Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Kazuo Ishiguro My, Twentieth Century Evening – and Other Small Breakthroughs

26 Jan

Sadly, missing from the contemporary array of amusements and entertainment is the loss art of oratory and declamation. Probably one of the more attractive aspects of Barack Obama’s persona—if there are even a handful of people who can speak eloquently in public, I haven’t been able to identify them. Nonetheless, book publishers occasionally (for reasons that escape me, only occasionally) see fit to offer speeches in attractively designed chapbooks (see below for a partial list). Now comes My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture  (the only other Nobel lecture I have come across in this form is  JM Coetzee’s 2003 oration)



Kazuo Ishiguro – Nobel Lecture

7 December, 2017
My Twentieth Century Evening – and Other Small Breakthroughs


From Random House


The Nobel Lecture in Literature, delivered by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans,The Buriecd Giant) at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 7, 2017, in an elegant, clothbound edition.

In their announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy recognized the emotional force of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction and his mastery at uncovering our illusory sense of connection with the world. In the eloquent and candid lecture he delivered upon accepting the award, Ishiguro reflects on the way he was shaped by his upbringing, and on the turning points in his career—“small scruffy moments . . . quiet, private sparks of revelation”—that made him the writer he is today.
With the same generous humanity that has graced his novels, Ishiguro here looks beyond himself, to the world that new generations of writers are taking on, and what it will mean—what it will demand of us—to make certain that literature remains not just alive, but essential.
An enduring work on writing and becoming a writer, by one of the most accomplished novelists of our generation.


Sampling the speech


So here I am, a man in my sixties, rubbing my eyes and trying to discern the outlines, out there in the mist, to this world I didn’t suspect even existed until yesterday. Can I, a tired author, from an intellectually tired generation, now find the energy to look at this unfamiliar place? Do I have something left that might help to provide perspective, to bring emotional layers to the arguments, fights and wars that will come as societies struggle to adjust to huge changes?

I’ll have to carry on and do the best I can. Because I still believe that literature is important, and will be particularly so as we cross this difficult terrain. But I’ll be looking to the writers from the younger generations to inspire and lead us. This is their era, and they will have the knowledge and instinct about it that I will lack. In the worlds of books, cinema, TV and theatre I see today adventurous, exciting talents: women and men in their forties, thirties and twenties. So I am optimistic. Why shouldn’t I be?

Now as you will note below, through the wonders of the digital world, Ishiguro’s valedictory is available at the Nobel Prize site (as are all the previous Nobel orations). There are, I think, many good reasons that the orations of Nobel laureates should be iterated in the way that Ishiguro’s is—if you  are enthralled by books, then it is self evident that some things belong in books…

My Twentieth Century Evening – and Other Small Breakthroughs


If you’d come across me in the autumn of 1979, you might have had some difficulty placing me, socially or even racially. I was then 24 years old. My features would have looked Japanese, but unlike most Japanese men seen in Britain in those days, I had hair down to my shoulders, and a drooping bandit-style moustache. The only accent discernible in my speech was that of someone brought up in the southern counties of England, inflected at times by the languid, already dated vernacular of the Hippie era. If we’d got talking, we might have discussed the Total Footballers of Holland, or Bob Dylan’s latest album, or perhaps the year I’d just spent working with homeless people in London. Had you mentioned Japan, asked me about its culture, you might even have detected a trace of impatience enter my manner as I declared my ignorance on the grounds that I hadn’t set foot in that country – not even for a holiday – since leaving it at the age of five.
That autumn I’d arrived with a rucksack, a guitar and a portable typewriter in Buxton, Norfolk – a small English village with an old water mill and flat farm fields all around it. I’d come to this place because I’d been accepted on a one-year postgraduate Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. The university was ten miles away, in the cathedral town of Norwich, but I had no car and my only way of getting there was by means of a bus service that operated just once in the morning, once at lunch-time and once in the evening. But this, I was soon to discover, was no great hardship: I was rarely required at the university more than twice a week. I’d rented a room in a small house owned by a man in his thirties whose wife had just left him. No doubt, for him, the house was filled with the ghosts of his wrecked dreams – or perhaps he just wanted to avoid me; in any case, I didn’t set eyes on him for days on end. In other words, after the frenetic life I’d been leading in London, here I was, faced with an unusual amount of quiet and solitude in which to transform myself into a writer.

