Russian History & Literature Come to Life in Wonderfully Colorized Portraits: See Photos of Tolstoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

Colorized episodes of I Love Lucy verge on sacrilege, but Olga Shirnina, a translator and amateur colorist of considerable talent, has unquestionably noble goals when colorizing vintage portraits, such as that of the Romanovs, above.

In her view, color has the power to close the gap between the subjects of musty public domain photos and their modern viewers. The most fulfilling moment for this artist, aka Klimblim, comes when “suddenly the person looks back at you as if he’s alive.”

A before and after comparison of her digital makeover on Nadezhda Kolesnikova, one of many female Soviet snipers whose vintage likenesses she has colorized bears this out. The color version could be a fashion spread in a current magazine, except there's nothing artificial-seeming about this 1943 pose.

“The world was never monochrome even during the war,” Shirnina reflected in the Daily Mail.

Military subjects pose a particular challenge:

When I colorize uniforms I have to search for info about the colours or ask experts. So I’m not free in choosing colors. When I colorize a dress on a 1890s photo, I look at what colors were fashionable at that time. When I have no limitations I play with colours looking for the best combination. It’s really quite arbitrary but a couple of years ago I translated a book about colours and hope that something from it is left in my head.

She also puts herself on a short leash where famous subjects are concerned. Eyewitness accounts of Vladimir Lenin’s eye color ensured that the revolutionary’s colorized irises would remain true to life.

And while there may be a market for representations of punked out Russian literary heroes, Shirnina plays it straight there too, eschewing the digital Manic Panic where Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Bulgakov are concerned.

Her hand with Photoshop CS6 may restore celebrity to those whose stars have faded with time, like Vera Komissarzhevskaya, the original ingenue in Chekhov’s much performed play The Seagull and wrestler Karl Pospischil, who showed off his physique sans culotte in a photo from 1912.

Even the unsung proletariat are given a chance to shine from the fields and factory floors.

Browse an eye popping gallery of Olga Shirnina’s work on her website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Insomnia Shaped Franz Kafka’s Creative Process and the Writing of The Metamorphosis: A New Study Published in The Lancet

Whatever else we take from it, Franz Kafka’s nightmarish fable The Metamorphosis offers readers an especially anguished allegory on troubled sleep. Filled with references to sleep, dreams, and beds, the story begins when Gregor Samsa awakens to find himself (in David Wylie’s translation) “transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” After several desperate attempts to roll off his back, Gregor begins to agonize, of all things, over his stressful working hours: “’Getting up early all the time,’ he thought, ‘it makes you stupid. You’ve got to get enough sleep.” Realizing that he has overslept and missed his five o’clock train, he agonizes anew over the frantic workday ahead, and we can hear in his thoughts the complaints of their author. “Sleep and lack thereof,” writes The Independent’s Christopher Hooten, “is of course a central theme in Kafka’s best known work…. It seems there was a strong dose of autobiography at play.”

Chronically insomniac, Kafka wrote at night, then rose early each morning for his hated job at an insurance office. Though he made good use of restlessness, Kafka characterized his insomnia as much more than an inconvenient physical ailment. He thought of it in metaphysical terms, as a kind of soul-sickness. “Sleep,” he wrote in his diaries, “is the most innocent creature there is and sleepless man the most guilty.”

Insomnia transformed Kafka into an unclean thing, quivering in fear of death. “Perhaps I am afraid that the soul, which in sleep leaves me, will not be able to return,” he confessed in a letter to German writer Milena Jesenská. Anxious expressions like this, writes Theresa Fisher, have led researchers to “speculate that Kafka’s pathological traits… indicate borderline personality disorder.” This posthumous diagnosis may be a leap too far. “Unearthing his insomnia, however,” and its effects on his life and work, “requires less speculation.”

Kafka’s descriptions of his anxious insomniac writing habits have led Italian doctor Antonio Perciaccante and his wife and co-author Alessia Coralli to argue in a recent paper published in The Lancet that the writer composed much of his fiction in a state of something like lucid dreaming. In one diary entry, Kafka writes, “it was the power of my dreams, shining forth into wakefulness even before I fall asleep, which did not let me sleep.” Perciaccante and Coralli note that “this seems to be a clear description of a hypnagogic hallucination, a vivid visual hallucination experienced just before the sleep onset.” It’s something we’ve all experienced. Kafka, fearing sleep, stayed there as long as he could. Lest we think of his writing as therapeutic in some way, he gives no indication that it was so. Indeed, it seems that writing introduced more pain: “When I don’t write,” he told Jesenská, “I am merely tired, sad, heavy; when I do write, I am torn by fear and anxiety.”

