Sunday, May 31, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt thirteen)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

This queasy sense of irresolution was only complicated by Gerry Adams’s refusal to acknowledge that he was ever in the IRA. If people in Northern Ireland were wondering whether it was safe, yet, to come clean about their own roles in the conflict, the continued denials by Adams would suggest that it most definitely wasn’t. “O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,” Seamus Heaney wrote in a poem about the Troubles called “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” There was a sense that, even as people greeted the new day with great enthusiasm, the sulfurous intrigue of the past would continue to linger.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt twelve)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

Moloney took Bew’s general notion of documenting the Troubles and proposed something more specific: Boston College should conduct an oral history, in which combatants from the front lines could speak candidly about their experiences. There was a challenge, however. Because of the traditional prohibition on talking about paramilitary activity, the details of many of the key events of the Troubles were shrouded in a fog of reticence. The peace process might have normalized Sinn Féin as a political party, but the IRA remained an illegal organization. Just admitting to having been a member could result in criminal prosecution. And if the paramilitaries feared the authorities, they were even more afraid of one another. Anyone who violated the credo of silence could be branded a “tout,” as informers were known. And touts got killed. Militants tend to be clannish, and deeply suspicious of outsiders. But perhaps, Moloney thought, you could figure out a way to interview people now, with a promise that their testimony would not be released until after they were dead. That way, you could reach the players who were at the cutting edge of the conflict while they were still alive and their memories were fresh, but then assure them that their confidentiality would be protected, because the archive would be sealed up, like a time capsule, until they were no longer around to be prosecuted by the government or chastised by their peers. Paul Bew was enthusiastic about this idea. He talked about “laying down the tapes” as if they were bottles of old claret.

Friday, May 29, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt eleven)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

When the McConvilles and other families finally aired these revelations, the press responded with shock that a tactic more familiar with grisly civil conflicts in places like Chile or Argentina might have been employed against British citizens. This was a parallel that the families were only too happy to highlight: the group that they established was inspired by the mothers of the disappeared who gathered at the Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires. Fewer than twenty people disappeared during the Troubles. Because the country is so small, however, the impact of each disappearance reverberated throughout the society. There was Columba McVeigh, a teenager who was abducted by the IRA in 1975 and never seen again. There was Robert Nairac, a dashing British Army officer who was working undercover when he disappeared in south Armagh in 1977. There was a Seamus Ruddy, a thirty-two-year-old Newry man who was working as a teacher in Paris when he vanished in 1985.

This push by the families for answers would coincide with the peace process and the IRA cease-fire could only have been embarrassing for Gerry Adams. Just as he was positioning himself as a visionary who could see beyond the horizon of the conflict, the families of the disappeared were directing a series of loud and increasingly indignant queries at him by name. “We have a simple message for Gerry Adams and the IRA: our families have suffered far too much. Please bring this nightmare to an end,” Seamus McKendry said in 1995. He continued, pointedly, “We feel it is hypocritical for Sinn Féin to expect the status of a full democratic party while this issue remains unresolved.”

Thursday, May 28, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt ten)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

As Rea’s acting career continued to flourish, he still balked at questions about Price or her past. But he did not shy away, in his work, from the subject of the Troubles. In 1992, Rea achieved a new level of international renown when he starred in the film The Crying Game, directed by a close collaborator of his, Neil Jordan. Rea’s character in the film is an IRA gunman, Fergus, who is given the task of guarding a doomed prisoner—a British soldier, played by Forest Whitaker. Over several days, the guard and his captive develop a relationship, to the point that, when the time comes for Fergus to pull the trigger, he finds himself unable to do so. The scenario eerily evoked the dirty work that Dolours Price had done for the Unknowns two decades earlier: crying behind the wheel as she chaperoned he friend Joe Lynskey to his death; taking Kevin McKee to County Monaghan, where his captors grew so fond of him that they refused to shoot him and another team of gunmen had to be summoned from Belfast to do it.

