I usually listen to the BBC World Service when I listen to radio online, but Millions contributor Andrew recently told me about an excellent programme (as they say) on BBC4. “In Our Time” is hosted by Melvyn Bragg who, each week, is joined by three guests as he explores “the history of ideas.” To give an idea of the varied topics the program touches upon, the most recent show was about Samuel Johnson, 18th century author of Lives of the Poets among many other books (here’s his greatest hits), and “England ‘s most famous and well connected man of letters,” while next week’s show is on asteroids. All the old shows are archived and organized by subject.
I stepped into a book store in the old city of Barcelona. It was spacious and well lit with dark wood shelves and floors. Many langauges were well represented including a wide selection of English language books. It is very easy to take a shot at American bookstores when comparing them to bookstores overseas, and it’s really remarkable to see the difference in person. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an expat, estranged from my country, but sometimes yearning for contact. I think I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore like that and it would fill the void for me. With the jet lag and all that, I was having trouble diving into another book. I guess I needed a change of pace to reflect the change of scenery, so I fished into the bag of books I brought with me and came up with this beauty: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I have always been drawn to certain of the visual story telling forms: typically not so much the action hero stuff, but certain “graphic novels” have caught my attention. I also like to flip through a collection of “newspaper funnies” from time to time, Calvin and Hobbes, for example, is always a delight. Rarely, however, have I encountered a book that transcends the genre like Jimmy Corrigan. This book has already received a chorus of praise and numerous awards. In a lot of cases, in fact, no one had ever considered that a graphic novel might be eligible to win certain of the awards, but this one was just too good to be ignored. I have been on a good stretch with books lately; I haven’t been disappointed in while, but my next book is a bit riskier: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez… I’ll let you know how it goes…I’m off to Ireland tomorrow, and there might not be internet there, but I will try my best; if not, we’ll catch up when I get back to the states.
Stendhal was apparently a noted womanizer and in that light, The Red and the Black, reads a little like a projection of his greatest fantasies. There is in the first place the iconoclastic Julien Sorel, who triumphs over a coterie of boring, conventional nobles for the love (and virginity) of the fair Mathilde de la Mole. It’s not a leap to imagine Stendhal dreaming of the same for himself.In the book, Stendhal also introduces an incredible stratagem for wooing women. It emerges when Julien seeks love advice from the Prince Korasoff of Russia under desperate circumstances. Julien is in love with the imperious Mathilde, who lets him climb up the gardener’s ladder to her room on two occasions but then has all sorts of moral/class remorse the next day and eviscerates him with vicious rebukes which are sadly only referenced and not spelled out (a major deficiency of the book).The Prince entrusts to Julien a set of 54 love letters that previously aided a Russian general in the conquest of an English maiden and which, if deployed correctly, are like a romantic weapon of lore, so powerful that none can resist it. Julien’s instructions are to send the letters at prescribed intervals. The plan is described as such:”‘Here I am transcribing the fifteenth of these abominable dissertations; the first fourteen have been faithfully delivered to Marechale. And yet she treats me exactly as though I were not writing her. What can be the end of all this? Can my constancy bore her as much as it bores me?'”Like everyone of inferior intelligence whom chance brings into touch with the operations of a great general, Julien understood nothing of the attack launched by the young Russian upon the heart of the fair English maid [reference to the previous use of the letters]. The first forty letters were intended only to make her pardon his boldness in writing. It was necessary to make this gentle person, who perhaps was vastly bored, form the habit of receiving letters that were perhaps a trifle less insipid than her everyday life.”So that’s the ruse, to send love letters and to make them so innocuous and boring at first that they will not elicit a rejection, but will at the same time habituate the intended to the correspondence. Slowly, the temperature is turned up; the epistolary fire builds, and by the 54th letter, love and desire floweth over.I’ve been out of the dating world for awhile now, so I’m prepared to accept that this is not the unstoppably brilliant strategy I think it is. But I do think it is pretty brilliant, and I suspect it would even work today. I’ve encouraged one of my most eligible bachelor friends to try it with all the single women he knows, even in passing. It obviously all depends on the quality of the letters, but out of a sample of 20 recipients, I’d expect there to be at least five who would be intrigued at the very least.Much of The Red and the Black is based on real events; I wonder if such a packet of letters was rumored to exist in Stendhal’s time or if it might be unearthed today. Even if found, it would surely require some updating. In fact, it would be a fun exercise to try and write a pre-fabricated sequence of love letters for today’s dating world.
