This Week in Books: A Rare Goethe Joke
“Hitler’s return from the dead: ‘HE’S BACK. AND HE’S FÜHRIOUS.’”
This week in books: we’re all just joking around, we’re all just hanging out. Concerning the former, have you ever noticed that almost every title of every article in every issue of the Literary Review is, uh, a joke? It’s sort of late at night right now and I’m sort of losing it, scrolling past these… “Statues of Limitations,” is, naturally, a review of Exposed:The Greek and Roman Body… “Sulphur & Sensibility,” is, of course, a review of Murky Waters: British Spas in Eighteenth-Century Medicine and Literature…
…a garish edition of Pride and Prejudice featuring a smouldering, hairy-chested Darcy, smoke curling from his cigarette, and the line ‘Lock Up Your Daughters… Darcy’s In Town!’
…a campy German novel about Hitler’s return from the dead: ‘HE’S BACK. AND HE’S FÜHRIOUS.’”
And now, I’m going to let Tim Blanning take his time setting up this rare Goethe joke (from his “Big Trouble in Little Jena”—wow—a review of Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels, a group biography of the “Jena Set.”)
…Their inward gaze liberated them from conventions, made them rebellious and gave them a feeling of invincibility. Moreover, their collective emancipation had an enduring impact: ‘the liberation of the Ich from the straitjacket of a divinely organised universe is the foundation of our thinking today. It gave us the most exciting of all powers: free will.’ We may not be aware of our debt to the Jena Set, she maintains, but we should be: ‘We don’t talk about Fichte’s self-determined Ich any more because we have internalised it. We are this Ich.’ Her frequent use of the German word ‘Ich’ may well be found puzzling, for it could be translated as ‘I’, ‘the Ego’ or ‘the self’...
Fichte’s lectures on his ‘Ich philosophy’ were hugely popular: more than half of Jena’s eight hundred students attended, paying him each time they went (a method of academic remuneration that has a lot to recommend it). It says a good deal for their intellectual capacity that they were not deterred by Fichte’s writing, which included such propositions as ‘the non-Ich can be posited only insofar as an Ich is posited in the Ich (in the identical consciousness), to which it (the non-Ich) can be opposed.’ Less enthusiastic was the Jena equivalent of the Bullingdon Club, whose members took revenge for Fichte’s public disapproval of student fraternities by breaking all the windows of his house in a nocturnal riot. The episode occasioned a rare Goethe joke: he observed that it must have been painful for Fichte ‘to have the existence of a non-Ich proven to him’.
Lol. Lmao. Okay, okay. Take a moment to recover from that one. Because I have more!
In his review of Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma’s new translation of the classical Tamil poem the Tirukkural, David Shulman—who otherwise praises the translation as “without doubt the best ever into English”—takes a moment to nitpick a verse with a rhetorical question that had me guffawing:
“Image be gone from my eye—there isn’t / Any room for the brow I love”
… But does any English speaker obsess over his beloved’s brow? Do we even remember what a brow is?
To be honest I don’t know what guffawing or a brow is.
And Ryan Ruby eviscerates—more accurately, I’m going to say, he guillotines—Ian McEwan’s latest novel in this totally devastating review:
Within the first fifty or so pages, Roland experiences no fewer than three portentous epiphanies, none of which turn out to have any bearing on the subsequent four hundred, as though they were narrative coupons McEwan cut out but forgot to cash in.
They say a guillotining now and then is essential to maintaining the health of one’s Republic of Letters. Or any friend group. Let’s circle back to that, the part where I said everybody’s hanging out. As Nora Goldschmidt writes in her review of Katharina Volk’s The Roman Republic of Letters,
For the Roman senatorial elite, networks of knowledge production were also social networks. They read each other’s work, lent each other books and discussed philological and philosophical matters. Caesar dedicated De Analogia to Cicero; Varro dedicated a book on Roman antiquities to Caesar; Brutus dedicated De Virtute to Cicero; and Cicero dedicated work to friends including Brutus and Varro… Intellectual comrades could be cast as implicit interlocutors (as Caesar does with Varro, Cicero and Nigidius in De Analogia) or as speaking characters in works written as dialogues, responding in ways that they may never have done in real life (Cicero did this with several of his friends including Brutus and Nigidius)...
