This Week's Show •

Molly Crabapple’s Cosmopolitan Colors

Listen fast, podcast people, because the beloved artist-satirist-global muckraker Molly Crabapple talks fast, the same way she draws and paints a sort of carnival of conflict out there: in Syria, in storm-damaged Puerto Rico, in ...

Listen fast, podcast people, because the beloved artist-satirist-global muckraker Molly Crabapple talks fast, the same way she draws and paints a sort of carnival of conflict out there: in Syria, in storm-damaged Puerto Rico, in New York City.
Molly Crabapple was a naked model and café / cabaret ornament in Lower Manhattan before OCCUPY landed on her doorstep in 2011. In the turmoil she invented a new career that’s made her famous, illustrating rough places in the real world. With her color tubes and razor-sharp pen nibs, Molly finds the trouble and sends back hand-made images for a visual culture that’s overdosed on video.  Her new book, with the writer Marwan Hisham, is Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War.

To block the view of snipers positioned just a few hundred meters away in the neighboring Masharqah, rebels and locals placed charred buses in between buildings in the entrances to the Bustan Al-Qasr battlefronts. Illustration by Molly Crabapple

 

 

The front lines in Bustan Al-Qasr. In the background, regime-held Al-Iza’a neighborhood where snipers from both sides cover the area. Buildings at firing range are still inhabited by civilians. Illustration by Molly Crabapple

 

Molly Crabapple posing with her portrait. photo and illustration by Susan Coyne

 

Illustrated portrait of Molly Crabapple by Susan Coyne

 

This Week's Show • 5/24/18

Remembering Philip Roth

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his ...

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his last big counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. My reward was the chance to record what stands up very nicely here. Meantime, he’d written the slim late novella, Everyman, about an old New Jersey athlete with a failing heart, pondering broken relationships, physical decay and coming extinction.

Philip Roth spoke – not to mention: wrote — the American language like nobody else. From Newark, New Jersey and then the University of Chicago, Philip Roth had emerged in the nineteen fifties full of scandalous humor and classical ambitions as well – part Henny Youngman, part Henry James, as he said of himself in his youth. By 2006, he was wrapping up a bounteous late burst of novels. He was also down at heart on the turn of events from 9.11 into the war in Iraq: “an orgy of national narcissism,” in his view. At the age of 73, with us, he sparkled through his grim notes on the dimming of his energy, the paring down of his own rich life, and what it would mean to die. Even then Philip Roth was rehearsing his death. And hard at work, writing every day.

If I can emerge from my studio with a page, I’m not downhearted. If I emerge with less, I’m pretty frustrated. If I emerge with nothing, then I want to slit my throat. I haven’t yet, but sometimes you can’t go any further. It’s not writer’s block, that’s not the right phrase to describe it — it’s that you are not penetrating the material in a way that will release whatever is strongest in you.

Philip Roth on Open Source

In Everyman, Roth paraphrases artist Chuck Close, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Part of the secret Roth offered, in an aside, may be his birth year 1933, the early depression. He’s conscious of entering the world at virtually the same moment with prolific writers he still admires: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Reynolds Price. We dropped many other names along the way: David Riesman, Sarah Vaughan, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, the several Henrys (Miller, James, Aaron, and Kissinger) and, yes, Tolstoy.

Podcast • May 8, 2018

Lisa Halliday’s ‘Asymmetry’

This is an unlocked, bonus segment of Open Source. You can hear weekly conversations and extended interviews like this one by subscribing and supporting our work on Patreon. The writer Zadie Smith first clued us ...

This is an unlocked, bonus segment of Open Source. You can hear weekly conversations and extended interviews like this one by subscribing and supporting our work on Patreon.

The writer Zadie Smith first clued us into the work of debut novelist Lisa Halliday, who spoke with us recently about her fantastic new book, and which we present here as a special podcast. Here’s how Chris set the scene of the conversation:

Lisa Halliday has written what feels like something new under the sun of American fiction. You’re going to hear Halliday reading from this nimble, quick, life-like book, titled: Asymmetry.

