Although Valeria Luiselli lives in New York City, she isn’t herself American—not by birth (she was born in Mexico), nor by upbringing (her father was a diplomat, her international childhood nomadic), nor, to a significant degree, in her literary influences and style. But the five books she has written so far expand our understanding of American literature. Lost Children Archive, her third novel, is the first that she has written in English (her first two were very well translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney), and it is a passionate, if complicated, American novel—or, perhaps more accurately, a novel of the Americas.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Caroline Fraser
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books remain for many a formative literary experience of our childhoods: we retain, as if they were our own memories, vivid fragments of little Laura’s adventures with her older sister Mary, her younger sisters Carrie and Grace, and their parents Caroline and Charles, the former calmly capable, the latter bringing joy with his fiddle and songs. Part of the books’ appeal lies in Laura’s perspective: the plainer, naughtier sister, with a temper and selfish impulses—a child with whom any reader can identify. Then, too, Wilder records her experiences with attractive Chekhovian simplicity, patiently explaining the material details of pioneers’ daily lives, including how Pa oiled bear traps, how the women prepared for a dance, how to build a log cabin and make a latched door with no nails, hinges, or lock, and how to protect the house from a prairie fire.
Zadie Smith’s fifth novel addresses many themes—dance, as an idea and an art form; friendship and rivalry between girls and women; mothers, daughters, and motherhood; racial and cultural identity; creativity and success; ambition; love—and touches, too, on many more: contemporary forms of liberal Western cultural imperialism; the effects of social media; the return to religion in developing countries (in this case, to Islam, in Gambia); the culture of celebrity and its effects; Europe’s immigration crisis. It is an unwieldy list, to be sure, and represents, in fictional form, the consuming and urgent preoccupations of one of our generation’s significant literary minds.
Three exhibitions—one recent, two current—have foregrounded art that addresses perhaps the most pressing moral concern of our times: migration. A risk of pointedly political art is a lack of complexity, and this is an underlying issue with the ICA exhibition. Visitors will ultimately find themselves uplifted—or consoled, depending on your perspective. The scale and rhythm of these two exhibitions are decidedly different: the ICA’s is larger, more doggedly accessible, more pyrotechnic and emotionally affecting, but perhaps less nuanced; the Harvard Art Museums exhibition, smaller and more subtle. In both cases, though, the ensemble unsettles and stirs in equal measure, providing a catalyst for vital conversations in which we are compelled to engage.
In Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski deploys his artistic echoes skillfully—his allusions are deliberate, simultaneously affectionate and ironic—but his recreation, however deft, of an actual and artistic era (mid-century Paris and the films of that Paris) doesn’t rival the visceral power of the earlier Polish scenes. By the time the narrative regains a bleaker East, it seems that the artistic exhilaration of the film’s first twenty minutes cannot be retrieved, and that perhaps this is Pawlikowski’s point. But somehow, Wiktor, Zula, and their creator, find a way out, a return, if you will, to purity; and the film’s conclusion is as beautiful as its opening.
Many of the artists here will be relatively new to American audiences, who are likely more familiar with pre-war German names—Beckmann, Dix, Grosz, Klee, Kandinsky—and contemporary ones—Baselitz, Richter, Kiefer. The exhibition features German art from 1943 to 1955: late works by Otto Dix, as well as by Fritz Winter (including that first acquisition), and an exhilarating range by Willi Baumeister, with exuberant large paintings such as Growth of the Crystals II (1947–1952) and Large Montaru (1953). The energy, colors, and lines of these later Baumeister works, recalling Kandinsky and Klee, delight—but more unexpected are the small early lacquers he produced, along with Oskar Schlemmer and Franz Krause, in Wuppertal during the war. Their ethereal beauty in the face of such destruction is itself a type of resistance.
Matisse, unsurprisingly, had strong feelings about the objects of his daily life. They delighted, inspired, or confounded him, in their humble ordinariness and in all that they evoked. These mundane items, the organizing principle for the exhilarating show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, served as sparks for Matisse’s art. The exhibition’s considerations of these objects enable us to see Matisse’s works anew.