The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Jenny Diski, 1947–2016

April 29, 2016 | by

Jenny Diski died yesterday. You might have discovered that fact if you happened to visit the London Review of Books, where Diski published essays, reviews, and blog posts for nearly twenty-five years. Or maybe, like me, you learned it on Twitter, where, hours before the obituaries arrived, old tweets of Diski’s, some of them years out of date, started swirling back into circulation. They joined a tumble of appreciative links and quotations, an accumulation whose size quickly disqualified the possibility of happy coincidence. This is how death announces itself now, at least for the artists who don’t rate a breaking-news alert on our phones: a surge of mentions on social media, a collective attempt to plug up the vacuum of absence with digital abundance. For a moment you think you’ve lucked into an outpouring of spontaneous enthusiasm. Finally! you tell yourself. We’re talking about her now! But then quickly enough the rational brain reasserts itself and begins working down the checklist: Are they handing out Nobels today? A genius grant, maybe? Was someone quoted by Beyoncé? No? Oh. Oh, no. Read More »

My First Visit to an Editorial Office

April 28, 2016 | by

Teffi.

Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, born in Saint Petersburg in 1872, used Teffi as her nom de plume. (“It sounds like something you’d call a dog,” she wrote, explaining that she wanted “a name that was incomprehensible, neither one thing nor the other … best of all would be the name of some fool.”) In prerevolutionary Russia, she was renowned for her satire. To celebrate two new editions of her work, here’s a 1929 piece in which she remembers her “first steps as an author.” —Dan Piepenbring

My first steps as an author were terrifying. I had never, in any case, intended to become a writer, even though everyone in our family had written poetry from childhood on. For some reason this activity seemed horribly shameful, and should any of us find a brother or sister with a pencil, a notebook, and an inspired expression, we would immediately shout out, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”

The guilty party would begin to make excuses and the accusers would hop around, jeering, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”

The only one of us above suspicion was our eldest brother, a creature suffused with sombre irony. But one day, when he was back at the lycée after the summer holidays, we found scraps of paper in his room covered in poetic exclamations, and one line repeated over and over again:

“Oh Mirra, Mirra, palest moon!”

Alas! He, too, was writing poetry. Read More »

Ping-Pong: The Game of Medieval Discovery, and Other News

April 19, 2016 | by

Two female war workers play ping-pong at the YWCA war workers' club in Yeovil, Somerset, England, 1944.

  • I speak only English, so I write in English, too. And though for years this seemed to me the natural state of affairs, it might just be that I’m economically and politically undiscerning. As Tim Parks writes, “Ever since Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words, her small memoir in Italian, people have been asking me, Why don’t you write in Italian, Tim? You’ve been in the country thirty-five years, after all. What keeps you tied to English? Is it just a question of economic convenience? … But beyond any understandable opportunism, there is often a genuine idealism and internationalism in the decision to change language. If you have ‘a message’ and if English is the language that offers maximum diffusion, then it would seem appropriate to use it. In the 1950s, the rebellious and free-spirited Dutch novelist Gerard van de Reve felt that the Dutch language and culture was simply not open enough and not big enough for an artist with important things to say. Van de Reve moved to England in 1953, dropped the exotic ‘van de’ from his surname, and set about writing in his adopted language … Writing in another language is successful when there is a genuine, long-term need to switch languages (often accompanied by serious trauma), and when the new linguistic and social context the author is moving in meshes positively with his or her ambitions and talents.”
  • Sup, speed reader? You think you’re so cool, with your fast retinas and your fancy apps. I think you’re a fraud. And the Gray Lady has my back: “In fact, since the 1960s, experiments have repeatedly confirmed that when people ‘speed read,’ they simply do not comprehend the parts of the text that their eyes skip over. A deeper problem, however—and the one that also threatens the new speed-reading apps is that the big bottleneck in reading isn’t perception (seeing the words) but language processing (assembling strings of words into meanings). Have you ever tried listening to an audio recording with the speaking rate dialed way up? Doubling the speed, in our experience, leaves individual words perfectly identifiable—but makes it just about impossible to follow the meaning. The same phenomenon occurs with written text.”
  • Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe wrote, respectively, the first book in English by a woman and the first autobiography in English by a woman. Their manuscripts are being shown together at the Wellcome Center, but only one of them has a discovery story involving Ping-Pong. “Only one known manuscript exists of Margery Kempe’s story: its whereabouts were unknown from around 1520 until the 1930s, when it was discovered in the cupboard of a country house during a game of Ping-Pong. One of the players stepped on the ball and while searching for another, the Book of Margery Kempe manuscript fell out of a cupboard.”
  • Meanwhile, in Culver City: a pair of sisters have opened the first-ever “exclusively romance brick-and-mortar bookstore.” “The Ripped Bodice is a clean, well-lit place, devoted to the many subgenres of romance, such as cowboys, aliens, Vikings, biker dudes, and the paranormal. There’s also a large erotic section, a Spanish-language area, and plenty for young adults, as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer communities. In the historical section, books include Jane Austen spin-offs and romantic tales among tartan-clad Scottish highlanders. ‘Love can come in many forms,’ says Bea, twenty-six, with a smile.”
  • In which Emma Cline offers a tour of her writing room, an old garden shed in Brooklyn one block from the Gowanus Canal: “It reminds me of the cruddy little outbuildings I saw a lot of growing up in Northern California—the sloping floor, the amateur carpentry. We still haven’t finished the ceiling and it’s been three years … The best thing about working in such a small room, especially one without Internet access, is the sense of compression, a winnowing down to the essential things. Even one other person makes the space feel crowded. There’s really not very much to do in here but write, or nap on the air mattress in the loft.”