It’s named for its three mis-matching sections, which come to fit intricately and intimately together. First is a racy tale of an apprenticeship that is also a love affair between an old author (sounds like Philip Roth) and an aspiring young one (sounds like Lisa Halliday—though the names have been changed). Next comes a story that the young woman writes, on assignment almost, outside her comfort zone, about an American Muslim in the Iraq War. The third section circles back to let the old writer present himself anew being interviewed on “Desert Island Discs,” the age-old BBC program that lets guests talk about their favorite music, and digress till they’ve stripped themselves naked. In all three sections of Asymmetry, words move like the wind.

Podcast • October 3, 2017

Karl Ove Knausgaard on Art and Loneliness

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is a relief for him and us: It looks outward, in short pieces, letters to a new daughter before she was born, about Stubble Fields, Telephones, Wellington boots, chimneys, the painter Vincent Van Gogh. You name it, he’ll write it, a theme a day as in the college course we wish we’d taken.

In conversation it’s not one guy introspecting, it’s two guys groping for a connection, sitting in the back of my house in Boston for most of an hour in the storm season of 2017. What’s the difference, I’m asking, between his narcissism and President Trump’s?

We’re jumping from Russian novels to gene editing to the experience of loneliness, and I’m finding him wide open to engagement. He’s generous, transparent, in effect: innocent. Here’s an excerpt of the interview below:

Karl Ove Knausgaard: The books I’d been writing before were so introspective and so analytic and so self-analyzing. That’s very much about relations, very much about psychology, and it’s basically all about the interior life. And this book is the opposite. I’m looking at something outside of myself, and it is the things themselves that should be in the center, basically yes removed from myself. But from thing to me was to see what happens if you write, you know in your own style personally, about something objective that happens with an encyclopedia thought of the world, you know. Everything becomes, in the end, very personal anyway somehow. It’s impossible to remove yourself. You never think of quality of writing in an encyclopedic text, you know, in a dictionary. It’s just like it’s a matter of fact: this is the world. But what you discover when you write about it that’s just not true. The objective world just doesn’t exist. It’s all a relationship between me and the world and you and the world. There is nothing else.

Christopher Lydon: So why get out of yourself after so long inside? Was it for relief?

KOK: Yeah, very much a relief. It was joyful to write this book, and it wasn’t joyful to write My Struggle, as my previous book was called. But a joyful part is, you know, because I am writing about joyful things. I’m writing about being alive in this world, which is joyful. We do forget it all the time, but it is. And this book is mainly set in a garden and a house, and that’s it. That’s where the world is. I mean, even when there are hurricanes and, you know, climate change and all the wars and hunger and all of this, this is still true. It does exist.

Video: On Van Gogh and the Life of an Artist


Video by Zach Goldhammer. Illustrations by Susan Coyne.

This Week's Show •

Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words ...

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press.

Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, sees Baldwin as a mirror on American life:

He went really deep into what the society is, you know, and he was the only one who was able to formulate it in a way that a scholar of course would understand it but also the man in the streets would understand it in a way where he could be very critical to the white liberal but without pushing them away. But he found a way to put every one of us, whether black or white, in front of the reality. He put a mirror in front of us in a way that you can’t look away.

Teju Cole views the Baldwin of today as a master aphorist: a pithy prophet well-suited to the twitter age and “the go-to quote factory of those who are woke”. On a deeper level, Cole finds kinship in Baldwin’s transnational sense of self.  Cole guides us through his own pilgrimage to Leukerbad, Switzerland—the remote town where Baldwin composed his seminal essay “Stranger in the Village”:

The essay I ended up writing about this journey to Leukerbad became also a kind of exercise in Baldwinian form … I deeply love the essay that he wrote about being there, and in my essay, which I call “Black Body,” I wanted to think about what it meant to inhabit somebody else’s space. I was inhabiting his space and, in a sense in the essay, I was inhabiting his prose style. … it was conscious to allow that to happen, to allow the visceral effect of being there as he was there, walking the streets as he walked the streets, to let all of that come through and still have it be analytical.

Cornel West reminds us of Baldwin’s unpopularity, and his nagging truth-telling habit that alienated him, in later years, from the white liberal media professional who first popularized his work, as well as from the radical black nationalists. But for Brother West, this outsider truth-teller “was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart.”

“He was heartbroken.” Cornel says, “America broke his heart, day in and day out.”

