Manhattan on the Seine

The Paris Review (four times a year)
October 17, 1997

The Paris Review is perhaps the only purely literary journal with the confidence to invite life subscriptions. Founded in 1953 as an expatriate American enterprise based in Paris it has published a remarkable 143 quarterly issues of between 200-300 pages devoted to the publication of new writing and interviews with outstanding practitioners of the craft. Despite the review's longevity, founding editor George Plimpton (still in post) makes its genesis sound fairly casual. It was planned to bring out a Paris-based imitation of The New Yorker but "its editors, Peter Matthiessen and Harold L. Humes, were so impressed by the strength of a story submitted by their friend Terry (Southern) that they decided to scrap The New Yorker imitation and start a literary magazine".

Something of Southern's iconoclasm, his debunking of the politically correct (avant la lettre) is still, I think, a component of the editorial ethos of the Review. In contrast to its slightly sedate appearance, hardly altered from the original issue (except by the introduction of new technology), it is hospitable to new, experimental and often quite demanding poetry and fiction "which makes no concession to public taste". It eschews editorials, book reviews, letters and literary criticism, implicitly endorsing William Styron's view expressed in its first issue: "the literary magazines seem today on the verge of doing away with literature, not with any philistine bludgeon but by smothering it under the weight of learned chatter." The Paris Review's resolutely noncommercial approach is wryly noticed by Garrison Keillor in a recent interview: "I'm glad that sales of my books have now dropped to where serious literary journals now take an interest in me."

The inclusion of a writer like Keillor in a recent special issue on humour, "Whither Mirth?", seems to signal a slight lightening of the tone, a willingness to give serious consideration to more accessible forms of writing. The current issue, for example, includes interviews with John le Carre and Jan Morris, espionage and travel literature being relatively new departures for this journal. Along with the densely imagistic poetry of Hawaii-based writer and translator, W. S. Merwin (a regular contributor over many years) are witty neoclassical poems by William Logan and a superbly crafted story by Joyce Carol Oates. Among the many other contributions are new translations of verse by Michelangelo, extracts from James Salter's forthcoming memoirs and reminiscences about Truman Capote, a demandingly pleasurable miscellany not untypical of the Review's recent issues.

The Paris Review moved from Paris to New York in 1974 and, although the whiff of Gauloises is now less pronounced, its provenance is recalled in an unchanged frontispiece by William P ne du Bois (the original art editor). It depicts a panoramic view of Paris looking across the Seine to the Louvre. One can even discern a horse-drawn vehicle crossing the Pont Neuf. Crucially it is Paris viewed from the locus classicus of the exiled writer, the Left Bank, temporary home to such authors as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams and John Dos Passos (to mention only past Paris Review interviewees). This extraordinarily fecund generation of American writers was the point of departure for the journal. It inherits a tradition of literary modernism fostered by earlier expatriate journals, notably those short-lived but influential Paris-based reviews of the twenties, Pound's Exile, Margaret Anderson's The Little Review and Ford Madox Ford's The Transatlantic Review. The Paris Review, like them, is particularly concerned with the cultural cross-fertilisation between European and American writers. Above all, they share a high romantic view of literature as of value for its own sake. As W.H. Auden puts it, in a 1974 interview, "it's a poet's role to maintain the sacredness of language".

The range of new poetry published in the review is too varied and extensive to be easily summarised. Under the first poetry editor, Donald Hall, there tended to be more English poets. Gavin Ewart, George Barker, Thom Gunn, Peter Levi, Donald Davie and Christopher Hill have all contributed. Latterly there has been a greater emphasis on American poetry and on verse translated from a variety of languages (though relatively little from non-European languages). Inevitably the quality varies from the outstanding to the mediocre though seldom to the risible. Regular contributors have included Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Wilbur. All the fashions of postmodernism have been represented over the years from Allen Ginsberg's beat poems to Charles Olson's projective verse, concrete poems, visual poems, postconcrete semiotics, O'Hara's small-scale confessional poems. In the hands of less able practitioners, and particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, the poetry contributions sometimes teeter over the edge into absurdity. It is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for minute reflections on smoking a cigarette or boiling an egg, or to devote time to pondering the implications of poems like (and I quote its entirety):

There is a bed

that is far-away

and I will sleep in it again

some day.

