Jean Cocteau, who died at the age of 74 in 1963, was a man of many talents—a poet, a novelist, a filmmaker, and an artist. He wrote the libretto for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and was best known for his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles and the 1946 film adaptation Beauty and the Beast. After his death, in 1965, he was named the Honorary President of the Cannes Film Festival.
I once read that if you’re in a rut, creative or otherwise, you should read a biography of someone who did great things. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind, as does any social movement leader, but when I saw The Difficulty of Being, Cocteau’s collection of biographical essays—written in 1947— I was curious to know what this polymath had thought about life. As I thumbed through the copy in the bookstore, I noticed that the chapter headings read like Montaigue: “On conversation,” “On my style,” “On friendship,” “On death,” and “On beauty” are just a few.
In his introduction to Melville House’s Neversink Library edition, Geoffrey O’Brien, a critic and the Editor-in-Chief of the Library of America, notes that the book is written in “a mood of detached self-examination” and that Cocteau “makes himself his own portraitist … determined to work out some basic definitions.” He goes on to say, “It is most fundamentally a work of criticism, in which by paying close attention to his own writing process he creates a different kind of writing, opaque and deliberate.”
From my own reading, I found a poignancy in many of the questions Cocteau seeks to answer and the observations he puts on the page. Here is a very small selection of what is a great read—whether you choose to go from cover to cover or open at will.
I cannot read or write. And when the census form asks me this question, I am tempted to say no.
Who knows how to write? It is to battle with ink to try to make oneself understood.
Either one takes too much care over one’s work or one does not take enough. Seldom does one find the happy mean that limps with grace. Reading is another matter. I read. I think I am reading. Each time I re-read, I perceive that I have not read. That is the trouble with a letter. One finds in it what one looks for. One is satisfied. One puts it aside. If one finds it again, on re-reading one reads into it another which one had not read.
Books play the same trick. If they do not suit our present mood we do not consider them good. If they disturb us we criticize them, and this criticism is superimposed upon them and prevents us from reading them fairly.
What the reader wants is to read himself. When he reads what he approves of he thinks he could have written it. He may even have a grudge against the book for taking his place, for saying what he did not know how to say, and which according to him he would have said better.
The more a book means to us the less well we read it. Our substance slips into it and thinks it round to our own outlook. That is why if I want to read and convince myself that I can read. I read books into which my substance does not penetrate. In the hospitals in which I spent long periods, I used to read what the nurse brought me or what fell into my hands by chance. … you often hear a tubercular patient say of Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain: ‘That is a book one couldn’t understand if one hadn’t been tubercular.’ In fact Thomas Mann wrote it without being this and for the very purpose of making those who had not experienced tuberculosis understand it.
We are all ill and only know how to read book which deal with our malady. This is why books dealing with love are so successful, since everyone believes that he is the only one to experience it. He thinks: ‘This book is addressed to me. What can anyone else see in it?’
On the Rule of the Soul
We cannot run from place to place without losing something, suddenly move all our goods from one place to another and change our work all in a moment just as we please. Nothing takes so long over its journey as the soul, and it is slowly, if it detaches itself, that it rejoins the body. Hence those who think themselves speedy are thrown into confusion, badly reassembled, since the soul, joining them little by little and having rejoined them when they departed, is found by them to perform the same exercise in reverse. IN the end they come to believe they are, and are no longer.
The same thing applies to the discomfort of passing from one work to another, since the finished work goes on living in us and only leaves a very confused place for the new work. It is important, in regard to a journey, to wait for the body to reassemble itself and not to rely on an appearance in which only those who do not know us well can have any faith.
In regard to one’s works, it is important to wait after each one, and let the body free itself of the vapours which remain in it and which may take a long time to disperse. … In my estimation it takes a month, after a work or a journey, to regain control of one’s individuality. Until then it is in limbo. … Each time I find myself in this intermediate state, I wonder if it is permanent. It upsets me to the point of making me exaggerate the void it creates and convinces me that it will never be filled.
Here I am then between two rhythms, unbalanced, weak in body and lame in mind. Woe to him who rebels against this. An attempt to bypass it would only make things worse. … What is one to do against this fear of emptiness? It dries me up. One must forget it. I practise doing so. I go to the point of reading children’s books. I avoid any contact which might make me aware of the passing of time. I vegetate. I talk to dogs.
I attach no importance to what people call style and by which they flatter themselves that they can recognize an author. I want to be recognized by my ideas, or better still, by the results of them. All I attempt is to make myself understood as succinctly as possible. I have noticed that when a story does not grip the mind, it has shown a tendency to read too quickly, to grease its own slope. That is why, in this book, I turn my writing around, which prevents it from sliding into a straight line, makes one revise it twice over and reread the sentences so as not to lose the thread.
