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Alex Carnevale

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Mia Nguyen

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Ethan Peterson

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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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In Which We Began Reading As Soon As We Could Write

This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.

Durable Green

The human being as a social animal would like to achieve distinction from the others, and be praised by them. This is the basis for the preference for virtue.

In middle age the Austrian writer Robert Musil did not last long at any one occupation. Even a short stint as a librarian only unnecessarily served, in his mind, to distract from his duties as a working writer. His relationship with his wife Martha sustained him intellectually and emotionally through the ill health of his father. The following excerpts take place during the early part of the twentieth century, and were translated by Philip Payne.

It was about a woman who runs an inn in Carinthia and is well known for her intimate relationship with her mastiff. In the angry arousal of such an animal there is something that may well stimulate a woman. It is also possible that one feels loathing for men and prefers dogs — such a feeling is possible, precisely with women who love their integrity.


I have just come from Martha's; on the street the air and the light are like those of early spring. I had the idea that all expression depends on the light — I had seen a coalman in profile. The cheeks dissolving, their colors as if ravaged by the light and then abandoned; forehead, bridge of nose, hair lit from the front (but a diffuse light coming only from over the rooftops) —

I can find no word for the expression of this man's face.

I enjoy the work that is going quite easily but sometimes, it seems, too easily; I don't know if it will turn out to be substandard.

I am very irritable, and a single unreflected remark of Martha's can make me unhappy.


What matters to me is the passionate energy of the idea. In cases where I am not able to work out some special idea, the work immediately begins to bore me; this is true for almost every single paragraph. Now why is it that this thinking, which after all is not aiming at any kind of scientific validity but only a certain individual truth, cannot move at a quicker pace? I found that in the reflective element of art there is a dissipative momentum — here I only have to think of the reflections that I have sometimes written down in parallel with my drafts. The idea immediately moves onward in all directions, the notions go on growing outward on all sides, the result is a disorganized, amorphous complex. In the case of exact thinking, however, the idea is tied up, delineated, articulated, by means of the goal of the work, the way it is limited to what can be proven, the separation into probable and certain, etc., in short, by means of the methodological demands that stem from the object of investigation.


Yet again this dreadful lack of energy and unwillingness to work. (Yesterday afternoon... Take note: a little too quick. You mount me as if I were an animal, how could you. Outside, a Sunday like those in spring.) I am afraid that I shall not have enough time for a vacation, a yearning for that surge of energy that massages away self-reproach. Unpleasant letter from home;  I'm supposed to be in Vienna in mid-September, "on the way home"; when am I to take that break?

Type: very muscular, athletically trained men who are timid.


For three days now in a state of deep depression. I am tired, I sometimes feel dizzy. Above all, I've little confidence in the work.

Half-past midnight. Have just come from Martha's. Have discussed the first half of the work with her and now it's all right up to that point. Martha promised to come to me around 11 tomorrow. Cholera in Spandau.

Wrote home explaining my opinion about Vienna, telling them I'm going but that I don't want to go. Emphasized once again that I will not have anything to do with anyone on a social level when I'm there.


Literary people who speak scornfully of the work of their spirit. Kerr: "Literature takes up only a corner of my life." Set against that: literature is a bold life arranged in a more logical way. It involves the creation or distillation of possibilities. It is fervor that pares a human being down to the very bone for the sake of a goal in which emotion is in an intellectual mode. The rest is propaganda. Or it is a light that originates in a room, a feeling in one's skin when one looks back at experiences that at other times remain muddled and indifferent.

I have to remind myself how I invariably found all existing literature unsatisfactory from an intellectual perspective. But then all the more subtle and more powerful thinking about what is represented in the work must not take place within the work itself but before the work is written.


Here only the facts are given, the appearance of the street, the station building, the conversation, etc. It is not stated that these things had such and such a mood, but they do have one. The attitude within me was one of soot and strangled sadness, or something of the sort, and then I saw things in that particular way.

