Category Archives: writers

coarseness of thought and feeling; want of grace and taste; numerous allusions to matters of merely local interest

Via Dangerous Minds, here is Fran Lebowitz talking about NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, who she has a bracingly compelling, funny, and well-reasoned dislike of:

It’s from a book launch party for While We Were Sleeping: NYU and The Destruction of New York. As soon as I finished watching it I sent the link to my most scornful Bloomberg-scorning friend, who recently had me reaching for a notepad when he said that “living in a city where this little cunt is in charge of things is like living in 18th-century Paris.” Is it? It kind of is. Someone really ought to make a list about that. And why am I not trying my hand at writing libelles? Those topical, subversive, witty little pamphlets or one-sheets that flourished in France between the 16th and 18th centuries, often anonymously written because of nastiness or seditiousness or both, were quite obviously the blogs of their day. But not all blogs are libelles.

Am I qualified? I’m somewhat mordant by nature, not short on opinions, and I enjoy hitting the “publish” button but my very full-time day job gets in the way. Working in shorter, sharper forms holds considerable appeal. In my mid-twenties I was pretty thoroughly knocked out by Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the first thing of his I’d ever read, and, although a work of fiction, my first meaningful glimpse of libelles. I didn’t mind the notoriously detailed and lengthy description of printing press technology that occurs very early in the book, and the further I read the more I thought it was utterly brilliant. The main character is an aspiring poet from the provinces who later finds himself mucking about with Parisian journalists and libellistes, and Balzac’s determination to capture the pragmatic aspects of how technological progress changes things alongside the social aspects was exciting to me; it tickled the same vaguely Marxist parts of my brain that my college professors did when they talked about Dziga Vertov’s socialization of the movie camera. Prior to the libelle era, people simply could not vitiate public figures or distribute their most profane little thoughts in print affordably or with any great efficiency because printing presses hadn’t caught up with their urgent need to comment on the culture around them. I was delighted to read more Balzac and see that this was a theme with him — to see, for example, that in Cousin Bette someone seems to be setting up a trust for someone else every other page or so. My understanding — somewhat spotty, but reasonably well informed from having read about this some years ago — is that the trust was fairly new legal technology at the time, a creation of the Napoleonic code; before then, people could not arrange to distribute their money or property outside of the traditional family lines in any sort of reliable way. To provide for a lover outside of marriage or a gay lover, for example, was suddenly a possibility. (To this day the law of succession and probate in the state of Louisiana is quite different from that of other U.S. states because, being a former French territory, it is the only state whose law is based on the Napoleonic code rather than English common law). Anyhow, where was I? I think I was getting around to suggesting that someone ought to study Bloombergian culture in a Balzacian manner, with special attention to the nefarious money-grubbing Ms. Lebowitz so capably describes.

underground journalist

A libelliste’s mechanisms at work, scanned from The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France by Robert Darnton. Specifically, he’s “from the frontspiece to Le Gazetier cuirasse, ou anecdotes scandaleuses de la cour de France by Charles Theveneau de Morande, 1771.” I haven’t read the book yet but I’ve got the same author’s The Literary Underground of the Old Regime in my going-out-of-town bag this weekend.


That same friend I sent the video to has a recurring fantasy about running into Bloomberg someplace — our mayor does take the subway every once in a while, and gets into and out of shiny black SUVs all over town — and loudly exclaiming, as if unaware of himself “I can’t believe he’s so tiny in person!”


Did you know that in Marie Antoinette’s time women wore dioramas in their hair? The trend apparently started with the use of wire forms padded out with wool and horse hair, which gave them impressive volume, and before long they were perching entire allegories up there. Appraiser and interior architect Soodie Beasley writes that

[w]omen placed in their hair little figurines made from fabric and small objects made from papier maché. Their hairdresser arranged them as sceneries or landscapes. Sometimes, they used their hair as a stage to replicate historical scenes or sometimes to communicate an emotion — sentimental pouf — this type of do was called.

