April 2021 Reading & Writing

Best of what I've been reading, from essays to short stories to interviews.


The last weekend and the better half of this week were spent reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor. With its enviably good prose and thoroughly enjoyable trilingual dialogue, it left such a heavy mark that most of the contemporary essays and reporting I read right after felt irrelevant and dull. The museums in Paris are still closed for the foreseeable 2-week future, yet the echoes from New York – namely reviews of the 20th-century female artists’ retrospectives – make one long for a travel visa.

#art #review | Alice Neel’s Portraits of Difference by Hilton Als for The New Yorker

The characters in Alice Neel’s paintings have always made me think of the words “bold fragility”. They gaze straight to the viewer’s eyes, their look either carelessly negligent, even ready to pick a fight. Yet there is something uncanny about their posture, how they slouch their shoulders and seem to struggle to find a suitable place for both of their arms. And then there’s the post-impressionistic outlining and, in the case of her later work, the signature patch of blue (which indicates the light from the bare bulb that Neel used to illuminate her sitters.)

“You know what it takes to be an artist?” Neel says in Phoebe Hoban’s 2010 biography, “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty.” “Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil. To never give up.”

A passage from Hilton Als’ review:

“One painting in particular underlines all this. When Neel’s daughter Isabetta was nearly six, she visited her mother—the first time they’d seen each other since the girl was a toddler. To mark the occasion, Neel made a painting of Isabetta. After Doolittle slashed the painting, Neel repainted it. In “Isabetta” (1934-35), her daughter, whom Neel knows and does not know, stands nude before her, hands on hips, gazing straight ahead; she is elegant, alien, and cold, like a figurehead on a grand vintage car or a child in a horror film. She seems unsoftened by a mother’s love; indeed, the absence of it may have closed her off. The picture is as much about Isabetta’s defiance—Who can love me? Do you dare?—as it is about Neel’s will to be an artist, to see objectively, even if that means seeing her child’s distance from her. It’s a hard painting to look at, and it’s meant to be; the hard things of life went into making it.”

#art #review | Chloe Wise: Thank You For The Nice Fire, reviewed by Susan Harris in The Brooklyn Rail

Writing about Alice Neel, I was reminded of the first time when I heard about her. It was in an art podcast where the NYC-based painter Chloe Wise was asked to name an artist she admires the most. There it was, Alice Neel.

Chloe Wise, whose two works (repros, sadly) hang on my “dining room” walls, just had an exhibition of her own at Almine Rech New York. Uncanny and ingeniously titles paintings of bright yet uncanny smiles and abundant food and touches, served under a chandelier of Caesar salad leaves, form a witty comment on the Western culture of individualist consumerism.

An interesting fact found in another review of Wise’s show:

“In Baudrillard’s experimental travelogue America (1986), he cross-examined the American smile in postwar America and its own travel within Reagan’s America:

“The smile of immunity, the smile of advertising: ‘This country is good. I am good. We are the best’. It is also Reagan’s smile – the culmination of the self-satisfaction of the entire American nation […] Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact that you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others.””

#art #review | The Pioneering Feminism of Niki de Saint Phalle by Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker

The grandmaster of art reviews, Peter Schjeldahl, pays homage to the show “Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life,” at MOMA PS1.

“The self-taught Saint Phalle is one of the late twentieth century’s great creative personalities, ahead of her time in several respects, with traits that once clouded and now halo her importance. Her career had two chief phases: feminist rage, expressed by way of .22 rifles fired at plaster sculptures inside which she had secreted bags of liquid paint, and feminist celebration of womanhood, through sculptures of female bodies, often immense, in fibreglass and polyester resin. The shooting period lasted from 1961 until about 1963. The bodies consumed the rest of her life. Her masterpiece, the Tarot Garden (1979-2002), is a vast sculpture park in Tuscany filled with twenty-two free-form, monumental women, animals, and figures of fantasy, some the size of houses and made habitable with kitchens and plumbing.”

#essay #literature | How Motherhood Radicalized Adrienne Rich by Eula Biss via LitHub

““Women are workers and workers are women.”

