October 6th, 2022
Nobelist Annie Ernaux talks about her famous memoir…

… in this Shakespeare and Company Bookshop appearance.

The news.

“[The] world is made to be pounced on and enjoyed, and … there is absolutely no reason at all to hold back.”

Writes Ernaux. And I … naux what she means, and I pounce on what she says, and I agree etc etc. ETC.

Live out loud!

And yet … even as I delight in images of revolutionary Iranian girls and women hurling hijabs heavenward or incinerating them, and demanding freedom in a revolution they lead… I fear for them.

March 22nd, 2022
Nabokov on Farmer Putin

She thought … of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.

March 11th, 2022
‘Everything they wanted to perceive as decadent and weak has proven strong and brave; everything they wanted to represent as fearsome and powerful has revealed itself as brutal and stupid.’

A beautiful sentence, by David Frum, about the right-wing attack on America/worship of Putin.

January 17th, 2022
Wow. UD’s beloved Janis Ian is still at it.

Put her in high heels, so she can’t run
Carve out between her legs so she can’t come
Get her a dress, for easy access
Tell everybody that she’s just like all the rest

How long? How long, how long, how long
How long? How long, how long, how long

Tell me I’m ugly so I’ll buy your crap
Tell me you want me ’cause I don’t talk back
Tell me I carry the original sin
Tell me I’m holy when I cover up my skin


Pushing all the buttons there, eh? We’ve got FGM; we’ve got burqas. “[S]ome radio stations have told her they won’t play it,” and good for her! Who gets to be seventy and still get banned? “I will not disappear,” she sings.

Her voice is still remarkably strong, and her guitar work has held up well.

For UD, the Ian song that’s held up beautifully over decades and decades is Jesse, which I love to sing and play at the piano.

‘All the blues and the greens

Have been recently cleaned

And are seemingly new

Hey Jess me and you’

The song has a drifty sad pace which really grows in dramatic focus and intensity; more than that, the poetry of the thing is remarkable: All of its details are banal and domestic – the bed, the hearth, the light on the stairs, the floors and the boards, the pictures, the table – but they heighten until we feel the pathos of her material as well as emotional isolation (she still sets the table at noon).

And then we have at the end this amazing image: ‘We’ll swallow the light on the stairs.” Come back, and we’ll become the light. We’ll become all the light we need.

December 23rd, 2021
Remembering Joan Didion, who has died.

I wrote about her on this blog a few years ago. Here’s what I said.


I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights – her chronicle of her daughter’s death and her own aging – on this flight from Phoenix to Baltimore. It’s kept me occupied. We land in fifteen minutes.

I like Didion’s mournful chant, her brief, much-repeated litanies. She plays the “blue night” idea (we want to think of our lives as long summer nights that never darken) beautifully through the text. Her constant rounding back to painful motifs and memories cuts a deeper and deeper circle of implication, the prose grinding down until we’re surrounded by very dark canyon walls.

It’s poetic prose, stating and restating its symbols, making them a dirge. She’s troubled, in the text, by her technique of indirection, but she needn’t be. Solemn poetic dance is the best way to get at this stuff – in particular, the ridiculous tendency to believe in the permanence of life and health and happiness, “this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, and death.”

Returning, as I am now, from seven blissful days in Sedona, Arizona, I could almost assume this ridiculous tendency myself. The sweet spot: Didion’s eye travels over that long moment when her life achieved the sweet spot: Love, vocation, money, friends, glamor, fame, seaside Malibu in bloom… It’s rare for anyone that things turn out that well, and that they turn out that well for any length of time. Didion had this; and inevitably her book dwells on that delight, wonders if the recollection of the delight can sustain her.

She doesn’t think it can.

UD will cop to sharing with her a failure, so far, to confront certain certainties. She does, though, Didion-style, circle around them a lot.

The darkening to black of the blue night. It’s happening just outside UD‘s window right now. Maybe it’s not so much about not confronting it as not knowing how to play it (play it as it lays) – this bizarre concurrence of sweet and dark.

I know what I do. What I do is – like Didion – keep moving, keep feeling gratitude and love and excitement. The red rocks shine in the short blue night and I passionately respond.


The sun cannot change, writes James Merrill to his just-born nephew in Little Fanfare for Felix Magowan:

It’s earth, it’s time,
Whose child you now are, quietly
Blotting him out. In the blue stare you raise
To your mother and father already the miniature,
Merciful and lifelong eclipse,
Felix, has taken place;
The black pupil rimmed with rays
Contracted to its task –
That of revealing by obscuring
The sunlike friend behind it.
Unseen by you, may he shine back always
From what you see, from others.

