February 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Remembering Mavis Gallant.
Mavis Gallant, known for her prolific and trenchant short fiction, has died, at ninety-one. Born in Montreal in 1922, she had a brief career as a journalist, but soon after The New Yorker accepted her first short story, in 1950, she embarked for Paris, where she lived most of her life. As the Times notes, she took as her primary subjects “the dislocated and the dispossessed”: neglected children, failed parents, anyone living alone.
In her 1999 interview with The Paris Review, she gave as eloquent and persuasive an argument for the necessity of fiction as any I’ve ever encountered:
A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction. (She became a critic, by the way.)
That ironic aside, deceptively casual, is characteristic of her work. In addition to this interview, the magazine published an excerpt from her diaries in our Fall 2003 issue. The portion below—in which Gallant reacts to the death of her neighbor, the French actress Alice Sapritch—captures her matter-of-factness, her careful eye, her seemingly effortless powers of perception, and her black but empathetic humor. It reminds us what a talent we’ve lost.
Sunday 25 March 1990
People I know who had no great use for Alice S. as an actress seem hungry for details. The house, and her shuttered windows, appear on TV like a celebrity. Strangers collect in the street as if visiting a shrine. She was an eccentric, a deliberate, a calculated oddity, with her wide-brimmed garden party hats and long cigarette holder, the butt of male comedians and imitators on chat shows. Once a few years ago when we were both standing in the street, waiting for taxis, I asked her why she put up with it—just like that. She said in a normal, not an affected, voice that I didn’t understand her career, that it was important to be recognized and talked about. When the car came for her it wasn’t a taxi but an open car with two young men in it, one in the backseat. The driver leaned over to open the door from the inside but when he saw me staring changed his mind and got out and came round to usher her in. His face and manner were supremely insolent: he was playing it for the fellow in the backseat and for a total stranger. Meanwhile she swept in, holding her hat. Did she have on long gloves? I mustn’t add props to the scene. Impossible not to think of Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard, except that Alice S. was in a real world every minute, every second, playing the idea of an actress, a grande dame, a monstre sacrée. I’d like to take it one further and say she knew it was a joke, but I can’t be sure.
Mme B., the concierge, tells me what happened yesterday. (Some of the friends who called me this morning kept asking if Alice S. had really died; there were contradictory stories going about.) Friends or relatives had arrived before the firemen, who were supposed to be giving first aid. The friends or relatives wouldn’t let them in. They kept issuing statement, “A.S. is alive and under intensive care.” Meanwhile the captain of the fire brigade—pronounced caption by Mme B.—sent for the police. That was how conflicting stories occurred. The capitan told Mme B. that her loved ones would not accept the truth, and that she was “dead, dead, dead.”
February 10, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Maxine Kumin died last week, at eighty-eight. A Pulitzer winner and former poet laureate, Kumin perfected a style that was direct, piercing, and gimlet-eyed—her verse was economical, maybe, but never austere. As the Times notes, “Though her poems and essays centered on the New England countryside, she trafficked in none of the sentimental effusions of traditional pastoral poets.”
Her precision earned her plaudits, though she was sometimes chagrined by the extent to which her gender tinted her reception; she said in 2005, “I so resented being told by male poets, ‘You’re a good poet. You write like a man.’ When you drove them to the airport to catch that flight at the last minute: ‘You did a good job. You drove like a man.’ It was such a different world. The expectations were so different … I was not influenced by women writing poetry. There weren’t any women to admire. I could admire Marianne Moore, but I certainly couldn’t write miniaturist poems like her. And I admired Elizabeth Bishop, but she was very classical and held everyone at a distance. Mentor was not a verb at that time. I certainly wasn’t being mentored by anybody.”
The Paris Review published one of her short stories, “Another Form of Marriage,” in 1976, and a poem, “Going to Jerusalem,” in 1981. The latter begins:
Bedecked with scapulars,
heavy with huge crosses
and crying out abroad,
Death to the Infidel!
the Franks swept by in waves
riding their stone horses,
deemed brave enough for battle
January 9, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Amiri Baraka died today, at seventy-nine; The Paris Review had the pleasure of publishing several of his poems. Baraka wrote “Pres Spoke a Language” to celebrate the jazz saxophonist Lester Young, but one could just as easily apply its eulogy to the poet himself:
had a language
and a life, like,
all his own,
but in the teeming whole of us he lived
tooting on his sideways horn
December 27, 2013 | by Belinda McKeon
And yet, of course, not impossible: of course, too possible, too much the reality of what we would always have to face one day, one morning waking across time zones, stumbling upon radio tributes, answering the phone to the have you heard, to the gut-punch, to the heart-bolt: he is gone.
Our laureate. As though that could ever be a word which could get at the marvel of him. There is, probably, no single word for the marvel of him. Only perhaps his name, alive today on countless lips, uttered with sadness and fondness and gratitude and disbelief; sparking and flaring across countless status updates, countless tweets, in countless slow nods and headshakes in shops and schools and kitchens and hallways and forecourts and farmyards. I know of a wedding in Wicklow today where his will be the name on the air as the guests wait for the bride to arrive; of a gathering in Rathowen this weekend where his poems will be read aloud in hushed pubs; of a music festival in Stradbally where lines studied at school twenty years ago will be traded like—well, like the kinds of things that are more usually traded at music festivals. (And he would be in the middle of them if he could, you know, marveling—for that was his register—at Björk and St. Vincent and David Byrne, with a sage word about My Bloody Valentine lyrics, with a wink and a buck-up for the young lads from the Strypes.) Read More »
November 18, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
Do you have any things you would have done differently, or any advice to give?
Advice I don’t go in for. The thing is, you do not believe I know everything in this field is a cliché, everything’s already been said, but you just do not believe that you’re going to be old. People don’t realize how quickly they’re going to be old, either. Time goes very fast.
—Doris Lessing, the Art of Fiction No. 102
November 15, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
“Some of the first books I read or that my father read to me were translations, although I didn’t know they were translations because in those days the translator often wouldn’t even have his name on the book. I remember a French book, Sans famille, called in English Nobody’s Boy, which my father read to me when I was four or five. It was about a little orphan boy who runs away from the orphanage and goes off with an Italian organ-grinder who has a pet monkey and a lot of stray dogs, all of them with names. Since I came from a large family with all these older brothers and sisters, the dream of my life was to be an orphan, so I thought, Oh, this lucky kid. He’s an orphan, and he gets to wander the roads with all these animals and this nice Italian. I thought it a great happy book, but you were supposed to be dissolved in tears from beginning to end. My father understood perfectly.” —William Weaver, the Art of Translation No. 3