What the Paris Review Staff Read in 2022


The Review’s Review

From Mary Manning’s portfolio Ciao! in issue no. 242.

The sadness of thinking about a year in reading is how little of it endures! As I try to recover lost time by rereading the terrible handwriting in my journal I find so many abandoned or forgotten books, and even the ones that remained in my memory are now reduced to an image or a sentence or a feeling—but maybe this is universal, and therefore not so sad.  

The book that stayed with me the most this year was Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, not just because of how moving it is and how it performs such relentless moves with doom as she details her struggles with external demons (family, class, addiction) but because I still don’t understand exactly how she accomplished this. Whenever I’ve tried to define it in conversation, I end up saying something hopelessly abstract, like, “The series invents its own authority.” This hopelessness made me want to come up with a corresponding new aesthetic category, something that would precisely and permanently define the compulsive.  

In a very different mode: I keep remembering images from Jean-Patrick Manchette’s crime novels, which I read this summer in some of NYRB Classics’s reissues. My favorites, perhaps, were No Room at the Morgue and Nada, which aren’t so much noirs as rapid phenomenologies of politics. There are dense technical descriptions of guns and scenes of people waiting in dark rooms, but operating through these minute details is a sense of a larger system.  

These, I’ve realized sadly, are the memories of reading I’m left with now. But maybe this awareness of forgetting has been prompted by an experience I loved at the beginning of the year—listening, online, to Alice Oswald’s lectures on poetry at Oxford. The first, from 2019, is called “The Art of Erosion,” and uses the seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick as an example of a writer with a way of working that she admires. It wasn’t only her argument about poetry and erosion that I found both moving and invigorating, her idea that there is a poetry that builds up and a poetry that uncovers or erodes; it was the use of Herrick—someone so apparently outmoded and forgotten!—as her model for thinking through those subjects. Of course, I’ve forgotten many other aspects of those nighttime lectures. So much is already eroded at the moment of listening, or reading. How any writer makes something survive—even for a year—is still a mystery.   

—Adam Thirlwell, advisory editor


My friend Charlotte and I often attribute moments of temporary insanity to the effects of seasonal change. This is kind of a joke, kind of not, but in any case I’m from New England, I’m obsessed with the seasons, and so when I recall what I read this year I also remember the changes in the weather.

1. Winter: Sick with COVID on Epiphany, during one of New York’s only snowfalls, I read Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal. It was not an easy book—long, heavy sentences and little action—but I kept returning to de Kerangal’s gorgeous, breathless, breath-giving descriptions of painting sets for theaters and for movies. Her narrator is even tasked with recreating a replica of the cave paintings in Lascaux, a project that de Kerangal imagines in luscious passages that illuminated something for me about artifice and art.

2. Spring makes me sad, despite all the flowering trees, because I paradoxically associate it with endings. (The school year, and the sad part of the Resurrection story.) Delayed for hours in the airport in San Francisco, feeling the kind of frightening misery that settles over me fortunately rarely, I read a book of Raymond Carver’s short stories back-to-back. This isn’t something I would recommend.

3. In July I got around to reading my Christmas present from my friend Rebecca: John Williams’s Stoner! I was totally absorbed in this quiet portrait of one man’s consciousness, from cradle to grave—there’s no other book quite like it, is there? This was almost certainly a book for a different season—the descriptions of the crackling frost and the streetlights in Missouri winter cast a long shadow over my memory of it—but instead I finished it on the roof of the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles in August, so hot, waiting for someone to meet me. I will never forget my favorite sentence: “And so he had his love affair.”

4. While in Boston over Thanksgiving, wearing too light a coat for the chill and feeling restless, I picked up The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford at a new bookstore on Charles Street. Immediately I was laughing. It’s so indisputably English! It’s biting in its satire and yet fundamentally warm—there’s a kind of sharp joy that felt compatible with November coziness, and that made it seem like the right thing to read as the year draws slowly and suddenly to a close.