October 6th, 2021
Laurie Anderson…

… is UD‘s prediction for this year’s Nobel in literature. I like her because she’s on NO ONE’s list, so I get to claim her. I like her because they gave it to Bob Dylan so they should give it to a woman who’s kind of like Dylan. I like her because she’s truly avant-garde, a hard thing to be today. Israel already figured all of this out, having recently given her its version of the Nobel, the Wolf Prize.

Not literary enough? Is the 2021 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University literary enough for you?

April 12th, 2021
UD has long been a fan of the non-fiction writer Drew Jubera.

She celebrated his unbeatable account of life at no-‘count junior colleges for sports fuck-ups back in 2015, and Jubera was kind enough to write her thanking her for the post. He’s a truly terrific writer (for details, go to the link in the previous sentence.)

And maybe it’s because Jubera combines fine prose with a special gift for writing about male fuckups that Hunter Biden, recovering wreck of the hour, chose him to ghostwrite his memoir. You will recall that I (and other sharp-eyed types) noticed how remarkably good the writing was in Hunter Biden’s book – which was produced “in collaboration with” Jubera, and who knows who did what, but if you want a guaranteed excellent read, you go where Hunter went, to Jubera. And not that UD will read the memoir in its entirety, but she’s read enough excerpts to know it’s a superior example of its type.

April 6th, 2021
Paul Theroux on the Truth of Art.

This post continues the theme in this one, where a propagandist is quoted glorying in the fact that (as she tells it) many young women today don’t read our greatest modern fiction writers because they’re sexist pigs. UD doesn’t think we should pause too long in that woman’s world; on the other hand, it’s good to remind ourselves about art vs. propaganda — a distinction you’d think would be insanely easy to grasp, but maybe not.

Here’s Paul Theroux, reviewing his life as he turns eighty.

In my youth, Henry Miller’s novels “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” were banned; so were D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch,” and Edmund Wilson’s “Memoirs of Hecate County.” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was a problem at the time of its publication, in 1885, and, by the way, it is still a problem. Because some books were viewed as vicious or vulgar, writers were suspect, potential corrupters, and consequently they were, to my mind, figures of transformative power… I was at a lunch, as an invited guest, a few years ago in a university setting when I mentioned that “Heart of Darkness” was a favorite book of mine. A young Nigerian student across the table, an aspiring writer, howled, “I hate this book!” The teachers equivocated in discomfort, but one of them spoke up on behalf of the student, agreeing that it was a flawed book and that Conrad’s ethics were questionable. Another teacher there told me that she was teaching “Moby-Dick” as a travel book. I found myself staring wildly at my plate of quiche…

You either care about transformative subversion in the name of human truths… you either care about beautiful, packed-with-life prose … or you don’t. Don’t rely on your literature professor to get you there; as Theroux notes, you might get a propagandist. And anyway, you’re supposed to have cottoned to the scandal of great fiction a good many years before you get to college.

Many of the palm trees, their fat roots undercut, have fallen into the sea, and the beach is now crowded, and stonier, in places bleak and gravelly—the visible effects of time passing and a reminder that I am doomed, too.

Theroux gazes at the Hawaiian beach where he’s writing and… and for goodness sake — don’t just read the words! He’s a stylist, okay, like all great writers! Propagandists don’t give a shit about style, but as a thoughtful human being who cares about art, you should. You should notice the poetry of this sentence, the many hard alliterative Ts (trees, fat, roots, undercut, stonier, time) balanced by the calm ah softness of palm and fallen — and how poets love words like palm and fallen because their brevity and their long ah-A is so lyrical placid and wise… UD thinks the most beautiful English word is: All. Listen to her beloved Purcell do a riff on all. Art is everything; don’t piss your life away failing to take on board as much of reality as you possibly can.

February 4th, 2021
‘Well, that’s just snobbery, isn’t it?’

Edith Pretty says this to the hilariously uppity archeologist, who disdains self-taught Basil Brown, in the film The Dig — and I gotta tell you, this film was MADE for UD. She has watched it three times already, and it’s clear she’s not done with it. A fictionalized account of the staggering Sutton Hoo discovery, it’s got everything UD: archeology, architecture, reading, philosophy, music, British accents (UD loves British accents), moody landscapes, true dark skies (Brown brings his telescope to Pretty’s rural firmament)… And UD ain’t alone! A just-released film she figured would attract an audience of a few dozen already ranks third on Netflix.

