Tag Archives: Rebecca Solnit

Cosby,Cosby, Cosby ad infinitum

22 Nov
Billy WIlder's Headstone [photographer unknown]

Billy WIlder’s Headstone [photographer unknown]

Personally I’d rather hear news about David Crosby or Bing Crosby or Milton Cosby than this perpetual motion news engine propelled by the Bill Cosby mess. One would hope that with all the opinion-offering and herd bellowing that some original ideas might be bandied about. As I see it the root problem is that the micro view of this episode yields fruitless results (though I would be curious to know what would be considered a just solution under present law). I stand with George Scialabba (expressed in a recent chat)and others in viewing the problem as systemic— with all our lesser angels courted by a corrupt and degraded political and economic system.

Sexual abuse,domestic violence and animal cruelty (out if a long list of abominations) abounds in the greatest country in history. And a quick survey of the preoccupations of the American citizenry beholds some really vile and banal shit— I expect you would have no problem finding things to put under those rubric.

A minor notion but the only thoughts have given to this current cultural imbroglio is to wonder what Camille Cosby must be thinking and feeling.

For those people interested in an original take on the Man/ Woman abyss have a peek at Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket Books). In fact, I would further recommend her Paradise Built iN Hell as an eye opening account of human kindnesses and community.

THE BEST BEST BOOKS LIST -2014*

21 Nov
The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

After I'm Gone by  Laura  Lippman

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito  Gadzano

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by

ou

Everything I Never Told by Celeste Ng

I'll Take You  There by Greg Kot

I’ll Take You There by

The Exile's Return by Elizabeth de Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth de Waal

\

Fourth  of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

We Are Not  Ourselves by  Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Euphoria by Lily KIng

Euphoria by Lily King

Hold The Dark by Wiliam Giraldi

Hold The Dark by Wiliam Giraldi

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

The Narrow Road to  The Deep  North By Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to The Deep North By Richard Flanagan

The Next Life Might  B e  Kinder by  Howard Norman

The Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman

Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Untold by Courtney Collins

The Untold by Courtney Collins

Men Explain Things to Me by  Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Something Rich and Strange by  Ron Rash

Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash

The Violence of  Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

*Because I say so?

Me and George. Talking.

5 Nov

In the new issue of the Baffler (Issue #26)writer,editor, critic George Scialabba’s forty year mental health records are presented in an abridged and annotated form with evocative illustrations by Brad Holland. Scialabba has, over the years ,suffered from severe bouts of depression and has searched for relief from this debilitating ‘disease’. Despite this burden George has published a number of essay collections—The Divided Mind, What are Intellectual Good For?, The Modern Predicament and recently For The Republic and countless articles for a wide swath of smart periodicals.

This conversation took place at Mt Auburn Cemetery on a crisp early September Sunday at the promonotory where the Washington Tower is located and that overlooks Boston looking to the east ( the name of person’s gravesite we settled at escapes me).George and I talked about his reason(s) for allowing the Baffler to publish his records and how they were edited and presented and his battle with depression. We also talked about the health care system, DH Lawrence,19th century Utopians, his religious upbringing, the state of American culture, not reading Tolstoy, some of his favorite recent reads, his ambitions and more…

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat— Antonin Artaud

RB: Say something (testing sound level).

GS: Four score and seven…

RB: The Baffler [Issue # 26] is publishing an edited version of your medical records of over forty years.

GS: My mental health records. There are no mentions of my toenail fungus.

RB: You have toenail fungus?

GS: I’m afraid so.

RB: What moved you to publish and publicize those records?

GS: Not what, who: the editor-in-chief, John Summers. Two years ago I had an episode of major depression. John and I were very good friends by then, so he offered to help—to come with me to doctors when necessary, shop for me, visit, and so on. At one point he thought it might be useful if we got my medical records. So I requested them—nowadays there is no problem getting them. We both only glanced at them back then and put them aside. Earlier this year he came across them, while he was conceiving the next issue of The Baffler, about health and the medical care system. and thought they might make an interesting document. I was … dubious, but he’s a persuasive guy and a very accomplished editor, so I said go ahead, see what you can turn them into. And he produced an excerpt that reads well and has, I think, a certain dramatic interest. He found some excellent art to illustrate it, and with a bit of commentary by me before and after, it fits into the tapestry of the issue. I don’t make great claims for it. I don’t think he does either. But because it’s the most widespread illness in the world, and there’s a lot of secrecy, of furtiveness, about it, it seemed to us that it might be worthwhile to offer this glimpse from another angle into the culture of health and sickness, which the whole issue is meant to represent

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

RB: My first reaction to this piece was to recall an anthology entitled Fakes [An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts by David Shields], which collects a variety of texts that turn out to also stand as literary items—written items that have narrative resonance. This iteration of your mental health records seems to suggest a new literary genre.

GS: I’ll have to take your word for it.

RB: How much material did John start with?

GS: About 40,000 words.

RB: That doesn’t seem like a lot for forty years, does it?

GS: There’s some stuff from the byways of my therapeutic history that I didn’t collect. But this is most of it.

RB: Is your mental health history cumulative? Does each provider pass on his or her notes upward?

GS: No, they were in three or four places.

RB: At some point, perhaps in the last ten years, did they become part of one file?

GS: No, I asked each of the three or four places where I had been seen for any length of time for their records. As far as I know, they’re still not gathered in any one place.

For the Republic by George Scialabba

For the Republic by George
Scialabba

RB: I was thinking that since medical records are being digitalized, eventually there should be one file.

GS: There are intake processes where they ask about your medications and hospitalizations.

RB: The patient is assumed to be a reliable narrator?

GS: If they think they’re looking at a potentially critical or terribly complicated case, then they will ask for the previous records. It took me a while to get mine, but the hospitals have courier service back and forth, so it’s faster for them. None of the institutions I did intake interviews with, seemed to want to see my previous records.

RB: There was a set of notes where the practitioner insisted on using the word ‘deny’—“denies suicidal ideation”, “denies whatever”—

GS: More than one.

RB: Is that standard medical jargon? There are verbs other than ‘deny’.

GS: I guess, as with so many other things in medicine, they’re being self-protective. If they had said, “the patient appears free of suicidal intent,” and then the patient committed suicide, they might be called on the carpet.

RB: That puts the onus on the patient and reveals an attitude by the practitioner toward the patient.

GS: That was my first reaction.

RB: You have denied suicidal ideation in each intake interview. In the commonplace book on your website there is a citation from Artaud:

“I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat.”

Is there more history available to you? There are big gaps.

GS: There are gaps—some of the time I was out of therapy. There is one large episode of therapy for which I couldn’t get the therapist to give up her notes.

RB: Her notes of your treatment are available at her discretion?

GS: No, I’m legally entitled to them. But I didn’t want to fight about it.

RB: Were you tempted to annotate these records more extensively?

GS: John has a notion that the longer transcript can be made into a small book, in which case I’d have to do much more work.

RB: I second that idea. Its seems strange to say this – bordering on crass – but you have Brad Holland providing wonderful illustrations …

GS: I wasn’t truly sold on the whole idea until I saw both his illustrations and the other, smaller ones in the margin. Then I knew it had to be.

RB: I’ve read a number of novels lately – Francine Prose, Amy Bloom, Anthony Doerr – where part of the story is told through letters. Prose even uses excerpts from published books to advance the narrative. So writers are using different devices—

GS: I think there’s something new in the degree to which people are incorporating little shots of non-direct narrative. I’m not sure what it means; maybe it’s just …

RB: … the last gasp. I find I like to write notes —to service providers, my doctor, my son’s guidance counselor – and in so doing I attempt to make the epistles somewhat interesting and attractive to read. Possibly many people are also intent on avoiding cliché.

