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Facts First: An Interview with Michele Zackheim

March 28, 2014 | by

last train to paris

From the cover of Last Train to Paris.

Michele Zackheim’s new novel, Last Train to Paris, follows the adventures of Rosie Manon, the fearless foreign correspondent for the Paris Courier. Spanning the better part of a century, from 1905 to 1992, the story takes us to the Paris and Berlin of the midthirties and early forties, during one of the most fascinating and shameful periods in modern history, the years leading to World War II. Zackheim was moved to write the novel following a strange discovery—in the thirties, her distant cousin was kidnapped and murdered in France by Eugen Weidmann.

I spoke to Zackheim via e-mail and telephone over a period of three months. Our conversations touched on her family history and writing methods, and the formidable research she brought to her new novel.

All of your books share a certain preoccupation with World War II. Why?

My family lived in Compton, California, an area that was declared vulnerable to an enemy attack. I was only four years old when World War II ended, but I remember small details—a brass standing lamp with a milk-glass base that was lit at night while my parents listened to the menacing news on the radio. The sound of night trains, which ran on tracks a block away. And of course—and this is hard to admit—my only sibling was born in 1944. Because I was the eldest, and because before her birth I had already experienced grim hardships, an intense sibling rivalry was born. I have to assume that she became part of my unconscious interest in war. These memories, along with the emerging news from concentration camps after the war, and my parents’ outraged and mournful whisperings in Yiddish, created an unconscious anxiety that I’ve been making work about all my adult life.

You wove the story of your cousin’s murder through your novel. Was the expansion and departure from the initial incident a natural progression for you?

I often start out writing nonfiction. But there’s a problem. It’s boring for me not to embellish—actually, it’s no fun. Read More »

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“I’ve Lived Very Freely”

March 14, 2014 | by

Getting to know Mavis Gallant.

Mavis still

A still from Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant.

The first of a few unforgettable times I saw Mavis Gallant was in 2004 in Paris. She was eighty-two and had agreed to meet me for an interview at the Café Dome in the Boulevard Montparnasse, around the corner from the apartment where she had been living for decades. When I arrived at the old fashion “terrasse” of the Dome, framed by heavy red curtains, I found Gallant already sitting at the small table where we were to order our tea. I later discovered she must have arrived early on purpose so that I wouldn’t see her walk in—her spine was bent by osteoporosis, and the condition was most evident when she was walking. She was small and smartly dressed in a purple sweater and a checkered skirt, her hair dark red, her eyes lively with multiple shades of green. The first thing she said was: “Don’t ask me how I write. I wrote an introduction to this volume to avoid discussing such nonsense.” The volume was an Italian edition of her work that included some of her most memorable short stories, such as “The Moslem Wife” and “The Remission.

“Very well,” I said, taking her challenging attitude as an invitation to play. “What would you like to talk about? Men?” She gave me a scornful but not unfriendly look.

“That would certainly be a better choice,” she answered, not meaning it at all. But it was a start, and I was determined to put both of us at ease by being relaxed and polite. I asked her about her husband, John Gallant, to whom she’d been married before the war. “When he came back from fighting, I told him: I want to go to Europe. And he said: I just returned from there, it’s the last place I want to go back to. So the marriage was over. But for the rest of his life he took pride in seeing himself in most of my male protagonists. And it was never true!”Read More »

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Imagine Paradise

February 18, 2014 | by

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Mavis Gallant was a family friend of ours. My mother knew her well. I remember her visits when I was a child: she was so intelligent, wry, and observant—so funny and so cool, with her Parisian air of detachment. She was fascinated with my platinum-haired younger brother, Julian, whom she deemed a “changeling.” 

While passing through Paris in my late twenties, at work on my book The Fruit Hunters, I once stopped in to bring her a letter from my mother and some flowers. Not wanting to interrupt her writing, I suggested coffee or a glass of wine. She insisted we meet at Le Dome for lunch.

I arrived five minutes early, left her bouquet on the table, and went out to pick up a Herald Tribune. Workers were marching in the streets as part of a general manifestation against the government. By the time I returned, she was sitting there, beaming. She waved at the protesters, she whose May 1968 diary for The New Yorker concluded, “I am convinced that I have seen something remarkable.” Read More »

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Hungry for Details

February 18, 2014 | by

Remembering Mavis Gallant.

Mavis Gallant - Good Job for A Girl

Mavis Gallant, known for her prolific and trenchant short fiction, has died, at ninety-one. Born in Montreal in 1922, she had a brief career as a journalist, but soon after The New Yorker accepted her first short story, in 1950, she embarked for Paris, where she lived most of her life. As the Times notes, she took as her primary subjects “the dislocated and the dispossessed”: neglected children, failed parents, anyone living alone.

In her 1999 interview with The Paris Review, she gave as eloquent and persuasive an argument for the necessity of fiction as any I’ve ever encountered:

A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction. (She became a critic, by the way.)

That ironic aside, deceptively casual, is characteristic of her work. In addition to this interview, the magazine published an excerpt from her diaries in our Fall 2003 issue. The portion below—in which Gallant reacts to the death of her neighbor, the French actress Alice Sapritch—captures her matter-of-factness, her careful eye, her seemingly effortless powers of perception, and her black but empathetic humor. It reminds us what a talent we’ve lost.

Sunday 25 March 1990

People I know who had no great use for Alice S. as an actress seem hungry for details. The house, and her shuttered windows, appear on TV like a celebrity. Strangers collect in the street as if visiting a shrine. She was an eccentric, a deliberate, a calculated oddity, with her wide-brimmed garden party hats and long cigarette holder, the butt of male comedians and imitators on chat shows. Once a few years ago when we were both standing in the street, waiting for taxis, I asked her why she put up with it—just like that. She said in a normal, not an affected, voice that I didn’t understand her career, that it was important to be recognized and talked about. When the car came for her it wasn’t a taxi but an open car with two young men in it, one in the backseat. The driver leaned over to open the door from the inside but when he saw me staring changed his mind and got out and came round to usher her in. His face and manner were supremely insolent: he was playing it for the fellow in the backseat and for a total stranger. Meanwhile she swept in, holding her hat. Did she have on long gloves? I mustn’t add props to the scene. Impossible not to think of Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard, except that Alice S. was in a real world every minute, every second, playing the idea of an actress, a grande dame, a monstre sacrée. I’d like to take it one further and say she knew it was a joke, but I can’t be sure.

Mme B., the concierge, tells me what happened yesterday. (Some of the friends who called me this morning kept asking if Alice S. had really died; there were contradictory stories going about.) Friends or relatives had arrived before the firemen, who were supposed to be giving first aid. The friends or relatives wouldn’t let them in. They kept issuing statement, “A.S. is alive and under intensive care.” Meanwhile the captain of the fire brigade—pronounced caption by Mme B.—sent for the police. That was how conflicting stories occurred. The capitan told Mme B. that her loved ones would not accept the truth, and that she was “dead, dead, dead.”

 

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The Habits of Highly Erotic People

February 6, 2014 | by

What can the French teach Americans about sex?

vintage french ad

From a 1923 French advertisement

Last month, as the New York Post went into paroxysms over the latest French presidential love triangle, we found a more academic comment on French habits of the heart, thanks to our attendance at a panel on “The Art of Sex and Seduction,” sponsored by the Alliance Française. On the first of its three nights, entitled “Did the French invent love?”, Catherine Cusset, a former professor of French literature at Yale, told a story:

A countess invites a young man to her house after running into him at the opera. After a stiff meal with her husband, who retires to his private apartments, the countess leads her guest down a secret passageway into a bedroom. The walls and ceiling are covered with gilded mirrors. Sexual frenzy ensues. At daybreak, the giddy, exhausted young man emerges from the den and runs into a marquis who has just arrived. The marquis thanks him profusely. The young man realizes that he has served merely as a decoy to distract the count from his wife’s true lover. The husband appears for breakfast and greets the marquis cordially. The last line of this story—Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow, first published in 1777—reads, “I looked for some moral to this adventure and … I could find none.”

“There is no moral lesson,” Cusset said pointedly, and a communal gasp could be heard in Florence Gould Hall. Throughout the series, the audience was susceptible to gasps, audible stirring, and sudden eruptions of laughter. The French and American panelists, who included historians, scientists, sex therapists, and journalists, spoke about vaginas and orgasms in that purposefully blunt way one always expects and yet can seldom prepare for. Here’s what we learned about the difference between French and American sexual customs and attitudes, with a few startling facts about tout le monde. Read More »

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The Paris Review Reviews Paris

January 9, 2014 | by

Plan_de_Mérian

We looked into it.

Exactly 365 days ago, the poet Patricia Lockwood asked:

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Rightfully, her query went on to enjoy more than a thousand retweets, landing on several best-of-2013 lists, and earning plaudits from all over—because it’s a really good question. We were confounded. Despite our name and the dozens of interviews we’ve conducted in Paris, we had never really thought to assess the city’s quality.

We put our top people on it. For the next 365 days, our agents combed the twenty arrondissements, an army of flaneurs with clipboards in hand, golf pencils tucked behind their ears. They took water samples, soil samples, croissant samples. Equipped with measuring tapes, Geiger counters, and elegant cravats, they scrutinized the city’s every boulevard and metro station. They assessed the turbidity of the Seine; they carbon dated paintings, supped on the finest Bordeaux, and enjoyed the haute fare of Le Chateaubriand, Septime, and Benoit. They sent up weather balloons and infiltrated the fashion houses. They noted the Royale with Cheese. From Gentilly to Saint-Ouen, no stone was left unturned, no bichon frise unnuzzled. Then, having conducted such exhaustive research, they crunched the numbers, feeding the data into a series of world-class supercomputers with processing speeds in excess of thirty-three quadrillion floating-point operations per second. At last, they furnished a verdict:

It’s pretty good!

Case closed.

 

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