“In my work, I always try to arrive at a new level of capacity. To do that, you must be ready spiritually. When I arrive at that level, there is a fear. You have to break your knowledge to arrive at that level.”
Lorenzo Mattotti is one of my favorite artists (and cartoonists and illustrators), so it was a thrill to sit down to record with him during Toronto Comic Arts Festival! We talked about his newest book, Hansel and Gretel, how a trip to Patagonia led to a new phase of his art, and why he decided to become a cartoonist instead of a painter (while making his rep in fashion illustration). Give it a listen!
“I’m always curious to look back at my early work, because sometimes I’m so depressed and so lost that I need to go back and say, ‘Look at this! You were able to do that! Go on!’ And sometimes I look at my work and think it was another person who did that.”
We talk about the interaction between his comics, paintings, and commercial illustration work, the thread of transformation myths in his comics, how he’s learned to improvise after mastering a controlled style, why he prefers working with writers over writing stories by himself, what fashion taught him about technique and glamour, his “poor parents'” reaction to his comics, his need to find new artistic challenges, how he does those amazing New Yorker covers, who he’s reading, and more!
“[Pinocchio] became a laboratory of imagination. I see how I can return to it year after year and make new interpretations of it.”
About our Guest
Lorenzo Mattotti is a highly sought-after illustrator (with frequent appearances in and on The New Yorker) and acclaimed graphic novelist. His books include Fires, Murmur, Works, Pinocchio, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Stigmata, The Raven (with Lou Reed), The Crackle of the Frost, and his newest book, Hansel and Gretel (with Neil Gaiman). In addition to his comics and illustration work, Lorenzo Mattotti is a highly respected multi-disciplinary artist, from reinterpreting reinterpreting the models of the most famous fashion designers for “Vanity” magazine, to designing the title sequences for the film “Eros” by Wong Kar-wai, to directing an animated version of his work in the animation anthology “Fears of the Dark.” He lives in Paris, France with his wife Rina and their two children. His wife owns and runs Galerie Martel.
Credits: This episode’s music is Optical Sound by Human Expression. The conversation was recorded at the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Mattotti by me.
Someone asked me yesterday why I make the Virtual Memories Show, and I gave my pat answer, “To get me out of the house.”
I thought about it a bit, and if there’s any guiding principle, it comes from Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities, a book given to me by That Really Important High School English Teacher.
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
But also, to get me out of the house.
“I set up a scenario where all of my characters were unhappy in one way or another, and they were all watching other people, as opposed to looking inward at their own lives. I didn’t know what people do about that. I was writing a realistic novel, but part of me believed that no one actually acts on their unhappiness.”
Tova Mirvis joins The Virtual Memories Show to talk about her brand-new novel, Visible City and how she learned to act on her unhappiness, as well as the lifelong advice she got from Mary Gordon, the ways that writing a book is like building a stained-glass window, why being an orthodox Jew in Memphis wasn’t just like Designing Women with better wigs, and the advantages of being offline for a week when the New York Times publishes your op-ed about getting divorced. Give it a listen!
“Orthodox Judaism and southern culture meld beautifully. In the south, there’s a way we do things and a way we don’t do things. And it’s the same in orthodox Judaism. They’re both very well-structured worlds. I grew up as a sort of cocktail of those two worlds.”
We also talk about how one person’s urge to freedom is another person’s betrayal, why Visible City took her 10 years to write, what you can discover about yourself in your 40s and what you can leave behind, and the varieties of religious experience (ours, not William James’). BONUS! You also get my essay/monologue about Jews & Geordies!
About our Guest
Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.
Credits: This episode’s music is NYC USA by Serge Gainsbourg. The conversation was recorded at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offices on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and monologue were recorded on the same setup in a hotel in Columbus, OH. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Mirvis by me.
To celebrate the publication of Middle C, the new novel by literary legend William Gass, I sat down with writer Greg Gerke, who interviewed Gass for Tin House literary magazine. We talked about Gass’ position in the postmodern literary tradition (as it were), what Greg learned over the course of reading much of Gass’ writings and interviewing The Great Man, what it’s like to construct a literary monument to horror, which authors Greg discovered through Gass’ essays over the years, how you can’t judge a man by his (roommate’s) bookshelf, why Gass holds self-publishing in disdain, and how one can build a powerful literary career by putting Sound Before Story.
About our Guest
Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, and Mississippi Review. He’s the author of the short story collection, There’s Something Wrong with Sven. You can read his work and find links to his criticism at greggerke.com and Big Other.
Credits: This episode’s music is Life’s a Gas by T-Rex. The conversation was recorded at Greg Gerke’s apartment in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Samson Meteor Mic USB Studio Microphone into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.
The second episode of Virtual Memories radio is live! I mean, taped and edited and stuff, but it’s posted! You can download the MP3 right here! Or download the AAC/M4A file! (I figured out how to embed chapter marks in the AAC version!)
