The Daily

At Work

Dialogues: An Interview with Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan

June 22, 2016 | by

Rebecca Norris Webb, Blackbirds, color photographs. From the series “My Dakota,” 2005–2011.

Rebecca Norris Webb, Blackbirds, 2006, color photograph. From the series “My Dakota,” 2005–2011.

A few weeks before the end of 2014, Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan wrote me to request permission to reprint the poem “My Gift to You,” by Roberto Bolaño, which was published in our Summer 2012 issue. Stern and Jordan, both of whom are photographers, had recently opened a small space called 205-A in which they hosted group photography exhibitions with the aim of creating an artistic community in dialogue. They had also begun publishing small-run books; “My Gift to You” was intended for a book pairing images by nine photographers with the work of nine poets. Titled 36 Photographs & 20 Poems, the slim volume is published under the heading Dialogues 01, indicating future installments in a series.

The book appeared in limited quantity in 2015. Its dimensions are slightly smaller than those of the Review, and its pale pink covers are unassuming: with only the title and a white rectangle on the front, suggesting an empty frame, it has the austerity of a classic Éditions Grasset cover. Stern, who lives in New York, spoke with me in person; I corresponded with Sullivan, who resides in Los Angeles, over e-mail. The assembled conversation returns again and again to the linked ideas of collaboration, correspondence, and correspondences.

 

INTERVIEWER

The epigraph is from Arseny Tarkovsky’s “On the Bank,” a sublime and foreboding poem about the natural world. The book’s opening photograph, by Rebecca Norris-Webb, depicts an army of brown, bowing sunflowers and a plague of birds and echoes Tarkovsky’s line about “the terrible, vegetable sense of self.” Why did you choose to begin this way?

SULLIVAN

The poem explores the moment when one realizes nature has a language, though that language is incomprehensible. This realization makes the world both troubling and beautiful, and perhaps the world made more sense to him before he was able to contemplate it, before he was fully conscious, before he “counted life in years.” This narrative speaks to this large cosmic complexity, and I think it makes for a nice ground from which the rest of the poems and pictures in the book can grow. Essentially, this book is an exploration of the world at large. There isn’t a concrete thesis or message we’re trying to convey. We were more interested in presenting poems and images we found interesting and organizing them in a way where meaning could be generated from their interaction. Whatever that meaning is, it will be different for each person. Read More »

Surrendering to Your Own Maneuvers: An Interview with Jana Prikryl

June 21, 2016 | by

jana-prikryl

The After Party, Jana Prikryl’s debut collection of poems, is divided in two. In the first half, the reader is mainly in New York, swaying between the modern and the classical, easing between Internet aphorisms and well-dusted literary lives; in half a dozen gently mocking, moving lines in “Ars Poetica,” we find ourselves falling from an observation about Kelly Oxford’s tweets into Arthur Conan Doyle and the history of spiritualism. The collection’s second half switches modes, and we find ourselves engaged with a long, bold sequence of fragments that carry an air of nostalgia. These later poems explore the natural world, the interplay between femininity and masculinity, and a lingering sense of not belonging. Perhaps it’s an odd comparison, but the closing sequence, “Thirty Thousand Islands,” made me think of Matisse and his 1940s cutouts: the preeminent sense of environment, but also the way that techniques of balance and contrast seem to give the work its structure and much of its impact. Read More »

Is That All There Is?: An Interview with Stephanie Danler

May 24, 2016 | by

Stephanie-Danler_aup (1)

The first sentence of Stephanie Danler’s riveting debut novel is perhaps more an injunction than an imperative: “You will develop a palate.” Over the 355 pages of Sweetbitter, the narrator, twenty-two-year-old Tess, encounters a number of appetites. She arrives in New York City during the heat wave of 2006 and applies for a job at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant. The manager, a man, stares at her just a little too long—the black sundress, the pilled cardigan wet with sweat—and we sense that her education will soon begin. Oysters, Pinot Noir, lines of coke at the bar. “The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter.”  Read More »

The State of the Political Novel: An Interview with Édouard Louis

May 3, 2016 | by

Édouard Louis

Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.  

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.

Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.

Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?

Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him. Read More »

The Art of War Reporting: An Interview with Janine di Giovanni

May 2, 2016 | by

Photo: Rannjan Joawn

I met the war reporter Janine di Giovanni more than a decade ago, when I was a new expatriate in Paris. Her bohemian apartment, half a block from the Tuilerie Gardens, was filled with journalists, writers, newspaper editors, and members of NGOs from places I had only read about. On the table were large bowls of pasta drenched in butter and truffles—she’s from a large Italian American family from New Jersey—and an inviting assortment of open bottles of red wine. Our children, both a year old, became best friends in the way only children can, and remain so to this day. Janine remains the only person I know who’s canceled a playdate with the excuse that she had “to go to Syria on Thursday.”

