• Why Dana Schutz painted Emmett Till

    Dana Schutz’s studio, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, may not be as catastrophically messy as Francis Bacon’s used to be, but there are days when it comes close. Last July, she was making paintings for a solo show, in the fall, at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, and for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, in New York. Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushes, metal tubs filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, cans of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris.

    Schutz’s paintings, in which abstract and figurative images combine to tell enigmatic stories, sometimes carry veiled references to what’s going on in the world. “Men’s Retreat,” made in 2005, shows blindfolded members of George W. Bush’s Cabinet pursuing strange outdoor rites; “Poisoned Man,” painted the same year, is an imagined portrait of the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who barely survived an assassination attempt, in 2004. Schutz, thirty-nine at the time, with untamable hair and a radiant smile, said that she had been up until very late the night before, watching the Republican National Convention on television. “I remember the second Bush nomination in 2003 and feeling so angry, but this was depressing,” she said. “It was like a disaster you can’t look away from.” When I asked if the rise of Donald Trump might invade her new work, she thought for a moment, and said, “I want to make a painting about shame. Public shaming has become an element in contemporary life. You can take a picture of someone and post it online, and thousands of people see it. We’re so ashamed, about so many things, and I think for a candidate to be without shame, like Trump, is really powerful. His lack of shame becomes our shame.”

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  • What writers really do when they write

    Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

    We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

    The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

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  • When John Berger Looked at Death

    To live in linear time, the critic and novelist John Berger suggested, is to content oneself with a kind of continuous grieving. “The body ages. The body is preparing to die,” he writes in his slim book from 1984, “And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos.” “Death and time were always in alliance.”

    Berger, who died on Monday, at the age of ninety, initially trained as a visual artist, a practice he never fully left behind. Though his best-known work is from the nineteen-seventies—his BBC documentary “Ways of Seeing,” which polemically surveys art history, and his novel “G,” which won the Booker Prize, both appeared in 1972—he was enormously prolific throughout his life, producing dozens of volumes, from studies of individual artists to plays to experimental fictions. His activity sometimes seemed like proof of concept for his ideas: an astute art critic, he was also a theorist of art’s practical purchase, fascinated by its capacity to transform the physical stuff of the world.

    He was attentive to the materiality of other forces as well. In “Brief as Photos,” an elegant fusion of philosophy, memoir, and poetry, he calls himself a storyteller—and storytellers, he says, are “Death’s Secretaries.” It’s an apt phrase, suggesting someone who is at once in the thrall of and subordinate to our mortality. In one section of the book, Berger thinks of a cremated friend while walking through an orchard where villagers are burning leaves. Breathing the ashes in, he realizes that little separates this carbon—“the prerequisite for any form of life”—from that of his friend’s body. “Ashes are ashes,” he writes. “Physically his body, simplified by burning to the element of carbon, re-enters the physical process of the world.”

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  • How Writers Revise

    “Writing is rewriting,” says everyone all the time. But what they don’t say, necessarily, is how. Yesterday, Tor pointed me in the direction of this old blog post from Patrick Rothfuss—whose Kingkiller Chronicle is soon to be adapted for film and television by Lin-Manuel Miranda, in case you hadn’t heard—in which he describes, step-by-step, his revision process over a single night. Out of many, one assumes. It’s illuminating, and I wound up digging around on the Internet for more personal stories of editing strategies, investigating the revision processes of a number of celebrated contemporary writers of fantasy, realism, and young adult fiction. So in the interest of stealing from those who have succeeded, read on.

