• print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    A Girl’s Own Story

    ANDRÉE’S GRAVE IS ALL WRONG, Sylvie thinks. It’s covered in white flowers. This is what killed her; she was “suffocated” by whiteness. Sylvie places three red roses on top of the grave. This scene takes place at the end of Simone de Beauvoir’s roman à clef Inseparable: Sylvie is Simone and Andrée her friend Élisabeth Lacoin, known as Zaza. In real life, there must have been a casket for Zaza, who died at twenty-one, and maybe also roses, but in Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), where Simone and Zaza’s story is recounted, we hear nothing of the casket or the flowers. If you haven’t

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    The Merry Murderer

    WHEN SHE WAS SIXTEEN, THE FRENCH NOVELIST Anne Serre set out to induce her high school philosophy teacher to fall in love with her. Her strategy was unconventional: “I thought that writing a book, which I would then ask him to read, was the only possible way of seducing Monsieur Rebours,” she recounted in the Times Literary Supplement last year. Though Monsieur Rebours did not succumb, Serre, now sixty-one, remains convinced that books are instruments of seduction. “Fiction, realist or not, doesn’t try to convince but to seduce,” she explained in a recent interview. “A writer’s only responsibility

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Primrose Pat

    IN AN AFTERWORD WRITTEN to accompany the 1990 reissue of her second novel, 1952’s sapphic paragon The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith insisted, “I like to avoid labels,” taking umbrage even at being called a suspense writer. The declaration functioned somewhat as a misdirection, deployed to explain why she published the book pseudonymously (as Claire Morgan), though not why she refused until almost forty years later to publicly acknowledge—and thus out herself—that she was the author of this swoony tale of same-sex romance: “If I were to write a novel about a lesbian relationship, would I

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Happiness, as Such

    SHE CALLED HERSELF a minor writer. “I’m no Tolstoy,” said this woman whose parents named her after a character from War and Peace. One wishes Natalia Ginzburg hadn’t apologized for her gifts. Wishes that she had luxuriated in her standing as one of Italy’s finest postwar writers. The fact that her various novels, novellas, and essays are flying back into print—some freshly translated—thirty years after her passing is not unrelated to the extravagant success of the other Italian, the one whose books have become the stuff of prestige television. Ginzburg, alas, has no HBO series attached to her

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Art and Lies

    ALEXANDER CHEE: You have never shied away from writing about the events of the world, but your new novel, A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, $27), takes that on in a different way: a novelist at an artist’s colony considers whether the violence in the world outside the retreat is an interruption or a muse.

    AMITAVA KUMAR: You’re right, I have not shied away from writing about the events facing the world. I wrote a book about terrorism trials called A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. But that writing did not have reflections on writing, like this one. It didn’t ask the

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Wimple Pleasures

    THEY APPEAR TO HER in the middle of the woods. Marie, the heroine of Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix (Riverhead, $28), is hard at work with her nuns building a labyrinth that will make their twelfth-century English convent impenetrable to intruders, when she has a vision. “I fell to my knees, for standing in the place where the road was to be made in the forest were two women whose holiness shone so brightly their radiance made me hide my face from them.” It is the Virgin Mary, together with Eve, the Biblical first woman. They bear matching wounds. On Mary’s chest, “there bled a wound large and

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  • print • Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

    Investigate Yourself, Dog!

    GENERICALLY SPEAKING, THERE’S JUST ONE QUESTION driving the Künstlerroman, and it’s “How does this person become an artist?” That narrative-driving “how” relies, however, on the rather more metaphysical matter of “who.” For any artist-narrator worth their salt, this inquiry is depthless—its richness residing in unanswerability, but also in the complicating and exciting fact of art and selfhood’s imbrication. Via Stephen Dedalus and his successors we duly understood that the growth of the person and the growth of the writer are coterminous, that self-knowledge and artistic integrity might,

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  • excerpt • November 16, 2021

    A remembrance of short-story writer Donald Barthelme

    Remarks from the dedication of the Donald Barthelme Papers to the University of Houston Library, April 15, 2005.

    Don Barthelme once said to me, “The trouble with teaching is you spend all your time working on someone else’s rotten manuscript when you should be working on your own rotten manuscript.” This is signature Barthelme. It contains the making of a joke by repeating two syllables or two words or two phrases, at which he was very good: “And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love.” Sometimes the two words are so good you do not need repeat them for the

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  • excerpt • October 12, 2021

    An excerpt from Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald

    So, as he always said himself, W. G. Sebald is not a novelist. Nor a travel writer, since his journeys and landscapes are more inward than outward. He is a historian, biographer and autobiographer. But beneath these, he is at heart a visionary and a mystic. That is why there is no one like him in modern literature.

    And that is why Austerlitz is, after all, his masterpiece. For it is not only the peak of his imaginative identification with the victims of the Holocaust and of his psychological investigation of trauma. It is also where the mystical vision he has pursued from the start, then hidden

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2021

    Tender Is the Fight

    MIRIAM TOEWS IS THE RARE NOVELIST for whom “write what you know” does not amount to conservative advice. Toews was born and raised in an insular Canadian Mennonite community called Steinbach. Her eventual rebellion, which included a stint touring North America in a dilapidated VW van with a fire-eating street performer, was nearly as thorough as the rigidity of her earlier life. Toews has shaved her head and hitched rides with punk bands. She has been a single mother on welfare. She has witnessed the debilitating depression that culminated in the deaths of both her father and older sister.

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2021

    Hell Can Wait

    WHEN, LATE IN JONATHAN FRANZEN’S NEW NOVEL CROSSROADS, a woman, reuniting with an ex-flame after thirty-one years, notes “recent Mailer, recent Updike” on his shelves, the shock of the old is both soft and profound. It’s 1972; the dinosaurs still stamp and bellow. They can’t imagine how much they will lose.

    It’s a fate that Franzen, whose prominence is as close a thing as fiction in this time can offer up to equal Updike’s or Mailer’s Cold War stature, seems eager to acknowledge and avoid. His loyal yet aging audience, his millions, and his National Book Award for The Corrections (2001) are

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2021

    Already Dead

    I DROVE ACROSS the Everglades in May. I had originally planned to take Alligator Alley, but someone tipped me off that, in the twenty years since I left South Florida, the historically wild and lonesome stretch of road had been fully incorporated into I-75, turned into a standard highway corridor with tall concrete walls on both sides, designed to keep the traffic noise in and the alligators out. So on the drive west from Boynton Beach, I took the northern route, skirting along the bottom of Lake Okeechobee (which you can’t see from the road) through new subdivisions and past a succession of

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