Here’s a short and lovely video for a Friday afternoon. Rose Styron, the wife of the late William Styron, recalls the earlier days of The Paris Review, and the parties that the Styrons used to throw. “We had the John Marquands,” she says, “The Peter Matthiessens, the Tom Guinzburgs, and George Plimpton. We were all a gang, and had a wonderful time.” What a vibrant literary life! And what friendships! Her memories remind me of the touching speech Philip Roth gave at our Revel this year to accept the Hadada Award. Roth describes his first visit to New York to meet Plimpton, and how he made friends with the magazine’s young editors and writers. The result? “This time I sent my story not to The Paris Review slush pile, from which I’d been plucked first time around by none other than Rose Styron, but right to the top.”
You must look at this casting sheet for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Wesley Snipes as Geordi? I mean, come on! Talk about parallel universes. —Thessaly La Force
I am always eager to read a new essay by Doubleday editor Gerald Howard. His latest (in Tin House) is about depictions of working-class life in new American fiction—or really, the lack thereof. —Lorin Stein
I’m reading American Pastoral, which has elicited startling responses in public. The quantity and sheer magnitude of the comments I get! One time I opened the book near a window in a coffee shop. A passerby stopped dead, peered at the cover for confirmation, and then starting banging on the window shouting, “Swede Levov! Swede Levov!” —Daisy Atterbury
Dan Engber has written a delightful cultural history of quicksand. “Time was, a director could sink a man in the desert and still win the Oscar for best picture. Today, that gimmick has been scorned in third-rate schlock.” What the heck happened? I say: bring it back. —Thessaly La Force
I have also been catching up on the posts of (sometime diarist) Rita Konig. Rita blogs about decorating for The New York Times. Her current post is about washing machines. I have never owned a washing machine. I have never thought about owning a washing machine. I have no interest in washing machines. And yet I find Rita’s interest addictive. (No doubt Gerry would have something perceptive to say about that.) —Lorin Stein
I’ve just finished The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald’s entrancing account of a walking journey through Suffolk, England. This sublime work doesn’t just confound traditional literary taxonomies: it actually exposes the slightness of the very question of genre. —Mark de Silva
In honor of the upcoming U.S. Open, I’ve been rereading David Foster Wallace’s on tennis—the Times piece on Roger Federer and the Esquire piece he wrote on Michael Joyce. His sense of wonder is almost childlike. —Miranda Popkey
I’m young, poor, and unemployed in New York. I have no family connections, and my friends are all similarly destitute. I want an inspirational text; are there any novels about sympathetic social-striver types who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps without losing their friends and their souls in the process? —Camilla D.
Funny you should ask. All day I’ve been walking around with the Glen Campbell song “Rhinestone Cowboy” stuck in my head:
I’ve been walking these streets so long
Singing the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway,
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain …
One identifies. As Glen says, there’ll be a load of compromisin’ on the road to his horizon: I worry that this tends to be the case. And even though I know you don’t want me to tell you to read Lost Illusions, you must read Lost Illusions, if you haven’t. It is spooky how often some detail of Balzac’s Paris will remind you exactly of New York—like seeing your own face in a daguerrotype. A very louche daguerrotype. The hero does lose his friends and his soul. Plus his illusions. But you can handle it. I believe in you!
(Plan B: Breakfast at Tiffany’s?)
Over at The Atlantic today, Lorin shares some exciting news: our September issue (and Lorin’s début) will feature interviews with Norman Rush and Michel Houellebecq.
When Norman Rush explains why he didn’t publish his first book until the age of 53, that means talking about his politics, his time in prison, and the extraordinarily long and happy, argumentative marriage that has inspired so much of his astonishing fiction. Among other things, the interview is an essay about marriage.
. . . Houellebecq talks about having been abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother. He remembers his years with her as the happiest time of his life. In most contexts, this mix of opinion and personal information would rub me the wrong way. (I would rather stare at sheet rock than read a celebrity profile.) But in a Paris Review interview, because both people have given it so much thought, the connections tend to be interesting. At least, they fascinate me.
And that’s not all:
For the interested, upcoming interviews will include Dave Eggers, Ann Beattie, Samuel Delaney, Louise Erdrich—and, yes, Jonathan Franzen. And we’re making our archive searchable online. Soon you’ll be able to read the aforementioned Morrison, Crumb, Hemingway, Faulkner, plus Stephen King and James Baldwin and the rest of the gang.
