Will Hunt | An excerpt from Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet | Spiegel & Grau | January 2019 | 26 minutes (6,748 words)
And I stared through that obscurity,
I saw what seemed a cluster of great towers,
Whereat I cried, “Master, what is this city?”
—Dante, Canto XXXI, The Inferno
The first person to photograph the underground of Paris was a gallant and theatrical man with a blaze of red hair, known as Nadar. Once described by Charles Baudelaire as “the most amazing example of vitality,” Nadar was among the most visible and electric personalities in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. He was a showman, a dandy, a ringleader of the bohemian art world, but he was known especially as the city’s preeminent photographer. Working out of a palatial studio in the center of the city, Nadar was a pioneer of the medium, as well as a great innovator. In 1861, Nadar invented a battery-operated light, one of the first artificial lights in the history of photography. To show off the power of his “magic lantern,” as he called it, he set out to take photographs in the darkest and most obscure spaces he could find: the sewers and catacombs beneath the city. Over the course of several months, he took hundreds of photographs in subterranean darkness, each requiring an exposure of eighteen minutes. The images were a revelation. Parisians had long known about the cat’s cradle of tunnels, crypts, and aqueducts beneath their streets, but they had always been abstract spaces, whispered about, but seldom seen. For the first time, Nadar brought the underworld into full view, opening Paris’s relationship to its subterranean landscape: a connection that, over time, grew stranger, more obsessive, and more intimate than that of perhaps any city in the world.
A century and a half after Nadar, I arrived in Paris, along with Steve Duncan and a small crew of urban explorers, with an aim to investigate the city’s relationship to its underground in a way no one had before. We planned a traverse — a walk from one edge of the city to the other, traveling exclusively by subterranean infrastructure. It was a trip Steve had dreamed up back in New York: we’d spent months planning, studying old maps of the city, consulting Parisian explorers, and tracing potential routes. The expedition, in theory, was tidy. We would descend into the catacombs just outside the southern frontier of the city, near Porte d’Orléans; if all went according to plan, we’d emerge from the sewers near Place de Clichy, beyond the northern border. As the crow flies, the route was about six miles, a stroll you could make between breakfast and lunch. But the subterranean route — as the worm inches, let’s say — would be winding and messy and roundabout, with lots of zigzagging and backtracking. We had prepared for a two- or three-day trek, with nights camping underground. Read more…
Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)
D. H. Lawrence once used chickens to describe the two types of women. “A really up-to-date woman is a cocksure woman,” he wrote. “She is the modern type.” The other type is the hensure woman, “the old-fashioned demure woman who was sure as a hen is sure, that is, without knowing about it.’’ He made other references to animals and birds in his work. He often used animal lives to describe sex and male desire. “The desire rose again, his penis began to stir like a live bird,” he wrote of a man in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence seemed to have thrived on the animal spirit. Three of his novels are called The Fox, Kangaroo and The White Peacock. The more the woods and the old mining towns of his childhood seemed to give way to industrial landscapes, the more easily animals seemed to have crept into his work. Often animals from these woods were imagined as insensible beasts. The chapter called “Rabbit” in Women in Love comes to mind, where a pet sustains society’s adulation until the moment it turns against its owners.
The beast in Qiu Miaojin’s modernist novels is the consciousness in women that is aware of a deviant lust for women’s bodies. Their sexuality is their bestiality. They are not necessarily hiding behind their animal pseudonyms; but like any animal on the fringes of human settlement, they are loath to be seen. The narrator of Qiu’s cult classic Notes of a Crocodile declares very early in the novel, “I’m a woman who loves women.” Yet a few pages later, she thinks she should carry her shoes and tiptoe down the streets of Taipei so that no one will notice her. In the industrial Taiwanese society where these women live, the self-discovery of their own sexuality is considered to be a social condition and an epidemic. It made for cheap television and for trash talk. In Taiwan in 1987, everybody seemed very interested in knowing who among them was a “crocodile.” Read more…
Below is the first chapter from Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s incisive hybrid book of memoir, cultural criticism, and social history about the female urban walker, the contemplative, observant, and untold counterpart to the masculine flâneur. Our thanks to Elkin and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris at university, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that year. I can’t say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly,’ was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway, has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the façade of an hôtel particulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed, which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work, a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food, or its museums; not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse; but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the Avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of ‘& co,’ and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for ‘pinecone,’ pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Sélect, Le Dôme, and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up. Read more…
On our July 26, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, Editor-in-Chief Mike Dang, and Senior Editor Kelly Stout share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.
