The Translation Game: Thomas Mann and Du Fu

[An issue of my newsletter Leaflet]

In The Three-Cornered World, a novel by Sōseki, the Japanese novelist I wrote about last week, a painter aims to “separate and discard the scratchy sand of human emotion to discover the pure gold that lies beneath it.” In an endnote, Sōseki’s biographer relates this principled aesthetic detachment to a similar idea put forward by the hero of Thomas Mann’s story “Tonio Kröger”:

For the fact is: all healthy emotion, all strong emotion, lacks taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. David Luke

The observation has some truth in it, and I like the astringency, even if it’s also true that no great art can be made without strong emotion. It’s the sort of insight it makes sense to put in the mouth of a fictional character. I think what I like in novels is strong emotion that’s resisted, frustrated, constrained, or otherwise dragged against. In any case, the quote prompted me to think that I should really read “Tonio Kröger” one of these days, and I took down off the shelf the copy we have in the house, which turns out to give a different translation of the passage:

For a strong and sound feeling has no taste—and that's that.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Joachim Neugroschel

This didn’t quite land, to my ear. It almost sounded as if the person sampling strong feeling had come down with COVID-19 and lost the use of his taste buds. “And that’s that” seemed a little flip, too. I was wandering into what my husband and I call the Translation Game, which is when you become obsessed with which version of a classic text is the one to read. Ideally, one player tracks down parallel passages and reads them aloud while player two, eyes closed or averted, renders a verdict. (On my ancient blog, I once played multiple solo rounds on the various translations of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.)

I was able to find two more renderings of the sentence:

For every healthy and strong emotion, that is beyond doubt, is tasteless.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Bayard Quincy Morgan

Slightly awkward. “That is beyond doubt” is supposed to be an interjection, judging by the way it’s rendered in the rival translations, but where it’s placed here, it could easily be mistaken for a clause qualifying “strong emotion,” that is, as saying that strong feelings that are beyond doubt are tasteless. Another problem: “is tasteless,” in English, approaches in meaning “is offensive,” and saying that emotion gives offense seems to me a less subtle argument than saying it lacks taste.

For sound natural feeling, say what you like, has no taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Helen Lowe-Porter

This doesn’t quite work, either, because it seems possible that what’s being argued is that strong emotion is flavorless, which hardly seems likely to be what Mann (or Kröger) meant. I award this round to David Luke (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Neugroschel, Morgan, or Lowe-Porter wouldn’t win on another passage).


A couple of months ago, a review in the New York Review of Books by Madelein Thien led me to David Hinton’s translations of the classic Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu). As Thien explains, translating Chinese poetry into English is more or less impossible because of “the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems.” Between the ideograms that make up a verse of written Chinese poetry, visual resonances are possible that just can’t occur in English. “The dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface,” Thien writes. Chinese verbs don’t have tenses, and Hinton claims that the pronoun “I,” in an English translation of a classic Chinese poem, is almost always a translator’s interpolation. It seems that translators have to prune away some of a classical Chinese poem’s ambiguity to have any hope of making English out of it—which means there can be radical disparities, from translation to translation, in what the same poem seems to mean on a literal level.

To suggest the polysemy that can’t be translated, Hinton deploys an elliptical, compressed English that sometimes left my prosaic mind stuck on the problem of what exactly was happening. Here, for example, are the closing lines of his version of a poem by Du Fu that he titles “New Year’s Eve”:

Dawn, the fortieth year of my flight 
into dusk light's over. Who changes,
who even slows this dead dazzling
drunk in the wings of life we live?
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. David Hinton

Hinton explains in an endnote that in China, a person’s age ticks up at New Year’s rather than on his birthday. So the feeling of renewal that people around the world associate with the New Year may be combined in China with the regret about lost youth and the pride in survival that an American usually associates with birthdays. That clarifies the mood, a little. But is the “drunk” in the last line a drunk person or an episode of drunkenness? What are the “wings of life we live”? Why is someone thinking about changing or slowing down a drunk (or an episode of drunkenness)?