. . . . Marie Antoinette wore her pouf a’ la inoculation in support of the small pox vaccination which showed Aesculapius’s serpent wrapped around an olive tree.

She wore these hairstyles at court and in town, and this had a swift and contagious effect . . .

‘Everybody was talking of the poufs created by the firm of Bertin . . . one famous pouf was that of the Duchesse de Lauzun. She appeared at a reception wearing a most delicious pouf. It contained a stormy sea, ducks swimming near the shore, someone on the point of shooting one of them; on the top of the head there was a mill, the miller’s wife being made love to by an abbe, whilst near the ear the miller could be seen leading a donkey.’

The last paragraph there quotes Émile Langlade’s Rose Bertin, the creator of fashion at the court of Marie-Antoinette. I think the contemporary equivalent (in Manhattan, at least) is people doing unspeakably overwrought things to cocktails, which have become so burdened by displays of creativity that even bartenders are starting to wonder whether their preening is turning people off, and whether we haven’t turned some sort of corner yet. Delightful, innovative, gaudy, pompous, and inane — people have always been this way and always will be, and at any given moment the counterweights may be in need of rebalancing.

Miss Juniper Fox

Miss Juniper Fox, 1777, from the Lewis Walpole Library
via Soodie Beasley.


The title of my post comes from a scrap of commentary on the ancient Greek poet Hipponax I found floating around on the internet. It used to appear on his Wikipedia page but I don’t see it there now. These qualities are supposedly reasons why his “witty, abusive” verse was not more popular. (He is nonetheless sometimes credited with having invented parody, and his deft dealings with the sordid side of life in Ephesus seem to have made quite an impression on people). The first time I saw it I was struck by the idea that this particular scrap would make a very good manifesto of sorts for a blog, not unlike the mumbo-jumbo in the header on my food blog. Sometimes it’s incredibly helpful to limit and sharpen one’s focus, however perplexing the operational rules may appear to others.


This and that No. 7

Louise Bourgeois, Femme maison

Louise Bourgeois, Femme maison, 1994.
Photo by Christopher Burke via The Guardian.


My morning today.

I was almost heartened — or whatever its shadow word is, the word for noticing that someone else has been undermined by the same enervators — to see, while poking around in Dawn Powell’s unedited diaries, that in 1956 she wrote: “Domesticity can deaden the creative nature as much as alcohol or poverty – indeed more.”

This and that No. 6 is here.

some Sylvia for your pocket

I’ve been meaning to write about Sylvia Townsend Warner here for literally years now, but to really do her any justice I need to go back and re-read many things of hers I read fairly recently. Which is hard to make myself do when I’ve got such a large pile of other, new-to-me things I’d like to get to first. (Same problem with various films, which I’d never write about after having seen only once). I will indeed do it anyhow at some point because I think it’s important, but in the meantime I see no reason not to send you off about your business without a few enticing little scraps of Sylvia to tuck in your pocket.

This first one in the series is from the short story “Furnivall’s Hoopoe,” which appears in the collection The Music at Long Verney. If you’re a New Yorker subscriber you can read it in their archives here, as it was published in their Jan. 3, 1970 issue. They published a great many Sylvia Townsend Warner stories over the years — she became very good friends with her editor there, William Maxwell, and you can and should read some of their correspondence in The Element of Lavishness — and in my opinion being able to plunder their archives at one’s leisure for her alone is well worth the cost of a subscription.