—Sophie Haigney, web editor


A Dance to the Music of Time may have temporarily ruined my life. Not only did it turn me into an insufferable person whose main subject of conversation was a little-read twelve-volume novel cycle about interwar Brits, but it made all other books read like thin gruel. Anthony Powell’s novel follows a young man and his school friends from late teenagedom through middle age. We watch them try to achieve writerly fame, sleep around, conjure Marx with a Ouija board, start leftist literary magazines, and go to war. What interests Powell aren’t people bonded together by strong ties like marriage but all the people who are usually cut out of novels in service of the central relationship: friends’ exes whom one keeps running into, parents’ pals with whom one must establish uneasy adult discussions, professional nemeses, golden boys gone bad. Because it leaves room for these awkward encounters, second divorces, and the chance that what someone thinks is their most secret love affair is actually all anyone else can talk about, the book is among the most lifelike things I’ve ever read. 

In my work as a journalist, I’ve been thinking more and more about how traditional reporting, which often focuses on a single exemplary person, can never be entirely true. No one, no matter how powerful or famous, is actually operating alone. Powell’s novel is the first literary work I’ve read that maps out what a social life actually looks like: byzantine, random, and usually embarrassing. Powell is often compared to Proust, because both authors have written long books and have last names that start with P. But his purview is nothing like Proust’s. He doesn’t care about his narrators’ thoughts. Powell’s is a world of exteriors. He wants gossip.

—Madeleine Schwartz, advisory editor


For me, 2022 was a year of historical fiction. The farthest back my reading took me was the twelfth century A.D., via Lauren Groff’s Matrix, a tale of nun-power that thrills though it occasionally steers close to corny (this is the danger of historicals, particularly the swashbuckling type). Stay for the reinvented Pentecost scene, with hot flashes standing in for tongues of flame. The nearest it took me was the nineties, through Elif Batuman’s Either/Or, which includes the trappings of that era—Alanis Morissette, The Usual Suspects, cottage cheese diets—but, in its rendering of campus “romance” and the attendant anxieties, took me back to my own college experience in the early aughts (Death Cab, Kill Bill, the South Beach Diet). My favorite book I read this year, though, was Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen, set in seventeenth-century Germany. Despite the title, it’s a quiet book: accused of witchcraft, Katharina Kepler, a slightly Olive Kitteridge-like character, goes about the defense of her life and reputation (which are the same) in a matter-of-fact if not always practical way, keeping appointments with bureaucrats. Meanwhile, life goes on for her and her family and neighbors; they go to work, they spend time with their cows, they dab makeup on their acne. Chilling how like us they are, as they bumble toward a killing. The gem of the novel is Simon, Katharina’s widower neighbor, who “firmly believe[s] that the life of a spinster is often better than that of a married woman. No dying in childbirth. No beast in the house.” It’s refreshing for an author to allow centuries-old characters real insight into their own time, rather than assigning them the beliefs we are told most people had—and this is perhaps the best reason to write about them at all. Like us, they are caught up in absurdities that turn to atrocities; like us, they know it.

—Jane Breakell, development director


This year seemed very long to me, though not in a bad way—it just kept adding new chapters. The longest book I read, which also took me the longest to read, was Dickens’s Bleak House, which I began in January but didn’t finish until October. I doubt most people read the book to learn the outcome of Jarndyce v Jarndyce;what I remember most is its flood of indelible “flat” characters: Mrs. Jellyby’s maniacal humanitarianism, the delusional “deportment” of Old Mr. Turveydrop, the obsequiousness and ambition of Mr. Guppy. I read all kinds of books this year, but I was drawn to the ones that, in the spirit of Bleak House, overflow—books crammed with people and images and possibilities. Books that remind you there can always be more, and more vivid, life. There was the ramshackle odyssey of Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South; the infinite gradations of flower and fabric and season in Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book; the still deepening roots of Lucille Clifton’s Generations; the rich, devastating twilight of a culture in James Welch’s Fools Crow; the seemingly endless rooms of the decaying Irish hotel (and the endless cats who haunt it) in J. G. Farrell’s Troubles. And, of course, Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, which enacts the fullness of every second and every stray thought passing. After reading something like that, who wouldn’t want to try to feel their morning, their afternoon, a little more keenly?