In my puzzlement, I put down the book and went online, where I found an essay about Kenneth Rexroth’s reworkings of Chinese poetry that printed both a 1945 Rexroth version of the same poem and Rexroth’s probable source (he didn’t know much Chinese), a more literal translation by Florence Ayscough in 1929. Here’s Ayscough’s rendering of the lines:

At bright dawn my years will bridge four tens; 
I fly, I gallop towards the slanting shadows of sunset.  
Who can alter this, who can bridle, who restrain the moments? 
Fiery intoxication is a life’s career. 
     —Tu Fu, "A New Year Vigil at Tu Wei’s House," tr. Florence Ayscough

Though “my years will bridge four tens” seems pointlessly quirky, the line “Fiery intoxication is a life’s career” is heady and absolute. And Ayscough conveys the emotional logic of the closing lines more clearly than Hinton does: in her version, the poem’s speaker sees himself as in decline, as falling—the setting sun has put him in mind of this—and there’s a parallel between his wish to halt the setting of the sun, which will mark him as a year older and that much more of a lost cause, and his wish to halt his own decline. Thus the exhilaration of the last line, which damns the torpedoes.

Here’s Rexroth, meanwhile:

                                   Soon now 
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. and adapted by Kenneth Rexroth

I like this a little less than Ayscough, actually. Her bridge of “four tens” is more sensibly rendered as “my fortieth year,” but the whole question of whether to halt, or try to halt, the sunset and/or one’s own decline has been lost in translation. Rexroth’s version of the poet has made up his mind to a future of ecstasy and decay. He’s almost looking forward to it.

The most scholarly translation I could find is by Stephen Owen:

Tomorrow I pass my fortieth year, 
evening light slants too low for a meteoric rise. 
Who can continue to stay so constrained?— 
utter drunkenness will be the rest of my life. 
     —Tu Fu, "New Years Eve at Du Wei’s Home," tr. Stephen Owen (poem 2.11)

In his notes, Owen argues that Du Fu’s reference to his fortieth year “echoes Confucius’s dictum that one should get established in one’s thirties,” and that the opposition between the slanting evening light and a now-impossible meteoric rise in the second line here is a symbolic way for the poet to convey that “it is too late in my life to rise swiftly.” I didn’t get any of this career anxiety from Hinton, Ayscough, or Rexroth. All versions, however, seem to oppose the sun’s downward setting to an upward motion that the poet has been attempting. Tomorrow morning the sun sets on forty years of my upward striving, is maybe the paradoxical idea.

It’s striking how completely Owen’s understanding of the rhetorical question in the penultimate line reverses that of the other translators. Their versions ask who wants to (or can) halt the decline of the sun and the poet; Owen’s asks who can bear to be held back from decline. There must be an ambiguity about subject and object in the original. Or maybe a touch of humor? Something like, Drink up, fall down—who will stop, or could even stand to stop, the career of a lifetime?

Owen is also chaster with imagery than the other translators. There’s a sunset in his version, as there is in everyone’s, but there’s a bird in Hinton, and there’s fire in Ayscough and Rexroth. Are they reading the Chinese characters differently, or emphasizing different resonances in the same characters? The answer is probably yes, and my final verdict on this round of the Translation Game is that the best translation of Du Fu is two or three of them.

Life and unhappy novels

[An issue of my newsletter Leaflet]

“In spring everything becomes drowsy. The cat forgets to chase the mouse, and men forget that they have debts.” —Sōseki, The Three-Cornered World


I’ve been interested in Sōseki since reading, a few years ago, a Penguin translation of his 1914 novel Kokoro. Something about its plainspoken, depressive, somewhat crypto-gay view of the world spoke to me. A month and a half ago, I read his 1915 novel Grass on the Wayside, his only novel drawn directly from his life. It’s about a man in early middle age who has returned to his wife and children in Japan after a long sojourn abroad. The bonds between him and his young family seem damaged, and both he and they seem ambivalent, even reluctant, about letting the bonds heal. The bickering between him and his wife is fierce. He’s having trouble finding his way back into his professional life—money is a problem. And then his former adoptive father shows up, saying he wants to adopt him again. It’s a confusing request. The older man may only be asking for a handout, now that the protagonist has secured a place for himself in the world, however tenuous.

