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Posts Tagged ‘Louisa Thomas’

Staff Picks: Moaning, Sobbing, Trolling

July 10, 2015 | by

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

unnamedJust yesterday, I snuck an advance-reader’s copy of Lorenzo Chiera’s Shards: Fragments of Verses, translated from the Italian by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, off a colleague’s bookshelf and devoured it on my subway ride home. The pocket-size book comprises delicious morsels of twelfth-century verse by an otherwise unknown fellow from Testaccio. Though the fragments—plucked from scratches on parchment paper or fiber sacks—are no more than a few lines each, they brim with raunch and grime and love. Chiera breathes sex into most verses, which are bound to make one blush with either delight or despair. Some read as playful winks, others as moans, and still others as desperate, carnal prayers. “Hearing Chiera for the first time,” Ferlinghetti writes in his introduction, “we soon realize we are in the presence of a savage erotic consciousness, as if the lust-driven senses were suddenly awakened out of a hoary sleep of a thousand years … He’s vulgar. He’s mad. He’s uncouth. Yet he is innocent.” Here’s a little taste of Chiera himself: “Sexy Nonny / in her silk nun’s habit / behind the arras / of the cult of the Virgin / stuck her tongue in my mouth / when I was fourteen / Made me cream.” —Caitlin Youngquist

I’ve never read any fan fiction, and I never made it all the way through Pretty Woman, so devotees of either may take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but I loved Michael Friedman’s novel Martian Dawn, all about a couple of movie stars (viz Richard and Julia) whose off-screen romance is strained by a visit to the Red Planet. No doubt half the jokes went over my head. It didn't matter. Friedman’s urbane silliness and élan hark back to the glittering twilight of high camp—without seeming to hark back. Hats off to Little A for reissuing Martian Dawn and Other Novels. I didn’t know anyone could still make it look so easy to have so much fun on the page. —Lorin Stein 

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The Skiing Life

June 25, 2015 | by

In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Louisa Thomas examines Salter’s essay “The Skiing Life.”

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

I read There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter for the parts about skiing the way one reads A Sport and a Pastime for the sex. In fact Salter writes about skiing the way he writes about sex: as something luminous, clean, somehow moral. This was a few years ago, when I was obsessed with skiing; I thought about it all the time. In Salter I sensed a sympathetic hunger, the longing for something transcendent, pointless, permanent, and always vanishing. There aren’t many good authors who write about skiing. Hemingway does a little. Salter does it a lot, as a way of writing about something else, just as writing about sex is a way of writing about other things: beauty, courage, obsession, mastery—mostly, someone else’s mastery.

When I skied, or when I thought about skiing, a beautiful skier would stop me in my tracks. He would slide over a lip into a bowl or glade, or drop into a little chute out of bounds. His solid body would become liquid, slipping through the snow, as he found the fall line. I would watch his back and then fly after him, tracking him, fearless and afraid. “What enables you to learn?” Salter asks. “It’s simple: desire.”

In “The Skiing Life,” Salter describes learning to ski from an instructor:

Follow me closely, he says, as if you can, turn where I turn. Trying to do what he does, forgetting some things, remembering others, somehow you follow. The trail is narrowing, you are going faster than you should and farther, beyond your endurance … One morning you awake unaware that, mysteriously, something has changed. This day it comes to you … All day, run after run, filled with an immense, unequaled happiness, and at the end into town together, down the last, easy slopes, and so weary that you fall asleep after supper in your ski clothes, the lights burning throughout the night.

There are of course some who don’t need to learn, some who are almost born with it. Kids who grow up on eastern mountains are at home on ice and cruddy snow, although they dream of powder days. The kids out west have no idea how lucky they are. It is thrilling to watch a child hurtle past. You can see her future: she will slip through bumps, sleep on the floor, hike up mountains to ski down them. She will be powerful and fast. Years later, you will spot her from the chairlift, graceful and unmistakable. Even on my best days, the days when I belonged to the mountains, I would look for that girl. “There is always that lone skier,” Salter writes, “oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.”

