Becca Rothfeld

  • Supreme Courtesan

    “BEAUTY, WOMEN’S BUSINESS IN THIS SOCIETY, is the theater of their enslavement,” laments Susan Sontag in her 1972 meditation on aging and femininity. “Only one standard of female beauty is sanctioned: the girl.” It is no accident that women must look like girls to qualify as beauties, for they must also act like girls to qualify as women. “The ideal state proposed for women is docility, which means not being fully grown up,” Sontag continues. Only two ages are available to women: infantile—and too old. 

    No one understood the injustice of the girlish imperative better than the French writer

  • The Merry Murderer

    WHEN SHE WAS SIXTEEN, THE FRENCH NOVELIST Anne Serre set out to induce her high school philosophy teacher to fall in love with her. Her strategy was unconventional: “I thought that writing a book, which I would then ask him to read, was the only possible way of seducing Monsieur Rebours,” she recounted in the Times Literary Supplement last year. Though Monsieur Rebours did not succumb, Serre, now sixty-one, remains convinced that books are instruments of seduction. “Fiction, realist or not, doesn’t try to convince but to seduce,” she explained in a recent interview. “A writer’s only responsibility

  • All the World’s a Cage

    IT IS CUSTOMARY TO START an essay about Kafka by emphasizing how impossible it is to write about Kafka, then apologizing for making a doomed attempt. This gimmick has a distinguished lineage. “How, after all, does one dare, how can one presume?” Cynthia Ozick asks in the New Republic before she presumes for several ravishing pages. In the Paris Review, Joshua Cohen insists that “being asked to write about Kafka is like being asked to describe the Great Wall of China by someone who’s standing just next to it. The only honest thing to do is point.” But far from pointing, he gestures for thousands

  • Playing Depart

    “I PAINT THE PORTRAIT OF THE AGE,” the Austrian writer Joseph Roth proclaimed in a 1926 letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung. “I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist,” he continued. “I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.”

    In the English-speaking world, Roth is most often canonized as a novelist. He is known primarily as the author of The Radetzky March, a 1932 saga about an Austrian dynasty rendered tragic—and ridiculous—by the collapse of the dual monarchy. During his own lifetime, however, Roth was better known as a writer of feuilletons, and even his longer works are rich with

  • The Joy of Text

    James Wood, haters claim, is a hater. The New Yorker’s most influential and polarizing critic hates gaudy postmodernists like Paul Auster and cute sentimentalists like Nicole Krauss. He can’t stand the Cambridge fixture George Steiner, whom he pillories as “a statue that wishes to be a monument,” and he dismisses Donna Tartt as “children’s literature.” Most famously, he loathes fidgety, frantic novels by the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Zadie Smith, works of so-called “hysterical realism” that can’t shut up and sit still. In 2004, the editors of n+1 denounced him as a “designated hater.”


  • 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.


  • 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