Their relationship is a little hard to explain, I think even to Japanese readers. Like Sōseki himself, the protagonist of Grass on the Wayside was given up for adoption by his natural parents at a very young age, for reasons unclear, and the placement was in many ways an unhappy one. “He did not mind so much being owned physically,” Sōseki writes, of the protagonist’s feelings about his adoptive parents, “but even his childish heart grew fearful at the thought of becoming emotionally enslaved to them.” The placement hadn’t lasted. After his adoptive father left to live with a new girlfriend, the child was returned to his biological parents, who took him back only grudgingly. It’s understandable that the novel’s protagonist wishes for the dispiriting, humiliating story to stay in the past. He owes nothing to the man, everyone around him repeats. To protect his finances, to keep his emotional balance, he really has no choice but to turn the man away. The problem is, some of the most vivid memories of his childhood are associated with this adoptive father.

The two of them often went out boating, accompanied by a boatman dressed in the traditional straw skirt. When they were some distance from the land the boatman would cast his net, and Kenzo [the protagonist] would watch the gray mullet with their silver scales dancing frantically as they were brought to the surface. Sometimes the boatman would take them three or four miles out and catch gilthead. On such occasions the boat rocked so much that Kenzo could hardly keep awake. He enjoyed himself most when a swellfish was caught. As it puffed up in anger Kenzo would tap it with a chopstick as though it were a drum.

If the protagonist has any pleasant childhood memories associated with his biological father, in the novel they go unmentioned. Turning his adoptive father away, therefore, is an act of mourning, made more bitter and more complex by a perceived social obligation to deny that there is anything to mourn.

The character takes out some of his bitterness on his very young daughters, whose appearance he disparages. “One ugly child after another, and to what end?” he complains. The outburst seemed a little shocking to me, in such an openly autobiographical novel—didn’t Sōseki worry about what his actual daughters would think?—and last month I read John Nathan’s 2018 biography of Sōseki, in part because I wanted to know more about the relationship here between fiction and reality. It seems that Sōseki struggled with mental illness all his life and went through periods of believing that those closest to him were persecuting him. Several of his children were to recall him as irritable, unpredictable, and violent. Though Nathan’s inclination as a biographer seems to be to honor his subject, he seems thrown by the cruelty that Sōseki showed his family. In letters to his wife, for example, he reprimanded her harshly for what he perceived as her baldness and bad teeth. Perhaps the best that can be said is that Sōseki did not leave much of his own moral ugliness out of the portrait that he drew of himself in Grass on the Wayside, in which the husband is decidedly not more sympathetic than the wife (confusingly, Sōseki did omit from his novel the paranoid delusions that he experienced, which might have extenuated the moral ugliness), and that it and Kokoro still feel to me like groundbreaking, moving works, despite my knowing more about his personal shortcomings.


“There is not a single Western dish, with perhaps the possible exception of salad and radishes, which could be said to have an attractive color. What the nutritional value is I am unable to say, but from the artistic point of view, their food is extremely uncivilized.” —Sōseki, Three-Cornered World


There is more pathos, though again much sorrow, in the episode in Sōseki’s life just prior to the unwanted return of his foster father. In 1900, after Sōseki had become a successful professor of English literature, popular with students despite his rigorous demands on them, his employer, the Japanese government, ordered him to study English-language pedagogy for two years in London. Perhaps sensing that he lacked the psychosocial wherewithal to thrive on his own abroad, Sōseki tried to get out of it, but the ministry of education only relented to the extent of allowing him to study literature rather than language pedagogy. “The two years I spent in London were the most miserable time of my life,” he later wrote. “Among the English gentlemen, like a stray dog mixing with a pack of wolves, I eked out a pathetic existence.” He contacted and studied with several English dons but did not make a meaningful connection with any of them. His stipend from the Japanese government was inadequate, and in search of quiet, clean lodgings, he moved many times. He socialized little. Perhaps in an attempt to justify his isolation, he complained repeatedly in his diary that his command of English language and literature was better than that of native English speakers around him. “I mostly stay alone and lose myself in my reading,” he wrote to his wife. He bought four hundred volumes of English literature, including Spenser, Burney, Austen, Meredith, and James, and read incessantly, almost self-punitively, as if trying to cram into himself a knowledge of all English literature in just two years. Two landladies of his told a visiting Japanese colleague that he “stayed in his room for days on end, weeping in the darkness,” Nathan writes. Reports reached the Japanese ministry of education that he had gone insane.

