Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Paris Review Daily Glides into James Salter Month

It's James Salter month at The Paris Review Daily, and this coincides with the magazine's blog coming into its own as the model for literary blogs, truly worth a daily read.

At the dawn of the World Wide Web, or the brower-surfable web, in 1994 or 1995, the magazine launched its first on-line incarnation, courtesy of the multi-media company Voyager/Criterion Collection. Really, I think it was simply a page with a few covers, a list of contents, and an address to send a subscription check. Nevertheless, it was chosen by WIRED magazine as one of the top ten sites on the web. Competition wasn't exactly stiff, as there were at that time only a few thousand sites on the web.

All these years after, including a period when the magazine disappeared from the web, and the recent years when there was a handsome site used only for announcements, The Paris Review Daily has become something of another order. In June, new Editor Lorin Stein's introductory note announced:
Since its founding in 1953, The Paris Review has devoted itself to publishing “the good writers and good poets,” regardless of creed or school or name-recognition. In that time the Review has earned a reputation as the chief discoverer of what is newest and best in contemporary writing.

But a quarterly only comes out…well, you know. We have been looking for a way to keep in touch with our readers between issues, and to call attention to our favorite writers and artists in something close to real time. If the Review embodies a sensibility, this Daily will try, in a casual and haphazard and at times possibly frivolous way, to put that sensibility into words.

The first few months began haltingly, and frankly a bit sophomorically. Elizabeth Bowen once said the she tried to not use a word more than once on a single page. In the first few weeks of the relaunched website there was a scatological word or five in every single post... but then it was, after all, Terry Southern month.

The site, under the direction of the wonderfully-named Thessaly La Force, has since expanded to showcase original literature, commentary on design, biography, television, translation, as well as a whimsical advice column, and links to interesting articles on other sites. The sports writing has been surprisingly good... but then the magazine's Maximum Editor George Plimpton did his best writing about sports... or rather used sports to leap into his best writing, a sort of mnemonic device, as he might have said, and did whenever he asked a writer their own gateway to creativity. I especially commend to you Louisa Thomas on the US Open and Will Frears on the recent World Cup... topnotch sport reportage. I only wish there was a bit more about poetry and poets... those "unacknowledged legislators" left unacknowledged again.

But I've especially enjoyed the series of tributes to James Salter, American letters finest living stylist. Of particular note, Louisa Thomas, again, on James Salter's writing about skiing is a fitting tribute to the master. She writes... and I hope I'll be forgiven by TPR Daily for quoting at such length... but it is good:

I read There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter for the parts about skiing the way one reads A Sport and a Pastime for the sex. In fact Salter writes about skiing the way he writes about sex: as something luminous, clean, somehow moral. This was a few years ago, when I was obsessed with skiing; I thought about it all the time. In Salter I sensed a sympathetic hunger, the longing for something transcendent, pointless, permanent, and always vanishing. There aren’t many good authors who write about skiing. Hemingway does a little. Salter does it a lot, as a way of writing about something else, just as writing about sex is a way of writing about other things: beauty, courage, obsession, mastery—mostly, someone else’s mastery.

When I skied, or when I thought about skiing, a beautiful skier would stop me in my tracks. He would slide over a lip into a bowl or glade, or drop into a little chute out of bounds. His solid body would become liquid, slipping through the snow, as he found the fall line. I would watch his back and then fly after him, tracking him, fearless and afraid. “What enables you to learn?” Salter asks. “It’s simple: desire.” [...]

“There is always that lone skier,” Salter writes, “oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.” What Salter is describing is not quite jealousy; it is awe. Awe can create a sense of obligation. In the presence of that skier you can never be, skiing becomes a devotional act. [...] To read Salter on the skiing life is to be aware of this life’s reward: the feeling of a turn, the glide and cut, the nervy edges. The speed and focus. The sun on the mountains. The feeling of being free. [...]

I read “The Skiing Life” now and I miss the skiing life. It is, of course, a life I never really had. Two years ago I did go skiing again, in Jackson Hole. On run after run, I was extraordinarily happy. On the chairlifts gliding up, I looked out for that girl, that beautiful skier. I wanted to see her very badly. I saw more patrolmen pulling stretchers than I could count.

At night I slept on a bench in a cabin in Grand Teton National Park. In the mornings we heard the avalanche warnings. I thought of Meta Burden, a beautiful skier who had died in Aspen in a flood of snow. Salter had written about her. She was a “goddess,” he said. “They dug her out in the dark and carried her body down.”

See The Paris Review Daily HERE. Consider bookmarking it, or even reading it daily.

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