- John Jeremiah Sullivan on Shuffle Along, one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway: “The blacks-in-blackface tradition, which lasted more than a century in this country, strikes most people, on first hearing of its existence, as deeply bizarre, and it was. But it emerged from a single crude reality: African American people were not allowed to perform onstage for much of the nineteenth century. They could not, that is, appear as themselves … In Shuffle Along, two black people fell in love onstage, and [the journalist Les] Walton wanted to see how a white audience would handle this … What he expected to see was not rage or revolt but something more ambiguous, an occasional discomfort passing through the room, and perhaps at certain moments a holding-back too, on the part of the cast. ‘White audiences, for some reason,’ Walton wrote, ‘do not want colored people to indulge in too much lovemaking.’ ”
- Speaking of musicals: American Psycho is one now. When Bret Easton Ellis’s novel came out, in 1991, some bookstores refused to stock it. Times have changed. As Dwight Garner writes, “This novel was ahead of its time. The culture has shifted to make room for Bateman. We’ve developed a taste for barbaric libertines with twinkling eyes and some zing in their tortured souls … Reading Mr. Ellis’s novel today, the hysteria of 1991 is almost inexplicable to me. It’s apparent from the start that Patrick Bateman is a sendup of a blank Wall Street generation. He’s a male mannequin, the ultimate soulless product of a soulless time … Something has happened since 1991 to our response to violence, especially when it is seasoned with a shake of wet or, especially, dry humor. Increasingly inured to the mess, we’ve learned to savor the wit.”
- What about Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary? Was it, too, ahead of its time? Though its observations about youth and work have long been dismissed as pedestrian, the economy has made them radically prescient, as Daniel Wenger writes: “Two years before Sex and the City, Fielding offered a third-wave route around the battleground between love and power … Today, Bridget Jones needn’t be limited to the confines of its chick-lit designation. The notion that the equations of life do not add up is still a particular problem for women of all ages, but many young people, no matter their gender, will find some of Bridget’s story familiar. Within a couple of years of graduating college, Bridget would have found her job prospects threatened by the global recession of the late eighties and early nineties; even when we first meet her, she’s flitting from position to position. Millennials began joining the workforce in the wake of the Great Recession, and according to a 2014 Council of Economic Advisers report, the consequence is an almost epigenetic stain on professional lives.”
- Sometimes people talk about fiction and nonfiction, and I’m like, What’s really the difference, you know? And they sort of phumpher and mumble a bit before they throw their hands up. But a lot of us feel this way: “According to Geoff Dyer, who says his next book is ‘a mixture of both fiction and non- but will be published as non-,’ the strength of the distinction in anglophone culture has waxed and waned … The nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer blurred the lines again in the 1960s, he continues, and the boundary is ‘perhaps going through another porous phase right now’ … ‘You’d have to go back to the early nineteenth century or earlier to a time when “literature” referred to fiction and nonfiction rather than to a particular, highly regarded form of imaginative writing,’ he adds. Dyer cites Raymond Williams, who suggested that ‘the special regard in which fiction comes to be held … is probably connected to romanticism and the emphasis put on the imagination—which is itself a response to the rise of industrialization: a very fact-based process as Dickens emphasizes later in Hard Times.’ ”
- But why stop there? Why knock down the walls between genres when you can mount an assault on the separation between language and culture? On Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: “He argues that language, like everything else that matters to human beings, cannot be understood as a kind of semantic Lego, where we acquire individual words with firm, clear shapes and string them together to form sentences, paragraphs, essays, and books. Language is shaped by the culture that has produced it, which means that it, in turn, shapes those who go on to use it. Hence: ‘The basic thesis of this book is that language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life’ … He agrees that ‘speech is the expression of thought,’ but insists ‘it isn’t simply an outer clothing for what could exist independently.’ The broadly Wittgensteinian alternative he offers to this reductionism is a kind of holism, in which the meanings of words hang together in complex webs in which culture and semantics cannot be disentangled.”
