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The First Newspapers, in Praise of Barry Manilow, and Documenting China’s Harrowing One-Child Policy

Also: Natalia Ginzburg’s lexicon, and more.

The first newspapers were more like Reddit than today’s New York Times, Rachael Scarborough King writes. The “earliest forms for public discussion of politics and literature in print presented themselves as epistolary conversations. Rather than negating the personalising effects of handwritten correspondence, they relied on them to make new forms of print seem familiar and understandable. The ‘print public sphere’ made its debut as a series of letters.”

Brandon Yu reviews a new film documenting China’s harrowing one-child policy: “Early on in Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s new documentary, One Child Nation, an 84-year-old midwife is asked how many babies she has delivered throughout her career. She brushes the question aside and instead spills out a startling admission. ‘I really don’t know how many I delivered. What I do know is that I’ve done a total of between 50,000 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions,’ she says. The scene that follows is astonishing, not only for plainly illustrating the horror and scale of the film’s subject—the far-reaching consequences of China’s one-child policy—but also for the exceptional nature of the confession. ‘I counted this out of guilt, because I aborted and killed babies,’ the midwife, Huaru Yuan, continues. ‘Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it.’ Since retiring, Yuan has dedicated her life to treating families struggling with infertility, as a kind of spiritual penance. But retribution will one day come for her, she says, her voice bereft of self-pity.”

Roger Scruton has cancer.

Barry Manilow’s Broadway show is “an epic of a man and his sequins, backed by a gigantic band, his voice amplified to levels suggesting an air raid. All of showbiz is an act, and even Springsteen confessed, in his Broadway engagement, ‘I made it all up.’ Manilow is as loyal to his act as Springsteen is to his. If authenticity is what we crave in a stage persona, Manilow is the real thing, only he’s genuine Velveeta. Weapons-grade schmaltz. His veins flow with pure glitter.” And it’s wonderful.

In praise of Natalia Ginzburg’s lexicon and limited scope: “In a contemporary review of Natalia Ginzburg’s 1947 novella, The Dry Heart, a 24-year-old Italo Calvino endeavored to articulate the simultaneous intimacy and reticence of the writer’s narrative voice. ‘Hers is not the first-person of lyrical diary keeping,’ he wrote, ‘but rather an externalization in which she participates body and soul.’ Straightforward, direct, often avoiding the complexity of the subordinate clause, Ginzburg’s unmistakable style emerged from the need to express herself in succinct, crisp sentences in order to get a word in around the dinner table, as she suggests in her autofictional Family Lexicon (reissued in a new, 2017 translation by NYRB Classics). The ‘Lexicon’ of the title — ‘lessons’ in the original Italian — has also been translated as ‘sayings,’ or as another earlier translation put it, Things We Used to Say. Language may be social, necessarily shared. But for Ginzburg it is also personal and intimate. Throughout her career she was interested in the peculiar phrases and particular vocabulary employed among small communities, within families — in how words might prove as durable as blood in constructing a world together.”

Mersiha Bruncevic writes about the life and work of the “wandering star” of Yiddish literature, Debora Vogel: “Debora Vogel was born in January 1900 in a Galician town called Bursztyn. Her life ended in August of 1942 on the pavement of Bernsztejn Street, murdered by Nazis during the liquidation of the Lviv ghetto along with her baby boy, Asher, her husband, Szulim Barenblüth, and her mother, Leonia Ehrenpreis. Before this unimaginable tragedy, Vogel, known as the ‘wandering star’ of Yiddish and Polish literature, wrote groundbreaking poetry, astute art criticism and lauded academic research on philosophy and aesthetics. She also urged and encouraged the now canonic Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz not to give up on writing at a time when Schulz felt hopeless, and thought that he would never be published. He proposed to her, but she turned him down.”

Essay of the Day:

In The Caravan, Abhrajyoti Chakraborty discusses the neglected work of Dom Moraes:

“In 1951, Dom published his first book, a selection of his reports on cricket matches for Indian newspapers. He was 13 years old. The British poet Stephen Spender was impressed by his poems and published them in Encounter, then a top international literary magazine. Later, he wrote him a recommendation letter for Jesus College, Oxford. A Beginning, Dom’s first book of poems, was released during his first year at the university. The following year, he won the Hawthornden Prize.

“While still an undergraduate, Dom became part of a bohemian coterie in post-war London. He met TS Eliot, studied under WH Auden, went out drinking with the painters Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. After graduation, Dom returned to the Indian subcontinent for four months. He travelled the hippie trail from Kathmandu to Calcutta with Ved, a friend from Oxford—later Ved Mehta of the New Yorker. His father made arrangements for him to interview the Dalai Lama and Nehru. The book that came out of this brief homecoming was simultaneously a memoir and a travelogue. Gone Away: the title itself laid bare his intent to leave.

“But this narrative of the father’s son rapidly rising in the world was punctuated by a bottomless fear: a fear that Dom inherited from his mother, Beryl D’Monte. Beryl, a pathologist at Bombay’s Cama Hospital, suffered from severe manic episodes through Dom’s early years. She had already been institutionalised once by the time he started going to school. He grew up watching her seizures and fits of domestic violence. Beryl was the reason why Frank had to travel everywhere with his son. The endless screaming, the spells of ominous silence, the broken dishes, the days when nurses had to be called in to restrain her at home: from a very young age Dom was overwhelmed by the feeling that his childhood had ended . . . Beginning with Odysseus at least, literature is replete with stories of reluctant repatriation. Besides, by the time Dom came to write Gone Away, his mother was living alone in her brother’s hotel in Bombay, and Frank had moved to Delhi with Silverstone. The prospect of a return was impossible for Dom because he had seen the fate that awaited writers in a newly independent India, those wanting to fill a small shelf with their books. He had seen his father being pressured, both at the Times of India and the Indian Express, to accommodate the owners’ other business interests. In Bombay, Mulk Raj Anand had told him that most poets ended up writing for Bollywood, since unlike publishers, production houses paid—‘In fact they pay enough to make them stop writing poetry.’ In Delhi, while interviewing Nehru, Dom noted the sadness with which the prime minister had glanced out of the window and wished he had more time to read and write. Not far away from Nehru’s office, near Kashmere Gate, lived a man who ostensibly had all the time in the world to read and write: Nirad C Chaudhuri, prose stylist extraordinaire, author of A Passage to England and The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, infamous at the time for his love of the lapsed British Empire. Dom and Ved found him living on the top floor of a congested wooden house at the end of a dirty street. When they walked in, Chaudhuri was naked, and fast asleep on the floor of the veranda, so that at first they mistook him for the house help. The old man offered them coffee and lectured them on life and literature for over two hours. His advice to the young Moraes was unequivocal: ‘If you stay here, you will perish. They will not understand you here.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Moon and Saturn

Poem: Aaron Poochigian, “Arctolatry”

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