The Mystery of the Oldest Woman in the World, the Decline of the Novel, and Munch’s Fading Scream
Good morning.The Canterbury Talesgets an app, which includes “a 45-minute audio performance of the work’s General Prologue in Middle English.”
Peter Thiel reviews Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society: “Douthat’s book is well-timed. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Quentin Tarantino’s painstaking recreation of the year 1969 summon the same nagging question: How far have we come since then? Few men in the street would be able to evaluate the progress of, say, physics as instantiated in string theory. But everyone should be able to tell whether or not the streets around us, and the expectations of life, have been transformed for the better. Are we making progress? Not so much, Douthat answers.”
Why is Edvard Munch’s The Screamfading?
I guess it pays to throw a tantrum: “The artist Sonia Boyce has been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale – the first black woman to do so. Her work will fill the UK pavilion from May until November next year. Boyce, who lives and works in London, caused controversy two years ago when she removed John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs from the wall of the Manchester Art Gallery for a week. She wrote in the Guardian that the action was intended to draw attention to the way decisions are made in museums about what is made visible to the public.”
Meet Heidi, the robot who will paint your portrait for up to £20,000.
A £150,000 Fazioli piano—the only one of its kind—is destroyed by movers.
The novel is in decline, Joseph Bottum argues. Why? “The sad truth is that the novel now doesn’t occupy the same cultural high ground, and it doesn’t typically feel to readers like a practical device for addressing problems. The decline of the novel’s prestige reflects a new crisis born of our culture’s increasing failure of intellectual nerve and its terminal doubt about its own progress.”
Essay of the Day:
In The New Yorker, Lauren Collins asks if Jeanne Calment was “the oldest person who ever lived—or a fraud”?
“People in France remember the summer of 1997 for the deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Jeanne Calment. The first became a household name by marrying into royalty; the second, by caring for the world’s sick and poor. Jeanne Calment, however, was an accidental icon, her celebrity the result of a form of passivity. For a hundred and twenty-two years, five months, and fourteen days, Calment managed not to die.
“She was born at home on the Rue du Roure, in Arles, one of only four addresses she ever held. That February morning, in 1875, lavender smoke commingled with the cold in the tight streets of La Roquette, a traditional neighborhood of fishermen and the maritime trades. Plastic, tea bags, public trash cans, and the zipper had yet to come into the world. The life expectancy for a French woman was forty-five. Approximately one billion five hundred million people walked the planet, and Calment would outlive them all.
“Later in life, Calment claimed to have known Vincent van Gogh, telling different versions of an encounter with him in 1888. ‘Van Gogh was very ugly. Ugly like a louse,’ she once remembered. ‘We called him le dingo.’ According to one anecdote, van Gogh came into her family’s drygoods store, on Rue Gambetta, wanting to buy canvas. Calment sometimes said that her father waited on him. Her father, however, was a shipbuilder; the store actually belonged to her husband’s family. Another time Calment recalled, ‘My husband said to him, ‘I present to you my wife.’ ’ This recollection was also blurred: Calment, an adolescent in 1888, didn’t marry for another eight years.
“She had known her husband, Fernand Calment, her entire life. Their paternal grandfathers were brothers, and their paternal grandmothers were sisters, making Jeanne and Fernand double second cousins. They had a daughter, Yvonne, in 1898. Jeanne never worked, but led a busy life of recreational pursuits, including tennis, roller-skating, and stalking wild boar. The Calments lived in grand apartments above the family store. Jeanne appeared occasionally, cutting an imperious figure. ‘Madame Calment wanted to impose her taste on me,’ a woman later said, remembering a girlhood errand to buy fabric. ‘Stubborn, I stuck with my choice, replying in a tone that didn’t please her. I haven’t forgotten the pair of slaps.’
“In 1934, Yvonne died of complications from tuberculosis, leaving behind a husband, Colonel Joseph Billot, and a seven-year-old son, Freddy. Jeanne and Fernand took care of the boy as though he were their own. In 1942, some friends of the Calments invited the couple to their country house. During the visit, Fernand gorged on cherries, while Jeanne had one or two. The cherries were tainted with chemicals, and, within a few months, Jeanne was a widow. Two years later, women got the vote in France. The Eiffel Tower was just past fifty. Calment was sixty-seven, with nearly half her life in front of her.”
Photo: Maria Rain
Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.