They were just writing their bros into their books and dedicating them to one another. Very beautiful stuff. (Obligatory mention that I’m pretty sure all these men were committing genocides.) A similar beautiful bros dynamic is at work in Hsu Hua’s Stay True. As Ryu Spaeth writes in his profile of the writer,
…The book has some very funny scenes of Hsu being embarrassed by his extremely basic friend, rolling up the car window so no one can hear Ken blasting “Crash Into Me” on the stereo. For whatever reason, this well-adjusted bro saw something in Hsu, a misfit who was reading Giant Robot magazine and rifling through the stacks at Amoeba Music and being militantly straight edge. “A mismatched pair moving through the world,” Hsu writes, a line that reminded me of my own mismatched friends in school, perhaps the last time in life when it is possible to bond with people who differ from you in all the ways that supposedly matter: taste, interests, politics.
In his obituary of the cartoonist Diane Noomin, Terence McArdle quotes her husband, the cartoonist Bill Griffith:
“One of the [San Francisco] cartoonists, Jay Kinney, made a map of all the places where each of us lived,” said Griffith. “There were 16 of us, and we all lived within 10 blocks. We were a very close-knit group at first. There were only two publishers, Last Gasp and Rip Off Press, and whenever a comic came out there would be a party with a keg and weed, celebrating the premiere.”
And what about the Jena Set? How was that vibe? As Blanning puts it, “rarely has there been such a concentration of cerebral power in such a small place (population 4,500).” So, that probably went well, right?
[T]hey were all inveterate letter writers, allowing [Wulf] to make excellent use of their correspondence to chart their love affairs (often adulterous), quarrels and reconciliations as well as their literary achievements… Almost all of them fell out with each other and eventually left. Only Goethe, always a semi-detached member of the circle, managed to maintain an Olympian neutrality.
Frichte must not have heard his Ich joke.
All of this joking around and hanging out has got me ready to go somewhere, see someone. Now that I’m almost done with this, it’s Friday afternoon. But as is stated in the ancient Tamil anthology Short Poems, which Shulman quotes in his review:
“Even high noon / is evening / for the lonely.”
1. “Blowing Their Cover” by Patricia T O’Conner, Literary Review
Patricia T O’Conner reviews Louise Willder’s Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A–Z of Literary Persuasion (OneWorld).
…Willder explores the history of book promotion, from William Caxton’s medieval flyers to the marketing tricks that helped sell Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. Dickens owned the author tour and the dramatic reading, we learn, while Hugo perfected the art of advance buzz, right down to press releases embargoed till publication date. And when it comes to advertising posters, Hugo was the original plasterer of Paris.
… As Willder explains, early books had no covers, let alone jackets. They were just bundles of folded pages (the wealthy had them bound). So the logical place for any marketing hoo-ha was the title page, which a bookseller could hang on a string to attract shoppers.
2. “Big Trouble in Little Jena” by Tim Blanning, Literary Review
Tim Blanning reviews Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (Knopf).
Goethe also confessed that sometimes he found it difficult to know what Fichte and his disciples were driving at. To Wilhelm von Humboldt he wrote, ‘these gentlemen chew the cud of their Ich’s.’
3. “Hua Hsu Is True to the Game” by Ryu Spaeth, Vulture
Ryu Spaeth profiles Hua Hsu on the occasion of the publication of his new book Stay True (Doubleday).
…Stay True… is a memoir with a tragedy at its center: the killing of his close friend, Ken, during a robbery in the late 1990s, when they were students at UC Berkeley. But it is also a coming-of-age story that proposes an identity can be created through the careful curation of the galaxy of cultural artifacts swirling around the average American teenager. For the adolescent Hsu, this curatorial instinct found its purest expression in the zine, those xeroxed, stapled-together DIY magazines that long ago went extinct. “Making my zine was a way of sketching the outlines of a new self, writing a new personality into being,” he writes.
4. “People started pointing fingers at me, saying ‘She’s a Western puppet!’” by Ellen Peirson-Hagger, The News Statesman
Ellen Peirson-Hagger interviews Tsitsi Dangarembga as she awaits the verdict of her trial for “inciting public violence” after being arrested at a protest against government corruption in Zimbabwe.
For the last two years she has existed as both an internationally successful author and the target of a criminal case. Just days before she was arrested in 2020, her novel This Mournable Body, the third part in the Nervous Conditions trilogy, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. It went on to be shortlisted.
…“They will give whatever verdict they want to, so there’s nothing I can do,” she said, calmly. “My preference is obviously to be acquitted. But that is out of my control. I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, so I realise how power can play out in situations like that, and I’m thinking: ‘Well, at least I will keep my head.’”
5. “Cosmic Oceans Squeezed into Atoms” by David Shulman, The New York Review of Books
David Shulman reviews Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma’s new translation of the Tirukkural—entitled The Kural (Beacon)—a collection of classical Tamil verse by the poet Tiruvalluvar.
