01 Dec Oh my! How the evening is spread out against the sky
This review by Olivia Rose Walton was originally published in Volume 1, Issue 1 of South African literary magazine, Prufrock.
On an April evening in Manhattan, The Paris Review held its 60th Annual Spring Revel in celebration of the magazine and the writers it publishes. Olivia Walton reports back from the party.
The day after The Paris Review Spring Revel I walked out of the subway on Lexington and 42nd and up the street to Cipriani with the sun in my eyes and the feeling that if I were awake – or even really on solid ground at all – it was only just. It was before ten in the morning and I hadn’t had much sleep. My hair was still wet when I woke up.
Kenny the doorman was standing on the steps. ‘Good morning, good morning, how you doin’?’
He stood there in his freckles and coattails and pointed down to where Matthew, another Paris Review intern, had gone to get coffee. I thanked him and walked off, thinking, that’s the kind of guy who would beat up anyone who offered his little brother drugs. And there was Matthew, coming up the street, walking in the way he does when he thinks no-one he knows is watching him. There’s something of the L’Oreal TV ad in it, only he had on a Paris Review trucker cap.
It was sunny and early and we couldn’t start packing up yet – no boxes, no van – so we walked around the block. Or just up the street; somewhere, anyway, but it’s blurred. We bought yoghurt and fruit and ate leaning against the walls of Cipriani, where the party was held. The suits went streaming past us, all looking straight ahead or talking into those tiny headsets. When they do that, they don’t look so different from the mad men and women on the subway. Or from the old lady who sits, knees up and rocking, on the steps of the bank on the corner of East 3rd and Avenue C. ‘Spare change, any spare change, spare change,’ she says.
One by one the other interns arrived, and we stood there: eating bagels, talking about the night before. There was a lot to talk about.
‘Excuse me, Mr Eugenides? I’m sorry –’
‘I’m sorry to interrupt you – would you mind signing this for me?’
‘If you have a pen.’
‘I have a pen. And, sorry, Ms Heller? Would you – do you mind? Signing too?’
‘Sure, of course.’
‘It’s a chocolate bar. It’s for my friend.’
The Revel happens once a year. Sometime in the earlier days of the magazine, Fred Seidel suggested they call the parties held in honour of the magazine ‘revels’, and it stuck. ‘Gala’ would never do. You don’t call a party on an island in the East River at which a grand piano gets left out in the woods all night a ‘gala’. So instead, we revel in all that The Paris Review is and all we imagine it to be. Especially us, the lowly interns. For weeks we have posted letters with handwritten names: Di Caprio, Kennedy, Franzen, Hemingway, Trump. A patchy bunch, writers and rich kids and misfits and editors.
‘Imagine Hemingway’s granddaughter comes.’
‘Do you think Leo will?’
‘He bought a table last year.’
‘Oh my god I want to meet Lorrie Moore…’
And so it goes.
First, though, we have to put the whole damn thing together.
The morning of the Revel, started for us at 11. By then the place already looked like a banquet hall from the Belle Époque. Or at least from Woody Allen’s version of it. Glasses and silver forks shone from white table clothes, and between the tables walked waiters, their hands full of things that break easily.
We unloaded box after box from the van: magazines new and old, books, chocolates handmade in Brooklyn, votive candles. (It is offerings we are asking for, after all.) Terrariums with tiny silver typewriters in them. Some of them even had paper.
The van driver’s accent lilted as he gave me instructions. Take this, hold that, naw, wait a second.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Jamaica.’ He smiled and the sun bounced off his glasses. I thought of cricket and told him I’d always wanted to go there.
‘Yes, it’s a good place,’ he said. I remember telling my mother we should move there instead of Cape Town. She looked at me: ‘So, instead of the country with the highest murder rate in the world you want to move to the one with the second highest murder rate in the world?’
‘Yes,’ I said. I was ten, so I didn’t think about it ‘til later. Now, in the hot shade on 41st Street, I wasn’t sure how to tell the man this story. The boxes were done.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Junior.’ He offered his hand, smiling. ‘And yours?’
‘Olivia,’ I said. He locked up the van and I turned back to help carry the boxes inside. The tall buildings made the heat sit low on the ground, so it gathered like water in the furrows alongside the road. Up above Grand Central the winged statue looked hot too, and dirty.