GS: That may be true, but I suspect you’ll agree it isn’t true of psychotherapists. They seem to have the opposite motive —to make the sessions sound less interesting. You don’t really get a sense, I think, of an individual personality, an individual voice, an individual sensibility, on either end. I mean, there are flashes of idiosyncratic perception on the part of therapists. And there are occasions when my own voice comes through. At one point, one of my therapists says, “He’s concerned about the beginnings of gray hair, or forehead receding” and then in parenthesis (He thinks very highly of his hair).” (laughs). And it’s true, I remember I was bragging about it. But touches like that, individuating touches, there are not many of them throughout the whole record— either in what was included or in what wasn’t. And the reason for that, I have discovered since talking to my current therapist about this project, is that there are very rigorous standard procedures for writing case notes.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


RB: Does anyone read R. D Laing anymore? Did they ever?

GS: Laing is an object lesson…

RB: I am at a loss here— I think so much of psychotherapy and especially psychopharmacology is voodoo, but I have myself benefited from it. I have had therapists who have been useful in navigating the wild world. But I really don’t quite know what the diagnosis of depression means anymore. I have noted that the WHO claims depression is the world’s most widespread disease, but I wonder if people understand what that means.

GS: I wish I could explain it to you.

RB: I understand your symptoms —there are times when I have no energy or very low energy but it’s not sustained for more than a day or two. And there is no correlation to anything I can observe. I find myself taking great joy in a lot of things and being interested, being semi-productive. I would like to be more productive. But I am also trying figure out what to expect of myself at this point in my life.

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by  George Sciallabba

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by George Sciallabba

GS: Great joy pretty much disqualifies you from a diagnosis of depression.

RB: Exactly. A friend of mine from high school recently visited me and we were chatting and he, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me if we were ever asked whether we were happy when we were kids? It was never an issue.

GS: Yeah, not in my youth, either.

RB: Today, kids are always being asked and are really expected to say. A negative means bring in the psych HAZMAT team. It seems to me to be a phony issue.

GS: Well yeah, the phoniness is the critical part, I guess. Obviously, parents during our youth at least occasionally wondered or worried whether we were happy, and they wanted us to be happy. It just wasn’t thought necessary to be hovering or solicitous. Whereas now it is. Maybe it is for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s because we have a social work bureaucracy, a medical bureaucracy, which is a level of authority laid over the parents to which the parents are now in a sense accountable. And they tell the parents they ought to regularly diagnose their child’s mental health and ask if they are happy. I am not a parent so I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the general bureaucratization of medicine and family life and intimacy. So yes, it’s good now as it was then to care that your kids are happy, but how you go about manifesting it and seeing to it has changed. D. H. Lawrence, my personal guru, has an essay about child-rearing called “Education of the People”,(1) which would absolutely cause the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association to blow a collective gasket. His three cardinal rules: “1) Leave them [i.e., children] alone. 2) Leave them alone. 3) Leave them alone.”

RB: What was the response when it was published?

GS: It wasn’t published. It was found in his papers.

RB: Has it been published now?

GS: It’s in that two-volume collection, Phoenix.

RB: It’s curious – you admire and are interested in a lot of classical writers, while I rarely read anything written before 1980 and have developed a certain impatience with certain kinds of scholarship, which I respect but can’t get interested in, such as literary theory. I barely know the names of its professors.

GS: Well. I have just a very passing acquaintance with literary theory, and not much interest. It’s a matter of personal history; I guess. I got my moral education from George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James. And to some extent from 17th-century and Romantic poetry.

RB: Not the Enlightenment?

GS: Pre- and post-Enlightenment. (both laugh)

RB: Where is your Catholicism in this? Did that moral education conflict with your Catholicism?

GS: Yes, it did. And Catholicism lost out.

RB: Had you not gone to college, would you have retained your faith?

GS: Well, it’s possible. I once thought I’d go straight into the seminary after grade school. Then I decided to go to a regular high school but to the seminary after that. I think I would have become a very undistinguished, moderately unhappy Catholic priest. Probably a Franciscan.

RB: Franciscans are monks? Do they wear robes?

GS: Not monks, but they do wear brown robes. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

RB: In your notes you said you could no longer reconcile taking seriously something that didn’t allow investigation and questioning. High school didn’t move you to curiosity and skepticism but college did?

GS: Well, it was a decent average high-school education. I had a few good teachers —the whole thing managed to avoid killing any interest in literature, history or philosophy, which often happens to less fortunate kinds.

RB: But it must have stimulated you sufficiently to apply to Harvard…

GS: That wasn’t my idea. This was 1964 – the beginning of affirmative action.

RB: You’re an African-American lesbian?

GS: No, but the Ivy League colleges really were, back then, WASP strongholds. In the early ‘60’s, around 1964 in fact, Kingman Brewster and Yale spearheaded affirmative action and Harvard jumped on the bandwagon. The Ivy Schools decided that they ought to open wide their gates.

RB: What deprived and marginalized category did you represent?

GS: It was just that no one from my high school had ever gone to Harvard. It was a working-class Catholic high school. If there was an affirmative action category I fit in, it was probably grease balls—they didn’t have a lot of grease balls.

RB: Oh, wops and greasers. Dagos. I believe my moral education came from Nelson Algren. [Algren’s “three rules of life”: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”] I do find it hard to believe, though, that you stressed yourself and worried yourself about religious issues. I understand that millions of people do, but it’s so foreign to me.

GS: Well, after I left I wondered too. And I had hoped that therapy would show me what in my psychic constitution and character that having attached myself to religion so fiercely as a boy stood for—what to make of it in terms or my psychic structure. It didn’t. I never did solve that problem in therapy.

RB: How many therapists have you gone to/through over forty years?

GS: Maybe nine or ten.

RB: What was the duration of the longest therapeutic relationship?

GS: Five or six years

RB: Why did it end?

GS: It was a psychoanalyst and insurance doesn’t pay for psychoanalysis, so I couldn’t afford to see her anymore. I would have somehow found the money if it were clearly useful, but I wasn’t sure that it was.

RB: Karl Krause’s quip on psychoanalysis comes to mind [Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.] I find dealing with medical institutions and bureaucracies depressing and stressful—it’s like dealing with a foreign country. I wonder if all the effort is worth it. I find the intake process off-putting and insensitive

GS: And this in a context that’s supposed to be about empathy and concern for you. It’s a little bit like the grimace I often can’t suppress when I hear about somebody retiring from the Senate after a long career of “public service.” Well, you know, service my ass! (laughs). He’s leaving to become a lobbyist and cash in. I haven’t read this book by the philosopher Harry Frankfort called Bullshit. But if it’s the book I hope it is, it looks at just this kind of thing: the way you can’t say what you actually think, on pain of being sued or being some kind of social outcast. A therapist has to —there has to be this presumption of medical care but it often feels like medical processing.

RB: Finding a simpatico therapist is like playing roulette. That’s an ingredient that plays in a lot of situations and it’s almost a miracle to come across it. I just watched The Constant Gardener again and was impressed by how the diplomat and his activist wife formed a strong bond. And in the book it is quite vivid—two people talking the same language.

GS: I am going to write myself a reminder to look at that book.

[ Irrelevant exchange about Le Carre & Fatwa]

GS: (is looking for a pen)

RB: I don’t have a pen either—should we be embarrassed —two writers without pens?

GS: (chuckles)

RB:I noticed in these therapy notes there are a couple of places where you exclaim, “I am overqualified for this job”—in one place it was in quotation marks, almost as if it was in bold type. Is that something you actually said?

GS: No, it didn’t come across quite like that. I mean I had always assumed I would go to college, go to graduate school, and then teach at a college. Not become a great scholar, but I liked being a student and thought I’d be a good teacher. But instead I had this nervous breakdown in graduate school after leaving Opus Dei. And then what I did was become a cab driver and a welfare department social worker and then a receptionist and building manager. The thought of ever going back to graduate school gave me a swarm of butterflies in my stomach.

RB: Why did you go to New York for graduate school?

GS: Well, I got into Columbia and didn’t get into Harvard.

RB: Did you have any thoughts about how different New York would be from Cambridge? Did being in New York affect you?

GS: It rattled me a bit. I just applied to a few graduate schools and Columbia was the best one I got into.

