A Frisky ‘Figaro’

Garry Wills

Michael Brosilow/Lyric Opera of Chicago

In the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season-opening production of The Marriage of Figaro, director Barbara Gaines lets us know early on that this is going to be a lusty romp. As the overture is playing, a scream is heard from a woman in “naughty maid” costume running down the aisle, pursued by the Count in a long red robe that makes him look like Sargent’s portrait of the womanizing Doctor Pozzi now on display at the Metropolitan Museum.

The Trotsky Paradox

William T. Vollmann

David Levine

Bernard Wolfe’s The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky stands or falls by its invocation of the Kronstadt rebellion. If Trotsky was correct at Kronstadt, then his own murder could also be construed as right. If his murder stinks (as I most certainly believe), then he was wrong at Kronstadt, in which case his murder again becomes justified so long as he supports Kronstadt-like actions.

A Prophet in Reverse

Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

Studio Pericoli

Jorge Luis Borges: History would be the art of divining the past, no?

Osvaldo Ferrari: Yes, the art of the historian.

Borges: Yes, once something has happened, one demonstrates that it happened inevitably. But it would be more interesting to apply that to the future.

Ferrari: That’s more difficult than to predict the past—it’s harder to be a prophet than a historian.

Borges: Well, that’s how literary histories are written.

A Garden for Oliver Sacks

Roberto Calasso

Roberto Calasso

It is not entirely clear why, but my meetings with Oliver Sacks were all marked by an irrational euphoria. The places changed, from the Bronx to Spoleto—but above all Manhattan. We would start to talk and the sense of time would discreetly dissolve. On two occasions it also seemed to me that I could glimpse something of Oliver’s innermost essence.

The Edge of Horror

Stephen King

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Neither of William Sloane’s novels are, strictly speaking, science fiction. They are good stories, and can be read simply for pleasure, but what makes them fascinating and takes them to a higher level is their complete (and rather blithe) disregard of genre boundaries.

Egypt’s Media: Endorsing Repression

Leslie T. Chang

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has used lethal force to stamp out dissent; reports of abuse and torture are widespread. But as I discovered in interviews with leading Egyptian talk show hosts and newspaper editors, they regard the defining feature of Sisi’s administration—the use of state-sanctioned violence and politicized trials to maintain order and crush its opponents—with near-unanimous approval.

I Try to Talk Less’: A Conversation with Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu

Ian Johnson

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Ai Weiwei: My feelings are, actually are…how can I describe this situation? It’s like I was on arid land and thrown into water. I’ve been running for so many years and now have reached the shore. It’s that kind of feeling. Because I never felt I belonged in water. That kind of control. That kind of pressure. And every kind of threat. I was living under constant threats. And suddenly this thing, suddenly it vanishes, and everything returns to normal.

Solitary Confinement: The Beginning of the End?

David Cole

Solitary Watch

Since the rapid expansion of high-security prisons in the 1980s, solitary confinement has become pervasive across the United States in both state and federal prisons, involving, according to recent estimates, more than 75,000 inmates at any given time. It is imposed by prison officials for security and disciplinary reasons, but often with little oversight and on the basis of minor infractions. So far, many of the reforms voluntarily adopted by prison officials involve cutting back on, not eliminating, solitary confinement. A recent settlement in California might provide a way forward.

The Unguarded Moment

Christopher Benfey

bpk/Salomon/ullstein bild via Getty Images

One of the founding figures of photojournalism, Erich Salomon pioneered the use of hidden cameras—the phrase “candid camera” was first applied to him. As my father turns ninety and I myself slide farther past sixty, the unguarded moments at a 1929 birthday party, captured by Salomon’s camera, recall the poet Rilke contemplating a photograph of his own father in his youth: “You swiftly fading daguerreotype/ In my more slowly fading hands.”

Liotard: The Unexpected Likeness

Jenny Uglow

Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève

It’s two weeks now since I saw the remarkable show of Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), yet I’m still puzzling over the nature of the Swiss-French painter’s charm and strength. For all his showmanship, Liotard’s greatest art, as Walpole said, was in catching a likeness; and in grasping the fleeting moment, he casts us too back in time.