Kafka made many similar statements about sleep deprivation bringing him to “a depth almost inaccessible at normal conditions.” The visions he encountered, he wrote, “shape themselves into literature.” Through surveying the literature, biographies, interpretations, and the author’s diaries and letters to Jesenská and Felice Bauer, Perciaccante and Coralli pieced together a "psychophysiological" account of Kafka’s dream logic. As Perciaccante told ResearchGate in an interview, his study concerned itself less with the causes of Kafka’s sleeplessness. He admits “it’s difficult to classify Kafka’s insomnia.” Instead the authors concerned themselves with the effects of remaining in a hypnagogic state (a word, notes Drake Baer, that etymologically means “being abducted into sleep”), as well as Kafka’s awareness of his insomnia’s magical and debilitating power.

Metamorphosis, says Perciaccante, in addition to a work about social and familial alienation, “may also represent a metaphor for the negative effects that poor quality sleep, short sleep duration, and insomnia may have on mental and physical health.” Had Kafka overcome his malady, he may never have written his best-known work. Indeed, he may not have written at all. “Perhaps there are other forms of writing,” he told Max Brod in 1922, “but I know only this kind, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only this kind.” Perciaccante and Coralli see Kafka’s insomniac torment as a primary theme in his work, but two dissenting voices, writer Saudamini Deo and forensic doctor and anthropologist Philippe Charlier, disagree. Writing into The Lancet to express their view, they assert that despite Kafka’s persistent laments and the squirmy fate of the autobiographical Gregor Samsa, the writer's “insomnia was not at all dehumanizing... but the exact opposite—ie, humanizing the self by bringing to surface elements of unconscious that guide most actions of our waking life.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Historical Plaque Memorializes the Time Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs Came to Blows Over the Oxford Comma (Or Not)

Maybe it doesn’t take much to get a grammar nerd in a state of agitation, or even, perhaps, violent rage. While I generally avoid the term “grammar nazi,” it does bluntly convey the severe intolerance of certain grammarians. One of the most popular recent books on grammar, Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, announces itself in its subtitle as a “Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” And sure enough, the main title of the entertaining guide comes from a violent joke, in which a panda enters a bar, eats a sandwich, then shoots up the joint. Asked why, he tells the bartender to look up “panda” in the dictionary: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Truss’s example illustrates not a grammatical point of contention, but a mistake, a misplaced comma that completely changes the meaning of a sentence. But we might refer to many technically correct examples involving the absence of the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series that sets off the last item.

Many people have argued, with particular vehemence, that the “and” at the end of a series satisfies the comma’s function. No, say other strict grammarians, who point to the confusing ambiguity between, say, “I went to dinner with my sister, my wife, and my friend” and “I went to dinner with my sister, my wife and my friend.” We could adduce many more potentially embarrassing examples.

The Oxford comma is so contentious a grammatical issue that it supposedly provoked a drunken fistfight between Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. At least, that is, according to a plaque at Mill No. 5 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a historic textile mill built in 1873 and since revitalized into a performance space with shops and a farmer’s market. “On this site on August 15, 1968,” the plaque reads, Kerouac and Burroughs “came to blows over a disagreement regarding the Oxford comma. The event is memorialized in Kerouac’s 'Doctor Sax' and in the incident report filed by the Lowell Police Department.” The next line should give us a clue as to how seriously we should take this historical tidbit: “According to eyewitnesses, Burroughs corrected the spelling and grammar of the police report.”

The plaque is a hoax, the fight never happened. (And it is one of many such joke historical markers at the mill.) Doctor Sax was written nine years earlier, in 1959, and Kerouac and Burroughs hadn’t even met at the time of that novel’s events. But it’s a great story. “We imagine Burroughs grabbing the policemen’s pen,” writes Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, “lucid as a shaman, and then plopping onto the grass, out cold.” (The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums calls the spurious plaque “an act of historic vandalism.”) We like the story not only because it’s a juicy bit of lore involving two legendary writers, but also because the Oxford comma, for whatever reason, is such a weirdly inflammatory issue. The TED-Ed video above calls it “Grammar’s great divide.” (The comma acquired its name, points out Mental Floss, “because the Oxford University Press style guidelines require it.”)