And Ed Pavlic, author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, hears in Baldwin’s words echoes of the black musicians Baldwin dearly loved – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson et al. Above all else though, Pavlic reminds us of Baldwin’s deep love for Ray Charles, highlighting the concert Baldwin and Charles organized together at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1973 Newport Folk Festival.

 

Illustrations by Susan Coyne. This program was originally broadcast February 2017.

 

 

Podcast • February 28, 2017

George Saunders in the Afterlife

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about ...

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about his spooky transcendental first novel — about Abraham Lincoln in limbo with the son that died in the White House; immediately I was reminded of what Maxim Gorki noticed about Anton Chekhov, a Saunders idol: “In Anton Chekhov’s presence,” Gorki said, “every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self…”

And so it went for us with George Saunders. He’s famous for writing: “Stay open, forever, so open it hurts,” and he talks that way about everything – about his and his wife’s version of Tibetan Buddhism, for example; about his very complicated feelings inside Trump campaign rallies; about the notion he teaches that “if death is in the room,” as it is in throughout his new novel, the writing and the reading get pretty interesting. The book in question is titled Lincoln in the Bardo – using the Tibetan word for a mysterious space underground for lost souls after death, but not quite dead. He gave me a feeling it’s a zone we all might well get to know better.

This Week's Show •

Bob Dylan, The Poet

Bob Dylan, the poet, has been singing more than 50 years, but have you ever really stopped to listen to the words? Now that Dylan is a Nobel giant of literature, we asked Christopher Ricks, professor of English ...

Bob Dylan, the poet, has been singing more than 50 years, but have you ever really stopped to listen to the words? Now that Dylan is a Nobel giant of literature, we asked Christopher Ricks, professor of English at Boston University, for a line-by-line, close-reading of a few lyrical wonders.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-1-20-22-pm

 First page of “Like A Rolling Stone” manuscript.

Listening to Dylan the poet, you hear many things: rural protest storyteller, Greenwich village freewheeler, king of rock surrealism. A people’s poet and songster (in the tradition of Robert Burns), a modernist beatnik (in the zone of Allen Ginsburg), a classic versifier (in the bardic tradition of Orpheus—that’s what Salman Rushdie says), and a prolific quoter and sampler (in the old, weird, American blues style, as Greil Marcus says). The novelist Francine Prose hears Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman; the journalist Charlie Pierce hears gonzo journalism. Only Ricks would dare to compare Dylan to literary jumbos like Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Eliot.

Of course, Dylan is in a category of his own (not just because, unlike most writers, Dylan is heard through records, radio, and on stage); in fact, Ricks contends that Dylan the “greatest living user of the English language.”

dylantypewriter

Here are some of our favorite annotations from Ricks:

Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Christopher Ricks: Hanging is lynching… Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if “selling postcards of the hanging” was only a surrealist sickness. No, no. It was the American way of life. It was quite central. So then you move into these things that are surrealist, all right. “Painting the passports brown.” Oh, that’s “painting the town red.” And the town is going to turn up a moment later in the song. So you’ve got this strange feeling that you often have in a dream, that there’s a word just below the surface, there’s some sort of link, there are strange things floating one into the other. Is the “blind commissioner” a commissioner who is blind, or a commissioner for the blind? It’s blind partly because you’re visualizing things. Sound wonderfully visualizes.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen

She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage

And never sat once at the head of the table

And didn’t even talk to the people at the table

Who just cleaned up all the food from the table

And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level

Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane

That sailed through the air and came down through the room

Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle

And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger

And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears

Ricks: Cain, as the first killer, turns up in many of Dylan’s songs. So the question is, when you sing a word like “cane,” it’s identical in sound with C-A-I-N. And when you have “table,” “table,” “table”—are you near Abel? Maybe not. But it’s a little bit of a coincidence. You’ve got cane. “Slain by a cane” reminds you: That was the first killing ever. So that you’ve got the primal curse of mankind on it!

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,

And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,

Oh, do they think could bury you?