Upon his return to Japan, Sōseki was so unwell, psychologically, that his wife took the children and moved in with her parents for two months, for safety. This was the period fictionalized in Grass on the Wayside. Despite his illness, he was able to keep up a public front, and he taught Johnson, George Eliot, and Shakespeare to great acclaim at a higher school and then at Tokyo Imperial University. But what was he looking forward to? It must have seemed to him that he was condemned to spending the rest of his life teaching and studying the literature of a country where he had been deeply unhappy. But then, in late 1904, inspired by Laurence Sterne, he began a satirical novel told from the point of view of a cat (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read yet). It was a hit. Two more novels quickly followed, and in 1907, Japan’s largest-circulation newspaper offered to pay him a monthly salary to print his future novels in serial format. He left the academy and spent the rest of his life not studying English literature but remaking Japan’s.

Oh L’Amour

Peter and I thoroughly enjoyed the HBO Max show It’s a Sin this weekend. Set in London in the 1980s, it follows a group of young gay men as they come out of the closet and are beset by AIDS. Not every character in the show is gay. Parents play key roles, and much of the action is seen through the eyes of a young woman, apparently straight, who is a friend and roommate. I think my favorite character in the show was Colin, a phlegmatic, responsible, incontrovertibly gay but decidedly unflashy young man from Wales, who works as an intern at a Savile Row haberdashery and seems too cautious to act on his sexual impulses. Most of the characters are types rather than individuals, in the way of TV shows, but Colin was a type I hadn’t seen on screen before, so I never knew what he was going to do next, which I liked. The show hits a few wrong notes (which I’ll get to), but I laughed and cried and at times found it almost overwhelmingly evocative.

The soundtrack has a lot to do with how evocative. Soft Cell, Yazoo, Erasure, Wham, Kate Bush, the Eurythmics, and of course PSB: in my recollection, these were in fact the songs that we were listening to. “Music was so much more fun then,” I muttered to Peter, early in the first episode, as the middle-aged are wont to do. Artificial, calculated, trivial, effeminate, decadent songs. More pleasurable than songs should have been, and pleasurable to a part of me that I felt I probably wasn’t supposed to be indulging. Since a few of the show’s actors speak with strong British accents and a certain amount of British slang, to us impenetrable, Peter and I watched with the subtitles on, which meant that when the closed-captioner mislabeled a cover of the song “I Feel Love,” Peter muttered, “That’s not Donna Summer. It’s Bronski Beat.” And when the closed-captioner characterized the intro to a Pet Shop Boys song as “melodramatic music,” I harrumphed. (I mean, yes. But . . .) Peter effortlessly remembers the release dates of almost all these songs and reports that the songs keep pace with the imagined moment of the TV show’s story with an almost military rigor.

That imagined moment doesn’t exactly match the timing of my own debut into gay life. The show begins in 1981 and ends in 1991; I came out in 1989. Some amateur, armchair sociology: apps have probably changed everything now, but in the old days, gay bars were the stage for the public drama of our lives, and my sense back then was that as a general rule, one got to tread that stage from roughly age 20 to 35, making a gay man’s generation a rather short fifteen years. I overlapped a little with the generation portrayed in the show, and I knew many people who were in that generation, but I wasn’t quite in it myself. And in terms of the history of AIDS, the half-generation separating us was crucial. Before I came out, I knew that AIDS was a lethal sexually transmitted disease caused by HIV, and I knew that I could lower my risk significantly by using condoms or modifying what I did in bed. When the characters in the show started having sex with one another, on the other hand, not even scientists knew any of that. My gay generation lived in the shadow of AIDS, and it shaped nearly everything about our romantic and sexual lives, but we did not bear as heavy a burden of illness and death as the men who preceded us.

