The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Paris Review, Spring 2005 – Part I

Posted on: April 6, 2007

We’ve got a big one here, compared to previous Gourevitch editions, though I assume it is because this was the farewell issue for Brigid Hughes. And what a farewell issue it was: packed full with no less than three interviews, 7 short stories and an abundance of poetry. It will take me a while to get through the whole thing, not least because I took a break from the journal and am now returning in fits and starts.

The cover design is radically different: all precise lines and blocks of colour. The cover photograph is fantastic, done by Cao Fei, entitled “Tussle”. All together it makes a very bold, forthright impression. Yards and yards different from its latest manifestation which is very elegant and pleasing, but certainly more typical of magazine covers, presenting the names of the most eye-catching contributors, and stamping The Paris Review logo on the front, a more naked effort at branding. Gourevitch also got rid of the frontispiece that I’m assuming has been used since its birth:

frontispiece.jpg

I gave a gasp of pleasure when I randomly chose an older issue and saw the same frontispiece. I don’t begrudge Gourevitch his makeover but I am of the sort who is very very receptive to tradition, to rituals and motifs that tie one to the past, the sense of a whole, of a continuity of the circle, all the things that I felt when I spied the same frontispiece in a ’60’s issue. I never really took to the odd scribbles that are used now, usually the doodles of whatever artist or major writer is in the current issue. Cute and quirky I suppose but they lack any magnificence.

Even the table of contents is different. Plimpton is still listed as editor whereas Brigid Hughes is “Executive editor”, a format that changed with the new guard; Plimpton got promoted to the top of the page, smack centre, while Gourevitch comfortably shifted into the editor space.

One thing that the new has the old beat on, hands down, is the selection of what first piece greets readers. This time it was James Lasdun’s “An Axious Man”: Joseph Nagel, an antiques print and furniture dealer, sinks slowly into the perpetual anxieties of the stock market. His basic insecurity and lack of confidence in his own judgements of anything from investments to people, with an easily bolstered and deflated ego, makes him the stereotype of exactly the kind of person who should not yet participate yet is especially vulnerable to vagaries of Wall Street.

It is a really good story, well-written and involving. I finished the last paragraph left with an indistinct, anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach. That’s an accomplishment. But I wasn’t wowed, I wasn’t bowled over, I felt no wonder.

A.S. Byatt’s was a lot better although I am biased. She is one of my favourite living authors and I am constantly fascinated with the way her fiction sees the world through colour, as myth (specifically in their role as stories, as narratives, as art), and partly mechanical, mathematical. It’s a strange marriage that gets my rocks off each and every time. As I read the first few paragraphs of her story “The Narrow Jet”, I closed my eyes in delight, imagined a pleasure centre near the top of my brain, in the middle, closer to the back, and her story massaging it, the words moving over it oh so slowly so I could feel each impress.

This story reminded me of a couple of her stories in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, specifically her Lamia in the Cevennes. Again we have the prominence of a water body, a lake this time, inhabited by an unfamiliar creature, and a siren, this time the sculpture of one, and two old men, Sir Tor and Hew, who lived by the carp basin and imagined her. I liked the different parallel stories of the creature who made new discoveries about light, colours, a new kind of water coming out of the pipes, while the old men embarked on what could be their last project, too old to even get excited about it.

Another thing the new has over the old is the poetry. I found the selections, so far, to be a bit boring, too obvious, not enough latent action and meaning to keep me interested. Hopefully that will improve.

What was better was the “Art of Poetry” interview. ‘Till now I preferred the fiction but the Les Murray interview was consistently animated, entertaining and informative for me, knowing little about Australia’s literary landscape. I rolled my eyes at the preponderance of personal questions but Murray really was, as the interviewer asserted, a gifted storyteller and managed to raise such talk above the mundane.

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