The Art of Distance No. 5


The Art of Distance

A month ago, The Paris Review launched The Art of Distance, a newsletter highlighting unlocked archive pieces that resonate with the staff of the magazine, quarantine-appropriate writing on the Daily, resources from our peer organizations, and more. Read Emily Nemens’s introductory letter here, and find the latest unlocked archive pieces below.

“Love letters, fan mail, business correspondence, even missives to a future self: letters can bring us together across time and space. The connection they offer feels particularly welcome in our disjointed moment. There’s something special about letters between friends, diary entries, and even appeals sent into the unknown—see this week’s pieces from the Paris Review archive to prove my point. Pen to paper does still create some alchemy.” —EN

With little to do these days but sit inside and look out the window, I’m very aware of my neighbors, for better (the kid in the high-rise across the street airing her stuffed animals by letting them down from the window on strings) and for worse (the man downstairs playing music that shakes my floor). Mavis Gallant is, too, only she makes her Paris neighbors immortal characters of a tiny, finely wrought serial. Her “Diaries” remind me that to set down observations of the world honestly, precisely, and completely—however physically small that world might be—is to find the inevitable story in it. —Jane Breakell, Institutional Giving Officer 

“I’m running late, I’m sorry.” Just about every writer has had to deliver this news to her editor at some point, but only in the hands of Dylan Thomas does a mea culpa become its own adventure, with equal parts writerly despair and linguistic playfulness, with a veritable menagerie thrown in for good measure (I count several birds, a frog, and black sheep). Thomas’s letter to Botteghe Oscure editor Marguerite Caetani offers a window into a singularly talented writer facing his steepest uphill. The piece he is overdue on? His classic play Under Milk Wood—the last piece he’d finish before his death.

When we decided to feature this letter in Season 2 of The Paris Review Podcast, the challenge of casting a reader gave me the slightest pause. Dylan Thomas’s sonorous boom is unforgettable, so rather than seeking out an imitation, we opted for another iconic British voice. Listen to Salman Rushdie read excerpts from the letter in Episode 15. And speaking of menageries … those caws? Straight from the birds outside Thomas’s boathouse in Laugharne. —EN

David Sedaris writes about his family with the touch of a Greek dramatist, canonizing each member in his own personal mythology. Sedaris’s “Letter from Emerald Isle,” which appeared in issue no. 222, recounts a Thanksgiving spent with family at their North Carolina beach house. Each line is haunted by those who have passed, as the author contemplates his youngest sister’s suicide and the efforts of those who remain to heal. Now, I am confined inside with my own immediate family, and it feels more than ever like Sedaris is writing directly to me: embrace the strangeness of familial life, he advises, along with its manifold comforts. —Elinor Hitt, Intern

Renee Gladman’s diary entries are undated and all start with the phrase “I began the day…” They capture exactly how thoughts wax and wane from abstract to mundane through the course of an unstructured day. These entries are wonderful odes to the indulgence of solitude, of having no one to talk to but yourself. A foil to Gladman’s diaries are Jan Morris’s, which are more nineteenth century—the way they take into account Morris’s impressively learned frame of reference (they start with a bang: “I have always rather envied the poet Ovid, who was banished from Rome by the emperor Augustus, you may remember, to a remote place called Tomis on the shores of the Black Sea”). Unlike Gladman, Morris is not alone but with her wife, Elizabeth, in their home in the English countryside. Maybe that is why they are more outward-facing, but both Gladman and Morris are examples of how brilliant minds sit with the impressions of their days. —Lauren Kane, Assistant Editor

I’ve always liked this Peg Boyers poem, “Open Letter to Alberto Moravia,” in which she imagines a letter from Natalia Ginzburg to Moravia, chastising him that “publicity, that siren, has seduced you.” After reading that, I suggest you follow it with our Art of Fiction interview with Moravia from 1954, and then stay in the fifties with issue no. 17, which features a work of nonfiction from the poet W. S. Merwin that draws on his diaries concerning his trip home to America after seven years in Europe. Merwin’s entries sum up that peculiar, familiar sense of never quite feeling attached to a place: “They say that after seven years every cell in your body has changed. You are a different person.” Reading this as I shelter in place, I find myself fantasizing about trains, airplanes, boats, and moving vans. —Rhian Sasseen, Engagement Editor

Isolation and time, for me, make a space that is swiftly filled by memories of faux pas and anxious rumination over the meaning of old messages. Nothing captures the game of hunting for clues and puzzling out phrase and intention better than this correspondence between May Swenson and Elizabeth Bishop. Ostensibly, it begins as a series of letters about songbirds, out of which Swenson shapes a brilliant and teasing poem, “Dear Elizabeth,” reflecting her words back at herself. It is a true exchange—for Bishop, as much as it is from Bishop—and that to and fro makes it all the more beguiling. —Chris Littlewood, Intern


Sign up here to receive a fresh installment of The Art of Distance in your inbox every Monday.