Jan. 3, 1970 New Yorker cover

the Jan. 3, 1970 cover

There are plenty of other passages I might have opted to start off with, and loads of them where she’s doing something more dazzling in a writerly way, but this one captures some very true things about love and that’s been on my mind lately. Particularly the other day, when I found myself thinking about The Great Gatsby in connection with a food blog post (spoiler alert: it’s somehow just as depressing miniaturized and briefly outlined with clams as it is as a novel), and again just a couple of hours after I’d written it, when I found myself having a long talk with an unhappy friend about her married girlfriend. Maxwell wrote the foreword to The Music at Long Verney well after Townsend-Warner’s death in 1978 and briefly but rather heart-breakingly describes her own love troubles with her very long-term girlfriend Valentine Ackland:

Sylvia was not distressed by Valentine’s casual infidelities, but when she fell in love with a spoiled American woman who thought she might (and then again thought she might not) want to live permanently with Valentine, Sylvia suffered deeply and even made herself homeless until the crisis had passed. As she wrote a friend, ‘I was gray as a badger and never at any time a beauty but I was better at loving and being loved.”

Having read much of her work, I find her believable on this point. Fortunately the crisis did pass and they went on living together until Ackland’s death from breast cancer in 1969. Ackland opened an antiques shop in their home in 1952, which is an interesting background tidbit about The Music at Long Verney; five of its stories are set in the same (fictional) antiques shop. According to Wendy Mulford’s This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland Life, Letters and Politics, 1930-1951, Valentine and Sylvia had a routine worked out for dealing with annoying customers whereby Valentine would ring a little bell to summon Sylvia, who would then call her away for some important reason or other. Anyhow, on to the little scrap of Sylvia, which fortunately is far more economical and humorous than my introduction to it. I regret having to give it to you in two pieces but those are the breaks.



the periodicals room

You know the feeling of being ill and just wanting to sleep but slightly too ill to actually fall asleep? Then somehow things get worse and you feel as if you’ve been put in a washing machine with that feeling? Maybe the washing machine part is just me. In any event, I can tell you with certainty that it really helps to have a pile of magazines in there for when you get tired of your books.

Pittsburg 1947

girl at magazine stand (Pittsburgh, 1947) via ThePulp.Net

Here are some of the magazines piled up by my bedside this week. It’s more of an electronic pile rather than an actual pile because there aren’t many interesting ones in print right now, are there?

Night and Day anthology cover

Night and Day. A very short-lived English magazine published weekly between July and December of 1937, thankfully available in anthology form. (Also thankfully far more suitable for dragging to bed than my beautiful but slab-like Flair anthology). I suspect most who come to Night and Day do so out of affection for its editor Graham Greene, but my reading habits are sadly under-Greened and I learned of it while poking around Corvo biographer A.J. Symons, who also happened to be their restaurant reviewer. Their contributors! Graham Greene did the film reviews and Evelyn Waugh the book reviews; John Betjeman had a regular feature; Alistair Cooke and Anthony Powell reported on what was happening in America; and there were theater reviews from Elizabeth Bowen, short stories from V.S. Pritchett, and memoirs from Christopher Isherwood. Also William Empson on his efforts to learn Chinese, and, most thrilling for me, Herbert Read regularly reviewing detective novels. I admire The Green Child enough to be delighted with his reviews just for their curiosity value, but he’s actually quite funny.

Night and Day was staggeringly New Yorker-ish, deliberately and admittedly so. Christopher Hawtree’s introduction to the 1985 Chatto & Windus anthology notes that two years prior to the launch of the magazine, Greene wrote, “The world may be divided into those who enjoy Punch and those who enjoy the New Yorker,” while future Night and Day contributor Hugh Kingsmill lamented “[t]here is no critically humorous paper in England today. Nor is there any serious paper which has much, or any individuality.” In Greene’s own preface to the anthology he wrote that “the influence of the New Yorker was very evident during the first months,” though by the time the magazine folded “we were becoming ourselves.” It would be foolish to describe Night and Day as a knock-off; it reflected its own time and place and spoke with its own voice, but the visual resemblance is striking. Not just in the cartoons, which Greene thought superior (“I don’t believe that any paper — even the New Yorker at its best — has obtained the level reached by Night and Day in its comic drawings”) but in familiar little features like the unintentionally funny news clippings that still appear in the New Yorker‘s pages.

