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Campy Fiction; Smoking Strictures

March 9, 2012 | by

Watching a marathon of Twin Peaks has gotten me thinking about camp. There are movies and television shows that we delight in, and discuss seriously, though the content may not be “serious.” What can be said about campy contemporary fiction? Please give me a list of fabulous, outlandish books, preferably with a narrator who will repulse and delight me all at once. Something bad, but well-written.

Delight may not be the operative word, but David Vann’s new novel, Dirt, is outlandish, repulsive, well-written, and utterly over the top. (In one climactic scene, the teenage hero imprisons his mother in a toolshed after she threatens to have him arrested for the statutory rape of his cousin.) True to its title, the book is down and dirty. I am not sure whether the camp is intentional—but then I often suspect that many of the best “camp” artists, as for instance Lynch and Almodóvar, do mean it. Their sincerity is their power.

If you’re looking for high camp—without the Sturm und Drang—it doesn’t get campier than James McCourt’s 1971 send-up of the opera world, Mawdrew Czgowchwz (pronounced “Mardu Gorgeous”). And if soap opera’s more your speed, try Cyra McFadden’s 1977 The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County.

Dear Lorin,

I've recently moved to Manhattan only to learn that I am actually a ghost—that I am, apparently, an apparition. Needless to say, this discovery has been rather disconcerting, but my chief worry is that the recent strictures regarding smoke in apartments and Central Park will cause me rapidly to be evicted from my apartment, and possibly excommunicated from the city outright. I have it from trusted sources that you are at once smoking, wispy, and nebulous—indeed, altostatus cumulus—and yet you seem to face little threat from the law. Lorin, my friend, how do you do it?


Dear Spook,

My secret is I don't smoke very much. It's bad for you! It's probably even bad for ghosts ...

To the wise members of The Paris Review,

The only poem I have ever memorized was for Spanish class in ninth grade. It is time to add to the repertoire, but which poem do I choose? I imagine that it would be a comfort—something inspiring about living, loving, the natural ups and downs of being human. Perhaps something about choices, or appreciation. Not too long or too short. Something to share when the moment is right, or something to keep to myself, to repeat in a chant-like form on long runs through the woods. I maintain full confidence in your advice.


Dear Julia,

Once my friend Cary and I had a poem-memorizing contest. He memorized poems by Richard Hugo. I memorized poems by Keats. Each poem had to be longer than fourteen lines, and each of us had to pay the other a dollar for every line we muffed. My favorite of the poems I learned is the “Ode on Melancholy,” which I think may fit the bill. At least, I go around repeating it to myself in low moments, and it seems to do the trick. (Note that the word globed should be pronounced with two syllables.)

No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

And here is Rilke's “World Was in the Face of the Beloved” (translated by Stephen Mitchell):

World was in the face of the beloved—,
but suddenly it poured out and was gone:
world is outside, world can not be grasped.

Why didn't I, from the full, beloved face
as I raised it to my lips, why didn't I drink
world, so near that I couldn't almost taste it?

Ah, I drank. Insatiably I drank.
But I was filled up also, with too much
world, and, drinking, I myself ran over.

No doubt other readers will have different recommendations. Happy memorizing. And happy runs in the woods.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.



  1. em | March 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    For Julia:

    I’m in full support of the “Ode on Melancholy” suggestion. And here, a few suggestions of my own:

    -Sonnet 1 from Astrophil & Stella, by Sir Philip Sidney
    -For a pair of poems, Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” (Maybe too long for what you had in mind, but definitely great to read. Could memorize excerpts from Il Penseroso!)
    -Easy to remember and more for a smile than deep wisdom: “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams


  2. Stevie | March 9, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Julia, Ted Hughes is lovely for memorizing and great for sharing, “when the moment is right.” Try, “Crow’s First Lesson” … best with a glass of red wine.

  3. Rick Hawkins | March 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    A few years ago, at the age of 54, I decided to memorise some poetry after I realised that I didn’t know any poems by heart except for “The Good Ship Venus”, a bawdy bit of doggerel that I learned at the age of 11. Coleridge was a good starting choice. I memorised “Frost at Midnight”, “Kublai Khan” and “The Nightingale” and found the process surprisingly easy: just repeat each line over and over – purely rote learning. I’ve added Poe’s “The Raven”, Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, many of Will’s sonnets as well as all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. Good mental exercise and it really helps you to understand the poetry!

  4. Daniel | March 9, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    For camp, I suggest reading We Always Treat Women Too Well by Raymond Queneau.

  5. GZ | March 9, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    At it’s best Twin Peaks blended dark surrealism with a very sincere treatment of post-war American utopianism (see the episodes directed by Lynch). Now look at the way John Waters produced very deliberate trash. His films are generally considered extremely campy. The purest camp however, is distinguished by bathos and unintentional trashiness, like Marvel Comics or Twin Peaks at its worst. If one appreciates the show as camp, they are missing it’s true charm. For this reason, it’s best to skip most of the last season.

  6. mary lee | March 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    I was made (in school) to memorize “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold…and that was 50 years ago. It does stick surprisingly well. “My last Duchess” by Browning not quite so well…

  7. Martin | March 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Recommending a poem to memorize seems like recommending a favorite food to savor – one’s own is clear enough, but it’s hard to guess what another person likes, let alone what he or she might love and want to revisit. So I’d say browse widely. When you find yourself involuntarily smiling and repeating it in a whisper, you’ll know you’ve got it. (For something on living, loving, choices and appreciation, maybe Zagajewski’s “Epithalamium”? Great for weddings too.)

  8. Daphne | March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Spook has my sympathy, especially since lately Phoebus Apollo — no doubt responding in part to the flow of questionable but plucky love sonnets — surprised me somewhat with the following admonition: “I don’t want to have to speak to you again about those cigarettes.” Naturally I am therefore quitting, and perhaps the solution for Spook might be to take a devoted but equally firm lover, and follow suit?

  9. Nina | March 15, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly. The original really says it all!

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