July 2021 | Reading & Writing


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#exhibition #photography | Shomei Tomatsu + Daido Moriyama at MEP Paris

The exhibition of the two Japanese post-WW2 photographers at MEP Paris features boldly contrasted B&W pictures of nightlife in Shinjuku, public protests, casual litter from the street, compilations of bodies dressed in patterned tights, fetuses, Coca-Cola bottles, and cherry blossoms.

This is to say that the selection was varied and covered a substantial period of both photographer’s careers. As Carole Naggar notes in her review of the exhibition in The New York Review of Books, “To Moriyama, the city is a whirl of sounds, smells, and sights, a living organism that he absorbs and to which he reacts in a split-second.”

Above all, I was drawn to Tomatsu’s collage-like abstracts from Ruinous Gardens, his first series in color, the found flower petals and reptiles floating in cosmic tranquility. Looking at these miniature dreamed-up universes and his photographs of cherry tree blossoms, uncannily lighted from both front and back, immerse one in a dreamlike world of mystic aesthetics, if only for a brief moment of escapism.

#book #literature #poetry | Red Doc by Anne Carson

Anne Carson’s writing never settles under a set-in-stone literary category. Her intellectual and poetic verse-novels alluding to Greek myths, Simone Weil’s philosophy, and other poets’ work are free-flowing, grammatically-incorrect-by-default, and full of morbid humor. 

Red Doc> follows the characters of Autobiography of Red, a modern re-telling of a Greek myth, the 10th labor of Herakles — killing the red-winged monster Geryon. The two reunite in Red Doc> middle-aged. Geryon is now G, still a cattle-herder, Herakles is now called Sad But Great — “Sad,” for short. On the other hand, reading the book without a clue of its origin story, one might also enjoy it as a poetic journey with a few lunatics and a sheep named Io over a couple of days’ events.

… Between any
two activities he plunges.
Can’t stand to be alone
hates quiet time has little
interest in introspection let
alone other people as
individuals. Or rather he
doesn’t care for people he
cares what flows through
them. And usually takes
it. His teacher at med
School called him a
minotaur who swallows
other people’s labyrinths.
Good I’ll do psychiatry he

Plowing can be
Brutal. So too hauling, Io
prefers ambling. Ahead of
the herd at her usual pace in
her usual leadership role on
their usual way to summer
pasture. Not summer yet
but here they go. That’s not
usual. M’hek walks slightly
behind her. He’s not usual.
The wind is from the north.
Usual. Her head itches.
Usual. She stops and
lowers her head to scrape
one horn against a patch of
gorse. The gorse smells
interesting. She bites off
some and stands a while
working it against her
mostly toothless upper jaw.
Especially pungent this
gorse. Is is half-fermented
and will cause her mild
hallucinations all the rest of
the day. Or perhaps not so

#book #essays | Unfinished Business, Notes of a Chronic Re-reader by Vivian Gornick

Vivian Gornick book unfinished business

“It has often been my experience that re-reading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart is suddenly called into alarming question. It seems that I’ve misremembered quite a lot about this of that character or this or that plot turn – …”

So begins the Introduction of Vivian Gornick’s collection Unfinished Business, an accolade to the books she’s read and re-read over the course of her life and each time understood differently, siding with new characters, seeing their motives through her own lens.

Mostly touched by books in the American literary canon with a few detours to authors like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg, she’s telling the story of her coming-of-age as a woman, a writer, and above all a human being. Gornick’s syntax is rich a free-flowing, at times clearly affected by the books she is reminiscing about.

“The most painful element of this novel is its stunning demonstration of how limited is the power of shared sensibility to save us from the primeval ooze within ourselves, ever waiting to flood the plain of insufficient self-knowledge.”

“I saw that whatever the story, whatever the style, whatever the period, the central drama in literary work was nearly always dependent on the perniciousness of the human self-divide: the fear and ignorance it generates, the shame it gives rise to, the debilitating mystery in which it enshrouds us.”


[ ] – An reply given by Anne Carson to a literary magazine’s interview questions she did not feel like answering.