The problem is summed up by John Hall Wheelock (in an interview): "no one cares or knows anything about poetry except the poets themselves. Since the poets don't expect anyone else to read them, many of them have devised a way of communicating with one another through their poems and readers often find such poetry difficult."

Some of the translated work is of a very high order. Norman MacAffee and Luciano Martinengo render into English a superb longish elegy "The Ashes of Gramsci" by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Lewis Hyde's translations of the Nobel-winning Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre are also memorable.

Nadine Gordimer had some of her earliest fiction published in The Paris Review and John Cheever admits to being supported by The New Yorker for years, a reminder of the crucial role of literary journals in providing a preliminary idea for the new writer; of whether anyone considers them worth reading. Paris Review fiction ranges from the very short story (some are less than a page long) to the novella. Harry Mathew's highly complex novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium was serialised over a number of issues. Past contributors have included Donald Barthelme, Christina Stead, William Styron and William Burroughs. Translated stories are occasionally included. As with the poetry, there is an emphasis upon experimental work, some of which would not easily find a commercial publisher.

One is struck by the journal's lack of interest in anglophone writing outside of America and Britain. There are, it is true, rare contributions from expatriate writers of Commonwealth origin including some poems by Derek Walcott (who divides his time between the US and his native St Lucia), a short story by V. S. Naipaul and one by Ben Okri, but otherwise the lacuna is astonishing in a journal that describes itself as "the international literary journal". Perhaps writers from anglophone Africa, the Caribbean or the Indian subcontinent simply do not see this review as a likely destination for their work. Perhaps fewer writers from these areas of the world belong to the tradition of modernist experimentation - as Walcott puts it in a Paris Review interview: "My generation of West Indian writers (have) the privilege of writing about places and people for the first time and, simultaneously, having behind them the tradition of knowing how well it can be done - by a Defoe, a Dickens, a Richardson. Our world made us yearn for a structure as opposed to wishing to break away from it." Or do the editors subscribe to Harold Bloom's views on the primacy of the "western canon"? Without wishing to engage in what Jacques Derrida playfully calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion", it would be interesting to know.

Although the Review is not an academic journal in the usual sense, the interviews with leading writers collectively form an outstanding resource for students of modern literature, historians and biographers. Frequently writers are interviewed towards the end of their lives. Sometimes, as in the cases of John Berryman, James M. Cain and Jean Rhys, the interview is published posthumously. In one case, as George Plimpton recalls, "perhaps the last thing Thomas Mann ever heard on his deathbed was a Paris Review interviewer at his door". These inadvertent brushes with necrology seem to achieve their apotheosis in an attractive 1986 piece called "Permanent Parisians", being an illustrated guide to the tombs of writers in P re Lachaise, Montparnasse and Montmartre.

The famous interviews, starting with E. M. Forster in the first issue, are meticulously prepared and are sometimes the distillation of several days' conversation. They concentrate on writers' working methods, their views on the craft of writing, evaluation of their own work and that of their contemporaries and influences. Most of those interviewed agree with James M. Cain that writing "has to be learned but it can't be taught", a view amplified by the novelist Eudora Welty: "W.C. Fields read an analysis of how he juggled. He couldn't juggle for six years afterwards. He'd never known that was how it was done." Margaret Drabble claims that she was only aware that she could write when she reached her sixth novel, The Needle's Eye.