“I didn’t want to be a mother, but I wanted a baby.”

The first sentence belongs to Adrienne Rich, a 20th century feminist activist and intellectual. The second quotation is from Eula Biss’ essay on Rich’s reactionist politics against the institution of motherhood. Or maybe, all she wanted was not the abolishment of the institution, but quite the contrary – the full affirmation of it and the granting of fair rights.

As Biss remarks: “The work of motherhood remains largely invisible as work, and the economic contribution women make to society also remains invisible. “If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year,” Gus Wezerek and Kristen R. Ghodsee wrote in the New York Times this year. Globally, women would have made $10.9 trillion, which is more than all the money made in 2018 by the fifty biggest companies in the world. That was before the pandemic.”

#literature #bookreview | Books Do Furnish a Life, Jane Darcy reviews three recently published books on books, and reflects on the joys of reading. For the Times Literary Supplement

#literature #essay | Living Anna’s Last Hours by Craig Raine for the Times Literary Supplement

Rubbing elbows with the likes of Milan Kundera and Vladimir Nabokov, Craig Raine makes his own attempt (and a convincing at that) to unravel the intricate web of phantom threads leading to Anna’s suicide in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

#profile #reportage #psychology | How Elizabeth Loftus Changed the Meaning of Memory by Rachel Aviv for The New Yorker

A mind-bending profile of Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist notorious for defending the Harvey Weinstein case and exposing the victims’ memories to painful scrutiny, to the point they break down and start to doubt their own memories. Reading the reportage, it was impossible not to question Loftus’ objectivity as she herself has a painful memory in the game.

#literature #shortstory | When She Is Old and I Am Famous by Julie Orringer via The Paris Review

#poetry #literature | The Corpse-Plant by Adrienne Rich via The New York Review of Books

A passage from the poem:

Is it in the sun that truth begins?
Lying under that battering light
the first few hours of summer
I felt scraped clean, washed down

to ignorance. The gold in my ears,
souvenir of a wicked old city,
might have been wearing thin as wires
found in the ears of a woman’s head

miraculously kept in its first essentials
in some hot cradle-tomb of time.


The weather is ripe for reading in the parks, arriving early (in Paris, this luckily means before 11 am) means that one can secure a prime spot, residing in a green metal half-lounge chair right beside the fountain. What to pack: a notebook for letter-writing, two or three literary magazines, a book if feeling optimistic about one’s speed reading capabilities, a couple of pain au chocolats, a pack of gummy bears, a pack of cigarettes. C’est tout.

#history #literature #anthropology | Ancient Greece’s Army of Lovers by Daniel Mendelsohn for The New Yorker

A brief sociohistorical fun-fact of an article on an army made up of one hundred and fifty couples of male warriors from the city of Thebes. It was among the most fearsome fighting forces in Greece, undefeated until it was wiped out at the Battle of Chaeronea, in 338 B.C

The Band was composed entirely of lovers: precisely a hundred and fifty couples, whose valor, so the Greeks thought, was due to the fact that no man would ever exhibit cowardice or act dishonorably in front of his beloved. In Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue about love, a character remarks that an army made up of such lovers would “conquer all mankind.”

#literature #politics #poetry | No More Mother-Saviors by Sophie Pinkham via The New York Review of Books

On contemporary Russian protest politics and feminist poets in the frontlines of the battle.

#fiction #literature #short | Uhtceare by John Jeremiah Sullivan via The Paris Review

Read the full account on the sleeping patterns of humans and animals – from a small kid to soldiers in the trenches during WWI to sea otters to bats – here.


“Sea otters sleep on their backs in the ocean and often sleep holding hands, or forefeet, perhaps to ensure they don’t drift away from one another. They like to lie in beds of kelp and let their bodies get wrapped up in the fronds and float along with it.”

