Banner image: Michael Wolf

A detail from Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density #99 (2007).

By night, Wolf captures light beaming blue, gold and green from apartment-block windows, gracing the concrete boxes with an unexpected cinematic grandeur worthy of great Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. Indoors, residents go about their business, watching TV, doing the dishes, apparently unaware that their actions are echoed by their neighbors ad infinitum in a relentless but somehow reassuring urban rhythm. By day, Wolf’s hulking, drab gray tower block makes us all the more attentive to colorful details: a child’s red pajamas hung out to dry, a blue plastic bag of groceries dangling perilously from a window handle. This is Hong Kong at its intimate best and anonymous worst, all in one photo — but it’s much more than that, even. Wolf’s photos distill all of city life as we know it down to its oxymoronic essence: layer upon layer of existential ennui and pulsating vitality, slabs of concrete and the signs of life that miraculously break through it. For better and for worse, there’s no denying: this is the life.

– Alison Bing, San Francisco Chronicle (January 2005)

Brain flash

Twittering is for people whose attention span is taxed by blogs.

Guilt by Publication

Over at the Atlantic Monthly website, Jeffrey Goldberg is ragging Glenn Greenwald for the sin of publishing in the American Conservative. Goldberg’s argument, not spelled out explicitly but vaguely smeared by implication, seems to go like this: the American Conservative was founded by Pat Buchanan, a well-known anti-Semite; by publishing in TAC Greenwald is making common cause with Jew haters.

Greenwald is a skilled polemicist, more than able to take care of himself. He quite rightly  describes Goldberg as using a “guilt by association” technique. I would call it a “guilt by publication” argument.

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Updike and the Begley clan

John Updike has long been a bountiful boon to the Begley family. In the early 1950s, Updike and Louis Begley were classmates together at Harvard, both studying English. Updike, of course, went on to become a famous writer. Begley had a long career as a lawyer but took up fiction late in life, starting to publish his first books in the early 1990s.

Begley’s most famous novel About Schmidt (1996) was made into a well-regarded film starring Jack Nicholson. The basic conceit of the film About Schmidt — a well-to-do American suburbanite write letters about his unhappy domestic life to a foreign child he’s sponsoring —  owes more than a little to “Dear Alexandros”, a short story Updike wrote in 1959.

Now Adam Begley, Louis’ son, has received an advance by HarperCollins to write a life of Updike. In life and in death, Updike continues to be, for the Begley clan, the gift that keeps on giving.

(Note: Thanks to a comment by reader DW, I’ve corrected this post to make it clear that it’s the film About Schmidt that borrows from “Dear Alexandros”).

In Honour of Musa Khankhel


As with all his writing, Kafka’s masterful story Ein Brudermord (A Fratricidecan be read on many levels.  Most immediately it is about the inexplicable murder of Wese by Schmar, with the neighbour Pallas a passive observer to the scene; Wese’s wife arrives too late, only to discover her husband is already dead. Yet on a deeper level the story reads as an allegory for the death of reason as progress, the bludgeoning of Enlightenment philosophy at the end of a knife: “An und für sich sehr vernünftig, daß Wese weitergeht, aber er geht ins Messer des Schmar.”  In and of itself it is very rational for Wese to go forward, but he goes into the blade of Schmar. The philosophical cadences here are unmistakeable: “an und für sich” is the language of Kant, and even the name of the protagonist – Wese – evokes the German word “Wesen,” or “essence” in the German philosophical tradition (Schmar, meanwhile, suggests Schmarre; a slash). Schmar’s irrational opposition to Wese, his old “friend,” his brother in humanity, is as complete as it is impatient: even after Schmar has already stabbed Wese, he turns to his body and asks: “Why aren’t you just a balloon full of blood, so that I might sit on you and make you disappear altogether? … What silent question do you mean to pose?”

Writing against the backdrop of World War I, Kafka did not need to be reminded of the manifestations of his allegory, of the hope of progress and civilization’s rational advance terminated by brutal, unmediated violence. My friend Imtiaz Ali, a courageous journalist from Pakistan who has himself been threatened by the Taliban, wrote yesterday with the sad news that his colleague Musa Khankhel, 28, was murdered after a brief abduction by militants.  “It is all the more painful,” reflected Ali, because Musa Khan was working in a critically important part of Pakistan, where the Pakistani government had just signed a peace deal with militants in the hope of bringing peace to a turbulent and violent region.  But this was Khan, says Ali: a “peace activist,” a muckraker who “broke many stories,” and “a fearless man.”  

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A garish white light

There come moments in the lives of writers when the words that they use everyday seem suddenly and wholly inadequate to the tasks to which they have been set. Moments when every turn of phrase, every carefully-planned construction, fails to capture and convey the desired meaning, leaving the writer with a gnawing fear that perhaps his or her mother tongue was not built to communicate important things at all, but merely to serve as a low-cost mechanism for establishing and cementing interpersonal bonds. One never loses the ability to talk about the weather, somehow. Continue reading

Great Moments in Nepotism

1) In an blog post about the young writer Sam Munson, the New Yorker Observer describes him thus  “Mr. Munson, the online editor of neoconservative journal Commentary.” A sentence later we’re told, ” Mr. Munson—who is, incidentally, the grandson of former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz.”

2) In the pages pages of the Jerusalem Post, Ruth Blum Liebowitz (daughter of Norman Podhoretz) interview Elliot Abrams (son-in-law of Norman Podhoretz). To her credit, Ms. Liebowitz frankly owns up to the fact that the man she’s interviewing is married to her sister.

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