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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bob the Builder goes to yoga

My yoga class is held in a playroom, where there's always toys strewn all over the room and the strong scent of children (on this subject I become my aspirational older doppelganger Anjelica Huston in The Witches... sort of kidding). A talking Bob the Builder toy became possessed during class today and started exulting at how great things were going to be.

"Well done!" he exclaimed. "Well done!"

We were chanting, but then we started snickering. The teacher went to try to turn him off because we were supposed to be considering how to live in the now--no concerns about the future, even if it was going to be great. "Leave him on!" I said. "I need all the affirmation I can get."

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Blogger Meg on Fri Apr 24, 07:12:00 AM:
I should invite him to our yoga class!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bodoni edition of Candide

"This Voltaire was printed in the autumn of 1944, during the most difficult period towards the end of the war, and at a time when the press was much restricted in its work. Our house had been requisitioned by the occupying power, but much to our astonishment we were not ordered to leave the workshop. Thirty-two marines were billeted with us, and a guard carrying the machine-gun continuously patrolled back and forth on the terrace in front of the big French window near the press, where I stood printing my sheets. Almost every day work was interrupted by air-raid alarms and we had to rush into the deep cave hewn into the hillside behind our house which was also used by the people living in other houses near by. At last, one night in December, a case with bound copies of Candide was on its way to Milan but the van, its lights switched off, was attacked from the air. The case had several bullet holes, yet, amazingly, not a single copy was damaged. Great concentration was needed to work in such adverse conditions and see the book through to completion, but finally optimism carried the day."

--from Giovanni Mardersteig's account of printing Candide on the Bodoni printing press, Officina Bodoni: An Account of a Hand Press, 1923-1977

I so wish I could find a copy of this edition of Candide! There's an exemplary page in the Officina Bodoni book to show the typeface used in the edition, but the graphic element isn't striking enough. I'll keep looking in the other Bodoni materials I've found. The story of its creation is extraordinary and fits so well into the set of questions I'm working on about the way that illustrators deal with optimism outside of its 18c. context, after World War II.

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Blogger Unnatural Philsopher on Tue Apr 21, 01:06:00 PM:
What an incredible story.

This is why the work you are doing is so important, there is so much more to the story of the book than anyone would ever otherwise know.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Experimental typography and the Orioles

Hilarious article about the backwards apostrophe in the Orioles' alternate caps.
The latter is on the "alternate cap" that's usually worn once or twice a week. It reads "O‘s," with the apostrophe flipped so the little round part - the "ball terminal," typographers tell me - is at the bottom instead of the top. It should be "O’s."

The quotes from the grammar, typography, and uniform commentators are fantastic--it's tough to choose a favorite, but Paul Lukas gets a good last word (thanks to the Messecs, who still tolerate my jokes about Rafael Palmeiro).

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sun Apr 12, 01:57:00 PM:
I love it!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Set them on fire

"When I got them, I knew I would set them on fire."

Sifting through my college papers today, I found a stack of my creative writing, all of which bears heavy traces of my obsessions with Joan Didion, Amy Hempel, and Lydia Davis. There are a lot of single-line short stories in the vein of the latter two writers--e.g. from Amy Hempel: "She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, 'French film, French film" ("incanting" makes the sentence) and the sublime "Just once in my life--oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once?" I heard Lydia Davis speak a few years ago about Varieties of Disturbance, she noted that she had to be choosy about which of those kinds of stories are good enough to be collected.

Needless to say, the italicized line above is not Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis-quality, so I'm left to Joan Didion to reinterpret it. (I also found a poster from the night I met her and awkwardly gave her something I had written about her--the stuff of legends in my writing classes now.) From Didion's "On Keeping a Notebook":
"It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one's self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."

I made a few phone calls yesterday to see if I could place this line from a college conversation: I think someone's mother had sent her a pair of slacks from Talbot's, or maybe it was more egregious, like Halloween sweaters. Didion would go for the first in her correcting mode, right? The second possibility is too much:
"What kind of magpie keeps a notebook? 'He was born the night the Titanic went down.' That seems a nice enough line, band I even recall who said it, but is it not really a better line in life than it could ever be in fiction?"

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Anonymous Alice's mom on Sun Apr 12, 04:46:00 PM:
I think it was a Halloween sweater. I seem to have a dim memory of hearing about this travesty.

But remember that your mother's mother used to say "Ethan Allen" in reverential tones and never worked up to buying anything there, although she had enough money.

And your mother, still living, still jeans-wearing, non-owner of a single holiday or otherwise decorated sweater, might nevertheless have the occasional fantasy of going into Talbot's (I've never been in) and buying something "classic."

So I'm hoping that if as a college student you had an immediate response to an item from Talbot's, it was a) ageist and not classist and b) didn't occur until at least your sophomore year.

As usual, don't take this very seriously.

Blogger Alice on Sun Apr 12, 05:55:00 PM:
It's cool, I was being ageist.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Texas acrostic

Lorrie Moore's NYRB review of a new biography of Donald Barthelme takes a thought-provoking turn to consider how literary biographies can produce some artifacts of the biographical procedure. Moore includes this great anecdote about looking for biographical clues in a person's work (the bold paragraph is a quotation from Tracy Daugherty's book):
Mr. Barthelme the architect was also given to cleverness and mischief similar to his son's: when he designed Texas's Hall of State, he had carved into the frieze of the building the names of fifty-nine legendary Texans. According to Daugherty:

The first letters of the first eight names, reading left to right—-Burleson, Archer, Rusk, Travis, Higg, Ellis, Lamar, and Milam—-spell the architect's name, minus only the final e. A playful touch, a buried secret: These would become hallmarks of his eldest son's art, as well.

