From today’s issue of the New York Sun
This morning I write to you about the future of The New York Sun, which is in circumstances that may require us to cease publication at the end of September unless we succeed in our efforts to find additional financial backing. The managing editor, Ira Stoll, who is one of the founding partners in the paper, and I have shared this news with our colleagues, and we would like our readers as well to be aware of the situation. [. . .]
Even many who disagree with the views of our editorial page enjoy reading the Sun. “A fabulous read for culture,” is the way it was described in the Nation. David Remnick of the New Yorker sent a note to say how much he admired what we are doing with the Sun, which he called “just plain good.” He added: “OK, I agree with about ten percent of your editorials, but so what. ... I’m a lot happier, and richer, for having faced the Sun in the a.m.” [. . .]
There has been some success as well on the business side, where a group of loyal advertisers has awakened to our readership and made The New York Sun one of the few newspapers in America to see substantial increases in print advertising revenues not only last year and the year before but also so far this year. Yet even with those gains, the expense of producing and distributing the paper exceeds our revenues. So the Sun has yet to achieve its financial goal of making a profit.
I really hope some investors stop forward . . . Like David Remnick, I’m not a big fan of the editorial vision of the Sun, but damn, its culture section is unbelievably good. I’ve written about my love for the Sun‘s book coverage at least a dozen times over the past year, in part because I’m astounded by the quality of the section. There may not be another paper in the States that covers such a diverse, international set of books. (With a good mix of small and large presses.) I shudder at the thought of not being able to read a Ben Lytal review every week . . .
I’ve said it before, and will repeat it endlessly—Ben Lytal has one of the sweetest reviewing gigs there is. He has the opportunity to write about the latest works of international fiction, and at the same time, can write pieces like the one today on the recent New Directions reissues of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
Set in Berlin, Laughter in the Dark is a highly entertaining but mean-spirited portrait of the German people, with whom Nabokov was forced to live, in exile, after his college graduation. Its hero, an art critic named Albinus who “was not a particularly gifted man,” lives in Berlin, a city that seems soggy with perpetually falling wet snow. Albinus falls in love with Margot, the young ticket girl at a local cinema, and leaves his pale wife and pitiful daughter. But Margot plays Albinus for a fool, and conspires with the cartoonist Axel Rex to deprive him of his solid bourgeois fortune. Axel Rex — a model for Quilty in Lolita — has the best line on Berlin, “where people were, as they always had been, at the mother-in-law stage of humor.”
Though Laughter in the Dark is an initial version of the story told in Lolita, Nabokov didn’t know that at the time. He was merely trying to write a book that would make a good movie.
Of course, Hollywood didn’t pay attention to Nabokov, at least not until Lost came around . . . (It’s funny, Flann O’Brien—whose Third Policeman was also featured on Lost—had a real desire to break into Hollywood as well. He wrote a few TV scripts in fact, although none of them really caught on . . . )
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a very different, more writerly book. For one thing, it would be impossible to film. Written for the deadline of a British literary competition, Sebastian Knight is a story about an author. Born in St. Petersburg, Sebastian Knight left Russia after the revolution, attended Cambridge (like Nabokov himself), and settled in London. He died young, and was immediately served with a backbiting biographical study authored by his former assistant, Goodman. Now his half-brother, known to the reader as V., sets out to write a better book, but in doing so he also records his own search, circling around the lacunae in Knight’s life.
It’s great that ND has reissued both of these titles. And a overview like this makes me want to put aside some of the other books I’m reading . . .
From Ben Lytal’s column in the New York Sun
But the book that, this year, I have most wanted to recommend is almost totally unknown. “Missing Soluch” (Melville House, 507 pages, $16.95) is Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s first novel translated into English, and it has hardly been reviewed at all. I’ve found references to Mr. Dowlatabadi in articles about Iranian censorship, but that’s all. “Missing Soluch” is an Iranian book, and I don’t know how to place it in that national literature. It has stayed with me because I don’t know where to leave it; it remains a question mark.
“Missing Soluch” is not a perfect book, but it makes a deep impression. It reads like an ancient thing. Its characters could not be called mythic or epic, but they inhabit a village in pre-revolutionary Iran that belongs to a genre other than that of the bourgeois novel. To see them come alive in Mr. Dowlatabadi’s book is to see how the novel works, and how reliable a medium it can be. His heroine, the stoic Mergan, would never guess that a novel is being written about her.
Does sound fascinating, and did make our best translations list.
It seems like a while since my last Ben Lytal post . . . Thankfully today in the NY Sun he has an interesting review of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing, edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich.
Kharms was part of the OBERIU—a group of avant-garde, Russian writers, who are often categorized as “absurdists.”
To frame this renaissance, Mr. Yankelevich wants to banish the term “absurd” in favor of OBERIU-specific terms. Beckett and Ionesco might be useful points of reference, but talk of Russian absurdism is a misnomer and, according to Mr. Yankelevich, ultimately a lazy attempt to fit OBERIU into familiar dichotomies: “absurdist writer in a repressive society” or “artist writing under Stalin.” [. . .]
Where previous poets experimented with phonetics, the Oberiuty would experiment with semantics — they would invent crazy situations, but describe them in terms anyone would understand. An example from an early poem by Kharms, written in 1927, around the time of the manifesto, is as realistic as a Chagall: “A room. The room’s on fire. / A child juts out of the cradle. / Eats his kasha. Up above, / just below the ceiling now, / the nanny’s napping upside-down.”
As Lytal points out later, there’s an “alogic” or “anti-logical” that powers Kharms’s writings, which are generally very funny, like Events.
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