This week, the editors discuss stories in Pacific Standard, The Paris Review, and Topic.
3:37 “Losing The News.” (Brent Cunningham, July 23, 2019, Pacific Standard)
13:05 “The Crane Wife.” (CJ Hauser, July 16, 2019, The Paris Review)
23:59 “The Teens Who Play Dead to Save Lives.” (Andy Wright, July 2019, Topic)
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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.
It’s going to take a lot of work to correct history so that it includes all the great women whose lives and work have been overlooked and obliterated by the patriarchy. But strides are being made! The New York Times is retroactively publishing obituaries of notable women and others who aren’t straight white men. And now The Paris Review, which had virtually erased one of its own women editors from its masthead, as A.N. Devers reported last December *, has launched something of a corrective: “Feminize Your Cannon,” a monthly series featuring “underrated and underread” female authors.
The first installment, by Emma Garman, profiles British Novelist Olivia Manning (1908-1980), known best for her novel School for Love and for her Balkan and Levant trilogies.
It took Manning until late in her career to achieve a level of real acclaim, perhaps because her stories drew on harsher aspects of real life and less likable women characters — aspects that might have been better appreciated if she were publishing now. Manning was so vocally dissatisfied with her career she was known as “Olivia Moaning.” A contemporary of Iris Murdoch and Kingsley Amis, she was outwardly jealous of their greater success and fame. She’d bristled at the idea that she’d be more successful posthumously, but that’s what came to pass.
Seven years after her death in 1980 at age seventy-two, the BBC aired Fortunes of War, a faithful seven-part adaptation of the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy. Starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh and featuring multiple international locations, the series had the highest budget in BBC history. Masterpiece Theatre’s broadcast of the show in the U.S. prompted the New York Times to call Manning “the only English woman novelist to have painted a broad, compassionate and witty canvas of men and women at war that invites comparison with Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.”
Manning would have been gratified to finally hear it—and then disappointed anew. Today those who have read Manning’s novels (usually only the trilogies, as most of the others are out of print) tend to admire them. But her place in the pantheon of important twentieth-century British novelists, even of rediscovered women authors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann, is marginal and precarious. The scholar and critic Rohan Maitzen, when writing about Manning, found “that her name was wholly unfamiliar to two of my academic colleagues who are specialists in early 20th-century literature.” None of Manning’s work is available on Kindle.
“Not all writers of genius take the public by storm,” she writes in her introduction to a 1968 edition of Northanger Abbey. “Jane Austen in her lifetime was successful without being a sensation.” The self-consolation is touchingly evident.
In the mean time, Devers soldiers on in her efforts to make sure women authors are given their due and more widely read. She’s just successfully crowdfunded a new business, The Second Shelf, which will offer “rare books, modern first editions, manuscripts, & rediscovered works by women,” plus a quarterly publication.
A.N. Devers | Longreads | December 2017 | 26 minutes (6,577 words)
This is a story about a woman who was erased from her job as the editor of the most famous literary magazine in America.
In 2011, the New York Times ran Julie Bosman’s energetic and gregarious profile of Lorin Stein, the latest head editor of the famous literary magazine The Paris Review — a position for which she declared, “Bacchanalian nights are practically inscribed in the job description.” The profile portrayed Stein as an intellectual bon vivant who loved parties, party-boy banter, and debating literature as if it were the most important thing in the world.
We know now that Stein, by his own admission, abused his power with women writers and staff of the Paris Review. He has resigned from the literary magazine and from his editor-at-large position at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in response to the board of the Paris Review’s investigation into sexual harassment allegations and his conduct. We also know, by his own admission, that he did not treat literature as the most important thing in the world.
