Cities of the Plain

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The Emails of Natalie Portman and Cormac McCarthy

When The New York Times T Magazine recently published a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer, reactions ran from bafflement to hostility at what seemed a particularly precious bit of high-level marketing (both had projects to promote). But as it turns out, Foer isn’t the only novelist with whom Portman pen-pals. Below are excerpts from a long-running email exchange the actress and director has enjoyed with Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and Cities of the Plain.

>> On Tue, May 3, 2016 at 3:44 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Let me begin by saying how incredibly gratifying our correspondence has been. In recent years, as I worked on translating Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, into my first film as a director, I constantly thought of artists whose work I aspire to, and — I say this with a fan’s self-consciousness — you were one of them. I thought if I could suffuse my film with the visceral nature of, say, Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, then I will have succeeded. Thematically, Oz’s book couldn’t be more different from your novels — but that propulsive feeling, that razor’s-edge sense: that’s the important thing.

I’d love to keep writing but it appears that my son is trying to jam his SpongeBob underwear down the garbage disposal. Such is the artist’s life, is it not?

>> On Wed, May 4, 2016 at 8:12 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
The boy is wise. Pressing the remains of a dying world into the steely void. Did the boy succeed? Did he shred them? Send them tattered through the murk, the sludgewaters below. The refuse of our age. Flowing to brownclotted rivers where corpses of things drift at brackish shores. Bloated and grinning. The grief of the empty sun. An idiot’s reckoning.

>> On Thu, May 5, 2016 at 2:02 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Luckily I got the underwear out of his hands before he could do any real damage, and he gave me the sweetest hug in apology. Being a mother is a great gift, a blessing, and there’s nothing I can say on the subject that hasn’t been said before. But, in part, I think that’s what’s so amazing about having a child: we can each experience this thing that feels so unique and special — and nobody else will ever be able to understand the depth of our feeling. It’s something that we all can do, yet when it happens, it feels exceedingly rare. Does that make sense? Or is motherhood just turning me into one of those unbearable, sentimental types?

>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 12:54 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Children with sharp small teeth, grasping fingers. Sucking life from all, as an inferno takes its oxygen from the blackening treefringe. As apt to evil as men, simply not grown to it. Their evil a pair of trousers too large yet to fit. But there will come an hour when the boy will know what he is capable of and he will weigh it and know that it is there. He will attire the trousers and they will fit him handsomely. His evil will emerge as a snake from its trembling nest.

>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 10:47 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
My son and I were at a café in Paris last year — the Boulangerie Poilâne, on the Boulevard de Grenelle; if you’re ever there, you must try the chaussons aux pommes — and I caught him trying to pour salt in my café au lait! So, yes, I certainly know what you mean about children’s capacity for “evil”!

It’s funny — although I’ve been working in film since I was 11, it’s only now, working as a director, that I’m thinking of my own life in terms of “scenes” — I’m visualizing my boy’s attempt at ruining my coffee as a director, not as a mother, or as the person who the event actually happened to. As I think about it, I’m working out camera angles, lighting, everything. There’s so much more to directing a movie than there is to everyday life. In everyday life, you don’t have to think about what type of saltshaker will look best on-camera — it’s already there.

>> On Sun, May 8, 2016 at 5:20 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Salt. Scattered across the fields by marauding deathcults, necklaces of severed ears. Destroying all in their bleakening fury. Crops stunted and gray, harvest of locustshells. Farmers leaving their wrackened steads, moving through bluffnotches towards full nothingness. Asking an absent god what they endeavor to. Yearning for surrender, to offer bloodscabbed necks to the rusty scythe.

>> On Mon, May 9, 2016 at 2:11 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
In a very small way, I feel like one of those exhausted farmers. On the one hand, I’m extremely tired from a long day of shooting. But on the other, I’m energized by my colleagues. I’m working with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and other wonderful actresses, and the end of each day is a little bit sad, because we know we’re that much closer to the end of our camaraderie. I want to get through this project — it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, professionally — but at the same time, I want it to last forever. Is that something you’ve encountered in your own work?

>> On Wed, May 11, 2016 at 11:04 AM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
What is forever. The blasted plains. Low scarps of rock. Nothing upon them but carcasses and things to become carcasses. Bones and yellowed teeth, scattered bits of fur. Chronicles of nothing. A vulture lighting upon illfestered carrion. To tear at flesh, rancid spoors green in the fading day. Murders of crows massing in the branches beyond. Black night sky. A void where nothing breathes. Mute to the hoarse sufferings of an extincting race. Howls unheeded. Lodestars of pain. These things are forever.

There is nothing else, Natalie.


More from Cormac McCarthy: The Road (A Comedic Translation)

Breakfast: A Love Story

Mom stood in front of the stove, left hand on her hip, right hand holding a spatula. Golden batter bubbled on the griddle. I stood to her side, leaning against a cabinet. She watched me watch her.

