September 10, 2014 | by Lewis Lapham
This remembrance of our founding editor, Peter Matthiessen, originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine; we’re grateful to the staff and to Lewis Lapham for allowing us to publish it.
I first encountered Peter Matthiessen in the summer of 1949, on a beach at Fishers Island where he soon was pointing out the sights to be seen if one had the wit to see them—seven or eight species of seabird inshore and offshore, the likely change in the weather inferred by the wind veering around to the south, the Latin name for a nearby snake or crab, the probable catch in the hold of a trawler bearing east by north on the far horizon.
The meeting had been called by my godmother and Peter’s father, long-abiding friends whose houses on the island were a short distance from one another; by both parties it was thought that Peter could tell me what to look out for at the Hotchkiss School, from which Peter had graduated in 1945 and at which I was a member of the class embarking upon its lower middle year. I was fourteen, Peter seven years older, a senior at Yale tormenting himself with the ambition to become a writer of important books. Literature in those days was understood to be a noble calling, the high and not easily traveled road to light and truth.
The first question put to Peter about Hotchkiss proved to be the last. He didn’t wish to discuss what he deemed to be an ornamental pillar of the bourgeois status quo, and so as the afternoon went on (many fish to be seen and named, further sightings of sandpipers and gulls) I was surprised by the likeness of his interests and turns of mind to those of Mr. George Van Santvoord, the headmaster of the school with whom Peter seemed to share not only a love of words and nature but also the courage to lead an examined and examining life. Before the day was done I’d compounded the likeness of Mr. Van Santvoord with that of the druid, Merlyn, in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, one of the books on the school’s list of suggested summer reading. By the time I returned to the lamps being lit on my godmother’s sundeck, it had occurred to me that Peter’s teachings on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean not only resembled those of Mr. Van Santvoord’s to the Hotchkiss woods squad but also those that under the walls of Camelot Merlyn had vouchsafed to the young King Arthur: Read More »
August 20, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The Paris Review was saddened to learn that Deborah S. Pease—a poet, our former publisher, and a longtime supporter of the magazine—died in Boston earlier this week. She was seventy.
Pease was The Paris Review’s publisher from 1982 to 1992. She was a generous benefactor: in addition to her work with the Review, she supported Poets House and the Poetry Society of America, and she went on to help found A Public Space, whose editors write, “For her one of the truest ways to value art was to share it.”
An accomplished poet, Pease found a home for her work in the Review as early as 1977, and she returned to these pages often over the next decades; her work could be found in The New Yorker, AGNI, and Parnassus, among others, and in 1999 collected her poems in Another Ghost in the Doorway. She was precocious, too—a short story, “Doubt,” appeared in The New Yorker when she was only twenty-three, and her novel, Real Life, came not long afterward, in 1971.
August 11, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Menahem Golan, the B-Movie auteur, is dead at eighty-five, the Times reports. In the course of his prolific career, Golan—who directed more than forty films and produced more than two hundred—worked with Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, and Vanessa Redgrave; though he had a hand in several distinguished productions, he and his cohort trafficked in unabashedly debased material. The Golan milieu is one of superabundant corn-starch blood and suspenseful synthesizer sound tracks. As the Times has it, they “churned out movies about ninjas, cyborgs, chain saws, and the likes of Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde (1993).”
A bit of YouTube spelunking has led me to The Apple, a 1980 musical written, directed, and produced by Golan—perhaps one of the most gloriously catastrophic concepts ever committed to celluloid.
“A young couple enters the world of the music industry, but also the world of drugs,” the IMDB description reads, as if those worlds have ever been separate—and to that synopsis, allow me to add that the movie takes place in a dystopian future that’s very, very, very far away: it’s set in 1994. (“Life is nothing but show business / in 1994,” one song tells us, helpfully.)
