Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 APRIL, 2013

Proust’s Previously Unknown Illustrated Poems

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“As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally.”

In recent decades, literary history has unearthed previously unknown — and, often, unexpected — poems by such prose icons as Vonnegut, Bradbury, Joyce, and Twain. But even those most deeply acquainted with his work might be surprised that between the ages of seventeen and fifty, Marcel Proust — master of tormented prose, weaver of breathless sentences, sickly eccentric — penned a number of poems, mostly scribbled in his journals and in letters to his correspondents. A newly released dual-language edition of The Collected Poems (public library), with parallel text in French and English, features Proust’s poems never previously translated into English or published in book form at all. Affectionate, witty, often lascivious, frequently full of longing, these unexpected verses reveal a side of Proust that is at once utterly new and all the more intimately familiar.

Harold Augenbraum, founder of the Proust Society of America and editor of the collection, writes in the introduction:

[The poems] show a different side of Proust from the Great Writer to whom we have become accustomed and inured: at various times intimate, vulgar, gay, Proust as Wicked Little Imp, master of the affectionate barb. Knowing this Proust only enhances our appreciation of the novel. As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally, while at the same time the importance of friendship draws out a consistent beauty of form and language, full of sentiment without sentimentality.

At various times they are sexed-up, dreamy, artsy, catty, and loving. They are always observant, insightful, and delightful.

And delightful, indeed, they are. A number of them explore Proust’s experience of place and belonging, and three of those included in the collection feature his hand-drawn illustrations:

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 36, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#36 DORDRECHT

Your sky always slightly
blue
Morning often slightly
wet

Lovely Dordrecht
Tomb
Of my precious illusions

When I try to draw
Your canals, your roofs, your steeple
I feel I could love
A homeland

Still sun and church bells
Dry out quickly
For high mass, also brioches
And gleaming steeple

Your sky
So often wet,
But always underneath
A bit stays blue.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 37, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#37 DORDRECHT

A baker in the square
Where nothing stirs but a pigeon
Reflections in an icy blue canal —
A great red mould,
A barge slipping forward, disturbing
A waterlily, sunlight
In the baker’s mirror flitting over a red currant
Tart,
Scaring hell out of a feasting fly.
At the end of the mass, here comes everybody — alleluia,
Holy Mother of Angels
Come, let’s take a boat ride on the canal
After a little nap.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 58

#58

Little project of sweet stained glass
To make it was a pain in the ass
On the left are Félicie and Marie
Who wash clothes and complain incessantly.
On the right Buninuls cannot open Legras powder
And Binchdinuls comes for alumsinum
Buninuls helps by knee and arms
Binchdinuls is divided by a gothic column
Everything here to show Binchdinuls what day it is
Not a day goes by without sending a little inscripartus.

Echoing neurologist Oliver Sacks’s provocative wisdom on influence and the necessary forgettings of creativity and Twain’s assertion that all creativity is “second-hand,” Augenbraum notes:

The very bookish Marcel Proust was above all a reader, a logophile who imbibed literature to such an extent that one imagines by the time he reached adulthood he no longer knew where the memory of Baudelaire’s work ended and the vision of his own poetry began. Tone wells up from the deeply digested works of precursors.

And yet The Collected Poems are somehow uniquely Proustian — dreamy, ambivalent, sensitive, and invariably, intoxicatingly restless.

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26 APRIL, 2013

Ancient Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs

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The erotic lives of gladiators, or why pomegranate juice is the opposite of fresh lettuce.

“Self-respect … it’s the secret of good sex,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. And yet since time immemorial, humans have engaged in all kinds of practices of questionable dignity as we’ve indulged the mesmerism of our own procreation, from the first ejaculation in the fossil record to the cultural history of judging desire to the seemingly counterintuitive question of how to think more (meaning better) about sex. But beyond mere biology, the history of sex has always been paralleled by a kind of mythology defining our beliefs about eroticism and propelling our compulsion to control copulation in all of its dimensions. That’s precisely what Vicki León explores in The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, and Longing in the Ancient World (public library) — a fascinating journey to the intersection of science and superstition, exhuming antiquity’s curious beliefs about and practices of such facets of fornication as medicine and matrimony, bisexuality and gender-bending, adultery and pornography.