In fact, my little room was not unlike the classic writer’s garret. The ceilings sloped claustrophobically – though if I stood on tip-toes I had a view, from my one window, of ploughed fields stretching away into the distance. There was a small table, the surface of which my typewriter and a desk lamp took up almost entirely. On the floor, instead of a bed, there was a large rectangular piece of industrial foam that would cause me to sweat in my sleep, even during the bitterly cold Norfolk nights.
It was in this room that I carefully examined the two short stories I’d written over the summer, wondering if they were good enough to submit to my new classmates. (We were, I knew, a class of six, meeting once every two weeks.) At that point in my life I’d written little else of note in the way of prose fiction, having earned my place on the course with a radio play rejected by the BBC. In fact, having previously made firm plans to become a rock star by the time I was twenty, my literary ambitions had only recently made themselves known to me. The two stories I was now scrutinising had been written in something of a panic, in response to the news that I’d been accepted on the university course. One was about a macabre suicide pact, the other about street fights in Scotland, where I’d spent some time as a community worker. They were not so good. I started another story, about an adolescent who poisons his cat, set like the others in present day Britain. Then one night, during my third or fourth week in that little room, I found myself writing, with a new and urgent intensity, about Japan – about Nagasaki, the city of my birth, during the last days of the Second World War.

This, I should point out, came as something of a surprise to me. Today, the prevailing atmosphere is such that it’s virtually an instinct for an aspiring young writer with a mixed cultural heritage to explore his ‘roots’ in his work. But that was far from the case then. We were still a few years away from the explosion of ‘multicultural’ literature in Britain. Salman Rushdie was an unknown with one out-of-print novel to his name. Asked to name the leading young British novelist of the day, people might have mentioned Margaret Drabble; of older writers, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, William Golding, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles. Foreigners like Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera or Borges were read only in tiny numbers, their names meaningless even to keen readers.
Such was the literary climate of the day that when I finished that first Japanese story, for all my sense of having discovered an important new direction, I began immediately to wonder if this departure shouldn’t be viewed as a self-indulgence; if I shouldn’t quickly return to more ‘normal’ subject matter. It was only after considerable hesitation I began to show the story around, and I remain to this day profoundly grateful to my fellow students, to my tutors, Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, and to the novelist Paul Bailey – that year the university’s writer-in-residence – for their determinedly encouraging response. Had they been less positive, I would probably never again have written about Japan. As it was, I returned to my room and wrote and wrote. Throughout the winter of 1979-80, and well into the spring, I spoke to virtually no-one aside from the other five students in my class, the village grocer from whom I bought the breakfast cereals and lamb kidneys on which I existed, and my girlfriend, Lorna, (today my wife) who’d come to visit me every second weekend. It wasn’t a balanced life, but in those four or five months I managed to complete one half of my first novel, A Pale View of Hills – set also in Nagasaki, in the years of recovery after the dropping of the atomic bomb. I can remember occasionally during this period tinkering with some ideas for short stories not set in Japan, only to find my interest waning rapidly.

Those months were crucial for me, in so far as without them I’d probably never have become a writer. Since then, I’ve often looked back and asked: what was going on with me? What was all this peculiar energy? My conclusion has been that just at that point in my life, I’d become engaged in an urgent act of preservation. To explain this, I’ll need to go back a little.
I had come to England, aged five, with my parents and sister in April 1960, to the town of Guildford, Surrey, in the affluent ‘stockbroker belt’ thirty miles south of London. My father was a research scientist, an oceanographer who’d come to work for the British government. The machine he went on to invent, incidentally, is today part of the permanent collection at the Science Museum in London.