Fascinatingly these interviews explore the minutiae of the writer's craft, from William Styron's pain of getting started each day - "writing is hell" - to Steinbeck's fretting about paper and pencils and whether to smoke pipes or cigarettes. For the aspiring writer there is probably something reassuring in learning of the early neuroses of those who have gone on to climb to the pinnacle of fame. Christopher Isherwood admits: "I couldn't bear for there to be any erasures on the paper ... I used to scratch words out with a razor and then polish the paper with my thumbnail and write it in again." For most, it is a story of endless redrafting. Even so prolific a writer as Joyce Carol Oates spends lengthy periods staring at blank sheets of paper, while the Hebrew novelist, Amos Oz, writes only half a page "on a good day". Angus Wilson, who wrote his first novel in four weeks (as did John Hersey) is rather exceptional.

There are surprisingly few writers who claim any political or moral significance for their writing. "The history of poets pronouncing on public issues is notoriously dismal" is the view of the poet James Dickey. Joseph Heller pronounces the writer's "message" to be "as negligible as a teaspoon of salt in a large stew," while Auden, once regarded as the most engage of poets, concludes that an author's political stance only serves to "enhance his literary reputation amongst those who feel the same as he does". Amos Oz even uses a different pen for his novels from the one he uses for criticising the Israeli government. More politically minded writers such as Pablo Neruda or Simone de Beauvoir are curiously reticent on the point.

A large proportion of the younger writers supplement their incomes by teaching literature or creative writing, but many seem to regard criticism and reviewing as parasitic activities. John Updike quotes Ernest Hemingway on the literary scene in New York: "a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other". Attitudes to reviews vary considerably, from John Berryman's "I don't read my reviews. I measure them", to Anthony Powell's consuming interest in his own critical reception. The French writers are, on the whole, far more interested in literary theory than their anglophone contemporaries. Alain Robbe-Grillet, interviewed by the review's current London editor, Shusha Guppy, discusses critical reactions to his work of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and others.

Interviews with the quirky, reclusive or aggressive can sometimes be entertaining or savoured as a period piece. Julian Jebb's apologetic note, which prefaces his discussion with Evelyn Waugh, reveals the extreme recalcitrance of his subject who insisted on being interviewed in an hotel room and then decided to go to bed. Hemingway positively crackles with irritation during his 1958 interview with George Plimpton - "I see I'm getting away from the question, but the question was not very interesting". But perhaps the most difficult subject was Charles Olson whose dialogue mirrors his own "projective verse" in which syntax is governed by sound rather than sense. The result is a digressive and meandering effort to subvert each of Gerard Malanga's questions and yet it is unaccountably readable and interesting.

In recent issues of the Review, there are signs that it is developing in new directions. Special issues on what, for the Review, are new areas of interest alternate with the traditional miscellaneous numbers. These have comprised the one devoted to humour, which includes an interview with Harold Bloom on "The canon of western humor", another on screenwriting and one on theatre, with some original playscripts. Interviews have been broadened to take in "The art of criticism" and "The art of the essay". A brilliant new series, "The Man in the back row has a question", in which a variety of writers are invited to respond to general questions (eg "Are there concepts that are universally funny?") has also been added.

The difficulty of reviewing The Paris Review consists not only in the sheer bulk created by its long history but in the quality and interest to be found in each and every issue. I set myself the task of providing a tour d'horizon, only to be persistently ambushed by an interesting-looking piece that demanded and rewarded careful reading. There can be few journals that have promoted good writing in so sustained and successful a manner. It should be in every academic library and on the shelves of at least the more prosperous readers of contemporary literature. Just as the earlier issues carried an advertisement for "Les Deux Magots" ("Rendez-Vous de L'Elite Intellectuelle") recent issues advertise a New York restaurant called "Elaine's". It reads simply "Elaine loves The Paris Review". Don't we all?

Ronald Warwick teaches postcolonial literature, Brunel University College.

The Paris Review (four times a year)

Editor - Daniel Kunitz
ISBN - ISSN 0031 2037
Publisher - Paris Review Inc.
Price - $34.00, $44.00 (o/seas), $1,000 (lifetime sub.)

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