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More Novels Starring Coins, Please, and Other News

May 16, 2016 | by

Only this watermarked stock photo of a walking one-euro coin truly captures the thrill of novels with currency at their centers.

  • I find novels starring people—or any animate creatures, really—to be unthinkably dull. For this reason I do most of my reading in the mid to late eighteenth century, when novels with inanimate objects at their centers enjoyed a brief but memorable time in the literary limelight. The most famous one was told from the perspective of a coin: “Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea thrilled contemporary readers with ‘Views of several striking Scenes,’ an insider’s account of the scandalous doings of the ‘most Noted Persons in every Rank of Life,’ and tales from the gold mines of Peru, the streets of London, the canals of Amsterdam, the ports of the Caribbean, and the front lines of the Great War … It was a tipping point for what are frequently referred to as ‘it-narratives.’ It-narratives, also called ‘novels of circulation’ or ‘object narratives,’ are novels or stories that take an inanimate object or an animal as its narrator … With a market proven, writers for hire began churning them out with variable quality. By 1781, a bored reviewer in The Critical Review complained, ‘This mode of making up a book, and styling it the Adventures of a Cat, a Dog, a Monkey, a Hackney-coach, a Louse, a Shilling, a Rupee, or—any thing else, is grown so fashionable now, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection.’ ”

  • In which Nabokov, talking to us from 1926, attempts to make sense of his exile: “There is a very seductive and very dangerous demon: the demon of generalities. He captivates man’s thought by marking every phenomenon with a little label, and punctiliously placing it together with another, similarly carefully wrapped and numbered phenomenon. Through him a field of human knowledge as changeable as history is turned into a neat little office, where this many wars and that many revolutions sleep in folders—and where we can pore over bygone ages in complete comfort. This demon is fond of words such as idea, tendency, influence, period, and era. In the historian’s study this demon reductively combines in hindsight the phenomena, influences, and tendencies of past ages. With this demon comes appalling tedium—the knowledge (utterly mistaken, by the way) that, however humanity plays its hand or fights back, it follows an implacable course. This demon should be feared. He is a fraud. He is a salesman of centuries, pushing his historical price list.”
  • Today in dramatic acts of digital preservation: if ever the Daily shuts down, we hope to survive in a kind of bardic oral tradition, having former readers pass down our stories one at a time through the generations, at great length and with little regard for accuracy. The website hi.co, which I’d never heard of before about ten minutes ago, is taking fewer chances. Instead of vanishing into the mists of time, they’re keeping their users’ contributions “in a nickel-plate ‘book’ designed to be readable for the next 10,000 years … Everything on the site—roughly two million words and fourteen thousand photos—will be etched in microscopic size onto a series of nickel plates. Everything will be readable with an optical microscope.” (One of the site’s founders notes that the plates are “fire resistant” and “deal well with saltwater.”)
  • Philosophy departments are among the most Eurocentric in all of academe—which is fine, as long as they practice truth in advertising. Write to your congressman: “Any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself ‘Department of European and American Philosophy’ … We hope that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the Bhagavad Gita as they do the Republic, that the Flying Man thought experiment of the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980–1037) will be as well-known as the Brain-in-a-Vat thought experiment of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926–2016), that the ancient Indian scholar Candrakirti’s critical examination of the concept of the self will be as well-studied as David Hume’sthat Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Kwasi Wiredu (1931– ), Lame Deer (1903–1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon. But, until then, let’s be honest, face reality and call departments of European-American Philosophy what they really are.”

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 »

As Blue as Indigo Bags

January 18, 2016 | by

Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1893.

Any Joe with a Twitter account will tell you that today is Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. It’s a claim that rests mostly on a bunch of pseudoscience and a dubious 2005 ad campaign for a travel agency. Even so, a whole cottage industry has risen up around our apparent mid-January slump—especially in the UK, where people are always kind of miserable anyway. Tesco superstores are giving away free fruit; the BBC’s Scotland bureau has urged citizens to stay cheery by reminding themselves that the ski forecast is good and that the Spice Girls may soon reunite.

