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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

Joyce Carol Oates on ‘A Widow’s Story’

March 22, 2011 | by

Photograph by Murdo Macleod.

Joyce Carol Oates is hardly an author who needs introduction. Her famously vast and varied oeuvre—more than fifty novels and hundreds of short stories, as well as critical essays, books of poetry, and plays—ensures not only that no two readers will have the same opinion of her but that the same reader may well have more than one. And yet, as we learn in A Widow’s Story, her recently published account of the year following her husband's death, outside of the public eye she was not “Joyce Carol Oates” but “Joyce Smith,” a devoted wife whose husband, Raymond Smith, had read little of her fiction. I asked her about this divide between public and private personas, the difficulty of writing while grief stricken, and the role of the woman as elegist in a conversation conducted recently over e-mail.

Early in this memoir, you write that “the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling.” Is A Widow’s Story an attempt to reclaim that tale?

The memoir is assembled from journal entries, which were driven by the “surprises” of the day. When I began recording the hospital vigil, I did not know the ending. Only two or three chapters were written in a more conventional way, as flashbacks or background information, about Detroit in the 1960s for instance. I began the memoir—deliberately—in mid-summer 2009, when I found that I was not able to imagine a novel at that time. Since I was haunted by this material, and had hundreds of pages of notes, it seemed quite practical to write what I could, beginning with the first of the really startling, to me, epiphanies—“The Message1.”

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  1. “The Message” is the title of the first chapter of the book, and refers to a note Ms. Oates found on the windshield of her car, which she’d parked poorly outside the hospital where her husband was recuperating. The note read, “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH.”


The Younger Fiancée; Studying Abroad in Cairo

March 18, 2011 | by

What is the best poetry anthology to give my father’s new, and much younger, fiancée at her bridal shower? —Rachel

Dear Rachel,

What a lovely, tricky question. I suppose it depends on how you feel about your mother-in-law-to-be, or how you’d like her to feel about you. Gifts, especially when they are books, say so much about the giver. In my experience the best anthologies are unapologetically personal. The pleasure of reading André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor or Kingsley Amis’s The Amis Anthology is the pleasure of discovering the editor’s sensibility, refracted into a choice of readings. Great anthologies surprise us. They make connections we hadn’t noticed before. But these might not make ideal gifts for a bridal shower. Might I then suggest John Hollander’s Marriage Poems? Hollander is one of our finest anthologists—if the marriage results in any children, you might try finding The Wind and the Rain: An Anthology of Poems for Young Peopleand all his collections include pleasurable surprises.

Alongside the epithalamia there is James Dickey’s “Adultery” (“Although we come together,/ Nothing will come of us. But we would not give/ It up”) and Swift’s “The Progress of Marriage,” about an elder gentleman and his much younger bride. (Be warned: it’s vicious.) In the same Everyman series is Meena Alexander’s excellent Indian Love Poems, which is exactly what it claims to be. Both books are small, elegant, and inexpensive.

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To Marry a Writer; Houellebecq’s Latest

February 25, 2011 | by

I’m remarrying at “a certain age.” My mother once said “You’d make some man a lovely wife if you weren’t a writer.” We can chortle at this or, do you think, we can agree that to have a life partner, male or female, hunkering down on a subject, translating perception into the written word, is difficult to live with à la longue? And how can we be authentic but also companionable in an acceptable key? —Jane Merrill

First of all, felicitations and lots of luck. I think living with somebody, à la longue, is pretty tricky no matter what he or she does for a living. So they tell me. The downside of writers, I gather, is that they spend all day alone (which makes them slightly crazy by supper time), suffer from writer’s block (ditto), and by and large are not much help when it comes to paying the rent. But many of you are such good company! And you ask such good questions! If you discover the golden mean of authenticity and companionability, I hope and trust you will let us know. (Maybe in your next book?)

Last year, I first read of Houellebecq in The Paris Review, whose Whatever and The Elementary Particles I loved. Currently, I’m enjoying Le Tellier’s Enough About Love. Can you recommend more contemporary French fiction in English translation? Also, is there a time line for an English translation of Houellebecq’s latest? —Peter S., Saint Paul, MN

I treasure Houellebecq, but I’m having trouble finding a critical opinion, in English or in French, that can really explain and defend the merit of the work. Any suggestions, links? Who are the best French critics nowadays? —Alex

Peter S., the latest issue of The Review of Contemporary Ficton is devoted to the publisher P.O.L.—source of much that is new and original in French letters today. I think it will interest you. One P.O.L. author, Édouard Levé, appears in our spring issue. (You will recognize him as the real-life source for the character Hugues Léger in Enough About Love.)

According to Houellebecq’s American publisher, The Map and the Territory is scheduled to appear in spring 2012. And while we’re on the subject: Alex, check out Ben Jeffrey’s essay in The Point and Sam Lipsyte’s in The Believer.

Have a question for The Paris Review? E-mail us.


Dorrie Glenn Woodson

December 22, 2010 | by

Dorrie Glenn Woodson, 1956. Photograph by Harold Feinstein.