RB: Did you have friends in New York?

GS: No, but there was an Opus Dei in New York.

RB: Hadn’t you quit Opus Dei?

GS: I had quit the summer before but then for the first month or so [of graduate school] I lived in the residence. It was not only for members—it was a residence for students as well. And thenI moved out. New York’s strangeness and intensity was just a small wrinkle in a very big strange force field that I was entering.

RB: When you wake up every day, what is sense of it—what’s the music playing in the opening scenes? You open your eyes and you sit up and then —what?

GS: Um, from 20 to 45 the first thing most males are conscious of when waking is an erection, usually. When you get to your mid-60’s as I have and you have been taking an SSRI for twenty years or more, you are usually all too conscious of the lack of an erection. (Both chuckle, sheepishly.)

[Brief discussion about full bladders and sleep apnea.]

RB: I have in the past two or three had years a few [minor] medical problems, which just took forever to resolve. Have you experienced the glacial tempo of the medical bureaucracy?

GS: I blame capitalism.

RB: Why is there resistance to universal health care?

GS: Well I have a hobbyhorse theory about it. It’s because there is a generalized and really superstitious distrust of government, earnestly and assiduously and cunningly cultivated by all the people who stand to profit from it. Among others, the insurance industry and the processed food industry. It’s no accident that all those people out there think government can’t do anything good. Remember what one of them said at a political rally, ”Keep your government hands off my Social Security!”

RB: Might it be something more basic that elicits this pretzel logic on all sorts of issues? And there is this real belief that the current right agenda is based on some demonstrable rationale.

GS: I’m from a working-class family, and they really do have these stubborn anti-government attitudes that very few of us enlightened people in the Cambridge-Boston area have.

RB: Reagan Democrats.

GS: Exactly.

RB: Why don’t people just admit they are racist, Judeophobic, homophobic? These seem to be regnant in the USA. We live in a funhouse. I wonder why in a world that seems to have so many problems and crises, there isn’t a greater audience for publications like The Baffler, In These Times, Truthdig, even the New York Review, which can be very insightful. What aren’t people searching for a critique?

GS: That’s the revolutionary question.

RB: Is it Marcuse’s notion that there is a moronizing process?

GS: There’s a lot to that. Life in contemporary capitalist culture is a continuous stream of disconnected stimulants. Distractions.

RB: There is a connection but it’s not apparent to the audience—it’s all about consuming.

GS: It’s not coordinated, but it works together to this one purpose.

RB: We don’t want to say, to make people stupid. Desensitizing them?

GS: Yeah, we must find a good phrase. (Both laugh.) Impoverishing their critical faculties.

RB: Growing up under the old regime of literacy and hard copy [real] books and certain kinds of narrative, you may fall prey to anxieties about new technology. And thus we may be somewhat impaired in assessing new media. Is Facebook snake oil—it seems to work for some people?

GS: Well, I suppose that nothing that either lasts a long time or engages a lot of people—

RB: What’s a long time? What’s the life expectancy of some of this new technology? What is the phrase I noted in The Baffler— “Innovation without progress”?

GS: I was thinking of a line from Durkheim, which explained conservatives to me in a lightening flash when I came across it. “No tradition or institution lasted for hundreds of year can be entirely without merit or substance.”

RB: Meaning?

GS: That the good and the bad are jumbled together. That Facebook, though I think on the whole it is an enormous waste of time and basically an infantilizing influence, nonetheless has its uses and (almost) redeeming features. And the same with television. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and it’s because once when I was badly depressed, my brother gave me a television set—“Maybe this will help take your mind off your troubles.” And it did. But , alas, I couldn’t stop watching it when I got better.

RB: I agree, but then there are shows like The Wire.

GS: TV is such a vast phenomenon that even if a minority of shows are inspired, it’s practically impossible to keep up with them.

RB: As distracting and procrastination-inducing as they are, streaming media (Netflix, Spotify) are amazing things. Access to a very wide [in the case of Spotify almost unlimited] selection of music and film is grand.

GS: There is a well-known media theorist named Clay Shirky, who made a passing remark on his blog to the effect that “nobody I know reads Tolstoy any more. And that makes perfect sense to me: War and Peace is so long and kind of boring.” Shirky’s a decent guy and not himself illiterate, but Jesus, if the young are not reading Tolstoy, then what about 16th- and 17th- century English lyric poetry – the marrow, the distillation, the flower of the language. Do they even know it exists?

RB: We do have these, for lack of a better word, controversies in literature. Ian McEwan recently asserted (2) that most long novels today don’t justify their length. Tim Parks in the New York Review also wrote about reading long works.(3)

GS: There are people like Donna Tartt that the argument probably applies to. I suppose Shirky’s point was: “My God, there’s so much. It’s hard just to keep up with good blogs. Who has time for Tolstoy?” You can spend all your time in front of a screen and increasingly that seems like a sensible thing for people to do. Those of us who grew up with in a hard-copy world can see what’s being lost as well as what’s being gained. But the people who are growing up in the new world can’t see what’s being lost. And so it gives an edge of desperation, an edge of Luddism, to those of us who are trying to keep those treasures from being lost. If the young want to choose not to read Tolstoy and Donne and George Herbert, ok. But they have to at least know what they’re giving up.

The Baffler Issue #26 Cover art- Ruth Marten

The Baffler Issue #26
Cover art- Ruth Marten

RB: It can be an amusing pastime to consider what will be read a hundred years hence. Philip Kerr told me he thought John LeCarre would be the guy. Which at the time surprised me. But I have this theory that there is a fixed finite number of readers in the world—like the ever-present twelve honest men. There will always be 400,000 readers who will be reading 17th-century poetry and the great Russians and the epochal Germans.

GS: (laughs)

RB: So we ought to set aside these declinist and worrisome thoughts about the disappearance of literature, which really is about the disappointment that more people are not making use of the great literary wellspring that is available. There are kids out there reading—they just don’t make much noise.

GS: Maybe that’s true. But there is this dream of a humanist Utopia that the Enlightenment philosophers had—Condorcet, Godwin, later Utopians William Morris and John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, that the best that has been thought and said could become a common property of humankind. Probably there will always be many millions or billions who find enough beauty in growing a garden or swimming—nonverbal things. And that’s fine. But many, many, more than 400,000 people, many more than the elite of their time in 18th-century France or 19th-century Britain could have kindled to the books we hold dear.

RB: It would seem that lots of people seem to want to remain ignorant of the pressing issues of our time — climate change, the failure of the Western model of development in the so-called Third World. I think back on novels like Nevil Chute’s On the Beach, which portrayed a nuclear apocalypse, and there was a Ban the Bomb movement. If you read LeCarre, you can get a clear idea of the corrupted and degraded state of Western post-industrial nations. I don’t know that utopian ideals have any place in the thinking of people in the short term —the next twenty or thirty years.

GS: We all have a moral imagination.

RB: You think?

GS: Anybody who does have a moral imagination or a political imagination can’t help occasionally finding inspiration in an ideal that he/she hopes can be achieved.

RB: Do you see any examples of that in life today, around the world? Lives and institutions guided by a basic sense of decency and fairness?

GS: No group examples, but individuals. No, no communities.

RB: Whom do you see aspiring to make the world a better place?

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


GS: Well, there’s probably 400, 000 people. (Both laugh.)

RB: In reading this Baffler article, it is not apparent that you ever give yourself credit for doing good and useful work. Your writing has been recognized by smart people. Didn’t that make you feel better?

GS: Eventually, it did. Saved my life, really. But it took a long while.

RB: Why?

GS: (long pause) Because there were lots of people my age doing what I was doing, a lot more successfully than me.

RB: Well, what was your criterion of success?

GS: I suppose quantity and visibility. I would see Sven Birkerts $4) or Paul Berman or Ellen Willis appearing in the New Yorker, the New Republic or the NYRB, or publishing a book, and I hadn’t done any of those things and probably never will.

RB: But you were published—how did that happen?

