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Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

The Fabric of a Life: An Interview with Yasmina Reza

February 20, 2015 | by

Yasmina Reza. Photo © Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

Last week, Yasmina Reza, who lives in Paris, came to New York to promote the American publication of her latest novel, Happy Are the Happy. I met her in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel. As she pointed out, it looks a lot like a hallway, with doors on every side.

Happy Are the Happy isn’t entirely unlike that hallway: the book is a gallery of portraits, with each chapter opening a door on a new scene. Characters pass through each other’s lives—some connected closely, as, say, mothers and daughters, and others linked only casually, as two strangers in a doctor’s office.

Quietly glamorous in light makeup, her dark wavy hair undone, Reza looked slender in a plaid miniskirt and green mohair sweater. In conversation, she seems effortlessly poised and speaks as she writes, with elegant precision. We talked about the frivolous and the profound, what it means to be French, theater today, and Michel Houellebecq. 

We were speaking in French; the following is my translation.

Your American publisher, Judith Gurewich, warned me that you don’t like interviews.

It’s not that I don’t like interviews, I don’t like promoting myself. I don’t like the feeling of having to step outside the work in order to sell it. And sometimes professional journalists can be nightmares—they’re only waiting for you to make a faux pas. They have nothing personal invested, they’re not really there. It’s all business.

Like Charlie Rose?

Yes, I refused to go on the Charlie Rose show because he’s a perfect example of that kind of professional journalist, who just asks a series of smart prewritten questions and doesn’t bother listening to the answers. It feels like being faced with a brilliant question machine. It’s a horrible experience that I’d rather not put myself through.

In your play The Unexpected Man—a series of internal monologues between two characters on a train—an aging novelist describes his early works as so far removed that they might as well be someone else’s. At the time you were just starting out as a writer, so you had to be guessing. Now that twenty years have passed, does it feel true?

Writing is so prophetic—at twenty, you already know everything there is to know, you don’t need to have experienced life to be able to write about it. There’s an intuitive phenomenon at work that’s almost clairvoyant. I’m not only speaking for myself. Many other writers have shared this impression. Read More »

Are You Okay?

January 9, 2015 | by

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Illustration: Mohamed Ibrahim

As the hostage situation in Paris unfolds, the correspondents on CNN keep using the word okay. Are the hostages okay, how many are okay, et cetera. Okay means “alive,” of course. It’s a strange euphemism.

We have all heard the theories: OK is of Choctaw derivation, or possibly West African. Some linguists attribute it to the “comical misspellings” craze of the 1830s, while others cite Martin Van Buren’s Old Kinderhook campaign, or attempts to lampoon Andrew Jackson as an illiterate who couldn’t manage “all correct.”  

What is pretty generally agreed is that the first published usage dates from 1839, in the Boston Morning Post. Describing an outing by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, the paper reports: Read More »

The Making of an American

January 1, 2015 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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Carl Van Vechten shaped and burnished the legend of Gertrude Stein.

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Carl Van Vechten’s iconic 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s collection of experimental still-life word portraits split into the categories of objects, food, and rooms, and which—excluding a vanity publication in 1909, which she paid for herself—was the first of Stein’s work to be published in the United States. Stein had hoped that this enigmatic little book would be her big break, the thing to convince the American people of her genius. That was not to be. Tender Buttons left critics bemused and made barely a dent on the consciousness of the wider reading public. There was no great clamor for more of her writing; Stein would have to wait another twenty years to become a household name. Nevertheless, the publication of Tender Buttons is now widely regarded as a landmark in American literary modernism, the moment when one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century first unfurled her avant-garde sensibilities before the American public.

That moment would never have arrived had it not been for the work of Stein’s most important champion, Carl Van Vechten, the man who arranged for the book’s publication. Little remembered today, Van Vechten was a pioneering arts critic, a popular author of tart, brittle novels about Manhattan’s Jazz-Age excesses, an acclaimed photographer, and a flamboyant socialite whose daring interracial cocktail parties were a defining part of Prohibition-era New York’s social scene. But his greatest legacy is as a promoter of many underappreciated American writers, artists, and performers who went on to gain canonical status. Names as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Herman Melville all felt the effects of Van Vechten’s boost. His first great cause was Gertrude Stein. He did more than anyone else to carve her legend into the edifice of the American Century, arranging publishing deals for her, photographing her, and publicizing her work, a task he continued long after her death.

Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. “I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,” Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. “Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.” Van Vechten and Stein were strikingly different, led wildly different lives. Hers was rooted in the domestic stability she enjoyed with her partner Alice B. Toklas; his was an exhausting whirl of binges, parties, and pansexual escapades. But they had two crucial things in common: the conviction that Gertrude Stein was an irrefutable genius and a love of mythmaking, an obsession with re-scripting reality until they became the central actors in the fantastical scenes that unfolded in their heads. When Stein played fast and loose with the facts in her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, many were furious over her distortions. But Van Vechten understood that telling the literal truth about her life—or anybody else’s—was never Stein’s concern. Read More >>

The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.

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Mesrine’s mugshot, 1973.

On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.

For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.

This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later. Read More »

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Let’s All Go Down to the Bridge and Get Our Teeth Pulled

November 17, 2014 | by

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Louis-Leopold Boilly, 1827.

I’ve been enjoying The Smile Revolution, Colin Jones’s trenchant, very readable history of the smile—specifically its evolution in eighteenth-century Paris, where smiling was once, as the jacket copy puts it, “quite literally frowned upon.”

Obviously the emergence of the smile owes plenty to the emergence of dentistry, but the story as Jones tells it owes as much to shifting social mores as it does to science—and much of the fun in The Smile Revolution is in reading about this cultural shift. Here, for a taste, is the story of Le Grand Thomas, a charlatan who made a career of yanking people’s teeth out. Apparently you could find him standing on the bridge every day, barking and hawking his talents, dressed in a baggy scarlet coat. He traveled with a pair of musicians and a large cart with an enormous tooth (“Gargantua’s awesome molar”) hanging from it. Here’s Jones:

Every day, from sometime in the 1710s until his death in 1757, Jean Thomas stood on the Pont-Neuf, alongside the cheval de bronze … and offered to pull out the teeth of all and sundry.

[…] His portrait proudly proclaimed:

Our Grand Thomas, beplumed in glory,
The Pearl of Charlatans (or so’s the story).
Your Tooth aches? You need never doubt
Le Grand Thomas will yank it out.

[…] The demeanor of le Grand Thomas was such that it seemed that he could terrify peccant teeth into submission. Everything about him exuded mythic power. The medicines he described were made up in doses suitable as much for a horse as a man. He himself weighed the same as three men, and ate and drank for four. His barking voice could be heard across the city. If a client’s tooth resisted his assaults he would, it was said, make the individual kneel down in front of him and then, with the strength of a bull, lift him three times into the air with the hand still clenched on the recalcitrant tooth.

Le Grand Thomas was no mere physician—he was a folk hero. In 1743, toward the peak of his massive popularity, there was a character based on him in a play called Le Vaudeville. A few of his lines:

Beware the lure of windy exaggeration
Which doctors use—for our assassination.
Tho’ I, Thomas, am tongue-tied in truth
At least I can help with the ache of a tooth.
I pull it right from the root.
Crack! Right from the root.

In all my years of dental, orthodontic, and periodontal care—years of care that, don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful for—I’ve never encountered a figure with such panache.

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Palpable Disappointment

October 28, 2014 | by

Or, the hazards of wearing a Paris Review shirt.

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Vintage Paris Review advertisement.

While I was shopping for milk, I felt a hand tap my shoulder. It was a lady of perhaps sixty, wearing arty jewelry. “Excuse me,” she said. “I was just wondering … are you from … Paris?” She said the last word with an exaggerated French accent: Par-ee

I stared at her blankly for a moment. She, in turn, was staring at my breasts. I looked down and realized that I was wearing a Paris Review T-shirt, the dark blue 2013 version that’s modeled on a design from early in the magazine’s life. THE PARIS REVIEW, it says, along with an image of the hadada ibis in its Frisian bonnet. 

“Oh, no,” I said apologetically. “No. I’m from here.”

This is not, of course, an uncommon error; as names go, The Paris Review—which denotes a magazine based in New York, one that publishes zero reviews—is among the most misleading out there. I can’t think of another title that’s quite so dishonest. To paraphrase Mary McMarthy’s remark about Lillian Hellman, every word here is a lie, including The. (Okay, maybe not The.) 

I was prepared to explain that the American founders had indeed started the magazine in Paris in 1953; that they’d moved to New York in 1973; that upon George Plimpton’s death they’d relocated operations from his Seventy-second Street apartment to an office. I was not going to say—but was thinking—that in any case, in my experience, Parisians don’t tend to advertise their Parisian-ness on their clothing. Or maybe they do; as I’ve stated, I’m not one. 

As is so often the case, the clarification resulted in palpable disappointment.

“Oh,” said the woman. “I was going to ask you about baguettes.” She indicated the bakery section.

“You can!” I said. “I think I’ve tried all the breads here, and some are way better than others.” 

“No,” she said. “That’s okay. Thanks.” And she walked away.