A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, January 15, 2010

No Time for Politics

Jon Stewart takes on Robertson and Limbaugh on Haiti. But he also zings Rachel Maddow.
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Exhuming McCarthy

REM was right:
When we last checked in on the U.S. history textbooks standards setting process down in Texas, the conservative-dominated State Board of Education was mulling one-sided requirements to teach high school students about Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly, and the Moral Majority.

Now, in the home stretch of a process that will set the state's nationally influential standards, a liberal watchdog group is worried that the State Board of Education will try to push through changes to claim that communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by history, among other right-wing pet issues.

From Russia With Stories

The following article appeared, in another version, in the January-February issue of Stanford Magazine

The title of Elif Batuman's new book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), echoes that of Dostoevsky's strange, dark novel, which is also known as The Demons. In the introduction to her book, Batuman, PhD '07, tells us that Dostoevsky's novel “narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways, to my own experiences in graduate school.” But the adventures that Batuman recounts in her book are more like those of Alice in Wonderland than like those of Stavrogin in provincial Russia. 
Batuman grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of Turkish-born physicians who emigrated to the United States in the 1970s. When she graduated from Harvard, she wanted to be a writer, but although she was offered a fellowship at a writers' colony housed in a former lumber mill on Cape Cod she chose graduate school at Stanford instead. She recalls her first impressions in the introduction to her book: “Under rolling green hills, positrons were speeding through the world's longest linear accelerator; in towers high above the palm trees lay the complete Paris files of the Russian Imperial secret police. Stanford was essentially the opposite of a colonial New England lumber mill.”

She now teaches a workshop for seniors in Stanford's Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities program, but she has also fulfilled her goal of becoming a writer. Keith Gessen, editor of the magazine n+1, saw the work she had published in the Harvard Advocate as an undergraduate and asked her to write for him. “Babel in California,” her account of her participation in a conference at Stanford on Isaac Babel's life and work, appeared in the second issue of n+1 in the spring of 2005. There it caught the attention of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who assigned her a piece on Thai kickboxing that appeared in 2006. She has written several more pieces for the New Yorker, as well as for the Guardian and for Harper's. In 2007, Batuman received a grant from the Rona Jaffe Foundation for women writers, which gave her some leisure to work on the novel that's her next major project.

It was Gessen who urged her to collect several of her articles in book form. The Possessed recounts some of the things that happened to Batuman in the course of obtaining her doctorate in comparative literature: She encountered Babel's eccentric relatives; journeyed to Samarkand to study Old Uzbek (a language that her instructor claimed has a hundred words for crying); attended a conference at Yasnaya Polyana where she pursued a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek theory that Tolstoy was murdered; explored a palace made entirely of ice in St. Petersburg; and experienced the friendships, frustrations, and challenges of graduate school.

Batuman has an almost Dickensian eye for precise and unusual detail and a gift at vivid characterization, and her sharpness of wit and slyness of tone are reminiscent of such humorists as Twain and Thurber. She acknowledges a fondness for all of those writers, but cites another influence: Haruki Murakami, for “the way the real shades into the surreal in his stories.” Batuman says her essays are the result of “copious note-taking,” and the abundance of often hilarious, occasionally poignant, and invariably off-beat details about people and places -- the unexpected and sometimes bizarre experiences of living and studying in Uzbekistan, the aura of decadence of the St. Petersburg ice palace, the obsessive scholars at the Babel and Tolstoy conferences – does lend an aspect of the surreal to her work.

But while the essays in her book present graduate study as a kind of “descent into madness,” she admits that graduate school is “one of the last spheres where private life and 'interpersonal relationships' -- relationships with other students, with professors, with the books you're reading, between the books you're reading, within the books you're reading – are accorded the highest priority and become the subject of attention, description, and study.” She sees literary scholars as “progressing toward a cumulative understanding of literature,” and cites as her mentors such professors as Gregory Freidin, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Monika Greenleaf, Franco Moretti, and Joshua Landy. In the book she concludes, “If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them.”

The Proust Project, Day 58

Where this began
Day 57

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 380-391.

Preparing to go out to dinner at Rivebelle with Saint-Loup, the narrator summons the "lift," who makes small talk as they ascend, giving the narrator some insights into "the working classes of modern times," such as their efforts "to remove from their speech all reminder of the system of domestic service to which they belong." The "lift" (Proust always puts the word in quotation marks) says "tunic" for "uniform" and "remuneration" for "wages," and puzzles the narrator by referring to "the lady that's an employee of yours." The narrator thinks, "'we're not factory-owners -- we don't have employees," before he realizes that the "lady" is Françoise and that "the word 'employee' is as essential to the self-esteem of servants as wearing a mustache is to waters in cafés." 

But mostly his mind is on the group of girls he has seen on the esplanade. He had overheard a woman comment, "she's one of the friends of the Simonet girl."
Why I decided, there and then, that the name 'Simonet' must belong to one of the gang of girls, I have no idea: how to get to know the Simonet family became my constant preoccupation. ... The Simonet girl must be the prettiest of them, and also, it seemed to me, the one who might become my mistress, since she was the only one who, by turning slightly away two or three times, had appeared aware of my staring eyes.
When asked if he knows anyone named Simonet, the "lift" says vaguely that "he thought he had 'heard tell of some such a name,'" so the narrator asks him to have a list of the latest arrivals to the hotel sent up to him. He also lets the reader know that "the name of 'the Simonet girl'" was to become important to him "several years later."

In his room, the narrator reflects -- in one of those extended, minutely observed, but seemingly skimmable Proustian passages -- on the view from the window, until it's time to dress for dinner, full of anticipation of seeing again "a particular woman whom I had noticed the last time we had gone to Rivebelle, who had appeared to look at me, who had even left the room for a moment, conceivably for the sole purplose of giving me the chance to follow her out."  Then Aimé arrives with the list of new arrivals and the comment that "there could be no doubt that Dreyfus was guilty, totally and utterly." This dates the stay at Balbec to 1897 or 1898, which means that if the narrator is Proust himself, he is at least 26 -- a more advanced age than the reader might expect from his frequent childishness. 

More important for the story, however, is that "not without a little palpitation ... I read, on the first page of the list of newcomers: The Simonet family.... I had no idea which of these girls -- or, indeed, whether any of them -- might be Mlle Simonet; but I knew that Mlle Simonet loved me and that, because of Saint-Loup's presence, I was going to try to make her acquantance." This fantasy so delights him that he surprises Saint-Loup when they arrive at Rivebelle by letting the servant take his overcoat despite Saint-Loup's warning that "it's not very warm here." "I had lost all fear of being ill; and the need to protect myself against the possibility of dying ... had likewise vanished from my mind."
From that moment on, I was a different person, no longer the grandson of my grandmother, to whom I would not give another thought until after having left the restaurant, but briefly the brother of the waiters who were about to serve us.