grew up in a Catholic Slavic city such as Prague. But what that makes Kafka – German, Jewish, Czech, Slavic – is perhaps not the point. He is a writer being true to the multitudes within himself that are one and many.

Richard Flanagan, Does Writing Matter? The Monthly 2016

(from here) 

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Hidden paintings on books


Spider monkeys from a fore-edge painting on The Natural History of Monkeys (1838) PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE SWEM LIBRARY

(from here) 

Lovely Hidden Paintings Adorned the Edges of Historic Books Fore-edge paintings. Just look at them! By Eric Grundhauser

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Leonard Cohen’s farewell to his father

When Leonard [Cohen] was nine, his father died; this moment, a primal wound, was when he first used language as a kind of sacrament. “I have some memories of him,” Cohen said, and recounted the story of his father’s funeral, which was held at their house. “We came down the stairs, and the coffin was in the living room.” Contrary to Jewish custom, the funeral workers had left the coffin open. It was winter, and Cohen thought of the gravediggers: it would be difficult to break the frozen ground. He watched his father lowered into the earth. “Then I came back to the house and I went to his closet and I found a premade bow tie. I don’t know why I did this, I can’t even own it now, but I cut one of the wings of the bow tie off and I wrote something on a piece of paper—I think it was some kind of farewell to my father—and I buried it in a little hole in the back yard. And I put that curious note in there. . . . It was just some attraction to a ritual response to an impossible event.”

David Remnick, Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker, The New Yorker October  17 2016

(from here) 


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The writer’s inner world

 I was asked whether I thought that any non-Jewish novelist had ever really nailed a Jewish character, which implied a universality of the Jewish condition that doesn’t exist, a condition of Otherness. For the talky male American Jews of Philip Roth are not the same people as the timid female Marylebone introverts of Anita Brookner. One writes out of deep knowledge of one’s interior world. The something that one has to say is the thing that one knows, but married to that is intense curiosity about the lives of others – about what the person sitting opposite you on the tube is thinking. The origin of fiction is telling a story, about yourself or others. In practical terms we are mostly appropriating, ruthlessly, the lives of our families and our friends, but that’s not the same as cultural appropriation because it has no political freight. 

Linda Grant, Whose life is it anyway? Novelists have their say on cultural appropriation, The Guardian 1 October 2016

(from here)

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Girl reading Alison Bechdel on the tram


September 2016

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Seeing our stories in another

“Our friendship was rooted in the fact that I could somehow see myself in his story, and maybe he could see himself in mine.”

US President Barack Obama  in the eulogy for  Israel’s  9th President, Shimon  Peres, September  30th 2016

(from here)

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The self -respect in making something

Writing or making anything—a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake—has self-respect in it. You’re working. You’re trying. You’re not lying down on the ground, having given up. And one thing I love about writing is that we can speak to the absent, the dead, the estranged and the longed-for—all the people we’re separated from. We can see them again, understand them more, even say goodbye.

Sharon Olds,  from here 

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