UD’s preferences here are exactly those of UD‘s mother – the trowel doesn’t fall far from the tree. A student of Wilhelmina Jashemski’s at the University of Maryland, UD‘s mother accompanied Jashemski on several digs at Pompeii … And UD‘s mother dragged wee UD herself, one hot summer, through all that site’s ins and outs (her mother’s association with Jashemski meant we got access to off-limits human casts and villas), which was wonderful but exhausting.

All those moment-of-death human bodies, all that vast charred living landscape – it was a morbid treat, in the way powerful unburied ruinous settings tend to be; and The Dig is exactly the sort of extended memento mori one would like, with Pretty’s impending death – and the possible death of Europe itself in the impending war – haunting the narrative. “What’s left of us?” “We die. We rot.” The film’s characters, gazing into the faint outline of a submerged sixth-century ship in the Sussex dirt, fall into this grubby nihilism all the time in the film; but they are always lifted out by friends and lovers, who voice a soulful faith in the human story of which we are imperishably a part.


But snobbery, now. What got me going on that?

Easy. The letter Christopher Hitchens’ widow and agent just sent to his friends and associates commanding them not to cooperate with a biography of him that’s in the works. So at odds, rhetorically, with Hitchens’ own relaxed and democratic voice, the letter was jarring to UD, a huge Hitchens fan.

We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher. We read his proposal and are dismayed by the coarse and reductive approach. We have no confidence in this attempt at the man in full. We are not cooperating and we urge you to refuse all entreaties by Mr. Phillips or his publisher, W.W. Norton. In solidarity…

I found the “in solidarity” particularly jarring, drawing as it does on a political tradition dear to Hitchens – that of the social justice left, as in his oft-expressed solidarity with democratic forces like the Kurds. It seems cheap of these authors to assume that mantle when the rest of the note locates them clearly in the trivial and off-putting realm (“dismayed,” “one,” “self-appointed”) of the literary mandarin.

They make no effort, for instance, to explain what in the manuscript is likely to be coarse and reductive; they simply high-handedly invoke these terms and let it go at that. Coarse is particularly problematic, since anyone who has read gobs of Hitchens and watched virtually all of the Hitch YouTubes knows he had no problem with coarseness – he exhibited it often, and made its relative absence in women one of the main bases of their inability (most of them) to be funny. Was it coarse for Hitch and Martin Amis to go trolling whores in New York City? I guess so. I mean, Hitch thought it was. Is his biographer supposed to overlook it, or somehow snob it up?

As David Nasaw writes:

Blue-Hitchens and [Steve] Wasserman are well within their rights to refuse to cooperate with this particular biographer, but by reaching out, as they have done, to so wide a universe of individuals who might have something to say on the subject, they are engaging in a sort of preemptive censorship, intended to frighten away not just this one writer but any others who might not, for one reason or another, pass muster with them.

January 28th, 2021
Gotta admit AOC writes one hell of a tweet.

In response to Ted Cruz reaching out to her over their agreement about Robinhood:

“I am happy to work with Republicans on this issue where there’s common ground, but you almost had me murdered 3 weeks ago so you can sit this one out. Happy to work w/ almost any other GOP that aren’t trying to get me killed. In the meantime if you want to help, you can resign.”

November 20th, 2020
Best. Writer. Ever.

RIP Jan Morris. Here’s a brief post I wrote about her a couple of years ago.

As UD and her fellow Americans grapple with a very long season of cruelty, here’s what matters.

[I]n her [local] life, Morris reported little change [after her sex reassignment]: walking in her town, no one batted an eyelid when she introduced herself as Jan. “I put it down to kindness,” she told the Observer in 2020. “Just that. Everything good in the world is kindness.”

Here is more of her great essay on Bolivia. Page 136 is just some of the finest, most exciting prose ever written.

September 21st, 2020
‘Without having seen a roster, I daresay [Ruth Bader Ginsburg] is the most influential, and most important, person [Vladimir Nabokov] ever taught.’

Maybe. But on that roster you’d have to put Thomas Pynchon.

March 24th, 2020
Terrence McNally, author of the great play, “Love! Valour! Compassion!”…

… has died at 81 of coronavirus.