In The Apple, Boogaloo International Music (BIM) controls the world—in the movie’s one prescient plot point, the citizenry is addicted to “the Worldvision Song Contest,” a talent show almost identical to American Idol or Eurovision. Any similarities to the actual future end there. BIM, headed by the nefarious Mr. Boogaloo, judges the success of its performers by counting the number of heartbeats in the crowd; when a sweet young couple threatens to overtake BIM’s pre-selected stars in the heartbeat rankings, Boogaloo throws the contest, invites the innocent couple to his swanky corporate HQ, and has his henchman drug the young woman. Things get progressively worse from there.
Above is a clip of the musical’s title track, “The Apple,” in which the entire cast is transported to Hell and the classic forbidden fruit is dangled before our unsuspecting heroes. “Juju Apple / Voodoo Apple,” sings a mildly hunky shirtless guy. “Take a little bite / Spend a splendid night / In our garden of delights.” 1994, man—it was wild!
If Menahem Golan is, as I write, in transit to some kind of afterlife, I hope it’s infinitely more pleasant than the one depicted in The Apple.
July 22, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The Times has reported that Thomas Berger died a little more than a week ago, on July 13, just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Berger wrote twenty-three novels, the best-known of which is 1964’s Little Big Man, a western picaresque that was later adapted into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman.
The Times obit finds a through-line in his work: “the anarchic paranoia that he found underlying American middle-class life.” “It was Kafka who taught me that at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial,” Berger said in a rare interview. He enjoyed a cult readership throughout his prolific career, and his books bear blurbs from the likes of John Hollander and Henry Miller; in 1980, The New York Times Book Review proclaimed, “Our failure to read and discuss him is a national disgrace.”
Today, his most outspoken advocate is probably Jonathan Lethem, who discusses an early (and démodé) fondness for Berger in his Art of Fiction interview: “When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not ‘the contemporary,’ but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler.” And Lethem effused in an essay for the Times a few years back,
Berger’s books are accessible and funny and immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language and attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger’s own self-definition as a “voyeur of copulating words.” He offers a book for every predilection: if you like westerns, there’s his classic, “Little Big Man”; so too has he written fables of suburban life (“Neighbors”), crime stories (“Meeting Evil”), fantasies, small-town “back-fence” stories of Middle American life, and philosophical allegories (“Killing Time”). All of them are fitted with the Berger slant, in which the familiar becomes menacingly absurd or perhaps the absurd becomes menacingly familiar.
Berger, who spent most of his life diligently removed from public life, seemed to submerge himself in a goulash of genre fiction, emerging every few years with something new and piquant. The variety of his books is borne out by their incredible first-edition jacket art, some of which I’ve gathered above—vibrant pastiches of everything from noir to Arthurian legend, many of them with a unabashed lowbrow strangeness that’s anathema to jacket designers today. As the author himself put it: “I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity.”
July 14, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Nadine Gordimer died yesterday in Johannesburg; she was ninety. Jannika Hurwitt described her, in an Art of Fiction interview published in our Summer 1983 issue, as “a petite, birdlike, soft-spoken woman”:
Gordimer manages to combine a fluidity and gentleness with the seemingly restrained and highly structured workings of her mind. It was as if the forty-odd years that she had devoted to writing had trained her to distill passion—and as a South African writer she is necessarily aware of being surrounded by passion on all sides—into form, whether of the written or spoken word.
As the Times obituary notes, Gordimer’s oeuvre constitutes “a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it … But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.”
The Paris Review published three of Gordimer’s stories. The first, from 1956, is “Face from Atlantis” which appeared in our thirteenth issue, revealing her striking gifts as a portraitist:
Eileen had a favorite among the photographs of her, too … The photograph was taken in Austria, on one of Waldeck’s skiing holidays. It was a clear print and the snow was blindingly white. In the middle of the whiteness stood a young girl, laughing away from the camera in the direction of something or someone outside the picture. Her little face, burnished by the sun, shone dark against the snow. There was a highlight on each firm, round cheekbone, accentuated in laughter.