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  • The Factory of Fakes

    The Egyptian painters who decorated King Tut’s burial chamber had to work quickly—the pharaoh died unexpectedly, at about the age of nineteen, and proper preparations had not been made. Plaster was applied to lumpy limestone walls. On the chamber’s western wall, twelve baboons with an identical design are arrayed in a grid, and various slip-ups suggest haste: one of the baboons is missing a black outline around its penis. When the entrance to the chamber was sealed, some thirty-five hundred years ago, the baboons, along with the gods and goddesses depicted in other panels, were expected to maintain their poses for eternity. This wasn’t an entirely naïve hope. Tutankhamun was interred in the Valley of the Kings, the vast network of tombs in the hills outside Luxor, four hundred miles south of Cairo. The air in the valley is bone-dry, and pigment applied to a plastered wall in a lightless, undisturbed chamber should decay little over the centuries. When the British archeologist Howard Carter unsealed the burial vault, in 1923, turning the obscure Tutankhamun into the modern icon of ancient Egypt, the yellow walls remained dazzlingly intact. The Egyptians had made only one mistake: they had closed the tomb before the paint, or Tut’s mummy, had dried, and bacteria had fed on the moisture, imposing a leopard pattern of brown dots on the yellow background. The room is known as the House of Gold.

    Since then, tens of millions of tourists have crowded inside the living-room-size chamber, exuding a swampy mist of breath and sweat, which has caused the plaster to expand and contract. Bahaa AbdelGaber, an Egyptian antiquities official, told me recently that the temperature inside the Luxor tombs sometimes exceeds a hundred and twenty degrees. “Oh, the smell on a busy day!” he said.

    In 2009, a team of conservators from the Getty Conservation Institute, in California, visited Tut’s tomb and determined that some painted areas had become dangerously loosened. The conservators cleaned portions of the walls and applied adhesives to flaking paint, in an effort to forestall pictorial losses. Reversibility is a prime rule of modern conservation, and, according to the latest scholarly thinking, these physical interventions were safe.

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  • Leonard Cohen makes it darker

    When Leonard Cohen was twenty-five, he was living in London, sitting in cold rooms writing sad poems. He got by on a three-thousand-dollar grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. This was 1960, long before he played the festival at the Isle of Wight in front of six hundred thousand people. In those days, he was a Jamesian Jew, the provincial abroad, a refugee from the Montreal literary scene. Cohen, whose family was both prominent and cultivated, had an ironical view of himself. He was a bohemian with a cushion whose first purchases in London were an Olivetti typewriter and a blue raincoat at Burberry. Even before he had much of an audience, he had a distinct idea of the audience he wanted. In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

    Cohen was growing weary of London’s rising damp and its gray skies. An English dentist had just yanked one of his wisdom teeth. After weeks of cold and rain, he wandered into a bank and asked the teller about his deep suntan. The teller said that he had just returned from a trip to Greece. Cohen bought an airline ticket.

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  • The Pieces of Zadie Smith

    Zadie Smith is there and not there. In the streaming image on my laptop she sits at a desk, backlit in her book-lined office, her right hand holding a goblet filled with liquid of such a dark crimson that it seems to suck all the other colors from the room. In the dim light Zadie’s face looks pale, the scatter of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose shifting around as if in no fixed position.

    Circumstances have forced us to talk via FaceTime. It’s after midnight in London, where Zadie is; dark too where I am, in the attic of my house in Princeton, N. J. Despite the 3,000 miles of ocean that separate us, the illusion is that we are facing each other across our individual writing desks.

    I don’t like FaceTime. The sudden projection into my presence of a staring, homuncular creature always feels strong and violent. It makes me anxious to have to talk to someone like this and pretend they’re real.

    There’s another reason for my hesitancy to credit what I’m seeing tonight. I’ve just finished Zadie’s new novel, “Swing Time,” and am still living in its shadow world. Like the black-and-white musicals that feature in its pages, the book is a play of light and dark – at once an assertion of physicality and an illusion – in which the main characters, a girl born to a black mother and a while father, tries to assemble, from the competing allegiances that claim her, an identity that allows her to join the dance. This narrator is unnamed, as is the African country where much of the action takes place. The novel cloaks existential dread beneath the brightest of intensities.

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  • Riad Sattouf: Why he hates nationalism

    In spring 2011, when pro-democracy protests in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria were met with the crushing violence that would shape five years of conflict, a young French cartoonist in Paris decided to help some of his Syrian relatives get out.

