Staff Picks: Cats, Combat, Conversationalists


This Week’s Reading

Notebook pages from Éric Chevillard’s autofiction.


The other night, sprawled on the floor of my apartment, I opened the newest issue of Music & Literature and found myself quickly smitten with one of its featured artists: the French writer Éric Chevillard. This is neither the first nor the second occasion M&L has introduced me to work that has left me in awe of its author—it’s happened before, with the fiction writer Ann Quin and the poet Alejandra Pizarnik. But this time felt different. Why? To start, Chevillard has accomplished what few writers, in my readings of them, have: he got me to laugh … aloud. The pages devoted to him flaunt his impeccable range—there’s Chevillard the critic, the novelist—but my favorite bits are those doused in humor, the short snippets of prose that take as their subjects such peculiar things as Hegel’s cap (“it’s a must-see … a thing to behold”) and Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (where its audience “ends up definitively and permanently associating the instruments with the characters they arbitrarily play in the story”). Then of course there’s Chevillard’s piece “Autofiction,” in which he subs the word ejaculating in for writing: “To be honest, what I ejaculated back then was worthless. Inconsistent. Peanuts. Flan. Eggnog.” Chevillard’s prose brims with outrageous wit, sophistication, and fun, the likes of which I’ve never read before. —Caitlin Youngquist

Julia pressed the most recent issue (for American readers) of the London Review of Books into my hands, demanding I read a short piece titled “Cat-Brushing,” by Jane Campbell. Julia and I talk about cats regularly, and why wouldn’t I read an article about cat brushing. But feline grooming is only a metaphor and jumping-off point: the story (I later discovered it was fiction) is a reverie by an older woman of her past lovers, of deeply pleasurable sex, of growing old and losing all of it. She calls aging “a process of dispossession, of rights, of respect, of desire, of all those things you once so casually owned and enjoyed … Once, when I arched my back and let out little miaows of pleasure my lovers thrilled with the knowledge of their potency. Now, I offer a few inches of knitting to my son. It is a terrible loss.” I don’t know that I’ve ever read a story in which an older woman’s loss of sexuality and independence was written so preeningly and with such elegant mourning. “I was loved and feared in return,” she recalls of her catlike fierceness. “It was a good place to be.” —Nicole Rudick 

Thanks to our Southern editor for alerting me to the mystery of the Pylos Combat Agate. This incredible frieze, recently discovered in a burial mound in Crete, depicts two Minoan warriors locked in hand-to-hand combat over the dead body of a third. The naked chests and legs of the men are rendered in exquisite naturalistic detail. You might well describe the frieze as “classical” except a) it was carved thirty-five-hundred years ago, a thousand years before the classical period, and b) you can’t actually see the thing without a magnifying glass! And yet, according to the New York Times, “no magnifying implements have been found on Crete from this era.” —Lorin Stein

The Pylos Combat Agate.


As we celebrate the first episode of the Paris Review Podcast, I thought I’d recognize another excellent literary podcast of a different type: the Otherppl Podcast, hosted by Brad Listi. On each episode, Listi, a Los Angeles–based writer, talks to another writer or a book-world denizen of some kind. The talks resemble conversations between friends. Occasionally the discussion centers on the guest’s new book; sometimes it hardly comes up. Occasionally you’ll hear at length about the guest’s biography; sometimes you’ll hear nothing about it. The program’s unpredictability is part of what makes it work: you never know what you’ll hear, but you can be certain that with Listi, a wonderful conversationalist with a unique ability to draw out his guests, you’ll get a better sense of the guest than you might from a formal interview. I’ve picked up books by his guests simply because the authors are compelling human beings. Listi is nearing his five-hundredth episode of Otherppl. Good starting points from recent episodes include his conversations with Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation (episode 483), and with the poet Matthew Zapruder (episode 477). And for a deep dive, listen to his interview with our editor, Lorin Stein, who appeared on the podcast way back in episode 112. —Joel Pinckney

It seems appropriate, in the spirit of the impending holiday, to declare preemptive thanks for Masha Gessen, whose intimate familiarity with Putin’s Russia has proven a source of tragically needed light over the past year. This week, she revisited a column she wrote for The New York Review of Books two days after the 2016 election, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Since then, her prescriptions for how to live under a would-be authoritarian have become only more pertinent. The current political environment, she writes, “numbs the mind and drains the spirit”: “We have settled into constant low-level dread: a state in which a person can function, but can hardly be creative or look into the future.” Her writing never fails to be instructive, lucid, and often unsettling, but never unduly so, like a sober diagnosis for a disease you hoped you’d never contract. Read her one-year retrospective at The New Yorker. —Spencer Bokat-Lindell