“In his books, the narrator and the characters, regardless of education or social background, are liable to set off on conceptual excursions, and the difficulty for the translator, for this one, anyway, is following the train of thought, because it moves so quickly and it’s so playful. It’s a bit like watching a brilliant, mischievous mathematician at the blackboard, working through a proof: he’s skipping the “obvious” steps and at some point he may start pulling your leg.”—Chris Andrews on César Aira
Thanksgiving night, around 11:30, I was sitting at a friend’s drinking wine. The conversation shifted to An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger, which is easily in my top five out from New Directions. A has been reading it off and on for the last month. After a small discussion about whether or not the collection was about the whole effect, she asked me what my favorite piece was. I said the seasons cycle, especially “Fall,” but also the essay that has a whale in it. I couldn’t remember which essay it was––”the one with the lines”––but I was sure, sure, it was on page 82. “I could be very wrong,” I qualified, “and I’ve had a lot of wine, but I think it’s on page 82.”
I’d forgotten this conversation until just now, when I thought to double-check page 82 of my copy. Something is off when I can remember an exact page, but not the name of the essay (for reference, it’s “The Desert Music: South”).
Anyway, this is probably my favorite Weinberger sentence, for some unknown reason:
"One entered the whaleness of the whale by walking the whale."
File this under ‘things you might think I’m lying about but am not’ and ‘things I should probably not admit to.’
“If you’re a writer people often do ask: How did you decide to be a writer? (Something like that.) Which slightly misses the point. If you’re an American, born in America, you don’t really understand America: this is something our forefathers made up in their heads, a place millions of people continue to make up in their heads. I went to Oxford and a British Jew introduced me to Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and Dennis Potter, to the power of imaginary Americas….”—THE LARB INTERVIEW: HELEN DEWITT
things Joan Didion said at the NYPL event tonight, as interviewed by Sloane Crosley and sloppily noted by yours truly.
When asked why people don’t recognize the humor in her writing: “I don’t think people notice because it makes them uncomfortable.”
When asked what people say about her size: “‘You’re really very small’ and I say ‘yes.’”
"People don’t think of you as a fiction writer. Why?" Crosley asked. Didion answered: "Because the fiction has not sold as much as the nonfiction I’ve written. That comes to mind as the reason."
Didion still thinks about her characters Inez and Charlotte.
Q: “Do you remember the first time you heard [Vanessa Redgrave yell ‘Did I lie to you?’]” A: “I wrote it.”
Didion: “You can throw a novel into focus with one overheard line. If you don’t overhear it, you’ll be lost forever in that novel.”
Didion: “Nothing was on purpose.”
Didion: “The work is at some level separate from your life. It’s different. You can hold those two ideas, a) this is an impossible subject to write, b) I am writing about this and it’s going well. You can hold those two ideas without breaking.”
Didion: “I wish I worked every day. My life was too confused by things undone. When you do work every day, you get a rhythm.”
Didion: “I don’t like the word memoir. I really don’t like it. I don’t know what I thought it was—an extended essay. Memoir seems soft. There are no facts in the word.” Without details, a work “is just kind of bloated, like a memoir. Shapeless.”
Didion: “You always have to teach yourself everything.”
Didion: “There is no catharsis.”
Q: “If there’s no catharsis, why write it?” A: “Because it’s something that happened, so I want to understand it and in order to understand it, I have to write it.”
Q: “When you finish, do you have that understanding?” A: “No, but you’re closer to it.”