If it isn’t already evident, I seriously favor the Oxford comma, perhaps enough to defend it in pitched battle. But if you need convincing by gentler means, you might heed the wisdom of The New Yorker’s resident “comma queen,” who, in the video above, serves up another humorous instance of a serial comma faux pas involving strippers, JFK, and Stalin (or “the strippers, JFK and Stalin”). For a much more serious Oxford comma kerfuffle, we might refer to a class action lawsuit involving overtime pay for truckers, a case that “hinged entirely" on the serial comma, "a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes,” writes Daniel Victor at The New York Times, in a sentence that puckishly, or contrarily, leaves out the last comma, and sets the grammar intolerant among us grinding our teeth. But the Oxford comma is no joke. Its lack may cost Maine company Oakhurst millions of dollars, or their employees millions in pay. “The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one,” writes Victor. Until it isn’t, and someone gets sued, shot, or punched in the face. So snub the Oxford comma, I say, at your peril.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stream a 24 Hour Playlist of Charles Dickens Stories, Featuring Classic Recordings by Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles & More

Children, cast off your fingerless mitts and gather round the mercifully cold hearth for some old timey, seasonally inappropriate listening.

Spotify has pulled together 67 Charles Dickens audio classics into a massive playlist for your summertime listening enjoyment–nearly 24 hours worth. That should last the long cross-country drive to see grandma.

Big gorillas like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations figure prominently. Sir Laurence Olivier, preparing to step into the part of Mr. Micawber, calls David Copperfield “a novel which I think must be almost the most famous ever written.”

Still true half a century later? Immaterial. Olivier's use of "I think" and "almost" leaves room enough for a sort of genial, general agreement.

Some of the introductions give unintentionally hilarious added value, such as host Frank Craven’s attempt to contextualize a Lux Radio Theater presentation starring Orson Welles as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities excerpt. The author’s work was often published in serial form, he tells listeners:

Records tell us of how crowds thronged the wards of New York City to receive news of their favorite heroine or hero. For already, the names of Dickens’ characters were household words, as much, I imagine, as Lux Toilet Soap is a household word throughout America today, and for very much the same reason–the ability to find approval among people of all kinds of ages and every walk of life, not only among women who are anxious to preserve their loveliness but with every member of the family, young and old. Lux Toilet Soap is quick to make friends and to keep them. 

How disappointed the sponsors must’ve been that in the whole of A Tale of Two Cities, there’s not a single reference to soap. (For the record, Oliver Twist has one and David Copperfield has two…)

Lesser known treats include Emlyn Williams, a Welsh actor who spent three decades performing as Dickens in a touring solo show, reading “Mr. Chops,” a tale of a circus dwarf, ill used by society. Dickens himself performed the story on his popular lecture tours. More recently actor Simon Callow mined it for a one man show. Sturdy material.

The 24-hour playlist (the first one above) will be added to our list of Free Audio Books. If you need to download Spotify's free software, grab it here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch Gets Reborn as a 21st Century Web Series: Watch It Online

In 1856, novelist George Eliot—real name Mary Anne Evans—issued a vicious critique of other women English writers in language we would expect from the most self-satisfied of misogynists, a group of people with an unqualified monopoly on the culture, but who had very little new to say on the subject. But Eliot certainly did, in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Though she couches many of her critical observations in the condescending vocabulary of a male antagonist, the language only serves to make her argument more effective. The essay, writes Kathryn Schulz, “does a remarkable number of things deftly and all at once.”

Although she is an uncommonly compassionate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvious thing she does here is chiffonade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while castigating some women, she manages to champion women as a whole. Her chief objection to silly novels is that they misrepresent women’s real intellectual capacity; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the ­culture that produced them—through inadequate education, low expectations, patronizing critics, and fear of the real deal.

The fault, she asserted, lies with the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, the lazy thinkers. Though an accomplished essayist and translator, Eliot would only publish her first novel in 1859, at the age of 37. But “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” writes Schulz, “traces out in negative space, the contours of a truly great novel”—one that wouldn’t arrive until fourteen years later: Middlemarch: a study of provincial life. (Read online or download in various formats here.)

The book’s first chapter introduces Dorothea Brooke, a well-off 19-year old orphan—who, writes Pamela Erens, “has dreams of doing some great work in the world” but gives her life instead to “dry humorless pedant” Casaubon—with an ironic quote from the licentious Jacobean play The Maid’s Tragedy: “Since I can do no good because a woman, / Reach constantly at something that is near it.”

