The Premise

a blog about reading | by Kim Adrian


Women in White Reading Books on Their Laps

Umberto Boccioni | Young Woman Reading
Tribute to a curious sub-genre: portraits of women dressed in white reading books propped open on their laps. The white of the dress and the position of the book resting on it blur the boundaries of both—pages morph gently into cloth; bookish planes and angles are camouflaged by the shadowy drape of folds. Chromatically speaking, reader and text become one. An ingenuously simple way of conveying the subject's complete absorption in that abstraction we call language. Then, too, there's the subtly subversive sexual element—the way the virginal purity of the white dress provides an ironic counterpoint to the open symmetry of the book. As the woman curls over the intimate shelf of her own lap, we are reminded that all knowledge is sexual. All knowledge craves reproduction. Inspires desire. And the act of reading itself is rooted in pleasure. As Richard Howard wrote in his introduction to Roland Barthes' S/Z, "We have 'forgiven' masturbation in our erotic jurisdiction, but have we even learned to 'indict' reading?"

Artist | Title unknown
(If you have any information about this work please email me.)
Helen Galloway McNicoll | In the Tent, 1914
José van Gool  (b.1945) | Lezende Dame
John Singer Sargent | Girl Reading by a Stream, c. 1888
John Singer Sargent | Young Woman Reading, 1911 
Edmund Tarbell | Girl Reading (by a Window), 1902
Clarence Hinkle (b.1880) | Reading Under a Parasol
Helene Schjerfbeck | Maria, 1906


Ingenious Narration: José Saramago's 'All the Names'

"The point where human language participates most intimately in the divine infinity of the pure word . . . [is] the human name . . . the proper name is the word of God in human sounds."  —Walter Benjamin

Reading José Saramago's All the Names feels a bit like floating in a nimbus composed of nothing more substantial than the anxious, slightly humid breath of its civil-servant protagonist through an atmosphere of dust, ink, spiderwebs, and and hope. And yet the novel (translated from the Portuguese by Margret Jull Costa) is so crammed with ideas, so packed with narrative complexity—so jaunty, even mischievous, even slightly devilish in its humor—that it's hard to know how or where to begin talking about it, though I suppose the title is probably as good a place as any. "All the Names" is the unwritten motto of the cemetery that spreads, like a "vast octopus," through the anonymous city where Senhor José lives, works, and performs the infinitely delicate metaphysical acrobatics that make this novel the most ephemeral of cliffhangers.


Hypnotic Kvetching: Thomas Bernhard's 'Concrete'

Thomas Bernhard's 1982 novel Concrete (translated from the German by David McLintock) is a narrative of dense, nearly hermetic interiority. Except for four crucial words—two wry gestures tacked on at either end of the novel that connect the narrative to a larger authorial intelligence—it is the first-person account of one man's mental, spiritual, and, at times, effectively physical paralysis in the face of his own supposedly imminent death, the "black, hideous, revolting, stinking bog" of his loneliness, and the oppression he suffers as a citizen of Austria (a country whose "idiocies" he tells us, "will sooner or later be the end of me"). The name of this cheery soul is Rudolf, and in him we make the acquaintance of an acutely abulic musicologist hell-bent on spending what's left of his wasting energies (he's convinced he's dying) writing "a major work of impeccable scholarship" on the 19th-century composer Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.


Secret Malice: Irene Nemirovsky's 'Le Bal'

Originally published as part of her Suite Francaise, Irene Némirovsky’s novella Le Bal deals primarily with the tensions between fourteen-year-old Antoinette Kampf and Rosine, her overbearing, narcissistic, insanely self-centered, verbally abusive, shockingly immature, and cartoonishly insecure mother. Bette Davis would have made a perfect Madame Kampf. As the title suggests, the plot revolves around a ball—or, at least, the idea of a ball—to which Monsieur and Madame Kampf, newly and nervously tres riches, have invited two hundred of the fanciest Parisian “sods” they can hope to attract.


Casterman Makes Tragic Changes to Tintin

The computerized Tintin dialogue font
Reading my son a newly purchased edition of The Seven Crystal Balls, one of my favorite Tintin books, I realized that all of the dialogue bubbles had been redrawn. The new lettering was of a much finer line, it was much more regular, and, for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, it was weirdly repellent. I don’t mean that it was ugly. It was actually rather delicate and pretty, but I felt that somehow the text was putting me off: I couldn’t get into it. For some reason, I couldn’t keep the text and the illustrations simultaneously in mind—a crucial cognitive activity for reading any graphic narrative. There was a mysterious disconnect between the two, and I sensed a weird fog between me and the story. This was frustrating because reading my son Tintin is one of our favorite shared pleasures these days. I’d rushed through the dishes, through picking up the scattered tinker toys, through checking my email one last time, just to get on the couch with him and get a few pages in before tucking him into bed.