- In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
- Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
- While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
- How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
- Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”
Like everyone else, I am weary of talking about the weather. But it’s not the banality of the talk that bothers me. Talking about weather is as endlessly fascinating as weather itself—even if, nowadays, conversations about the weather are no longer guaranteed to offer refuge from discussions of religion or politics. I’m just sick of how babyish everyone’s being.
Yes, much of the country is experiencing a cold snap. It’s been very chilly for the past few weeks. Because it’s winter. People react with indignant surprise to learn that they’ve somehow woken up in a temperate climate that gets cold every year, and that they, personally, are being forced to deal with it. It’s not just that everyone is displaying an unbecoming lack of stoicism—I am not referring here to the denizens of The Paris Review office, who closed the Spring issue without heat or hot water, in their coats.) Rather, I hate that it leaves us open to the inevitable taunts of people in sunny climates, or the tiresome one-upmanship of those in Canada and Minnesota, who just love an excuse love to show off their thermometers and scoff at our softness. Read More
André Breton’s poem “The Verb to Be” originally appeared in our Spring 1985 issue.
I know the general outline of despair. Despair has no wings, it doesn’t necessarily sit at a cleared table in the evening on a terrace by the sea. It’s despair and not the return of a quantity of insignificant facts like seeds that leave one furrow for another at nightfall. It’s not the moss that forms on a rock or the foam that rocks in a glass. It’s a boat riddled with snow, if you will, like birds that fall and their blood doesn’t have the slightest thickness. I know the general outline of despair. A very small shape, defined by jewels worn in the hair. That’s despair. A pearl necklace for which no clasp can be found and whose existence can’t even hang by a thread. That’s despair for you. Let’s not go into the rest. Once we begin to despair we don’t stop. I myself despair of the lampshade around four o’clock, I despair of the fan towards midnight, I despair of the cigarette smoked by men on death row. I know the general outline of despair. Despair has no heart, my hand always touches breathless despair, the despair whose mirrors never tell us if it’s dead. I live on that despair which enchants me. I love that blue fly which hovers in the sky at the hour when the stars hum. I know the general outline of the despair with long slender surprises, the despair of pride, the despair of anger. I get up every day like everyone else and I stretch my arms against a floral wallpaper. I don’t remember anything and it’s always in despair that I discover the beautiful uprooted trees of night. The air in the room is as beautiful as drumsticks. What weathery weather. I know the general outline of despair. It’s like the curtain’s wind that holds out a helping hand. Can you imagine such a despair? Fire! Ah they’re on their way … Help! Here they come falling down the stairs … And the ads in the newspaper, and the illuminated signs along the canal. Sandpile, beat it, you dirty sandpile! In its general outline despair has no importance. It’s a squad of trees that will eventually make a forest, it’s a squad of stars that will eventually make one less day, it’s a squad of one-less-days that will eventually make up my life.
Translated from the French by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow.
On writers, glass, Pliny the Elder, and the way families pass on their stories.
Since I started writing, I have sought forebears who might have had literary aspirations. Were there writers in the family? My great-uncle György, who was exiled to the Ukraine during World War II and afterward became a functionary in Hungary’s Communist government, was a novelist, but my father has always been dismissive of his work. He says György wrote a variety of socialist-realist novel that’s hard to take seriously, hard not to see as propaganda. His books have never been translated into English, and my Hungarian isn’t nearly good enough to understand what’s in them. The only existing copies I know of sit on a shelf in my Cousin Hajnal’s house in the Buda Hills. I don’t have the heart to ask to take them and have them translated. When I’ve asked her about them in the past, she’s simply said that they are books, yes, and that her father wrote them.
In their stead I have purchased rare used copies of two books written by Frederic Neuburg, author of a large trove of letters to my father’s Aunt Traute that he keeps in an old teak box in his house in Los Angeles. My father is not Bellow or Updike, and I am not the son of Bellow or Updike, but it is the book I have, in two editions, an art book containing photographs of Neuberg’s glass collection and extensive commentary on the pieces. Read More
- Feeling anxious? Depressed? Full of foreboding? Use fiction to overmaster your fears, and experience instant results. “In my books I get to create anxiety on my own terms. I can moderate fear and pass it on to other people. This creative, oddly communal form of anxiety feels very different from the kind I have in the back of my mind always—the fear about what will happen to my sight. There is something delicious—that’s the only word I can use to describe it—about recreating apprehension on the page.”
- Jennifer Lopez’s terrible new movie The Boy Next Door has inspired a misguided quest for first editions of the Iliad. “Lopez plays a divorced English literature high school teacher who has a one-night stand with her younger neighbor played by Ryan Guzman. In one scene, Guzman’s character gives Lopez a copy of The Iliad, which is described as a ‘first edition’ and apparently found for ‘a buck at a garage sale.’ ” Problems: no one knows for certain when the Iliad was even written. It was passed down by oral tradition first. It’s at least three thousand years old. It wasn’t composed in English for first publication in a handsome hardcover.
- On André Brink, a South African novelist who died last week: “Brink could write in a blocky, slightly cumbersome way, and some of his overlong later novels needed more editing. But the combination of his moral vision, psychological acuity, and insistent narrative force puts him, in my mind at least, in the company of Theodore Dreiser and Russell Banks.”
- I’m not sure if Victoria Sambunaris’s pictures amount to “a photographer’s version of the Great American Novel,” as the headline says they do—but they’re an affecting record of an American phenomenon: “the recurring sprawl of massive development and junctures where nature meets culture unexpectedly and surprisingly sublimely.”
- Supposedly, we’ve entered a new golden age for television, and for architecture, and some might say even journalism—what about art? “This is how we know precisely that we’re not in any Golden Age for visual art: There’s the spectacle of obsessive, laser-like bidding on lonely, singular canvasses by the few, but no broadly shared delight and conversation. ‘Excess of excellence’ or ‘intellectual credibility’ wouldn’t exactly be the first words from anyone in Contemporary art describing their own field, much less Miami art fairs.”
A poet’s misadventures in erotica.
I’ve written prose. I’ve written several novels that no one has seen. Well, one was published.
My Mother Taught Me, an erotic novel, wasn’t it?
It’s about sexuality. You have to understand, people were writing sex books but no one was writing them well. I thought pornography should be as much of a genre as cowboy stories. But pornography is boring. Childish. Unhealthy. I thought, Why not have a novel of sexuality that’s not paralyzed by the need for orgasm? So I wrote a good pornographic novel to show it could be done. An enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement. There were so many pornographic novels written; why weren’t they effective? A momentary spasm. Some people will have an orgasm if you say a dirty word or say, What he did to her body was . . . But what if you approach it as a real novel? The idea of entertainment intrigued me at the time—so I wrote one.
—The Art of Poetry No. 91, 2005
Jack Gilbert, who would’ve been ninety today, actually published two erotic novels: My Mother Taught Me and Forever Ecstasy, both coauthored with Jean Maclean and published under the opaque nom de porn Tor Kung. Olympia Press, a short-lived purveyor of smut and other wonders, foisted both titles upon the unsuspecting public, and in time they became the most requested books in the publisher’s oeuvre.
The premise of My Mother Taught Me, which appeared in 1967, is absurd, even farcical—and in its outlandishness, it seems designed to effect what Gilbert called “an enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement.” But what kind of enjoyment? Our hero is Lars, a naive Swedish schoolboy who was raised in an all-male orphanage. The place was so strict, so straitlaced, that Lars in his nonage had never so much as laid eyes on a woman—not even a photograph of a woman. Read More