Philosophers, 1990 by Gely Korzhev (1925-2012)
I’ve been wanting to read Tatyana Tolstoya’s post-apocalyptic novel The Slynx for a few years now. I finally broke down and ordered a copy through my local book store, and started it yesterday—fantastic stuff: gross, grimy, raw, inventive, perplexing, upsetting, and very very funny. Jamey Gambrell’s translation transmits the playful noisy distortions that must surely be in the original Russian. I’m about fifty pages in, and so far it reminds me of the Strugatski brothers’ stuff—pessimistic, wry, earthy, as well as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Gely Korzhev’s mutant paintings.
Here’s NYRB’s blurb:
Two hundred years after civilization ended in an event known as the Blast, Benedikt isn’t one to complain. He’s got a job—transcribing old books and presenting them as the words of the great new leader, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe—and though he doesn’t enjoy the privileged status of a Murza, at least he’s not a serf or a half-human four-legged Degenerator harnessed to a troika. He has a house, too, with enough mice to cook up a tasty meal, and he’s happily free of mutations: no extra fingers, no gills, no cockscombs sprouting from his eyelids. And he’s managed—at least so far—to steer clear of the ever-vigilant Saniturions, who track down anyone who manifests the slightest sign of Freethinking, and the legendary screeching Slynx that waits in the wilderness beyond.
Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx reimagines dystopian fantasy as a wild, horripilating amusement park ride. Poised between Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, The Slynx is a brilliantly inventive and shimmeringly ambiguous work of art: an account of a degraded world that is full of echoes of the sublime literature of Russia’s past; a grinning portrait of human inhumanity; a tribute to art in both its sovereignty and its helplessness; a vision of the past as the future in which the future is now.
Fumée d’ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris), 1880 by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Japanese Beggar, c. 1904 by Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904)
Untitled (Seated Man), 1927 by Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)
There’s a nice long profile of Ishmael Reed in this week’s New Yorker magazine.
The profile is by Julian Lucas, who does an excellent job covering both Reed’s extensive literary output as well as his biography. While Lucas’s profile is generally sympathetic, he doesn’t shy away from Reed’s many (many) battles (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, the New York literary establishment, etc. etc. etc.). The print edition of the article is titled “I Ain’t Been Mean Enough,” which comes from a line from Reed’s 1973 poem “The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday”:
For half a century, he’s been American literature’s most fearless satirist, waging a cultural forever war against the media that spans a dozen novels, nine plays and essay collections, and hundreds of poems, one of which, written in anticipation of his thirty-fifth birthday, is a prayer to stay petty: “35? I ain’t been mean enough . . . Make me Tennessee mean . . . Miles Davis mean . . . Pawnbroker mean,” he writes. “Mean as the town Bessie sings about / ‘Where all the birds sing bass.’ ”
Lucas’s Reed is not a cantankerous caricature though. We get a nice survey of the man’s works situated against his ever-evolving politics and aesthetics. Nor does the profile dwell too long on Reed’s earlier novels (which I confess are my favorites—the most recent long work of Reed’s I’ve read was 2011’s Juice! I had absolutely no idea before reading the profile that Reed has a new novel out this summer, The Terrible Fours).
There’s a measure of defiance to his late-career productivity. Wary of being tethered to his great novels of the nineteen-seventies, Reed is spoiling for a comeback, and a younger generation receptive to his guerrilla media criticism may be along for the ride. “I’m getting called a curmudgeon or a fading anachronism, so I’m going back to my original literature,” Reed told me. “In the projects, we had access to a library, and I’d go get books by the Brothers Grimm.” Now, he says, “I’m reverting to my second childhood. I’m writing fairy tales.”
He finds himself stepping off the bus in some burg he’s already bored with. Picking his teeth for 200 miles—here’s where he spits the toothpick out. Past Holiday Inn the neighborhoods get dark. All-night laundromats where women with circles under their eyes press laundered underwear, warm as bread, against their sinuses. Finally, he’s signing the register at a funeral home where he knows no one, but is mistaken for a long-lost friend of the deceased, for someone who has dislocated his life to make the hazardous journey on a night when the dead man’s own children have avoided him. Once again instinct has taken him where he’s needed; where the unexpected transforms routine into celebration. He kneels before the corpse, striking his forehead against the casket.
Raft, 2020 by Aron Wiesenfeld (b. 1972)
Girl with a Hand-Mirror, 1929 by Arnold Mason (1885-1963)
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy was one of my favorite reads last year, so when I spotted a used copy of the anthology Sometime, Never, I picked it up. Along with novellas by William Golding (Envoy Extraordinary) and John Wyndham (Consider Her Ways), this 1956 includes Peake’s Boy in Darkness, a novel that takes place between the first two Gormenghast books. Gervasio Garvado’s cover illustration seems to depict Peake’s tale. Blurb:
Each of the three tales of imagination in this book is by a master of the art, and in each there is incident and invention enough to surpass most full-length novels.
Envoy Extraordinary, by William Golding, tells of a barbarian genius who arrives in ancient Rome with three inventions–and the results are appalling.
Consider Her Ways, by John Wyndham, presents a shocking and utterly convincing picture of a world of women–without men.
Boy In Darkness, by Mervyn Peake, is a venture into a dream-like world of strangeness and terror–quite unlike anything you have ever read, and unforgettable.
Canto II, 1982 by Tom Phillips (b. 1937). From the Dante’s Inferno series.
Hunt (After Frans Snyders), 2019 by Cecily Brown (b. 1969)
The Two Young Ladies, 1939 by Rita Kernn-Larsen (1904-1998
“Edward Hopper’s New York Movie”
We can have our pick of seats.
Though the movie’s already moving,
the theater’s almost an empty shell.
All we can see on our side
of the room is one man and one woman—
as neat, respectable, and distinct
as the empty chairs that come
between them. But distinctions do not surprise,
fresh as we are from sullen street and subway
where lonelinesses crowded
about us like unquiet memories
that may have loved us once or known our love.
Here we are an accidental
fellowship, sheltering from the city’s
obscure bereavements to face a screened,
as if it were a destination
we were moving toward. Leaning to our right
and suspended before us
is a bored, smartly uniformed usherette.
Staring beyond her lighted corner, she finds
a reverie that moves through
and beyond the shine of the silver screening.
But we can see what she will never see—
that she’s the star of Hopper’s scene.
For the artist she’s a play of light,
and a play of light is all about her.
Whether the future she is
dreaming is the future she will have
we have no way of knowing. Whatever
it will prove to be
it has already been. The usherette
Hopper saw might now be seventy,
hunched before a Hitachi
in an old home or a home for the old.
She might be dreaming now a New York movie,
Fred Astaire dancing and kissing
Ginger Rogers, who high kicks across New York
City skylines, raising possibilities
that time has served to lower.
We are watching the usherette, and the subtle
shadows her boredom makes across her not-quite-
impassive face beneath
the three red-shaded lamps and beside
the stairs that lead, somehow, to dark streets
that go on and on and on.
But we are no safer here than she.
Despite the semblance of luxury—
gilt edges, red plush,
and patterned carpet—this is no palace,
and we do not reign here, except in dreams.
This picture tells us much
about various textures of lighted air,
but at the center Hopper has placed
a slab of darkness and an empty chair.
Entanglement, 2016 by Ian Cumberland (b. 1983)