GS: It started with hearing Noam Chomsky on the radio – I felt the scales fall from my eyes. At the end, the interviewer mentioned that Chomsky had a new book coming out in a few months. I thought, “Wow, this is great. This will make the scales fall from everybody’s eyes.”

RB: (laughs)

GS: So I got the new book when it came out and I waited for the reviews and for American politics and culture to be turned upside down. And nothing happened. It was published by small radical press.

RB: As is his latest opus, by Haymarket Books.

GS: I was incredulous and dismayed. I wrote a 3000-word letter in the form of a review to Elliot Fremont-Smith of the Village Voice and said this is a great book and nobody has said a word about it, and this is what it’s about. How about getting some writer to review it? So he called me back and said he would publish me and I should send something else.
RB: How do you think other writers started out?

GS: I may not have been as hopeless a case as I thought I was, but I really was very isolated.

RB: It does seem to be the case that being a good and original writer is not sufficient to launch a career. It takes luck or a real careerist bent. If you are not going to toot your own horn, then you need an agent, yes?

GS: Yes, but an agent looks for writers who are going to sell books.

RB: Some do.

GS: They have to, that’s how they make a living.

RB: There are some that don’t, people like Rachel Cohen (5) who wrote a wonderful book entitled A Chance Meeting or Edward P. Jones,(6) who spent 12 years writing The Known World are represented by super agent. Or Eduardo Galeano’s (7)agent, who also represented Latino women writers. But who am I to give career advice? What are your ambitions at this point in your life?

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

GS: (long pause) They mostly involve reading. No, nothing I really feel passionate about. John is trying to interest somebody in a Selected Scialabba book. I’m fairly pessimistic about it.

RB: How far have you gotten into turning the mental health records into a book?

GS: It’s basically John’s project, so I don’t know. I think he has a strong and detailed vision.

RB: So what do you look forward to reading— just more or specific books?

GS: Just big piles of books on the floor that have been accumulating over the last decades. All kind of things—

RB: How does something get drawn out of the piles?

GS: It depends on when the next deadline is.

RB: Deadline for who or what?

GS: I hope to write more for The Baffler.

RB: That’s a three-times-a-year publication.

GS: Well, I’m running out of gas. I like Raritan(8)—I have a good relationship with them. And Commonweal. I also wrote a couple of things for Virginia Quarterly Review

RB: Does reaching out to publications take a large effort for you?

GS: I’m not sure why. I usually have enough on my plate. You were talking before about that little spark of ambition you need. My spark flickers.

RB: Would you like to accomplish more?

GS: I’d like to do less,really.

RB: (laughs)

GS: I wish the world were a much more sensible place

RB: You see your writing as a corrective or an attempt to be…?

GS: Yeah. Yeah. Yes, I don’t make beautiful things with words, at least that’s not my [intention]. I am not a poet or a storyteller. I am kind of a preacher, and I wish there were less to preach about.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: You are frequently expressive about the beauty of language and what that may do.

GS: Yeah, but so do James Wood and Sven Birkerts. And I love being instructed by them. But I don’t feel I can instruct other people about language and literature, whereas inequality, American foreign policy—there’s just so much unnecessary suffering in the world.

RB: You wrote about Chomsky thirty years ago and not much has changed about Chomsky and the issues he focuses on. Americans still don’t pay attention to him. Or he is a buzzword for the evil left wing.

GS: He has been very effectively marginalized in America, but internationally it’s a different story.

RB: Name a book or a movie that has given you a charge. Uplifted you.

GS: A novel from last year by Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (9)

RB: A wonderful novel, and the title, taken from a Russian medical dictionary as the definition of life, is thought provoking.

GS: Another novel that knocked my socks off was Bob Schacochis’s (10) The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

RB: Indeed. In the literary beauty contest of the National Book Awards, it lost out to Donna Tartt’s book?

GS: Yes.

RB: Anything else?

GS: A new book by William Deresiewicz [EXCELLENT SHEEP The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life]. It’s not the best written book but it says all the right things and it’s getting a lot of flak

RB: I read a piece by Stephen Pinker in the New Republic, which wasn’t positive. Why the negative response?

GS: Partly because Deresiewicz is an amateur. He’s a literary critic and not a VSP [Very Serious Person]

RB: Doesn’t he teach?

GS: He taught English at Yale.

RB: Doesn’t that give him some qualification?

GS: Sure. But he’s a radical and doesn’t have social-scientific credentials. And there is something preachy about the book, something amateurish. It’s not a Christopher Jencks or Nicholas Lehmann—not one of these carefully hedged, data-heavy books. It’s somewhat impressionistic and a bit sweeping. That appeals to me, but it annoys people like Pinker and Harry Lewis, a Harvard dean. And Deresiewicz traces higher education’s problems to capitalism, another reason why he’s not taken very seriously.

RB: From what I read, it reminds of a John Summers piece (11) for the Chronicle of Higher Education

GS: It’s in that vein.

RB: It seems there is a shortage of intellectual honesty. There’s too much intellectual hucksterism.

GS: Yes. A subject for another interview.

RB: Exactly.

GS: The other two books I’m excited about are Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just read for the first time …

RB: Wasn’t that written in the 19th century?

GS: Yes (laughs). And The Return of the Native.

RB: Geez, where do you find these books? (Laughs)

GS: Especially Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

RB: Whatever its literary merit, I suppose it’s a very important book in American history.

GS: I was prepared for a slog. But it’s a really good book. She’s the George Eliot of slavery.

RB: I can’t read those books. I wonder what it says that a reader like me doesn’t read the canon – what it says about their durability? You bemoan the fact that Tolstoy and others are not being read…

GS: Well, I take comfort in the thought of the 400,000.

RB: I see.

GS: A useful remnant.

RB: A useful myth.

GS: Yes, as we enter our Dark Years.

RB: The Dark Years—a good place to end. (Both laugh) Well, George, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.

Footnotes

1. David Shields- Conversation at Los Angeles Review of Books
2.D H Lawrence citation “The Education of the People” (1919), in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, pp. 659-661. from George Scialabba’s Commonplace Book
3.Ian McEwan from Guardian article
4.Tim Parks from New York Review of Books blog, “Reading The Struggle
5. Sven Birkets Conversation at The Morning News
6. Rachel Cohen Conversation at The Morning News
7. Edward P Jones Conversation at Identitytheory
8. Eduardo Galeano Conversation at Identitytheory
9. Raritan
10. Anthony Marra Conversation at Our Man in Boston
11.Bob Schaccochis Conversation at The Los Angeles Review of Books
11. John Summers Conversation at Identitytheory

Currently reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket books)

12 Postscript

A Mighty River to Cross

20 Jan

These occasional bibliographical reports of what publishers have seen fit to send my way are spurred by both a need to widen the scope of literary conversation and to make up for the narrowing coverage of literature (or at least book publishing part of it). Humble ambitions, I must acknowledge but fueled by my sense that I now read the few remaining newspaper book review pages to discover what is not being noticed more than to once again recognize that pretty much the same few books are being publicized.

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose by Robert Duncan , James Maynard (University of California Press)

The Hole  by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter (Enchanted Lion Books)

Enchanted Lion Books are guided by a wonderful sensibility and I have all the titles I have had in my hands wonderful in everu way a book can be. The Hole is no exception.

Natural Takeover of Small Things  by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Things by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Thingsby Tim Z. Hernandez (University of Arizona Press)

Room 1219   by Greg Merritt

Room 1219 by Greg Merritt

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt (Chicago Review Press)

The original Hollywood Scandal—surprising that there has been no movie version.

R

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch (Little, Brown and Company)

Furious Cool   by David Henry  &   Joe Henry

Furious Cool by David Henry & Joe Henry

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry & Joe Henry (Algonquin Books)

Pound for pound Richard Pryor was the funniest man alive. I love his Mudball character an elderly black man who, in one routine intoned, “There are no old fools. You don’t grow old bein’ a fool.” Which, if understood correctly is a statement about survival.