Stein himself admitted it in a cringeworthy 2013 online feature from Refinery29 focused not only on the magazine’s debaucherous parties but also on the interior decor of the Paris Review’s offices and fashion choices of the staffers, who were nearly all women. “It’s always been two things at once,” he says about the Review. “On the one hand, it’s a hyper-sophisticated, modernist, avant-garde magazine. On the other hand, it’s sort of a destination party.”
We now know, between this and Bosman’s piece, even without details of the accusations or reports printed in the Times, or the far worse accusations listed in the “Shitty Media Men” list, that these are glaringly honest portrayals of Stein’s priorities at the helm of the Paris Review. Unfortunately.
Also unfortunate was the error in Bosman’s piece naming Stein as the third editor to “hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” Stein was actually the fourth. Brigid Hughes, the editor who succeeded George Plimpton, had been inexplicably left out of the profile. She was also not mentioned in the piece announcing Stein’s successorship of Philip Gourevitch; although there was no factual error, she was simply ignored.
Since publishing his first novel Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, Walter Mosley has consistently written some of the most beloved crime fiction depicting the ongoing struggle at the heart of America: racism and race relations. Mosley is best known for his series featuring black Los Angeles detective Easy Rawlins, but he’s also written album notes, science fiction, short stories, screenplays, and won a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award. In the spring issue of The Paris Review, Thomas Gebremedhin spoke at length with Mosley about how he started writing, literary longevity, black male heroes, publishing, and the mystery genre.
Do you plot your novels in advance?
No, I just start writing. I don’t have any plan. I wait to find out where it goes. Sometimes I do an outline, but even then, that’s not really a plan, because I don’t really follow it. The novel is bigger than your head. A novel is a gigantic, rambling, incredible thing. All you can do is start. Roy Lichtenstein, who I knew quite well actually, would say the reason most painters fail at art—not at painting, but at art—is because they know what the picture is going to be before they approach the canvas. So the whole idea that there are things you should say or want to say or have to say—fuck that.
Charcoal Joe is your fourteenth Easy Rawlins book. You once said that the eleventh novel in the series, Blonde Faith, was going to be your last, yet you continued writing. Why do you keep returning to Easy? What is it about him?
When I finished Blonde Faith, I couldn’t see another book coming out of Easy. I couldn’t even imagine it. I realized, finally, that I’d reached the border of my father’s life and was entering into the world of my life. I decided if I wrote from that vantage point, from that point of view, I could write the novels exactly the same but with my experience forming it, rather than the experiences of my father and his generation.
Do you have an end in mind?
I don’t know if I have an end plan. It depends who lives longer, Easy or me.
We’re taught that all narrative conflicts boil down to one of three stories: man versus man, man versus himself, or man versus nature. So what about women? Megan Mayhew Bergman takes to the pages of The Paris Review, looking for depictions of women acting and exploring with agency—from fictional women like Judith in Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting, to modern explorers like Rahawa Haile—and finding not nearly enough, and not much range. Still, there are inspiring examples of women taking on nature, and the hopeful note that women will continue carving out large spaces in adventure art and literature.
In the midfifties, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, sixty-seven years old and mother of eleven children, became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail. She carried her gear in a homemade knapsack and slept under a shower curtain. She wore Keds. Emma was a survivor of domestic abuse: she had been nearly beaten to death by her husband more than once; when she divorced him, he threatened to commit her to an insane asylum. In 1955, she turned to her kids and told them, I’m going on a walk. She completed the 2,168-mile trail three times, the last when she was seventy-five years old.
In the sixties, Audrey Sutherland, who was raising four children alone on Oahu, would leave for weeks at a time to take solo expeditions. She explored the northern coast of Molokai, swimming in jeans and pulling her camping gear behind her in an army bag. From 1980 to 2003, she explored over eight thousand miles of waterways in Alaska and British Columbia, traveling with an inflatable kayak.
I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?
I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?
Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.
I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.
At The Paris Review, writer and creative director Glenn O’Brien narrates the comic struggle of making a living in the arts, particularly the way many creative types struggle with whether or not to go into advertising. He doesn’t.