    At the time, Riad Sattouf was well known as a big talent on France’s thriving comics scene, drawing funny and scathing works of social observation. He had branched into cinema, winning the French equivalent of a Bafta for his first film The French Kissers, a nerdy take on teenage angst. From his comfortable life in Paris, Sattouf was convinced that Syria was going to be “completely destroyed”, so he went through official French state channels to apply for visas for some of his family members.

    It proved so maddeningly difficult that he felt he had to write about it. But to write about it, Sattouf knew he would have tell his life story, which he had kept carefully shut away: his childhood growing up in Libya and Syria with a Syrian father and French mother, his parents’ divorce, his teenage years in Brittany.

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  • The many lives of John le Carré

    If you’re ever lucky enough to score an early success as a writer, as happened to me with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for the rest of your life there’s a before-the-fall and an after-the-fall. You look back at the books you wrote before the searchlight picked you out and they read like the books of your innocence; and the books after it, in your low moments, like the strivings of a man on trial. ‘Trying too hard’ the critics cry. I never thought I was trying too hard. I reckoned I owed it to my success to get the best out of myself, and by and large, however good or bad the best was, that was what I did.

    And I love writing. I love doing what I’m doing at this moment, scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk on a blackclouded early morning in May, with the mountain rain scuttling down the window and no excuse for tramping down to the railway station under an umbrella because the International New York Times doesn’t arrive until lunchtime.

    I love writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafés, then scurrying home to pick over my booty. When I am in Hampstead there is a bench I favour on the Heath, tucked under a spreading tree and set apart from its companions, and that’s where I like to scribble. I have only ever written by hand. Arrogantly perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanized writing. The lapsed graphic artist in me actually enjoys drawing the words.

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  • Ripping the Veil

    Last fall, I walked out of a Kara Walker exhibit because the white couple beside me kept taking selfies. I’d gone to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles to see African’t, Walker’s black paper silhouettes depicting a dreamy and disturbing antebellum South. I felt jarred watching the smiling pair pose in front of horrifying images: A dismembered white explorer roasts on a spit; a plantation owner rapes an enslaved woman; a white girl fondles a black boy while another shoots air up his ass.

    Later, I wondered why I’d walked away. The couple meant no harm; people take pictures in museums all the time. But I resented, or maybe envied, how easily they delighted in the spectacle of Walker’s art, while I found it hard even to look.

    If images of slavery make you uncomfortable, then good luck going to the movies. Over the past decade, the entertainment industry has shown a renewed interest in telling stories about the lives of slaves. The Daily Beast declared 2013 “the year of the slavery film,” anticipating the release of 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, and Belle, which followed a mixed-race aristocrat in eighteenth-century England. An interest in slavery narratives has also extended to television this past year, with Underground, a WGN America series about the Underground Railroad, and a reboot of Roots.

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  • Post-internet Art & the New East

    The internet arrived as the Eastern Bloc was collapsing, promising a future of freedom and community. Now, in the era of post-internet art, a born-digital generation of artists from the new east is on the rise. In this collection of multimedia articles, the Calvert Journal explores digital art in a region the world doesn’t get to hear enough about.

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  • Special Report: Chernobyl

    The Chernobyl disaster rocked the work in 1986, hastening the eventual fall of the USSR. Thirty years on, the Calvert Journal explores the powerful legacy of the meltdown in art, cinema and the post-Soviet mindset.

    Read this excellent multimedia series exploring new fascinating sides of the story.

    Love in a time of contamination

    Animals of Chernobyl

    In the Zone

    Under a Cloud

    Aftermath

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  • Arab World’s Biggest Bookstore Goes Digital

    On a Monday night in March, Jarir Bookstore in downtown Riyadh is bustling. Shoppers test out digital cameras and laptops, while upstairs they flip through paperbacks. At checkout, they can pick up a coloring book and the markers that go with it.