With your pockets well protected at last,

And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,

And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,

Who could they get to carry you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,

Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,

Should I put them by your gate,

Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Ricks: This is like a huge, Petrarchan poem. It’s like four, six sonnets by Petrarch. Every one of which lists all the wonderful apparatus which surrounds a seductive woman. The seduction may be her very goodness, or it may be other things about her. The song overlaps terrifically with Swinburne’s poem “Dolores,” where Dolores is our lady of sorrows, “the sad-eyed lady of the lowlands.” … The refrain is a very great beauty with great dignity. It’s about “should I lead them by her gate? Or sad eyed lady, should I wait?” “Should I wait” is like Shakespeare’s sonnets, where the speaker in the sonnets is always saying “please, I’m perfectly happy to wait, happy to wait”—with a terrific edge of resentment—and this a song which understands resentment. That is, it’s not simply grateful to a woman who puts you through all of this with her this and her that, “with your, with your, with your…” Terrific song. Terrifying song, really.

dylan at the piano

If you want to learn more about Dylan’s time in Cambridge, read our own Zach Goldhammer’s piece on the ARTery.

Illustration: Susan Coyne; Photos: Ted Russell/Polaris, Hulton Archive/Getty Images. The audio above is a re-run, broadcast June 8, 2017. Listen to the original program at the Internet Archive here.

Podcast • January 21, 2016

For C.D. Wright, Poet of the Ozarks

We lost C.D. Wright, our Ozarkian friend and poet, who put the history around her into verse so we might hold it in more beautiful detail — as in her nostalgic Ozark Odes and in One With Others, ...

We lost C.D. Wright, our Ozarkian friend and poet, who put the history around her into verse so we might hold it in more beautiful detail — as in her nostalgic Ozark Odes and in One With Others, Wright’s much-admired narrative poem rendering the Arkansas theater of our continuing Civil Rights epic.

Listening back to our 2011 conversation, we’re hearing Wright’s portrait of ‘V.’, her hero in life and in One With Others. The place was Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time was August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event was a March Against Fear led by one Sweet Willie Wine. “If white people can ride down the highways with guns in their trucks,” he insisted, “I can walk down the highway unarmed.”

V., the center of Wright’s poem, was the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — a mother of seven whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action showed Wright the provocative life and a reason to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”

Shortly after she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Wright told us about V. and her native Arkansas, then and now. One With Others renders home in mixed-media detail. Food price lists of the time and place (“Jack Sprat tea bags only 19 cents. A whole fryer is 59 cents… Cherokee freestone peaches, 5 cans for $1.”) are juxtaposed with Dear Abby advice columns in the local paper (“DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pairs of shorts once a week. Everybody has a problem. What’s yours?”) and intercut with the poet’s interviews — 40 years later — about her V.:

The woman who lived next door to the old house came outside to pick up her paper. I asked if she had known my friend V who lived there in the 1960s, and she allowed that she did. Flat out she says, She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t trust her. Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong. Then she shocked me, saying, They have souls just like us.”
— from One With Others.

We first met C.D. Wright at Brown University in 2008. As the Bush era ended, the playful Southern poetess had already turned urgently political, and angry, in her art. But she reminded us that mirth and anger, the personal and the historical are fused in the average human lifespan. As in the protestations of her grumpy subject in “Why Ralph Refuses to Dance”. As in the mountains she left and didn’t:

The Ozarks are a fixture in my mindscape, but I did not stay local in every respect. I always think of Miles Davis, “People who don’t change end up like folk musicians playing in museums, local as a motherfucker.” I would not describe my attachment to home as ghostly, but long-distanced. My ear has been licked by so many other tongues.
— from Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil.

By the Way • November 25, 2015

Colm Tóibín’s Working on his Sentences

This is provincial Ireland, a place of long winters but not freezing winters. There’s drizzle as much as there’s rain. You’re trying to find a style just to bring things down to size, maybe bring ...

This is provincial Ireland, a place of long winters but not freezing winters. There’s drizzle as much as there’s rain. You’re trying to find a style just to bring things down to size, maybe bring the melody down to a minor key, as though you’re making drawings instead of paintings. You’re attempting a sort of insistent rhythm which might make its way into the reader’s nervous system… You’re working really with a sort of muted music arising from pain, from things that are difficult, arising from loss. And in that world of small holdings, small houses, small hopes, people are good at leaving things out, not saying them.

Colm Tóibín in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November 2015.