#essay # bookreview | Waiting for the Poetry – Angie Mlinko on Adrienne Rich’s radical poetry, via The London Review of Books

Angie Mlinko, a poet herself, takes a look at the newly-published biography of Adrienne Rich (by Hilary Holladay) and takes the reader on a lyrical tour of Rich’s breakout from the elitist literary world to the forefront of the anti-patriarchial battle.

book #literature | The Curtain by Milan Kundera

The Curtain by Milan Kundera

Kundera’s non-fiction is brimming with references to literature, right from the beginning of its birth. The European novel, according to Kundera, was born with Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In the course of seven essays, Kundera theorizes on the historical consciousness of art, the plausibility in literature, the implications of small context and large context in cultural provincialism, and the responsibilities of the writer.

The Curtain follows in the footsteps of Kundera’s earlier explorations of literature theory: the first of his three non-fiction books, The Art of the Novel was published 19 year prior, in 1986.

Some observations from the book:

In Dostoyevsky’s novels the clock constantly marks the time. In The Idiot, the first 250 pages, we see what’s happening in the frame of 15h, 1 day, and only four settings. Until then such concentration of events can only be found in the teater. Dolstoy’s wish to concentrate events while describing every scene calls for an “extreme dramatization of actions,” resulting in the poetics of the novel. “The scene becomes so thick with event, so overflowing with coincidence, that it loses both its prosaic nature and its plausibility.”

There are two basic contexts in which a work of art can be placed: the history of its nation – the small context – or the supranational history of its art – the large context. There are two types of provincialism: of large nations and of small ones. The large nations resist the Goethean idea of “world literature” because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need to take no interest in what people write elsewhere. Small nations are reticent toward the large context for the exact opposite reasons: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, an ideal reality with little connection to their natural literature.

“A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-scale terrorism.”

Homer never challenges the reasons that led to the Greeks to lay siege to the city of Troy. But Euripides, looking at the same war from the distance of centuries later, has in his Orestes Apollo say: “The gods used Helen’s beauty to start conflict between the Greeks and the Troyans, and by their carnage to unburden the earth of the too-numerous mortals weighing on it.”

Flaubert wants to reach into “the soul of things.” And in the soul of things, in the soul of all things human, everywhere, he sees it dancing, the sweet fairy of stupidity.

book #literature | Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov wrote Laughter in the Dark in 1933 at the age of 34, and translated it to English in 1938 after his arrival to the US.  It is an early Nabokovian novel with many of his signature elements if not yet as masterfully handled as in his later works, say Lolita or Ada or Ardor

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

“Once upon there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus,” the book begins. “He was rich, respectable happy; one day he abandoned his life for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life lived in disaster.”

That is the story of the whole book, and Nabokov seems to have given away one of the principal tricks in the writer’s sleeve: leaving the reader in the dark about the culmination of the novel, to keep them in suspension until they’ve made their way through the book. Yet a masterful writer invents their own gambits and paraphernalia, which in Nabokov’s case tend to lie in the unapologetically free-flowing and slow prose as well as a Kafkaesque neglect of plausibility, a deus ex machina handing out death vows and calling for story-bending happenstances at a lighthearted snap of a finger. Add the Nabokovian intellectual dark humor and his eye for the (cursed) human pursuit of happiness, and you’ve got a page-turner.

While I prefer Nabokov’s later works, Laughter in the Dark was no less an enjoyable book. 
Also found myself thinking that Nabokov’s preoccupation with the male-female relationship might be paralleled with that of Saul Bellow. If you like Nabokov, look up Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak and Hertzog.

Eleven Stories 2020, The Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize Shortlist Selection

Eleven Stories 2020, The Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize Shortlist Selection

Picked up in the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris, the collection of eleven short stories is published by the Madrid-based Desperate Literature bookshop in Madrid, Spain. Above all, I was drawn to the book because of the names of some of my favorite writers in its jury: the judges for 2020 were Claire-Louise Bennett, Rachel Cusk, Niven Govinden, and Ottessa Moshfegh.

The stories, however, were a deep disappointment: raw, pointless, and soulless, mostly written about petty everyday topics of whatever seemed to linger in the authors’ top of mind. :/ :/ :/ 


Back in Paris w/ mom and sis, the joy of opening the mailbox after a month in Estonia and collecting the last editions of the New York Review of Books and The Paris Review.