Be easy on me. I’m still feeling my way through this form, and I really hate that it’s just a monologue right now. Once I get some interviews recorded, I think it’ll really take off. But meanwhile, enjoy the ramble!
Of presumption runs 30 pages (pp. 581-610 in my edition) in my Complete Works of Montaigne and, like other great essays in the book, its title gives no indication of what’s ahead. The essay begins with a description of a “kind of vainglory”: esteeming oneself too much and not esteeming others enough. It ends with a justification of the entire project of the Essays. I think.
Much of the essay consists of M.â€™s litany of his own faults and shortcomings; while some of them are quite funny (he knows less than zero about his own estate and “if you give me all the equipment of a kitchen, I shall starve”), his attacks on his own writing lead him into a trap he set in the second paragraph of this essay: trying so hard to avoid vainglory that one demonstrates low self-esteem: â€œIf he is Caesar, let him boldly judge himself the greatest captain in the world.â€
But setting aside his self-deprecation, I think this essay may provide some illumination into what the Essays are actually about. That is, they cover a wide range of topics, and M. has been pretty explicit that their true subject matter is really M. himself. In this one, he writes:
The world always looks straight ahead; as for me, I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself. Others always go elsewhere, if they stop to think about it; they always go forward; “No man tried to descend into himself;” [Persius] as for me, I roll about in myself.
But the question of why he wrote and who heâ€™s trying to reach is what interests me.
I tend to look for importance in seemingly tangential remarks, which is probably why I tend to speak in full paragraphs and try to keep silent rather than blurting out a response when I’m under pressure. Of presumption appears to be littered with signals amidst the “noise” of describing presumption. Enmeshed in M.’s condemnations of his flightiness, shortness, hairiness, poor Latin and “corrupted” French, poor memory, dull storytelling, lack of physicality, “harsh and disdainful” language, ignorance of the quotidian, lack of deliberation, etc., are brief passages that tell us, “I know I roll about in myself, but it’s all worth it.”
The first clue comes quite early in the essay (p. 582). M. mentions that great figures â€” placed in that position by Fortune and not some innate greatness, of course â€” demonstrate their character through public actions. But what about everyone else?
But those whom [Fortune] has employed only in a mass, and of whom no one will speak unless they do themselves, may be excused if they have the temerity to speak of themselves to those who have an interest in knowing them, after the example of Lucilius: â€œHe would confide, as unto trusted friends, / His secrets to his notebooks; turn there still, / Not elsewhere, whether faring well or ill. / So that the old manâ€™s whole life lay revealed / As on a votive tablet.â€ [Horace] That man committed to his paper his actions and thoughts, and portrayed himself there as he felt he was.
Twenty pages later, he notes:
One day at Bar-le-Duc I saw King Francis II presented, in remembrance of Rene, king of Sicily, with a portrait that this king had made of himself. Why is it not permissible in the same way for each man to portray himself with the pen, as he portrayed himself with a pencil?
I don’t want to paint M. as the ur-blogger, but don’t remarks like those seem to presage the “mainstream media vs. citizen bloggers” split? Okay, that’s probably a stretch, but at least he’s right on with his complaints about critics!
And then, for whom do you write? The learned men to whom it falls to pass judgment on books know no other value than that of learning, and admit no other procedure for our minds than that of erudition and art. If you have mistaken one of the Scipios for the other, what is there left for you to say that can be worth while? Anyone who does not know Aristotle, according to them, by the same token does not know himself. Common, ordinary minds do not see the grace and the weight of a lofty and subtle speech. Now, these two types fill the world. The third class into whose hands you come, that of minds regulated and strong in themselves, is so rare that for this very reason it has neither name nor rank among us; it is time half wasted to aspire and strive to please this group.
I think it’s that third class that give us our clue into M.’s project. Near the end of this essay, he rails against education, right after complaining about the mediocrity of contemporary men, their only glory coming through valor on the battlefield. (Shakespeare was only 16 when this essay was completed.)
I gladly return to the subject of the ineptitude of our education. Its goal has been to make us not good or wise, but learned; it has attained this goal. It has not taught us to follow and embrace virtue and wisdom, but has imprinted in us their derivation and etymology. We know how to decline virtue, if we cannot love it. If we do not know what wisdom is by practice and experience, we know it by jargon and by rote. . . [Education] has chosen for instruction not those books that have the soundest and truest opinions, but those that speak the best Greek and Latin; and amid its beautiful words, it has poured into our minds the most inane humors of antiquity.
So is that the goal of the Essays? To demonstrate virtue and wisdom? To reach that elusive third class of people? M.’s self-fascination and self-deprecation would seem to undermine that goal, but as I mentioned last week, the point remains that M. went through the process of writing, and revising his essays, of making them public.
It pus me in mind of the close of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
Of presumption has a billion more strands I need to take up, but this is all you get for the moment. You’ve been warned: this is an essay I can see myself coming back to repeatedly.