As with the pen name she adopted, Eliot appropriated the armor of a male-dominated culture to bring into being some of the most staggeringly insightful writing of the time, and a beacon to other great women writers. “What do I think of Middlemarch?,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “What do I think of glory?—except that in a few instances ‘this mortal has already put on immortality.’” Virginia Woolf pronounced the book “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Number twenty-one on The Guardian’s list of “The 100 Best Novels,” Middlemarch, writes Robert McCrum, exerts “an almost hypnotic power over its readers…. Today it stands as perhaps the greatest of many great Victorian novels.”

Do we have the time or the attention to read Eliot’s sprawling 900-page realist epic in the 21st century? Given that Karl Ove Knausgaard's 3,600 page, six-part autobiographical novel, My Struggle, is one of the most lauded literary works of the past few years, perhaps we do. More specifically, in the language of many a condescending critic of today, do “Millennials” have the time and attention to read Middlemarch? At least a certain contingent of young readers has not only read the novel, but has adapted it into a seventy-episode web drama, Middlemarch: The Series—an “attempt worth watching," writes Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker, "for its ambition as well as its charm.”

Written and directed by Yale undergraduate film student Rebecca Shoptaw, the series stars several of Shoptaw’s peers “as students at Lowick College, in the fictional town of Middlemarch, Connecticut,” and it transcribes the novel’s form into that most 21st century of mediums, the vlog. You can see the official teaser at the top of the post; watch the first episode just above, introducing Yale student Mia Fowler as Dot Brooke; and see the full series, thus far, down below. (The show has already won awards and recognition from several film festivals. See "air dates" and more on its busy Tumblr page.)

Up to now, notes Mead, Eliot's fiction has resisted the kind of treatment given to Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen in adaptations like “a chapter book for tweens called Jane Airhead” and the Austen-inspired Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless (not to mention Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). And yet, despite the daunting size, scope, and seriousness of Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch: the Series continues in this tradition of light-hearted, pop-cultural modernizations, using the same device as the award-winning Austen vlog adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Brontë vlog adaptation "The Autobiography of Jane Eyre."

Though it is "an impossibly tall order,” writes Mead, “to expect a Web series to approach the nuance of a nineteenth-century novel—of the nineteenth-century novel," adaptations like Shoptaw’s don’t even attempt to do this. They express “a winning affection” for their source material, and a sense of how it still informs the very different gender identities and sexual relationships of the present. In that sense, it may be useful to think of them as, in part, working in a similar vein as another very 21st century medium: fan fiction. Would the knives-out critic Eliot approve? Impossible to say. But I dare say she might admire the ambition, creative impulses, and narrative ingenuity of Shoptaw and her cast perhaps as much as they admire her greatest work.

via The New Yorker

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


John Steinbeck Has a Crisis in Confidence While Writing The Grapes of Wrath: “I am Not a Writer. I’ve Been Fooling Myself and Other People”

In a 1904 letter, Franz Kafka famously wrote, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” a line immortalized in pop culture by David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” Where Bowie referred to the frozen emotions of addiction, the arctic waste inside Kafka may have had much more to do with the agony of writing itself. In the year that he composed his best-known work, The Metamorphosis, Kafka kept a tortured journal in which he confessed to feeling “virtually useless” and suffering “unending torments.” Not only did he need to break the ice, but “you have to dive down,” he wrote on January 30th, “and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.”

Whether as writers we find the evidence of Kafka’s crippling self-doubt to be a comfort I cannot say. For many people, no matter how successful, or prolific, some degree of pain inevitably attends every act of writing. And many, like Kafka, have left personal accounts of their most productive periods. John Steinbeck struggled mightily during the composition of his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. His journal entries from the period tell the story of a frayed and anxious man overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of his task. But his example is instructive as well: despite his fragile mental state and lack of confidence, he continued to write, telling himself on June 11th, 1938, “this must be a good book. It simply must.” (See some of Steinbeck's handwritten entries in the image above, courtesy of Austin Kleon.)

In setting the bar so high—“For the first time I am working on a real book,” he wrote—Steinbeck often felt crushed at the end of a day. “My whole nervous system in battered,” he wrote on June 5th. “I hope I’m not headed for a nervous breakdown.” He finds himself a few days later “assailed with my own ignorance and inability.” He continues in this vein. “Where has my discipline gone?” he asks in August, “Have I lost control?” By September he’s seeking perspective: “If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So to hell with it.” The weight of expectation comes and goes, but he keeps writing.