The Garland on Tiruvalluvar [a poem about Tiruvalluvar]… describes the ultimate moment of canonization for any classical Tamil book: a voice from heaven orders the palm-leaf manuscript of the Tirukkural to be placed on a wooden plank floating in the Golden Lotus Tank at the famous Minakshi temple in the city of Madurai. This plank was infinitely expandable, capable of making room for any true poet, but no sooner were the Tirukkural palm leaves put there than the plank shrank dramatically, thereby dumping all other poets (there were forty-nine of them) into the turbid waters of the tank, since none of them could compare with this book’s author.
6. “The Pundit” by Ryan Ruby, Sidecar
Ryan Ruby puts Ian McEwan’s Lessons (Knopf) out of its misery.
At 481 pages, Lessons is the largest canvas McEwan has worked on; its jacket copy calls it an ‘epic’. Like many contemporary novels so hailed, it is far too short. From its first mentioned incident – which takes place in 1940 – to its last – which takes place in 2021 – McEwan dispatches twice as many years as In Search of Lost Time in a little over one-tenth of the page count.
7. “Diane Noomin, the underground cartoonist behind DiDi Glitz, dies at 75” by Terence McArdle, The Washington Post
Terence McArdle writes about the life and work of the underground cartoonist Diane Noomin, whose work is collected in Glitz-2-Go (Fantagraphics).
In her loud leopard- or floral-print outfits, fishnet stockings and big blond bubble wig, DiDi endured sleazy men, bad hookups and hangovers but loved gossip and cocktails and decorated excessively. The character, who began life with a costume Ms. Noomin created for a Halloween party, gave voice to many of Ms. Noomin’s own irritations and eccentricities.
“DiDi was a personification of all of the housewives that she knew growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn),” Griffith said. “...She shared an aesthetic with them in a detached, ironic sense. She often said she kept her DiDi costume in her closet and only took it out on special occasions.”
8. “Jim Crow’s Forgotten History of Homicides” by Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
Jennifer Szalai reviews Margaret A. Burnham’s By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners (W. W. Norton), which documents a “forgotten history of racially motivated homicides.”
Each death in this book is recounted with intensity and specificity, but some patterns do emerge. Many of the victims in this book were only one or two generations removed from slavery; a number of them were missing death certificates, or were buried in graves unknown. Some of the white people who killed them lived long lives; few were held to account.
With justice so elusive, even a simple acknowledgment of the facts is a necessary step. As some of the survivors put it when they first heard from Burnham and her team: “I thought I’d never get this call.”
9. “Mystery Enshrouds Author Behind Henry Cavill Spy Thriller ‘Argylle’” by Seth Abramovitch, The Hollywood Reporter
Seth Abramovitch writes about Argylle, a very successful book that doesn’t seem to quite exist.
…The book has no Amazon page, save for a German-language Kindle version scheduled for Jan. 10, 2023. Attempts by The Hollywood Reporter to read an advance copy of the book — a common industry practice — were unsuccessful.
…Efforts by THR to interview Conway, or even learn more details about her, have proven fruitless. Communication with a publicist for Ballantine Books, the imprint publishing Argylle, went dead after the conversation turned to questions about the author.
…A short teaser for the film was released March 9. It features Dua Lipa dancing seductively with Cavill. “The bigger the spy,” Cavill says in voiceover, “the bigger the lie.”
10. “These Photographs Were Made in Protest” by Lauren Moya Ford, Hyperallergic
Lauren Moya Ford reviews Robert Slifkin’s Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work (MACK), a biography and analysis of Chauncey Hare and his photography.
At a time when photography was still a contested newcomer to the world of fine arts, Hare was awarded three Guggenheim fellowships (an honor then shared only by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans), a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a monograph published by Aperture. It’s an enviable list of accolades for any artist, especially for one who is self-taught and working a full-time day job. However, Hare’s photography is little known today, partly because of his own efforts. Disillusioned with the art world, he called himself an “anti-official art artist” for a time before bitterly denouncing his artistic work altogether in 1985.
“What an artist is is so corrupted,” Hare wrote in 2005, “that it is a dangerous label to apply.” By the time he co-authored a book on “work abuse” in 1997, Hare, now a clinical therapist, had excised all mention of photography from his biography….
11. “The Muse as Creator” by Justin Tyler Clark, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Justin Tyler Clark reviews Mark Braude’s Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris (W. W. Norton), a joint biography of artist and muse Kiki de Montparnasse (aka Alice Prin) and the Dada-ist set that surrounded her.