One of the characters in the film, played by Miranda Richardson, is a redheaded IRA woman. “I spent a few days in Belfast soaking up the atmosphere,” Richardson said, years later, when she was asked about the part. “Stephen introduced me to his wife, Dolours Price, who had been a member of the Provisional IRA and a hunger striker, and who was a real heroine there. We went out to a pub, which was an extraordinary experience. She was treated like a film star.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt nine)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

Father Reid ran to the men. One of them was clearly dead, but the other stirred; when Reid leaned close, he could hear the sound of breathing. Reid looked up frantically at the people standing around and asked if anybody knew how to resuscitate someone. Nobody responded. They just stood there, watching. Reid crouched over the body and placed his mouth on the soldier’s mouth, trying to breathe the life back into him. But eventually the breathing stopped, and someone said, “Father, that man is dead.”

Reid looked up, and as he did, a photographer standing some distance away took a picture that would become perhaps the most indelible image of the Troubles: a priest, clad in black, on his knees, ministering to a man who has just died, lying with his arms splayed, like Christ, on the ground before him. Reid looks directly at the camera, a witness to the horror, his own thin lips smeared dark with the dead man’s blood. Reid did not know if either of the soldiers was Catholic, but he anointed them both, as he had anointed the bodies of the slain mourners at Milltown Cemetery several days earlier, and delivered the last rites.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt eight)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

He never came. On May 5, 1981, Bobby Sands died. It was the sixty-sixth day of his strike, and just as Terence MacSwiney’s death had six decades earlier, the story made headlines around the world. Gerry Adams later recalled Sands’s death as having “a greater international impact than any other event in Ireland in my lifetime.” One hundred thousand people poured onto the streets of Belfast to watch his coffin being carried to the cemetery. There was an overwhelming upsurge of support for the republican cause on both sides of the border in Ireland. Thatcher showed no remorse over taking a firm line. “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal,” she declared after his death. “He chose to take his own life. It was a choice his organization did not allow to many of its victims.”

But while the world focused on her fatal contest of wills with Bobby Sands, Thatcher had quietly shown that she was capable of mercy when it came to Dolours Price. Two weeks before Sands died, Price had been released “on medical grounds,” and the balance of her twenty-year sentence had been remitted. The official explanation for this decision was that she was “in imminent danger of sudden collapse and death.”

For years afterwards, Price would weep when she thought of that moment, in which Bobby Sands perished and she was set free. The Price sisters had stared down the British crown on two occasions, and in both instances, the damage they inflicted upon their own bodies was enough to make them prevail. Sands may have been less fortunate, in that he perished, but he was more fortunate in the sense that he achieved more in martyrdom than he ever might have had he lived. And Humphrey Atkins and Thatcher had been wrong when they speculated that among the ten strikers there must be at least one weak link. After Sands died, another nine followed, starving to death one by one throughout that summer.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt seven)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

Nearly a year had passed since the bombings, and the sisters were still being force-fed, when the case took a bizarre turn. In February 1974, a seventeenth-century painting by Vermeer, of a young girl plucking a narrow guitar, was stolen from a museum in Hampstead. A pair of anonymous typewritten letters arrived at The Times of London, demanding that Dolours and Marian Price be returned to Northern Ireland and threatening that if they weren’t, the painting would “be burnt on St. Patrick’s night with much cavorting about in the true lunatic fashion.” As proof that this threat was sincere, one of the letters contained a sliver of canvas from the Vermeer. In a strange coincidence, on a trip to London two years earlier, Dolours had visited Kenwood House, where the Vermeer hung—and had stopped to look at that very painting. In a statement, Chrissie Price appealed to whoever it was that took the artwork to return it unharmed. She noted that Dolours—“who is an art student”—had made a special plea on behalf of the painting.

One evening in May, a suspicious package appeared in a churchyard near Smithfield Market, in London. It was wrapped in newspaper and tied with string. A squad of officers arrived at the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great. In this atmosphere of heightened tension, the package could be a bomb. But it wasn’t: it was the painting, which had been returned, just as Dolours had requested.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt six)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

This was delicate material for a London audience, and crowds for the show had been sparse, and notably uneasy. One of the three leads in the production, a young actor named Stephen Rea, later remarked that it had been received by London audiences “in a frost of ignorance.” Though he was an emerging star at the Royal Court, Rea was a Belfast native himself, a beguiling-looking young man with soft features, quizzical eyes, and a shock of black hair that always looked recently slept on. As it happened, he and Dolours Price knew each other: Rea had studied at Queen’s, and they had met during the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. They ended up falling out of touch as she joined the Provos and he became a prominent actor, doing parts in Dublin and Edinburgh before joining the company at the Royal Court. But here Dolours Price was, about to bomb London, watching this dashing, intelligent, intriguing young man play the part of a civil rights marcher who gets mistaken for a member of the IRA.