    A walk around the back of the building, through unmarked doors and an elevator that smells of cigarettes, leads to corporate headquarters. From there, brothers Muhammad and Abdulkarim Alagil preside as chairman and CEO, respectively, over Jarir Marketing Company. It owns Jarir Bookstore, one of the most recognizable brands in the Gulf.

    Alagil, 64, and his four younger brothers have built the company into a giant, selling Arabic and English books, office supplies, and electronics in 41 superstores in four countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, and the U.A.E. Jarir sells roughly half of Saudi Arabia’s laptops and a third of the market’s tablets.

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  • Writing Fiction is an Act of Faith

    ‘When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams – this may be madness, says Cervantes in his wondrous Don Quixote.

    Writing fiction is an act of faith. You have to believe that the seed of a story planted in the valley of your mind—if only given a chance to grow—will someday in the near or distant future, bear magical fruits. You must believe that the story you are working on–day in, day out for months, years–will someday connect with people you have never met, and probably never will. Like all acts of faith, this, too, is a journey that ventures beyond the boundaries of the self.

    But writing fiction is equally an act of doubt. You will disbelieve and question and challenge yourself at every step along the way. You will be pelted with anxieties and panic attacks that come out of nowhere. It makes no difference whether you are writing your first book or fifth or tenth, you will still watch your soul bleed on the whiteness of the page. You will find yourself doubting not only your characters, but also your own skills. You might even ask why on earth are you doing this, plunking away at a computer keyboard or holding a leaking pen as though your life depended on it–though it won’t stop you, the darkness of your thoughts, you will continue writing, for how can you not continue breathing.

    Writing is the waltz of faith and doubt. Both are sorely needed.

    And you must dance this waltz, night and day, for as long as it takes.

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  • Why the Art World Has Fallen for Etel Adnan

    FOR OVER HALF a century, passionate pilgrims have been drawn to a four-story Belle Epoque building in Paris’s elegant sixth arrondissement. Some still come to see the final home of Albert Camus, the Algerian-born absurdist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. But today, the most fervent among them come to pay homage to Etel Adnan, an artist and writer whose vitality and curiosity belie her 90 years. Like some Delphic cardigan-wearing yogi, Adnan sits in a poufy red chair with her feet barely grazing the floor below and gives her full attention to her interlocutors. Of mixed Greek and Syrian heritage, she speaks at least five languages, in a stream of ambiguous Mediterranean cadences. Conversation tends to hover around her holy trinity of love, war and poetry-the primary subjects of her nearly dozen books. The arc of Adnan’s own life, punctuated by the fall of an empire, affairs of the heart and mind, tectonic political shifts, exiles and returns, is the stuff of Russian novels.

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  • Yemeni Artist Covers War Ruins In Color

    On the first day of Saudi Arabia’s intervention into Yemen’s civil war in March of last year, warplanes bombed a residential compound on the outskirts of the capital Sanaa, killing dozens of people inside.

    A Yemeni human rights organization said a coalition led by Saudi Arabia killed 27 civilians, including 15 children, in the strikes on the Bani Hawat neighborhood on March 26, 2015.

    Yemeni artist Murad Subay headed to the compound with a group of friends a few weeks later, and together with local kids painted 27 flowers on its walls, 15 of them with just one leaf to symbolize the children whose lives were lost.

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  • Svetlana Alexievich: ‘Chernobyl kills’

    Svetlana Alexievich was at home in Minsk when the phone rang. For some years, she says, rumours had swirled that the Swedish Academy was considering her name. She had already received many honours. Still, it had been more than half a century since a non-fiction writer – Winston Churchill in 1953 – had won literature’s top award. The news from Stockholm was indeed stunning: Alexievich had won the 2015 Nobel prize in literature.

    “This is such an important prize, such an enormous prize, you’d have to be a complete idiot to expect to win it,” she tells me. Over the next few hours the phone at her modest two-room flat in Belarus’s capital rang unceasingly. Callers included Mikhail Gorbachev, the French and German presidents, friends and well-wishers. Thousands of people wrote to her.

    Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter Read more One person, though, “kept silent”. This was Belarus’s implacable dictator of 21 years, Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko faced a dilemma: the award was self-evidently a major honour for Belarus, and yet Alexievich was one of his most prominent critics. At home, officially at least, she was an unperson. Her books are unpublished, available only from Russia, or smuggled in via Lithuania in small underground editions. Her name is missing from school textbooks.

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  • Life Sings with Many Voices

    Last spring, when the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano made some rueful comments about his classic anti-globalization, anti-imperialist history Open Veins of Latin America (1971), the Economist was delighted. At last there could be agreement that “capitalism is the only route to development in Latin America,” the magazine crowed. Galeano’s recantation could hardly have been more significant: “it was almost as if Jesus’s disciples had admitted that the New Testament was a big misunderstanding.”

    Indeed, in the forty years since its publication Open Veins had achieved semi-mythic status. Uncompromising and accusatory, the book told of a centuries-long capitalist plunder operation, in which fruit companies, oil drillers, slave traders, and conquistadors collaborated to despoil the Americas. That story, containing more than a little truth, resonated with populist movements. The book became an international bestseller and the scourge of right-wing governments. It may have reached the height of its notoriety when Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a copy at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.

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  • Most Beautiful Comic Strip Ever Drawn

    Nighttime was the right time for Winsor McCay, whose early 20th century comic strip about a little boy’s dreams proved forever that comics could be both mass entertainment and high art.

    The trajectory of any new artistic genre—oil painting, the novel, video installation—is almost always to improve, or at least grow more inventive. Except in those rare cases when it might not. Edward Gorey, in one of his more esoteric opinions, once argued that cinema had reached its zenith before 1919. While it’s hard to agree, it’s equally hard not to concede the point at least a little once you’ve experienced some of that early riotous creativity. Another exception is the medium of newspaper comics, where two of the most towering peaks in the form date from before 1930: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, the greatest tale of unrequited interspecies love and brick-throwing from any era, and Winsor McCay’s Nemo in Slumberland, possibly the most opulent feature of any kind ever to grace American newspapers and now available in an immense and immensely captivating Taschen edition, The Complete Little Nemo.

    Nemo in Slumberland exists on a curious periphery of the cultural imagination; familiar enough for a charming Google Doodle but not quite for general awareness. Nemo is a flagrant favorite of many current artists from Alan Moore to Chris Ware to Neil Gaiman, but his broader impact is regrettably limited. There’s a 1989 Japanese animated feature collecting dust on VHS shelves. Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” video borrows liberally from the strip. The name “Little Nemo” is often vaguely familiar even if its origins usually aren’t. So it’s difficult to call a $200 art book that boasts an Amazon shipping weight of 18.3 poinds a breakthrough for popular consumption. All that said, this is still the best opportunity to examine the strip literally since its original publication in the first decades of the last century, and given the relatively unknown quality of newsprint during the Taft administration, this may in fact be the best chance ever.

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  • Interiors: Art and war in Pat Barker’s “Noonday”

    Early in “Life Class,” the first of Pat Barker’s three novels about a group of painters who meet while studying at the Slade School of Art, a young student named Paul Tarrant takes a girl to a music hall. Paul (based loosely on the British painter Paul Nash) prefers acrobats and jugglers to “one-act plays,” which “always struck him as being rather pointless—you’d no sooner worked out who the characters were than the curtain came down.” It’s a sentiment that Barker appears to share; she is best known for her “Regeneration” trilogy, set during the First World War, which follows the lives of several historical figures, among them the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the doctor William Rivers, who worked with soldiers suffering from shell shock. “Life Class” and its sequel, “Toby’s Room,” initially seemed to be advancing in a parallel track, as Paul and his classmates—including Kit Neville, whose inspiration is the Futurist C. R. W. Nevinson, and Elinor Brooke, a distant analogue to the Bloomsbury-affiliated painter Dora Carrington—moved from their studies at Slade just before the First World War to the hospitals and fields at the front.