Whenever I read a book, I marvel at the number of words I meet in it and I long to use them. I make a note of them. When I am at work this is impossible for me. I restrict myself to my own vocabulary. I cannot get away from it, and it is so limited that the work becomes a brain-twister.
I wonder, at every line, if I can go any further, if the combination of these words that I use, always the same ones, will not end by seizing up and compelling me to hold my peace. This would be a blessing for everyone, but it is with words as with numbers, or with the letters of the alphabet. They have the faculty of rearranging themselves differently and perpetually at the end of the kaleidoscope.
Reprinted from The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau; English translation ©1966 Elizabeth Sprigge; Published by Melville House
Working in an office is a learned skill, even for those who are good with people—and even for those who work in a room full of friends. While general etiquette and being pleasant go a long way, it’s always worth seeing what can be fine tuned. However, doing so requires self-awareness and a willingness to change.
One classic in the self-help business genre—and an excellent place to start—is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The cover of the “special anniversary edition” boasts that it’s the best book of its kind—and I’m not so sure they’re wrong.
How to Win Friends and Influence People is broken down into four parts: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People; Six Ways to Make People Like You; How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking; and Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment
Within each of these larger sections are smaller, more targeted chapters, each featuring anecdotes and quotes from important leaders’ lives as well as from Carnegie’s own personal experience—first as a salesman, then as a public speaker.
In the first chapter, “If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive,” Carnegie sets the tone for the remaining 230 pages:
Do you know someone who you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others—yes, and a lot less dangerous. ‘Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof, ‘ said Confucius, ‘when your own doorstep is unclean.’
Carnegie is not stingy; forehead-slapping comments such as these are found on nearly every page. It’s these simple statements, these basic ways of being with others that we all learned in grammar school but forgot, that make How to Win Friends invaluable.
Quoting Henry Ford, Carnegie shares another important principle: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” And from Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychologist: “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others.” And, of course, what advice book would be complete without Benjamin Franklin?: “If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.”
Each chapter ends with a distilled principle, reinforcing the lessons one should have learned from the previous pages: Give honest and sincere appreciation; Be a good listener; If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically; Let the other person do a great deal of the talking; and, for those in a leadership position, make the fault seem easy to correct.
How to Win Friends and Influence People will make you think about your behavior, both within the office and without. Soon, you’ll find that those rough edges smoothed.
Novels, literary journals, translations, paperback originals, and reprints. Here’s what new for June.
Taipei by Tao Lin
From one of this generation’s most talked about and enigmatic writers comes a deeply personal, powerful, and moving novel about family, relationships, accelerating drug use, and the lingering possibility of death.
Taipei by Tao Lin is an ode–or lament–to the way we live now. Following Paul from New York, where he comically navigates Manhattan’s art and literary scenes, to Taipei, Taiwan, where he confronts his family’s roots, we see one relationship fail, while another is born on the internet and blooms into an unexpected wedding in Las Vegas. Along the way—whether on all night drives up the East Coast, shoplifting excursions in the South, book readings on the West Coast, or ill advised grocery runs in Ohio—movies are made with laptop cameras, massive amounts of drugs are ingested, and two young lovers come to learn what it means to share themselves completely. The result is a suspenseful meditation on memory, love, and what it means to be alive, young, and on the fringe in America, or anywhere else for that matter.
Tin House: Summer Reading
The best writers not only create worlds beyond our imagination but also lead us into places we’d never dare venture alone. Over their long careers, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood have continually surprised us with their dark worlds. In his new short story “Afterlife,” King transports us into the mind of a man at the white-light moment of his death. And Atwood, master of speculative fiction and a fervent conservationist, talks about dystopian societies and vanishing species with Tin House editor-at-large Elissa Schappell. Critic Parul Sehgal explores issues of race, class, and gender politics, as well as the significance of African and African American women’s hair, in her interview with Orange Prize–winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
Forty or so years in the future. The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines. There are the posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the North Rises, and the eerie bogs of the Big Nothin’ that the city really lives. For years it has all been under the control of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air. They say Hartnett’s old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchmen are getting ambitious; and his missus wants him to give it all up and go straight. Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane combines Celtic myth and a Caribbean beat, fado and film, graphic-novel cool and all the ripe inheritance of Irish literature to create something hilarious, beautiful, and startlingly new.
