- Houellebecq’s Submission features many an excursus on Joris-Karl Huysmans, the nineteenth-century French writer of whom Houllebecq himself has said, “I think he could’ve been a real friend to me.” What was Huysmans’s MO? His novel À rebours, which tells of “a nature-hating aesthete named Jean des Esseintes,” has an approach to desire and spiritual malady that feels strikingly on point, even in 2015: “Subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Plot,’ the narrative concerns des Esseintes’s attempts to furnish and decorate a country home where he will be able to live without ever again having to deal with the outside world … He gets turned on by locomotive engines: their steaming, sweating loins girdled in glittering copper corsets; their disheveled manes of black smoke; their horns’ muffled, impassioned cries … Huysmans’s prose isn’t just purple: it’s ultraviolet. Everything in À Rebours is tumefied and syphilitic, damasked with ennui, liver-spotted with arcane longings.”
- In which Gay Talese slips on a pair of virtual-reality goggles, and balks: “But this doesn’t interest me in the least! … You know why? You know why? It’s the sort of stuff you see in a documentary, but there’s no insight into the situation, into the characters … It’s just a bunch of scenes … Television is driven by imagery … There will be a lead on a slow night, the networks will lead with a forest fire in Topanga California—great visual scenes—or a bombing of Baghdad. Anything that shows you color, smoke, fire, bullets, dodging gets on because it’s visual, but you don’t get anything … There has to be face to face confrontation between the writer and the subject, and the writer has to be able to cultivate something from the subject to get something approximate to the truth of the subject.”
- What does a debate about the abridgment of Moby-Dick tell us about reading on the Internet? Oh, nothing terribly encouraging: “Countless readers have run aground on Melville’s mountain of details on the art of whaling, or have been left behind as he plunges, like his Catskill eagle, into philosophical realms, but it is precisely in these passages where his real appeal resides … It is rather quaint to locate the manifestation of our collective ruin in a British publisher of abridgments, which have been around nearly as long as novels themselves … Thanks to the oceanic expanses of the web, there is no need to condense or abridge anything anymore, at least not for want of space … This would appear to be a problem. And it is one that is likely to get worse.”
- Today in techno prophesy: a bunch of smart interdisciplinary types got together and decreed that by the year 2100, “libraries will be both highly distributed and deeply connected, sharing a single collection as they work to meet the emerging demands of their individual communities.” As for the physical books in the libraries, they’ll probably disappear, but only a fuddy-duddy would mourn their loss. “Library isn’t etymologically related to books at all, deriving instead from a Latin word for the smooth inner bark of a tree. It was, in this sense, a thing on which one might write rather than a storehouse of what had already been written. Whatever they become … libraries will retain that original implication, always ‘spaces for creation or curiosity,’ even if they leave the books behind.”
- Meanwhile, in a concrete bunker seventeen feet underground, the New York Public Library is preparing to store vast, high-density reserves of print: “a new retrieval system [will] ferry the volumes and other materials from their eighty-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts … Books will be stacked by height and tracked by bar code rather than by a subject-based system, making for some odd bookfellows … The climate-controlled repository encompasses more than 110,000 square feet … It stretches from beneath the back wall of the main building, which fronts Fifth Avenue, a full block west to Sixth Avenue, and from 42nd Street to 40th Street.”
Sleep doesn’t always come easy for me, so I was drawn to Linda Pastan’s new collection of poems just from its title: Insomnia. Pastan muses on the daydreams the sleepless have at night, the small histories that emerge as each day wanes. Her narrators sit up wishing their gnarled skin was as beautiful as an apple tree’s, or remembering the “fascinated nightmares” the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward inspired. They think about Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and the poet Roland Flint and the way asteroids resemble giant brains plucked from their skulls. Though the title suggests otherwise, Pastan writes oneirically, knitting gentle verse together with playful, if often somber, scenes. In “Counting Sheep,” Pastan writes of how restless the sheep are, waiting to be added up: “I notice a ram / pushing up against a soft and curly female … It’s difficult / to keep so many sheep / in line for counting … ” In “Insomnia: 3 AM,” “Sleep has stepped out / for a smoke / and may not be back”—I just love that. —Caitlin Youngquist
Jim Shaw’s “The End Is Here” is up through January 10 at the New Museum: three floors chockablock with thrift-store paintings, extreme Christian ephemera, and Shaw’s own distinctly outré drawings, paintings, and collages. J. Hoberman has written that “although [Shaw’s] obsessive faux naïve work dares you to find it creepy, it is more often strangely cheerful, as well as enigmatic.” This holds true no matter how outrageous his images are: two aliens fucking on a UFO flight deck, Santa getting his dick bitten off. Shaw’s is a world where even an exsanguinated penis is nothing more than a lark; Freudians need not apply. Then there’s the artist’s collected stuff—from junk piles and yard sales, Shaw has compiled some significant American detritus, and his arrangements make it all more cohesive than you’d expect. Stick around long enough and even the titles for his dream drawings start to make sense: “I was drawing a Pepsi sex float … ” “In Reno there was a Titanic mockup where a girl … ” “I think I was half awake when I thought of this upright piano modeled after the cave monster from It Conquered the World … ” —Dan Piepenbring Read More
- When he was in his early seventies and gravely ill, Goya began a series of private drawings, full of piss and vinegar and intended to amuse his friends—among them were pictures of naked witches, newborn babies tied to poles, and a procuress fingering her rosary and slugging some rotgut. “The captions are minimal: ‘Monk,’ ‘Nothing is known of this,’ ‘I can hear snoring’ … Goya’s drawings may leave us up in the air, filled with a disquieting unease. Yet in the end, the witches and old people are tokens of life, not death—even the tired, ancient man shuffling on his sticks, mockingly captioned Just can’t go on at the age of 98.”