Friday, May 22, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt five)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

On Wednesday, after they had all checked into their hotels, members of the team did reconnaissance of the locations. “You don’t know each other,” Price told them. “You’ve never seen each other before when you meet each other on the street.” She added, emphatically, that there should be “no drink involved.” Before sundown, Price assembled everyone in the portico of the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, to finalize arrangements and to hand out plane tickets for the following day.

Then they had the night off. You might suppose that on the even of a coordinated terrorist strike on a major city, the participants would devote the final hours to anxious preparation. But on account of their youth, perhaps, or the almost hallucinatory fever of their own righteousness, Price and her compatriots seemed eerily detached from the gravity and potential consequences of the mission they were about to undertake. Besides, they were in London, a city more vast and freewheeling than their own. The heart of empire it may have been, but London was also, indisputably, a fun place to visit. So the young terrorists went sightseeing. Roisin McNearney paid a visit to Buckingham Palace. Some of the men defied Price’s admonition and went out and got drunk, so drunk that one of them would later have to be carried out of the pub.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt four)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

The car bomb, which was first introduced to the conflict in early 1972, represented a terrifying departure, because up to that point the size of most bombs had been limited by the sheer weight of explosives that a few paramilitaries could carry. Hiding the bomb inside an automobile meant that you could prepare a massive payload, then simply drive the device to the target and walk away. Whereas a suitcase or a plastic bag left in a busy shop might attract attention, cars were the perfect camouflage, because they were everywhere. “The car bomb provided an efficient container and an efficient delivery system,” Seán Mac Stíofáin wrote in 1975. “It yielded far greater administrative, industrial and economic damage for a given operation. And it required fewer volunteers to place it on the target.” In the streets of Belfast, an empty, unattended car became, all by itself, a source of terror that could prompt people to flee the area and authorities to descend, whether the car actually contained a bomb or not.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt three)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

The runner had not yet returned with a gun for Hughes when the van reappeared. Five minutes had passed, yet here it was once more. Same van. Same driver. Hughes tensed, but again the van drove right past him. It continued on for twenty yards or so. Then the brake lights flared. As Hughes watched, the rear doors swung open, and several men burst out. They looked like civilians—tracksuits, sneakers. But one had a .45 in each hand, and two others had rifles; as Hughes turned to run, all three of them opened fire. Bullets swishes past him, slamming into the façades of the forlorn houses as Hughes tore off and the men gave chase. He sprinted onto Cyprus Street, the men pounding the pavement behind him, still firing. But now Hughes began to zigzag, like a gecko, into the warren of tiny streets.

He knew these streets, the hidden alleys, the fences he could scale. He knew each vacant house and laundry line. There was a quote attributed to Mao that Hughes was partial to, about how the guerilla warrior must swim among the people as a fish swims through the sea. West Belfast was his sea: there was an informal system in place whereby local civilians would assist young paramilitaries like Hughes, allowing their homes to be used as shortcuts or hiding places. As Hughes was scrambling over a back fence, a rear door would suddenly pop open long enough for him to dart inside, then just as quickly close again behind him. Some of the residents were intimidated by the Provos and felt they had little choice but to cooperate, while others assisted out of an unforced sense of solidarity. When property was damaged in one of his operations, he would pay compensation to the family. He cultivated the community, knowing that without the sea, the fish cannot survive. There was a local invalid who lived on Cyprus Street, “Squire” Maguire, and at the height of the madness, with fires and police raids and riots in the street, residents in the area would occasionally see Brendan Hughes carrying Maguire on his back a few doors down to the pub so that Maguire could have a pint, then dutifully returning to bring him home a short while later. Once, a British soldier in the Lower Falls area caught Hughes in the sights of his rifle. Finger on the trigger, he was ready to open fire when an elderly lady stepped out of some unseen doorway and planted herself in the path of his weapon, then informed him that he would not be shooting anybody on her street on that particular evening. When the soldier looked up, Hughes was gone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt two)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

