There is a Joni Mitchell live album called Miles of Aisles, recorded while she was on tour in 1974. Caught on the recording is her response—in a slightly Dylan-esque posture—to the crowd’s wild chanting for a particular number. She complains that other artists don’t have to deal with this kind of crap: “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ ” I think she’s wrong, though. The anticipation for Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Second Place, has been as close to feverish as we get in certain circles, and it is in part because Cusk answers the call to “paint a Starry Night again” so well. Much has been said in the past weeks about what we particularly want from Cusk and why. In fact, if you are a person who reads The Paris Review’s staff picks, you have likely read two or three meditations on the subject. Whatever it is we want from her, Second Place delivers in spades. And with the dynamism of a truly great writer, the novel seems written just for the spring of 2021 but was actually inspired by the memoir of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a patron who played host to D. H. Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico, in 1932. In Second Place, it is late spring on the English coast. Our narrator and her second husband invite a world-famous artist—now out of fashion—to use the second place on their property. He ends up arriving with a youngish woman of no defined role or position. If the opposition of these two relationships didn’t create enough refraction, our narrator’s daughter from a previous marriage and the daughter’s boyfriend come to stay as well. Cusk gives us three “stages of women,” leaving hints of female truths I’ll carry for the rest of my life, and no small amount of lush, threatening scenery. The Starry Night, I learned recently, was not universally loved at first. Only with the dedication of Van Gogh’s sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who peddled his troubled genius to the world, did we end up with refrigerator magnets and mouse pads. Although it’s in every job description, creativity is hard to see and harder to live with. We are taught to want it and fear it in equal measure. Among many other things, Cusk shows us this in Second Place, and I hope she never does it quite the same way again. —Julia Berick Read More
Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for virtual Undset-themed drinks on Friday, June 4, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, visit our events page, or scroll down to the bottom of the article.
The most common food in the medieval historical romance Kristin Lavransdatter, written by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), is oatmeal porridge, a dish I made elaborate perfection of during my children’s early years. The porridges in Undset’s book are good and nourishing but plain (though in one scene, a young Kristin eats hers with “thick cream” off her father’s spoon). Mine, on the other hand, were ridiculous. I blitzed half the oats in the baby-food blender before cooking. I tried different combinations of milk and water. I made fruit puree swirls. I had a two-year-old daughter, an infant son, and an office job, to which I fled every day in great relief to get a moment to myself and then struggled not to leak breast milk on my work clothes. My husband was unhelpful with the children. Childless people found my travails boring and embarrassing. I’d never thought being a woman mattered much, but suddenly it seemed to. I was miserable, and perfecting the oatmeal made me feel better.
Kristin Lavransdatter, which unfolds over the course of three volumes—The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross—is a woman’s story. It’s also a gripping read and an impressive feat of historical re-creation, which helped Undset win the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. The epic’s structural and textual allusions are so numerous that, as the professor Sherrill Harbison dryly remarks in her introduction to The Cross, they “show no signs of being exhausted by scholars.” (She also—correctly, I feel—thinks the book is overlooked.) When writing Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset drew from sagas, ballads, Scandinavian oral tradition, and medieval texts of all types, notably the allegory Le roman de la rose, to tell the tale of a woman in the early fourteenth century, a time when society was changing for women, who takes her newish right to consent to her own marriage a step further and demands her own choice of husband. Not accidentally, Undset was writing in the 1920s, another time of rapid social change. Read More
When I was first beginning to teach, in graduate school, a friend of mine with more experience in the classroom told me about a study she’d come across. I can’t say whether this study actually exists. I’ve never looked for it, and it strikes me now as one of those well-traveled anecdotes that’s been passed from hand to hand, accumulating more baggage along the way, like blockchain. The study, she told me, found that students who were asked to evaluate their instructor five seconds into the first class of the semester gave more or less the same rating as they did at the end of the term. The instructor who was liked upon entering the room was still liked three months later. The instructor who appeared severe had not managed to change any minds.
Despite its implicit fatalism, my friend claimed that she found the study’s conclusion solacing. Once you accepted that your character was immediately transparent, there was no pressure to keep up appearances. If I felt nervous about how I was coming off throughout the semester, she advised, I should remember that the students’ minds were already made up. They’d had me figured out before I’d placed my supplies on the desk the first day, and nothing I could do would change it.
This is among the more deranged bits of advice I have received in my life. More than once, her words have popped into my head as I’ve approached a lectern or shaken someone’s hand for the first time. What is it that others discern so conclusively in those five seconds? It seemed to me a parable about the limits of self-knowledge. We spend our lives trying to figure out what kind of person we are, but others can understand us, in our entirety, at a glance. Read More
In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
I first came across the poet and short story writer Frances Bellerby’s fiction when I was working on my Ph.D. My subject was sibling relationships in mid-twentieth-century British literature, and some dusty avenue of research led me to Bellerby—a name I had not come across before and haven’t since, bar this article on the treasure trove that is the Neglected Books website—quite a few of whose short stories feature brother-and-sister pairs. Ultimately, I didn’t reference her work in my finished thesis, but neither did I forget some of the haunting images therein. Two children in the gloaming, the descending darkness bringing with it a premonition of war. The strange out-of-body experience of a child—a reaction to witnessing a horrible accident—that momentarily renders her unable to identify the scratched and bloody hand in front of her as her own, caught on blackberry brambles. Or simply the tableau of a cozy drawing room on a winter’s evening, seen through the eyes of a child for whom it’s usually out of bounds, a fire roaring in the grate, the heavy curtains drawn against the cold night outside, and a striking blue vase filled with brilliant bronze chrysanthemums.
Returning to Bellerby’s stories this year, I was relieved to discover that they’re every bit as remarkable as I’d remembered. All the more so, in fact, when I learned how the death of her beloved brother, Jack—killed, age eighteen, in World War I—influenced much of what she wrote. Sadly, Jack’s death was only the first in a series of tragedies that blighted a life marked by considerably more pain and suffering—both physical and psychological—than anyone should be expected to bear, let alone spin into accomplished, poignant writing. As fellow poet Charles Causley wrote on the occasion of Bellerby’s death, in 1975, she was “a true original.” Read More
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Penelope Lively, The Art of Fiction No. 241
Issue no. 226 (Fall 2018)
If I hadn’t got a book on the go, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Even during the times I’m not actually writing, I’m going over it in my mind, when I’m gardening or the like, wondering whether I’m getting such-and-such a character right or whether there’s a problem here or there.
In Lee Lai’s debut graphic novel, Stone Fruit, a queer couple navigates personal and familial struggles between joyful and imaginative playdates with their six-year-old niece, Nessie. Through black-and-gray illustrations, Lai captures the complex emotional tenor of Bron and Ray’s relationship with Nessie, their respective sisters, and each other. In the excerpt below, an afternoon with Nessie’s fun aunts is cut short by a phone call.