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Writing Worth Reading

Art Of The Theatre: Tom Stoppard

Classic interview. Every bit as brilliant as you might hope. “In the theater there is often a tension, almost a contradiction, between the way real people would think and behave, and a kind of imposed dramaticness. I like dialogue that is slightly more brittle than life. I have always admired those 1940s filmscripts where every line is written with a sharpness and economy that is frankly artificial” (6,720 words)

Recalcitrant Language: An Interview With Ottilie Mulzet

Mulzet discusses translating László Krasznahorkai’s novel, Seiobo There Below, from Hungarian into English. A three-year job. “The unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian is like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know” (1,900 words)

The Elephant In The Discotheque

Can you have genius, yet no taste? Consider the Bee Gees. They were prodigies; hit-makers for 34 years, rivalled only by The Beatles. In 1978 the songs from Saturday Night Fever accounted for 2% of worldwide music industry revenues. But they were never chic, often ridiculed, not without reason. “Forgive them. They wrote a dozen of the finest songs of the twentieth century. The Bee Gees were children of the world” (2,840 words)

The Many Poses Of Marcel Marceau

Marceau was the first, and perhaps the last, master of mime as popular art. He infused formal traditions with the slapstick of Chaplin and Keaton. But when he died he left no heir. “He had performed the same sketches for sixty years. There was nothing for other mimes to build on. He inspires only poor imitations. Upon his death, the art of mime steps back out of the mainstream. It becomes a busker’s act—obscure, often mocked” (1,650 words)

An Interview With Daniel Mendelsohn

On reading Proust. “Discovering Proust was a real shock — the shock of recognition. I was twenty, and my encounter with this novel gave me a shock that, I believe, is felt by every gay person reading Proust for the first time. It was remarkable to understand that the unsatisfied desires and the erotic frustrations I harbored had not only been felt by someone else but, even more extraordinarily, had been made the subject of a great book” (3,700 words)

The Art Of Non-Fiction: Adam Phillips

Interview with psychoanalyst. Interesting throughout. “If you buy a fridge, there are certain things you will be guaranteed. If you buy a psychoanalysis, you won’t be. Patients come because they are suffering from something. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering” (8,500 words)

Matthew Weiner: The Art Of Screenwriting

Interview with Mad Men writer and director. First published in last month’s Paris Review print issue, now ungated online. “Cheever holds my attention more than any other writer. He is in every aspect of Mad Men, starting with the fact that Don lives in Ossining on Bullet Park Road — the children are ignored, people have talents they can’t capitalize on, everyone is selfish to some degree or in some kind of delusion” (8,480 words)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Art Of Fiction

In memory of Marquez, who died on April 17th, a classic interview from 1981, which begins with a discussion of the differences between literary writing and journalism. The main one, says Marquez, is the productivity: “On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day” (8,725 words)

The Missing Borges

Convoluted tale about the theft of a rare Borges first edition from the National Library of Argentina, which gets confused with a facsimile copy made from the very same book, and then with another (apparently) authentic Borges first edition. One of these is subsequently returned to the library, but nobody seems sure whether it is the same one that was stolen. The Neapolitan fabulist Massimo De Caro is also involved (3,090 words)

Don’t Play Too Close To The Tar Pits

Close reading of Dante’s Inferno, canto by canto. This week, Canto 22, in which demons and sinners horse around in tar pits while Dante and Virgil look on. “Dante is spellbound by a pool of pitch, where, now and then, he will see a sinner expose his back above the boiling liquid to relieve his suffering for a moment before diving back down. If the sinner stays above the surface for too long, a demon swoops and tears him apart” (774 words)

A History Of The Quaalude

Euphoria-inducing sedative much abused as a party drug in 1970s New York; favourite of Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street. First sold as a sleeping pill for 1960s housewives: “It’s the pill in the ‘take a pill and lie down’ directive thousands of Don Drapers gave their Bettys”. But nobody under 30 has seen one. Production halted 1983. Nearest modern equivalent is proably Ambien, made famous by Tiger Woods (1,840 words)

Pinter’s Proust

The Proust Screenplay, Harold Pinter’s adaptation of À la recherche du temps perdu, was written in the 1970s and never filmed. It was meant to begin with “a wordless sequence of thirty-six shots”. It might seem hard to imagine two writers further apart in style or posture; but Proust and Pinter shared a fascination with memory. In Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Old Times, “memories become weaponised”. In Proust, they become art (1,250 words)