“Bats sleep hanging upside down, as is widely known, and so do some species of whale. Both share an ancestor, a four-footed furry mammal that walked on the ground. One line of that creature’s descendants took to the seas, one to the sky. Now they both sleep upside down and would never dream of each other. The bat sleeps hanging that way because it cannot take off, only let go. Honduran white bats sleep bunched up in little green tents made of folded jungle leaves. They tumble out of them to fly. Whales dive far down to perform their sleep. Divers have come upon them hanging there motionless, as if bewitched.”

“Men take corpses for pillows and if permitted doze through the day. You are walked on all the time but you are much too tired to mind. Shooing off rats is one of the industries. If a fellow went to sleep in a trench with a piece of chocolate on his person, he would soon have a dozen rats fighting to get the sweetmeat. Boys sleep with their cheeks to the stocks of their rifles. I slept wrapped in a Dutchman’s blanket that smelled and was closely inhabited by the shirt-squirrels that play all over you. I have slept with only an oil cape over me, and I have been without a blanket entirely. On the firing line the men sleep in dugouts hollowed out under the sides of the trenches, constructing cells according to their ingenuity. All outside is a waste of mud. As a surgeon in charge of a field hospitaltwo miles behind the battlefront I noticed about three months ago that the wounded in many cases suffered more from nightmares than from wounds. I learned from those who had patiently endured sickness, mutilation, privation, and endless strain that the worst terrors of the trenches were the visitations of sleep which dominate even the waking mind with a violence impossible to shake off. I watched one man, a nightmare victim, crouch beside his cot, trembling with eyes wild and staring. “I am so tired,” he said, “but I will not sleep again. Such a dream!””

#comic #literature| From Euripides’ The Trojan Women by Anne Carson & Rosanna Bruno via The Paris Review

From Euripides’ The Trojan Women by Anne Carson & Rosanna Bruno via The Paris Review
From Euripides’ The Trojan Women by Anne Carson & Rosanna Bruno via The Paris Review
From Euripides’ The Trojan Women by Anne Carson & Rosanna Bruno via The Paris Review

#history #literature #bookreview | When Constitutions Took Over the World by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker

Jill Lepore, a historian in her own right, never falls short of delivering exacting and exciting reviews on her subjects. This time, Lepore reviewed (while summarizing) the recently-published book on constitutions The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World by Linda Colley who offers a convincing corollary: Wars make states make constitutions.

Among other facts:

The American Constitution was signed signed on September 17, 1787.

Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, began drafting the Nakaz, or Grand Instruction. She relied, in particular, on Montesquieu’s 1748 “Spirit of the Laws,” which also greatly influenced James Madison. (Catherine called it “the prayerbook of all monarchs with any common sense.”)

Catherine arranged for a multiethnic legislative body, composed of five hundred and sixty-four elected representatives, to meet in Moscow, in 1767, in order to consider the Nakaz. Women were able to vote for the representatives. Peasants were able to serve; serfs were not. Muslims were allotted fifty-four seats. Although its work consisted in the main of honoring rather than debating or ratifying the Nakaz, it was still an extraordinary gathering.

The Nakaz circulated well beyond Catherine’s realm. By 1770, it had been translated into German, Latin, French, and English; editions in Greek, Italian, Latvian, Romanian, Swiss, and Dutch soon followed. The translator of the English edition called it a “constitution.” Colley hints at its influence. In 1772, Gustaf III, the King of Sweden, and Catherine’s cousin, had drawn up and printed a new constitution of “fixed and sacred fundamental law.” If American scholars interested in the history of constitutionalism have taken very little notice of the Nakaz, it’s not so much because the document failed to shore up Catherine’s regime as because Americans are provincial—instead of looking to Moscow, all eyes turn, worshipfully, to Philadelphia—and because it was created by a woman.

#poetry #literature | Fever of Unknown Origin by Campbell McGrath via The Paris Review

Fragments from the poem:

Allow me to apologize for my self-absorption. My virus
is your virus, ours is a virulent commonwealth.
We breed them together, refine them, borrow them
from friends and strangers, camels and bats,
as my body fights its infection the global corpus
combats our latest invader—retrovirus, ebolavirus, coronavirus—
we are besieged, we sicken, we counterattack, we die.
But illness leads you inward, away from the tribe,
the clan, the calculus of multitudes
vs. singletons that constitutes American thought.
Interiority is a mode of social distancing.