Exploding Autobiography: An Interview with Mark Leyner

April 14, 2016 | by

Photo: David Plakke Media NYC

When The Paris Review last interviewed Mark Leyner, in 2013, he announced his next book. “Gone with the Mind is my autobiography in the form of a first-person-shooter game,” he said. “You’ll have to blast your way back into my mother’s womb.”

Now, three years later, Gone with the Mind has arrived, and it’s … almost nothing like that. The autobiographical elements are intact, yes, and Leyner’s mother appears early and often—but the notion of a first-person shooter is unceremoniously jettisoned on page forty-six. (“Pretty much everyone I mentioned it to thought it sounded really cool, but what is that, actually? What would a book like that actually be, y’know?”) In its place is a loose frame story in which Leyner appears at the Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series at Woodcreek Plaza Mall, where he reads before a crowd of precisely three: a Panda Express employee on break, a Sbarro employee on break, and his mom.

The introductory speech he gives comprises the bulk of Gone with the Mind, a discursive farrago that touches on Freudian mother-son dynamics, constructivist aesthetics, fascist metaphysics, Twizzlers, women’s antiperspirant commercials, prostate cancer, and formative episodes from his youth. In earlier novels, Leyner cast himself as a paranoid egomaniac (Et Tu, Babe) or a feckless, oversexed adolescent (The Tetherballs of Bougainville), but the Mark Leyner we meet in these pages is transparent, erudite, self-deprecating, even tender. This is an autobiography that dramatizes its own creation—the pathos in attempting to express “the chord of how one feels at single given moment, in this transient, phantom world.”

I met Leyner at Marco & Pepe, a restaurant in Jersey City, where he arrived with a copy of Gershom Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism tucked under his arm. We began our conversation by learning, courtesy of our waitress, what a Portuguese muffin is.

So it sounds kind of like an English muffin, but bigger.

Does that mean anything called Portuguese is just a bigger variant of the English version?

Yes. Portuguese-breakfast tea is just a vat of English-breakfast tea. Anyway—it’s been three years since your last interview with the Review. I gather there’s been a sort of formalist struggle for you since then.

I waited on the idea for this book for a very long time. It’s important to me that each book is starting from scratch. I’m trying to think of a vital, unprecedented idea for a book that I haven’t seen. It’s not because I’m so ambitious—it’s just the way I’ve always worked. I have a feeling it comes from my being most engaged and inspired by visual artists when I was younger. Duchamp, Picabia, all the Cubists, Apollinaire and his people, André Breton, his people. And then all the great Abstract Expressionists, whom I adore still. I’m a big Clement Greenbergian. I’m a high formalist. I would always say that when, back in the day, people talked about postmodernism and things. I thought, No, I’m a card-carrying modernist, and I’m proud to say it. I approached this book in a formal way. How does one represent an autobiography, which in itself is a representation of confabulated memories? I began thinking about my mother—the meals we used to have at various restaurants and how we’ve always been so keen to make an audience out of each other. And that’s one of the really fundamental themes of this book—how intimates make audiences of each other. I really do think there’s a reading of this book that sees it as just me and my mom talking, and the rest of it being some kind of wonderful filigreed delusion—this pathetic event. Read More »

Jeffrey Eugenides on The Virgin Suicides

April 13, 2016 | by

Inspired by our famous Writers at Work interviews, “My First Time” is a series of short videos about how writers got their start. Created by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling, each video is a portrait of the artist as a beginner—and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

Today’s featured writer is Jeffrey Eugenides, who discusses his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, published in 1993. (An early installment appeared in the Review’s Winter 1990 issue.) “I wrote two hours every night, and on the weekends I would spend four hours,” he says. “Each book that you write, you swim a long way from the piers at a certain point—you just don’t know what’s going to happen. If I learned anything with The Virgin Suicides, I just learned if you keep going, you’ll figure out how to shape the thing.”