The McConville family had two dogs, named Provo and Sticky. After Arthur passed away, his oldest son, Robert, might have stepped in to assume responsibility for the family, but in March 1972, when he was seventeen, Robert was interned on suspicion of being a member of the Official IRA—the Stickies. Jean McConville, who had been delicate by temperament to begin with, fell into a heavy depression after her husband’s death. “She had sort of given up,” her daughter Helen later recalled. Jean did not want to get out of bed and seemed to subsist on cigarettes and pills. Doctors in Belfast had taken to prescribing “nerve tablets”—sedatives and tranquilizers—to their patients, many of whom found that they were either catatonically numb or crying uncontrollably, unable to get a handle on their emotions. Tranquilizer use was higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In some later era, the condition would likely be described as post-traumatic stress, but one contemporary book called it “the Belfast syndrome,” a malady that was said to result from “living with constant terror, where the enemy is not easily identifiable and the violence is indiscriminate and arbitrary.” Doctors found, paradoxically, that the people most prone to this type of anxiety were not the active combatants, who were out on the street and had a sense of agency, but the women and children stuck sheltering behind closed doors. At night, through the thin walls of their apartment in Divis Flats, the McConville children would hear their mother crying.

Increasingly, Jean became a recluse. Some weeks, she would leave the house only to buy groceries or to visit Robert in prison. It might have simply felt unsafe to venture out. There was a discomfiting sense in Belfast that there was no place where you were truly secure: you would run inside to get away from a gun battle, only to run outside again for fear of a bomb. The army was patrolling Divis, and paramilitaries were dug in throughout the complex. The year 1972 marked the high point for violence during the entirety of the Troubles—the so-called bloodiest year, when nearly five hundred people lost their lives. Jean made several attempts at suicide, according to her children, overdosing on pills on a number of occasions. Eventually, she checked into Purdysburn, the local psychiatric hospital.

Monday, May 18, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt one)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

A small man with wire-framed glasses and fingertips stained yellow by tobacco, Albert told violent tales about the fabled valor of long-dead patriots. Dolours had two other siblings, Damian and Clare, but she was closest with her younger sister, Marian. Before bedtime, their father liked to regale them with the story of the time he escaped from a jail in the city of Derry, along with twenty other prisoners, after digging a tunnel that led right out of the facility. One inmate played the bagpipes to cover the sound of the escape.

In confiding tones, Albert would lecture Dolours and her siblings about the safest method for mixing improvised explosives, with a wooden bowl and wooden utensils—never metal!—because “a single spark and you were gone.” He liked to reminisce about beloved comrades whom the Brirish had hanged, and Dolours grew up thinking that this was the most natural thing in the world: that ever child had parents who had friends who’d been hanged. Her father’s stories were so rousing that she shivered sometimes when she listened to them, her whole body tingling with goose bumps.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt fourteen)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

Ten years after that day in the redwood forest, my brother was painting a wall in his apartment when his heart stopped beating. It fell to my two middle brothers to go to San Francisco for his belongings and the ashes, first because I had stopped flying and second because my mother didn’t trust me: I had lost some inheritance documents pertaining to a property in Mar del Plata twenty years before, and was branded useless there and then. Once your family role has been assigned, that tends to be that.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt thirteen)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

After testing positive for HIV he moved back in with his parents: “My family welcomed me, but my sheets were sent out for cleaning every morning in case anyone caught anything.” There was a portrait of James Lynch in the family living room, an ancestor who had been a mayor of Galway in the fifteenth century and had sentenced his own son to hang for murder. It is since then that killing someone without a legal trial has been known as “lynching.”

“Every family has its own way of lynching. My family invented the genre, so you can imagine how long I lasted at home. And that was how I wound up living on a ranch, rented from the Church.”