The photographs taken shortly after our arrival show an England from a vanished era. Men wear woollen V-neck pullovers with ties, cars still have running boards and a spare wheel on the back. The Beatles, the sexual revolution, student protests, ‘multiculturalism’ were all round the corner, but it’s hard to believe the England our family first encountered even suspected it. To meet a foreigner from France or Italy was remarkable enough – never mind one from Japan.

Our family lived in a cul-de-sac of twelve houses just where the paved roads ended and the countryside began. It was less than a five minute stroll to the local farm and the lane down which rows of cows trudged back and forth between fields. Milk was delivered by horse and cart. A common sight I remember vividly from my first days in England was that of hedgehogs – the cute, spiky, nocturnal creatures then numerous in that country – squashed by car wheels during the night, left in the morning dew, tucked neatly by the roadside, awaiting collection by the refuse men.

All our neighbours went to church, and when I went to play with their children, I noticed they said a small prayer before eating.

I attended Sunday school, and before long was singing in the church choir, becoming, aged ten, the first Japanese Head Chorister seen in Guildford. I went to the local primary school – where I was the only non-English child, quite possibly in the entire history of that school – and from when I was eleven, I travelled by train to my grammar school in a neighbouring town, sharing the carriage each morning with ranks of men in pinstripe suits and bowler hats, on their way to their offices in London.

By this stage, I’d become thoroughly trained in the manners expected of English middle-class boys in those days. When visiting a friend’s house, I knew I should stand to attention the instant an adult wandered into the room; I learned that during a meal I had to ask permission before getting down from the table. As the only foreign boy in the neighbourhood, a kind of local fame followed me around. Other children knew who I was before I met them. Adults who were total strangers to me sometimes addressed me by name in the street or in the local store.

When I look back to this period, and remember it was less than twenty years from the end of a world war in which the Japanese had been their bitter enemies, I’m amazed by the openness and instinctive generosity with which our family was accepted by this ordinary English community. The affection, respect and curiosity I retain to this day for that generation of Britons who came through the Second World War, and built a remarkable new welfare state in its aftermath, derive significantly from my personal experiences from those years.

But all this time, I was leading another life at home with my Japanese parents. At home there were different rules, different expectations, a different language. My parents’ original intention had been that we return to Japan after a year, perhaps two. In fact, for our first eleven years in England, we were in a perpetual state of going back ‘next year’. As a result, my parents’ outlook remained that of visitors, not of immigrants. They’d often exchange observations about the curious customs of the natives without feeling any onus to adopt them. And for a long time the assumption remained that I would return to live my adult life in Japan, and efforts were made to keep up the Japanese side of my education. Each month a parcel arrived from Japan, containing the previous month’s comics, magazines and educational digests, all of which I devoured eagerly. These parcels stopped arriving some time in my teens – perhaps after my grandfather’s death – but my parents’ talk of old friends, relatives, episodes from their lives in Japan all kept up a steady supply of images and impressions. And then I always had my own store of memories – surprisingly vast and clear: of my grandparents, of favourite toys I’d left behind, the traditional Japanese house we’d lived in (which I can even today reconstruct in my mind room by room), my kindergarten, the local tram stop, the fierce dog that lived by the bridge, the chair in the barber’s shop specially adapted for small boys with a car steering wheel fixed in front of the big mirror.

What this all amounted to was that as I was growing up, long before I’d ever thought to create fictional worlds in prose, I was busily constructing in my mind a richly detailed place called ‘Japan’ – a place to which I in some way belonged, and from which I drew a certain sense of my identity and my confidence. The fact that I’d never physically returned to Japan during that time only served to make my own vision of the country more vivid and personal.