Inside, things were different. Cipriani was once the Bowery Savings Bank. I didn’t say this to anyone, but it made me think of the goblins’ bank in Harry Potter. From heavy chains hang tiered brass lights, studded with bands of gold stars. Chinese Buddhas sit above the 41st Street entrance, watching the coming and going of waiters, van drivers, delivery boys, Kenny the doorman and the curious as they wander in off the street. On 42nd Street, red plush ropes keep the curious on the sidewalk.
If you are allowed inside, the air chills you before your eyes have a chance to adjust to the light. And after a minute you can see the ceiling, three or four storeys above you. Old bank teller windows make a ring sectioning off the middle dining area. Some still have their signs up: Teller 1, Foreign Exchange, Sending Direct Saves You Money. I imagine the grandfathers of the men striding by outside, sitting here counting coins and cashing cheques. New York wasn’t so used to such big men and their money a hundred years ago. It gave them all this marble and polished bronze, the dark wood and the gilding, just to make sure everyone knew what they were there to do: be rich.
We started. Boxes were unpacked, tables covered with books and magazines: The Paris Review makes a pretty centre piece. Again and again we crossed the floors that made a moat around the dining area. Soon the twisted and curled marble patterns looked less like stone roses and more like Medusa’s hair. Eventually, though, we were done.
‘Be ready by 6:30,’ the Events Manager told us. In the Green Room, which was dark and polished and not green at all, was a tray of jellybeans and some bottles of sparkling water. People wandered in and out and slowly accumulated on the couches and chairs to eat jellybeans and talk: which dress works best? Was Joan Didion invited? Will we get too drunk if we have cocktails before? God, I’m so excited. Green apple or buttered popcorn flavour?
The room started to feel crowded; we’d been there all day. The whole city was moving around now, at five in the afternoon. It was like baby crocodiles outside, making fat zigzags into the subways, out of the subways, over the streets, under the steps.
We stepped out into damp, hot air. We, the labouring and now caffeinated interns, decided we should walk around, look at some shoe shops. So we did. The man at the door of one told us we couldn’t take our coffees inside so we stood outside and drank some – they were iced, so this was easy – but realising it was too much, we decided to hide them behind a column. We reasoned that we’d never pick up a coffee off a New York sidewalk, so why would anybody else?
We came back out of the shop carrying a bag and a box, and there were our coffees. I thought about what it would feel like to drink coffee spiked with some drug or other in late afternoon in midtown Manhattan, before The Paris Review‘s Spring Revel. Not that different, I decided.
We headed to Grand Central and found one of the other interns. She’d been in there for almost an hour and looked dazed. Understandably so. Look up and the stars and turquoise made your head spin; look down and all you saw was a swirl of people. Once, when I was small, we’d had a drought and for some reason when I switched on the bathroom tap no water came out – just a torrent of ants, a strange glossy skin that covered my hands. The water followed, and I watched the ants spiral down the drain. This is what Grand Central looks like from the mezzanine. Prettier, though, with all those zodiac creatures watching.
It is cocktail hour. We are all neatly and nervously standing and drinking. The guests are arriving.
‘What’s in this?’
‘Grapefruit juice. Definitely.’
‘Do you think so? With champagne?’
‘Yes definitely grapefruit.’
We ask the barman.
A peach Bellini, he says. Peach juice and champagne.
I have another sip.
‘I’ll have a whisky please.’
I look at the labels. One is particularly simple, black text on a white label. I choose it. The barman pours it onto some ice. It tastes like smoke.
‘Is that Mona Simpson?’
‘Yes, oh my god.’
And that is definitely Fred Seidel. He looks just like that black-and-white poster of him in the office bathrooms.
(By this I mean wise and vaguely demonic.)
Later, I ask The Associate Editor. ‘That old man there, at that table, is that Fred Seidel?’
He leans across me to see better. ‘No, that’s not him. I have no idea who that is.’
Soon the room is full, crowded even. Someone knocks my martini down my dress. We are like birdwatchers, eyeing out the foliage around us, looking for the people we want to approach. I am introduced over and over to people whose names I don’t always recognise. I feel that I should. Why are they all so well-dressed?
‘You have to meet Jon-Jon,’ someone says.
Jon-Jon’s head is shaved and he has a tattoo around his neck, a black line with a triangular pendant that looks like a lion’s tooth. I think of the lion’s tooth necklace my grandmother has. When I was six and I pricked my finger on it, I demanded to be its inheritor. His is a little smaller, a little sharper.
