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From the Archive

John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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Vegetable-snake Undersea Beings: A Belated Correction

January 20, 2015 | by

Ginsberg in May 1965. Photo: Engramma.it

When The Paris Review interviewed Allen Ginsberg for our Spring 1966 issue, he expressed a sense of conflict about hallucinogens. He treasured their effects on consciousness—“you get some states of consciousness that subjectively seem to be cosmic-ecstatic, or cosmic-demonic”—but his body was having trouble tolerating them. “I can’t stand them anymore,” he said, “because something happened to me with them … After about thirty times, thirty-five times, I began getting monster vibrations again. So I couldn’t go any further. I may later on again, if I feel more reassurance.”

Thomas Clark conducted that interview in June 1965; the issue was on newsstands the following spring. A year later, though, in June 1966, Ginsberg sent The Paris Review the following letter, which recently resurfaced in our archives: Read More »

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Boudoirs of the Future

December 8, 2014 | by

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Schwartz, date unknown.

Delmore Schwartz was born on this day in 1913. The below is from a letter he sent to his publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, on May 8, 1951; it’s extracted from a series of their correspondence published in our Summer 1992 issue. A few years after this letter, in 1953, Laughlin dissolved his business relationship with Schwartz, who had succumbed to neurosis and paranoia, early signs of which are visible here. By the early sixties, Schwartz had cut off nearly all his friendships and started to drink heavily. He died in 1966.

I have decided not to be a bank clerk, after all, since I would probably be paralyzed by the conflict between my desire to steal money and my fear of doing so.

It was pleasant to learn that you expected our correspondence to be read in the international salons and boudoirs of the future. Do you think they will be able to distinguish between the obfuscations, mystification, efforts at humor, and plain statement of fact? Will they recognize my primary feelings as a correspondent—the catacomb from which I write to you, seeking to secure some word from the real world, or at least news of the Far West—and sigh with compassion? Or will they just think I am nasty, an over-eager clown, gauche, awkward and bookish? Will they understand that I am always direct, open, friendly, simple and candid to the point of naïveté until the ways of the fiendish world infuriate me and I am poked to be devious, suspicious, calculating, not that it does me any good anyway? And for that matter, what will they make of your complex character?

It develops that the jukeboxes in bars now have an item entitled Silence, which costs a nickel, just like Music. This can only lead to drunken disputations between those who want Silence and those who will be goddamned if they can’t have a little Music with their beer.

The Giants, after losing eleven straight and thus preventing me from buying the newspaper for eleven days, defeated Pittsburgh twice in three days, which made me reflect on the fact that I have been a Giants rooter for thirty years: the expense of spirit in a waste of games.

Yours,

Delmore

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The Lion Cage

December 4, 2014 | by

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Leonid Pasternak, Rilke in Moscow (detail), 1928.

Rainer Maria Rilke was born on this day in 1875. The below is excerpted from “The Lion Cage,” one in a series of Rilke translations by Stephen Mitchell in our Summer 1989 issue.

She paces back and forth around him, the lion, who is sick. Being sick doesn’t concern him and doesn’t diminish him; it just hems him in. The way he lies, his soft bent paws intentionless, his proud face heaped with a worn-out mane, his eyes no longer loaded, how is erected upon himself as a monument to his own sadness, just as he once (always beyond himself) was the exaggeration of his strength.

[…] But he just lets things happen, because the end hasn’t yet come, and he no longer exerts any energy and no longer takes part. Only far off, as though held away from himself, he paints with the soft paintbrush of his tail, again and again, a small, semicircular gesture of indescribable disdain. And this takes place so significantly that the lioness stops and looks over: troubled, aroused, expectant.

But then she begins her pacing again, the desperate, ridiculous pacing of the sentinel, which falls back into the same tracks, again and again. She paces and paces, and sometimes her distracted mask appears, round and full, crossed out by the bars.

She moves the way clocks move. And on her face, as on a clock dial which someone shines a light onto at night, a strange, briefly shown hour stands: a terrifying hour, in which someone dies.

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Magritte Shaving

November 21, 2014 | by

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René Magritte, Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952, oil on canvas. Image via SFMOMA

René Magritte was born on this day in 1898. Louis Simpson’s poem “Magritte Shaving” appeared in our twenty-fifth anniversary issue in Spring 1981.

The houses look at one another,
a language of windows.
The violin stands above the collar ...
sleigh bells in a blue sky.

How calm the torso of a woman
like a naked statue.
Reclining in an alcove
with curtains, the window gives
a view of earth ... yellow fields.
She has a blue leg and a green arm,
red arm, and leg painted saffron.

The orange sphere floating in space
in front of the blue canyon
has a face like a mask
with fixed brown eyes.
Directly underneath, on the parapet,
stands a shirt with a tie
in a dark, formal suit.

He has left his shaving brush
on top of the cabinet with doors of glass
that is merging with a cloud.

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Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History

November 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Library of Congress

There’s no Writers at Work interview with Allen Tate—who was born today in 1899—but his name seems to pop up in nearly everyone else’s. By my count, he has cameos in nineteen of our interviews; he shuffles onstage to offer an apercu or to help someone or to drink or to be carried down a flight of stairs. And then he leaves.

Tate ran in many circles, in part because his teaching allowed him to move around so much. At one point or another he crossed paths with an astonishing number of his fellow writers: Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell, most prominently, but also Randall Jarrell, John Gould Fletcher, John Crowe Ransom, John Berryman, and Andrew Lytle. His walk-ons in The Paris Review interviews testify to his influence not just as a poet but as a friend. If you read these mentions of him in succession, as a kind of patchwork oral history, you get a strangely gratifying secondhand sense of the man, as if someone had painted his portrait based only on a description. Let’s give it a try— Read More »

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