“Children with the House to Themselves” appeared in 1986, as part of our hundredth issue, and “Across the Veld,” from our Winter 1989 issue, is full of the carefully observed, intricately drawn tensions that animate Gordimer’s work—as in this paragraph below, in which Hannah, the protagonist, ventures, in a bus full of whites, through a black township:
An avenue of black faces looked into the windows, pressing close, so that the combis had to slow to these people’s walking pace in order not to crush them under the wheels. No picnic party; the whites surrounded by, gazed at, gazing into the faces of these blacks who had stoned white drivers on a main road, who had taken control of this township out of the hands of white authority, who had refused to pay for the right to exist in the decaying ruins of the war against their presence too close across the veld; these people who killed police collaborators in their impotence to stop the police killing their children. One thing to read about these people, empathize with them, across the veld. Hannah, in her hide, felt the fear in her companions like a rise in temperature inside the vehicle. She slid open the window beside her. Instead of stones, black hands reached in, met and touched first hers and then those of all inside who reached out to them. The passengers jostled one another for the blessing of the hands, the healing touch. Some never saw the faces of those whose fingers they held for a moment before the combi’s progress broke the grasp. From the crush outside there were the cries “AMANDLA! VIVA!,” and joy when these were taken up by the whites. In the smiling haze of weekend drunks this procession of white people was part of the illusions that softened the realities of the week’s labour and made the improbable appear possible. The crowd began to sing, of course, and toi-toi in a half-dance, half-procession alongside the convoy, bringing, among the raised fists of some in the combis, a kind of embarrassed papal or royal weighing-of-air-in-the-hand as a gracious response from some others.
“I would like to say something about how I feel in general about what a novel, or any story, ought to be,” Gordimer said to end her Art of Fiction interview. “It’s a quotation from Kafka. He said, ‘A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.’ ”
July 9, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Anne Hollander, whose acute writing on fashion, costume, and style infused those subjects with a new intellectual energy, died on Sunday at eighty-three. As the Times reports, “She argued that clothing revealed far more than it concealed—about art, about perceptions of the body and ourselves—and her interests spanned centuries and mediums.”
Hollander conducted—or co-conducted; she shares the credit with John Marquand—The Paris Review’s first Art of Theater interview, with Lillian Hellman, published in 1965. Back then, her contributor’s note read modestly, “Anne Hollander designs costumes, paints, and translates occasionally.”
A little more than a decade later, in 1978, she published her first book, the brilliant (and brilliantly named) Seeing Through Clothes, a history of clothing and a study of representations of the body in Western art. The book was full of offhand wisdom about what you could call our philosophy of dress: “People seem always actually to know,” Hollander wrote, “with a degree of pain that has required the comfort of fairy tales, that when you are dressed in any particular way at all, you are revealed rather than hidden.” The book took a while to find its audience, but, as one critic noted, it “pushes erudition to the point of originality. The thoroughness with which she examines Western art and clothes has precipitated a new subject: how painting, sculpture and photography mediate between bodily ideals and what we wear.”
Over the next decades, her reputation grew and she published a succession of well-received books, including Moving Pictures and Sex in Suits; she wrote essays for a number of magazines, including The London Review of Books. Not much of Hollander’s writing is available online, but she was, for a time in the late nineties, the fashion columnist for Slate, which has curiously yet to publish a remembrance. Her pieces there have aged well; a column from February 1997—“A Loss for Words: Why there’s no good writing in fashion”—is just as true nearly twenty years later:
Fashion journalists and sensational fictioneers like Danielle Steele have co-opted the field, and other writers are scared off. Fashion now seems like a club with a private jargon that leaves no room for the play of sensitive literary exposition. And good critical writing about clothing hardly exists at all. There is no tradition of clothes criticism that includes serious analysis, or even of costume criticism among theater, ballet, and opera critics, who do have an august writerly heritage. This fact may be what makes the fashion journalist hate her job—the painful sense that real work cannot be done in this genre, that it would be better, more honorable, to be writing about something else.
But Hollander didn’t write about something else, thankfully. She expanded the rhetoric and insight of criticism about style, engaging where most writers thought there was nothing to engage with.