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Paris Review

On the Shelf

By Michael J. Halberstam

Just two years ago this newspaper published a review of the Advocate in which the reviewer, Paul W. Mandel '51, attacked one of the magazine's writers, Donald Hall '51, for "technical obscurity," specifically the use of the word "Zeitgeist." Mandel complained that "this reviewer had to look it up and you might have to too." Well, Hall didn't like the review and he protested to the CRIMSON. A friend of his on the Lampoon named John P. C. Train didn't like it either, and wrote us a letter saying so.

All of which is to lead up to the fact that a new literary magazine has been published, that both Hall and Train are on its staff, and that the magazine's manifesto proclaims that it will "strive to give predominant space to the fiction and poetry of both established and new writers, rather than to people who use words like Zeitgeist." The manifesto was written by William Styron, young author of the excellent novel "Lie Down in Darkness," whose pet phobia is the word, "Zeitgeist." He writes in the preface to the first issue of "The Paris Review" that "I still don't like the word, perhaps because, complying with the traditional explanation of intolerance, I am ignorant of what it means." The wheel has come full circle and it is a good thing, for not only is the first issue of The Paris Review an example of anti-Zeitgeist literature, but it is an excellent magazine, full of pleasant art and honest writing.

Aside from its mere excellence, The Paris Review's main attraction for the Harvard audience will be its air of being a literary Alumni Bulletin, for its masthead is sprinkled with names that of late graced the Advocate, the 'Poon, and (caveat emptor!), the Yale Daily News. Its editor and chief backer, George A. Plimpton, headed the Lampoon four years ago, its managing editor, Thomas Guinzburg, held the same position at the Yalie Daily in 1950, while Peter Matthiessen, the fiction editor, recently taught creative writing in New Haven. Harold Humes and Thomas Spang of the business staff are local products, and Train, noted for his verse, cartoons, and stories in the 1950-51 Lampoon, is listed as the Business Manager of the Review. In short, the new publication is, as the Yalies say, "shoe."

Varied Fiction

Like the entire publication, the fiction is varied and well-balanced. The scenes of the four stories are Paris, Southern California, the American South, and a Nazi outpost in Germany during the last war, and the styles of the writers are as varied as their settings. But the noteworthy thing about the fiction is that the story which takes place in Paris cannot be called a "Paris story," just as the one which occurs on the Gulf Coast is not a "Southern story" and the German one is not a "war story." The fiction takes flavor of language and character from its settings, but it is not restricted by them.

In "Death on the Aveneu de Segur" Antoine Blondin takes the reader on a priest's errand of mercy through a small apartment house. As the priest goes from floor to floor, in search of a dying woman known only by the name of Morderet, Blondin presents a series of sharp character sketches: the retired general whose "majestic wife knits him regulation ear-muffs," the hunchback who practices the samba with a chair held in his arms, the robbers who once burglarized an apartment ("they carried down the garbage when they left, it was right on their way, after all"). No one knows of the woman named Morderet; we discover she is a chambermaid, known only as Elina, for "in what records are inscribed the family names of old servants? For Eternity, servants have only a first name, like saints." The story is told softly, but its point--"how to make ourselves known"--comes across without blurring.

"Troubador" by Eugene Walter is a neatly humorous story of a solemn Louisiana boy and a credulous old lawyer. Much of my satisfaction with the story came from Walter's mastery of the intricacies of Southern language. The phrase, "Oh, I can't abide creepie-crawlies" evokes Texas and Louisiana more convincingly for me than any amount of slopped-on dialect. Matthiessen's story "A Replacement" rings true in its dialog between a captured American flier and a German officer in the dying days of the last war. The least pleasing bit of fiction is "The Accident" by a young Texas writer called Terry Southern. An excerpt from a novel, it is well-told and at times exciting, but it lacks orientation; one wants to know what came previously and what comes afterward.

Pleasant Poetry

The poetry is led by Hall's "Exile", which won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford last year. It is solid in imagery and theme and is not easily forgotten. And I especially liked the almost-epigrammatic conciseness of George Stener's "Fish Story", a poem about poetry:

Loose from the critical reel

a poem plunges once more,

moves beneath manifest currents

outward from net and from shore.

The rest of the issue contains a wealth of substantial material; a crunchy interview with E. M. Forster on "The Art of Fiction," some lithe sketches by Tom Keogh, and a series of commentaries, including a particularly moving account of a Parisian cemetary, powerful in its understatement. For the former locals, Robert Bly has contributed two poems, and Train, a "Paris Commentary." The poems are enjoyable stimulants, but Train seems overwhelmed by the task of portraying the new expatriates. At any rate, his prose seems pompous and even at times mucky, a far cry from his Lampoon days and a bit too bad, since his commentary contains some acute observations.

But this is only a minor objection. The issue as a whole is remarkable for its high level of writing and its craftsman-like appearance. Perhaps its editors will have more trouble corraling such a stable of foreign professionals for its future issues, but since it is to be only a quarterly, there is hope that consistency will be upheld. And most important of all is the fact that the present generation, without blasts of childish rebellion and with its collars still carefully buttoned-down, has produced a magazine of its own, a magazine dedicated not to any inbred school of literature, but to the simple god of quality.

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