Although I now eat browned pancakes, knowing that the color delivers taste, as a boy, I craved golden pancakes. I couldn’t stomach a touch of dark. The front pancakes on the griddle would stay yellow, but each pair leading to the back carried a tan hint. My mother stacked those at the bottom, hoping that I would someday become less picky.

I spread butter across the light pancakes and drenched them in syrup. I put my mother through so much stress those weekend mornings. I have since apologized to her, but I know, now a parent myself, that my apology was appreciated, but not needed. Breakfast is love.

Literature and breakfast are both slow arts. Early morning arts that unfold while the world is still groggy and optimistic.

John Mullan collected 10 of the best breakfast descriptions in literature for The Guardian, although his list skews heavily British. From James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gives us “Two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and at least a quart of mead.” Mullan calls a selection from The Warden by Anthony Trollope an “ecclesiastical morning feast:” “there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish.” The most unusual entry on the list is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the smell of Pirate Prentice’s apartment: “the fragile, musaceous odour of Breakfast, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight.”

Save for a few years of college, I have lived in New Jersey my entire life. Other than corrupt politicians and housing New York sports teams, my state is best known for its breakfasts. Those meals are best found in three places: food trucks, delis, and diners.

New Jersey diners are satellite churches. Food as ritual. You settle into meals there. My ideal diner trip starts with coffee. Orange juice on the side. Chocolate chip pancakes with syrup and butter. I let the butter mingle with the syrup while I turn to the eggs. There are two choices: an omelet with bacon, green peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese, or Eggs Benedict. I choose the latter when I am feeling royal. I am usually dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, as if I came from an early morning ice hockey practice. Eating is an athletic event for me. I am the youngest of four, so I have always eaten with elbows out, hoarding my take. My wife is entertained by my eating. I sit spread on one side of the booth, surrounded by plates. I even love the toast soggy with butter (the toast is not good, but it is like ice in a drink, a needed, cool break). I feel like the sow at the end of Sylvia Plath’s poem: “stomaching no constraint, / proceeded to swill / the seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent.”

The syntactic tendencies of Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner make for great food description. Consider this, from McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain: “They were all at the table eating when Billy pushed open the door and came in. Socorro came and took the plate of biscuits and carried them to the oven and dumped them into a pan and put the pan in the warmer and took hot biscuits from the warmer and put them on the plate and carried the plate back to the table. On the table was a bowl of scrambled eggs and one of grits and there was a plate of sausage and a boat of gravy and bowls of preserves and pico de gallo and butter and honey.”

I met my wife in college, and some late nights that blurred into early mornings led us down Pennsylvania backroads. We found a diner with a domed vestibule, lit blue at the peak and red around the base. My Catholic sense seeks symbolism in all offerings, so I wasn’t sure if it was blessed or base to take in so much food before dawn. I ordered eggs sunny side up with home fries, and Jen got an omelet. We ate, and we laughed, and then we drifted back into the dark. To fall in love in college is a gift. It is the chance to bottle freedom of soul, to open that gift when needed most, years later.

“I’ve always wanted brook trout / for breakfast.” From “Looking for Work” by Raymond Carver.

Breakfasts should be a time of celebration. We are still alive. We can again go to the table.

“Mornings were better than evenings, for Father and Grandfather. Father always made us breakfast: fresh eggs that he had traded for (he and Grandfather both despised the sound and smell of chickens, though Grandfather was not above staking one out in a field to try and lure in a hungry hawk or eagle he wanted to watch).” From “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness” by Rick Bass.

“A dinner party, coffee, tea, / Sandwich, or supper, all may be / In their way pleasant. But to me / Not one of these deserves the praise / That welcomer of new-born days, / A breakfast, merits.” From “Breakfast” by Mary Lamb.

Christian Wiman’s elegiac “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone” ends with these lines: “All stories stop: once more you’re lost / in something I can merely see: steam spiriting out of black coffee, the scorched pores of toast, a bowl / of apple butter like edible soil, / bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass, / my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.”

In “Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast” by Hannah Gamble, the speaker asks someone to come over: “This morning I need four hands— / two to wash the greens, one to lift a teakettle, / one to pour the milk. This morning, one little mouth / will not do.”

“My mother said you can always tell when someone’s middle-aged when they tell you that breakfast is the most enjoyable meal of the day.” — Reynolds Price.

“I don’t eat breakfast, never have ever since as a child I was forced to eat my grandmother’s boiled oatmeal every single morning.” — M.F.K. Fisher.

Gertrude Stein’s prose always makes me hungry. She wasn’t afraid of food as fodder, but more importantly, her layering of detail and recursive images feel like a fork whipping eggs in a bowl, or a spoon turning oatmeal. She writes of “A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.” And: “Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamor. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.” In “Breakfast,” her letters evolve into a diary of digestion: “What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea-cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious.” Delicious. She achieves so much more, but as a pleasant start, Stein’s prose forces us to leave words on our tongues a bit longer. To let phonemes dissolve rather than chewing them into worthless noise.