Which doesn’t mean we bore no burden, nor does it mean we weren’t completely petrified. When the central gay character in the show, a charming, fey, bumblingly but also ruthlessly narcissistic aspiring actor named Ritchie Tozer (played by Olly Alexander, who in real life is a pop star who has collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys), neurotically examines himself for spots and sores, I identified, uncomfortably. Also, sitting in a clinic waiting for one’s name (or pseudonym) to be called, terrified to hear the results of one’s HIV test: twenty-five years later it’s still a little too real and maybe also too soon? Not all the memories that the show brought back were grim. I also recognized the way some of the characters went to bed with each other as a way of becoming friends, a lighthearted aspect of gay life that the HBO show Looking largely overlooked in its focus on the drama of Finding the Right Man. I hope that in the age of apps, hook-ups still sometimes undergo that kind of evolution. It would be regrettable if the freemasonry of pleasure were to give way to an assortative rationalization of it (he says from the safe, ignorant harbor of middle-aged monogamy).

To add a little amateur history to the amateur sociology: The hinge for my gay generation came in 1996, when researchers proved that treating HIV with three different antiretroviral drugs at the same time boxed the virus into a metaphorical corner that it couldn’t mutate itself out of. In a wealthy country like America—or, rather, in zip codes in a wealthy country like America where people could afford healthcare—everything about AIDS changed once this treatment became available. Life expectancies dramatically lengthened, and the reigning social understandings of the disease were transformed. From the virus’s perspective, unfortunately, the new treatment figured only as a speed bump, if that. The rate of HIV infection in the U.S. population has only declined moderately since triple-drug treatment debuted. Given current rates of infection, one out of six gay or bisexual men in America will still contract HIV during his lifetime. Meanwhile, AIDS remains the leading cause of death in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and death rates from the disease also remain high in Russia, Thailand, and parts of the Caribbean and South America.)

The show ends, as I said, in 1991, so that, medically speaking, it depicts a world where the cavalry never arrives. (It’s thus a big weepie, be forewarned.) It’s maybe irrecoverable now how potent the fear of death combined with the centuries-old stigma around homosexuality then was. A few instances of ostracization are dramatized in the show, but what maybe can’t be put on screen is the subsonic rumble of silence, the rarely voiced distaste of the larger society. (It wasn’t until June 15, 1987, for example, that the New York Times allowed the use of the word gay as a value-neutral synonym for homosexual. In the mid 1990s, a boyfriend of mine kept on his wall a front page of the New York Times that he had had framed because it used the word three different times, which impressed him as a milestone.) Many times, in the past twelve months, I have had the morbid thought how much nicer it is to go through a plague that straight people are dying in larger numbers from, too. It’s a relief not to have to worry about upsetting them if one fails to hide or downplay sufficiently one’s fear or grief. It has been liberating to listen to them loudly and confusedly arguing about what matters more—the meanings and pleasures available through human contact, or the safety that can be afforded by isolation. There’s an enjoyable perversity in noticing that people who prioritized safety over contact during the AIDS epidemic were tagged as conservative, while those who prioritize safety during COVID-19 are thought of as liberal. In It’s a Sin, a distraught mother exclaims that society would react very differently if there were a disease killing as many straight men as AIDS was killing gay ones. The claim isn’t speculation any more; as of this past year, it’s proven historical fact.