Friday, May 15, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt twelve)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

It’s inevitable. You talk about yourself all the time, you talk so much that you end up hating yourself. When I get tired of me, of the constant mental gymnastics, it strikes me that ending up as a ghost wouldn’t be the worst fate. I mean the kind of troubled spirit that’s at the bottom of the phantasmal pile, the dumb blondes in the hierarchy of specters and poltergeists, tasked basically with frightening anyone unfortunate enough to live in an old building. “Rappers” is an old English word for these spirits. And I think that, if there were any vacancies, Fabiolo would be at the top of my list of people to spook. Go and shake his curtains on still nights, draw big question marks in toothpaste on his bathroom mirror, turn on the kitchen taps, and anytime he spoke to a girl on the phone (those dirty bitches, they should keep their hands off), mumble curses in my best Aramic. I know, I’m terrible. To be a troubled spirit, to somehow disembody onself—to dis-whatever my plodding brain, above all, and cast out my morose thoughts, the constant seething in my heart, to return to a state of mere energy, the random glimmering of the paranormal . . . To not think for a while, at least: that would be nice.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt eleven)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

I am a woman hovering at the midpoint of life, but I still haven’t lost my touch completely: it is within my power, for instance, to flit from the Schiavoni painting in the National Museum of Fine Arts to the Miguel Carlos Victorica they hold in the Sivori Gallery. In other words, to make the shift from childhood to old age in an instant. In Victorica’s Aunt Cecilia, we see a woman in her seventies, gray dress—the gray of photocopiers—and about her shoulders a fox-fur stole that looks stuck with thistles. She reminds me of Miss Brill, the middle-aged English teacher in the Katherine Mansfield story who lives in a small town on the French Riviera. Miss Brill goes for a walk every day in the Jardins Publiques, but the morning on which we join her is cooler than usual and she decides to take her fox-fur stole out of its box. At the park, she finds a bench and sits watching the couples strolling arm in arm: “They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!” Like Miss Brill, the Victorica produces an uneasy sensation in me, akin to trying to breathe underwater.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt ten)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

Not traveling naturally means missing out on certain things. Forget about standing before The Dream, one of Rousseau’s great works, held at MoMA and capable, they say, of making the earth move. Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del parto is housed in Monterchi, Italy, and would apparently cause a German governess to emote. Or Fragonard’s Stolen Kiss, in the Petersburg Hermitage; that will have to wait for some future Slavic reincarnation. And, for that matter, it’s also time you gave up on ever partaking in Japanese hanami or “flower viewing,” the spring celebration of the cherry trees coming into blossom.

You tell yourself that you’ll still have imagination on your side, and you’ve got plenty at hand to keep you entertained. Take a bus, get off the bus, go into the museum, and walk, simply walk, straight to whichever picture is calling you. Easy, and easy on the purse, too. You know some of these works as well as you know the books on your shelves and the plants in your garden. When you step in front of Rousseau’s portrait of his father, you greet him like a close relative: You’re fine, but how is he today? You don’t care what your own family says (though you do listen—to give yourself a stick to beat them with). Buenos Aires, they say, only has second-rate work: great artists, yes, but none of their great works. If you’re serious about art, you have to travel. There’s a Buzz Aldrin line your mother is forever quoting to you, seemingly as often as she can: “Flying: it’s the only way to see the world.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt nine)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

The murals that never made it as far as the Four Seasons are horizontal smears of dry blood on brown backgrounds. When photos of them came out in the press, everyone agreed that it was little surprise they had not ended up adorning the walls of such an establishment: these works were as dead-end as anyone had seen, leading directly nowhere. I couldn’t agree less. Rothko had imagined paintings that would be as welcome as shards of glass in your risotto: his own direct and unabashed way of unsettling U.S. society. “Actually, on second thought,” he said to poor Mell, the longtime recipient of her husband’s speeches, “what’s the point? These people will never get it.” That day in the Four Seasons, it dawned on Rothko that no matter what he painted, his work would all end up as mere baubles. Just another thing for bankers to acquire, like the pretty wives sitting at the tables around him.