Among the most intriguing aspects of ancient love was the desire to control desire — in both directions of the dial — enlisting various alleged aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs:

When it came to intimacy readiness, Greek and Roman lovers were perennially inventive. They set store by a wide spectrum of aphrodisiacs, some still in hopeful use today, including raw oysters, the fleshy symbol of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus among the Romans). Aphrodite emerged from the foamy crest of ocean waves, which the Greeks saw as a type of marine semen. … These pioneers on the frontiers of sexual virility wandered far beyond oysters, however. Pomegranate juice from Aphrodite’s favorite tree, mixed with wine, scored high with ancient Egyptians and other males in the Middle East. So did lettuce. Although toxic, mandrake root was an evergreen. So was opium as a wine additive.

Many ardent souls preferred lotions applied directly to the male organ — one provocative but now-mysterious favorite was called “the deadly carrot.” Some approaches, however, such as the honey-pepper mix, the tissue-irritating nettle oil, and the cantharides beetle (Spanish fly), gave painful new meaning to the expression “All fired ready to go.”

[…]

Other aids to Venus were added to wine, a social lubricant that provided a one-two punch: among them, gentian and a red-leafed root in the orchid family called satyrion, named for the randy prowess of the mythical satyrs. Roman emperor Tiberius, on the other hand, swore by another exotic tuber called skirret.

As an aphrodisiac, the pomegranate wine cooler had an enthusiastic following around the ancient world.

But that ancient libido had a flipside and often had to be reined in with different concoctions:

Consuming cress, purslane, cannabis seeds, nasturtium flowers, or the ashes of the chaste tree would do the trick. So would that horrific, erection-withering substance, fresh lettuce. In order to maintain sexual vigor, Greek and Roman male diners were careful to combine lettuce with aphrodisiacally active arugula to neutralize it. Or just avoid lettuce like the plague. (On the other hand, lettuce was considered highly lascivious among the Egyptians…)

Mouse dung, applied as a liniment, was a favorite anti-aphrodisiac. So was rue boiled with rose oil and aloes. Drinking wine in which a mullet fish had drowned and sipping male urine in which a lizard had expired both had their loyal adherents.

Nevertheless, taming truly terrific potency required strong measures, like nymphaea, an herb guaranteed to “relax” the phallus for a few days. One writer even boasted that it would “take away desire and even sex dreams for forty days!”

The Joy of Sexus goes on to explore ancient attitudes toward and rites of everything from mystery cults to masturbation to marriage. Complement it with Pixar’s Ancient Book of Sex and Science and the fascinating history of the first sexual revolution.

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25 APRIL, 2013

The Paris Review Origin Story and Their Secret to the Art of the Interview

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“Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.”

Most interviews today tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between lazy conversation and blatant publicity puffery, the truly exceptional interview a kind of near-lost art. But it wasn’t always so. In the spring of 1953, The Paris Review built from scratch a new paradigm for the art of the interview, which endures as a gold standard sixty years later. In the introductory essay to the 1958 anthology Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — which also gave us this fantastic anatomy of the four stages of writing — the inimitable Malcolm Cowley, who edited the collection, recounts the Paris Review origin story and examines the secret of what made their interviews such a timeless echelon of the craft:

Most of the interviewers either have had no serious interest in literature or else have been too serious about themselves. Either they have been reporters with little knowledge of the author’s work and a desire to entrap him into making scandalous remarks about sex, politics, and God, or else they have been ambitious writers trying to display their own sophistication, usually at the expense of the author, and listening chiefly to their own voices.

What makes the Paris Review interviewers and their ethos different, Cowley observes, can be boiled down to two essentials — homework and humility:

The interviewers belong to a new generation that has been called “silent,” though a better word for it would be “waiting” or “listening” or “inquiring.” They have done their assigned reading, they have asked the right questions, or most of them, and have listened carefully to the answers. The authors, more conscious of their craft than authors used to be, have talked about it with an engaging lack of stiffness.

