- I speak only English, so I write in English, too. And though for years this seemed to me the natural state of affairs, it might just be that I’m economically and politically undiscerning. As Tim Parks writes, “Ever since Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words, her small memoir in Italian, people have been asking me, Why don’t you write in Italian, Tim? You’ve been in the country thirty-five years, after all. What keeps you tied to English? Is it just a question of economic convenience? … But beyond any understandable opportunism, there is often a genuine idealism and internationalism in the decision to change language. If you have ‘a message’ and if English is the language that offers maximum diffusion, then it would seem appropriate to use it. In the 1950s, the rebellious and free-spirited Dutch novelist Gerard van de Reve felt that the Dutch language and culture was simply not open enough and not big enough for an artist with important things to say. Van de Reve moved to England in 1953, dropped the exotic ‘van de’ from his surname, and set about writing in his adopted language … Writing in another language is successful when there is a genuine, long-term need to switch languages (often accompanied by serious trauma), and when the new linguistic and social context the author is moving in meshes positively with his or her ambitions and talents.”
- Sup, speed reader? You think you’re so cool, with your fast retinas and your fancy apps. I think you’re a fraud. And the Gray Lady has my back: “In fact, since the 1960s, experiments have repeatedly confirmed that when people ‘speed read,’ they simply do not comprehend the parts of the text that their eyes skip over. A deeper problem, however—and the one that also threatens the new speed-reading apps is that the big bottleneck in reading isn’t perception (seeing the words) but language processing (assembling strings of words into meanings). Have you ever tried listening to an audio recording with the speaking rate dialed way up? Doubling the speed, in our experience, leaves individual words perfectly identifiable—but makes it just about impossible to follow the meaning. The same phenomenon occurs with written text.”
- Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe wrote, respectively, the first book in English by a woman and the first autobiography in English by a woman. Their manuscripts are being shown together at the Wellcome Center, but only one of them has a discovery story involving Ping-Pong. “Only one known manuscript exists of Margery Kempe’s story: its whereabouts were unknown from around 1520 until the 1930s, when it was discovered in the cupboard of a country house during a game of Ping-Pong. One of the players stepped on the ball and while searching for another, the Book of Margery Kempe manuscript fell out of a cupboard.”
- Meanwhile, in Culver City: a pair of sisters have opened the first-ever “exclusively romance brick-and-mortar bookstore.” “The Ripped Bodice is a clean, well-lit place, devoted to the many subgenres of romance, such as cowboys, aliens, Vikings, biker dudes, and the paranormal. There’s also a large erotic section, a Spanish-language area, and plenty for young adults, as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer communities. In the historical section, books include Jane Austen spin-offs and romantic tales among tartan-clad Scottish highlanders. ‘Love can come in many forms,’ says Bea, twenty-six, with a smile.”
- In which Emma Cline offers a tour of her writing room, an old garden shed in Brooklyn one block from the Gowanus Canal: “It reminds me of the cruddy little outbuildings I saw a lot of growing up in Northern California—the sloping floor, the amateur carpentry. We still haven’t finished the ceiling and it’s been three years … The best thing about working in such a small room, especially one without Internet access, is the sense of compression, a winnowing down to the essential things. Even one other person makes the space feel crowded. There’s really not very much to do in here but write, or nap on the air mattress in the loft.”
When The Paris Review last interviewed Mark Leyner, in 2013, he announced his next book. “Gone with the Mind is my autobiography in the form of a first-person-shooter game,” he said. “You’ll have to blast your way back into my mother’s womb.”
Now, three years later, Gone with the Mind has arrived, and it’s … almost nothing like that. The autobiographical elements are intact, yes, and Leyner’s mother appears early and often—but the notion of a first-person shooter is unceremoniously jettisoned on page forty-six. (“Pretty much everyone I mentioned it to thought it sounded really cool, but what is that, actually? What would a book like that actually be, y’know?”) In its place is a loose frame story in which Leyner appears at the Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series at Woodcreek Plaza Mall, where he reads before a crowd of precisely three: a Panda Express employee on break, a Sbarro employee on break, and his mom.
The introductory speech he gives comprises the bulk of Gone with the Mind, a discursive farrago that touches on Freudian mother-son dynamics, constructivist aesthetics, fascist metaphysics, Twizzlers, women’s antiperspirant commercials, prostate cancer, and formative episodes from his youth. In earlier novels, Leyner cast himself as a paranoid egomaniac (Et Tu, Babe) or a feckless, oversexed adolescent (The Tetherballs of Bougainville), but the Mark Leyner we meet in these pages is transparent, erudite, self-deprecating, even tender. This is an autobiography that dramatizes its own creation—the pathos in attempting to express “the chord of how one feels at single given moment, in this transient, phantom world.”
I met Leyner at Marco & Pepe, a restaurant in Jersey City, where he arrived with a copy of Gershom Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism tucked under his arm. We began our conversation by learning, courtesy of our waitress, what a Portuguese muffin is.
So it sounds kind of like an English muffin, but bigger.
Does that mean anything called Portuguese is just a bigger variant of the English version?
Yes. Portuguese-breakfast tea is just a vat of English-breakfast tea. Anyway—it’s been three years since your last interview with the Review. I gather there’s been a sort of formalist struggle for you since then.