Skagboys by Irvine Welsh
Mark Renton’s life seems to be on track: university, pretty girlfriend, even social success. But, in this prequel to Trainspotting, after the death of his younger brother, Rent falls apart and starts hanging around with his old pals, including Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie, and being drawn irresistibly into their wacked-out plans.
Set against 1980s Thatcher-era Edinburgh–with its high unemployment, low expectations, and hard-to-come-by money and drugs Irvine Welsh’s colorful crew lunges from one darkly hilarious misadventure to the next. Gritty, moving, and exhilarating, Skagboys paints their dizzying downward spiral with scabrous humor and raw language.
Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf
Working in the traditions of Robert Walser, Robert Pinget, and Laurence Sterne, Ror Wolf creates strangely entertaining and condensed stories that call into question the very nature of what makes a story a story. Almost an anti-book, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions takes as its basis the small, diurnal details of life, transforming these oft-overlooked ordinary experiences of nondescript people in small German villages into artistic meditations on ambiguity, repetition, and narrative.
Incredibly funny and playful,Two or Three Years Later is unlike anything you’ve ever read—from German or any other language. These stories of men observing other men, of men who may or may not have been wearing a hat on a particular Monday (or was it Tuesday?), are delightful word-puzzles that are both intriguing and enjoyable.
The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey
The whimsical, macabre tales of British writer H. H. Munro—better known as Saki—deftly, mercilessly, and hilariously skewer the banality and hypocrisy of polite upper-class English society between the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the beginning of World War I. Their heroes are clever, amoral children and other enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty or fatuousness, bad faith or simple tedium of a decorous and doomed world.
This selection of Saki’s most polished dark gems comes paired with illustrations by the peerless Edward Gorey, whose fine-lined pen-and-ink drawings evoke, in all their fragile elegance and creeping menace, Saki’s Edwardian drawing rooms and garden parties, along with their population of overly delicate ladies and their mischief-making charges, spectral guests and sardonic house pets, flustered authority figures, and all manner of delightfully preposterous imposters.
what purpose did i serve in your life by Marie Calloway
Marie Calloway emerged in 2011, a controversial, compelling young talent whose work drove intense and polarized discussion from its first appearance. Her debut work of fiction, what purpose did i serve in your life, examines the nature of sex and the possibility of real connection in the face of degradation and blankness. Its interlocking stories follow a chronological arc from innocence to sexual experience, taking in the humiliations of one night stands with male strangers, the perils of sex work, and the caustic reception that greets a woman working and writing in public. It is a brave and pitiless examination of yearning in an era of hyper-exposure and a riveting account of the moments of transcendence seized from an otherwise blank world.
The No Variations: Diary of an Unfinished Novel by Luis Chitarroni
A self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plots, of literary references both real and invented, and is populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and, in turn, produce their own ideas for books, characters, and poems . . . A dizzying look at the backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, and is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.
In his instructive book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate, essayist and Nonfiction Director at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, explores the form through a series of essays. In his introduction, Lopate poses a number of questions: where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? What are the ethics of writing about others? What are the techniques in essay writing? And, as the title alludes to, when, if ever, is it okay to tell?
Throughout the book, Lopate emphasizes the need for essayists to “think critically—to think against themselves,” to contradict themselves if need be. This is the message at the core of To Show and To Tell—that an essay is an attempt to come to an answer, not an opportunity to prove a rigidly held belief. By “thinking against oneself,” by being contrary, the essayist creates tension and suspense.
“All good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation,” Lopate writes. “In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are engaged with a supple mind at work.”
In addition to exploring philosophical questions about the craft, To Show and To Tell offers practical advice, such as how to turn oneself into a character (“you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused”), why one should research (“Research inspires curiosity, helps you break out of claustrophobic self-absorption”), and what’s gained by keeping a journal (“No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly”).
Lopate gives permission to do away with convention. For those who have trouble with endings, Lopate writes:
A common mistake students make is to assume they need to tie up with a big bow the preceding matter via a grand statement of what it all means, or what the life lesson to be drawn from it is … Readers should be left with some things to work out on their own.
The final section is a study of key essayists; Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and James Baldwin are just a few writers Lopate highlights. Lamb “had the quintessential personal essayist’s ability to see his own personality as problematic, and to dramatize the resulting tensions.” According to Lopate, he saw people as actors and the streets of London as a stage. Hazlitt showed that essays can change direction and Baldwin’s “Notes on a Native Son” is “A twenty-page miracle, a masterpiece of compression.”
To Show and To Tell is an inspiring book on the art of the essay. The reader will come away with a richer understanding of the form and motivated to put theory into practice.
