The Paris Review could have been named Weathercock—and other early memories from an editor emeritus.
A new collection of William Styron’s nonfiction, My Generation, includes this reminiscence on the origins of The Paris Review; this piece first appeared in 1959, as Styron’s introduction to The Best Short Stories from The Paris Review.
Memory is, of course, a traitor, and it is wise not to trust any memoir which lends the impression of total recall. The following account of the founding of The Paris Review comprises my own recollection of the event, highly colored by prejudice, and must not be considered any more the gospel than those frequent narratives of the twenties, which tell you the color of the shoes that Gertrude Stein wore at a certain hour on such and such a day…
The Paris Review was born in Montparnasse in the spring of 1952. It was, as one looks back on it through nostalgia’s deceptive haze, an especially warm and lovely and extravagant spring. Even in Paris, springs like that don’t come too often. Everything seemed to be in premature leaf and bud, and by the middle of March there was a general great stirring. The pigeons were aloft, wheeling against a sky that stayed blue for days, tomcats prowled stealthily along rooftop balustrades, and by the first of April the girls already were sauntering on the boulevard in scanty cotton dresses, past the Dome and the Rotonde and their vegetating loungers who, two weeks early that year, heliotrope faces turned skyward, were able to begin to shed winter’s anemic cast. All sorts of things were afoot—parties, daytime excursions to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, picnics along the banks of the Marne, where, after a lunch of bread and saucissons and Brie and Evian water (the liver was a touch troubled, following a winter sourly closeted with too much wine), you could lie for hours in the grass by the quiet riverside and listen to the birds and the lazy stir and fidget of grasshoppers and understand, finally, that France could be pardoned her most snooty and magisterial pride, mistress as she was of such sweet distracting springs.
At night there was a bar called Le Chaplain, on a little dogleg street not far from the Dome, where a lot of people used to go; you could carve your name with an outstretched forefinger in the smoke of the place, but the refreshment was not too expensive, and in its ambience—quiet enough for conversation yet lively enough to forestall boredom, gloom, self-conscious lapses—it seemed to be a fine place to sit and work up a sweat about new magazines and other such far-fetched literary causes. Even though outside there was a kind of calm madness in the air—French boys, too, were being sent to that most futile and insane of wars, Korea—and in spite of the beatific spring, there was a subdued yet tense quality around, as of a people pushed very close to the breaking point, or as of one hysteric woman who, if you so much as dropped a pin behind her, would break out in screams. “U.S. Go Home.” The signs are gone now, for the moment. At that time, though, our national popularity had reached the nadir and in Paris there have been better times for literary ventures. But all of us had been in one war; besides, the young patron of Le Chaplain, named Paul, by his own proclamation loved America almost as much for “ses littérateurs” as for “ses dollars” (winks, knowing laughter, toasts in beer to two great nations), and if The Paris Review were to celebrate a patron saint, it would possibly have to be this wiry, tough, frenetic Algerian with the beneficent smile, who could vault over the bar and stiff-arm a drunk out into the night in less time than it takes to say Edgar Poe, and return, bland as butter, to take up where he left off about Symbolist imagery. Try starting a little magazine at Toots Shor’s. Les américains en Amérique! indeed.
Later that spring, as the idea of a new magazine grew less far-fetched (by this time someone mentioned that he actually knew where he could raise $500), we convened in an apartment on a hidden, sleepy street behind the Gare Montparnasse called the Rue Perceval. The apartment belonged to Peter Matthiessen, to whom credit is due for having originated the idea for the magazine. No one seemed to know the obscure street, not even the shrewdest of Left Bank cabdrivers, and in this seclusion three flights up, in a huge room with a sunny terrace overlooking all of Paris, the plans went forward in euphoria, in kennel snarls of bickering, in buoyant certitude, in schism, and in total despair. Though it is no doubt less complicated to organize a little magazine than to start some sort of industrial combine, it is imponderably more difficult an enterprise, I will bet, than opening a delicatessen, and in France one must multiply one’s problems—well, by France; to learn successfully how to browbeat a Parisian printer, for instance, is rough schooling for a Parisian, even more so for a recent graduate of Harvard or Yale, and the bureaucratic entanglements involved in setting up a corporation known as Société à Résponsibilité Limitée au capital de 5oo.ooo frs. must be self-evident to anyone who has even so much as lost his passport. Yet somehow the thing was accomplished.
To be young and in Paris is often a heady experience. In America a writer not only never knows who or where he is (“Well, what I mean is, was it a best seller?” “Is this novel of yours sort of historical, or maybe what they call psychological?” “Well, I really meant, what do you do for a living?”), he gets so he does not want to know. In Paris, on this level at least, it is different, as we all know, and like that hardship case of an American writer of authenticated record whose landlady, spying his translated poem in Les Nouvelles Littéraires and recognizing his name, offered him out of glowing pride a two percent reduction in his rent—like this young writer, touched by the sentiment even if not by sheer largesse, we feel peculiarly at ease for a change, we know where we are, and we wish to stick around. And so we persisted.
One sunny afternoon toward the end of that spring George Plimpton, another of the founders (the others were Thomas Guinzburg, Harold Humes, William Pène du Bois and John Train), arrived at Matthiessen’s apartment bearing two sinister-looking green bottles of absinthe. He burst in upon a glum gathering desultorily testing names. Promises. Ascent. Villanelle. Tides. Weathercock. Spume. Humes. (I think it was Matthiessen who later hit upon the perfectly exact and simple title that the magazine bears.) Everyone was at low ebb, and it is quite probable that once again the group would have broken up had it not been for Plimpton’s absinthe. Here I do not wish to suggest that there was something so fortuitously creative about that afternoon as to lead us to discover right then, once and for all, what we wished the magazine to be; by the same token, absinthe, according to the Britannica, “acts powerfully upon the nerve centers, and causes delirium and hallucinations, followed in some cases by idiocy.” One can make what one will out of that; for myself, I simply believe that that afternoon was the one upon which we were destined to make a breakthrough, and that Plimpton’s absinthe, while it might not have aided us in our efforts to define our policy, did nothing to hinder us, either. At any rate, toward the end of that day we had discovered roughly what we wished to make of the magazine, and we were in surprising accord.
Copyright © renewed 2010 by the Estate of William Styron. This excerpt is published by arrangement with Open Road Integrated Media, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.