The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Paris Review No. 13, Summer 1956

Posted on: September 10, 2007

Going through the archives of this now sedate, genteel magazine has increased my fondness for the outfit. The 50s were early enough days that it was seen as necessary to include a note at the end of the interviews, informing the readers of the aims of the “Art of” series. By the twelfth instalment, staff had already interviewed writers like Alberto Moravia, Georges Simenon, Faulkner and Graham Greene. Dorothy Parker’s interview format revealed that the template has not changed from its origins, for the most part, except when the mag gets writer buddies or some other notable author as the interviewer (always for the worst in my experience).

This issue hammered home for me precisely why they name “Paris” is in the title of the review at all. I became familiar with the publication through more recent issues that, in comparison to editions decades earlier, obscured those origins to a remarkable degree. (I used to think it was chosen because it just sounded fancy.) They no longer carry the late art editor William Pene du Bois frontispiece of “6 Rue Casimir-Lavigne” nor does it list subscription prices in francs as well as dollars. Up the the early 80s (all I’ve checked) the masthead still listed a Paris office. The 1950s issues, at least of ’56 and ’57, featured lists of stores in Paris. The no.13 issue had a book store list, some of which were the Librairie Galignani at 224, Rue de Rivoli, Ope 56-98, which boasted “the most extensive and varied stock of books in English in Paris, including many paper-bound books”. The Garnier Arnoul, Theatre & Circus Books on 39, rye de Seine, 6e, Ode.80-05 offered three catalogues on theatre, “circus, mime, and music hall:, and “ballet, opera, music”, along with prints, autographs and “new and old” book editions. Both still exist but the second is at a different address if the google search result was reliable.

The 14th issue expanded that into a ‘”Sous les toits de Paris” — a directory to eating, drinking and shopping in Pars. In contrast to all that the recent editions are all New York. Too bad.

Another editorial difference was that older issues had a discernible theme with a particular selection and organisation of prose, art and poetry, how one piece lead to another. No. 13 opened with a series of letters by a James Blake, a prisoner (whose short story, it turns out, was published in a later issue) which lead to an excerpt from “A Thief’s Journal” by Jean Genet, a critically acclaimed French writer who had also been imprisoned. A poem describing salmon migration (“Explication” by Robert Greenwood) lead to a short story (“Gull Pond Is a Half-Mile Wide” by Richard Whittier) about two men fishing. Greenwood’s poem started from a literal description of a setting, a stream in a gloomy, fog covered landscape, to a moment that retained its descriptive roots but became more figurative and conceptual as the salmon entered the picture, a figure of “Pure force and motion”. Whittier started with a simple fishing scene with two men, one ten years older than the other and concerned about maintaining an admirable, likeable air. After he almost drowned from exhaustion after a whole day of fishing — what a work out! — and some hectic rowing (I guess), he gained insight into deeper philosophical matters for he now “knew what a man should fear…”. (Whatever. Malnutrition and lack of exercise were the more appropriate spectres. Whittier’s attempt at gravitas was hilarious. Peter (the weakling) was a former member of a rowing team but almost drowned when he had to dive in the water after the oars he lost after a day of fishing in which he didn’t catch any fish?)

I did not think much of Richard Yates’ fiction either. (Isn’t he supposed to be a big deal?) He tried to write a funny story about the staff of a pathetic trade union journal, complete with eccentric, ridiculous, charming characters that want to be extravagant but plausible, at least in the story’s framework. The effect was an inauthentic and pathetic as the journalistic outfit he depicted. I kept on comparing it to Steve Stern’s efforts and found it wanting: his writing is similarly irreverent and comedic, but is significantly superior. Where was the vibrant fire to enervate the character depictions, the intimate knowledge of the newsroom, the control, the amazing diction, the dialogue that all but sings in your ear? I turned each page of the Yates story waiting patiently for something interesting to occur while hoping for it to end soon. I’d defy anyone to open a Stern book to any page and not find it at least one thing that entertains, impresses or intrigues.

Who is Richard Yates? (A quick google served up the near incredible information that he influenced Andre Dubus. Huuuuuuuh? The PR contribution must have been a fluke….)

Nadine Gordimer’s piece “A Face from Atlantis” — an actual short story, I’m happy to note, rather than a novel excerpt — was the only one I enjoyed. The oceanic reference is a sure shot for me (if the writer knows what she’s doing) and of course the lost Atlantis’ place in myth, from Breton to Numenor, give it an edge. Best of all the story imbued it with its own colour and meaning on at least a couple of levels so, from the start, Gordimer offered a compelling element to work with. It was about a German expat, forced to leave Germany for his liberal sentiments around the start of WWII, and his much younger South African wife, travelling through Europe and the United States (NYC anyway) to meet his old friends from his younger past.

The Dorothy Parker interview was the odd duck of the lot. She professed to think next to nothing of her own work, but besides that her answers were sometimes a little hard to follow. I can’t really say why that is except that her phrasing was a bit odd, a tad disjointed, running along at a different speed altogether than mine, with some terms that are definitely not used anymore. Anyway she revealed some gems, including an amusing description of the changes in the American Vogue staff.

Interview: What kind of work did you do at Vogue?

Parker: I wrote captions: “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue not chic. They were decent, nice women — the nicest women I ever met — but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what should be: all divorcees, and chic, a collection of Ilka Chases; the models are out of the mind of Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers — my old job — they’re recommending mink covers at $75 apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs “– for the friend who has everything.” Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.

As is usual for older issues the art was incomprehensible and the poetry…eh.

1 Response to "The Paris Review No. 13, Summer 1956"

Wasn’t the Dorothy Parker interview collected in the “Paris Review Interview Vol. 1”? Now I have to go check it out. Before Vol 2 comes out.

Richard Yates – I keep hearing about him – one of my friend is a big fan of Yates. I believe Jonathan Franzen is also an admirer. But there’s something very depressing about his works – his characters seem to be centred around former dreamers who realise the American Dream never arrived for them, and their sad, drunken, failed lives.

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