Be sure to watch the previous interviews in the series:

Your Every Wish for a Home, and Other News

April 8, 2016 | by

The cover of a Cinderella Homes sales brochure, 1955–1957. From Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World. Via The New York Review of Books.

  • Did you know? Heterosexual men tend to enjoy sexual intercourse—so much so, in fact, that even when they’re not having intercourse, they sometimes wish they were. Undone, a new novel by John Colapinto, explores this fecund quadrant of the male psyche, because no one’s set foot there in a while and someone needed to mow the lawn: “By exploring heterosexual male lust, Mr. Colapinto has written the kind of novel that has gone way out of fashion. The classics of the genre—Portnoy’s Complaint (Roth), An American Dream (Mailer), and Couples (Updike), among them—are many decades old … Many critics and civilian readers would say—and have said—good riddance to priapic literature. In a 1997 essay, ostensibly a review of the late-period Updike novel Toward the End of Time, David Foster Wallace slammed the previous generation of ‘phallocrats’ for its sex-obsessed narcissism … Colapinto said he had read the Wallace essay and largely agrees with it. But on the subject of the sex-drenched novels of Updike, Roth and the other bards of the male libido, he said, ‘I couldn’t deny that I had a lot of fun reading those books when I was younger.’ In his view, there was an overcorrection.”
  • Our Spring Revel was earlier this week, and though you might have expected some kind of superficial tribute to the wonders of the written word, you should know that our writers got real. They also described “their less-photogenic days at the desk”: “Even after thirty years, Lydia Davis said she has her off days. In accepting this year’s Hadada Award at this year’s annual gala at Cipriani 42nd Street, the author admitted throwing out the written version of her speech was a big mistake, and one that left her ‘scrawling little notes in very small handwriting on a jiggling train’ en route to New York … David Szalay and Chris Bachelder, respective winners of the Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the Terry Southern Prize for Humor, also didn’t exactly sugarcoat their career choice. In fact, pretty much every table had a writer in the midst of a one-person battle with the printed page. For novelist Adam Wilson, that means having a safe to lock up his cell phone in his Brooklyn home office.”
  • A reissue of Marianne Moore’s 1924 Observations reminds of its “infectious devotion to everything small”: “A fresh reading of Observations suggests that, while Moore’s descriptive powers are formidable, she is primarily a poet of argument, which is to say that she is most primarily a poet of syntax—the convolutions of her long, charismatic sentences seduce us into agreement long before we’ve had time to consider the substance of the argument at stake … Read as a whole, as it was designed to be, Observations emerges as one of several books that in the 1920s created our lasting sense of what constitutes the modernist achievement—books that court chaos through exquisite artistry: Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos, Joyce’s Ulysses.”
  • Time to ask again—what were the suburbs? Two new books, Houses for a New World, by Barbara Miller Lane, and Detached America, by James A. Jacobs, look back at the era of Levittown and the postwar suburban-housing boom, which we’re struggling to make sense of. As Martin Filler writes, “Both new books remind us of a time when a popular American middle-class weekend pastime was to pile the kids and in-laws into the family car and drive around looking at model houses, whether or not you were actively shopping for a new place. Lane has found newspaper advertisements and promotional materials for subdivisions that were clearly aimed at wives (who wielded huge influence about housing decisions even though their husbands were the breadwinners) and stressed the transformational nature of life in these up-to-the-minute dwellings. A revealing example of that appeal to women can be found in a 1955–1957 sales brochure for Cinderella Estates, a new Anaheim, California, subdivision not far from the recently completed Disneyland. This booklet depicts a princess-like figure and regal coach next to a rendering of a sprawling ranch-style house and the words ‘your every wish for a home … come gloriously true.’ ”
  • On the poet Ocean Vuong, born in Saigon and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, whose work is “influenced by both the plainspoken ironies of Frank O’Hara and the exotic folklorism of Federico García Lorca”: “Reading Vuong is like watching a fish move: he manages the varied currents of English with muscled intuition. His poems are by turns graceful (‘You, pushing your body / into the river / only to be left / with yourself’) and wonderstruck (‘Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade. / Honeysuckle. Goldenrod. Say autumn’). His lines are both long and short, his pose narrative and lyric, his diction formal and insouciant. From the outside, Vuong has fashioned a poetry of inclusion.”