The last is a room in an Alpine inn. Whitewashed walls with wretched paintings. Clothes stand, a broad cross with a curving transverse beam, and four hooks beneath. The little bedside cabinet next to the cupboard is in an impossible state of disrepair. Such things invent people. And he becomes sensual; but there is nothing in the whole world with which to satisfy this errant corporeality.


Wherever possible, one ought to let facts speak rather than feelings. This gives rise to a fine dryness of tone: i.e., things that have claim to objective, not just subjective, validity. Perhaps as a way of regulating this, statements that one can prefix with the pronoun "we."

I was unwell — angina — spent two days in bed and had a temperature for probably a week before that. Perhaps it was precisely this condition that made me more impetuous.

From time to time the little (round) birds let themselves drop down between the branches, and then, behind the glass of the windows and the thin lace curtains, they seem to be made up of cross-stitching. When they sit still one sees, through the small gaps in the curtains, extensive areas of their plumage. One sees their natural colors, bright, quite bright light that sometimes shines on beak or wings, but is somehow subdued, modified in some way for which there is no description.

I don't want here to attempt once more to keep a diary, but simply to record things that I don't want to forget.


Walk along the Hauptallee. Martha was in a bad frame of mind and reproached me quite unnecessarily, which left me cold. "You will leave me," she said. "Then I'll have no one. I shall kill myself. I shall leave you." In a momentary state of weakness, Martha slipped far beneath herself to the level of a jealous or neglected woman with a fierce temper. In personal terms, of course, this has no significance for our relationship. But I switched off this reservation, so to speak, and gave myself over to the impressions that would arise if this were a time of disappointment.


Before the storm, the houses are brighter than the sky.

Between the forked legs of the telegraph poles children have set up their swings.

The great plain was overcast with gloomy light.

In the trees, the leaves glitter, or are quite dark. This makes the masses of foliage look rather like a lake when the wind just stirs its surface and tiny waves flash.

The trees are in winter green, a durable green.



In Which We Consider A Different Proximate Cause

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com.


My boyfriend Dallas is a great guy with a short fuse. If something makes him angry he usually blows his top. For example, we were at Wal-Mart one day and a woman cut him in line. He immediately went off on her and told her to get back in line. It seemed a bit excessive, but then again it was somewhat annoying. What I'm saying is that it's not like he never has a poor reason for becoming angry.

If I ever piss him off, he is very nice about it and calmly explains what the problem is. He has yelled at me a handful of times but he always apologizes and it's not like I haven't done the same, it's just that he does it to people he does not know. In addition, he does not abuse drugs or alcohol.

Am I just rationalizing or is this a red flag?

Maria B.

Dear Maria,

Some people never become angry at all. Others save their venom for the ones they love. Dallas has found an appropriate outlet for his rage: people who he will never interact with or speak to again. As long as he isn't bringing physical violence to bear on randoms, individuals who cut lines should face loud voices and approbation for what they do.

Showing that you are upset when you are upset is actually rather healthy. Hanging onto these emotions or repressing them is far more dangerous to yourself and those you love.

Recently one basketball player raised the hackles of commentators for profanely excoriating a teammate, his friend. A lot of people aren't used to others displaying their emotions and it makes them feel uncomfortable even when that display is actually controlled. This would be something to watch for with your boyfriend. How quickly does he calm down? Is his behavior an appropriate response or could it get him shot in an open-carry state?


My stepson Dave is eleven, and like a lot of children of divorce, he wants to see his parents get back together. He doesn't seem to harbor much ill will towards me for marrying his mother, but he spends an intense portion of his existence trying to reunite his mother with her her ex-husband, Antonio.

When Valentine's Day comes around he makes an effort to remind them of their failed marriage and it typically ruins my wife and my time that day since he needs attention. Is there any way to disabuse him of this notion without seeming like a total asshole?

Jerry S.

Dear Jerry,

Sure. Give him a different memory than the one he already has for that specific day. For example, I never forgot the day I broke my arm when I suddenly fell down the stairs. Just kidding, although let us not rule a tragic accident as nuclear option here.

Probably your stepson simply needs more attention in the days coming up to this event. He clearly has too much time on his hands. Include him in your Valentine's Day activities for a few years and maybe he'll forget all about this Antonio, who may not even be his real father.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.


