- “Can a writer’s original inspiration survive success? Imagine you are Karl Ove Knausgaard at this point in his career … Why not enjoy success? Why not accept that you are a genius, if people insistently tell you that you are? One way or another, from this point on it will be hard to achieve the same concentration, the same innocence, when you return to the empty page and the next stage in a life story that is now radically transformed.”
- Today in dubious superlatives: Was 1925 really “the greatest year” in the history of literature? The BBC has declared it so. They searched “for a cluster of landmark books” and then asked if said books “continue to enthrall readers and explore our human dilemmas and joys in memorable ways”; 1925, with its Hemingway and its Fitzgerald and its Dos Passos and its Dreiser, came away the victor. But make no mistake: seeking the greatest year in literature is a fool’s errand, just as searching for the greatest minute in history would be.
- Sam Simon, who died this month, is responsible for much of the greatness of golden-age Simpsons episodes, though his collaborations with Matt Groening weren’t always smooth: “It was Simon’s insight that animation allowed The Simpsons to sprawl across a vast canvas, illustrating new locations and inventing characters through the multifold voice talents of the cast. The Springfield the Simpsons inhabit is a mini-world on to itself, with its own rich mythology and history.”
- The science behind “wordnesia,” a “common brain glitch” in which you can’t spell the simplest words and common language has a sheen of unfamiliarity to it: “Russell Epstein, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania … posits that these experiences may be linked to concepts described by psychologist William James … [who] contended that our conscious experiences are made up of components he referred to as the nucleus and the fringe.”
- On the criticism of Bernard Williams: “Williams says that philosophers have typically been motivated by two things: curiosity, and the desire to be helpful. He unhesitatingly gives priority to the former motive … Above all, philosophy offers reflective analysis of our concepts, and, through these and a study of their history, insight into who ‘we’ are. If philosophy is to contribute anything distinctive, however, all this must be carried out with clarity and rigor, and the aim of ‘getting it right’ must ‘be in place.’ ”
- Barbara Wildenboer’s sculptures meld the sprawl of a nervous system to the spines of books.
- Before he made his second “appearance” on The Simpsons in 2004, Thomas Pynchon made a few edits to the teleplay—he crossed out a pejorative line of dialogue about Homer’s ample posterior. “Homer is my role model,” he wrote in the margins, “and I can’t speak ill of him.”
- Walter Benjamin’s “vexed relationship with academia”: “Benjamin could do first-paragraph seduction with a vengeance; yet on the several occasions when certain essays were the key to a prestigious university post—when those powers of seduction would really have worked in his favor—what does he do? He goes in the opposite direction, producing dense thickets of prickly, forbidding verbiage. Today, there isn’t a university press anywhere in the world that wouldn’t kill to get the rights to publish those same contentious, rejected essays.”
- Now that so much of our media is stored in the Cloud, “the tide has turned against the collector of recordings, not to mention the collector of books: what was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding. One is expected to banish all clutter and consume culture in a gleaming, empty room.”
- From If Only He Knew: A Valuable Guide to Knowing, Understanding, and Loving Your Wife, a 1988 Christian relationship guide that seems to presume marriage is a total bummer: “While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation … Comfort her when she is down emotionally. For instance, put your arms around her and silently hold her for a few seconds without lectures or putdowns.”
- In which a Roald Dahl story moves a man to pursue beekeeping, a hobby that teaches us much about the nature of loyalty (and the loyalty of nature).
John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man … and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez
In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein
That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More
Every year, at our Spring Revel, we give three honors: the Hadada Prize, the Plimpton Prize, and the Terry Southern Prize. This year, John Hodgman of the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Show, and those Mac ads presented the Southern Prize to J. D. Daniels.
Like the other two honors, the Southern Prize is chosen by our board. Unlike those, it recognizes writing in both The Paris Review and The Paris Review Daily. Click here to see Daniels’s latest piece from the magazine and here for his Web archive.
My name is John Hodgman. It’s my pleasure tonight to hand over this B-52 model airplane, which represents the Terry Southern Prize, awarded each year along with $5,000 to honor work from The Paris Review that embodies the qualities of humor, wit, and sprezzatura, which sounds like a word Lorin Stein made up and put into the Wikipedia to describe himself—an artful nonchalant, carrying himself with a a cared-for carelessness.