Unfathomable City  by Rebecca Solnit  &  Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker (University of California Press)

If you are not aware of Rebecca Solnit and her expansive ouevre now is the time to correct that deficiency.I was enthralled by A Paradise Built in Hell. And her righteouness was wonderfully expressed at the notion that Haitians, after another devastating natural disaster were described as “looters” as they were on the cusp of starvation and malnutrition. A rich sampling of her poltical essays can be found at Tom Dispatch

George Orwell  by Robert Colls

George Orwell by Robert Colls

George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls (Oxford University Press)

A paradigm of journalistic integrity, George Orwell continues to fascinate biographers. Robert Colls is latest and one review points out

Bringing his expertise as a cultural historian to bear on Orwell’s early books on tramps in Paris and London and workers in the North of England, Colls details how middle-class leftists, literary, anthropological and photographic, were tumbling over one another in Lancashire and Yorkshire in a rush to document an “authentic” working class. He shows how Orwell wanted to get under the skin of the Northerners, but they spotted Eton a mile off and clammed up tight. Burma and the North discomfited Orwell, but he learned from both places.

David Aaronovitch credits Colls with pointing out

George Orwell was…“deracinated”. He went to Eton but he was not of the ruling class. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma but he was alienated from the Raj. He became an intellectual who disliked intellectuals, and a socialist who distrusted almost all forms of socialism. He belonged nowhere.

Mira Corpora   by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio)

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggleby Martin A. Berger(University of California Press)

Not quite forgotten as many people never paid attention to the Movement at the time. It’s doubtful whether public school systems have history texts with images of people being lambasted with water cannons or attacked by snarling German Shepards which makes this tome doubly
useful It is a hopeful sign that in recent years the photos of Charles Moore and Ernest Withers have landed in mainstream public view.

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs  by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel, Susan Ehrens, Julian Cox (Introduction) (Prestel)

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence, David Gonzalez (Foreword)(Prestel)

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability  by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin (Princeton University Press)

Dickens and the Workhouse    by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson (Oxford University Press)

The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka,

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka,

The MetamorphosisbyFranz Kafka, Stanley Corngold (Translator)(Modern Library)

The Metamorphosis: A New Translation by Franz Kafka, Susan Bernofsky (Translator), David Cronenberg (Introduction)( W. W. Norton)

Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka by Jay Cantor (Knopf)

Two new edition’s of Kafka’s most well known story—one a new translation which is only noteworthy because of a new tome by Jay Cantor which fictionalizes four people who were close to Franz Kafka. Is this effort Kafkaesque?

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%by Kari Lydersen (Haymarket Books)

The feisty (or as some have said, profane)former chief of staff of the Obama White House carries on the tradition of craven power occupying the mayoral swat of the great city of Chicago. Mike Royko’s Boss is a wonderful background for this unsparing portrait of Rahm Emmanual

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez , Daniela Maria Ugaz (Translator) , John Washington (Translator) , Francisco Goldman (Introduction) (Verso)

The Taste of America   by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews (Phaidon Press)

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s)

Moments That Made the Movies  by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson (Thames & Hudson)

David Thomson is the gold standard of film historians and scholars.Which plays out in his sure handed grasp of cultural history of the last hundred years or so. i spoken with him a few times here and here.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press)

I was surprised that I found this conversation with Susan Sontag, a reigning intellectual diva of the fin de siecle western culture, the likes of which we may never see again, boring and jejune.

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas (Oxford University Press)

My favorite annual is the Oxford University Press’s Atlas of the world and this volume as it states is a concise version of the majestic complete edition

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World: The Atlas for Today by Andrew Losowsky (Editor) , S. Ehmann (Editor) , R. Klanten (Editor)( Gestalten)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood   by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud , Michel Hazanavicius (Foreword)(Flammarion)

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf  by Gaito Gazdanov

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov


The Spectre of Alexander Wolf ( by , Bryan Karetnyk (Translator) (Pushkin Press)

 The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book: Volumes One and Two [Facsimile] W by Eugene Smith, John Berger, William S. Johnson (Introduction), Katharine Martinez (Foreword) (University of Texas Press)

Eugene Smith was a master photographer during a period when photography was more thoughtful and deliberate.

a href=”http://ourmaninboston.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/628×471.jpg”>628x471

em>The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

I don’t quite see the point of this iteration of Ambrose Bierce’s magnum opus. Its a lackluster paperback with not even the basic gestures of a dictionary. You’d be better served by looking at Library of America’s Bierce volume.

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon ((Bloomsbury USA)

I am a fan of musical history books and biography that contexualize the music—Nick Tosches,Peter Guralnick and Arthur Kempton being writers particularly adept at cultural commentary. Last year Mark Kurlansky’s Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (Riverhead) showcased Berry Gordy’s Motown plantation and now Robert Gordon’s new opus surveys the Memphis based Stax record label and the diverse characters that contributed to its success. Now that two major centers of late 20th century race music Detroit and Memphis have been spotlighted its time that Chicago’s rich scene have its day.

Currently reading Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn (FSG)

Me and Allan (Gurganus) Part I (Local Souls)

12 Nov

I am going to assume that if your gaze has landed on this page, you know something about novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All).Thusly relieved of the task of introducing this fine writer I need only add that this is my third conversation with him, a skein that commenced in 1997 with his second published novel Plays Well With Others and has continued now with his recently published litter of novellas, Local Souls.

Chatting with Allan, a warm and courtly North Carolingian, has all the feel and ambience of the kind of thing one enjoys passing a leisurely afternoon on his front porch—which is to say his joyfulness in conversation matches that found in his prose.

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

RB: How are you?

AG: I’m pretty good. Being with readers is very reassuring. You forget that they still exist.

RB: This is early in the publication life of Local Souls; you assume that the readers that show up at events know your work?

AG: Many of them do, because they bring their copies and see they are dog-eared and with pieces post it attached—

RB: —coffee circles on the cover.

AG: I love that. And sun tan lotion makes me very happy.

RB: In the book collecting world that’s frowned upon. I guess in the 19th century the most valuable books were those that hasn’t had the plats split apart

AG: Exactly, that right. The uncut pages. Premiums on virgins. Virginity is highly overrated.

RB: I have vast multitudes of signed 1st editions and they are besmirched with all sorts of substances.
AG: I love that. People apologize. You must have an amazing collection by now.

RB: Well yeah, it’s pretty good.

AG: Isn’t it thrilling about Alice Munro winning the Nobel? I am so happy about that.

RB: Every laureate makes a speech but she is not going to the ceremony. I wonder if she will provide some kind of valedictory.

AG: Oh, is she not going? She has cancer, apparently. Such a shame. It happened maybe 2 years too late. Her lover is dead. I can’t believe it when writers say they’ve stopped writing. Philip Roth and Alice Munro.

RB: Well, we’ll see. Vonnegut announced he would stop writing and didn’t.

AG: I think it’s an impossible habit to break. Even if you know you are writing stuff that you know is not your very best. It’s an irresistible habit. I find not writing on tour excruciating.

RB: Early in Local Souls (the 1st novella) you say a writer is always writing.

AG: Yeah, exactly. You are always gathering and eavesdropping and spying. And formulating.

RB: Is that true of all writers? Or is that your definition of a writer?

AG: That’s what draws you to the occupation.

RB: An excuse to be nosey? (laughs)

AG: Absolutely. I saw a thing in Memphis —I saw 2 things is Memphis that were exciting to me fictionally. One was a bail bondsman whose company was “Free At Last Bail Bonds”. I don’t think Dr. King had that in mind when he said that.

RB: It was put to good use

AG: That’s right. The other thing was I saw a very well dressed 68-year-old society lady in patent leather pumps at an ATM machine being trained by a man who was about 70, in how to use her 1st ATM cash card. And it was clear that she was terrified. She was putting it in the wrong way. It’s a wonderful beginning of a story.

RB: What do you imagine her life was like? Did she know how to operate a vacuum cleaner?