I seem to have got distracted from the criticism that I was going to make, but maybe in the end it’s more an observation. The generation who hit the gay bars in 1981 was to a startling extent wiped out. If you were to try to sell a nostalgic TV show just to them, you’d have almost no audience. The scriptwriters of It’s a Sin have understandably made a few adjustments. One is putting at the center of the story not a gay man but a young woman named Jill, who ends up being more dedicated to AIDS activism than most of her gay male friends. That in itself isn’t a distortion of the historical evidence. There were many such women in real life, many of them lesbian (Jill’s sexuality is left undefined). (Full disclosure: though I had friends in the activist movement, and felt sympathetic with it, I never took part myself.) Another modification is a shift in political sensibility. In one scene, when a somewhat dotty neighbor volunteers that she thinks AIDS victims are angels in disguise, one of the gay characters is so outraged that he throws a traffic barrier through her shop window. That felt like an off note. The movement’s displays of anger were almost always directed toward authorities and institutions—government, churches, pharmaceutical companies—and they were strategic, planned carefully in advance. To meet misguided sympathy with violence seems more a Twitter kind of mood—a retrojection. Similarly, in another late scene, a character berates a dead gay man’s mother, blaming on her all the shame and stigma that gay men dying of AIDS have been made to carry. I’m afraid I cringed. It sounded to me like something a teenager might wish he could say—or something a TV producer might imagine a teenager wishes to say—but not like the sort of thing that one grieving adult would say to another, no matter how misbegotten the other person’s understanding of sexuality might be. It’s a common move nowadays on social media to write people off, but one of the brilliant tactics of the AIDS activist movement was to engage with opponents, win their respect, and sometimes turn them into allies. (Cf. Larry Kramer and Anthony Fauci.)

Spinning wheels

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

n+1 has published a longish short story of mine, “The Remainder,” in their latest issue—a retelling of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, but gay, and at the end of the world. For the record, I wrote it about a year and a half ago, when I had no idea that respiratory pandemics would become a part of the background of my own daily life so soon. (I am a very poor self-promoter and should have flogged this in an issue of this newsletter months ago.)

Another story of mine, “Massachusetts,” is coming out in the spring 2021 (i.e., the next) issue of The Yale Review.

For the past three years, our dog has had a progressive, incurable disease called canine degenerative myelopathy. Slowly but steadily, the neural connection between his brain and his extremities is breaking down. He’s still very much himself, but his back legs have gone from uncoordinated to wobbly to collapsing to . . . wheels. The wheels came about last week after a stranger noticed that Peter was supporting Toby’s back legs in a harness and came up to say that a dog of hers had had the same illness and that she still had his doggy wheelchair in her basement, if we were interested. As it happens, she’s the owner of Slope Cellars, a wine store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and when we picked up the wheels, I realized that I had bought the wine for our wedding picnic and for the launch of Necessary Errors from her. As soon as we put the wheels on, Toby started racing around our living room, and we’re super grateful.

Related: I have found Stuart McGill’s book Back Mechanic very helpful in alleviating back pain.

A few friends have books coming out soon: Peter Mendelsund’s new novel The Delivery(FSG) is launching on Tuesday, February 9, at McNally Jackson. Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind (Hogarth) is launching on Monday, March 22, also at McNally Jackson. On the horizon: Liz Brown’s Twilight Man: Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire (Penguin, May 18), Christopher Cox’s The Deadline Effect: How to Work Like It’s the Last Minute—Before the Last Minute (Avid Reader, July 6), Hermione Hoby’s Virtue (Riverhead, July 20). Also, my essay on Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters will be collected in an anthology, B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites (Columbia University Press, June 21).

“It is with poetry as with chess and billiards—there is a certain degree of attainment, which labor and practice will reach, and beyond which no vigils and vows will go. —So the motto for my stanzas shall be ‘Non licat cuivis adire Corinthum’ [Not everyone can go to Corinth].” —John Quincy Adams, diary, 31 March 1829

“When men were no longer found, their place was supplied by machines.” —Gibbon, Decline and Fall

“At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write.” —Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

“He had not the slightest suspicion that in winning an argument one might end up fooling oneself as well as the opponent.” —Soseki, Grass on the Wayside

Late and getting later

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

Come phone-bank with me on Halloween, at 3pm California time / 6pm New York time! The phone-banking will be under the auspices of Auk the Vote, a Democratic-leaning birders’ get-out-the-vote campaign organized by my friend (and fellow birder) David Robinson, but no birding experience is required. The calls are to Western states where the aim is to flip Senate seats. If, like me, you’ve never phone-banked before, there are training sessions you can take. Alternatively, if DIY is your learning style, there are FAQs, scripts, and how-to videos. I’ll be giving away some paperbacks of Overthrowto participants. Please sign up! Hope to see you there!