I was encouraged to reach out to pianist Dorrie Glenn Woodson by her first husband, the photographer Harold Feinstein, and she and I met in person in New York before last Thanksgiving. Dorrie, seventy-six years old, had naturally gray hair that was long and free flowing, parted down the middle, and it framed her glasses in the style of Gloria Steinem. Among jazz musicians, no appearance is unconventional (except a rigid one), so I didn’t think about hers until we talked on the phone a few weeks later: When she described her parents, I couldn’t visualize them in her. She was born Dorothy Meese in 1934 on a small farm in rural Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line; her father farmed fruits and vegetables and peddled them in nearby towns, and her deeply religious mother practiced the dawn-to-dusk farm traditions with dedication and care. The Dorrie I met was a long way from the farm.

Young Dorothy displayed a touch and dexterity on piano beyond her years; she won talent shows and admiration. The radio brought Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, and other African American musicians into her home, in a nearly all-white region. She was transfixed. Her dreams of being a professional jazz pianist distilled and grew more potent. In 1952, after a talent show in Salisbury, Pennsylvania, eighteen-year-old Dorothy met an African American bassist and singer in the Herb Jeffries vein. He was from Frostburg, Maryland, and twenty years her senior. They began a long-term relationship, in secret due to the scandal of interracial romances at the time. She gained confidence in her ability to make impressions musically and generate opportunities for herself. Things seemed hopeful. But she’d grown up with no sex education—nobody uttered a word about it—and birth control was still illegal and often unreliable. It was double jeopardy.

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Dispatch from Stockholm: The Ceremony

December 15, 2010 | by

Photograph courtesy of Scanpix Sweden.

Mario Vargas Llosa enters his hotel after receiving the Nobel Prize. He’s left behind the post-prize official banquet, the pomp and ceremony of a dinner with the Swedish royal family and their 1,300 guests from all over the world. He’s tired but has the glow of an epic hero surveying his many accomplishments. A few friends and family are waiting at the Grand Hôtel, those who weren’t among the fourteen guests each Nobel Prize winner is entitled to invite to the dinner. Vargas Llosa walks through the hall, toward these familiar faces, and asks with real sincerity, “It came out nicely, didn’t it?”

As he receives handshakes, applause, hugs, congratulations, praise, photos, and a burst of answers to his question, he takes a handkerchief from his pocket and blows his nose—he’s finally come home.

He’s won a Nobel, but he’s the same—that appears to be the consensus among those who surround him. Vargas Llosa is hoarse, tired, and would like to change out of his tuxedo. So he spends no more than three minutes in the lobby, before saying good-bye to each of those who were waiting for him, as if it were all very ordinary. The winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature goes off to sleep to a round of applause. His friends and family stay awhile longer, to celebrate in his name.

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Michael Cunningham

October 14, 2010 | by

Photograph by Richard Phibbs.

By Nightfall, the sixth novel by Pulitzer Prize–winning Michael Cunningham, tells the story of Peter Harris, a gallery owner in Manhattan whose comfortable marriage is interrupted by the arrival of Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), the younger brother of his wife, Rebecca. Peter—a straight man—finds Mizzy’s youth intoxicating and seductive. Soon, Peter is questioning his life, his marriage, even his sexuality, and wondering if it’s worth throwing it all away. Earlier this week, Cunningham answered my questions about his book over e-mail.

You write, “History favors the tragic lovers, the Gatsbys and the Anna K.s, it forgives them, even as it grinds them down. But Peter, a small figure on an undistinguished corner of Manhattan, will have to forgive himself, he’ll have to grind himself down because it seems no one is going to do it for him.” Why create someone like Peter and not … well, a Gatsby?

A Peter as opposed to a Gatsby. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from reading the modernists, particularly Woolf and Joyce, who insisted that fiction depict the 99.9 percent of the population who are not Gatsby or Nostromo or David Copperfield; who insisted that part of the novelist’s job is to ferret out the epic story of outwardly unextraordinary people, who are of course extraordinary to themselves. I just don’t feel much interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

At one point, Peter says, “I don’t know. I mean, how could I love another guy and not be gay?” “Easy,” says Uta. Why is it easy?

Human sexuality is tremendously complicated, so much so that the designations “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are all but meaningless. How many of us have had crushes, and even sexual experiences, with people who fall outside our official “erotic category”? Okay, not everyone, but many of us. I’m interested in sexuality that falls outside the official lines of demarcation. As is Uta.

The seed of By Nightfall was really Mann’s Death in Venice. Although I didn’t want to rewrite Death in Venice, I’ve always been fascinated by Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio, which is eroticized but not exactly sexual; it’s more about Aschenbach’s love of youth and beauty and ephemerality. If it was just a book about an old letch hungering for a young boy, what good would it be? I wanted to write about an essentially straight guy who finds himself powerfully drawn not only to a boy but to what the boy represents. If Peter had simply become obsessed with a girl, the story would have been too conventional. Read More »