Night and Day stomach

A. J. Symons Round the Restaurants

Night and Day manxmen

But, darling

Those angels above are not an original cartoon commissioned for the magazine but one of John Flaxman’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The magazine began running them in the July 29, 1937 issue, “[f]eeling that rather less than justice has been done to the distinguished artist who gave his name to a London telephone exchange . . . . As this, after all, is Coronation Year, we have substituted good plain captions in the mother tongue for the unpatriotic quotations from Dante which accompanied the original designs . . .”

One of the things that sunk Night and Day was a libel suit in connection with Greene’s review of the Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie in the Oct. 28, 1937 issue:

[W]atch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.

The publishers were fined £3,500 for this “gross outrage,” but the magazine had trouble raising capital well before then, and folded three months before the case went to trial.

I didn’t realize until I started composing this blog post that Night and Day has recently been “reinvigorated and reconceived for a new century” by Vintage Books. I haven’t yet read any of the four issues they’ve put out so far but it looks very promising. I’m particularly happy to see that their contributors include illustrators as talented and stylish as the ones who worked on its previous incarnation. Read and download here.

WoI Dec 2011 cover

World of Interiors. The only mag kept in stacks at Lunar Camel Co. Towers. I can’t afford anything in its advertisements, especially the boiseries, I have a feeling, but there’s nothing pretentious about it. It’s a proper magazine with a proper and likable editorial voice. I cannot understand why so many other magazines lack one of those and instead choose to read like an inscrutable catalog of favors to friends and publicists. I suspect it has something to do with people being people, but still.

WoI is full of transporting photos — sometimes rooms, sometimes places like tea processing plants or horticultural supply shops or unglamorized Moroccan farmhouses where cows reside on the ground floor — and unlike other design mags the writing holds up its end of things. I hate flipping through magazines like this and seeing that the book reviews, profiles or arty bits aren’t worth reading.

Eileen Gray's study May 2011 WoI

Designer Eileen Gray’s study, WoI May 2011. For sure my desk needs a lamp with a stomach and a hat. These are by Garouste and Bonetti.

bricks 3 Dec 2011 WoI bricks Dec 2011 WoI

Bricks from a Dec. 2011 WoI feature on historical paints. Sometimes while trying to sleep I mentally paint my bedroom the 1960s blue at the bottom, Capri SC345 from Paper and Paints.

cosmic Oct 2010 WoI

16th-century Wunderzeichenbuch depicting cosmic events from WoI Oct. 2010. The kooky rainbow at left was observed in Vienna in 1520.

mantle Jan 2012 WoI

Detail above mantle at an auberge in Barbizon favored by 19th-century painters from WoI Jan. 2012.

de Plagny Oct 2010 WoI

Textile design by Atelier Zina de Plagny (late 40s / early 50s) from WoI Oct. 2010. de Plagny’s designs have been revived by Surface View.

purple room Oct 2010 WoI

Purple room from WoI Oct. 2010. It’s a reader’s room submitted for a contest, and the checkered doors hide a kitchen.

Viva magazine, August 1974 cover

Viva, the international magazine for women. Verrrry 70s. I have a small collection of these that sadly will probably not be added to at this point because they’re getting too expensive. I wrote a little something about it on my food blog a few years ago. Definitely due for a follow-up post or two here; stay tuned.

Synapse Summer 1978

Knob-twiddlers will be pleased to know that 70s issues of Synapse can be read in their entirety. Via Dangerous Minds.

Bright Lights film journal

Bright Lights Film Journal. Reliably terrific writing about cinema.


TONMO, The Octopus News Magazine Online (“Your Octopus, Squid and Cephalopod Information Center”). Some animals are better company than others. Frankly I don’t care about squid much, but octopuses are brilliant and mysterious and make for good reading. Related material for aficionados: Poulpe Pulps, “hard-to-locate images of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure pulp and comic covers featuring the wily octopus.”

Arthur magazine archive

ARTHUR magazine was so cool. It’s been linked to on my links page forever but maybe you haven’t seen it.