Hence the need for preservation. For by the time I reached my mid-twenties – though I never clearly articulated this at the time – I was coming to realise certain key things. I was starting to accept that ‘my’ Japan perhaps didn’t much correspond to any place I could go to on a plane; that the way of life of which my parents talked, that I remembered from my early childhood, had largely vanished during the 1960s and 1970s; that in any case, the Japan that existed in my head might always have been an emotional construct put together by a child out of memory, imagination and speculation. And perhaps most significantly, I’d come to realise that with each year I grew older, this Japan of mine – this precious place I’d grown up with – was getting fainter and fainter.

I’m now sure that it was this feeling, that ‘my’ Japan was unique and at the same time terribly fragile – something not open to verification from outside – that drove me on to work in that small room in Norfolk. What I was doing was getting down on paper that world’s special colours, mores, etiquettes, its dignity, its shortcomings, everything I’d ever thought about the place, before they faded forever from my mind. It was my wish to re-build my Japan in fiction, to make it safe, so that I could thereafter point to a book and say: ‘Yes, there’s my Japan, inside there.’
Spring 1983, three and a half years later. Lorna and I were now in London, lodging in two rooms at the top of a tall narrow house, which itself stood on a hill at one of the highest points of the city. There was a television mast nearby and when we tried to listen to records on our turntable, ghostly broadcasting voices would intermittently invade our speakers. Our living room had no sofa or armchair, but two mattresses on the floor covered with cushions. There was also a large table on which I wrote during the day, and where we had dinner at night. It wasn’t luxurious, but we liked living there. I’d published my first novel the year before, and I’d also written a screenplay for a short film soon to be broadcast on British television.

I’d been for a time reasonably proud of my first novel, but by that spring, a niggling sense of dissatisfaction had set in. Here was the problem. My first novel and my first TV screenplay were too similar. Not in subject matter, but in method and style. The more I looked at it, the more my novel resembled a screenplay – dialogue plus directions. This was okay up to a point, but my wish now was to write fiction that could work properly only on the page. Why write a novel if it was going to offer more or less the same experience someone could get by turning on a television? How could written fiction hope to survive against the might of cinema and television if it didn’t offer something unique, something the other forms couldn’t do?

Around this time, I came down with a virus and spent a few days in bed. When I came out of the worst of it, and I didn’t feel like sleeping all the time, I discovered that the heavy object, whose presence amidst my bedclothes had been annoying me for some time, was in fact a copy of the first volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (as the title was then translated). There it was, so I started to read it. My still fevered condition was perhaps a factor, but I became completely riveted by the Overture and Combray sections. I read them over and over. Quite aside from the sheer beauty of these passages, I became thrilled by the means by which Proust got one episode to lead into the next. The ordering of events and scenes didn’t follow the usual demands of chronology, nor those of a linear plot. Instead, tangential thought associations, or the vagaries of memory seemed to move the writing from one episode to the next. Sometimes I found myself wondering: why had these two seemingly unrelated moments been placed side by side in the narrator’s mind? I could suddenly see an exciting, freer way of composing my second novel; one that could produce richness on the page and offer inner movements impossible to capture on any screen. If I could go from one passage to the next according to the narrator’s thought associations and drifting memories, I could compose in something like the way an abstract painter might choose to place shapes and colours around a canvas. I could place a scene from two days ago right beside one from twenty years earlier, and ask the reader to ponder the relationship between the two. In such a way, I began to think, I might suggest the many layers of self-deception and denial that shrouded any person’s view of their own self and of their past.

March 1988. I was 33 years old. We now had a sofa and I was lying across it, listening to a Tom Waits album. The previous year, Lorna and I had bought our own house in an unfashionable but pleasant part of South London, and in this house, for the first time, I had my own study. It was small, and didn’t have a door, but I was thrilled to spread my papers around and not have to clear them away at the end of each day. And in that study – or so I believed – I’d just finished my third novel. It was my first not to have a Japanese setting – my personal Japan having been made less fragile by the writing of my previous novels. In fact my new book, to be called The Remains of the Day, seemed English in the extreme – though not, I hoped, in the manner of many British authors of the older generation. I’d been careful not to assume, as I felt many of them did, that my readers were all English, with native familiarity of English nuances and preoccupations. By then, writers like Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul had forged the way for a more international, outward-looking British literature, one that didn’t claim any centrality or automatic importance for Britain. Their writing was post-colonial in the widest sense. I wanted, like them, to write ‘international’ fiction that could easily cross cultural and linguistic boundaries, even while writing a story set in what seemed a peculiarly English world. My version of England would be a kind of mythical one, whose outlines, I believed, were already present in the imaginations of many people around the world, including those who had never visited the country.