That’s Material: An Interview With Daniel Menaker

Former fiction editor of The New Yorker discusses his memoir, My Mistake, which includes an account of his struggle with lung cancer. “A lot of writers fail to understand that feeling automatically infuses description, narration, and dialogue. They make the mistake of explicitly indicating — almost instructing — what the reader should feel. Of course, doing so lessens the chance that the reader will indeed feel it” (1,915 words)

Doris Lessing, The Art Of Fiction

Interview with the Novel-prize-winning novelist from 1988; she died on 17th November 2013 aged 94. “I certainly could have been a doctor. I would have made a good farmer, and so on. I became a writer because of frustration … I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps” (7,160 words)

In Conversation

On interviewing writers, and, sometimes, being interviewed by them. “[David Foster] Wallace seemed to think in the interrogative mode. He was tall and slightly sweaty, looking like he had just come from a run. But he seemed determined not to intimidate. He was like a big cat pulling out his claws, one question at a time. See, look, I’m not going to be difficult. there was a propulsive, caffeinated momentum to the way he talked” (1,100 words)

Death Of A Salesman

On the life of car dealer Cal Worthington, whose TV advertisements beguiled insomniacs for sixty years. “The slender cowboy always preceded his hyperactive sales pitch with a gambol through the lot of his dealership accompanied by an escalating succession of exotic animals. Originally it was an ape, then a tiger, an elephant, a black bear, and, finally, Shamu, the killer whale from SeaWorld” (1,600 words)

The Art Of Fiction: Imre Kertész

Hungarian Nobel-prizewinning novelist (and Auschwitz survivor), 85 and dying of Parkinson’s disease, gives his last interview. “I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors. Perhaps I’m being impertinent, but I feel that my work has a rare quality — I tried to depict the human face of this history, I wanted to write a book that people would actually want to read” (3,700 words)

An Interview With Karl Ove Knausgaard

Norwegian novelist and memoirist, compared by reviewers to Proust, discusses his life and work, particularly Min Kamp — “My Struggle”, his autobiography in progress. “I wanted to see how far it was possible to take realism before it would be impossible to read. So in Min Kamp I’m doing nothing but digressions, no story lines. Language itself takes care of it. The form gives something back” (5,340 words)

A Visit With Patrick Leigh Fermor

Simply wonderful. Assuming, that is, you like gossipy stories involving Somerset Maugham, John Huston, Darryl Zanuck, Errol Flynn, Juliette Greco, Robert Byron, Bruce Chatwin, and the Sitwell family (“I was rather thick with Sachie and Georgia at the time, and they were very kind to me”). Interspersed with tales of wartime derring-do and the golden age of film. If none of that appeals, I really don’t know what to advise (7,350 words)

Lonely Thinking: Hannah Arendt On Film

Illuminating short essay, about the subject as stated — the film, Hannah Arendt, is by Margarethe von Trotta — but also about Arendt’s work, particularly Eichmann In Jerusalem. “She was astonished that perhaps the most egregious crime in history was administered not by panting sociopaths but by unthinking buffoons. This is what Arendt means by her misunderstood dictum, ‘the banality of evil’” (1,686 words)

Week In Culture: Sophie Pinkham, Slavicist

Literary diary. Pot-pourri of language classes, poetry readings, book parties, funny stories and writing seminars. With guest appearances from Keith Gessen, Kirill Medvedev, Mikhail Shishkin. Many good lines about the problems of translating Russian poetry: “It’s brave, even foolhardy, to try to translate poets who undermined the very foundations of language. So when it turns out well, it’s like Sully Sullenberger landing on the Hudson” (2,024 words)

In Which Richard Burton Discusses Poetry

Brief, beautiful extract from the actor’s diaries: “Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence but I fancy, though his poetry is all-embracingly and astringently universal, his private conceit is monumental”

Books And Bodies: On Organs And Literary Estates

“Authorial intent, ever so difficult to divine, is usually at the center of posthumous publishing controversies. Organ donation provides an apt analogy. Books, like bodies, are not always the property of their originators”

Robert Silvers On The Paris And New York “Reviews”

Recollections of working for Paris Review in 1950s, and founding NYRB in 1963: “We saw these historical events coming at us, and we wanted to get the best and most informed, the most incisive, the most helpful articles we could”

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