2. What is light?

That part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation visible to the human eye is known to us as light. It propagates through space as electromagnetic waves but strikes the cornea as particulate quanta, called photons. Its famous speed surpasses 186,000 miles per second though I once attended a lecture where a physicist explained how her team had created slow light within a Bose-Einstein condensate of liquid rubidium cooled to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. They could actually push frozen photons back and forth with an array of specialized lasers, like children playing with toy cars. Brilliant, if somewhat impractical.

9. What is the soul?

I am not a virus nor an elevator nor a meadowlark.
Something makes me human.
In which cell or organ does it reside, the soul?
Da Vinci located it in the optic chiasm
while Descartes was a partisan of the pineal gland.
Aristotle searched first the liver and then the brain,
dissecting cuttlefish, rays, snakes, a peacock,
and possibly a zebra,
before deciding it lives within the heart.

Perhaps so.

But I imagine it not as a humor or an aura
but an essence flowing
from one vessel
to another—it is her pool of milk
and everything it touches,
the act of pouring
and the generosity of its fall,
it is sunlight
washing the walls of a room
adjacent to the kitchens in Delft and it is,
quite possibly, the milkmaid herself.

#book | Companions by Christina Hesselholdt

The books about writers carrying out their writerly lives while drawing inspiration and desperation from the lives and works of other writers past, considering their recent popularity, could be entitled to a genre of their own. Such books serve as a honeypot of intellectual and empirical action that are unlikely to leave a literary-minded reader cold, yet is this collage of written word attractive because of the author’s contribution or the bits and pieces from other writers’ work? Maybe the question does not deserve to be contemplated and looking at Christina Hesselholdt’s book Companions as a work of literary collage is sufficient to enjoy following in the footpaths of its five thirty-something characters.

The novel follows five characters, all white Danish upper middle-class intellectuals, through years of relationships and breakups, joy and heartbreaks, monologues and dialogues. Somehow, Hesselholdt has managed to work with this meak premise over 300-odd pages and keep her rambling intellectuals acting through to the close of curtains. This is not to say that the book is not a strong work of fiction, and I did enjoy reading parts of it, especially the dialogues between characters or the Sebald-inspired beginnings, helping the book to gain ground by a series of historical facts and stories. But by the time I broke the book spine at the second quarter of the novel, I couldn’t help but feel that it had started reproducing its own at-first original thought patterns. Life’s too short for complicit gracious reading to the finish line of each book. Just as the characters in Companions know that life’s too short (and yet perfectly designed) for mundane existence.


Spent the weekday evenings immersed in Saul Bellow’s modernist novel More Die of Heartbreak nostalgic for a humanist utopia. Then, on the weekend, leafed with marvel through the quinti-lingual literary journal from mid-20th century names Botteghe Oscure, published and edited in Rome by Marguerite Caetani (Princess di Bassiano) from 1948 to 1960. And watched Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls (1970) by the Hungarian director Márta Mészáros, a film bordering on a Beat musical, a long-form music video, and a love-triangle drama.

#essay #literature #psychology | Riding in Cars with Jacques Lacan by Jamieson Webster via The New York Review of Books

Without a clue how I came upon this essay on Jacques Lacan and his startling relationship with cars, I learned that Lacan was a ferocious driver, running through red lights, refusing to submit himself to the rules. Even when Lacan was merely a passenger, if you refused to run a red light, he would get out of the car, walk through the crossing, and have you pick him up on the other side.

Relevant sidenote: In Paris, no pedestrian lets themselves be stopped by the irrationality of a red traffic light.

#book | More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow

“The novel alone,” Milan Kundera wrote, “could reveal the immense, mysterious power of the pointless,” in opposition to the “pre-interpretation” of reality. Above being a genre, a novel is a knife cutting through the hidebound lies regarding human nature and collective fallacies. That is an appropriate definition of Saul Bellow’s novels abounding with critique disguised as wit – remarks by characters, Bellow’s own, melanged with quotings of 20th century intellectuals. 

