A review of the Paris Review

by katiclops

Fall, FanTan alley, 2012

(notice the sweet serene emptiness of the season)

all always carries with it a seasonal memory, stronger than any other season. Maybe it’s my birth-season, or the highly anticipated (or dreaded) back-to-school, or the olfactory content of burning foliage, harvest and pumpkins. When I was younger (and somewhat rounder) fall was the much anticipated time when we would receive some relief from the +40C smoggy days of the summer, where staggering under the humidex would no longer be an inevitability, and instead I’d be permitted back into long-pants, bulky clothes and school. Now summer breaks into the inevitability of darkness calling for second cups of coffee, and extended café-stays, and for me to pick up knitting projects that have been sitting forgotten since last year.

Cornerstone Cafe, Fernwood, Fall 2012

This nostalgia returns with the change in leaves. I find myself calling the same people, to reminisce about the same things. Every sepia-lit evening autumn tree-lined street the resoundingly similar, sheltering our scarf-warmed night walks with the same leafy familiarity.

However, this has been one year that the passage of time has not slipped by completely unnoticed. In part, this observation was spurred by the closing of three restaurants: my favourite burger restaurant here in town (the building next door is being demolished for a condo-high rise); a pho place we had always intended on visiting (but our regular place is just so good!); and Jane’s on the Commons, the “fancy” restaurant around the corner from my first real place in Halifax (where I lived with three others that became my some of my closest college friends).

It’s funny that although much has happened over the past little while, big immutable life-changing things (people are having children, getting married and buying houses for Pete’s sake!): it’s these little things, when an institution closes, when the venue for so many memories disappears, that are the chapters closing with an unexpected degree of finality. The vacant store fronts haunt you with a sense of your own mortality, that we’re going to melt away like that too one day. Just pack up shop and move back to Vietnam.

Saltspring Island, Ruckle Park, September, 2012

This week something from all this nostalgia spurred me to pick up a copy of The Paris Review while I waited for coffee. Habit is one of those coffee shops that has a (smallish) shelf covered with literature reviews, boutique coffee magazines and local publications. Generally speaking, it tends to have that Whole type of silence that befits smaller cafes where the tiny tables are too close together to speak to your counterpart above so much as a whisper without feeling like you’re on stage. This permits an additional level of coziness as you lean over your beverages to your friend, as well as an additional level of gawking. Government workers come in, discussing projects in loud stage voices without realizing that I can give them nothing, no promotions, and that they are grossly overstepping the sound margins of their tiny tables. Quiet café regulars looking on with intrigue and mild annoyance. Father John Misty oh so appropriately, softly plays in the background, his recent concert discussed in the lulls of rushes by the hushed voices by the barristas.

The Paris Review is one of those thick, $14.95 literary journals that has a smattering of contemporary authors that sound vaguely familiar, poets from the turn of the (last) century (in this one it was Apollinaire).  It is exactly the kind of thick indulgent magazine you vainly intend to read. The weight, size and shape is appealing to the hand, the cover just creatively designed (while remaining decidedly timeless), the authors resonating just enough so that you know you could really be onto something here.

The first time I ever encountered the Review was the first year I was living in France. It was the day before my twenty-second birthday and I had decided to take myself to Paris for the day. It was the first time I’d ever been into the city. I’d heard gushing descriptions from so many people, but only I’d seen it once from the air and twelve hours in Charles de Gaulle two years earlier: unmistakeable tower be dammed. I took the train into Gare du Nord and spent the day wandering around Montmartre, ending the day at Île-de-la-Cité where I planned to take the metro back to the station. I hardly spent a penny all day, wandering around the city with this aching sense of familiarity and nostalgia for a place that I had never known but was genetically programmed into my DNA and culturally conditioned into my soul by centuries of artists and musicians. I walked and walked for hours, aimless, slack-jawed and wide-eyed with no purpose.

Paris, late summer 2006, photo-cred miss Aisha Boyce

Earlier that year I had found a beat-up copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer at the back of a storage locker in London.  I had guiltily devoured the novel and it had lightly coloured my expectations of the city. Here and there, snatches of passages came back to me. As the sun sank, announcing the approach of my 9pm train back to Arras, I looked across the river and realized I’d arrived at Shakespeare and Company, the fabled English language bookstore. As I –bewildered– stumbled inside. From the threshold Miller’s closing lines of his novel echoed out, carved in the first stone step of the shop (“for humanity”).

