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The job of the travel writer today

August 7, 2010

Dalrymple c. Wikipedia

“It seems to me that the job of the travel writer today is no longer what it was in the nineteenth century, which is sort of marching out like Livingstone and Stanley, and finding Lake Victoria and penetrating the unknown quarters of the globe. It seems to me that the job of the travel writer today is to strip off that very thin veneer of globalization, which still hides a multitude of different attitudes. We think today, because of our technology, because of the internet, because we can type in Google Earth and can look at a street in Siberia or Singapore or Saigon with huge ease, and just walk down the road virtually, that we understand and know the world, and that it’s been mapped and gridded and studied. As 9/11 revealed so dramatically, we don’t understand the world. There are huge areas of the world about which we know virtually nothing. And even our greatest intelligence agencies, with their ability to filter twenty million emails in a second, and do all the gizmo stuff, are left sort of blindly gasping for air in the face of a whole other series of realities which they haven’t even begun to grasp.”

-William Dalrymple, in a recent interview with Open Source‘s Christopher Lydon

Soiled drawers: A matter of esthetic concern?

July 29, 2010

Baby Gabo in "The Overalls" (c. Vintage)

“…in the next room we found the crib where I slept until I was four years old and that my grandmother kept forever. I had forgotten it, but as soon as I saw it I remembered myself in the overalls with little blue flowers that I was wearing for the first time, screaming for sombeody to come and take off my diapers that were filled with shit. I could barely stand as I clutched at the bars of the crib that was as small and fragile as Moses’ basket. This has been a frequent cause of discussion and joking among relatives and friends, for whom my anguish that day seems too rational for one so young. Above all when I have insisted that the reson for my suffering was not disgust at my own filth but fear that I would soil my new overalls. That is, it was not a question of hygienic prejudice but esthetic concern, and because of the manner in which it persists in my memory, I believe it was my first experience as a writer.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living to Tell the Tale, pg. 37-38

More passionate than philosophy or science

July 29, 2010

Milton c. Cambridge U.

“Literature belongs to the world man constructs, not to the world he sees; to his home, not his environment. Literature’s world is a concrete human world of immediate experience. The poet uses images and objects and sensations much more than he uses abstract ideas; the novelist is concerned with telling stories, not with working out arguments. The world of literature is human in shape, a world where the sun rises in the east and sets in the west over the edge of a flat earth in three dimensions, where the primary realities are not atoms or electrons but bodies, and the primary forces not energy or gravitation but love and death and passion and joy. It’s not surprising if writers are often rather simple people, not always what we think of as intellectuals, and certainly not always any freer of silliness or perversity than anyone else. What concerns us is what they produce, not what they are, and poetry, according to Milton, who ought to have known, is “more simple, sensuous and passionate” than philosophy or science.”

-Northrop Frye, “The Motive for Metaphor,” The Educated Imagination

House Wrecking

July 11, 2010

“In gospel music, a progenitor of [soul music], a singer is often described as ‘worrying’ the audience, ” teasing it, working the crowd until it is on the verge of exploding, until strong men faint and women start speaking in tongues. This is commonly referred to as ‘house wrecking. ‘ In soul music, perhaps the last of the great vocal arts, there is this same sense of dramatic structure, even if the message does not always provide the same unambiguous release.”

-Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music

Saul Bellow: The Great Dictator

May 6, 2010

Saul Bellow was a devoted correspondent. The Nobel Prize-winning American novelist, who died five years ago this past April, wrote thousands of letters during his lifetime. His recipients were various. He wrote regular messages not only to his close contemporaries in the literary world, such as Phillip Roth and John Cheever, but to his extended network of friends as well. Even his old high school buddies received notes from him.

Bellow c. Fay Godwin

Thanks to the disciplined copying of his wife, the bulk of Bellow’s letters have been preserved. Janis Bellow, now a professor of English literature at Tufts, kept a notepad ready for those moments when her husband felt inspired to compose. He would dictate lines to her as they came, wherever they came– in their garden after lunch, in the car en route to the grocery store, or aboard an airplane. For every letter of the novelist’s that went out, Janis made sure she had a copy saved in a filing cabinet. She later submitted these letters to the University of Chicago, where Saul taught for thirty years in the Committee on Social Thought. They will be collected in a book to be published this fall.

A selection of these letters was published in the April 26th edition of The New Yorker. In lieu of this edition of the magazine, The New Yorker‘s Blake Eskine interviewed Janis Bellow. One bit of that conversation, which deals with the subject of letter writing itself, is particularly noteworthy:

BE: In our world today, we’re so used to email, Skype, cell phones, the ease of communicating with whomever you want, and maybe even looking at them. Were letters for [Bellow] a preferred mode of communication, or perhaps a poor substitute for actually conversing with people?