The play/movie is hilarious, very very angry (AIDS is killing everybody), and supremely human. Here’s the famous monologue by Buzz, a musical theater fanatic (You can watch Nathan Lane perform it here, at 9:40):


Perry, just once I would love to see
a "West Side Story"
where everyone gets it.
The Jets and the Shark
and Officer Krupke, too,
while we're at it.
What's he doing?
Sneaking away from the theater?
Get back here and die
like everyone else, you son of a bitch!
I wanna see a "Sound of Music"
where the entire Von Trapp family
dies in an authentic
alpine avalanche,
or a "Kiss me, Kate" where she's got
a huge cold sore on her mouth.
Oh, God.
"A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum."
And the only thing
that happens is nothing!
And it's not funny!
And they all go down waiting!
Waiting for what?
Waiting for nothing,
like everyone I know
or care about is--
including myself.
March 22nd, 2020
‘She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.’

Mrs Dalloway’s a shaky old dear, burdened by her creator’s sense of the dithery redundant language a brain like hers might kick up (perpetual, always; out, out, out; very, very); but after all she comes by her sense of debility and peril honestly, living as she does in still-traumatized and death-haunted post-war London. Aunt Rosa, in Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols,” shares the same dangerous world, though she doesn’t yet know the half of it:

Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.

Philip Larkin, in “The Old Fools,” describes the elderly

crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is …

Yet both of these women register, in one way or another, precisely that perception; they simply differ in the ways they cope. Dalloway buys flowers and throws a party, not as death-evasion but as death-defiance; Rosa, like so many people, responds to the unassimilable, appalling fact of the avalanche (see also this recent post about Julian Barnes) with paralyzing anxiety and despair. So does Moses Herzog’s stepmother, in Herzog:

[Tante] Taube, a veteran survivor, … had fought the grave to a standstill, balking death itself by her slowness.

As in, maybe if you don’t live, you won’t die.


With death very much in the spring air, UD returns to the essay “Aes Triplex” (1878), by Robert Louis Stevenson. (It’s short – read the whole thing.) Stevenson begins by noting, drily, that death is the bummer di tutti bummers: The thing stands alone in man’s experience. We propitiate it and the dead by dressing it up in all manner of funerary custom:

The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the
tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in
order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old
loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door.

Lovely writing, no? Playfully alliterative (poorest persons pageant preserve parades) in a tonal – and maybe philosophical – counterpoint to the deadly serious subject… And there are other hints here that the author himself takes a lighter (counsels taking a lighter?) approach to this ultimate heaviness: a bit is gently slangy; memorials for the least memorable is funny; the oxymoron grimly ludicrous captures beautifully the tragicomic nature of many final rituals.

His next paragraph expresses his amazement, given this terror of death, that so many human settlements happily locate themselves right next to volcanoes and earthquake zones, with the people living there having no care in the world:

There are serenades and suppers and much gallantry among the myrtles overhead; and meanwhile the foundation shudders underfoot, the bowels of the mountain growl, and at any moment living ruin may leap sky-high into the moonlight, and tumble man and his merry-making in the dust.

The same playful alliteration (here mainly about the letter M); some wonderful rhyme (bowels/growl); some assonance (sky-high into the moonlight) – this writer is enjoying himself, bringing detached wit and amusement to the strange denialist ways of human beings. Inviting us to laugh at ourselves for our contradictions.

He then deepens the denialist point, noting that catastrophe-adjacent living is only the most dramatic instance of what we all in any case experience – the awareness of/repression of how dangerous it is to live even one day.

And what, pathologically looked at, is the human body with all its organs, but a mere bagful of petards?

Strange indeed how we, with “unconcern and gaiety… prick on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” This is not because we have some developed philosophy or theology on the subject of Life; on the contrary, we just enjoy the business of living, of sensate existence, and we enjoy keeping it going.

[W]e are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death… [We give our whole hearts to] the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.

Stevenson concludes that this is for the best; we should “stop [our] ears against paralyzing terror, and run the race that is set before [us] with a single mind.” Here his essay’s title comes into play – we need enormous mental strength – triple brass strength – to ignore our fear of death and live a full life. “Intelligence… recognize[s] our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage [is] to be not at all abashed before the fact.” Don’t reach for philosophies, clarifications, consolations – just live. Dig in. Be engrossed. And then:

In the hot-fit of life, a-tiptoe on the highest point of being, [one] passes at a bound on to the other side. The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing … clouds of glory, this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land.

January 31st, 2020
‘There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu. (Under the Volcano is just one of many great ones.)’

Ah, UD‘s beloved Malcolm Lowry gets a mention in the big ol’ dustup about American Dirt. Here are her Lowry posts.

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