Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Lethem’
December 27, 2012 | by Francesca Mari
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.
“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”
There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.
There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More »
October 15, 2012 | by Alexander Aciman
Following Romney’s strong performance at the first presidential debate, we found ourselves wondering why the candidate did not deliver a more stirring speech to the Republican National Convention. The logical next step was to ask: what would happen if we gave his original text to several contemporary writers for a rewrite. The following is an approximation. —A.A.
Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president. That president was not the choice of our party, but Americans always come together after elections. We are a good and generous people who are united by so much more than what divides us.
When that hard-fought election was over, when the yard signs came down and the television commercials finally came off the air, Americans were eager to go back to work, to live our lives the way Americans always have—optimistic and positive and confident in the future.
That very optimism is uniquely American.
It is what brought us to America. We are a nation of immigrants. We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better.
Four years ago before our last presidential election, Americans feeling fresh excitement about a new president, after late summer, before the leaves fell off the trees. Read More »
May 10, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
December 12, 2011 | by David Zax
On a recent Sunday evening, in a lounge at the Jane Hotel in Manhattan, the writers Kurt Andersen and Anne Kreamer enacted before an audience the final pages of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, a 1971 work of literary pastiche by the author Frederic Tuten. Andersen played the role of Chairman Mao, sitting for a fictitious interview. “Have you seen Godard’s La Chinoise?” asked Kreamer, playing his interlocutor. “Have you seen Dali’s Mao/Marilyn?” “Chairman Mao, perhaps I might ask your opinion on birth control.” Tuten himself, a septuagenarian in a black blazer, sat at the front of the room, beaming with happiness at the event held in his honor.
If you have not heard of The Adventures of Mao, you would not have been out of place at its marathon reading. Indeed, some of those who gathered to participate in the reading—a roster including Lydia Davis, Wallace Shawn, Walter Mosley, John Guare, and Edmund White—admitted to having had only a glancing familiarity with the novel or its author. Yet The Adventures of Mao, about, as the title suggests, the Chinese dictator’s rise to power, has always had its advocates; Susan Sontag called it “soda pop, a cold towel, or a shady spot under a tree for culture-clogged footsoldiers on the American long march.” In 1972, the book achieved that pinnacle of literary attention, the John Updike New Yorker review. Analyzing the novel’s five distinct modes—textbooklike history of the Long March; ample direct quotation from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fenimore Cooper; passages of literary parody of authors such as Kerouac and Malamud; “normal novelistic substance—imaginary encounters and conversations”; and, finally, that extended interview with Chairman Mao—Updike declared the resulting sum “an intelligent, taut, and entertaining change from conventional novels.”
Despite Mao’s champions over the decades—New Directions embalmed it as one of its classics in 2005—the event at the Jane Hotel was in some ways an unlikely one. It had all begun in the Strand Bookstore, where three men in their twenties stumbled upon the book and brought it to their book club. Read More »
November 11, 2011 | by The Paris Review
“There are two basic motives living within all readers. They want to spend time in the presence of a great mind. And they want their hearts awakened.” That’s Steve Almond in Ecotone on the early novels of Don DeLillo. Two other pieces kept me up late with the new issue: Jonathan Lethem on the perils of self-regard, plus a swinging little poem by Jaswinder Bolina, “In Another Version of the Afterlife,” which begins, “I regret some of the aftermath but none of the choices I made / during my tenure among the living, which must be / what the villain feels after being villainous.” Two lines later we’re lying beside matadors and pornographers “groggy and unsleeping in ornate haciendas.” I don’t know if my heart was awakened, but Bolina did keep me awake. —Lorin Stein
The Hare with Amber Eyes is a family saga, a study in art history, and an overview of the European Jewish experience all in one. Edmund de Waal uses an inherited collection of netsuke carvings to explore the legacy of the Ephrussis, once one of Europe’s most prominent Jewish families. The family stuff is great, but what I’m enjoying particularly is the way the author, a prominent ceramicist, conveys the tactile. (And, incidentally, how skillfully he describes all these tiny things with a minimum of diminutives—a skill in itself!) —Sadie Stein
In an interesting juxtaposition of writing styles, I began reading Bertrand Russell’s amazing Autobiography only to stop partway when I picked up Atlanta-based rapper T. I.’s debut novel, Power & Beauty. I can’t read either of them quickly enough, and, needless to say, my heart is divided. —Natalie Jacoby
Though I’m not writing a novel, I’ve been vaguely following The Guardian’s How to Write Fiction series. But were I writing a novel, I’d surely tack Geoff Dyer’s sublimely simple lesson—that limitations, yours and everyone else’s, can prove as enriching as your strengths—above my work desk. —Nicole Rudick
In the Presence of Absence, by Mahmoud Darwish, is a moving reflection—part autobiography, part lyrical elegy—on the question that has always been at the center of his work: “What does it mean for a Palestinian to be a poet and what does it mean for a poet to be a Palestinian?” This is one of Darwish’s last writings, and it bears the hallmarks of his late style: uncompromising difficulty, surprise, and summation. —Robyn Creswell
Here are the sentences I can’t get out of my head from “Hadji Murat.” This is about ten pages from the end. Three quarters through. Just at a moment when you believe that Hadji Murat is about to do an heroic thing, he’s about to wake up his men, before dawn, to prepare them for an escape by horseback. He’s living among the Russians, to whom he has lately sworn loyalty. He has even fallen in love with one of their women. He doesn’t actually want to betray them, he just can’t let the fucking Shamil hold his family captive any longer. He has to rescue them or die trying. It’s his only way to keep his whole idea of himself and the honor of his people from shattering. Politics are irrelevant. And everything that’s happened so far in the story leads you to suspect that he’ll do it, that he knows how to do it. But in fact within hours he’ll be shot down like a dog. And this is what Tolstoy does, to signal the pivot. Two sentences. Nightingales are singing.
Hadji Murat was so deep in thought that he did not notice he had
tipped the jug and water was spilling from it. He shook his head at
himself and went into his room.
It’s so perfect, you hear it only stethoscopically, but you do hear it. He walks away from the water jug to his death.—John Jeremiah Sullivan
October 7, 2011 | by Sadie Stein
Last night, seventy-five or so Angelenos gathered at the Standard, Hollywood to listen to Ann Louise Bardach, David Kipen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Lutz, and Michael Tolkin answer audience questions on life, love, and books. Subjects ranged from The Onion (everyone’s favorite contemporary humor publication) to Dickens (in whom “the archetypes for all modern fiction can be found”) to the possibility of making a living as a poet (consensus: other sources of income help). What follows are a few of the questions the panel addressed.
Should writers date each other?
Bardach: Sure, but not in the same genre. That’s the important thing.
A guest: A writer and a reader?
Bardach: Well, yes, every writer should have one.
How does one get over the fear of the blank page?
Tolkin: First of all, it’s more a blank screen now. Don’t leave it blank. Put something on it, anything. If it’s bad, you can improve it, tear it apart. If it’s good, even better. The important thing is getting something down, taking that step.
What are your goals for a new novel? What’s your hope for it?
Tolkin: Kill every other book on the shelf.
Lethem: It’s a great line, but I actually feel the opposite: it’s those other books on the shelf that inspire me, and I want to join their company, add to that conversation. And, you know, looking around this room—I’m going to get very sincere, here—it’s affirming. This is not what we are made for, what I am made for. We sit and we write words, and for whatever reason, you’re all out here to listen, and see us. We’re in this strange, solitary profession, hoping to connect with a few people and, look—we packed a room.
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