Just yesterday, I snuck an advance-reader’s copy of Lorenzo Chiera’s Shards: Fragments of Verses, translated from the Italian by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, off a colleague’s bookshelf and devoured it on my subway ride home. The pocket-size book comprises delicious morsels of twelfth-century verse by an otherwise unknown fellow from Testaccio. Though the fragments—plucked from scratches on parchment paper or fiber sacks—are no more than a few lines each, they brim with raunch and grime and love. Chiera breathes sex into most verses, which are bound to make one blush with either delight or despair. Some read as playful winks, others as moans, and still others as desperate, carnal prayers. “Hearing Chiera for the first time,” Ferlinghetti writes in his introduction, “we soon realize we are in the presence of a savage erotic consciousness, as if the lust-driven senses were suddenly awakened out of a hoary sleep of a thousand years … He’s vulgar. He’s mad. He’s uncouth. Yet he is innocent.” Here’s a little taste of Chiera himself: “Sexy Nonny / in her silk nun’s habit / behind the arras / of the cult of the Virgin / stuck her tongue in my mouth / when I was fourteen / Made me cream.” —Caitlin Youngquist
I’ve never read any fan fiction, and I never made it all the way through Pretty Woman, so devotees of either may take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but I loved Michael Friedman’s novel Martian Dawn, all about a couple of movie stars (viz Richard and Julia) whose off-screen romance is strained by a visit to the Red Planet. No doubt half the jokes went over my head. It didn’t matter. Friedman’s urbane silliness and élan hark back to the glittering twilight of high camp—without seeming to hark back. Hats off to Little A for reissuing Martian Dawn and Other Novels. I didn’t know anyone could still make it look so easy to have so much fun on the page. —Lorin Stein
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E. B. White told this magazine in 1969. “Children are … the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”
We couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’re proud to announce The Paris Review for Young Readers, the first magazine that writes up to children. (No offense to Cricket or Highlights.) Imagine a space for children’s literature that doesn’t condescend, cosset, or coarsen; that’s free of easy jokes and derivative fantasy; that invites open discussion and abundant imagination. A space, in other words, that offers the same caliber of fiction, poetry, art, and interviews you expect from The Paris Review, for readers age eight to twelve.
Today marks the release of TPRFYR’s first issue, and we think the table of contents below speaks for itself. Among its poetry and fiction, you’ll find old classics and new favorites—plus some puzzles, quizzes, and advice columns inspired by literature. There’s a portfolio of drawings from Richard Scarry’s lost years, and, at the center of it all, an interview with Eric Carle, the author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. “A child is an almost platonic reader,” Carle says. “His imagination remains unbounded.” Read More
- More of Mavis Gallant’s diaries.
- “That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde, has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck.” No one spews contumely like Ambrose Bierce spews contumely.
- Bret Easton Ellis has written a script for Kanye West. Guess which one said of the other, “I really like him as a person”?
- So many movies, novels, and TV shows are set in prison—but do they depict it accurately?
- Meet the man who designed David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust outfits. “His interest in Central Asian fabrics led to a coat that can cause car accidents.”
- Fuck it—let’s go skiing.
The first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way was published almost exactly a hundred years ago. Its opening lines make one thing inescapably apparent: Proust’s style is inimitable; there is much more to it than long sentences, pauses for reminiscence and brittle cookie breaks, and whatever other tropes readers have associated with Proust. It is a style that tussles with our notion of literary temporality itself. Over the last century, countless translators have struggled with these famous opening lines:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: « Je m’endors. »
Nobody seems to be able to agree whether to translate the verb of the principal clause as a conditional or a past participle, because while in French it is obviously the latter, it seems to act as the former. We’ve had various degrees of “went to bed early,” “used to go to bed early,” “would go to bed early,” each meaning more or less the same thing, but none hitting the nail directly on the head.
Scholars have found these lines, at once, undeniably charming and a huge pain to work with.
But in this seemingly untranslatable sentence, even among translators—whose very job it is to take troublesome idioms and phrases and grammatical twists and make them legible and appropriate, and to do so by imparting as much of Proust’s style and as little of their own as possible—there is so much variety that it raises another important question: How would this sentence have been handled by other writers? Read More
In 1974, David Esterly was pursuing a career as an academic when he encountered a limewood carving by the seventeenth-century master Grinling Gibbons. He gave up English literature, devoted himself to the art of high-relief carving, and in the process became not merely the foremost Gribbons expert, but a master carver himself. The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making details Esterly’s restoration of a Gribbons drop at Hampton Court, but it is more than this. “I was apprenticed to a phantom, and lived among mysteries,” he writes of that time, and the memoir is indeed as much about engagement with the past, and the preservation of ancient arts, as it is one man’s journey. If you are in New York, through January 18, you can see Esterly’s intricate and beautiful work on display at W. M. Brady and Co. —Sadie Stein
No matter how hard you try, you can’t help but stare at a train wreck, and Stephen Rodrick’s behind-the-scenes New York Times Magazine profile of Paul Schrader’s film The Canyons fills the guilty-pleasure, sweet-tooth fix quite nicely. A director desperate for a hit; a screenwriter (Bret Easton Ellis) more concerned with waging social-media jihads than actually writing; a porn star (James Deen) with a sensitive side; a budget that wouldn’t cover Kanye West’s ego; and, of course, Hollywood’s favorite child-star-turned-TMZ-punchline Lindsay Lohan: while this equation might not add up to a box office hit, it’s a fascinating look at the absurdity of Hollywood filmmaking. To see what’s become of the film so far, check out the trailer. —Justin Alvarez