“Who wants yesterday’s papers? Who wants yesterday’s girl?”

I have always been a Beatles-over-the-Rolling-Stones type of old slag. This lyric represents the reason. How could anybody not prefer yesterday’s papers to today’s? I look at the major papers today, and the concentrated seriousness and collective bullshit makes me want to weep. In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review in 1967, Ben Bagdikian wrote that for a paper to be great, now, it had to have authority:

“What a paper reports must be accepted as precise, thorough, and balanced. Today this authority must extend to the causes of events, to analysis of their evolution, and to a presentation of rational policies toward them.”

This is a very concise list, to my mind, of all that went wrong with the papers. How is a paper is supposed to understand the causes of events? And how on earth is the “presentation of rational policies toward them” even vaguely what journalism, which supposedly is dealing with real policies, should confine itself to? The first item has lead to the flood of quotes from “experts”, often unnamed, and, when named, never at all debated. If I simply quote expert A about the “cause of events”, and I don’t even include the question that I asked, and I don’t ask a follow up question, then I am not reporting on the “cause of events”. Rather than freeing the news for muckraking, its most noble calling, I am hobbling and, in truth, crippling the muckraking impulse. As for the presentation of “rational policies” – what can one say? Of course, newspapers, owned by corporations, have created their own fantasy-land of rational policies. But the question is: rational for whom?

I should not pick too much on Bagdikian – like many reporters, he was mildly radicalized by the Vietnam War, which he helped in a small way to end by publishing the Pentagon Papers. And of  course, you don’t have to read the collected Schriften of Karl Kraus to understand that that there was always this tendency to portentousness and undeserved expert-mongering in the press (although of course there was always, also, the horoscopes and the advice columnists). But what I like about old newspapers is that they do not display authority – they are delightfully unauthoritative. The old reporters came at the world like pirates, and they had their interests on open display, as well as their knives. Each day was about boarding the ship and taking away booty. A dancer running off with a millionaire’s son! A corrupt politico caught with his pants down! A colorful modernist writer’s take on America, just after she lands from the boat! And they expected that their readers were motivated not by highmindedness, but by a combination of motives, among which envy, gossip, and titillation were upfront, as well as the very democratic ideas of bringing down the high and elevating the low. Hence the gossip column – and, as a complement, advise on serving dinner. They worked for the plutocrats, ultimately, but the culture they produced was beyond anything the plutocrats could control.

 

The other thing about old newspapers, I should say, is that news stays news. That is, you can read a paper from 1933 and it will contain more surprises for you than today’s Washington Post, because you won’t recognize most of the names, and you will consequently have less expectation about how all these dots connect.

Take, for instance, the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.

Gallica, I discovered a week ago, has digitalized a run of the Trib from the 20s to 1934. The Trib! This is the legendary paper of the Lost Generation. This is where Thurber worked. This is where Henry Miller worked. There’s a nice piece about the Trib in the Virginia Quarterly Review of 2003 by Ronald Weber, who calls it the World’s Zaniest Newspaper. There are probably competitors for that title, from PM to the Village Voice in the 60s; but these were not newspapers owned by the Colonel himself, McCormick, who, however rightwing his politics, seems to have given a fairly free hand to his Paris branch.

Here are the headlines for December 26, 1926: “Britain urges new attitude towards China”, “Manville refuses to pay bills for Stenographer-Wife” ‘’’Mr. Zero” entertains thousand Human Derelicts at Yale Dinner”, “Japan hails crown prince as New Ruler” and “Borah Rebukes those who Wish Mexican War”. In terms of news value, I imagine not one reader in a million – maybe even a billion – would recognize Manville or his Stenographer-Wife. As for Mr. Zero, well, that is a lot of human derelicts to entertain, even at Yale. Turns out there is a story there – and there are stories that lie hidden in all the old newspapers.

There’s a hidden competition between the novel and the newspaper. There is also something else: for the novelist, the newspaper has the same kind of fascination as the jewelry store has for a  kleptomaniac. How can one not steal! Dostoevsky, as is well known, was a great reader of newspapers. So was Dreiser. Sciascia is a rare case of a writer who was fascinated with older newspapers. Many of Sciascia’s essays are investigations of “cases” that were covered by the newspapers, but that left such holes for the imagination that he couldn’t help but go into these mysteries himself: for instance, the case of the death of Raymond Roussel in Actes relatifs a la mort de raymond Roussel – which I don’t believe has been translated into English. The work, here, relies crucially on newspaper reports as well as the archives. Murders and disappearances, especially as they effect writers, fascinated Sciascia. Too bad he never sniffed around the Weldon Kees case. Any glance, though, at yesterday’s papers will give you a lifetime of cases to ponder.