They’re dispatches, and they feel that way, dashed off travelogues from corners of globe and memory, full of crafty rambling and quick jumps from his current home in the fancy eastern edge of Massachusetts to his first home in Kentucky, where J. D. counts out the strip malls and storefront churches and ghosts of bars lovingly like animals climbing aboard a blighted ark, to the vomit-slicked deck of an actual boat at sea, a pilgrimage he takes to leave both homes behind to fight it out while he watches Ibiza burn up in a wildfire.
And it may seem that in all this sprezzatura that his work is a little nonchalant; you don’t know what all these little flash narratives add up to, but then you’ll get one moment: a memory, say, of Daniels being strangled by his own father, whom he still loves, and the running from and returning to that moment, which he’s done ever since; you see a narrative flash like lightning, spreading quick blue light for a moment over the whole shadowy, tortured territory.
It doesn’t sound very funny, and it’s not very funny. Unless you count the part where J. D. Daniels gets strangled by his own father, which is hilarious; we know this from The Simpsons. And if you’re wondering why he’s getting the Terry Southern Prize for Humor it is because, like Southern, his work is sly, and wicked, and playful, and, most of all, it’s true.
People ask me why is the Daily Show funny and I usually say it’s because of the jokes. Because explaining humor is neither funny, fun, nor possible. But some jokes always work because they break taboos. That’s why dirty jokes work, as Albert Brooks discovered opening for Richie Havens; there’s one word you can say into a microphone that will always win over one thousand drunk Texan Richie Havens fans who hate you, and that word is a miracle word, and that word is shit. But when it comes to the Daily Show, and J. D. Daniels too, the greatest taboo-breaking is simply to say what is true, plainly, and without apology. That joke always works, even when it’s no joke. J. D. Daniels’s letters know intimately that space between the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves when we’re sitting on a bar, and the queasy, daylit truth that awaits us once we are kicked outside into the afternoon sun.
In a recent posting to The Paris Review Daily he wrote, “We know what comedy is: life is increased. Think of Rodney Dangerfield addressing the crowd at the end of Caddyshack: ‘Hey, everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!’” [Dirty joke.] And we know what tragedy is: isolation increases. I used to think that life was about winning everything, Mike Tyson once said, but now I know that life is about losing everything.”
So J. D. Daniels is a plain good writer, but not like every good writer, he is clear, he is also a very funny guy. And when he doesn’t make you laugh, it’s on purpose, and when he does, that’s on purpose, too. What better definition of humor is there?
So it’s my pleasure to offer the Terry Southern Prize to J. D. Daniels of Kentucky, Massachusetts, and the world. Congratulations, to him and to us all.
We’re all going to get laid.
I met Helen Simpson for a genial pub lunch near Dartmouth Park in North London on the day she received the American edition of In-Flight Entertainment: Stories. She was evidently quite pleased by the book’s spare but elegant design, which looks through an airplane window onto a locket of cerulean sky. I’m tempted to draw comparisons to her stories, many of which peek at other people’s blitheness, or cruelty, or dreams of escape. But nothing in Simpson’s fiction is quite as peaceful as that glimpse of blue. She is perhaps best known for the characterization of contemporary motherhood in her collections, but many of the stories in In-Flight Entertainment confront the prospect of climate change.
Your collections are never quite themed, but they do feel very painstakingly designed. Was that true for In-Flight Entertainment?
In-Flight Entertainment is my little climate-change suite, I suppose. But there are fifteen stories in it, and only five are about climate change. My only rule is to write about what’s interesting to me at the time. It’s a great subject, but it’s very hard to dramatize or to make particular, and not to hector, not to moralize.
There are plenty of experts in these stories. There’s Jeremy in the title story as well as amateur researchers like Angelika in “The Tipping Point” and G in “Diary of an Interesting Year.” They don’t seem to benefit from their knowledge.
Well, it alienates people from them. That’s the trouble. Did you ever watch that episode of The Simpsons shortly after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out? It is spoofed as An Irritating Truth. It is an irritating truth and no one wants to hear someone sounding off about it, and particularly not when they’re about to go on holiday.
Stories are good for uncomfortable things, for uncomfortable subjects. They’re not generally relaxing. Novels are more relaxing. You just give up to the novel, you go into its bath, you submit to it. You don’t with a story. You’re more alert as a reader, and more critical. If it doesn’t grab you by the second sentence, it’s done. Whereas with a novel, people will give it a couple of chapters before they abandon it. Read More