There’s some interesting fiction hitting stores in the next few weeks. Here are some to look for.You may remember Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” from the summer 2003 debut fiction issue of the New Yorker (it also appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. Now the story, about a newspaperman in Lima, will anchor a debut collection called War by Candlelight. According to HarperCollins the collection “takes the reader from Third World urban centers to the fault lines that divide nations and people.” If you want to sample more of Alarcon’s writing try “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles,” originally published in The Konundrum Engine Literary Review or you can enjoy this musing about the Mall of America at AlterNet.Another debut collection coming in April is Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God. In a recent review at small spiral notebook, Katie Weekly compares Auslander’s writing to that of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but goes on to say: “Unlike the angst-ridden, often cynical work of Roth or Allen, Auslander’s stories are more observational, sometimes magical and always humorous.” (err… don’t know if I’d describe Woody Allen as angst-ridden, but anyway…) If that sounds like something you’d be into, I highly recommend you listen to Act 3 of this recent episode of “This American Life,” in which Auslander reads his story “The Blessing Bee.” If you like that you can read another story from the collection, “The War of the Bernsteins,” here.The Harmony Silk Factory, the debut novel by 25-year-old Malaysian author Tash Aw has been compared to The English Patient in the British press. The book takes place in Malaysia in the first part of the 20th century, and centers around the textile factory that gives its name to the novel. The book is already creating a generous amount of buzz on both sides of the Atlantic including being chosen as one of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selections for 2005.As this recent article in USA Today discussed, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t the only novel to deal with 9/11 that’s coming out this spring. French author Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World takes place in the final hours of the restaurant of the same name. The book is actually two years old and was very successful when it first came out in France, debuting at number two on the French bestseller list. The early reviews are good, with Publishers Weekly describing the book as “on all levels, a stunning read.” Still, the subject matter may be too wrenching for American readers. Beigbeder acknowledges in the Author’s Note that he altered the English version of the book slightly because he was concerned that the book was “more likely to wound” than he intendedStay tuned. I’ll be posting about more forthcoming books soon.
I recently bought a t-shirt. This is not exactly news, though my sartorial spending typically averages four or five dollars per year. What was notable, however, was that it featured the art from the Nintendo game “Contra”—two gun-blasting mercenaries shadowed by a drooling, looming alien. I later realized that I hadn’t bought such a shirt in years—and not just because it horrified my wife. My drawers were once full of such tees, but through the endless clothing cycle, they’ve ceded to whites and blues. I wonder where they’ve gone.
Remembering vanished shirts is a somewhat wistful thing. Each one means so much, yet each will disappear. In exchange for their service—absorbing our sweat, airing our interests, starting our conversations—the least we can do is offer them tribute. Below, then, are five of my most deserving.
House of Pain (1993-1995)
“House of Pain” represented the nexus of three unfortunate trends: an infatuation with House of Pain, a growing allowance, and a need to go to malls (which also yielded such nuggets as “Big Johnson Erection Company,” “Big Johnson Beer,” and untold swimsuit posters). Its purchase followed two that my mother confiscated: a Cypress Hill pot-leaf shirt and a Funkdoobiest tee, replete with smoking hooker. Yes, I know. My mother was a monster.
“House of Pain,” however, snuck past the censors, and I wore it with dubious pride. To make my tastes even clearer, I bought a House of Pain hat; thank God they didn’t make pants. Eventually, the faux-Heineken logo on its back tore from the fabric, and “House of Pain” was discarded. Farewell, old friend, farewell. I jump around for thee.
Miller Genuine Draft (1995-1998)
“Miller Genuine Draft” wasn’t a particular favorite, but it served a definite purpose: “Hey, look, everybody! I’m drinking!” Throughout the mid-nineties, I sported an array of such shirts, shilling for brands that I hadn’t actually drank: Rumple Minze, Red Stripe, Boone’s Farm, Dewar’s. The idea was that I was “cool,” although I’m fairly sure I wasn’t.
Today, when I see a teen skulking in a Bud Light tee, I think, “Okay, little guy—you’ve had yourself a beer. We get it.” It takes hindsight to see the desperation of such shirts—and that they’re equivalent to wearing a Tampax tee because you’ve finally got your period.
