The Daily

In Memoriam

To Learn Something

September 10, 2014 | by

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.

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Peter Matthiessen in the 1945 Misch, the Hotchkiss School’s yearbook.

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 »

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On the Shelf

Smack Talk, and Other News

September 10, 2014 | by

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The wry, D.I.Y. branding of heroin. Photo: Graham Macindoe, via Wired

  • In celebration of its many contributions to arts and letters, Boston has approved a plan to turn a section of the city into the first-ever Literary Culture District. “Plenty of respected (if banal) institutions supported the effort to turn downtown Boston into a literary district … What’s baffling, though, is the metrics by which we’ve decided to judge their progress—more plaques, more street fairs, and more statues, not more writers, more affordable apartments, and more books.”
  • Among the many anti-Amazon domain names owned by Amazon: www.fuckamazon.com and www.boycottamazon.com. Your dissent will not be tolerated, peon.
  • Elif Batuman on awkwardness, America’s latest bugbear: “We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with ‘that awkward moment when … ’ When did awkwardness become so important to us? … ‘Awkward’ implies both solidarity and implication. Nobody is exempt.”
  • Apocalypse fiction as immigrant metaphor: “The same way X-Men comics are sometimes considered as representations of the American civil rights movement, the apocalypse genre represented my shifting understanding of ‘home’ … For immigrants, solitude and the trap of memory are central conditions. The appeal of [apocalypse fiction] is that it renders this so finely.”
  • The art of drug branding: the haunting, grimly comic logos on baggies of heroin. “References in the names reflected the addict’s illusions of grandeur (So Amazing, Rolex, High Life) but also the insidious destructive nature of drugs and the ultimate endgame (Flatliner, Dead Medicine, Killa).”

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Bulletin

The Words Are Everything

September 9, 2014 | by

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Our congratulations to Ursula K. Le Guin, who will receive the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:

“Ursula Le Guin has had an extraordinary impact on several generations of readers and, particularly, writers in the United States and around the world,” said Harold Augenbraum, the Foundation’s Executive Director. “She has shown how great writing will obliterate the antiquated—and never really valid—line between popular and literary art. Her influence will be felt for decades to come.”

And additional congratulations are in order for Louise Erdrich, who has won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, a “lifetime achievement honor for American writers” judged this year by E. L. Doctorow, Zadie Smith, and Edwidge Danticat, “who praised the ‘awesome’ breadth of Erdrich’s work.”

The Paris Review has interviewed both Le Guin and Erdrich for our Art of Fiction series, the former in 2013 and the latter in 2010. Erdrich advised aspiring writers,

Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life.

And Le Guin said,

Fiction is something that only human beings do, and only in certain circumstances. We don’t know exactly for what purposes. But one of the things it does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before … A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, yet I recognize them—yes, I see, yes, this is how the world is. Fiction—and poetry and drama—cleanse the doors of perception. All the arts do this. Music, painting, dance say for us what can’t be said in words. But the mystery of literature is that it does say it in words, often straightforward ones.

We offer both of them our best wishes.

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Our Daily Correspondent

Conscience for Boys and Girls

September 9, 2014 | by

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William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853

Scrolling through Retronaut, you might run across a 1927 pamphlet called “Examination of Conscience for Boys and Girls,” which the site resurfaced last year. It’s a Catholic publication by a Jesuit brother named A.J. Wilwerding, distributed by something called “The Queen’s Work” in Saint Louis. The first few pages are pretty straightforward—the author defines different kinds of sins and helpfully distinguishes them by typeface: venial, venial (at risk of becoming Mortal), and MORTAL. Did the child DENY he was a Catholic? Did he curse? Did he misbehave in church? And then you reach the fourth page:

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And maybe you cry, and you think that these are not bad rules to live by. Not just for kids. Certainly not just for Catholics. And that it’s not easy; as Morrissey said, it takes guts.

Of course, then you keep reading: Read More »

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At Work

Regarding Mystery: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

September 9, 2014 | by

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Photo: Timothy Archibald

In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.

I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer? 

Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.

My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid. Read More »

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Contests

Our Globe-trotting Winners

September 9, 2014 | by

Last month’s #ReadEverywhere contest was a great success. (If you need a refresher: we asked readers to submit pictures of themselves reading The Paris Review or The London Review of Books around the world.) Now the time has come to announce the winners. Cue the marching band, please, and have the sommeliers ready their champagne sabers …

THIRD PLACE is a tie! Both Ivan Herrera and Anders Gäddlin will receive third-place prizes. Ivan is pictured with The Paris Review (and an erumpent sparkler) at Tennessee Alabama Fireworks. Anders read The London Review of Books in a “modernist twentieth-century utopian suburb”: Råslätt, Jönköping, Sweden. They’ll get a copy of one of our Writers at Work anthologies and an LRB mug.

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Ivan Herrera

 

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Anders Gäddlin

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