Even more interesting than the question of interview style is that of motive — what prompted George Plimpton and his co-founders to forever change the face — and economics — of literary writing by redefining the art of the interview when they launched The Paris Review in 1953 in what closely resembles contemporary startup culture? Cowley writes:

The new quarterly had been founded by young men lately out of college who were in Europe working on their first novels or books of poems. Their dream of having a magazine of their very own must have been more luminous than their picture of what it should be, yet they did have a picture of sorts. They didn’t want their magazine to be “little” or opinionated (engagé, in the slang of the year) or academic. Instead of printing what were then the obligatory essays on Moby Dick and Henry James’s major phase, they would print stories and poems by new authors and pay for them too, as long as the magazine kept going. They wanted to keep it going for a long time, even if its capital was only a thousand dollars, with no subventions in sight. They dreamed that energy and ingenuity might take the place of missing resources.

George Plimpton party (The Paris Review)

But The Paris Review differed from other literary magazines in one crucial aspect: Its intricate osmosis of art and commerce.

Like [other magazines] it wanted to present material that was new, uncommercial, “making no compromise with public taste,” in the phrase sanctified by The Little Review, but unlike the others it was willing to use commercial devices in getting the material printed and talked about. “Enterprise in the service of art” might have been its motto. The editors compiled a list, running to thousands of names, of Americans living in Paris and sent volunteer salesmen to ring their doorbells. Posters were printed by hundreds and flying squadrons of three went out by night to paste them in likely and unlikely places all over the city. In June 1957 the frayed remnants of one poster were still legible on the ceiling of the lavatory in the Café du Dôme.

And thus the interviews themselves became at first a kind of merchandizing gimmick designed to build circulation — The Paris Review needed big names to hook readers, but couldn’t afford original writing, so the interview offered a welcome loophole of unpaid name-dropping:

“So let’s talk to them,” somebody ventured — it must have been Peter Matthiessen or Harold Humes, since they laid the earliest plans for the Review — and “print what they say.” The idea was discussed with George Plimpton, late of the Harvard Lampoon, who had agreed to be editor. Plimpton was then at King’s College, Cambridge, and he suggested E. M. Forster, an honorary fellow of King’s, as the first author to be interviewed. It was Forster himself who gave a new direction to the series, making it a more thoughtful discussion of the craft of fiction than had at first been planned.

But soon, it became clear that the interview itself held unique allure as its own genre of literary entertainment and The Paris Review team quickly honed its craft down to a science:

Interviewers usually worked in pairs, like FBI agents. Since no recording equipment was available for the early interviews, they both jotted down the answers to their questions at top speed and matched the two versions afterward. With two men writing, the pace could be kept almost at the level of natural conversation. Some of the later interviews … were done with a tape recorder. After two or three sessions the interviewers typed up their material; then it was cut to length, arranged in logical order, and sent to the author for his approval.

The most obvious question, of course, is why some of the era’s most revered literary legends would agree to discuss, in print, the most intimate and profound details of their craft with a duo of recent college graduates. Here, we once again see the human element — that quintessential blend of empathy, sheer goodwill, and indulgent delight in a tickled ego — come into play:

Some of [the authors] disliked the idea of being interviewed but consented anyway, either out of friendship for someone on the Review or because they wanted to help a struggling magazine of the arts, perhaps in memory of their own early struggles to get published. Others … were interested in the creative process and glad to talk about it. Not one of the interviewers had any professional experience in the field, but perhaps their experience and youth were positive advantages. Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.

Cumulatively, Cowley argues, the interviews painted a powerful portrait of the writer:

In spite of their diversity, what emerges from the interviews is a composite picture of the fiction writer. He has no face, no nationality, no particular background and I say “he” by grammatical convention, since [some] of the authors are women; they all have something in common, some attitude toward life and art, some fund of common experience.

Though The Paris Review has since released all of the archival interviews online, as well as in an irresistible boxed set, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series is worth a read even if only for Cowley’s lengthy and insightful introductory essay, which explores in over twenty pages such facets of the writing craft as daily routines, motivations, and work ethic.

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