AG: Oh, never. I don’t think she knew how to write a check to t he maid who ran the vacuum cleaner. But the man with her seemed to me to be the brother of her husband who just died. And she’d been one of these coddled impeded people. And was terrified—

RB: What do you mean by impeded?

AG: By making people helpless you foot bind them.

RB: Infantilize them?

AG: Absolutely.

RB: That reminds me, did you make up the word ‘sogged’ [to describe a rain soaked coat]?

AG: I did, yeah; it seemed the only word that I could think of.

RB: What’s a novella?

AG: It’s a work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.

RB: (laughs)

AG: Ideally it’s a unit that you can pick up after dinner and finish by bedtime. That’s Peter Taylor’s definition.

RB: Kind of an ad hoc description—it depends on how long you stay up after dinner.

AG: I think it means that you leave out the secondary characters. It’s ideally suited for stories about obsessions—single-minded quests—“I love my child too much.” “I made a fatal mistake and spent my life trying to recapture what I gave away.”

RB: Jim Harrison is the only author I can think of who regularly writes novellas.

AG: Steven Millhauser does a lot—he’s really good.

RB: Andre Dubus just published a volume [Dirty Love] with a novella.

AG: My friend Lee Smith was a t a 5th grade school session as a visiting writer. And her 1st question came from a little girl, “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?”
Lee said it would have been too cruel to say,”No.” The girl was so game to ask the 1st question.

RB: I like the definition that says there is something wrong with a novella. Had the stories in Local Souls gone right they would have been novels?

AG: I think it’s a service to the reader to gut out the carbs and give you pure protein—like eating tuna fish out of a can at the kitchen sink.

RB: That sounds like one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for writing

AG: Oh does it, good?

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

RB: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

AG: That’s great. A lot of green scenery needs to go. I am not really interested in purple mountains majesty on the page. It aerates too much the interior obsessions and struggles of the writer. I want people to be completely in the reality of the character.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

RB: In the first story, you are the narrator/character.

AG: Oh absolutely. There is no question .Its an invitation to the reader to participate in the construction of the piece. And that piece was fascinating to write. It was an attempt to simulate a documentary by gathering the clues; you are with him as he makes it all up out of bare- boned reality. I am very interested in Jim Thomson. He’s an underestimated crime writer and really a great writer in his best book. The Killer Inside Me is a terrifying —a beautiful book. And in a way the whodunit still has tremendous vitality as a pattern for how me move through fiction. A crime is created on the first page and resolved on the last page.

RB: I really enjoy crime stories. There is the tendency of crime writers to create series —which lost their vitality more or less quickly. And by the way, in Elmore Leonard, the crime is not important to his stories.

AG: In a way the crime is the fillip, the sorry excuse— so you can hear those guys who are so stupid and so smart at the same time, talk. It’s so thrilling to see on the page.Since Flannery O’Connor he has best ear in American fiction—maybe with Grace Paley. I love reading that dialogue.

RB: And Leonard makes it easy for screen adaptation—the dialogue doesn’t need to be tampered with. Getting back to ‘sogged’ when I went back to reread your stories I was struck by the wonderful solecisms.

AG: Shakespeare was always turning nouns into verbs.

RB: That would be the beauty of the English language.

AG: Exactly, that’s how it happens —the regeneration, the resurrection. There are instances where there is no legal verb. In White People I have an angel falling out of the sky on to green grass. And I used the word ‘twunk’, I had a dream in which an angel fell and that was exactly the sound. I think what we are trying to do as writers, in a way, is develop an idiomatic language that’s separate from conventional Strunk & White language. That’s a kind of emotional short hand for the characters and should vary from piece to piece but it takes a while for the reader to learn this news language. But once they have got it they are that much closer to the center of the character.

RB: Is there a conscious effort?

AG: In the heat of the moment you develop—

RB: For the reader?

AG: It shouldn’t be too conscious. It shouldn’t be like reading Finnegan’s Wake. You have to meet people half way.

RB: I didn’t catch some of this on my first reading. What’s mind set when you are reading something for the 2nd time?

AG: You see the construction much more consciously. I am always doing battle with copy editors —you know, in Saints Have Mothers, the self reported IQ of Jean Mulray keeps rising by 22 points by the end. The copyeditors were having an orgasm having caught me in this mistake. I told them there may be accidents in my work but there are no mistakes. I really meant that. I had to right a whole new chapter to justify myself to this anonymous lady.

RB: You could have simply pointed out that this was a novel, a fiction.

AG: I tried to do that but those distinctions are breaking down. Americans are so fact loving as a people that most of the questions you get at readings are, “This is pretty much what happened, right?” No, this is not. The very phrase ‘fiction’ is based on the word ‘fashioned’ meaning forged or created, hand made. The question is what of the inventions that you have put in this book, is the craziest and the most successful to you? That would be the question I ‘d like asked. I have handy example, which for me was mind-boggling. In Decoy, I needed a disease—this is what I do to my poor characters. Drowning, mortification of the flesh is not enough. N-n-n-n-n-no, they have to have a fated inherited disease. So I made up a disease. Exercising all rights of fiction. The disease was patrilineal —you got it form your dad, from male to male. It’s a heart disease that retains all the cholesterol you have ever eaten, in your body. It turns you into a crystal palace of cholesterol. And I had a great Gothic Edgar Alan Poe time imagining this. I actually had dates when the body began to be impeded—about 30-35. Then dead, conventionally by 50-51, something like that. I have a next-door neighbor who is a retired famous cardiologist. He is entering his 80’s. He is so famous he did a triple by pass on the Sultan of Brunei. When he came to Duke University, he brought his wives, his children his rugs and his security force. And he rented the university hotel. The rugs were stacked so high that you had to crawl into the rooms (that’s his wealth). It’s like traveling with Metropolitan Museum. And they have to use them to make them better. Anyway, —

RB: Anyway—

AG: Moving right along—you see, you thought I lost the thread. You thought I had, but n-o-o-o-o I hadn’t.

RB: No, I was thinking there’s a story.

AG: Exactly. So I decided I have the world’s leading cardiologist living next door, idled. I take advantage of his expertise and humor him and build bridges as father used to say, by asking him if such a thing could be possible. So went over with my little note pad and laid out this fictitious disease. It took me about 10 minutes to lay out all the specs of the disease. So I asked is such a thing possible. And he said is such a thing possible along side familial chloresterolemia? And I said, “What’s familial chloresterolemia?” “The disease you just described for the last 10 minutes.” To the day, I had described a disease that preexisted me. I never read about it. Or known anyone who had it. I made it up. Its real.

RB: But rare.

AG: It’s rare, thank god for the poor sufferers. But even the name chloresterolemia, to put the Latin up front like that—I couldn’t have done better in my wildest dreams. So when people say, “This story is real, you read in a newspaper, right? Right! Wrong! The mystical stuff is the stuff that you invent most fancifully and that somehow comes to validate you and the fiction.

RB: I hear from writers that readers seem to have an expectation that everything is factual.

AG: Oh god, its tedious. I think it’s a great age for non-fiction but I also think it’s a great age for fiction. But in the horserace —

RB: May be not a great age for reading.

AG: Its not. I have seen in the —I read in Seattle 12 years ago, I had 120 people. I read in Seattle, that if anything has gotten more praise than the last book, 11 people turn up. I flew 3000 miles to Seattle, which is supposed to be one of the great book towns —

RB: At Elliot Bay?

AG: At Elliot Bay.

RB: What explains that?

AG: I don’t know but I see that the promise of the book has receded. For instance, I have never not been on All Things Considered. For every book I have written since ’89. They don’t really do books anymore. Only books about the burning of the Koran. Or something sensational.

RB: Tiger mothers?

AG: Yeah, exactly. And Terry Gross is retired. So now we have to do things like writing essays for the Times and the Wall St Journal.

RB: Like “On Collecting”[written for the NY Times].