The story I’d just finished was about an English butler who realises, too late in his life, that he has lived his life by the wrong values; and that he’s given his best years to serving a Nazi sympa-thizer; that by failing to take moral and political responsibility for his life, he has in some profound sense wasted that life. And more: that in his bid to become the perfect servant, he has forbidden himself to love, or be loved by, the one woman he cares for.
I’d read through my manuscript several times, and I’d been reasonably satisfied. Still, there was a niggling feeling that something was missing.

Then, as I say, there I was, in our house one evening, on our sofa, listening to Tom Waits. And Tom Waits began to sing a song called ‘Ruby’s Arms’. Perhaps some of you know it. (I even thought about singing it to you at this point, but I’ve changed my mind.) It’s a ballad about a man, possibly a soldier, leaving his lover asleep in bed. It’s the early morning, he goes down the road, gets on a train. Nothing unusual in that. But the song is delivered in the voice of a gruff American hobo utterly unaccustomed to revealing his deeper emotions. And there comes a moment, midway through the song, when the singer tells us that his heart is breaking. The moment is almost unbearably moving because of the tension between the sentiment itself and the huge resistance that’s obviously been overcome to declare it. Tom Waits sings the line with cathartic magnificence, and you feel a lifetime of tough-guy stoicism crumbling in the face of overwhelming sadness.

As I listened to Tom Waits, I realised what I’d still left to do. I’d unthinkingly made the decision, somewhere way back, that my English butler would maintain his emotional defences, that he’d manage to hide behind them, from himself and his reader, to the very end. Now I saw I had to reverse that decision. Just for one moment, towards the end of my story, a moment I’d have to choose carefully, I had to make his armour crack. I had to allow a vast and tragic yearning to be glimpsed underneath.

I should say here that I have, on a number of other occasions, learned crucial lessons from the voices of singers. I refer here less to the lyrics being sung, and more to the actual singing. As we know, a human voice in song is capable of expressing an unfathomably complex blend of feelings. Over the years, specific aspects of my writing have been influenced by, among others, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch and my friend and collaborator Stacey Kent. Catching something in their voices, I’ve said to myself: ‘Ah yes, that’s it. That’s what I need to capture in that scene. Something very close to that.’ Often it’s an emotion I can’t quite put into words, but there it is, in the singer’s voice, and now I’ve been given something to aim for.
In October 1999 I was invited by the German poet Christoph Heubner on behalf of the International Auschwitz Committee to spend a few days visiting the former concentration camp. My accommodation was at the Auschwitz Youth Meeting Centre on the road between the first Auschwitz camp and the Birkenau death camp two miles away. I was shown around these sites and met, informally, three survivors. I felt I’d come close, geographically at least, to the heart of the dark force under whose shadow my generation had grown up. At Birkenau, on a wet afternoon, I stood before the rubbled remains of the gas chambers – now strangely neglected and unattended – left much as the Germans had left them after blowing them up and fleeing the Red Army. They were now just damp, broken slabs, exposed to the harsh Polish climate, deteriorating year by year. My hosts talked about their dilemma. Should these remains be protected? Should perspex domes be built to cover them over, to preserve them for the eyes of succeeding generations? Or should they be allowed, slowly and naturally, to rot away to nothing? It seemed to me a powerful metaphor for a larger dilemma. How were such memories to be preserved? Would the glass domes transform these relics of evil and suffering into tame museum exhibits? What should we choose to remember? When is it better to forget and move on?