JB: There’s actually a sentence in a letter that directly addresses the question you’re asking. It’s in a letter to Martin Amis, written on December 30, 1990. It begins in this way:

“Janis and I are in Ontario, on the top story of her parents’ farmhouse looking into falling snow, trees, fields, a pond, and staring directly into the face of a Trojan helmet chimney emitting smoke from wood chopped by me. We’ve just come out of the bath and we sit beside a huge white tub with a view, a whirlpool or perhaps even a jacuzzi into which you pour bubble bath cream which foams up and makes you into an Olympian. Old master Zeus looking down on white Chanel clouds. Too bad the people I care for are so widely distributed over the face of the earth. But then one tends to think about them all the more. Proximity isn’t everything.”

McCann on Wire

April 30, 2010


Man on Wire. This short phrase, written in the terse, matter-of-fact diction typical of police documentation, was used in the NYPD’s arrest report for Philippe Petit, a French tight-rope walker who on August 7th 1974 spent an hour suspended in mid-air between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. (Petit would later describe the event to interviewers using more poetic language; in a conversation with Studio 360‘s Kurt Anderson, he claimed, with convincing sincerity, to have fallen in love with the Two Towers, which imbued his death-defying act with the pathos of romantic consummation– the guy’s an artist, to be sure). Man on Wire, as it turns out, also struck film director James Marsh as a fitting title for his documentary on Petit’s legendary high-wire walk. It was released in 2008 to much acclaim, even winning the Best Documentary Oscar, which Pettit kindly received and, with characteristic buffoonery, proceeded to balance upside-down on his chin.

Pettit’s amazing feat is also the subject of a new novel. Let the Great World Spin, written by Colum McCann, was published last year, and though its title doesn’t make a direct reference to the tightrope walk– Man on Wire had already been claimed as the title of Pettit’s memoir– or the walker himself– McCann’s description of the the event, however, could be no other– is central to the story. It takes place mainly on the day of Pettit’s walk, and begins by presenting the point of view of bystanders who have stopped to observe the high-wire artist from the sidewalks 110 stories below. None of them are quite sure of what they are seeing:

Those who saw him hushed, on Church Street, Liberty, Court Land, West Street, Fulton, Vessey. It was a silence that heard itself. Awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light. Something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke. Stand around and point upwards until people gather, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upwards at nothing at all. Like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer, maybe, or a construction worker, or a jumper. Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

McCann c.

Throughout its course, the novel focuses on some eleven fictional protagonists, each of whom occupies his or her own chapter. Among these characters are an Irish monk who comes to Brooklyn, a Guatemalan nurse, an aging prostitute living in the Bronx, as well as the judge who, in a later chapter, oversees her courtroom trial. The individual dramas of these characters, moving as they are in themselves, are lent added meaning by the figure of the tightrope artist, that graceful figure stepping, and at times dancing, on a thin line a thousand feet up in the sky. The metaphor of the walker underscores the stories of the novel’s protagonists, setting patterns of grace, beauty and redemption that reappear in their lives and counterbalance their plights. The characters, intertwined as they are around the leitmotif of the walker, also bring these same themes to bare on the actual destruction of the Two Towers, a catastrophe still two nearly three decades into their future.

“This act of brazen beauty that he did across the World Trade Center towers was an act of creation that to me sort of stood in perfect opposition to the act of destruction twenty seven years later,” McCann said in an interview with Open Source‘s Cristopher Lydon. In his review of McCann’s novel, Johnathon Mahler wrote in The New York Times that “the metaphorical possibilities of the walker — the paradox of this innocent, unsanctioned act of ‘divine delight’ being carried out between two buildings that would one day be so viciously and murderously destroyed — are hard to ignore, particularly in a novel so concerned with the twin themes of love and loss.” When he stepped out over the edge of the first tower that fateful morning, Philippe Pettit could not have known that the roof where he stood would, in his own lifetime, lay in a mangled pile on the street below. Could he have known of the fiery demise of these buildings, I think he would have been pleased with the idea of another artist using his craft– this time a pen– to erect something beautiful out of the rubble.

They called me the “moon man”

April 24, 2010


“In Chicago, I played with different musicians. I was playing different. They knew I was playing different. They didn’t understand what I was doing, but they were fascinated by it. So I never had to worry about working. I was talking about space and everything– shocking musicians. I told them things that were going to happen. I predicted synthesizers. I told them they would have electric instruments that you could blow; and they told me your saliva gets down in there, you’ll be electrocuted– you couldn’t do that. But they do have them now. Then I was talking about sending men to the moon. They called me “the moon man” then….

Then these space mens contacted me. They wanted me to go to outer space with them. They were looking for somebody who had that type of mind. They said it was quite dangerous because you had to have perfect discipline. When I went up, I’d have to go up like this [elbows pointing in, fingers touching shoulders] because [they said] don’t let no parts of my body touch outside of the ship. Because if I did, going through different time zones, I wouldn’t be able to come back. So that’s what I did.

It looked like a giant spotlight [was] shining down on me. I call it transmolecularization: My whole body was changed into something I could see for myself. And I went up. Then I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn. First thing I saw was something like the monorail of a railroad track comin’ down out of the sky. Now when this picture came out, Space Odyssey or something like that– they had it right.”

-Sun Ra, in an interview with Francis Davis, “Taken: The True Story of an Alien Abduction”