Another aspect Kundera perceived about writers of novel is that they keep spiraling back to the theme of their first book. In Bellow’s case, it is the analysis of the American upper-class zeitgeist of 20th century’s second half, a world unto itself with its unwritten etiquette and feverish climbing to unfathomable heights by means of power achieved through the intricate weaving of one’s societal standing and material riches. As one of Bellow’s characters remarks: “Say what you want about America, but no countries have welcomed originality more warmly and never before has it been a mass phenomenon.” 

The premise of Bellow’s novel is inherently simple. As a reviewer in The New York Times notes, we’re dealing with “people diligently struggling to rearrange one another’s lives in their efforts to rescue or simply to define their own, the human comedy.” The marital struggle storyline of Benn Creader, a world-famous botanist specializing in lichens, is equaled in importance with the humanist psychoanalysis of modern American society. Every Bellow book I read, I leave full of horizontal sideline markups, feeling intellectually elated and, until it lasts, shifted from the role of accomplice to that of the perceiver.


Starting the weekend trip to the west coast of France with Borghes’ short stories verging on the borderline of philosophic and magical lent the entire weekend a lingering surrealist ambiance. During the week, my reading habits hit closer to reality – I finished reading Annie Ernaux’ contemplations on writing and being a writer, received a course of sentimental education in architecture via Purple Magazine interviews, and started reading Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak.

#interview #architecture | Interview with Ricardo Bofill by Olivier Zahm via Purple Magazine

I visited Bofill’s surreal residential project Espaces d’Abraxas in Paris suburbs last January. The imposing industrial colonnades representing an undercurrent of utopian ideals lend Bofill’s architecture a mysterious allure, immersing the viewer in his dream world, to be torn away back into the quotidian reality a moment later. Cautious be the dreamers as one may have a corner of visceral memory invaded and paralyzed forever. See more of Bofill’s projects here.

“The ideal city is impossible to create, just as the ideal island is impossible to build. The ideal is forever in flux; it must always be evolving. From there, I thought, “Since total utopia is not possible, since total change leads to disaster, we’re going to divvy up utopia by theme and ensure that every architectural exercise is the development of one of those themes.” So, I changed strategies and tried to focus on concrete subjects to conduct partial experiments. I think each of the multiple projects I’ve done constitutes a part of a total city that has not been — and can never be — built. Each of my projects is a part of a possible city.”

#interview #architecture | Isamu Noguchi Playscapes by Olivier Zahm via Purple Magazine

On the functionalist open-ended playgrounds designed by Isamu Noguchi, each progressive piece telling its individual story while belonging to an intimate social universe.

isamu noguchi playgrounds

“The swings there — the original concept was based on having five different lengths of swing. What Noguchi was trying to do was to essentially teach pendulum motion physically. By having the opportunity to swing on both very short swings and very long swings, you learn a lot about gravity and your own weight, and how it all works, and about speed versus the length of swing.”

#interview #art #architecture | Le grand chalet – an interview by Olivier Zahm and Katerina Jebb with the artist Setsuko Klossowska de Rola via Purple Magazine

On an 18th-century chalet in Alps that was discover and made into his residence by Balthus and his wife, the artist Setsuko Klossowska de Rola.

#book | L’écriture comme un couteau by Annie Ernaux

You either like the tradition of memoirist writing or you’re intolerant to it, but there is no denying that the French literary canon is teeming with representatives of the style: Proust, de Beauvoir, Sagan, Van Reeth… The list could go on. Annie Ernaux is a revered member of the pack.

L’écriture comme un couteau is a book about Ernaux’s take on her work and style, formulated as her answers to an avid interviewers’ questions posed over a couple of years. Having read Ernaux’s The Years and Se Perdre, following her contemplations on memory, style, and the duality of a writer’s persona felt like a blissful reconnaissance. Writing not as a mirror but a search for truth outside of oneself. Writing her love affairs and living her writing. Writing as a necessity to save one’s own existence and the memory of how things were on a broader social plane from the amnesiac oblivion of history.