Known for her wrenching and immediate dispatches from Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Syria for the London Times, Janine took an unusual road to war reporting. She went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction and completed a master’s degrees in comparative literature at the University of London. Her conversion to war reporting came, she says, when she saw a photograph of an Israeli soldier burying a Palestinian teen alive with a bulldozer full of sand. “It disturbed me horribly—so I went. I met a human-rights lawyer who took me to the refugee camps and said, If you have the ability to write about people who have no voice, then you have an obligation. And that was that.”

Giovanni is currently the Middle East editor of Newsweek. Her books include Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of War and Love; The Place at the End of the World: Essays from the Edge; Against the Stranger, about the effect of occupations during the first intifada on both Palestinians and Israelis; and The Quick and The Dead, about the siege of Sarajevo. Her latest, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, is out this week. I spoke with her reporter-style by Skype—I reached her in Paris, where she still lives. 

The stories you tell are steeped in tragedy—the death of a child, the violent torture of a prisoner of war. How do you conceive of your reader, who is, after all, not a war reporter and isn’t used to this?

My attitude is, I hope readers are upset by this. That’s what I want to do, shock them out of their complacency. But I’m not doing it deliberately. Some reviews of my latest book would say, There’s no holds barred, she tells these bitter stories incredibly graphically. But I just told my readers what my reporting had told me. I didn’t exaggerate, I didn’t add to anything. I didn’t have to. Read More »

Exploding Autobiography: An Interview with Mark Leyner

April 14, 2016 | by

Photo: David Plakke Media NYC

When The Paris Review last interviewed Mark Leyner, in 2013, he announced his next book. “Gone with the Mind is my autobiography in the form of a first-person-shooter game,” he said. “You’ll have to blast your way back into my mother’s womb.”

Now, three years later, Gone with the Mind has arrived, and it’s … almost nothing like that. The autobiographical elements are intact, yes, and Leyner’s mother appears early and often—but the notion of a first-person shooter is unceremoniously jettisoned on page forty-six. (“Pretty much everyone I mentioned it to thought it sounded really cool, but what is that, actually? What would a book like that actually be, y’know?”) In its place is a loose frame story in which Leyner appears at the Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series at Woodcreek Plaza Mall, where he reads before a crowd of precisely three: a Panda Express employee on break, a Sbarro employee on break, and his mom.

The introductory speech he gives comprises the bulk of Gone with the Mind, a discursive farrago that touches on Freudian mother-son dynamics, constructivist aesthetics, fascist metaphysics, Twizzlers, women’s antiperspirant commercials, prostate cancer, and formative episodes from his youth. In earlier novels, Leyner cast himself as a paranoid egomaniac (Et Tu, Babe) or a feckless, oversexed adolescent (The Tetherballs of Bougainville), but the Mark Leyner we meet in these pages is transparent, erudite, self-deprecating, even tender. This is an autobiography that dramatizes its own creation—the pathos in attempting to express “the chord of how one feels at single given moment, in this transient, phantom world.”

I met Leyner at Marco & Pepe, a restaurant in Jersey City, where he arrived with a copy of Gershom Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism tucked under his arm. We began our conversation by learning, courtesy of our waitress, what a Portuguese muffin is.

So it sounds kind of like an English muffin, but bigger.

Does that mean anything called Portuguese is just a bigger variant of the English version?

Yes. Portuguese-breakfast tea is just a vat of English-breakfast tea. Anyway—it’s been three years since your last interview with the Review. I gather there’s been a sort of formalist struggle for you since then.

I waited on the idea for this book for a very long time. It’s important to me that each book is starting from scratch. I’m trying to think of a vital, unprecedented idea for a book that I haven’t seen. It’s not because I’m so ambitious—it’s just the way I’ve always worked. I have a feeling it comes from my being most engaged and inspired by visual artists when I was younger. Duchamp, Picabia, all the Cubists, Apollinaire and his people, André Breton, his people. And then all the great Abstract Expressionists, whom I adore still. I’m a big Clement Greenbergian. I’m a high formalist. I would always say that when, back in the day, people talked about postmodernism and things. I thought, No, I’m a card-carrying modernist, and I’m proud to say it. I approached this book in a formal way. How does one represent an autobiography, which in itself is a representation of confabulated memories? I began thinking about my mother—the meals we used to have at various restaurants and how we’ve always been so keen to make an audience out of each other. And that’s one of the really fundamental themes of this book—how intimates make audiences of each other. I really do think there’s a reading of this book that sees it as just me and my mom talking, and the rest of it being some kind of wonderful filigreed delusion—this pathetic event. Read More »