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Radically cutting a path from the past Throwbacks to a literary life

In an age of blogging and ephemera, these writers hold fast to a penchant for serious contemporary literature.

April 20, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Is it possible to lead a dedicated literary life in the billionaire-filled, media-crazed New York of today? To be heedless of the material world as you burrow into novels and ideas the way the old Partisan Review gang did in the '40s and '50s, to come up with notions that rock the intellectual landscape? And if so, who exactly is still paying attention?

Those are questions three reasonably young men are asking now in much-awaited first novels that emerge over the next few weeks. Each novelist takes a very different position toward rendering literary life in a city where bohemian writers have been forced out by hedge-fund guys. And each co-edits a journal that is proud, almost defiant about its print status -- in a nation where the image has been replacing the word for at least half a century now, and even some well-funded publications are in free-fall.

Outside of a few college towns, perhaps, it's hard now to embrace the cerebral unapologetically without a sense of irony, of operating a bit out of time. But that didn't stop Keith Gessen and some Ivy League-educated friends from launching, in 2004, the ambitious and pugilistic journal n+1, which was greeted by some as a kind of knowing, intellectual stunt. "Oh, no," Gessen, who has heavy brows and a wide Russian mouth, said one recent evening. "It wasn't a joke."

That first issue was dedicated mostly to outlining what it opposed. "We were against the New Republic, we were against McSweeney's, we were against the war, we were against exercise," Gessen continued, sitting in a dive bar on the Upper West Side, where he once lived in an illegal sublet before decamping for Brooklyn, like most of the city's other literati. "And to this day we're against many things."

At this point he's kidding, but he's a serious guy: His journal is dedicated first and foremost, he said, to bringing "a fighting spirit" back to a conflict-averse literary culture.

The Moscow-born Gessen, 33, may be the end of the line, the last of the bold, hungry, text-based thinkers, a throwback to the heyday of Dissent, the quarterly at which he once toiled. His semi-autobiographical novel, "All the Sad Young Literary Men," came out last week to mostly strong reviews. His journal, meanwhile, takes what might be called the hard-line position on intellectual life: We don't need more creativity, it says, we need more rigorous argument and political commitment. With Nathaniel Rich, a Paris Review editor whose surreal novel, "The Mayor's Tongue," came out last week, and Ed Park, the Believer co-founder and author of the upcoming "Personal Days," which takes the glamour entirely out of the world of literary journalism, Gessen shows the pleasures and perils of taking ideas seriously in a city attuned more to Dow Jones than Irving Howe.

Greenwich's golden era

"It was like Paris in the twenties, with the difference that it was our city," critic Anatole Broyard wrote in "Kafka Was the Rage," his memoir of post-World War II Greenwich Village. "The Village was charming, shabby, intimate, accessible, almost like a street fair. We lived in the bars and on the benches of Washington Square. We shared the adventure of trying to be, starting to be, writers or painters."

These were also the days when the brilliant young sons -- and much more rarely, daughters -- of immigrants from the shtetl rolled up their sleeves and developed a brand of criticism both modern and vital. It was a tonic to the genteel tradition that held sway in the academy.

As the title of Alfred Kazin's 1995 recollection had it, "Writing Was Everything." Literature and ideas were akin to religion.

But that was a long time ago. "I always kind of cringe when I hear people talk about literary things as if they're separate from everyday life," said Rich, who's also interested in old movies and indie rock. "Some specialized, rarefied region of the mind or something."

Park, Gessen and Rich -- who as editors and novelists serve as gatekeepers and creators simultaneously -- show how the idea of the New York Intellectual has fragmented.

Rich, who wears blazers and has a mop of dark hair and delicate features that make him seem almost elfin, has the smooth manner of someone born into a tradition and trying not to take unfair advantage. (He's the Dalton-and-Yale-educated son of New York Times columnist Frank Rich.) He's the intellectual as gentleman: Rich spent a full five years writing his novel before telling anyone but his closest friends.

"I didn't want to be the guy at the party," he said from an airy TriBeCa cafe near his office, "where everyone was saying, 'When's Nat's novel coming out?' " He'd rather talk about his favorite obscure writers -- the cynical and obsessive but also compassionate Italo Svevo, the wildly comic Irishman Flann O'Brien -- or the hills of Italy, than discuss himself.

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