The Modernist Journals Project. This has probably made the rounds of the in-boxes and blogs of everyone who is interested, but: Brown University and the University of Tulsa have a joint project cataloging modernist journals. You can peek at the contents of some of them here.

definition of wit

I’ve been dipping into William Hazlitt lately, The Fight and Other Writings, and liking the little I’ve read so far.

William Hazlitt self-portrait

William Hazlitt self-portrait, 1802.

Here he is re: The Definition of Wit:

It is the polypus power of the mind, by which a distinct life and meaning is imparted to the different parts of a sentence or object after they are severed from each other; or it is the prism dividing the simplicity and candour of our ideas into a parcel of motley and variegated hues; or it is the mirror broken into pieces, each fragment of which reflects a new light from surrounding objects; or it is the untwisting of the chain of our ideas, whereby each link is made to hook more readily to others than when they were all bound up together by habit, and with a view to a set purpose. Ideas exist as a sort of fixtures in the understanding; they are like moveables (that will also unscrew and take to pieces) in the wit or fancy.

So disappointing.

The world is stupider and more boring without Christopher Hitchens in it.

Hitchens and Amis 1975

Here he is with his good friend Martin Amis in 1975, via the Guardian, via his memoir Hitch 22. Surely those bottles were left behind by a previous tenant.

I was appalled and infuriated by his support for war in Iraq but everything else about him was admirable and / or charming enough that I can, hmm, not overlook it, but . . . not dwell on it.

Which obit to point you to, in the unlikely event you haven’t read any yet? The one in the NYT is good. The Guardian’s struck me as more elegant and humane and I’m going to re-read it now in an effort to sort out why I thought that. They also have a nice assortment of his “most memorable bon mots” here.

this and that No. 2

squat squat squat

how to dance, figure B

Squat squat squat from Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA. How to dance instructions from my computer. The origin of the “Watergate Squat” dance is that the protagonist must prove himself to be a poet by making up a rhyming poem on the spot, a poem which must include words selected by the host and other guests of the party: swastika, haddock, jonquil, plectrum, gardenia and farthing. He chooses to perform a squatting dance at the same time because he wants to impress a woman at the party. I am telling you this because a rainy weekend is a good time to devise new party tricks.

This and that No. 1 is here.

loved-up poets : No. 2 in a series

It’s been ages since I’ve done one of these posts. This is only the second in the series; the first is here. Today we’re going to have a look at Ballade of Boys Bathing by Frederick Rolfe, who I love. This is not a favorite poem for me and I think Rolfe’s novels are far, far more interesting than his verse, but it is interesting in a curio sense — Rolfe’s painting of the scene he describes in the poem is the same painting he puts in a place of honor on George Arthur Rose’s mantle in Hadrian the Seventh — and it fits with the briny theme this blog has lately.

As far as I can tell it does not appear anywhere else on the internet. The poem as seen below comes from my 1974 copy of Rolfe’s Collected Poems. I suspected it would also appear in my copy of Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900 and sure enough, there it is on p. 226, right after Mark André Raffalovich’s “Put on that Languor.” There is a 1972 four-page edition of the poem privately printed by “an admirer” but it looks difficult to come by.

Click on any of the pages to see them larger on Flickr.

Collected Poems title page

Ballade of Boys Bathing

Eh, hmm. I suppose the painting is as fit as any for a future Pope to keep on his mantle. The boys are wearing swimsuits after all so it is very chaste.

Ballade of Boys Bathing painting

Ballade of Boys Bathing notes

Did you know that Stephen Fry used to belong to a “a most extraordinary circle of intellectuals who met regularly in the bar of a small hotel and discussed avidly the works of Frederick Rolfe, the infamous Baron Corvo”? Apparently he did, here, have a look at this Bookride post about it. (I am linking to the cached page because I sometimes have trouble reading that blog in the more usual manner). The circle produced a zine called The Failiure Press, to which young Fry contributed crosswood puzzles. Where are all the new Corvo zines, am I writing one? Who is responsible for the crossword section and why have they been so secretive about it?

