Assholes Revisited, Milton’s Sonnets


Ask The Paris Review

Boy Reading, by Thomas Pollack Anshutz.

You answered how to be an asshole. But how about what to do when you’ve been dealt one? In other words: I got dumped. Quick: where’s the revenge section of the bookshop? —Greta, New York City

In Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude, a middle-aged Englishwoman embarks on her first love affair and—after many heartbreaking and cringe-inducing misadventures—discovers that the best revenge is a night alone in a fancy hotel. As Rita Konig would say, J’AGREE. If nights alone are not your idea of poetic justice (or if you want to work on your French), I suggest the libertine novella No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon. Here a jilted young nobleman takes revenge on his mistress the other way—by going to bed with her friend. (Who, needless to say, has her own agenda.) The New York Review Classics has bulked out this slim bagatelle (newly translated by Lydia Davis) with the original text. So you can compare as you set your vendetta out to chill.

I’m trying to be a writer. I’m twenty four. As yet I have no publications. I’m sick with trying to motivate myself to keep going. Any advice? —Joan

Stop. Don’t think about writing. Find other work that interests you. Make yourself useful. At the age of twenty-four most would-be writers have led such sheltered lives that they don’t have anything yet to write. The good ones recognize this. The bad ones produce manuscripts, and when you read them you can hear the clickety of the keyboard, the Starbucks playlist in the background. Live. And while you’re at it read The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick, and How Fiction Works, by James Wood. Reread Strunk and White. Commit to memory Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness”:

WHEN I consider how my light is spent

E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one Talent which is death to hide,

Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, least he returning chide,

Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,

I fondly ask; But patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best

Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and waite.

The best thing that ever happened to me as a would-be writer was reading Infinite Jest. I was also twenty-four and spent my days sitting in front of an empty screen, full of a sense of duty and despair. That book cured me. It said all the things I’d have wanted my novel to say—things I’d never have dreamt up on my own in a million years. Keep reading and you will find the book that lets you off the hook. The world doesn’t need your fiction. The question is whether you need it, and over time that question will answer itself without interference from you.

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