    With “Noonday” (Doubleday), the most recent book, Barker breaks the pattern of her previous trilogy, shifting the action from the First World War to the Second. In “Toby’s Room,” Neville was already established as “the great war artist.” Paul, too, had made a name for himself with his war paintings, and Elinor’s work, focussing on themes less overtly war-related, was beginning to sell. When we return to these characters two decades later, in “Noonday,” Neville has become known mainly as a critic, Paul is considered the better artist, and Elinor—now married to Paul—has gained a serious reputation, and has paintings hanging in the Tate. As war artists, they all suffer from a “strange predicament, to be remembered for what everybody else was trying to forget.”

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  • Annie Dillard’s Impossible Pages

    It’s unclear what to call Annie Dillard, where to shelve her. Over more than 40 years, she has been, sometimes all at once, a poet, essayist, novelist, humorist, naturalist, critic, theologian, collagist and full-throated singer of mystic incantations. Instead of being any particular kind of writer, she is, flagrantly, a consciousness – an abstract, all-encompassing energy field that inhabits a given piece of writing the way sunlight slings to a rock: delicately but with absolute force, always leaving a shadow behind. This is an essential part of what it means to be human, this shifting between the transcendent self and the contingent world, the ecstasy and the dental bill. We all do some version of it, all the time. But Dillard does it more insistently. This month, she publishes “The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New,” a collection of pieces that spans her entire variegated career.

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  • Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

    Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

    Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair.

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  • ‘Theeb’: History Through Eyes Of Bedouin Boy

    The Jordanian movie Theeb has been nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar. It’s a beautiful, sweeping story set in 1916 in an area of western Saudi Arabia then known as the Hejaz. The film’s director, Naji Abu Nowar, says Theeb covers a pivotal moment in the region’s history.

    “The First World War is kicking off … and the war is coming toward this area of Hejaz,” he tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “The British are … inciting the Arab tribes to revolt against the Ottoman imperialists. And so you’re on the brink of a massive change.”

    The fall of the Ottoman Empire led to the borders of today’s Middle East being drawn. But rather than look at that moment from the perspective of Lawrence of Arabia, who famously helped organize the Arab revolt, or a grown Arab fighter, the film follows a young Arab boy. He’s the title character, Theeb; and like many in Hejaz at that time, he’s a Bedouin, or nomad. One day a British soldier comes to Theeb’s family tent looking for a guide to a well, and Theeb joins the trip across the desert.

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  • Umberto Eco, The Art of Fiction No. 197

    The first time I called Umberto Eco, he was sitting at his desk in his seventeenth-century manor in the hills outside Urbino, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. He sang the virtues of his bellissima swimming pool, but suspected I might have trouble negotiating the region’s tortuous mountain passes. So we agreed instead to meet at his apartment in Milan. I arrived there last August on ferragosto, the high point of summer and the day the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Milan’s gray buildings gleamed with heat, and a thin layer of dust had settled on the pavement. Hardly an engine could be heard. As I stepped into Eco’s building, I took a turn-of-the-century lift and heard the creaking of a door on the top floor. Eco’s imposing figure appeared behind the lift’s wrought-iron grating. “Ahhh,” he said with a slight scowl.

    The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings—thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese . . . I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory,The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.

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  • Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life

    In a letter written in 1871, the Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud uttered a phrase that announces the modern age: “Je’ est un autre” (“’I’ is someone else”). Some 69 years later I entered the world as an identical twin, and Rmbaud’s claim has an uncanny truth for me, since I grew up being one of a pair. Even though our friends and family could easily tell us apart, most people could not, and I began life with a blurrier, more fluid sense of my contours than most other folks.

    My brother and I live in different cities, but I have never lost my conviction that one’s outward form – the shape of people, but also of surfaces and things – may not be what it seems.

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