Indexing: Hodgman & Balzac, NYRB Classics, William Faulkner disciples, Walton Ford, Martin Amis, and more

A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.

Jason Diamond

I went to Walton Ford’s opening at the Paul Kasmin Gallery a month or so ago, and became pretty obsessed with his work.  I guess I’m including this because the exhibition closes on December 23rd, and if you’re in New York, I want you all to see it.

I Finished Money by Martin Amis for the second time in my life.  I’d been meaning to re-read it after our pal Stephanie Anderson compared her love/hate relationship with Self to the narrator in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.  While Stephanie’s comparison wasn’t the only reason I wanted to revisit the book, it was certainly the kick in the ass I needed.  My number one thought throughout a good portion of the book was: can any human truly eat that much junk food?  That was followed by my amazement the guy had any sort of sex drive left in him of any sort.  I’m also now realizing that I’ve read a decent amount of Martin’s books, it’s time to really jump into his father’s work. So, to all you Kingsley Amis buffs, where do I start?

After Money, I picked up Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living for something I’m currently working on.  It was an odd transition going from the revolting John Self to one of the quintessential texts on dandyism, but I like to live dangerously and with no rules.  I also think that anything on Wakefield Press is worth your dollars.  Just looking over their catalog I’m starting to think I might have a new little book obsession to go alongside the Melville House “Art of the Novella” series.  (Also, am I the only one to notice a really weird resemblance between Balzac and John Hodgman?  Please tell me if I’m wrong, but do it nicely.)

Jen Vafidis

I’m reading The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy’s first novel. So far I’m delighting in its Cormac McCarthy-ness. I found this Times review from 1965 (titled “Still Another Disciple of William Faulkner”) that gets at what I like most about it:

The most striking individual contribution Mr. McCarthy has made to his own story is his concentration on what his characters do. He shows them acting. Occasionally he lets them talk, but not at length. And hardly ever does he mention what they think or feel. These people are never seen from within and consequently there can be no vicarious identification. Not knowing their thoughts and emotions, one can’t share them.

All of which makes The Orchard Keeper a good, if strange, companion piece to “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. Some corner of the internet reminded me of its existence and now I can’t stop rereading it and picking out favorite bits. I think the sartorial near-fisticuffs with Harlan Ellison might be my favorite. Something about an older man’s fury over boots is cat nip to me. There’s also a tossed off description of Los Angeles as “a Spanish discovery of Mexican misery,” which made me laugh spitefully. Gay Talese is a funny guy.

This weekend I’m getting in a festive, homebody mood: baking oatmeal raisin cookies and looking through the new McSweeney’s for whatever Amelia Gray they’ve got. I also keep threatening to go to the movies, but honestly that won’t happen until I’m done feeling the wrath of Christmas expenses, which was the subject of a nightmare as recently as last night.

Tobias Carroll
Lots of European literature this week; much of it from the fine people at NYRB Classics. Stefan Zweig’s Journey Into the Past was my first exposure to the writer in question; it won’t be my last. What begins as a fairly straightforward story of star-crossed lovers becomes, in its final pages, something much messier, with awkward moments of revelation and the looming presence of fascism. Following an interesting essay in the latest Bookforum, I sought out Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which takes as its subject a series of show trials that follow the random killing of a high-level member of the Communist Party in 1939. There’s something almost collage-like about the novel — though it’s shot through with a pervasive sense of corruption, madness, and haunting desperation.

Also read this week, via the equally fine people at Dalkey Archive Press, was Dubravka Ugresic’s Lend Me Your Character. This volume collects one novella/short novel and a handful of shorter pieces; while some fall into the “admire more than I love” school of postmodern literature, I found many of the stories witty, perceptive, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. And Ugresic’s commentary on her own work, found at the back of the volume, was quite insightful.

I will follow Jen in tipping my hat in the direction of Amelia Gray; I read an advance copy of her forthcoming novel Threats, due out in March. I’ll have a review in these parts closer to its release date — and I’m still sorting out my thoughts on it, so I don’t want to say anything too definitive in any case — but it seems to be a much more ambitious and complex work than it initially seems. (I jotted down the phrase “Schizopolis by way of Joy Williams” while reading it.)

The most indelible artistic image of the past week (and the past month; the past year, maybe?) came on stage at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, however. John Hurt, playing the title character in the final moments of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, his arms wrapped around a reel-to-reel recorder, listening to the silence after a decades-old tape as darkness fell around him.

Nick Curley 

2011 has been a year where I think I’m finally gonna wrestle with one book or another, and then life gets away. This week, it’s the death (not “passing”) of Christopher Hitchens that seemingly steered me off course, only to remind me time and again of his excellent prose, as intoxicating, sharp to the tongue, and finally smooth and warming as his beloved Johnnie Walker Black. Oddly enough the week started – days before his passing – with me sitting in a hospital waiting room, accidentally coming upon his Vanity Fair piece “Trial of the Will”, on cancer treatment and the conviction to live or die. The piece is a moving, graphic procedure, with enough pointed and vivid honesty about death to have curdled the sick ward’s beige wallpaper into green.
Hitchens was nothing if not a writer who explicated sordid details, not for shock value but for veritas. “It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory,” writes Hitchens, but neither “Trial of the Will” nor the rest of Hitchens’ 2011 oeuvre delve once into self-pity or woe porn. His final work is as engaged by our world as ever: informed and scathing, unlike the big picture moralizing and pronouncement so many great writers indulge just before expiring. What occupied Hitchens’ final days at Slate and elsewhere – Libya, the GOP, Gaza, Patrick Fermor and Rudyard Kipling – are the deep cuts of a bloodhound reporter, relentless even on his last legs.

In recent years Hitchens proved fallible, with ventures into misogyny, a faith in war to squash Saddam, and a hatred of Bill Clinton that he himself called “visceral”. With Hitch gone (and oh brother, do I have to like a person I’ve never met to resolve the icky task of calling them by their nickname), some anticipated oddities have sprang up in memoriam. “I often disagreed with him, but…” and “Let’s not speak ill of the dead even though Hitchens did often,” are but two of these un-sentiments. This pseudo-restraint is an understandable bib to wear before feasting. But in the coming days, I can think of no better tribute to Hitchens – one of letters’ prime debaters in recent memory – than to argue over his fine points. It was in his willingness toward contrarian complexity of opinion that he became so often great. It was, to paraphrase Whitman, in his supposed contradictions that he contained multitudes.

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