Surely the headline of the day.
Notes from NYRB Classics
Surely the headline of the day.
Last week NYRB Classics took you to the sea (or at least to the pool), this week we’re taking you on a grand urban tour with a peek inside some of our books set in Paris, New York, Berlin, and Amsterdam.
The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, selected and with an introduction by Darryl Pinckney
Sometimes while waiting for a taxi at Seventy-ninth Street, after midnight, it is possible, with a certain amount of effort or with a little too much wine, to imagine the city returned to trees, old footpaths, and clear, untroubled waters, returned to innocence and nautical miscalculations and ancestral heroics.
The New York Stories of Henry James, selected and with an introduction by Colm Tóibín
That’s the way to live in New York—to move every three or four years. Then you always get the last thing. It’s because the city’s growing so quick—you’ve got to keep up with it. It’s going straight up town—that’s where New York is going…
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, selected and with an introduction by Roxana Robinson
As he walked he glanced curiously up at the ladder-like doorsteps which may well suggest to the future archaeologist that all the streets of New York were once canals; at the spectral tracery of the trees about St. Luke’s, the fretted mass of the Cathedral, and the mean vista of the long side streets.
Last Words from Montmartre, by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich
It’s as if my life in Paris is entering a blooming thicket. I could really grow to adore Parisian life, its inspiration, as well as the work I’m doing here, the friends I’m meeting, this incredible banquet the city offers. I feel like I’m ready to become an adult here, someone worthy of my own respect.
Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant, selected and with an introduction by Michael Ondaatje
Sandor Speck’s first art gallery in Paris was on the Right Bank, near the Church of St. Elisabeth, on a street too narrow for cars. When his block was wiped off the map to make way for a five-story garage, Speck crossed the Seine to the shadow of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, where he set up shop in a picturesque slum protected by law from demolition. When this gallery was blown up by Basque separatists, who had mistaken it for a travel agency exploiting the beauty of their coast, he collected his insurance money and moved to the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco, introduction by Louis Begley
Evening was falling when I left the Quai d’Orléans, crossed the Pont de la Tournelle and went along the Quai de Montebello to Saint-Michel. I felt the city had swallowed me and I now made part of it. It was an experience of possession by something so stately and vivid that I walked along in a dream of absolute subservience to stone and river and sky.
Amsterdam Stories, by Nescio, introduction by Joseph O’Neill, translated from the Dutch by Damion Searls
I had come back to Holland to suffer poverty and write articles and stories in the neighborhood where I had lived for so long. And I wanted to go through my last two rijksdollars in a city that for a while, in my absence, had been the center of the world.
Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, by Harvey Swados, preface by Grace Paley
There was a time when New York was everything to me: my mother, my mistress, my Mecca, when I could no more have wanted to live any place else than I could have conceived of myself as a daddy, disciplining my boy and dandling my daughter.
Berlin Stories, by Robert Walser, edited by Jochen Greven, translated from the German and with an introduction by Susan Bernofsky
Berlin, by comparison—how splendid! A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath.
Later, Jack said the walk with Netta back across the Place Masséna was the happiest event of his life. Having no reliable counter-event to put in its place, she let the memory stand.
—the last paragraph of Mavis Gallant’s story “The Moslem Wife,” in the collection Paris Stories.
Photo: Mavis Gallant and Aleksandar Wat, Venice, July 1957 © Aleksander Wat; NYRB Classics also publishes Wat’s memoir, My Century.
We were very sad to hear of the passing of short-story writer Mavis Gallant yesterday. Her spirit will be missed.
We’ve pulled together some of our favorite pieces on Gallant from the last two days (as well as one oldie) below:
I’ve heard people ask, why isn’t Gallant better known? I wonder if it isn’t because so many readers aren’t looking for character. Plot reigns supreme. Take a look at the majority of books on any bestseller list. And something more—I wonder if Gallant’s work doesn’t also make some readers uncomfortable. In her stories, you become so immersed so quickly that before you know it you are mucking around deeply in someone else’s screwed up life. That can be disturbing, unsettling, especially if one’s life is also screwed up. (Whose isn’t?) It can also be riveting too. And funny. As well as offer a kind of comradeship in screwed up-ness. But Gallant’s not a writer for the faint hearted. Getting to know people so well on the page—as it is in life—is a commitment.
—Peter Orner on Mavis Gallant in The Atlantic's “By Heart” series, where authors discuss their favorite books. Orner particularly admires Gallant’s stories “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” and “In Plain Sight,” both of which are included in Paris Stories.
The hand tells the bowstring:
The bowstring answers the hand:
The bowstring tells the arrow:
O arrow, fly.
The arrow answers the bowstring:
Speed my flight.
The arrow tells the target:
Be my light.
The target answers the arrow:
The target tells arrow, bowstring, hand and eye:
Ta twam asi.
Which means in a sacred tongue:
I am Thou.