AG: Like that and inventing diseases and whatever else, in order to see your name in the paper. It’s changed. Unfortunately it’s too late for me to retool. All I ever wanted to do was write a great book. And I’m not changing.

RB: Are you going take in boarders or something?

AG: I guess so. Or become a callboy. Except nobody called—I hate when that happens.

RB: We have it wrong. Its not about the decline of reading its about the decline of education.

AG: Well, it’s true.

RB: As long as the emphasis radically shifts from creating the whole person and the humanities to vocational guidance and training what is in it for students to read?

AG: It’s great to put it in that context. That’s what the Republican majority is doing by cutting education

RB: Everyone is doing it—the great majority of policy makers see education as a career strategy, there is no learning for learning’s sake. Nicholson Baker wrote in Harpers that Algebra shouldn’t be required as part of the Core. Which is considered a gateway course (but mostly and obstacle) to college. How much do you use Algebra in your life?

AG: I couldn’t use it. That’s a great point. Talk about the dumbing down of America as something in the future—that happened decades ago and we are reaping the benefit. Its scary it really is. And the absolute passivity of whatever comes down it’s a scary time. Those 40 representatives, so-called, could have just pushed right on into full coup. That was the idea. Its spooky and we are entranced and narcotized with our gizmos and I am as guilty as the next person. I never had an IPhone until I went on this tour and now I feel like I have a little white kitten upstairs and I leave milk and cookies for it in a shoe box by the bed. That’s my favorite little thing.

RB: I just realized I hate football. My son plays for his high school.

AG: Oh god.

RB: And I can’t stop watching it because I have been watching it since childhood. But I hate it.

AG: Its horrible. It’s gladiatorial. Its white people in the stands watching under cashmere blankets watching the underclass kill each other. Its bear baiting, is what it is.

RB: Daniel Woodrell in The Bayou Trilogy has a funny take on college football —essentially characterizing the games as between Alabama’s felons and Florida States’ criminals.

AG: I was just in Oxford, Mississippi before the LSU game. LSU fans are notorious for coming with broken coca cola bottles and throwing them into the stands. People are afraid to go out on the street. The marauding hordes have arrived.

RB: Wow, sounds like English soccer fans.

AG: The thugs. Its inevitable that they imitate on the street what they see on the field.

RB: Wasn’t there some incident where an opposing fan chopped down a tree on the Auburn Campus?

AG: That was horrible.

RB: You wrote somewhere you liked to find humor in the most horrible circumstances

AG: Yeah. I want to write the funniest books possible about the worst things that can happen.

RB: Why is that?

AG: There’s where the energy is and redemption is and that’s where the truth is. We are all in for a terrible row of disasters. The flood that I described in Decoy is predicated on flood that took out 30% of the houses in my hometown overnight. 17 feet of water hit the town. Essentially the Atlantic Ocean came 150 miles inland in 1999. It preceded Katrina—by the time Katrina hit everybody in my town had been there and done that. They will never get back into their houses. We just move on.

RB: I just read Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s The Tilted World. Its about the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. And in the last chapter one of the characters talks about what he will tell his children and mentions that this greatest of natural disasters was very much ignored around the country and would have been dealt with differently had it taken place in New England.

RB: What struck me living through this real flood—I was not living in the town at the time. My brother got on the phone and said, ”Come now.” And I said, “Well I have a dentist appointment.” “Cancel. Come now.” [He] Being a man of few words, I got in the car and went. And instances of such heroism from the least likely people. And like Doc in the novella [Decoy], the person who seems the most set up and most revered can bear anything but to lose what he’s hand made. He can’t sacrifice his art. And its sort of way of subjecting your art work to difficulty. It has to float—I mean, you carve a decoy so it can float away on a flood. And it floats away; a highly successful and you’re devastated because you have lost your beauty—

RB: Do you know Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell?

AG: I know her name but I don’t know the book.

RB: She chose 6 historic natural disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Katrina and pointed out that in those calamities, that people banded together and formed communities of aid and comfort.

AG: Think about 9/11—people carrying wheelchair victims 90 floors down the stairs. We forget that. Those instances of beauty and of community inspire me. Its what I have instead of god. Community is real, god is fiction. It’s thrilling to see how imaginative people can be. I lived through a lot of hurricanes growing up in North Carolina. One of the most recent, Fran, took out all of the electricity for 8 or 9 days. Which in and of itself is a huge cataclysm for most of us. But I had a gas range and a lot of coffee, which I had ground up in advance, very cleverly.

RB: You could have used a hammer.

AG: That takes a long time—like a mortar and pestle. I had filled the bathtub, so I had a lot of water. And I made coffee for my neighbors. I am a total coffee addict. And I learned when they need their coffee and what they took in their coffee. And I have never had such gratitude. It was like doing a sexual favor for old lady next door.

RB: That’s pretty thoughtful. Do you use a burr grinder or a blade [grinder]? Or the old hand burr grinder?

AG: Exactly. It was so simple top do and so powerful. And I felt closer to the people and we also did the thing that we did in Decoy of pooling all our frozen food, delicacies, and putting them in a giant pot. It was one the best things I have eaten I my life. Sitting outside behind a darkened house-

RB: A peasant meal.

AG: Right, whatever you have, squirrel, okra, weeds, what the hell—it was thrilling

RB: People get great pleasure from doing acts of kindness.

AG: I love the most basic definition —which kin and kindness are from the same root. So to the extent that you are kind to somebody you are demonstrating how like them you are. And that lines up the pheromones like nothing else in the world—to know that you are part of a huge tribe.

RB: That’s what makes the Dalai Llama so attractive —preaching kindness.

AG: Absolutely. It’s a profound concept. And it’s difficult to practice. I swear this is my mantra, my daily activity, to try to make everybody you contact in a course of a day, incrementally better about themselves for having seen you. It’s incredible—

RB: A lesson often learned later in life.

AG: It does come later. The slash and burn days are gone, yeah.

Waiter tries to take our stuff—we humorously protest.

RB: We were somewhere

AG: —before they took our food away. We were talking about kindness
RB: There is that old saw about having two lives, one is the life you learn with and one is the life you live what you have learned.

AG: I am 66. I love this age. I love it.

RB: I am older than you. So remember that.

AG: All right sir, I can take lessons. Can I sit in your lap and get counsel, Santa?

RB: How often do you run into people that you don’t know?

AG: Not all the time. I live in a village of 6 thousand and when I walk around town the bookstore has my books in the window. It’s a Jimmy Stewart kind of reality.

RB: Is there a street named for you?

AG: Not yet.

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)


RB: Anything that commemorates your existence?

AG: Yes, my hometown library has a life size portrait of me. I should say that with shame—its actually quite a good painting apart from its likeness to me.

RB: And the bronze statue?

AG: That comes later. I don’t care about post humus; I want it now, baby. You know that Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again. The reason he has to say that is because he used every secret about Ashville in his trashy book. He was so mean to the people who helped him. I work from an opposite principle—kin and kindness have their rewards. Not just on the page but in reality and community.

RB: Did you think this was what you were going to when you were a young pup in NYC?

AG: I though I was going to be a painter until I was inducted into the US Navy.

RB: I meant did you think you were going to return to rustic North Carolina?

AG: I didn’t think that until the AIDS pandemic. Until I lost 30 of the most adorable people that I had known. You reach a point where you have to start over. You are lucky of you can start over—if you are one of the survivors who can say I will remember all these people and I will take these memories into my new friends. But I couldn’t do it on the same streets where all this terrible stuff had happened.

RB: And now when you are in New York?

AG: I enjoy it. I love it. I feel very quickened by it. It sis much more congested and expensive, needless to say. But every block has associations for me. There is a kind of default setting. I think we all have. The people who go back to Ireland to die, and they haven’t seen it in 60 years. The minute they get to the dock they are like, ”Hah! Bye bye.” For me the course of least resistance was to know all the sounds and smells of this particular landscape. And it’s been extremely consoling. I have a garden and old house that I fixed up. I love it. I love being there. And I learn a lot. Its almost the narrative inspiration is permeable. You get through the skin.