An unrelated bonus for anyone who gets nervous about very gay poetry about bare boys, here is an old photo of the Penn State homophile club having a pro-homo parade, for you to tuck away in a special place. Photo via Vintage Lesbian.

Penn State homophiles

step 1 : find attractive paper

An inspiring quote from Sylvia Townsend Warner, who I can’t believe I haven’t written about here yet. She deserves a proper, wordier post and she’ll get one sooner or later, but in the meantime here is something to think about, from the dust jacket flap for The Flint Anchor (The Viking Press, 1954):

a quote from Sylvia Townsend Warner

She omitted to mention that it is essential to be brilliant. It’s nonetheless heartening to catch a glimpse of a writer saying “I’m a writer because I wrote something,” not “because I obtained a MFA,” not “because I’ve done time in workshops full of thunderingly insipid people who share my high regard for the consensus of People Who Are Into Consensus.” I’m surely a little excessive in my disdainful eye-rolling on this matter but sometimes it looks like the dominant school of thought has come to be that people ought to set about making prose the way they used to set about obtaining, say, a certificate in HVAC repair. Viva anti-professionalism!

The book itself is inspiring me too, to collect blue books and keep them all in one place. As in this photo from the lovely Bookride:

blue books! from Bookride

The Flint Anchor cover

In the comments on that post there’s a tantalizing mention of a collection of books with mirrored covers. It brings to mind — to my mind, anyhow — the idea that it would be a worthwhile pursuit to fill a room with such books, all four walls, floor to ceiling, like Andy Warhol’s Factory for the obsessively literary, a combination library / bar / installation where people could pull a random book off the shelves and browse, or just admire the room. A 100′ roll of mylar is only $53. Have you got a spare room and some amphetamines and nimble hands for folding, comrade?

two guys fightin’

While I was reading in bed this morning (re-reading this, to be precise) one of Norman Mailer’s wives was on NPR talking about her new book (this one) and my mind started to wander to the same strange scene that appears every time someone’s talking about Norman Mailer: the one in which he’s fighting with Rip Torn on the set of his 1970 film Maidstone.

Apparently the scene is in the movie but I’ve never been moved to see the whole thing. It’s fucking ridiculous! Their rolling around on the ground is ridiculous, the thunder that arrives is ridiculous, Mailer’s wife (not the same one who wrote the book, I think) starts shrieking, which is ridiculously not helpful, Mailer says ridiculous, childish things, and after a while crazy-eyed Torn starts to look reasonable, which is at least a bit ridiculous considering the circumstances.

Vodpod videos no longer available.more about Torn vs Mailer, posted with vodpod

According to a Mailer bio quoted on Wikipedia, this fight went down because Torn was unhappy with how the film was going. If you want more details there’s more information here. (It’s in the blue box under the video). Anyhow, picturing this scene and feeling like I ought to seek it out and see it again because I couldn’t mentally un-see it made for a strangely violent distraction from my reading and my coffee. It was like walking down the street and accidentally overhearing the nastiest bit of someone’s argument through an open window.


While I was putting this post together I got a Skype IM from Russian brides eager to understand me:

European and American women are too arrogant for you? Are you looking for a sweet lady that will be caring and understanding? Then you came to the right place- here you can find a Russian lady that will love you with all her heart. Can’t find a queen to rule your heart? How about beautiful Russian ladies that have royal blood and royal look? Here you can find hundreds of portfolios of these fine women of any age for every taste. Please excuse us if you are not interested.

I closed the window on them but now I’m sorry I didn’t inquire as to whether they have too much royal blood in them, coursing through their collective veins like a pack of borzois, to wear pre-glasnost lingerie. Scratchy teal netting, violently red tulle, that sort of thing. If they don’t I might find something inspirational in their hundreds of portfolios. In a literary sense of course.