Though claims as to our collective depression have long been debunked, I wondered about the origin of the phrase “Blue Monday,” which clearly predates this latest usage. There was that great New Order song from 1983, for starters, and the subtitle to Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (or Goodbye, Blue Monday) and the Gershwin opera well before that. Evidence from eighteenth-century books suggests that Blue Monday was once just an excuse for working people to get drunk, and it happened every Monday, because our ancestors have long known what any casual reader of Garfield does: Mondays are for the birds. Read More »

Hiccup and Happiness

October 30, 2015 | by

Walter Geikie, Drunken Man, ca 1835.

A letter from Lord Byron to Thomas Moore, dated October 31, 1815. Read More »

You Too Can Be a General

April 2, 2015 | by

Ernest_Hemingway_with_Colonel_Charles_T._(Buck)_Lanham_September_18,_1944_-_NARA_-_192699

Hemingway with Lanham on September 18, 1944, after the breakthrough of the Siegfried Line in Western Germany.

From Ernest Hemingway’s letter to Colonel Charles T. Lanham, April 2, 1945. Hemingway described Lanham as “the finest and bravest and most intelligent military commander I have known”; he did, in fact, go on to make general. Original spelling and punctuation retained.

Now I just feel homesick, lonely and useless. But will pull out of it. Because have to.

Also have cut out heavy drinking … and since Liquor is my best friend and severest critic I miss it. Also have explained to my old girls there is nothing doing—and this light drinking, righteous Life isn’t comparable to always haveing at least two bottles of Perrier Jouet in the ice bucket and the old Kraut Marlene [Dietrich] always ready to come in and sit with you while you shave […] Read More »

The Swansea Boy

October 27, 2014 | by

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High Street, Swansea, Wales, ca. 1930.

Today is the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth. Paul Ferris’s “Ink Is Wanted by Raving Brother: Dylan Thomas’s Swansea Years”—an oral history of the poet’s youth and early years in Wales—appeared in our Spring 2004 issue. The excerpt below explores Thomas’s brief, unhappy stint as a reporter.

In 1931, probably after the summer term, Dylan Thomas left school and went to work for the local newspaper, the South Wales Daily Post. He was sixteen years old. The paper was in fact an evening title, part of a London-based chain, and changed its name to Evening Post soon after. Its early editions circulated throughout southwest Wales, but the core readership was in the Swansea area. Local commerce and politics were featured to a degree unheard of in today’s vacuous local tabloids. The editor, J. D. Williams, assumed that his readers (some of them, at least) cared about music, theater, and poetry.

CHARLES FISHER (A lifelong friend of Thomas’s, and a fellow reporter.): His father probably got the job on the paper for him through J. D. Williams, as my father got me mine—he was head machinist there, he ran the rotary press. And since I had some talent for writing simple sentences, it was thought I could become a reporter. No one challenged that idea. I followed Dylan as a reader’s boy, a copyholder, and took that vacancy created when he moved on to be a junior reporter. I copyheld for about six months, then I was promoted to the newsroom. We wrote everything up in a strange, constricting, old-fashioned prose that really belonged to reporting at the start of the century. No one thought of treating news any other way. But our image of ourselves was a Chicago newsroom, the black hat turned down, the knowing look, the cigarette never removed once lit—which was a habit Dylan kept to the end.

ERIC HUGHES (A journalist, older than Thomas, and never very fond of his younger colleague.): I think Dylan was on the Post less than a year. I was a sub-editor, and when you saw his copy, it was appalling, with many lacunae. Nor was he reliable. To my knowledge, he wrote a crit of the Messiah at one of the St. Thomas chapels, to which he didn’t bother to go. Half his time was spent in the David Evans Café where they gave you a free State Express cigarette with your coffee. Read More »

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