Hurried, as the store was closing at 8pm, I picked up The Best of the Paris Review which promised over 500 pages of the very best selections of the literary journal. Unbeknownst to my harried decision, the Paris Review was actually published in California, and was based in New York (later, this revelation caused endless disappointment). Nonetheless, this collection of stories introduced me, both to Paris and the Review, with the kind of gentle awe that you behold as you wear a borrowed pair of expensive shoes, the feeling that I’m sure all those wealthy women get when they wear borrowed expensive jewellery to galas.

I loved the thick anthology, dragging it around on my weekend trips, absently choosing selections to read that seemed appropriate. I fell in love with it, the way you love Paris, the way you know it can never be yours. When I started the anthology, it felt a bit like reading The New Yorker when I was babysitting in highschool, with the vague expectation that it was a lot of work, but that eventually it would be easier, that it was good for me. I have since found that reading an actual issue of the Review is quite different. More often than not when I pick up an issue I leaf through to the interviews. They’re normally sandwiched between the contemporary struggling writers and ancient accomplished ones, complete with pictures of them at their struggling sexual prime. Showing them in exotic cafes in Greece or against the Paris skyline, arm in arm with other great coated men. More often than not I give up, abandoning the too long interviews published in full asking all the deep questions that have become small talk because most small talk subjects are now taboo. “Do you believe in God?” or “Did you really love her?”


Philip Roth in his sexual prime.

I often move past these interviews with a kind of thirsty desperation. Heading next to the poetry and art, looking for myself in the loopy text, looking for some small snatch of quotable resonance… Something to offer you. To indicate that I am worthy enough of reading such a publication. That I too can identify with the contemporary author. That I too find true solace in Baudelaire or other 19th century flavours of the month. Or often than not I find nothing in them. Disappointment, strange line breaks, attempts at cleverness, and more nothing. But this time it was different, like a coin had dropped. I opened the review to the first story:

I was spending some time at my parents’ place that summer. I was thirty-eight and out of ideas. I had finished my midlife-criss graduate degree a bit early, and after turning in my thesis I promptly fell into the utter despair that comes from completing a long, difficult, and entirely pointless project. I was deeply, profoundly in debt-ruined really-and I had no idea what to do next. …

Man Boob Summer was an uncomfortable, slightly harrowing and slightly funny short story, that resonated with me in this creepy way I had yet to experience…my own coming of age into the literary world. Identifying, really, truly identifying with authors. Later, mid-way through Sam Savage’s Meininger’s Nude:

In college I studied agronomy, geology, comparative literature, chemistry, biology, et cetera. I thought of pursuing each one professionally, of but after a short while each was pushed aside by something else. So I did not give them up in the sense of giving up on them, I was still actively engaged by them when they were pushed aside and replaced by something else that suddenly struck me as more interesting. This flightiness, which I though upon as openness to innovation looked  to others like frivolity, but it wasn’t a crippling disability. Following the road of life, as they say. I kept falling off into the bushes. Buying this house, I see now, was a way of telling myself, since whatever might happen in the future. Here was something I was stuck with.

Sometimes I think of it as an attempt to bury myself alive.

I was shocked and at the same time relieved. These stories were finally speaking to me. Also coming with this was a newfound ability, like secret x-ray goggles that allowed me to pinpoints the exact moments in the stories between meandering reality and fantasy: here. It was as if highlighted, that at this moment exactly is what forged the divide to creative fiction.

Finally our generations voices are in print. People my age are publishing novels (good or bad) and now snippets of our conversations, not just in print but in the Paris Review!

I suppose by that same token, there are probably other people, people who have read the publication for decades that are now struggling to swim through the new authors. Seeking themselves buried somewhere in the texts, seeing their own voices end and disappear. In all my autumn melancholy, the scrap of promise I am holding onto is the realization that as things end, they normally make way for the new. Jane is leaving her restaurant on the Commons to her daughter.

And my favourite burger joint ? Still open. Inherited by the young twenty-something cook, rebranded as Chef’s Quest. It’s just as good. And until that new strata of condos is built, they’ve got the best patio in the city.

King Arthur burger, Yesterday, 2012

Just as cheesy as this post.