The “private fruit” of Steinbeck’s diary entries, writes Maria Popova, "is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive” as the novel itself. At least that may be so for writers who are also beset by devastating neuroses. For Steinbeck, the diary (published here) was “a tool of discipline” and “hedge against self-doubt.” This may sound counterintuitive, but keeping a diary, even when the novel stalls, is itself a discipline, and an acknowledgement of the importance of being honest with oneself, allowing turbulence and doldrums to be a conscious part of the experience.

Steinbeck “feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him,” writes Popova, “and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.” His confrontations with negative capability can sound like “Buddhist scripture,” anticipating Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. We needn’t attribute any religious significance to Steinbeck’s journals, but they do begin to sound like confessions of the kind many mystics have recorded over the centuries, including the imposter syndrome many a saint and bodhisattva has admitted to feeling. “I’m not a writer,” he laments in one entry. “I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Nonetheless, no matter how excruciating, lonely, and confusing the effort, he resolved to develop a “quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established.” A ritual act, of a sort, which “must be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration.”

In the audio above, hear actor Paul Hecht read excerpts from Steinbeck's diaries in an episode of the Morgan Library's Diary Podcast. You can read Steinbeck's diaries in the published volume, Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941.

via Austin Kleon 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover Dr. Seuss’s Audacious Advertisements from the 1930s & 40s: All on Display in a Digital Archive

I well remember learning that Dr. Seuss’s real name was Theodor Geisel, mostly because I found Theodor Geisel was just as much fun to say as “Dr. Seuss.” Both names rolled around in the mouth, did somersaults and backflips off the tongue like the author’s multitude of strangely rubbery characters. With his Rube Goldberg machines, miniscule Whos, enormous Hortons, and mountains of comic absurdity, Seuss is like Swift for kids, his stories full of fantastic satire alongside much good clean common sense. Books like Horton Hears a Who and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas are chock full of “positive messages,” writes Amy Chyao at the Harvard Political Review, as well as trenchant social critique for five-year-olds.

Among the many lessons, “embracing diversity is perhaps the single most salient one embedded in many of Dr. Seuss’s books.” Geisel did not always espouse this value. There are those who read Horton’s refrain, “a person’s a person no matter how small,” as penance for work he did as a political cartoonist during World War II, when he drew what Jonathan Crow described in a previous post as “breathtakingly racist” depictions of the Japanese, promoting the bigotry that led to violence and the internment of Japanese Americans, an action he vigorously supported.

You can see many of his political cartoons at UC San Diego’s digital library, “Dr. Seuss Went to War.” UCSD also hosts an online archive of Geisel’s advertising work, which sustained him throughout much of the 30s and 40s, and not all of which has aged well either.

Geisel later expressed regret for his blanket anti-Japanese attitudes after a trip to Japan in 1953. And he later made several anti-racist cartoons against Jim Crow laws and anti-Semitism. These might have been meant to atone for more of his less well-known work, advertisements featuring crude, ugly stereotypes of Africans and Arabs.

You will find some of these ads in the USCD archive; Geisel did truck in some blatantly inflammatory images. But he mostly drew innocuous, yet visually exciting, cartoons like the one at the top, one of the dozens of ads he drew during a 17-year campaign for Flit, an insect repellant made by Standard Oil.

Geisel did ads for Standard Oil’s main product, promoting Essolube motor oil, further up, with the kind of creature that would later inhabit his children’s books. He got irreverently high concept with a GE ad set in hell, published explicitly under the pen name Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. And just above, in a brochure for the National Broadcasting Company, he introduces the visual aesthetic of Horton’s jungle, with a troupe of stereotypical grass-skirted Africans that might have come from one of Hergé’s offensive colonialist Tintin comics. (Both Seuss’s and Hergé’s early work are testaments to the common co-existence of progressive politics with often contemptuous or condescending treatment of nonwhite people in the early twentieth century.)

The Seuss advertisements archive shows us the artist’s development from visual puns and quirks to the fully-fledged mechanical surrealism of his mature style, as in the National Broadcasting Company brochure above, with its musical contraption the “Zimbaphone,” a precursor to the many cacophonous, overcomplicated instruments to come. It is when he is at his most inventive that Geisel is at his best. When he abandoned lazy, mean-spirited stereotypes, his work embraced a world of joyous possibility and weirdness.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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