Becca Rothfeld

  • The Anomie Within

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” begins L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. There is a hazy sense in which Hartley’s iconic opening applies to every life: The passage from childhood to adulthood always involves a kind of expatriation. But for Romanian(ish) writer Gregor von Rezzori, the force of Hartley’s formulation is literal. Rezzori’s past is at least three different countries, and things are done differently in each of them.

    Rezzori was born in 1914 in what was then Czernowitz, a Romanian outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were

  • Germanic Episodes

    “The titles of certain books are like names of cities in which we used to live for a time,” Ortega y Gasset once wrote. “They at once bring back a climate, a peculiar smell of streets, a general type of people and a specific rhythm of life.” Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries is a book to live in: two volumes and more than 1,700 pages of roomy universe, robustly imagined and richly populated. Its streets are long, and its landmarks are varied. Sometimes the weather’s sultry, and sometimes the pipes clang in the cold. But Johnson’s rhythm is always patient, always mesmerizingly meticulous.

    Originally

  • Notes from Untergrund

    Some things can exist only on the verge of nonexistence. Like the novel, moribund since its inception—and like God, abidingly vulnerable to heresy and debunking—Berlin has always teetered toward death. It had died and died again by the time I moved there in 2012, when everyone said it was over.

    But news of its demise hadn’t reached me, and my first weeks in the city were raw with stupid excitement. I seemed to live on trains: shuffling from one to the next, squinting at maps threaded with lines and knotted with stations, confused when the Strassenbahn, or street train, slouched under the

  • Song of My Selves

    Love meant to take refuge from one’s own world in another’s . . .

    —Hermann Broch

    The Portuguese poet and essayist Fernando Pessoa aspired to be unlike himself. Over the course of his life as a commercial and literary translator in fin de siècle Lisbon, he assumed around 130 “heteronyms,” invented identities with distinctive histories. These personalities came to subsume his own quiet biography: In a letter to the writer Adolfo Casais Monteiro, he wrote, “I, who created them all, was the one who was least there.” Instead of there, he was elsewhere, and instead of himself, a celibate autodidact

  • Coming of Rage

    Certain appetites admit of no satiation. To satisfy them provisionally is only to hasten their resurgence: First comes the ache of expectation, then the diminishment of gratification, then the ache returns. So where does enjoyment fit in? It is at most a sliver, slotted between parallel lacks. In the ravenous fiction of the Lebanese-Brazilian author Raduan Nassar, the problem is not the absence of food but the impossibility of filling.

    This year, Nassar's 1975 novel, Ancient Tillage, and 1978 novella, A Cup of Rage, became available in English translation for the first time. These chronicles

  • culture December 02, 2016

    How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having it All—And Then Some! by Beth Newell, Sarah Pappalardo, and Anna Drezen

    In September 2015, in an effort to appeal to millennial voters, Hillary Clinton submitted to an interview with Lena Dunham for Lenny, Dunham's newsletter. "What would a Clinton administration bring back to the White House?" Dunham asks perkily. Hillary begins: "I will focus on raising incomes, women's rights, and . . . " But Dunham interrupts: "I mean more like what furniture. Like, what cute furniture are you definitely going to bring back with you. Like I don't know if you're into Etsy or Anthropologie." Hillary looks at her with exaggerated shock. "Uh . . . " she falters. It's a nauseatingly

  • culture April 01, 2015

    Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

    The work of Argentine author Silvina Ocampo is rife with unlikely marriages, deadly weddings, and botched birthdays. Ocampo’s funerals are cheerful, her fêtes funereal. For Ocampo, there is something sinister about the hypocrisy of celebration, and Thus Were Their Faces comprises a vengeful series of happy occasions gone wrong.

    The work of Argentine author Silvina Ocampo is rife with unlikely marriages, deadly weddings, and botched birthdays. Ocampo’s funerals are cheerful, her fêtes funereal. “The cemetery looked like a flower show, and the streets sounded like a bell-ringing contest,” she writes of a funeral procession in “Friends,” one of the stories in the newly translated collection Thus Were Their Faces. The mourners “were so enraged they looked happy. On [the] white coffin they had put bright flowers, which were constantly praised by the women…. I don’t think anyone cried.” In another story, “The Photographs,”

  • culture January 23, 2015

    On Cortázar

    Reading Hopscotch—reading Julio Cortázar—is a bit like navigating a labyrinth. Behind each corner, each chapter doubling back on itself, lurks the prospect of an unforeseen encounter, at once disturbing and tantalizing. Distances are distorted. Ostensible shortcuts will lead you on a scenic route that provides alternate, unexpected perspectives. All the while, Cortázar’s work invokes a sort of Zeno’s Paradox.

    IN THE WORK of the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, the shortest distances are often also the greatest: The space between self and other can be maddeningly difficult to traverse. Full of magical transformations, ritual sacrifices, and turbulent prophetic dreams, Cortázar’s writing abounds with troubled pairings, unlikely and uneasy doppelgängers who come apart even as—especially as—they converge. In one of his stories, “The Distances,” a wealthy Argentine woman dreams repeatedly of a Hungarian peasant. When she finally encounters the object of her visions on a bridge in Budapest, she embraces