Monday, May 11, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt eight)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

To the south of St. Petersburg, in what is now Latvia, lies Daugavpils, formerly Dvinsk. At the turn of the twentieth century, under the tsarist regime, employment was scarce and young women were frequently forced into prostitution. To avoid such a fate, a fifteen-year-old named Anna Goldin agreed to marry Jacob Rothkowitz, a local pharmacist. She bore him four children. The youngest, Marcus, the future Rothko, the most sensitive, indeed hypochondriac among them, was the only one to learn the Talmud. Though there is no historical evidence of executions taking place in Dvinsk, in later years Rothko spoke of seeing a group of Cossacks taking Jews into the surrounding woods to dig a communal grave: “I saw that square grave in the woods so vividly that, though I can’t be sure the massacre happened in my lifetime, I have always been haunted by the image.” One morning Mrs. Rothkowitz and her children boarded a boat at the port of Liepāja. They were bound for the United States, where they were due to join the father, who had gone ahead a number of months before. The ship docked in Portland, Oregon, and they had barely set foot on shore when Mr. Rothkowitz died of cancer of the colon. Marcus was eleven years old: he was poor and Jewish, and left-leaning in his sense of politics. He made the best fist he could of high school, at the end of which he won a scholarship to study law at Yale in 1929. A few months later, as the Wall Street Crash began to eat away at the foundations of national life, he abandoned his studies. He had decided to give New York City a go, to “bum around and starve a bit.”

Had he died at that point, history would not have remembered him, since before the age of forty-five, Rothko did nothing to distinguish himself as a painter. He had a Surrealist phase, a surprisingly mediocre one, and began in the 1930s to produce anguished cityscapes, complete with Giacometti-like elongated figures—hopeless. One day he had the kind of moment that artists await their entire lives, and that sometimes comes, sometimes doesn’t: the vision that finally brings them up from the depths. It came to Rothko in the summer of 1945, while he was in the process of setting down on canvas a series of abstract, blurry blocks of color floating in space. All notion of line and detail had disappeared, and color itself exploded: pinks, peaches, lavenders, whites, yellows, and saffron, as evanescent as steam on glass. It was as through his eyes had dilated.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt seven)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

One morning, Amalia got a phone call. A woman at the other end of the line said she was looking for someone to teach her Spanish. She was Japanese, and had recently arrived in Argentina. She needed to practice conversation: she had the basics, but wanted to become more fluent. Amalia’s parents are Japanese, and she was working as an in-house translator at a publishing firm at the time. It had been a while since she’d given Spanish classes to compatriots of her parents, but something in the woman’s voice—which was calm, and gravelly but also honeyed—intrigued her. They agreed to meet the following day. The woman had an apartment on Avenida Libertador, and when Amalia described the entrance, I knew exactly which building it was. She took the elevator up to the twenty-first floor and, unaccustomed to heights, lost her stomach slightly when she stepped out. The woman let her in, a chill elegance to her demeanor. Her dark hair scraped back into a bun, and her skin taut, she was stunningly, alarmingly beautiful, like a character out of a spy movie. She led Amalia through into a bright room: floor-to-ceiling windows, white walls, low armchairs, and a dotting of chrome lamps. Amalia, her momentary queasiness past, went over to the window. The apartment overlooked the Hippodrome and, there being no balcony, she found nothing but thin air between her and the rings in the sand all that way below.

“Horses, I say to the estate agents. We want a view of horses.”

Saturday, May 9, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt six)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

There are some thirty-five Courbet paintings of calm seas, and another thirty of squalls, but in Buenos Aires I have only ever seen two, and they are both in the National Museum of Fine Arts. Those I’ve seen in other forms—on the internet and in library books—are all surpassed by The Stormy Sea. When you stand before it, art disappears and something else rushes in: life, in all its tempestuousness. I would bet that Courbet himself, who used to boast of dashing off his seascapes in two hours flat, would have been proud of this one. He returned to it time and again, like a thirsty horse to its trough.

Friday, May 8, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt five)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

The Salon, the annual or biennial art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, acted as a filter for countless works of art. The walls would be crammed with pictures; what could an artist do to catch the public’s eye? It was at this time that Courbet discovered newspapers. He was the first painter to realize that controversy might not damage your profile: a bad reputation could be good publicity. He’d make friends with anyone if he saw some advantage in it, including Proudhon, Berlioz, and Baudelaire, none of whom were that moved by his work, though they couldn’t help but respect his tenacity. In the years leading up to the 1848 Revolution, Courbet helped establish Realism, a movement second only in importance to Romanticism, though far more nebulous.