RB: Well, North Carolina has a lot of writers living there

AG: Well, in my little town it could be 30 %. When I moved there 21 years ago it was me and the hardware store. I like living where I do and then going from there. The book is being translated into a lot of languages. I’ll go to countries, each in turn—there is no way like getting to know a country like having a book in their language. Its exciting dealing with translators and the questions that they ask.

RB: Any non-traditional languages?

AG: Mostly French, German, And Italian. I have things in Japanese. I just love to look at the text though I have no idea what I am seeing. The questions that come are fascinating. Word choices and—

RB: You’ll get questions about ‘sogged’.

AG: I’m ready. I am prepared to defend it in any language. It’s an underpaid and under appreciated occupation. Astonishing artistry.

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Note to you: I am suspending my customary practice of publishing an interview in totality. In this case my conversation with Allan Gurganus was about 90 minutes in duration (which flew by as we were engaged in it) and I fear that a complete transcript would tax all but the most devoted readers. Thus, you can, if you made it this far, in the fullness of time, look forward to a Part II.

Currently reading The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig
by Stefan Zweig translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press)

Pre-Occupied

12 Dec

For obvious reasons you will probably not read Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America (Verso) edited by y Keith Gessen, Astra Taylor, Eli Schmitt, Nikil Saval, Sarah Resnick, Sarah Leonard, Mark Greif, and Carla Blumenkranz. In fact I would be shocked to see any Verso Books reviewed in the likes of the Boston Globe or the New York Times.

Occupy! is a heart warming anthology of the voices involved in this surprising grass roots movement—some known Slavov Zizekl Rebecca Sonit, Keith Geisen most unknown.

Here’s the conclusion Zizek’s speech Don’t Fall in Love with Yourselves:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nruxMu8Apg

Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here. They are telling you we are not American here. But the conservative fundamentalists who claim they really are Americans have to be reminded of something: What is Christianity? It is the Holy Spirit. What is the Holy Spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense the Holy Spirit is here now. And down on Wall Street, there are pagans who are worshipping blasphemous idols.So all we need is patience. The only thing I am afraid of is that we some day will just go home and then meet once a year, drinking beer and nostalgically remembering “what a nice time we had here.” Promise yourselves that this will not be the case. We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to want what you desire.

Another name you may recognize— Thomas Paine concludes this volume, from an address (which ended up being published as the American Crisis) that George Washiungton had read to his men at Valley Forge , 235 years ago:

I once felt all kind of anger , which a man ought to feel against the mean principles that are held by the Tories: A noted one , who kept a tavern at Amboy, was standing at his door, with a pretty child in his hand. about noon rod ten years old, as most I ever saw, and after finished speaking his mind as much as he felt prudent, finished with this unfatherly expression, “Well! give me peace in my day.”Not a man lives on the Continent but fully believes that a separation must som time or other finally take place and a generous parent would have said,” If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace” and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty.”

Currently reading Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot (Black Cat)

Left Coast Beasties

2 Feb

Rebecca Solnit is no one-trick pony. Even a cursory look at her bibliography makes clear her wide range of interests and from which you may correctly surmise her originality—I mean, A History Of Walking? A Field Guide to Getting Lost? ( since she her web site doesn’t list them all— I will):

Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (City Lights Books)
Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West (Sierra Club Books)
A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland (Verso)
Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking)
Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism co-authored and photographed by Susan Schwartzenberg (Verso)
As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art (University of Georgia Press)
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking)
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Nation Books,)
A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin)
Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers, with Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, (Trinity University Press)
After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire co-authored by Philip L. Fradkin, Mark Klett, and Michael Lundgren (University of California Press)
Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (University of California Press)
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disasterr (Viking)
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (University of California Press)

Her latest effort is a collaboration with illustrator Mona Caron, A California Bestiary (Heyday Books, 2010) spurred by a partnership project between Heyday and the Oakland Zoo which was developing an educational exhibit called “California!” (exclamation point theirs) “celebrating native California flora and fauna by focusing on conservation and cultural importance.”

Solnit and Caron reportedly spent countless hours at the Zoo involved in all manner of interactions and activities, even ( we are told) witnessing a hedge hog dental extraction. And, as to the contents of this handsome well-printed tome:

The animals in this book were chosen to reflect the enormous diversity of California’s many ecological zones, the broad range of survival status, from severely threatened to thriving:and the pure glorious presence of so many kinds of extraordinary other Californians—though picking twelve meant leaving out pipevine swallowtails, Steller’s jays, kangaroo rats, coyotes, red tailed hawks snowy plovers and other creatures dear to the author’s hearts. The medieval bestiaries were books about animals seen through a window of wonder, and A California Bestiary is a twenty-first century endeavor to work in that vein.

Power to the Peaceful

26 Jan

Watching the State of the Union did not put me in a good frame of mind —but at least watching on (unnarrated) C SPAN was palatable, without the mediating and smarmy gibberish of a network anchor like Diane Sawyer (am I the only person in America who finds her inept?). I actually found it interesting watching the millionaires club AKA as the US Senate walk from their chamber to the House’s house where the President gladhands a gaggle of apparatchiks and then delivers his oration. Can I say that I would be hard put to find a a more unappealing and unlikable cohort? Watching John McCain and John Kerry walking together was an unsettling reminder that these two poppinjays were actually presidential candidates—oh my.

Speaking of matters of governance and politics, Josh MacPhee’s wonderful anthology Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution (Feminist Press) was (and is) a splendid antidote to the annual pantomime of democracy I viewed last night. Macphee has been commissioning and collecting posters that salute social justice in all its manifold modes since 1998. This anthology of about 100 of such by over 80 engaged artists like Cristy Road, Swoon, Nicole Schulman, Christopher Cardinale, Sabrina Jones, Eric Drooker, Klutch, Carrie Moyer, Laura Whitehorn, Dan Berger, Ricardo Levins Morales and Chris Stain is a stirring visual reminder of some vital moments in American history. Rebecca Solnit comments in the book’s foreword:

Josh MacPhee’s long campaign of putting his series of radical history posters up around the country matter. They are a small gesture perhaps, but small gestures accrue, and democracies and revolutions are made up of the myriad gestures of the small. I have long thought of pedestrians, of people who walk their cities and know them, as keeping alive a confidence and familiarity that has great potential in crisis and revolution. These posters do for the walls what the walkers do for the streets:keep alive some power and some hope in the public sphere. Just as the individuals accrue into civil society,so these individual commemorations of bygone heroines and moments cohere into the radical past on which a radical future can be built.

Also, note that tomorrow is the anniversary of People’s Historian Howard Zinn’s passing and in the spirit of activism (“Don’t mourn. Organize”) of which he was a champion , friends and comrades of Zinn are encouraging various community activities around his last major project, The People Speak http://www.thepeoplespeak.com/dont-mourn-organize which is a brilliant complement to his magnum opus, The People’s History of the United States.

A National Treasure

22 Dec

In some correspondence or other with Paul Slovak, Rebecca Sonit’s editor at Viking, he referred to her as a “national treasure”. Lacking(at the moment) a more apt designation for Solnit ( Utne Reader magazine named Solnit as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.”) let me just refer to her recent contribution at Tomdispatch, “A Shadow Government of Kindness“:

…The world could be much better if more of us were more active on behalf of what we believe in and love; it would be much worse if countless activists weren’t already at work from Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and the climate activists in Tuvalu to the homeless activists around the corner from me. When I studied disasters past, what amazed me was not just that people behaved so beautifully, but that, in doing so, they found such joy. It seems that something in their natures, starved in ordinary times, was fed by the opportunity, under the worst of conditions, to be generous, brave, idealistic, and connected; and when this appetite was fulfilled, the joy shone out, even amid the ruins.

This is a sentiment convincingly demonstrated in her recent opus A Paradise Built in Hell (Viking)which examines six disasters and the surprising community response to them. Also worth looking at is Solnit’s very original Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (University of California Press).

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