—David S. Wallace, advisory editor


In the winter, I joined a small reading group that was being hosted by the Russian poet Maria Stepanova at Columbia University. She guided us in reading intergenerational and autobiographical writings from the Soviet Union and from present-day Ukraine that reveal a different historical narrative than Putin’s. One of them, the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, is the most intimate oral history that I have ever read. Alexievich brings together brutal testimonies of the Chernobyl disaster from thousands of interviews with the victims, scientists, and Communist Party members who witnessed it firsthand. The journalistic “I” is nowhere to be found.

I also inhaled Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, in one bleak fall afternoon. The book-length soliloquy is narrated by a fictional pianist who studies alongside Glenn Gould and lives in the shadow of his musical genius. The prose is propulsive, rhythmic, and filled with Nietzschean ressentiment. I listened to Glenn Gould’s early interpretation of the Goldberg Variations repeatedly as I read, imagining Gould slouched over the piano, just as obsessive as Bernhard’s narrator playing Bach’s arias hours after his listeners had gone home.  

—Campbell Campbell, intern


I begin each year committed to documenting my reading with the discipline of an accountant. But by February I’ve forgotten about the existence of my ledger, and by the spring I’ve convinced myself that my memory—partial, unreliable—is a better reflection of the strange communions that happen while reading, which are otherwise cheapened by the determinism of obsessive list-making. The year’s basic plot points, anyway, are easy to recount. For whatever reason, in 2022 I tended to read anthropologically. The winter was all about Scandinavia. I read, in quick succession, Son of Svea and Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson—both excellent—and then Long Live the Post Horn! and Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth. By the spring, I was motivated by resentment. I get an addictive, sick feeling reading books about scorned white women in love: a mixture of identification, rejection, defensiveness, and disgust. I indulged that feeling completely in my reading through the summer, and weaned myself off it only in the fall, when I turned toward books about settlers and immigrants in colonial and post-independence Africa. (For research, I told myself, burned by the books I had been seeking out for pleasure.) I read Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, and then the stunning letters exchanged between Pankaj Mishra and Nikil Saval on the occasion of Naipaul’s death. Of Naipaul’s legacy, Mishra writes: “In retrospect, his analysis of the failings of postcolonial states and societies does not seem unique; it could seem unprecedented only in the West’s intellectually underresourced and politically partisan mainstream press. … Cold-war liberals warmed to anyone who attributed ideological — and therefore suspect — motives to those they deemed illiberal (or knew little about), while claiming perfect rationality for the free world, along with aesthetic and moral superiority.” I didn’t relate to A Bend in the River’s fatalism, even if I found it sociologically fascinating: What is it about the postcolony that enables its interlopers to declare life over? Finally, in November, I decided to combine my two most recent anthropological interests and read books about scorned white women in love in post-independence Africa. I reread the beginning of The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, and am now wading through Mating by Norman Rush, which seems to be having a moment; having read only a third of it, I’m finding myself so far perplexed. I have a troubled preoccupation with the genre, which tends to recycle its set pieces: the promise of good, liberatory sex, usually extramarital, and an ongoing, if out of sight, literal liberation movement on the margins. (The theme of my year in reading, I guess, has been morbid curiosity.) Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, a reread, was my favorite book of the year, and last year, and probably the year before. The mythic figure at its core—an English-educated Sudanese economist who appears in a small village, disappears just as quickly, and leaves a wake of terror at home and in the metropole—tends to avenge the year’s disappointments.  