He turned his eye to beggars, vagabonds, washerwomen, and miners. His ragged country peasants were part of an honest attempt to render the truths of the world. But it wasn’t so much his themes as his methods that attracted criticism: when his subject was a stone breaker, he turned him into an object as crude as the stone he was breaking. And the same with the sea. The acute level of observation he brought to bear on his landscapes, combined with the rough energy of his brush, not only reaches back to forebears like Turner, and to the Dutch painters of the eighteenth century, but anticipates everything to come in painting from 1870 onward. The Stormy Sea, while clinging fast to the line of the horizon, comprises a formal interrogation of water, thereby leading directly on to the work of later abstract artists.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt four)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

The works of Hubert Robert are like a premonition: a painter seeing what’s on the horizon and transferring it to the canvas in loose, open-ended brushstrokes. He painted quickly. A Russian prince who had been vying for ownership of one of his pieces said: “He wants the money to come in at the same pace he works at. He dashes off pictures as quickly as writing letters.” And the unfinished impression of his paintings was also appropriate to their subject, as though an earthquake had struck while Robert was at the easel, forcing him to abandon the job. When the world is precarious, his paintings seem to say, the idea of finishing anything stops making sense. “The world was . . . unlasting, what could be forever? or only what it seemed? rock corrodes, rivers freeze, fruit rots . . . and who is lonelier: the hawk or the worm?” wrote a twelve-year-old Truman Capote on the bank of a swampy Alabama river.

Robert was a celebrated painter, universally recognized, when one day all his good luck ran out. Each of his children died in quick succession: Gabriel, Adelaide, Charles, and Adèle. Napoleon came to power soon after, and he was expelled from the Académie and imprisoned at Saint-Lazare (along with the Marquis de Sade). He avoided the guillotine because of an administrative error (another prisoner was killed in his place). After his release, he was employed as an architectural advisor in the building of the Louvre, for which he was paid a token salary, barely enough to live on. He went to his studio late one night to do some work on the plans and, coming into the small, cramped space, tripped. This is how I imagine Hubert Robert’s death: brained by his eagle lecturn. He was seventy-five years old, nine months in arrears on his rent, and quite alone in the world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt three)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

You should have guessed. Anytime anything went wrong your mother would hurry off to the embassy, the small mansion that, before it become the embassy, had been her grandmother’s home. She was five years old when the property was sold, and found it so traumatic that she was from then on incapable of letting anything go; normal houses have one soda, maybe two, but your mother had seven, most of them stacked up in the bedrooms you and your siblings slept in as children. In the closet of what used to be your bathroom there is a pile of Sotheby’s catalogues dating back to 1972, the shelves bowed under their weight. One day a triple mirror that had been leaning against some bookshelves came crashing down on top of her; she said afterward that she had been trying to find a book to lend the porter. Which book? Los que mandan (The Ruling Class), by José Luis de Imaz; it was a lifelong obsession of hers to disseminate the “correct” history of our country. She was stuck beneath the mirror for half an hour, until the maid came in and heard her shouting. She was unhurt. It has occurred to you that, toppling furniture allowing, your mother will one day create her own Hubert Robert landscape. Guided tours of her apartment will be provided, foreigners will queue up along Avenida Libertador, eyes fixed on the third floor of the building, where, behind those very tall double-glazed windows, not a speck of dust is allowed to settle on the ruins of the Argentinian nobility.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt two)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

Later in the day, the Brazilian admiral, sensing rain, will advise against the attack. The Paraguayans have dug in: the trench is just over a mile long and lined with tree trunks, branches bristling forward like metal tines. The horn sounds and the Allies begin their advance, Cándido López running full tilt, eyes dead ahead, convinced that some invisible mantle is protecting him, until a grenade blows off his right hand—the one holding his saber aloft. He picks the weapon out of the tufty grass with his left and goes on, blood gushing from him; soon he begins to shake all over and, feeling nauseated, collapses in a crater.