David Hammons
David Hammons, Pinault Collection

Exhibitions seen this week: Paul Signac at Musée Jacquemart-André + Pinault Collection at Bourse de Commerce.

#art exhibition | Pinault Collection at Bourse de Commerce

At the newly re-opened Bourse de Commerce (stock exchange) building, the neoclassical architecture – restored and transformed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando – formed, still forms, a balanced ensemble with the contemporary art collection of François Pinault assembled over the past 40 years.

The spacious Rotonda houses an installation by Swiss artist Urs Fischer. Composed of wax sculptures, Untitled (2011) features a group of monuments, inside which candles are lit on the first day of the exhibition. As the candles burn, the mastery and virtuosity are inverted by the workings of chance and entropy: the sculpture becomes formless, transcendent. As the wax liquefies and melts down the sculptures, the inviolable beauty is revealed to be vulnerable and fictitious.

Another artist given his own exhibition space was the African-American David Hammons. Through a web of accumulation of found objects, thoughtful assemblage, and witty titles, Hammons builds a world of objects immersed in their own meaning while in dialogue with each other and the viewer. Passing by an installation with sleeping cats, it was impossible to let go of the uncanny knowledge that Hammons worked with objects found on the street.

#book #literature | Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

play it as it lays by joan didion

Didion’s distinct voice and her exacting eye for telling details (news columns on deaths by rattlesnake bites, Hollywood movie production figures overheard at hotel luncheons) make her one of my all-time favorite writers. Re-reading Play It As It Lays in a single sitting – just as Didion expects her novels to be read – effectuated a hazy trip into the movie star stardom, ennui, and general zeitgeist of the US East Coast in the 70s.

Maria, the protagonist drained of joie de vivre, spends her days driving the highway in her Corvette, pausing only for extra gas and a can of coke. She has long discovered that nothing matters, yet she keeps breathing for the sake of her bereaved hospitalized daughter. As to glamorous parties and opportunities to secure her social standing, she’d rather lay down in a house on the desert while her estranged ex-husband is shooting a movie with his ex-girlfriend playing the lead. The last page of the book, chapter 84, is told again in Maria’s voice.

“Carter called today, but I saw no point in talking to him. On the whole I talk to no one. I concentrate on the way light would strike filled Mason jars on a kitchen windowsill. I lie here in the sunlight, watch the hummingbird. This morning I threw the coins in the swimming pool, and they gleamed and turned in the water in such a way that I was almost moved to read them. I refrained.

One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.

Why, BZ would say.

Why not, I say.”

#bookreview #literature #truecrime | Murder Is My Business by Caroline Fraser via New York Review of Books

An essay exploring the True Crime genre and its gender-defining legacies – in magazines, podcasts, and literature, from True Detective magazines to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

“After a phase in the 1920s when such publications [detective magazines in the United States] promiscuously mixed fictional and fact-based stories, the leading titles turned to an all–true crime format by the 1930s. The cinematic cover art always promised more than the articles could deliver, reflecting a noir underworld in which women are whores and villains, wielding guns and knives, or hapless victims of their own lust, barely clad, menaced by men in the frame or just outside it: eyes wide, bosoms heaving, arms (or legs or necks) tied, red lips open, mouths screaming. Resistance, such images suggest, is futile, and those “sex-crazed, shameless creatures” who have dallied too long in “stag parties” and “vice dens” are clearly about to get what they deserve.”

“In its heyday, just before World War II, True Detective Mysteries sold two million copies a month and had at least seventy-five competitors. But in an ironic twist on Hoover’s exploitation of the medium, the magazines lent themselves to less savory applications, serving as virtual how-to guides, schooling killers in avoiding detection.”

#bookreview #literature #history | Ravenna Between East and West by Josephine Quinn via The New York Review of Books

Quinn reviews centers around Judith Herrin’s book Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, a historical overview of the city’s history under the Romans, Huns, Goths, Greeks, and bishops. Does not fall short of a soap opera.

#art #essay | Forty-One False Starts by Janet Malcolm for The New Yorker (1994)

In Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm depicts the life and work of the artist David Salle through forty-one intros. Through short inspired paragraphs, she paints a picture collection of Salle’s art, success, and character; his relation vis-à-vis the interviewers and his standing in the various territories of the art world.