Buy To Show and To Tell from your local bookstore
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Harper’s Magazine
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate on Beyond the Margins
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Poets & Writers
Listen to an interview with Phillip Lopate on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show
On his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.
Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.
Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.
Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”
To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.
He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.
It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.
May is here and there are lots of new paperbacks on the shelves. Here are just a few that have my attention.
The Last Interview: and Other Conversations Jorge Luis Borges
Days before his death, Borges gave an intimate interview to his friend, the Argentine journalist Gloria Lopez Lecube. That interview is translated for the first time here, giving English-language readers a new insight into his life, loves, and thoughts about his work and country at the end of his life.
Accompanying that interview are a selection of the fascinating interviews he gave throughout his career. Highlights include his celebrated conversations with Richard Burgin during Borges’s time as a lecturer at Harvard University, in which he gives rich new insights into his own works and the literature of others, as well as discussing his now oft-overlooked political views. The pieces combine to give a new and revealing window on one of the most celebrated cultural figures of the past century.
A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
Bennett Sims turns typical zombie fare on its head to deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories by A. Igoni Barrett
When it comes to love, things are not always what they seem. In contemporary Lagos, a young boy may pose as a woman online, and a maid may be suspected of sleeping with her employer and yet still become a young wife’s confidante. Men and women can be objects of fantasy, the subject of beery soliloquies. They can be trophies or status symbols. Or they can be overwhelming in their need.
In these wide-ranging stories, A. Igoni Barrett roams the streets with people from all stations of life. A man with acute halitosis navigates the chaos of the Lagos bus system. A minor policeman, full of the authority and corruption of his uniform, beats his wife. A family’s fortunes fall from love and wealth to infidelity and poverty as poor choices unfurl over three generations. With humor and tenderness, Barrett introduces us to an utterly modern Nigeria, where desire is a means to an end, and love is a power as real as money.
Dark Back of Time by Javiar Marias
Called by its author a “false novel,” Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his witty and sardonic 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls is a book Marías swears to be fiction, but which its “characters”–the real-life dons and professors and bookshop owners who have “recognized themselves”–fiercely maintain to be a roman à clef. With the sleepy world of Oxford set into fretful motion by a world that never “existed,” Dark Back of Time begins an odyssey into the nature of identity and of time. Marías weaves together autobiography, a legendary kingdom, strange ghostly literary figures, halls of mirrors, a one-eyed pilot, a curse in Havana, and a bullet lost in Mexico.
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, introduction by William Gibson
In Kingsley Amis’s virtuoso foray into virtual history it is 1976 but the modern world is a medieval relic, frozen in intellectual and spiritual time ever since Martin Luther was promoted to pope back in the sixteenth century. Stephen the Third, the king of England, has just died, and Mass (Mozart’s second requiem) is about to be sung to lay him to rest. In the choir is our hero, Hubert Anvil, an extremely ordinary ten-year-old boy with a faultless voice. In the audience is a select group of experts whose job is to determine whether that faultless voice should be preserved by performing a certain operation. Art, after all, is worth any sacrifice.
Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust; translated by Kim Thompson
Back in 1984, a rebellious,17-year-old, punked-out Ulli Lust set out for a wild hitchhiking trip across Italy, from Naples through Verona and Rome and ending up in Sicily. Twenty-five years later, this talented Austrian cartoonist has looked back at that tumultuous summer and delivered a long, dense, sensitive, and minutely observed autobiographical masterpiece.
A Day in the Life by Senji Kuroi
A Day in the Life features twelve portraits of the vivid and curious realities experienced by a man in his sixties. These stories focus on the tiny paradoxes and ridiculousness we each witness and of which we often take no note. Ranging from a visit to an exhibition of blurry photographs, each taken with an exposure time of exactly one second, to the story of a man stalked through the streets by a stranger for no greater a crime than making eye contact, A Day in the Life demonstrates why Senji Kuroi is considered one of the leading figures of contemporary Japanese literature
Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue
Shocking, erudite, and affecting, these twenty-odd short stories, “micro-novels,” and vignettes span a vast territory, from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. to the late nineteenth-century Adriatic to the blood-soaked foothills of California’s Gold Rush country, introducing an array of bewildering characters: a professor of Latin American literature who survives a tornado and, possibly, an orgy; an electrician confronting the hardest wiring job of his career; a hapless garbage man who dreams of life as a pirate; and a prodigiously talented Polish baritone waging musical war against his church. Hypothermia explores the perilous limits of love, language, and personality, the brutal gravity of cultural misunderstandings, and the coldly smirking will to self-destruction hiding within our irredeemably carnal lives.