‘Jon-Jon, this is Olivia, one of our interns.’
‘Hi Olivia. Enjoying yourself?’
‘I am. It’s fantastic.’
‘And we’ll see you at the after party? For some real dancing?’
The Editorial Assistant, who introduced us, whispers to me as we walk away. Something about dancing and cocaine, but I can’t really hear her.
Waiters start to march into the crowd and herd people to their tables. The can-can dancers are onstage, smiling red smiles. They dance, and we applaud. Then The Editor walks onto the stage.
This is when I realise that the glamour of all this is just for fun, just because we can. It was never the real purpose. Yes, these are people who expect and take pleasure in good things. Later they will crowd into a five-storied Manhattan house and drink and smoke and talk until five in the morning. They are elegant, and they are used to each other’s elegance. But of all the good things they have to choose from, literature is the most beloved. Maybe this is because everything else – power and adventure, courage and absurdity, sex, hilarity, kindness, friendship, good food, distant cities – can be found in the writing. So it is the writing that we value, and the writers.
It is not merely an epicurean kind of value we give them, of course. Good writing is an entirely different thing from good living. The trick is that it is essential, and that it reveals something beneath the mere living, whether awful or good, that illuminates life. That is how The Paris Review came to honour Paula Fox and Otessa Moshfegh on one night. One is a woman whose books were written decades ago, and who was almost – but not quite – forgotten. The other is a new writer, a young woman still nervous on the stage.
The Editor climbs up onstage to hold a torch over Paula Fox’s notes so that she can see them better. She is quiet, sombre. Next to her, The Editor with his well-cut suit and well-cut manners looks like a schoolboy. With him there, the rest of us become eavesdroppers. The pair sit hunched over some papers with their heads almost touching, as she explains why it is that she writes.
Later, on a balcony in that big house in Manhattan, I ask an old man for a cigarette. He is lounging in a chair. Of course, he says. Help yourself. We start talking. He tells us of his old friends Nancy and Unity Mitford. There is a comment about dubious politics and excellent parties. I ask him how he enjoyed the Revel. ‘Marvellous!’ he says. I sat across the table from the woman of my dreams, he says. She is the one for me.
‘How did you know?’ I ask.
‘That she is the one for you?’
‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘you just know.’ He offers me another cigarette.
Slowly the crowd thins, and those who are left settle into their corners and their drinks. A friend of mine, a former Bollywood actress doing an MFA at Columbia, demands drags of The Editor’s cigarettes. He smiles and says nothing but hands them to her, and she hands them to me. This is easy, I think. I will just stand here and smoke and observe. There is no need to talk; listening is much more interesting.
I am introduced to someone. After I say my name, he says: ‘You’re not from here.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Are you from New Jersey?’
‘No. Not at all.’
‘Didn’t think so,’ he says. ‘I just ask everyone who is not from New York if they’re from New Jersey. It’s kind of a joke.’
They say New York is not America. This house and this balcony certainly are not, not the America of Dunkin’ Donuts and the NRA, anyway. A friend leans forward and says, ‘I can’t stop thinking of The Great Gatsby’. I turn to look over the balcony rails. The backs of the other houses are dimly lit, and the trees are blacker than the sky. Even in the middle of the night that sky is never black.
Later, we are in the living room, where a band is playing French swing. There are not many people left. The Web Editor, a drink in each hand, sways forward and tells me about his eighteen-pound cat and his eight pound dog. I laugh at him, turn to the other interns and say I feel like dancing.
The guitarist hears me. ‘You feel like dancing?’ he says.
‘Ok, then we dance.’ Quickly the music changes. As we dance, The Benefactor sits back on a couch, smiling, his hand on the knee of a woman in a headdress. He played the piano earlier in the night, and we all sat still to listen. Now, when we suggest leaving, he says ‘No, god no, stay. Stay.’
An hour or more goes by before the last of us are out on the street climbing into cabs or walking to the subway. At home, I set my alarm. Sleep is easy.
A few days later I read a transcription of The Editor’s speech.
‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘The Paris Review is not like other magazines.’
Olivia Rose Walton is a writer from Cape Town who lives and works in Istanbul.
Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za. Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every week.
Illustration by Jonny Smith.