I was 44 years old. Until then I’d considered the Second World War, its horrors and its triumphs, as belonging to my parents’ generation. But now it occurred to me that before too long, many who had witnessed those huge events at first hand would not be alive. And what then? Did the burden of remembering fall to my own generation? We hadn’t experienced the war years, but we’d at least been brought up by parents whose lives had been indelibly shaped by them. Did I, now, as a public teller of stories, have a duty I’d hitherto been unaware of? A duty to pass on, as best I could, these memories and lessons from our parents’ generation to the one after our own?

A little while later, I was speaking before an audience in Tokyo, and a questioner from the floor asked, as is common, what I might work on next. More specifically, the questioner pointed out that my books had often concerned individuals who’d lived through times of great social and political upheaval, and who then looked back over their lives and struggled to come to terms with their darker, more shameful memories. Would my future books, she asked, continue to cover a similar territory?

I found myself giving a quite unprepared answer. Yes, I said, I’d often written about such individuals struggling between forgetting and remembering. But in the future, what I really wished to do was to write a story about how a nation or a community faced these same questions. Does a nation remember and forget in much the same way as an individual does? Or are there important differences? What exactly are the memories of a nation? Where are they kept? How are they shaped and controlled? Are there times when forgetting is the only way to stop cycles of violence, or to stop a society disintegrating into chaos or war? On the other hand, can stable, free nations really be built on foundations of wilful amnesia and frustrated justice? I heard myself telling the questioner that I wanted to find a way to write about these things, but that for the moment, unfortunately, I couldn’t think how I’d do it.

One evening in early 2001, in the darkened front room of our house in North London (where we were by then living), Lorna and I began to watch, on a reasonable quality VHS tape, a 1934 Howard Hawks film called Twentieth Century. The film’s title, we soon discovered, referred not to the century we’d then just left behind, but to a famous luxury train of the era connecting New York and Chicago. As some of you will know, the film is a fast-paced comedy, set largely on the train, concerning a Broadway producer who, with increasing desperation, tries to prevent his leading actress going to Hollywood to become a movie star. The film is built around a huge comic performance by John Barrymore, one of the great actors of his day. His facial expressions, his gestures, almost every line he utters come layered with ironies, contradictions, the grotesqueries of a man drowning in egocentricity and self-dramatisation. It is in many ways a brilliant performance. Yet, as the film continued to unfold, I found myself curiously uninvolved. This puzzled me at first. I usually liked Barrymore, and was a big enthusiast for Howard Hawks’s other films from this period – such as His Girl Friday and Only Angels Have Wings. Then, around the film’s one hour mark, a simple, striking idea came into my head. The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship. And immediately, this next thought came regarding my own work: What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?

As the train rattled farther west and John Barrymore became ever more hysterical, I thought about E.M. Forster’s famous distinction between three-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. A character in a story became three-dimensional, he’d said, by virtue of the fact that they ‘surprised us convincingly’. It was in so doing they became ’rounded’. But what, I now wondered, if a character was three-dimensional, while all his or her relationships were not? Elsewhere in that same lecture series, Forster had used a humorous image, of extracting the storyline out of a novel with a pair of forceps and holding it up, like a wriggling worm, for examination under the light. Couldn’t I perform a similar exercise and hold up to the light the various relationships that criss-cross any story? Could I do this with my own work – to stories I’d completed and ones I was planning? I could look at, say, this mentor-pupil relationship. Does it say something insightful and fresh? Or now that I was staring at it, does it become obvious it’s a tired stereotype, identical to those found in hundreds of mediocre stories? Or this relationship between two competitive friends: is it dynamic? Does it have emotional resonance? Does it evolve? Does it surprise convincingly? Is it three-dimensional? I suddenly felt I understood better why in the past various aspects of my work had failed, despite my applying desperate remedies. The thought came to me – as I continued to stare at John Barrymore – that all good stories, never mind how radical or traditional their mode of telling, had to contain relationships that are important to us; that move us, amuse us, anger us, surprise us. Perhaps in future, if I attended more to my relationships, my characters would take care of themselves.
It occurs to me as I say this that I might be making a point here that has always been plainly obvious to you. But all I can say is that it was an idea that came to me surprisingly late in my writing life, and I see it now as a turning point, comparable with the others I’ve been describing to you today. From then on, I began to build my stories in a different way. When writing my novel Never Let Me Go, for instance, I set off from the start by thinking about its central relationships triangle, and then the other relationships that fanned out from it.
Important turning points in a writer’s career – perhaps in many kinds of career – are like these. Often, they are small, scruffy moments. They are quiet, private sparks of revelation. They don’t come often, and when they do, they may well come without fanfare, unendorsed by mentors or colleagues. They must often compete for attention with louder, seemingly more urgent demands. Sometimes what they reveal may go against the grain of prevailing wisdom. But when they come, it’s important to be able to recognise them for what they are. Or they’ll slip through your hands.