Of course you want to put Colm Tóibín to music — his literary prose in novels like Brooklyn and Nora Webster. Also his gab, as here. Perhaps the hot / traditional Irish band The Gloaming is called for. That bewitching Irish volubility, including his own, Tóibín says, is rooted in a love of silence. It’s a point of his connection with the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, whom he’s reading aloud here, to stunning effect. Tóibín in the southeastern Wexford County, Ireland and Bishop in Nova Scotia seem both to have taken to language as a device to constrain or “restrain” experience. “I have a close relationship with silence,” he says. “With things withheld, with things known and not said. I think there is an impression abroad that Irish people are very garrulous — that there’s an awful lot of talking in Ireland. This may be the case but it’s often there to mask things that nobody wants to talk about.”

IMG_2268

Colm Tóibín’s great teachers are Henry James — of whom he’s written and spoken volumes; and James Joyce, especially in Dubliners (1914) — for the melancholy realism, the “scrupulous meanness,” as Joyce put it to a publisher; but also the lyrical pulse of poetic rhythm that has a force of its own.

Joyce charged defiantly into exile, self-consciously a breaker of convention, drawing a bead on “history” as the “nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Colm Tóibín casts himself differently — not a conservative exactly, but as the man who observes continuity under the easy impression of rupture in Ireland a century after the Easter Rising of 1916. Ireland is in broad and deep turmoil again — the Celtic Tiger economy still in shambles after the meltdown, its government discredited, church rule overthrown by the same-sex marriage rules enacted by an overwhelming referendum last Spring. But Tóibín is remarking on traditions being extended in Ireland — in the best-read young writers like Eimear McBride in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing; or Colin Barrett in the stories of Young Skins; also by Martin Hayes and other rock-star musicians in the fiddle tradition; and most specially in the gay-marriage vote:

“The great example was Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland. She was able to say: ‘I have twins, and one of them is gay. Who is to tell me that child of mine is to be discriminated against in this country.’ The campaign was studiously about presenting people as Irish and family members before being gay. It was not about a marginalized group looking for rights. It was about making Ireland seem a traditional place — with a tradition of including people.”

Podcast • May 28, 2015

James Wood: The Book(s) of Life

The book critic James Wood doesn’t worry about the fate of the novel — after years of reading them, writing them, reviewing them in The New Yorker and teaching them at Harvard. In his new book, The Nearest ...

The book critic James Wood doesn’t worry about the fate of the novel — after years of reading them, writing them, reviewing them in The New Yorker and teaching them at Harvard.

In his new book, The Nearest Thing To Life, Wood never once writes about the novel as the kind of tired contrivance that’s driving ‘reality hunger’, that’s being outpaced by new journalism, film, social media, or video games. Novels, he argues, scratch an itch most things can’t reach. And he’s persuasive. He reminds you that this unwieldy form — the long-written lie that tells the truth — has passed the test of its readership continually now for centuries.

In the time of Robinson Crusoe, the very idea seemed dubious enough that William Taylor, that book’s publisher, felt the need to promise in a preface that he

believe[d] the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are disputed, that the Improvement of it, as well as the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same.

A kind of beginning: it might be real life, or might as well be real life, for all that you take away from it in reading.

Today, fiction functions as the nearest thing to scripture for a secular age. Wood, who has written about his frustrated relationship with the Christianity of his parents, feels that the novel’s power and popularity comes from its comedy, its secularism, from leaving behind Christ the King and picking up where Jesus the forgiver left off in the Book of John:

That sense of forgiveness is, I think, one of the things that most moved me, and moves me, about fiction. In part for personal reasons: that I was growing up in a somewhat unforgiving world, that there was a lot of official talk about Jesus as a forgiver, but it seemed that too often was just rhetoric, which was sad. What was grinding against that was a more evangelical emphasis on sin and correction and therefore punishment — certainly judgment. Forgiveness was hard to come by. The novel — storytelling, when it was done right — seemed to me to offer comprehension and forgiveness for all, for every type of person.

Christ_and_the_Woman_Taken_in_Adultery_Bruegel
So, Wood concludes, beyond powers of instruction and revelation, love and empathy, horror and humanity, greatness in a novel means never finally pronouncing on the goodness or badness of character or action. The great novelist proceeds according to her own distinct rules, three simple ones: “There’s nothing new under the sun,” “nothing human is alien to me,” and “every thought is permissible.”

James and Chris discussed ten books in this podcast.

– Max Larkin.

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard.