- New York’s alright if you like saxophones, but it’s no place for existentialists: “When a boat carrying Albert Camus sailed into New York Harbor in March 1946, he was hailed as a moral emissary from war-ravaged Europe and the glamorous embodiment of a newfangled philosophy known as Existentialism … But a year later, Camus recalled his three months amid the city’s ‘swarming lights’ and frantic streets with a mixture of awe and bafflement. ‘I have my ideas about other cities but about New York only these powerful and fleeting emotions,’ he wrote in 1947. ‘I still know nothing about New York, whether one moves among madmen here or among the most reasonable people in the world.’ ”
- If you think there’s no possible way for a painter to take a unique approach to the Roman ruins—because who hasn’t painted them?—look at the work of Francis Towne, whose color washes the city in eerie light: “Towne was forty-one, no stripling, when he arrived in Italy in October 1780. Born a Londoner, he had begun his career as a coach-painter, moving in his twenties to Exeter. There, he became a respected drawing master and painter of West Country landscapes, of scenes of the lakes and of North Wales. His work was admired, yet the London art establishment dismissed him as a provincial drawing teacher—while he, on the other hand, was equally disdainful in return, adopting the habit of his Exeter patrons of praising rural retirement and virtue in contrast to the vanities of city life … Towne’s paintings suggest a wariness about approaching the great city. He began with views from without, pacing the countryside … Towne preferred the back of things, the uncommon view, high walls, old Roman gates, suggesting a life beyond. He ignored modern Rome; he gives no hint of grand Papal processions, of high-life, of the color and glamor that wowed the young men on their Grand Tours.”
- A casual reminder that spending time with Salvador Dalí was statistically all but guaranteed to yield a great story: “Dalí broke his silence. ‘My fisherman-Christ,’ he announced with a toss of the head. Before I had time to register surprise he added in a loud voice, ‘Now it is time to swim.’ Without a glance in my direction he made his way very precisely across the rocks and into the water. I decided that since I was the required audience the only course of action was to strip down to my underpants and follow him into the sea. Dalí began to utter, as though he was in a trance. As he did so he gave me my own surrealist moment, as his head appeared to be floating disembodied on the water, his eyes huge and staring past me towards the open sea, with the moustachios raised a little above the surface like twin periscopes … He launched into a declaration: ‘Every morning upon waking I experience the supreme pleasure of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí?’ ”
- Then again, meeting Hilary Clinton can make for a great story, too, if you’re Terry Castle: “I haven’t rehearsed any jokey badinage to cast in HRC’s direction on being introduced; nor even tried out possible facial expressions in the mirror. The moment has arrived and I simply don’t know what to do. Thus it unfolds that even as Her (Mostly) Incorruptible Majesty reaches appreciatively for my hand, I am mortified to hear myself squeak out—like a dying baby bat mewling helplessly for its mother: ‘SORRYMYHANDISSOCOLD.’ Just that—all in a rush, all in a preternaturally silly little voice … Hillary Clinton—two-term First Lady, former New York Senator, US Secretary of State, legendary Iron Woman and all-around Smiling yet Fearless Maker of Executive Decisions on which our Great Country’s Future Depends—takes my frozen mitt in her own, enfolds it Don Giovanni–style, and now regards me with a rakish and appraising eye: ‘Well, Terry [she says]: We’ll Just Have to Do Something (heh heh) to Warm It Up. Won’t We? (Heh heh heh)’ Love-impaled Sappho, help me in my discombobulation! Did you hear that? HILLARY CLINTON IS FLIRTING WITH ME! She’s got my hand and she is warming it up! Bejeezus! (It’s getting positively toasty!) Not only that—my god! She’s giving me the Look! (What look?) The Look You Can’t Mistake! The Nanosecond Too Long Look! The Look you get when someone shows you her trowel for the first time! The Look you get when contemplating the Mysteries of Rosicrucianism!”
- Last week I reported in this space, perhaps with a bit of alarmism, that artificial intelligences are now writing award-winning novels and that the entire human storytelling tradition is doomed. I may have been wrong. “As Japanese publication Asahi Shimbum explains, the research team first wrote a novel of their own and then broke it down into its component parts. Only then did the A.I. involve itself, arranging the parts it had been given to create ‘another story similar to the sample novel,’ building it from words, phrases, characters, and plot outlines that had been fed to it. The Los Angeles Times claims that this means that the computers ‘did the hard work,’ which is true only if you consider plagiarism ‘hard’ … Literary algorithms almost always seem to work best when they’re producing the kind of texts such as contemporary poems in which we expect to find confusing elements.”
Dear Paris Review,
I’ve just finished Dr. Zhivago and am on the hunt for a palate cleanser. I’ve been left with romance on the mind and would like to stay in this vein. I don’t want to go too lowbrow, like toward trashy romance novels, but something as light and diabolical but still classy and well written would be nice. Any suggestions?
Romantic, diabolical, and light—it’s a tall order. But Ivan Turgenev’s First Love rises to the challenge. So does Terry Castle’s long story-essay “The Professor” (the whole collection is a knockout), ditto the title story in David Bezmozgis’s collection, Natasha (ditto the collection). You might also want to see my staff pick for this week, Goodbye, First Love.
In case you’re still jonesing for epic: Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus isn’t exactly light, but it clips along, and it’s romantic with darkness. Then there’s the book that Sadie and I seem to recommend more than any other, not (in my case) because it’s my favorite, but because it’s excellent and so often fits one bill or another, as indeed it fits this one: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
As a nineteen-year-old writer, struggling against ego and literary giants that marked an era (the Beats), sick of the droning whir of academia, and thirsting for life. What should I read to have me excited about life, about writing.
Ah, to be nineteen and coming off the Beats … I’m tempted to recommend the work of our Southern editor, as for example his collection, Pulphead. There’s a book that knows the Beat tradition, that knows academia, that knows the myth of the great author and quietly steers its own path through those perilous straits. It may give you encouragement. The same is true of The Savage Detectives. Or, if you want a more classic antidote to literary machismo, To the Lighthouse. Or for sheer life affirmation and prose descriptions that make you burst out laughing, they’re so good: Death Comes to the Archbishop or The Adventures of Augie March. Read More
It avails not, neither earthquake nor hurricane nor suspended subway service— The Paris Review comes out on time. It’s a doozy, if we say so ourselves, and not to be missed. Subscribe now, or renew, and receive a limited-edition Paris Review café au lait cup. You can sip in style while you enjoy a full year of fiction, poetry, and prose.
In the fall issue:
Nicholson Baker discusses the pleasures of writing smut:
Sexual arousal itself is a kind of drug. It has also turned out to be one of the few plots I can actually handle. If I imagine a man and a woman talking, and I know that later on they’re going to be taking some of their clothes off, that pulls me merrily along … The basic boy-meets-girl plot in which they talk a little bit and then they have some kind of slightly bizarre sex—that plot I can do. Other plots are harder.
So many children—most of them obnoxious-looking. It’s a fact: 99 percent of all photographs ever taken have little brats in them. Mugging, leering, pushing one another. Wielding fearsome Betsy Wetsy 147 dolls. Pouting in pajamas on the floor over unsatisfactory Christmas presents. Prancing egotistically. The sort of kids that Wittgenstein, back when he was a mean, half-demented schoolmaster in the Austrian Alps or wherever it was—long before Cambridge and the Tractatus—would have walloped upside the head and thrown in the snow. How is it, indeed, that I have so many of them? More, even, than Joyce Carol Oates has written novels. And not one, needless to say, did I get for free.
Geoff Dyer on Tarkovsky. Lydia Davis on translating Flaubert. The Dennis Cooper interview. Fiction by Roberto Bolaño and newcomer Kerry Howley. Poems by Sharon Olds, Brenda Shaughnessy, Constantine P. Cavafy, Paul Muldoon, Jeff Dolven, Meghan O’Rourke, and Forrest Gander.
Last Saturday I caught a midnight showing of John Cassavetes’s Faces. Shot in LA in the mid-sixties, Faces is a movie about sex, booze, and aging—or, you might just as well say, about the faces of John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, and Gena Rowlands. It is absolutely sad, absolutely tender, and absolutely unsentimental. You won’t cry, and for days you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Not, at least, by reading The Pumpkin Eater (1962), Penelope Mortimer’s fictional account of her marriage to Rumpole creator John Mortimer: “We didn’t love each other as most people love: and yet the moment I have said that I think of the men and women I have seen clasped together with eyes full of loathing, men and women who murder each other with all the weapons of devotion.” —Lorin Stein
I’ve been enjoying Caroline Preston’s ingenious The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, a novel made up entirely of vintage images. It’s nifty and fun—but the plot moves along, too! —Sadie Stein
Jon-Jon Goulian on Robert Silvers, venerable founding editor of The New York Review of Books: “A man who can field a call like that with such composure is a man, you might say, whose head is still full of marbles, and yet that would leave open the possibility, inconceivable to me, that Bob might one day lose a few. That leaves only one alternative: Bob’s head contains one giant marble, one only, and you will have to behead him to make him give it up.” —L. S.
Maybe the summer is provoking more wanderlust in me than usual, because this week I read two novels about runaways. First up was Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. I moved on to Denis Johnson’s Angels. Reading it late at night in the immensely humid heat and borderline-nonexistent light of my tiny bedroom seemed to underscore every bizarre and frightening episode of Johnson’s book. —Natalie Jacoby
Prior to reading Terry Castle’s collection The Professor: A Sentimental Education, I was only familiar with her jaw-dropping Sontag reminiscences—but I’m sorry it took me so long: all her essays are that funny, pithy, and unexpected. —S. S.
Wesley Yang’s remarkable n+1 essay about Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter at the Virginia Tech massacre, is now available as a Kindle single. —Thessaly La Force
On the lighter side, I recommend our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on how to survive Disney World—minus the fear and loathing. —L. S.
A George Plimpton video game? —T. L.
Do not take Terry Castle to bed if you plan on getting any sleep. I keep trying to savor The Professor, her memoirs of love and friendship in the academy. It’s like trying to savor cocaine. The title essay, about a formative affair Castle had as an undergraduate, is now up there on a short shelf in my mind alongside Adolphe and First Love. —Lorin Stein
In the Morgan Library’s exhibition “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives,” Bob Dylan sketches a hotel-room table and then uses it to ink out a poem; JP Morgan has a first-rate time with the girls at dancing school; Charlotte Bronte struggles to write in between her studies; John Ruskin graphs out “pretty” chess moves; and Albert Einstein thinks “about the gravitation-electricity problem again” even though he knows he should be doing other things. The show comes complete with a brochure of carefully typed out diary entries, but I found it much more rewarding to squint my way through the diaries, wondering at the tiny scribbles and neat printings, and feeling just a bit closer to these beloved authors and figures. —Rosalind Parry
I have a girl crush on Ramona Ausubel, whose short story “Atria” was published in The New Yorker this week. I can’t wait to read her forthcoming novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us. Of it, Ausubel admits, “I have been trying not to think too hard about what it will be like to release this story to the great big world.” (P. S. Don’t miss her story in The Daily last week.) —Thessaly La Force