Lying in the mud, he watches as a ladybug saunters along a blade of grass near to his face. A soldier, face bathed in blood, drops to the ground a few feet away. On the verge of losing consciousness, Cándido López drags himself to the camp at Curuzú. A medic does what he can to halt the gangrene, before deciding to cut off the hand. “Nothing for it.” Weeks later, another amputation, this time above the elbow. The guardias of San Nicolás had set out with eight hundred volunteer soldiers, and eighty-three came back alive, including the One-Armed Man of Curupaytí. Cándido López is no good to the army anymore. The war goes on without him.

Monday, May 4, 2020

the last book I ever read (Optic Nerve by María Gainza, excerpt one)

from Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):

Hunting scenes were quite common in Dreux’s day, evocations of a sport that had been a class marker since the Middle Ages, when the hunt became an elite pastime and often the only means of preparing men for war. An unintended by-product was that it gave the nobility a way of measuring itself—though only against itself. The first eve enclosures of forests and common land came about to enable exclusive access to big game. Commoners had to make do with birds and rabbits; bears, wolves, and deer became the landowner’s right.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling, excerpt fourteen)

from The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling:

Back in 1922, the late Heywood Broun, who is not remembered primarily as a boxing writer, wrote a durable account of a combat between the late Benny Leonard and the late Rocky Kansas for the lightweight championship of the world. Leonard was the greatest practitioner of the era, Kansas just a rough, optimistic fellow. In the early rounds Kansas messed Leonard about, and Broun was profoundly disturbed. A radical in politics, he was a conservative in the arts, and Kansas made him think of Gertrude Stein, les Six, and nonrepresentational painting, all novelties that irritated him.

“With the opening gong, Rocky Kansas tore into Leonard,” he wrote. “He was gauche and inaccurate, but terribly persisten.” The classic verities prevailed, however. After a few rounds, during which Broun continued to yearn for a return to a culture with fixed values, he was enabled to record: “The young child of nature who was challenging for the championship dropped his guard, and Leonard hooked a powerful and entirely orthodox blow to the conventional point of the jaw. Down went Rocky Kansas. His past life flashed before him during the nine seconds in which he remained on the floor, and he wished that he had been more faithful as a child in heeding the advice of his boxing teacher. After all, the old masters did know something. There is still a kick in style, and tradition carries a nasty wallop.”

Saturday, May 2, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling, excerpt thirteen)

from The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling:

I slept late myself next morning, and then made my way over to the weighing in, at the auditorium. Syracuse is not one of those cities that win your heart at first glance—which this was for me—but it was a fine day. In the Onondaga Coffee Room, I had observed the members of the Fort Wayne Pistons having breakfast. They twined their long legs around the table legs or doubled them back under the chairs. It occurred to me that life must be very difficult for a traveling collection of men who are from six feet six to nearly seven feet tall. They might have special long beds at home, but they could scarcely carry them with them, and they must either bend or step back several paces to look in a shaving mirror. An awareness of their altitude seemed to oppress them—I could imagine how many times they had been asked how the weather was up there—and their heads, at the ends of such long necks, looked small, like guinea hens’. I was rapidly becoming depressed myself, until I thought of what a liberation it must be for a man of that height to get into the company of others who could see eye to eye with him. Instead of feeling himself set apart, he probably begins to think of anyone under six feet five as subnormal. He goes back to his home town a giant refreshed.

Friday, May 1, 2020

the last book I ever read (The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling, excerpt twelve)

from The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling:

In the meanwhile, I knew, Patterson had been doing well, without being rushed unduly. In any art the prodigy presents a problem. Given too easy a program, he goes slack, but asked too hard a question early, he becomes discouraged. Finding a middle course is particularly difficult in the prize ring; in comparison, the management of juvenile orchestra conductors, mathematicians, and billiardists is simple. The fighter must be confirmed in the belief that he can lick anybody in the world and at the same time be restrained from testing this belief on a subject too advanced for his attainments. The trick lies in keeping the fellow entertained while enriching his curriculum. In my young manhood, there were two Wunderkinder in the light-heavyweight class whose handlers failed to bring it off; one, Young Stribling, was made overcautious by doting parents, and the other, Jimmy Slattery, was made overconfident by adulation. Slattery, like Icarus, made a great splash, though. He was a boy Mozart, a honeydew melon.