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The Shape of a Life

August 26, 2014 | by

Notes for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Notes for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Congratulations to Hermione Lee, who has won the 2014 James Tait Black Prize for her biography of the Booker Prize–winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. One judge described Lee’s biography as “a masterclass in writing of this type … the perfect marriage of an excellent subject and a biographer working at the very top of her game.”

Lee was at work on the book during her Art of Biography interview last year: in the course of their conversation, Louisa Thomas discovers a blanket-covered box that contains the Fitzgerald family archive. Though Lee denies having set out to be a “woman writer writing about women writers,” she has almost exclusively chosen women authors as her subjects. Still, for a biographer of Woolf, Cather, Wharton, and Bowen, Lee found Fitzgerald to be a special case:

I don’t have a theory about Penelope Fitzgerald. I’m deeply interested in the shape of her life, and I’m fascinated by lateness, late starts. She didn’t start publishing novels until she was sixty, for a variety of reasons. I feel there was a powerful underground river running through her life. She was a brilliant young woman, and everybody thought she was going to be a writer and she was writing away like mad in her teens and early twenties, and she was the editor of a magazine. And then it all went underground. Meanwhile, she’s writing notes in her teaching books, which are a form of apprenticeship, and she’s bringing up her family, and she’s coping with her husband. And then he dies. And then up it comes, this underground river, at the age of sixty, and she writes thirteen books in twenty years. I don’t have a theory about that. Nor do I want to blame anyone. But I want to understand it and show it happening as best as I can.

The complexity of women’s lives is, naturally, at the center of Lee’s interview, and it’s a thread that connects Lee to her subjects intimately. The first woman to hold the Goldsmiths’ Chair and the first woman president of Wolfson College, Oxford, she recalls walking across the grass of New College and thinking of Virginia Woolf, who, in trespassing momentarily on the lawn, was chased off by a beadle. As Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, “Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”

Lee, however, feeling the benefit of the “strenuous labors of my female predecessors,” can stray from the path; she makes a point of walking across the grassy quad, because “I had the right to be there.”


What We’re Loving: Dorian Gray, Sex with Immortals

July 27, 2012 | by

Last Thursday, finding myself with an hour to kill in London, I stopped into Lutyens & Rubinstein bookstore in Notting Hill. No Paris Review (sigh), but I did pick up the Summer issue of Slightly Foxed, a quarterly devoted to little essays about people’s favorite books. The clerk claimed it’s the most popular lit mag they stock. And it’s easy to see why. Crome Yellow, The Lost Oases, The Elegies of Quintilius, and a guide to British sea birds give some idea of the miscellany. Read one issue back to back and you could cross every conceivable reader off your Christmas list. —Lorin Stein

How, exactly, do a human and a god have sex? For Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s novel, it is less a question of metaphysics than of mechanics. “Bad enough to have a full-grown male swan jabbing webbed feet into your backside while he has his way, or a one-ton bull leaning his moaning weight on you,” she thinks. But when the god does not change form, how does the human body accommodate itself to “the blast of his desire”? What makes the passage so interesting is not only Costello’s amusing speculations on the impracticality of cosmic coupling but the way such a question allows Coetzee to reflect on the whole messy business of the god-human relationship. The gods may never die, he suggests, but that doesn’t mean they know how to live. —Anna Hadfield

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Staff Picks: Dioramas, Donald Young and Stardom

September 9, 2011 | by

I’ve been reading Ben Jeffrey on Philip Roth’s later novels and our sometime special tennis correspondent Louisa Thomas on Donald Young and stardom. –Lorin Stein

This week I stumbled across the artfully nostalgic Welcome to Pine Point. Developed by the creative team behind Adbusters and billed as an interactive documentary, it explores the memories of a now-vanished mining town. It’s part film, part photo album, and completely fascinating. –Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