…Posthumous memorials of Kiki have mostly failed to capture her full range as an artist, focusing instead on her personal charisma and proximity to other influential cultural figures. That mistake is born partly out of sexism but also out of the fact that Kiki’s most developed métier was performance art, a genre not recognized in her lifetime. It is difficult to celebrate an artist whose art was ephemeral. “A perfectly timed pause that makes everyone in a nightclub go still in uneasy anticipation isn’t something you can trademark and bottle,” writes Braude. “You can’t sell a dance at auction. You can’t sell a pose.”
12. “Pompeian Group Therapy” by Nora Goldschmidt, The London Review of Books
Nora Goldschmidt reviews Katharina Volk’s The Roman Republic of Letters: Scholarship, Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Cicero and Caesar (Princeton).
…Julius Caesar described himself as a ‘military man’, but he sidelined as a historian, grammarian, playwright, poet and astronomer. The memoirs of his military campaigns formed part of a larger body of work that included De Analogia (‘the most careful and precise treatise on the principles of correct Latinity’, according to Cicero), a polemical pamphlet (the Anticato), a tragedy on the theme of Oedipus, a poem called Iter (‘The Journey’) and an astronomical treatise, De Astris, probably written with the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to support the reform of the Roman calendar.
Marcus Junius Brutus was not only a politician (and an assassin) but composed at least three philosophical works, including De Virtute, a treatise that seems to have dealt with the question of whether virtue is a sufficient condition for happiness. Cicero, whose active political life included a stint as consul in 63, left behind an extensive corpus of works of oratory, philosophy and political theory as well as several collections of letters; he also translated Aratus’ Phaenomena (a poem with detailed information about the constellations) from Greek and dashed out hexameters, including a poem on Caesar’s invasion of Britain and an epic on his own consulship, which contained the notorious line, later mocked by Juvenal1: ‘O fortunatam natam me consule Romam’ (‘O lucky Rome, born in my consulship’).
13. “Consumerism and Catastrophe” by Weike Wang, The New York Times
Weike Wang reviews several short story collections, among them Dung Kai-cheung’s A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On (Columbia), originally published in 1999 and translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson.
Each story, no longer than four pages, crafts a miniature fictional world around a particular item from ’90s consumer culture: twill combat trousers, Converse sneakers, Miu Miu boots with built-in flannel legwarmers; tech products like a Nokia slider phone, a Panasonic portable DVD player, Windows 98; the Tomb Raider III video game, South Park, the Hello Kitty franchise.
14. “Modernism’s Midlife Crisis” by Travis Diehl, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Travis Diehl reviews Justin Beal’s Sandfuture (MIT), which is a memoir by way of a biography of the architect Minoru Yamasaki.
With the fall of the towers, Yamasaki earned the unenviable distinction of having not one but two of his buildings destroyed on television. Previously, Pruitt-Igoe had become, somewhat unfairly, the symbol of failed public housing in the United States. Against its architect’s plans, the housing authority shrunk windows and skipped railings. “By the late 1960s,” Beal writes, “there were more sociologists working at Pruitt-Igoe than maintenance workers.” In March and April 1972, the city gave Pruitt-Igoe residents vouchers to relocate to the suburbs (particularly Ferguson, where Michael Brown was later murdered), then dynamited the housing blocks while the cameras rolled.
15. “The Pleasure of a Petty Thief: Letters, 1982–83” by Hervé Guibert and Eugène Savitzkaya, The Paris Review
An excerpt from Letters to Eugène (Semiotext(e)), the collected letters of Hervé Guibert and Eugène Savitzkaya, translated by Christine Pichini.
a belgian stamp sticks out of my mailbox, what if it’s a letter from Eugène, and anyone could have taken it, between the moment when the mailman delivered it and the moment I return home, cluttered with files and folders and newspapers and a flan that will be delicious but yes it is a letter from Eugène, and it, it risks not being delicious, I ready myself for anything: a letter full of insults, or even worse, a letter that mocks me (yesterday on the telephone I heard the voice of a girl who asked me for a photo of Eugène and I clearly sensed in her sugary and whispering tone a caricature of my affection, my own expectation), first off, the letter is quite thin, and maybe there’s nothing at all inside the envelope, and if someone has stolen the letter that will cause yet another misunderstanding, but delicious your letter is still closed, and that’s why I wait to open it, I even crack open the flan first, and start this beginning of a reply, in case some polite or distant words end up cutting my desire to write you off at the knees, do you realize what’s happening right now, on my end? I’m missing an interlocutor, and I’ve chosen you, perhaps wrongly, to be one … Enough, I open the letter, shielding my eyes.
▼ ▼ ▼
“O lucky Rome, born when I was consul!”
He could indeed have scorned Antony’s swords,
If he had said everything like that!