In a brilliant short essay about the mood of this election year, Elaine Blair taps a creepy Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale for the idea that sometimes an awful moment turns out to be, in retrospect, relatively speaking much better than what follows. “Remember worrying about the prospect of climate destruction?” she asks. Which reminds me of a climate scientist whom the New York Times quoted in September: “Don’t think of it as the warmest month of August in California in the last century. Think of it as one of the coolest months of August in California in the next century.”

Scarlatti’s sonata Kk. 213, “The Lover,” shares six notes with the theme song to the HBO show Succession, but they happen to be the most important six notes in both pieces of music. (In the Scarlatti, the notes are audible at 1’40”.)

“Bathed in the Lake from the boat. It was brilliantly fine. R—— dipped her paddles in occasionally just to keep the boat from grounding. Then I clambered over the bows and stood up to dry myself in the sun like one of Mr. Tuke’s young men.” —W. N. P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man

One wants to feel that one’s country is a force for good, and that when it hurts people unjustly, it’s an exceptional case. But as I was reading this devastating story by Laura Secor about an Iranian materials scientist (New Yorker), against whom the FBI ginned up fake charges in order to try to pressure him to become a spy, and who fought the fake charges in an American court and won—only to be tossed into ICE moments after his name was cleared, and to nearly die of COVID during his inexplicable seven-month further detention, I realized that I’m not at all sure America is a force for good right now. If I believed that a forceful, deeply reported journalistic account like Secor’s would prompt the government to mend its ways, that would be one thing. But I don’t have any confidence that it will, and arbitrary, indefinite detention of the innocent in sadistic, squalid concentration camps is just not something a good country does.

James Pogue went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, a few months before Jacob Blake was shot there, and found the remnants of the working-class, union-fortified culture that the Democratic Party once championed (Harper’s).

For years, John Jeremiah Sullivan has collected early photos of Black life and music, and now he has donated a group of them to MoMA, and written a lovely essay about them (MoMA): “One has tried to imagine this scene so many times without ever really expecting to see it. Then someone hands you a telescope and says, ‘Here.’” (My guess, fwiw, is that the two women in the second picture are dancing. Note the feet of the woman on the right—heels together, toes out, up on the balls of her feet—and the hands of the woman on the left, which look to me to be in the position that hands fall into after you’ve just snapped your fingers.)

“It’s not that she doesn’t know him well, it’s that anyone who has followed him with a mild interest already knows him too well to be surprised by revelations of kind or of degree”: Anne Diebel on Trump family dynamics (NYRB).

“We disagree about who had the idea for the next stage, but deep down we both know it was one of us”: Rafil Kroll-Zaidi on couplehood and storage units (Harper’s).

“The idea of Ferrante’s books overflowing or exploding with anger belies the calm of her narrators as they describe earlier selves overtaken by rage”: Elaine Blair on Elena Ferrante (NYRB).

“Inextricable from the malfeasance that has made the United States uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19 is a widespread failure to imagine one’s own mortality—and a tendency to project it onto others, whose deaths are deemed unfortunate inevitabilities”: Julian Lucas on Hervé Guibert (New Yorker).

“Unlike most recent Democrat and Republican nominees for president he isn’t a meritocrat (Dukakis, the Clintons, Obama) or an aristocrat (the Bushes, Gore, Kerry), or the son of a powerful father (McCain, Romney, Trump)”: Christian Lorentzen on Joe Biden (LRB).

“Anxiety about the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have done more for gun sales than the 9/11 attacks, and even more than the election of Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook shootings, when Americans thought that guns were about to become illegal and that they needed to stock up”: Deborah Friedell on the NRA (LRB).

Meanwhile, it’s fall migration season, and very close to the end thereof, and on my blog, I’ve gone a little overboard with the nature photographs, such as, for instance, of cedar waxwings, blackpoll warblers, morning fog, golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, black-throated blue warblers, pine siskins, and chipmunks.