The elder Barthleme's architectural acrostic does reveal hidden meanings, but Moore is also interested in what happens when looking for specific thumbprints doesn't yield as easily to interpretation. That's the weirdness of the acrostic: what happens when looking for ways to fill in the blanks of an author's work (the building, the book) doesn't produce clues about identity? Or what if it can't because the genre (of the acrostic, the literary biography) has certain delimitations which produce some effects through its conventions but foreclose others? What I like so much about Moore's discussion here is that she identifies how familiar syntactical structures generate (and not just record) these artifacts (bold paragraphs are from Daughterty):
In Tracy Daugherty's extensive discussion of Barthelme's work he has a literary scholar's predilection for locating, as if they were truffles, "lifts" and "echoes" and "resonant touchstones" (from Eliot, from Perelman, from Woolf). This sort of detective work, as if it were mapping the genome of a narrative, may seem to some the downside of graduate literary education (Daugherty was once in fact a graduate student of Barthelme's): to paraphrase our current poet laureate, Kay Ryan, why become a doctor of something that can't be fixed? Daugherty's determined textual sleuthing—-the kind of thing an average reader can now do on Google-—means to be respectful and interesting, but it strains and sweats and risks the inadvertently hostile result of seeming to want to undermine the originality of the writer, one whom Daugherty himself claims as radical and original and at one point "the nation's finest prose stylist."

Daugherty's comparisons are labor-intensive and sometimes unconvincing—"the sentences echo Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground," he says even of an early newspaper article—and this gumshoe's persistence in tracking down influences and mimicries, serendipitous or intentional, sometimes bogs the biographer down:

Time ran an article on Black Orpheus and the French New Wave.... Whether or not Don was thinking of this article, he clearly had in mind Walker Percy's The Moviegoer as he began reworking "The Hiding Man."...Like Ralph Ellison's protagonist in Invisible Man, Burlingame has freed himself from the received ideas of society and church.

Even describing Barthelme's early adult life in Houston, Daugherty can get startlingly sidetracked:

In the first seven months of his marriage, Don, in his capacity as an arts reviewer, could offer his wife a wide array of cultural excitement (whenever he could get her out)—-from an evening of Mozart piano sonatas performed by Paur Badura-Skoda, fresh from the Viennese Conservatory, to the Latin singing of Joaquin Garay, best known as the voice of Panchito in Disney's The Three Caballeros ("Disney's horniest animated feature," according to one reviewer).

The inner core of the biographical subject is invariably elusive, the golden needle in the biographer's haystack of research. So what do we really want from a literary biography?

There are some intense phrases in this concern--"the kind of thing any average reader could do with Google," "inadvertently hostile result of seeming to want to undermine the originality of the author" among them. So how else to unpack the playful touch/buried secret features of Barthleme's stories--or are there are other ways to think about the experiments in style and form than as decodable biography? Does the incomplete acrostic trick point to other directions for fooling around with conventions of literary biography when the subject is someone who was committed to the practice of fooling around? Here's James Wolcott's review of Barthelme's short stories which talks about how conventions get exploded in his work:
Donald Barthelme was the Stephen Sondheim of haute fiction—a dexterous assembler of witty, mordant, intricate devices that, once exploded, exposed the sawdust and stuffing of traditional forms. His stories weren’t finely rendered portrait studies in human behavior or autobiographical reveries à la Johns Updike and Cheever, but a row of boutiques showcasing his latest pranks, confections, gadgets, and Max Ernst/Monty Python–ish collages. Like Sondheim’s biting rhymes and contrapuntal duets, Barthelme’s parlor tricks and satiric ploys were accused early on of being cerebral, preeningly clever, hermetically sealed, and lacking in “heart” of supplying the clattering sound track to the cocktail party of the damned.

Moore's posing this problem puts me in mind of when Jenny Turner asked a similar question about finding the Lorrie Moore in her collected works, given that Moore has shrugged off a lot of the author/text clue-mining, except in "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (from Birds of America):
‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ made a huge impact when it was first published in the New Yorker in 1997, partly because the magazine’s editors wrote oddly tendentious furniture for it, strongly implying that the story was a piece of journalism: ‘Have writers of memoirs taken over a field that once belonged to novelists? The question is at the heart of a story of a mother and child,’ read the strapline, with a photograph of the author, captioned by a quotation from her story, as though it had been spoken in real life. The year after, in an interview with Salon, Moore acknowledged an ‘autobiographical element’, but denied that the story was memoir. ‘It was fiction . . . Things did not happen exactly that way; I reimagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction.’ Beyond this, Moore does not appear to have said anything in public about the relationship of the story to any real-life events behind it.

‘There is the desire of readers for Something that Really Happened,’ Moore told the Believer in 2005. ‘If a narrative uses language in a magical and enlivening way, we will listen to the story. But if the language doesn’t cast a spell, we will listen to it only if it is telling us something that actually happened.’ Reading ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ is a staggering experience, but the fact remains that more money and attention might be wrung from such a subject when presented as memoir: a front in the New York Times, say, big, sad picture, prominent nose-to-mouth lines, preferably holding the (bald? cannulated? completely recovered?) small child. The indications, within the story, that memoir was possible, was contemplated and was refused, give an already powerful piece of writing an almost unbearable performative force. As does the rightly celebrated kicker of an ending:

There are the notes.

Now where is the money?

I think Turner's meditation on the results of trying to find Lorrie Moore in her style does produce some alternate ways of considering the biography of an author. But Turner's essay (and Wolcott's essay) is a review of collected works, and the work of interpretation is perhaps different when one is writing a literary biography. What are some good books which have handled this problem of questionable clue-mining in literary biography, given that literary interpretation has been endlessly productive of decoding work but may also be given to discussions of style, syntax, and genre in considering the conventions of biography-writing?

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