I waited on the idea for this book for a very long time. It’s important to me that each book is starting from scratch. I’m trying to think of a vital, unprecedented idea for a book that I haven’t seen. It’s not because I’m so ambitious—it’s just the way I’ve always worked. I have a feeling it comes from my being most engaged and inspired by visual artists when I was younger. Duchamp, Picabia, all the Cubists, Apollinaire and his people, André Breton, his people. And then all the great Abstract Expressionists, whom I adore still. I’m a big Clement Greenbergian. I’m a high formalist. I would always say that when, back in the day, people talked about postmodernism and things. I thought, No, I’m a card-carrying modernist, and I’m proud to say it. I approached this book in a formal way. How does one represent an autobiography, which in itself is a representation of confabulated memories? I began thinking about my mother—the meals we used to have at various restaurants and how we’ve always been so keen to make an audience out of each other. And that’s one of the really fundamental themes of this book—how intimates make audiences of each other. I really do think there’s a reading of this book that sees it as just me and my mom talking, and the rest of it being some kind of wonderful filigreed delusion—this pathetic event. Read More
- Today in things you didn’t know you wanted: scenes from Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, reconstructed with Legos. Throw in some gravlax on an IKEA plate and you’d have a veritable orgy of Scandinavian exports.
- Ever wondered what a corporate bookstore in the UK looks like? Well, friend, you needn’t book a flight to London just to check out a Waterstones. Alice Spawls went to one recently, and it wasn’t pretty: “Gifts now seem to take up as much space as books, at least on the tables, where the prettiest paperbacks are distributed among Orla Kiely pots and enamel cups … Something is working, because digital sales are down and those of paper and glue books are up, but the ephemera isn’t only disguising the books, it’s disguising the rise of the non-book book … Books can function as gift objects, lifestyle signifiers, thematic attributes; they can be non-book products too, word-based diversions, color-me distractions, bucket lists, how-tos, extensions of celebrity brands. Putting something between two covers doesn’t make it a book, and putting them on shelves doesn’t make a bookshop.”
- Poor Kafka. Even beer, which many German men have turned to in times of need, proved fraught for him: “His most joyous—and meaningful—memories of beer were of the drinking sessions he shared with his father. But these memories were also inextricably allied with the twin sites of his childhood humiliation … [His father] Hermann was a blustering bully. But the deeper problem was that father and son had such different personalities, they were like slapstick antagonists. Hermann the confident and coarse shopkeeper vs. the timid Franz, who worked in insurance (Hermann derided it as a Brotberuf, or ‘bread job’), wrote weird stories in his room, became a vegetarian, and showed no interest whatsoever in the family dry-goods store … The only time his father had a word of praise for him, wrote Kafka, was when ‘I was able to eat heartily or even drink beer with my meals’ … Beer made everything better.”
- Christina Crosby, a professor at Wesleyan, suffered a devastating bike accident that left her paralyzed. Her memoir A Body, Undone eschews the clichés of disability narratives; instead, as Michael Weinstein writes, Crosby lavishes “brutal detail on the pain of her post-accident body—of finding her sphere of movement and sensation contracted down to almost nothing—and on the slow, excruciating process of navigating her quadriplegic body’s new limits. She describes waking to find her frame cobbled together and held in place by a man-made exoskeleton: ‘My mouth was full of metal, arch bars that ran from side to side to keep the roof of my mouth from caving in—somehow the bits of bone that had been my chin were pinned together, as were other bones in my face—and I wore a very high, tight, and rigid cervical collar around my neck. I could not turn my body or sit up. I could not move my legs or feet. I could not lift my arms or use my hands, which were uselessly curled up into loose fists by atrophying muscles and tightening ligaments.’ An entire chapter is devoted to describing Crosby’s bowel program, while half of another chapter discusses her intestinal gas.”
- Jennifer Moxley on poetry, prizes, and poverty: “The poet needs money to live, but the poem needs only a reader. Which is more difficult to secure? In the history of the West, in some perverse way, a poet’s integrity has long been bound up with periodic privation, in love, in luck, in money. Publicare, the Latin root of the English ‘to publish,’ means also ‘to prostitute,’ to make public and ask money for what should remain private, whether your thoughts or your body. Perhaps the whiff of shame in making money from poetry comes from this etymological association, and drives poets to claim penury as their excuse.”
There’s something profoundly sad about being surrounded by books and unable to find anything to read. It feels like a failure: yours, society’s, the universe’s. It can happen in a poorly stocked library branch, a failing bookstore, an airport newsstand. And it’s a horrible feeling. Read More
I love bookstores, but there’s something that needs to be said: they’re often filled with lurking creeps. True, creeps lurk everywhere, certainly in New York City, and true, bookstores are also filled with wonderful people who love to read and are interested in things other than making strangers uncomfortable. This should go without saying. But just as a book gives an aspiring interlocutor a better opening than an inscrutable mobile device—“Are you a student?” “What are you reading?” “Is that a novel of old Paris?” (granted this last was an isolated situation)—so, too, does the tangible presence of large numbers of books embolden a certain subset. Read More
Not long ago, the Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore—one of New York’s increasingly rare single-topic booksellers—shut its doors. And now its longtime proprietor, Arnold Greenberg, has died at eighty-three. Read More