Why is it that when I ask people in Los Angeles if they have heard of The Paris Review, they either know exactly what I am talking about or look at me with utter confusion?
—Susan, Los Angeles
Funny, the same thing happens back East. The fact is, for all its influence over the decades, The Paris Review has never had more than 20,000 subscribers at a time. Usually a lot fewer. On the other hand, last year we did a survey (not scientific, but not not scientific) and discovered that our subscribers tend to read the magazine from cover to cover. If you know the magazine, you generally know it cold. And you stand a passable chance of being a writer, or agent, or editor, or critic yourself. So, in the republic of letters, the Review is unavoidable, but that republic is tiny. (If you told most book-lovers that one single little magazine had published the first major stories of Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, and David Foster Wallace, very few would believe you. Which is to say, if The Paris Review didn’t exist, no one would think to invent it.)
Plus, here we are, a quarterly published in English, in New York City, named after a city in France. A review that runs no reviews—only interviews. A fiction and poetry magazine whose founding editor was America’s most famous sportswriter, performance artist, and fireworks technician.
What’s not to be confused?
I just belatedly saw Midnight in Paris this weekend (I know, I know … ). As Gil Pender puts it for 1920s Paris, what would be your “Golden Era” (if an enchanted vintage car could take you there)?
Do you believe in golden eras? Was the sky any bluer when Hemingway wrote the last sentence of The Sun Also Rises? Later, of course, he looked back on that time with yearning, and his nostalgia is contagious: he and his friends had been young. And a few of them happened to write great novels in their youth. On the other hand, they saw the world as a ruin: the real world, the world they had looked to inherit, was destroyed in the war, never to be recovered. As for Paris, the great moment of art and literature in Paris had ended a decade before they got there.
I skipped the movie, but I saw the trailer, and I know the feeling—either you admit that Paris makes you nostalgic or you pretend you are someplace else. I’ve felt the same way in Kansas City. I feel it all the time in New York. The sight of Diane Keaton smoking a cigarette, banging on a typewriter, with a telephone—a real telephone—clamped against her ear fills me with longing more acute than any picture of Le Dôme. And it’s not because I prefer Woody Allen’s older movies, or because I do love the novels of the seventies, but because it all happened just about the time I was born and things started falling apart.
What is your most prized book and what is its significance to you?
I don’t take good care of my books, but there are certain ones I’m sorry to see go the way of the velveteen rabbit. Mainly hand-me-downs. A Leaves of Grass given to my grandmother (also Lorin) when she was a girl in Chillicothe. My grandfather’s Education of Henry Adams, which he reread continually. An Oxford Anthology given to me by my great-great aunt, with a check mark next to Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears” (“My father thought these the most beautiful lines in the English language—I feel the same—perhaps you will like them too”). A paperback Twenty-Seventh City that DFW scribbled some notes in, when I was interviewing him and forgot to buy batteries. My mother’s college Shakespeare, with my own college notes from seminars with Harold Bloom, very earnest and miniscule and utterly confused.
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