A conundrum: two petite biographies from Yale’s Jewish Lives series—Joshua Rubenstein’s Leon Trotsky and Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman. Which to read first? Sorry, Lev, the anarchist woman wins. –Nicole Rudick

A friend just drew my attention to an article in the June issue of Plum Hamptons by Taylor Plimpton about his father, touch football at the Matthiessens’, and the Review as seen from a child’s perspective: “Of my introduction long ago to the rich literary culture of the Hamptons,” it begins, “I remember best the nose-hair.” –L.S.

This is the last week to see the incredible diorama show at the Museum of Art and Design, “Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities.” The title describes it well. –Artie Niederhoffer

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is kind of goofy, very uneven, and has an unwieldy third act. Still necessary viewing for the Serge-o-phile. And I thought Laetitia Casta made a stunning Bardot! –Sadie Stein

Recent perusal of a used book store turned up a Dover Thrift reprint of Clarence Cook’s 1881 The House Beautiful: Essays on Beds and Tables and Stools and Candlesticks. As a furniture enthusiast, I enjoyed its strong opinions on dining-room tables and wash-stands; as a New Yorker, I found it to be rather comforting. There’s just something nice about knowing that Victorian Manhattanites were packed in as uncomfortably as today’s: “In city houses, particularly in New-York, where I believe we are more scrimped for room ... even the richest people are obliged to squeeze themselves into a less number of square feet than in any other city in the world calling itself great. ” –Clare Fentress

Over Labor Day weekend I read Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum’s 1899 memoir, because I’ll be damned if I give up the summery feeling of adventure without a fight. –Cody Wiewandt

I went to a garage sale this weekend that boasted a near-complete set of the now nonexistent hardcover Horizon magazine, and picked up a strange-looking issue with only a large gold Chinese character for “Tang” on the cover. Inside, I found an article on the dynasty’s turbulent history by one of my favorite writers, Emily Hahn. Definitely one of my better bargain finds. –Ali Pechman


The Artist in Isolation; Boo-Hoo Books

June 10, 2011 | by

In a 1974 interview with The Paris Review, Archibald MacLeish adamantly insisted that the writer must engage with the world around him in order to create art, not act as a mere outside observer commenting on the play at hand. “The subject of art is life. You learn by living it. And you don’t live it alone ... You live it with and by people—yourself in your relation with people, with and by living things, yourself in your relation to living things.” I wholeheartedly agree with MacLeish but have plenty of writer-friends who insist on separating themselves from the world around them, alone and misunderstood by everyone else. What’s your take on the romantic notion of the artist in isolation? Is a Henry David Thoreau laughable in this day and age? —Kate

Of course writers need solitude—that’s where the writing happens—but I’m with MacLeish: if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you’d better start by taking an interest in other people. That means living among them; sexting doesn’t count. The two big dangers for contemporary fiction, it seems to me, are people not reading enough and people not hanging out enough. These dangers were unimaginable in Thoreau’s time. His solitude is full of remembered texts and remembered conversations. His clean slate is a palimpsest. But to spend your days alone and online isn’t just bad training, it also makes for lousy material.

So, I’m curious—what was the last book that made you cry?

I got prickly-eyed last night over a history book, of all things, by our sports correspondent Louisa Thomas. In Conscience, Thomas writes about her great grandfather and great uncles, minister’s sons who wrestled with the question of whether to fight in World War I. (The most famous of these brothers, Norman Thomas, later became a hero of the Socialist party.) The moral seriousness of Norman and his brother Evan, in their letters and speeches, is wonderful, at times even preposterous—and those are exactly the moments that get me.

But if you mean crying like boo-hoo, and if you don’t count King Lear (which came to town last month with Derek Jacobi), I think it may have been rereading Mrs. Bridge. Boo-hooing and laughing at once.

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