“Reading Shakespeare, we know what it is like, in any age, to be alive. So it is with Moby-Dick, a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future. This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important. It is why subsequent generations have seen Ahab as Hitler during World War II or as a profit-crazed deep-drilling oil company in 2010 or as a power-crazed Middle Eastern dictator in 2011.”—Why Read Moby-Dick? - Nathaniel Philbrick
“It’s a mistake to ask our cultural creations to be immaculate, perfect and greater than our human selves because actually they’re made by our human selves, which are wonderful without being immaculate, and without a Promethean independence from anything else. People are social animals and our artworks are social animals, too. In a conversation. That’s actually what gives them their life.”—Jonathan Lethem: The literary world is like high school
I’ve been plodding through Book A for the past few weeks. I tell friends and they ask how it’s going and I say it’s going fine, I only have a handful of pages left, but I can’t help cheating on Book A with Book B, and then on Book B with Book C. It’s like the final days of an iffy relationship, when you’re not quite ready to end it, but don’t feel guilty about going on a harmless date with this other person you just met, which is harmless until it ends with late nights and an awkward subway ride when you’re presented with the two options and then choose the more fun second one with the prettier cover… Not a complete metaphor, but.
Book A has a woman so attached to the romance she reads in novels that she refuses her life. Book B has a young woman so attached to the romance she reads in novels that she convinces herself a hopeless situation is hopeful. Book C is an older woman reading and rereading what’s already past.
There is a Book D, sitting next to my computer’s keyboard, waiting but unopened. There is a Book E and Book F, both on my nightstand, both briefly dipped into. None of these are about women who over think their lives, who do their best to splice their experiences into an edible narrative. Not that I know what that’s like. Book D has a black cover. Book E has a yellow spine. Book F I bought for a discount at a bookstore twenty blocks beneath my apartment, on a morning I had a hangover and needed somewhere to walk. I bought Lydia Davis that same trip. I’ve read the Lydia Davis now so many times it’s become like sneezing.
Sometimes it’s halfway through November. You’d planned to be through Book G and Book H by now, but instead are still stuck with Book A, and each time you take Book A out of your tote bag, you glare at it just a little because the cover is so “white women’s problems” and it’s a classic, so you can’t figure out what the publisher was thinking, and it’s this that bothers you as you open the book and turn to the final few chapters, not the moral quandaries of the characters.
Sometimes, it’s November, and you can’t help but be stuck in bookish quicksand.
4. Without these things, many contemporary American short stories would grind to a halt: fluorescent lights; refrigerators; mantels. They are its gods, or false gods. In that it is difficult to know Him, these stand-ins are often misspelled.
5. Poets go to bed earliest, followed by short story writers, then novelists. The habits of playwrights are unknown.
6. Writers are very particular about their writing materials. Even if they work on a computer, they edit with a particular pen (in my case, a pen imprinted “Bob Adelman”); they have legal pads about which they are very particular—size, color—and other things on their desk that they almost never need: scissors; Scotch tape. Few cut up their manuscripts and crawl around the floor anymore, refitting the paragraphs or rearranging chapters, because they can “cut” and “paste” on the computer. As a rule, writers keep either a very clean desktop or a messy one. To some extent, this has to do with whether they’re sentimental.
“I don’t want the New York I loved to be confused with the New York the T-shirts love. That isn’t the same city. I didn’t love the New Yorker’s New York or the New York of the New York Times. I didn’t love Joan Didion’s New York, or anyone else’s fantasy of the place. I loved my own experience of the city, which was rarely what I expected it to be. I loved the people I knew there, who were unlike every character in every TV show or movie set in New York that I had ever seen. I was most comfortable with people for whom New York was not a mirage, and I most trusted people who hated it there.”—"Goodbye to All That," Eula Biss
"There were a lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov."; the confusions of being recently graduated; graduation day anxiety; the occasional role of A Lovers’ Discourse in relationships; New York; moral ambiguity; a character with a Tom Waits-ish look; the other character vaguely similar to DFW; the particular type of social life at a small liberal arts college; Joycean vs. Shakespearean vs. Kafkaesque vs. Tolstoyan; a conference on Victorian authors; the debate about academia vs. anything else; typewriters; pretty typography; Madeline’s appendicitis scar; Paris, Marseille, Paris, Monaco; Grace Kelly; etc. etc. etc.