I’ve been emphasising here the small and the private, because essentially that’s what my work is about. One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet – or maybe not so quiet – room. Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?
So we come to the present. I woke up recently to the realisation I’d been living for some years in a bubble. That I’d failed to notice the frustration and anxieties of many people around me. I realised that my world – a civilised, stimulating place filled with ironic, liberal-minded people – was in fact much smaller than I’d ever imagined. 2016, a year of surprising – and for me depressing – political events in Europe and in America, and of sickening acts of terrorism all around the globe, forced me to acknowledge that the unstoppable advance of liberal-humanist values I’d taken for granted since childhood may have been an illusion.

I’m part of a generation inclined to optimism, and why not? We watched our elders successfully transform Europe from a place of totalitarian regimes, genocide and historically unprecedented carnage to a much-envied region of liberal democracies living in near-borderless friendship. We watched the old colonial empires crumble around the world together with the reprehensible assumptions that underpinned them. We saw significant progress in feminism, gay rights and the battles on several fronts against racism. We grew up against a backdrop of the great clash – ideological and military – between capitalism and communism, and witnessed what many of us believed to be a happy conclusion.

But now, looking back, the era since the fall of the Berlin Wall seems like one of complacency, of opportunities lost. Enormous inequalities – of wealth and opportunity – have been allowed to grow, between nations and within nations. In particular, the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the long years of austerity policies imposed on ordinary people following the scandalous economic crash of 2008, have brought us to a present in which Far Right ideologies and tribal nationalisms proliferate. Racism, in its traditional forms and in its modernised, better-marketed versions, is once again on the rise, stirring beneath our civilised streets like a buried monster awakening. For the moment we seem to lack any progressive cause to unite us. Instead, even in the wealthy democracies of the West, we’re fracturing into rival camps from which to compete bitterly for resources or power.

And around the corner – or have we already turned this corner? – lie the challenges posed by stunning breakthroughs in science, technology and medicine. New genetic technologies – such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR – and advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics will bring us amazing, life-saving benefits, but may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid, and massive unemployment, including to those in the current professional elites.

So here I am, a man in my sixties, rubbing my eyes and trying to discern the outlines, out there in the mist, to this world I didn’t suspect even existed until yesterday. Can I, a tired author, from an intellectually tired generation, now find the energy to look at this unfamiliar place? Do I have something left that might help to provide perspective, to bring emotional layers to the arguments, fights and wars that will come as societies struggle to adjust to huge changes?

I’ll have to carry on and do the best I can. Because I still believe that literature is important, and will be particularly so as we cross this difficult terrain. But I’ll be looking to the writers from the younger generations to inspire and lead us. This is their era, and they will have the knowledge and instinct about it that I will lack. In the worlds of books, cinema, TV and theatre I see today adventurous, exciting talents: women and men in their forties, thirties and twenties. So I am optimistic. Why shouldn’t I be?