“And so, she cook’d their breakfast to a tittle; / I can’t say that she gave them any tea, / But there were eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, fish, honey, / With Scio wine, —and all for love, not money.” From Don Juan by Lord Byron.

What constitutes a sad breakfast? Poor food. Poor mood. A rushed swallow, a cold coffee, or burnt toast that could be crumbled to ash. We should all be thankful for each bite, bitter or bold, but if food is art, then good taste is worth achieving.

Phillip Larkin’s “Waiting for Breakfast, While She Brushed Her Hair” is as melancholic a breakfast poem as I can imagine. The title is the poem’s first line, so that “waiting” becomes a droning act. The narrator looks out the hotel window, where wet cobblestones “sent no light back to the loaded sky.” He initially concludes: “Featureless morning, featureless night,” but the poem becomes more complex with each successive stanza, and ends with a question. There is no breakfast.

Archibald MacLeish’s “Hotel Breakfast” begins in the same melancholic mode as Larkin: “On a stale morning / in a miserable winter town in Illinois / neither of us ever heard of.” The narrator’s companion is “sipping a sticky cup of some…tepid brew.” MacLeish also ends with a question, delivered “heartsick with a mortal fear — / What brings you here?”

What brings me here?

Best pork roll sandwich I’ve ever eaten: deli in Chester, N.J. A sin that I can’t remember the name. I worked summers for The Seeing Eye, and once a month we made the short trip from our Morristown campus to the breeding station in Chester. I had to look forward to a hot afternoon weed-whacking brush that would sting my arms and neck, but heaven came first. Two eggs draped in cheese. Pork roll peppered on both sides. Ketchup. Sliced and oiled potatoes with diced onions. Soft Kaiser roll. We picked-up our sandwiches and sat on overturned cartons in the garage. Among the last month’s clippings pasted to the floor and the smell of gasoline, we feasted.

I look forward to Jen’s weekend breakfasts all week, but now our breakfasts are tactical. We have twin toddler mouths to feed. Babble has been replaced with pointed requests: food, food, and more food. They want whatever is about to enter out mouths. Becoming a parent has meant that sharing is not simply kindness; it is sacrament. We feed the girls, and then it is our turn. Work and stress and travel are distant memories. We sit in front of the pancakes patterned with chocolate chips and the bacon, and know that breakfast is a form of communion. If you love someone—if you want that love to take shape, to be able to hold it in the air—eat breakfast with them.

Bonus Link: “Cooking with Hemingway” by Stephanie Bernhard

Image Credit: Pexels/Julian Jagtenberg.

The Literary Art & The Art of Literature

Holy Crap! Have you been into a bookstore lately; have you noticed how good books look these days? When I go to used book stores, I find that all the books released during a particular decade tend to look like one another with not much variation. But now you walk into a book store and each new book looks like a work of art. Some remarkably attractive books have come out over the last few years, and book design has come into its own as an art form that it is peculiar adventurous considering the publishing industry’s ever tightening ties to multi-national conglomerates. A lot of this is marketing. Many of the companies that own the publishing houses also have major entertainment divisions, and they tend to use the same marketing style to push both their movies and their books. Hence, book covers have gone the way of movie posters and trailers; they seek to grab the attention of the reader with an alluring display of eye candy. Every day, I see people buy books simply because of how cool the cover looks. You would be surprised at how often it happens. Which brings me to another reason why book covers have become more adventurous: people are ready for it… they need it even. People are constantly bombarded by interesting and strange visual imagery on television, in movie theaters, on billboards. If every book looked the same, people wouldn’t buy as many books, no matter how amazing the contents. It’s kind of sad, but not entirely. Though a result of the pervasive marketing that seems to have taken over our culture, the good looks of these book covers are still a good thing. Where else do graphic designers get such freedom in such a corporate setting? Where else is art combined in such an interesting way with the written word? If you want it to be, you can now treat every visit to a book store like a trip to an art gallery. Walk slowly down the aisles and admire the artwork, take the books in your hands and inspect the detail as closely as you want, then buy whatever it was you came in for. You’ve just turned an everyday act of commerce into an experience in art appreciation.Which brings me to Chip Kidd. If there is any one person who is at the forefront of forward looking book design, it is Kidd. As a book designer for Knopf, he has designed literaly hundreds of covers, and, as a result, has been heralded as the best in the business. To celebrate his work Yale University and Veronique Vienne have come together to produce a very attractive volume collecting and celebrating some of Kidd’s many covers. It is entitled, appropriately, Chip Kidd. Here are a few of Chip Kidd’s book covers:

Surprise Me!