This is the second installment of Banks’ culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
12:30 P.M. I put in a few bets in advance on the Saratoga card and head for the eye doctor to get new lenses for my glasses (which would have been a boon to have in place before the trip to Philadelphia and DC). I’ll be lens-less for a half hour or so but I print out anyway a Guardian article by Tom McCarthy on “technology and the novel” that I want to read after finishing C. The book had already dashed my fears that post-Remainder McCarthy had turned art-world prankster at best, experimentalist court jester at worst. The profile’s a funny and smart piece when I squint over it an hour later. C begins at a turn-of-the-century school for the deaf with the burial of the protagonist’s sister while the dead girl’s father, a wireless communications buff, wants to rig the bier with a device so that she might signal if she’s not really dead. McCarthy mentions an anecdote about Alexander Graham Bell—his father also ran a school for the deaf, he also had a brother who died, and Alexander entered into a promise with his surviving sibling (who died early as well) that should either of them succomb, the other would create a device to receive transmissions from beyond the grave. He probably would have invented the telephone anyway, of course, and “remained a skeptic and a rationalist throughout his life—but only because his brothers never called: the desire was there.” I’m not sure I buy it, but C makes me feel like I should.
3:30 P.M. Get back home after picking up the new glasses, and I’m glad I read the essay while I waited for them—the replacement lenses make me feel like I’m seeing the world through a goldfish bowl, and I get a terrible headache as a result. Plus, I lost my bets. In the mail is the new Jonathan Franzen which I put off reading with my funky vision. It’ll have to wait until next week, which means I’ll have to make up a bunch of lies if anybody asks me what I think of it. I’d rather bullshit my way through than face the guilt that I won’t actually turn to it until I’m on vacation.
8:00 P.M. Head is still throbbing so I cancel plans to go see the Tilda Swinton flick I Am Love (the only film it seems anybody’s talking about these days) and turn on The Wild One on TMC instead. I feel like I’ve seen it a million times but this seems like the first time I’ve noticed the actor who plays one of Lee Marvin’s sidekicks—who is that guy? A quick IMDB check turns up Timothy Carey—his face is familiar because he plays the racist psychopath in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing who shoots a horse, Red Lightning, during a stakes race, setting off the racetrack heist. Man, where have I been? I make a note to rent Carey’s only directorial effort, The World’s Greatest Sinner, where he plays a crazed rock n’ roller who turns into a Jimmy Swaggert–style evangelist and is struck down by God Himself in the final scene.
Lorin has written more for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog over at The Atlantic. I hope you’ll read everything he’s written so far, but I thought I’d take the time to mention today’s entry. Here, Lorin addresses the death of the book review, and his very inspiring reasons for moving from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux to The Paris Review:
I left book publishing to edit The Paris Review because I think the situation can be dramatically improved. Not in the high-stakes game of bestsellers and Time covers, but down here on the ground, where reputations and markets are built and readers make up their own minds. I want there to be a magazine where fiction and poetry come first, where there’s no hype, and where the aim is to reach the 100,000 people who, a few years ago, had never heard of Roberto Bolano—but whose lives have been slightly changed by his fiction.
I am one of those people. For what it’s worth, I have also been one of the people who say they don’t like stories or poems. It wasn’t actually true in my case. (I suspect it’s not true in general.) What annoys me is the idea that I should like a story or a poem, just because somebody took the trouble to write it. We are indeed competing for limited airspace. With apologies to Ezra Pound, a story or poem needs to be at least as involving as an expose by David Grann, as tough-minded as a comment by Hendrik Hertzberg. Which is to say, it must if possible be even better written.
Literary writing (or, if you prefer, imaginitive writing) has certain advantages of its own, none of them weakened one bit by technology. It can often be funnier than other kinds of prose. It can deal more humanly with sex. It can say shameful things about family life—not by treating them as scandals but, on the contrary, by showing that they’re normal. More sins are confessed more deeply, through the screens of verse and make-believe, than you will ever find on a talk show or reality TV. Literature gives the best accounts of intimacy. Lena McFarland is right—you may not learn stuff you didn’t know from a work of fiction. But there can be great comfort in seeing the troubles of daily life put into words of power and beauty.
And as David Foster Wallace observed, literature has a way of making you feel less alone. TV doesn’t do that. It entertains and entertains, but there is a part of you it gives the silent treatment. In my experience, even the Web can you leave you feeling lonelier, once you turn off the computer. Fiction and poetry connect you, or they can, to something bigger and quieter and more lasting than the day you had at work. The question of posterity is fascinating. Some writers hope to live on, through their words, after death. Some write for the present day. Either way, they take us out of the moment and out of our smallest selves.