Uff Da! (1997-2002)
As I was told a handful of times over its dazzling five-year run, “Uff Da!” was a Norwegian term of excitement; the shirt may have been the product of a small Wisconsin brewery. Whatever its origin, I found it pleasingly elusive, cheerful but obscure. It never failed to gain mention, and even The Bard took note: I wore it to a 1998 Bob Dylan show, at which I sat in the first row behind the stage. Every so often, Dylan turned to acknowledge the fans at his back, and at one point—possibly during “Joey”—he turned and spotted “Uff Da!” As a Minnesota native, he was likely familiar with the phrase, and its 200-point font would’ve been large enough to see—even from the stage, through the glaring banks of light. There was a glint in his eye, and he gave me a nod, as if to say, “Yes, my son. ‘Uff Da!’ ‘Uff Da!’ ”
He might have been looking at someone else, though.
Matthew’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Big Hit! (1997)
I never knew Matthew, and I don’t know if his Bar Mitzvah was really a hit. And that was exactly the point. For half a decade, my fashion goal was to stockpile the most ironic, snort-inducing shirts I could find. I haunted musty Goodwill racks, ragged yard-sale piles, the drawers of sleeping roommates. The result was a parade of slugs, cheese, and terrible bands. One pictured Howie Mandel; another, Jimmy Carter.
I must have assumed that this conveyed an ornate intellect; as Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Part of the enjoyment people take in parody is the enjoyment of feeling intelligent. Not everyone gets the joke.” Thankfully, though, the joke got stale, and the phase eventually passed (possibly swept off by Graydon Carter’s “death of irony”). But remnants do remain. On hot days, I can still be seen in a kelly-green Detlef Schrempf jersey. Part of me thinks it’s funny.
Blue Shirt (2008-Present)
Like “Miller Genuine Draft,” I mention “Blue Shirt” for its wider personal meaning. After all the rap and beer and irony, I’ve come to value simplicity in my shirts. There’s enough static in the world, enough impotent distraction. Our tastes are not so riveting. This turn towards plainness is likely an effect of aging—an erosion of cultural interest and a shift of priorities. Whatever its cause, such shirts are my present, and will likely be my future. I can’t picture myself in a nursing home, dribbling egg down a novelty tee. Call it a benefit of growing older.
(Image: Ringflash Tshirt Blank Template, image from geishaboy500’s photostream)
Thoughts of suicide, depression, and listlessness for weeks on end are just a few ways the loss of a lover is mourned. Unrequited love can open an abyss in which time and activities cease, or it can turn us towards life, as Rilke states in The Duino Elegies, sending us trembling like arrows, leaping into the future. Roland Barthes wrote A Lover’s Discourse after separating from a lover: his compendium of reflections from the lover’s perspective makes the solitary sorrow less so, by reflecting on the universal experience of madness, delusion, and exaltation when falling in love, and later the jealousy, anxiety, and sorrow distance imparts. Barthes traces the trajectory of love, which feels so personal and irreplaceable, and in doing so reveals the common course of love: “(‘It develops, grows, causes suffering and passes away’ in the fashion of a Hippocractic disease): the love story (the ‘episode’, the ‘adventure’) is the tribute the lover must pay to the world in order to be reconciled with it.”Sophie Calle took the arrow’s course upon her lover’s spurning and transformed her misery into art. As obsessive as Barthes, she explores and classifies love from the perspective of the break-up. Her lover ended their relationship in an email that closed with the line, “Take care of yourself.” Her exhibition now showing at the Paula Cooper Gallery is her response. Calle consulted one hundred and seven women and asked them analyze the letter according to their professions: a markswoman shoots the letter, a parrot chews up the crumpled letter, a copy editor breaks the letter down grammatically and calls it repetitive, the criminal psychologist calls the letter’s author manipulative and psychologically dangerous “or/and a great writer.” Although Calle won’t reveal the author’s identity in the exhibition or in later interviews – according to her, “What I’m putting on show is a dumping… I don’t talk about the man, and all the better. The subject is the letter, the text…” – the psychologist’s analysis is accurate in at least one respect: Calle’s former lover is a respected French writer, Grégoire Bouillier.With the aid of the community of women’s responses, Calle depicts the anatomy of a break-up while on the rebound. In the video of Calle’s session with a family mediator, where the letter sits in a chair across from Calle in place of the lover, Calle works through her grief, her astonishment, and attempts to move past it. Although she didn’t like the letter, she states, it was better than nothing, and transforming it into this exhibition “has done [her] a lot of good.” It was good for her and even better for us, for the ephemeral relationship ended with a relic that Calle has transformed into a poignant meditation on lost love and the lover’s obsession. Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse, “the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when or how we expect).” With Take Care of Yourself, Calle bids her love adieu. As she states, in the end, “the project had replaced the man.”