In Which Another Unfortunate Event Has Yet To Occur

Children Lie


A Series of Unfortunate of Events
creator Mark Hudis & Barry Sonnenfeld

The children at the center of the eight episode Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events are assholes. The first thing they demand after their parents die in a fire is access to a lavish library owned by a local attorney, Ms. Strauss (Joan Cusack). The three Baudelaire kids — Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) — can't stop marveling at this new enclosure, which approximates the tony furnishings provided by their parents from an unknown and probably illicit income. They are so used to being rich that they are constantly clawing to return there in the years before Violett will inherit the family's money.

It turns out at the end of the very first episode that the Baudelaire's parents have escaped and were not murdered in a fire at all. Worse, they are portrayed by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders. Perhaps nauseated by their kids' constant, insubstantial quoting from the books they have read, the senior Baudelaires escape to Peru, where various laws about miscegenation are relaxed. The two never show the slightest bit of affection for one another, and behave more as siblings than a married couple.

The aesthetic that surrounds the story of the Baudelaires being passed from guardian to guardian by Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the family's banker, can best be described as if Roald Dahl fell asleep. A few episodes that take place around the area of Lake Lachrymose are layered in a gloomy mist; the orphans' custodian Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard) lives on an imposing cliff over the water.

Josephine is afraid of absolutely everything except her surroundings, while the kids themselves are only afraid of their surroundings. Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) explains the concept of dramatic irony in a lengthy sequence — these frequent breakings of the fourth wall are the only humor not provided by the antagonist Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris).

Mr. Harris has the advantage of portraying the only fulled fleshed-out character in this entire show. The role of Olaf is perfectly suited to his many talents, even if the singing bits are a bit forced. The extensive disguises he takes on are generally fun to simply look at, and every second that he is off the screen forces us to various dark conclusions about the actual meaning behind A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The thematic point of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that adults are children barely grown themselves, and can be relied upon for no more wisdom that any other potential source of information. Despite the fact that they meet many sinister such people, Klaus and Violet continue to look for adults to provide them with financial and emotional security. They do not learn anything more about themselves during this process, and indeed have no actual flaws or recognizable character traits beyond caretaking for a baby.

This aspect itself is most disturbing. Violett and Klaus do not appear to change their younger sister's diapers. The baby never cries or seems displeased, and is most happy chewing on hard things like a puppy. Author Daniel Handler's basic perception of young people is that they are blank slates upon which various things are imposed or arranged; he is just as guilty as Mr. Poe for being ignorant and Count Olaf for being greedy. His is the sin of pretending to know it all.

Barry Sonnenfeld is intent on casting many actors of color to replace the mostly white retinue that surrounded the Baudelaire children in the 2004 adaptation of Handler's books. These substitutions are well-meant I am sure, and putting Alfre Woodard in the role of a grammarian who is frightened of everything does play against her usual type. Race is completely obscured by a flattening that never permits any of the adults in the Baudelaires' lives to be altered by circumstance.

Without much in the way of character or plot, A Series of Unfortunate Events succeeds on a much more basic level. The show is an astonishing feast for the eyes. Sonnenfeld backed out of the feature film project in 1993 because he was concerned that the $100 million he was offered as a budget would not be enough to do justice to the many effects and costumes required.

With Netflix as the major backer, it seems that no expense has been spared. The reptile collection of Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (a hilarious Aasif Mandvi) actually gives the kids some of tangible world with which they can interact. Disappointingly, Dr. Montgomery only gets a single evening to engage the children. He wins their trust but never gives his own, leaving them as bereft of answers about their parents as when they arrived on his property.

The sheer amount of time spent going on and on about how awful the circumstances are for the Baudelaires is exhausting after the first couple episodes. Once Klaus is smacked across the face — the rest of the time the kids never suffer violence, never hunger and are frequented housed in massive estates with considerable resources. They complain about going to the movies, about the size of their bedroom, about having to do any kind of household work. Klaus, Sunny and Violet are merely victims of a pervasive mediocrity with which they never quite come to terms.  

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.