Sciascia, of course, lived in the 70s and 80s in Italy, when conspiracy theory wasn’t just a populist fringe phenomenon, but instead, a very rational way to understand the ins and outs of the state-business- crime nexus. In France, too, there were a number of what Liberation once called “strange cadavers” – assassinations and “suicides” that are still mysterious. Any fan of French conspiracy theory should start with the big names and go backwards – for instance, the Jean de Broglie assassination, when the seemingly entitled Deputy from d’Évreux was killed outside his lawyer’s house with three bullet in the neck on Christmas Eve, 1976. Nobody since then has figured out this murder, or why the French state hides many of the files pertaining to it. That isn’t to say that people haven’t been jailed for it; rather, they have been either the wrong people or people who have been persecuted with a curious lack of logic in the arguments against them. This is a story of high skullduggery, which pops up every few years as new information is discovered, or investigative journalists decide to poke the corpse one more time.

But low skullduggery, forgotten scandals, or the carnival of the decadent wealthy have an equal attraction for me. And with the digitalization of many newspaper archives, you can get an around the world sense of news stories. For instance: in the wake of the Prince of Wales running off with that divorced bitch, Wallis Simpson, in 1936, there was a spate of stories about royals and weddings. For instance, on April 16, 1937, Paris Soir broke the story of Nadia Wlassow, the “beautiful Athenian”, who was set to marry the Sultan of Yogakarta, and had run into the problem of being a white European in a 12 woman harem. Paris Soir’s correspondent archly warned that poisoning was a problem for these harem wives, what with one getting jealous of another and all. On February 5, 1938, they ran another article, this one a bit more lush. The Sultan agreed to the mass layoff of his harem. Nadia, who was now spelled Vlassov, was still ravishing. There are some nice quotes:. “He is a sultan, Mum, and I love him”, the ravishing Nadia was reported to have said to her mother. Of course, it all transpired at Saint-Moritz, where the two, chicly, bumped into each other. Now she was no longer described as Athenian – now she was the daughter of a white Russian merchant, located in Milan. Sultan Pakoe Alain Soerjodilogo was, of course, using some of the money from his vast sugar plantations to wow them at the ski resort. As soon as he had helped her on with her skis and taken a gander at her peepers, he was hopelessly enthralled. But there was her majesty Queen Wilhelmine to contend with: she “remained inflexible. A white woman could not be the twelfth wife in a royal harem.” And so love, colonialism and racism are conjoined in holy matrimony. It could be Hollywood! In fact, it all could be Hollywood – the movies introduced a certain surreality into the newspapers that still glitters there, out of the corner of our eyes.

Meanwhile, there were the rumors and stories about Geraldine Apponyi. She was born to Count Juliius Nagy-Apponyi. Her mother was an American, Gladys Stewart, one of the Virginia Stewarts. And so she was by birth a Countess. One day she was wandering rather on her own in Budapest. Then, according to Hope Ridings Miller, social correspondent for the Washington Post (in an exclusive dated April 27, 1938):

“Six months ago Countess Geraldine Apponyi, whose lineage on her mother’s side stems from a widely known Virginia family, consulted a crystal gazer in Budapest. It was all by way of diversion on an autumn afternoon, but the Countess listened with special interest as the seer prophesied, “Before the end of the year great things are to come your way.. You are to marry a handsome man of high stock”.

 

And just like that, we are translated to the tone, language and sexual vibe of Gerty McDowell in Ulysses. The language Joyce catches could have come out of the Countess’s crystal ball:

“Yes, it was her he was looking at, and there was meaning in his look. His eyes burned into her as though they would search her through and through, read her very soul. Wonderful eyes they were, superbly expressive, but could you trust them? People were so queer. She could see at once by his dark eyes and his pale intellectual face that he was a foreigner, the image of the photo she had of Martin Harvey, the matinee idol, only for the moustache which she preferred because she wasn’t stagestruck like Winny Rippingham that wanted they two to always dress the same on account of a play but she could not see whether he had an aquiline nose or a slightly retroussé from where he was sitting. He was in deep mourning, she could see that, and the story of a haunting sorrow was written on his face. She would have given worlds to know what it was. He was looking up so intently, so still, and he saw her kick the ball and perhaps he could see the bright steel buckles of her shoes if she swung them like that thoughtfully with the toes down. She was glad that something told her to put on the transparent stockings thinking Reggy Wylie might be out but that was far away. Here was that of which she had so often dreamed. It was he who mattered and there was joy on her face because she wanted him because she felt instinctively that he was like no-one else.”

Hope Miller is wonderful, in that she seems almost to join Gerty’s daydream:

She [Geraldine] speaks English, French, German and Hungarian, and in recent months has been studying Albanian. Shortly after her engagement to King Zog was announced in midwinter, the bride-elect, who previously was occupied in helping the Hungarian National Museum catalogue the $200,00 Appoyi collection of books, went to Tirana for an extended visit. Since then, she has been busy commuting from there to Paris and Budapest, where she consulted top-flight couturiers and selected her trousseau.”

It is the “top-flight” here which serves as the Barthesian punctum, the moment when the possibility of theorizing breaks down, when charm – and charm school – takes over from signifying.

Fuck the Rolling Stones. Who wants today’s papers?

 

 

  

 

 

 

Roger
Roger
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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