(Footnote of a Christian:
O Mother of God,
watch over the target, the bow, the arrow
and the archer).
—Translated by Richard Lourie
This poem serves as the epigraph to Aleksander Wat's My Century, a memoir based on the Polish futurist’s taped discussions with Czeslaw Milosz. Mavis Gallant admirers might be interested to know that the Wats counted Gallant as one of their dearest friends and that she has translated some his work.
I laughed, but I was the only one to do so. No one else seemed to know that this was a bit of Canadian gallows humor.
Over at Hazlitt, Michelle Dean goes to a tribute to (the still living) Mavis Gallant at KGB bar, helpfully explicating some references in Gallant’s stories that may be obscure to Americans and correcting Wallace Shawn’s pronunciation of “Raymond.”
We make books, not t-shirts. Oh wait, sometimes we make pins, they’re more popular than our books. You think we’d make millions? Perhaps we should change industries.
Dear NYRB Classics,
Please make this tshirt. Then send me one of the many millions of dollars you earn.
…though, sadly, not by us.
Last night at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Rosecrans Baldwin discussed his memoir, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, the story of his time spent living in the French city. He spoke of the comparisons between the two peoples and what a place is like once you’ve settled in and gotten to know a few locals.
While in Paris, Rosecrans, a self-described Francophile, couldn’t get enough and proceeded to read a bunch of books about his new home. Here are four books Rosecrans recommends:
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
“It’s a wonderful, screwy take on 1950s Paris. The narrator’s voice just rampages.”
You can listen to Rosecrans talk about this novel on NPR.
The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
“A novel in which nothing happens, and what does happen takes place in a Parisian bathroom for the most part. And yet: gripping, revealing, entertaining, and all in very few pages.”
The Friend of Madame Maigret by Georges Simenon
“It’s hard to pick one Simenon—I love so many. This one’s set in the Marais, where I used to live, so it’s a sentimental selection.”
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
“These are set around Europe in addition to Paris, so it’s a continental treat. Gallant has won all sorts of awards and she’s still underrated, I think. Effortlessly moving.”
You can listen to Rosecrans discuss Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate as well as with Brad Listi on the Other People podcast. You might also want to read an excerpt at Salon. Rosecrans is also on Twitter at @rosecrans.
In keeping with this wanderlusting, here are our suggestions for books with a great sense of place:
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
Edmund de Waal is a world-famous ceramicist. Having spent thirty years making beautiful pots—which are then sold, collected, and handed on—he has a particular sense of the secret lives of objects. When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.
And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story as de Waal discovers both the story of the netsuke and of his family, the Ephrussis, over five generations. A nineteenth-century banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, the Ephrussis were as rich and respected as the Rothchilds. Yet by the end of the World War II, when the netsuke were hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, this collection of very small carvings was all that remained of their vast empire.
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz
Two centuries after James Cook’s epic voyages of discovery, Tony Horwitz takes readers on a wild ride across hemispheres and centuries to explore the Captain’s embattled legacy in today’s Pacific.
Recounting Cook’s voyages and exotic scenes — tropical orgies, taboo rituals, cannibal feasts, human sacrifice — Horwitz relives Cook’s adventures by following in the captain’s wake to places such as Tahiti, Savage Island, and the Great Barrier Reef to discover Cook’s embattled legacy in the present day.
Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions
Deliciously sensuous and fascinating, Robb renders in vivid detail the intoxicating pleasures of Brazil’s food, music, literature, and landscape as he travels not only cross country but also back in time—from the days of slavery to modern day political intrigue and murder.
Now in paperback for the first time at the end of this month, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown by Michael Cunningham
“Cunningham rambles through Provincetown, gracefully exploring the unusual geography, contrasting seasons, long history, and rich stew of gay and straight, Yankee and Portuguese, old-timer and ‘washashore’ that flavors Cape Cod’s outermost town… . Chock-full of luminous descriptions … . He’s hip to its studied theatricality, ever-encroaching gentrification and physical fragility, and he can joke about its foibles and mourn its losses with equal aplomb.” —Chicago Tribune
Another convert to the church of Mme Gallant.
“I wrote newspaper stories in the daytime and fiction early in the morning or at night. I had a sense of space and of freedom. And now I have to stop and ask myself if that sense of freedom was factitious, invented by me – then and in retrospect. Have I remembered a way I wanted to live when I was in my twenties, and did the desire just occasionally coincide with some aspects of a reporter’s life? In short, has a fiction about living spilled across that ambiguous entity we call ‘real life’? I may be building an ideal city, a lyrical downtown area – vanished, regretted, mourned by a handful of survivors. A friend from Montreal said, the other day, ‘Let’s face it. Those were terrible apartments, almost slums.’”
Mavis Gallant’s contribution to A Writer’s Life: The Margaret Laurence Lectures, excerpted in The National Post
Mavis Gallant at the Standard, Montréal, May 1946