This week, it was my great privilege to visit the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California. The beautiful Muir family home was restored from dereliction by the National Park Service, and pays tribute to the father of modern environmental conservation.
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
— Ansel Adams
“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”
― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
“What can art accomplish? The purpose of art is to accumulate the human within the human being.”
— Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Banquet, December 2015
Boyd Tonkin (NYRB) visits the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain. He reflects on the painter’s religious background, his oft-overlooked writing talents, his interest in marginalised and working-class figures, and Victorian London as a European metropolis:
“Young Vincent often felt a failure. He endured loneliness and dejection—though nothing like the bouts of anguish and panic that would seize him in Provence—but he also felt the bittersweet melancholy of a dreamy, wandering outsider. He could go into raptures about autumn days in London, ‘especially in the streets in the evening, when it’s a bit foggy and the street-lamps are lit,’ while fading elm-leaves turn ‘the colour of bronze.’ His letters from England crackle with the descriptive and affective force of what, should he have chosen another fork on that pilgrim road, we would surely now call a born writer. Foggy Victorian London, where literature far outshone in status both the visual arts and music, helped make Van Gogh the artist he became and remained, even when the golden fields and cobalt skies of Provence blazed across his canvases.
‘He was a writer before he was a painter,’ insisted Carol Jacobi, as crowds flowed around us on the first day of public access to Van Gogh and Britain, the exhibition she has curated at the Tate Britain in London, next to the river Vincent loved to walk beside. ‘”Writing is like painting”: he says that thirty or forty times,’ she reminded me. Through his apprentice years, his writer’s pen obeyed him as his crayon or brush could not. Jacobi, curator for British Art 1850–1915 at the Tate, mentions an 1880 drawing titled Miners in the Snow at Dawn, completed in Belgium, where Van Gogh had gone to live and preach among the poor. It’s an early token of his new-found artistic ambitions. The ‘word picture’ that partners it in a letter is ‘beautifully accomplished, influenced by Dickens and Zola,’ she said. ‘But he’s struggling to express these things in visual terms.'”
Source: The New York Review of Books
“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to.”
— Toni Morrison, Tar Baby
“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”
— Ansel Adams
“Maybe I’ve been absurd about wanting to do a big flower painting, but I’ve wanted to do it and that is that. I’m going to try. Wish me luck.”
Faber and Faber is reissuing five Thomas Bernhard novels with new artwork designed by Leanne Shapton. Concrete and Extinction arrive on 7 March 2019, followed by The Loser, Wittgenstein’s Nephew and Woodcutters later in the year. Beautiful!
On Thursday evening, I started teaching an evening course called The World of Cinema at Cardiff University’s Centre for Continuing and Professional Education. I asked filmmaker, presenter, and critic Mark Cousins if he had any words of advice for students beginning a course on film. This is what he had to say…
How does one introduce a book of introductions by an author who needs no introduction? This month heralds the paperback release of Michael Chabon’s Bookends, an enjoyable collection of his introductions (as well as outros and liner notes) to an eclectic range of texts. Combining literary and cultural critique with revealing autobiographical reflection, Chabon shares his enthusiasm for everything from literature and popular fiction to comic books, Norse myth, movies, food, music, and baseball. He glories in the rhythms of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, debunking a few myths along the way, and takes time to recommend West Oakland’s soul food restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen. There are also personal observations about his own fiction, including a short extract from his unpublished work, Fountain City. The collection even has its own (meta) introduction. Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author will seize on this book to better understand the texts and experiences that shaped Chabon as an artist. More broadly, Bookends is a wander along the lost avenues and borderlands of the twentieth-century popular imagination.
Whether discussing the cultural significance of Superman’s cape, or the pastel, symmetrical frames of Wes Anderson, the pieces that form Bookends return time and again to the role that art plays in shaping who we are. Chabon remembers picking up paperbacks of The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus before embarking on his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He talks about his immersion into the magical-realist settings of Greek and Norse myth as a third grader. He discusses the way Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Rocket Man’ changed his life forever when he was just ten-years-old: “I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor.” Bookends celebrates the skill of artists and writers to conjure imaginary worlds, navigating the fantasy landscapes of Michael Moorcock and getting lost in the graphic dystopian cities of Howard Chaykin. Chabon has a critic’s awareness of poststructuralist and postmodern approaches to art and representation, with nods here and there to writers like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin. But, ultimately, the success of Bookends lies in the way it demonstrates a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art, and the texts that speak to us at important moments in our lives. It traces the strange spark that arises at “the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil.”
This extract is from my review of Michael Chabon’s Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 23 January 2019.
Delighted to see that my review of Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is included among the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Year in Review: The Best Books of 2018.