- By piecing together years of letters, diaries, and newspapers, one scholar believes she’s discovered the man who inspired Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy. She noted, for instance, “that the physical similarities between the Earl and the description of Darcy are ‘obvious,’ with the former looking ‘very intense.’ ” An airtight case.
- In Park Slope, Brooklyn, for thirty-five years, a gated storefront hid an artist’s studio. “Behind the black gate was a world of color, hundreds of abstract works created and hidden away by Mr. [Leo] Bates, who had a promising start as a painter in the 1970s before renouncing the art world and retreating to his storefront to paint.”
- Eight rare books, including one by Benjamin Franklin, had long-ago disappeared from the New York Public Library. A woman who recently tried to sell them to an auction house “said the books have been in her family for decades, and there’s no proof that her late parents obtained the books illegally.”
- Everyone loves a good sentence—and clauses, subordinate or not, are beloved throughout the land—but what of the paragraph, that other indispensible unit of prose? Why do we speak so often of “a great writer of sentences” and so rarely of “a great writer of paragraphs”?
The Paris Review has recently published two stories by Ben Lerner, who won our Terry Southern Prize this year: first was “False Spring” (issue 205) and then “Specimen Days” (issue 208). Both are excerpts from his excellent new novel 10:04. If you’ve opened a newspaper or book review in the past month, you’ve likely encountered rhapsodic praise for 10:04. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Mr. Lerner packs so much brilliance and humor into each episode … this brain-tickling book imbues real experiences with a feeling of artistic possibility, leaving the observable world ‘a little changed, a little charged.’” In The Times, Dwight Garner wrote that Lerner is “among the most interesting young American novelists at present,” and in Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen called 10:04 “a beautiful and original novel … it signals a new direction in American fiction.” NPR said that it’s “strange and spectacular … Don’t even worry about classifying it; just let Lerner’s language sweep you off your feet.”
And why not let that sweeping happen in person? Next Tuesday, September 16, Lerner will appear at the New York Public Library in conversation with Paul Holdengräber—it’s sure to be an expansive interview, and we’re giving away two front-row seats. (For proof of Holdengräber’s conversational acumen, check out his Art of Nonfiction interview with Adam Phillips, which we published in our Spring issue.)
For a chance to win, retweet our announcement below before three P.M. EST today. We’ll select two winners at random. Bonne chance!
We have two free front-row tickets to Tuesday’s @LIVEfromtheNYPL event with Ben Lerner. Retweet by three P.M. EST today for a chance to win!
— The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 12, 2014
While browsing the New York Public Library’s menu archives—a fine way to pass a few hours—a friend of mine ran across this document, from a 1919 insurance pamphlet called “Why Read?”, and rightly supposed it would be of interest to me.
It feels like something out of Sinclair Lewis, but it’s both touching and instructive. I feel about it the way I do those signs in restaurant bathrooms. “All Employees Must Wash Hands,” they say. And I always want to add, “But really, everyone should.” Especially Lectures on Fire Insurance.
Last night, I attended a talk at the New York Public Library between Paul Holdengräber and George Prochnik, the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World. Three different publishers were involved; the room was packed and attentive. In the mysterious way of such things, Stefan Zweig is, after some sixty years of obscurity in the United States, having A Moment. Wes Anderson helps, of course; Grand Budapest Hotel was a tribute to Zweig’s work, and is the cause of much of the renewed interest. But that someone like Zweig—once the toast of the international literati—came to Anderson’s attention in the first place shows signs of the mysterious forces that create such ebbs and flows. What makes a trend? Maybe it has a bit to do with something Prochnik said last night: no one can engage in the work of biography without at least some belief in ghosts.
Spiritualism aside, I am told that the trends for 2014 encompass everything: chocolate-chip-cookie milk-shots, dressing like superheroes, indie crossover R&B. There seem to be a great many cozy dystopias appearing in films. I won’t even speculate on apps. Or exercise.
I can’t tell you why these things have found such popularity. Certainly, I can tell you anecdotally that all of a sudden everyone seems to be reading Stoner, by John Williams. We appreciate good weather as we never have, but we are wary of being made fools of. It is hard to buy clothing, even cheap clothing, without filtering everything through something intellectual. It is okay to talk about insurance, sometimes. I don’t know if it is a product of these ghostly forces, but for the first time in my life I have felt an irresistible urge to drink sidecars. All I know is that in order for these things to take any kind of hold, they must feel like revelations to someone, if only for a moment, before they pretend that they knew all along and then have to reject it as obvious. Is that occult? Read More