 —Maya Binyam, contributing editor


The best fiction I read this year was Seth Price’s “Machine Time,” published in Heavy Traffic 1 this summer. Most fiction is basically a simulation engine for human emotions and relationships—conversations with imaginary friends, etc—that elides a basic feature of both novels and humans: they are given form—and feeling—by something not so warm and fuzzy, something abstract, like the syntax of sentences or by a social system. Isn’t the human condition also one of relating to the inhuman? The charm of this story—in which a contemporary artist attends a party at the “open-air, Tropical-modern” island fortress of a wealthy character named Trader—is that it filters our world through the stylistic excesses of sci-fi, making it more alien rather than more “relatable.” Price steps neatly between manifesto-like interior monologue and precise prose that renders objects both specific and exotic, like a video game graphics engine: “His family had crossed the room in advance of their wheeled luggage like four new coins rolling across the carpet.” “Machine Time” isn’t magic realism; it is realism for a reality (our own) in which all forms, sociopolitical and otherwise, are in flux. Price’s narrator is in the business of such metamorphoses: he has “designed business envelopes that could be slipped into and worn to a party.” His job, like those of many of us today, is “to express without end.” He’s a creative professional, a bit like the “corporate anthropologist” of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, only funnier and more ruthless. He has “discovered that with a slight tilt of the head all the meanings flickered and vanished, and it fill[s] [him] with a vertiginous, darkly ecstatic feeling.” 

In winter, spring, and fall I read three mysteries by Raymond Chandler, whose narrator is also an investigator and, inevitably, an instrument, of his times.

—Olivia Kan-Sperling, assistant editor


I am decidedly allergic to flowery prose. I take the fact that I’ve just employed an adverb as a sign of personal growth. It’s unlike me to work through a Victorian novel and consider it anything less than a massive chore. But as a reluctant New Yorker, a country mouse confined to a city mouse life, I was drawn to the title of Thomas Hardy’s farmer love-triangle classic. Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardy can certainly wax pastoral; I felt quite at home in the dreamy green acres of that whimsical Wessex kingdom. I also found his joyfully absurd British humor a welcome antidote to a certain post-COVID brand of urban humorlessness that, if I’m not careful, does occasionally infect my own soul. 

More in keeping with my usual tastes: Also a Poet by Ada Calhoun, in which she sets out to do what her father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, could not: compose the seminal biography of Frank O’Hara. Her project takes a fortuitous turn when O’Hara’s estate refuses to approve. What results is not only a love letter to Frank O’Hara, his charismatic cronies, and the glorious New York in which they lived but a tribute to Calhoun’s relationship with Schjeldahl, and to her feral East Village upbringing. Anyone with a brilliant but difficult father should read Also a Poet.

—Morgan Pile, business manager


I was looking for something to help me cope with a grim January, so I bought  a copy of The Group, Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel. I spent a wintery weekend with McCarthy’s cast of eight Vassar grads as they figure out their burgeoning lives in New York. The book was my favorite this year and stayed with me long after I put it back on the shelf: I reread passages, watched the (terrible) 1966 film, pined after a beautiful first edition, and became obsessed with the book’s public reception, particularly with Robert Lowell’s dismissive claim: “No one in the know likes the book.” 

In late spring, I picked up The Spare Room, the first book of Helen Garner’s that I’ve read, in anticipation of our interview with her in our Fall issue. I was moved and inspired by the frankness of her writing—how her spare prose captured the sometimes painful and complicated nature of best friendship. 

In the middle of summer, preparing for a trip to Paris, I read Cher Connard, Virginie Despentes’s humorous, ultracontemporary new epistolary novel. In France, whole billboards were taken up by Despentes’s cover art, posters of the book’s cover lined every bookstore window, and Despentes made various television appearances. I felt pleased to have come prepared.

Fall was full of books I started and stopped, until I came across an interview with Paula Fox in our archives and was immediately charmed by her way of speaking, especially when describing the difficulties she’d faced in her young life: “I often thought of killing myself but then I wanted lunch.” The very next day, as though he’d read my mind, my boyfriend gave me a copy of Desperate Characters for us to read together. 

—Camille Jacobson, engagement editor