Essayist Rachel Cohen on Bernard Berenson, Italo Calvino, Damien Hirst +

cohen-2Kelly Dean Jolley recently introduced me to Rachel Cohen‘s extraordinary essays. I can’t but want to pay the favor forward. Her second book Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade will be out tomorrow from Yale University Press.

But since tomorrow’s a whole day away, let me commend her ‘Notebook’ entry, “Italo Calvino: In the Far Reaches” composed for the 92nd Street Y as part of their 75th Anniversary celebration (worth a look in its own right: Writers on writers, yes please!).  Cohen opens:

         If I were trying to explain to someone what happens when you are reading Calvino and then sit down to write and find that, somehow inevitably, a strange derivation of Calvino has pervaded your own style, I would say that, first of all, you notice that your adjectives are different. Their purpose now is to distinguish types, genres, members of phyla, not to describe a person you would know on the street. Choosing names for characters you find that the names suggest ideas about people, not actual people. Dialogue evaporates, what little there is is estranged, lines are spoken as if and often sound like an imitation of speaking or as though a figure in a myth were speaking. The writing is cool, a little distant, textureless. Even after all these adjustments, however, the lines still probably fail to achieve what Calvino’s writing does, which is to live permanently in the imagination of its readers as depictions of kinds of experiences. Fragment by fragment, he is constructing a great classificatory scheme of experiences. [Keep reading]

Should you (you should!) be inclined to press on: A year ago The Believer ran a really masterful piece of hers titled “Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering: Representations of Value, or the Unexpected Double History of Banking and the Art of the World.” It begins:

         In 2007, with financial markets ballooning on every side, the artist Damien Hirst cast a real human skull in platinum, encrusted the cast with 8,601 diamonds that might or might not have come from “conflict-conscious” sources, and called his construction For the Love of God. Images of the macabre object circulated with incredible speed, and there was cheery debate about whether the accomplishment of the work was in the realm of aesthetics or that of the market, whether what mattered were the artist’s choices or the fact that the piece had lived up to its announced intention to be “the most expensive piece of art by a living artist” and had sold for $100 million. Two years later, with financial markets imploding on every side, it was reported that the work had in fact been sold to a holding company that turned out to consist of Hirst’s gallerist, his business manager, his friend the Russian billionaire art collector Viktor Pinchuk, and Hirst himself. There were then those who, staring at their own newly empty stock portfolios, found in the title apt expression of their feelings. The work itself, with its diamond-laden eye sockets and its original inhabitant’s grinning teeth, seems unperturbed by any hollowness of value in the financial or art markets. It does not matter to this cynical epitome of our glittering age whether it was made for the love of anything but more zeroes. [Click here to keep reading]

I’m sorry to have been so absent the blog of late (it will surprise no one that school’s been consuming: a relentless engine, that beast!)  I’m eager to get back in the swing of things and to hear what you all are up to. Don’t hesitate to be in touch. Yours, CL

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