But let me finish by making an appeal – if you like, my Nobel appeal! It’s hard to put the whole world to rights, but let us at least think about how we can prepare our own small corner of it, this corner of ‘literature’, where we read, write, publish, recommend, denounce and give awards to books. If we are to play an important role in this uncertain future, if we are to get the best from the writers of today and tomorrow, I believe we must become more diverse. I mean this in two particular senses.

Firstly, we must widen our common literary world to include many more voices from beyond our comfort zones of the elite first world cultures. We must search more energetically to discover the gems from what remain today unknown literary cultures, whether the writers live in far away countries or within our own communities. Second: we must take great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature. The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.

To the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Foundation, and to the people of Sweden who down the years have made the Nobel Prize a shining symbol for the good we human beings strive for – I give my thanks.



In case you are not familiar with Kazuo Ishiguro…



List of speeches in books. This is the Water, David Foster Wallace, Literature is Freedom Susan Sontag,

Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness  by George Saunders, You Are Not Special: … And Other Encouragements
by David McCullough JR  (originally a speech, expanded into larger book)

https://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/?id=2731&view=2  The announcment is made in five languages, kind of impressive

https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2017/ishiguro-lecture_en.html speech text

Kazuo Ishiguro (Lannan Literary Video Series) VHS VIDEO  Kazuo Ishiguro  , Pico Iyer  , Dan Griggsc(1990 video)


Talking with Mary Karr

4 Nov
Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

… Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare…Mary Karr

Some two decades I was delighted to read Mary Karr’s literary debut, Liars Club, so named after her raconteur father’s group of story-telling friends. And I did sit down and converse with her about her East Texas life and upbringing and matters to do with writing a book about a “terrific family of liars and drunks … redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.” A number of poetry collections and two memoirs — Lit:A Memoir and Cherry:A Memoir—later, Ms Karr has recently published, The Art of Memoir.

As it happens I was able to catch up with poet and Syracuse mentor Karr recently, for a pleasant and digressive chat on, of course, writing memoirs, her recent turn to music , the proposed film treatment of her initial memoir, Liar’s Club, her mother and her wide ranging experiences including coaching Little League baseball.

Here is a snippet from her Mary Karr Thinks You Shouldn’t Google Yourselfher recent interview with Ann- Marie Cox

You are friends with a lot of today’s memoirists. Have you ever appeared in another person’s memoir?

Oh, I’ve appeared in all kinds of [expletive].

What’s that experience like for you?

Well, obviously, I would like my every portrait to be of me dispensing food to the poor. Believe it or not, I’m actually not that interested in representation of myself in other people’s writing. I’ve also never Googled myself. It wouldn’t occur to me to do so. It’s the same reason I don’t watch pornography. It’s not that I occupy some moral high ground. I just think: Down that road lies madness.

As someone who reveals so much, is there a time that an interviewer has gone too far with you?

Oh, yeah, but I have no problem saying, ‘‘I’m not going to discuss that.’’ I would never talk about anybody’s penis. You can ask me about my relationship with David Wallace all you like; I’m not going to talk about his penis.

That’s one of the least interesting things about any man, really.

If only they knew that.

Mary Karr: I was just on with Terry Gross. She’s really a good interviewer, I’ve got to say. You never know what she’s going to ask you. She always makes me think… You don’t know—you probably do know, but when you go out on the road now, the people who used to interview you were book people, you know? Michael Silverblatt,[The Book Worm at KCRW](1) or somebody like that. Real bookworms. Now you get some chirpy, twenty-five-year-old who says, “What would your ad for your book be?” I’m like, “Well, I wouldn’t write an ad for my book.”

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a hilarious book trailer for Alan Arkin,(2) the actor, who has also written a couple of memoirs. It opens up with him laying in a hotel room bed ,it’s 6:00 … the phone rings, he fumbles for the phone, picks up the phone. It’s a guy from the radio station, wants to do an interview, which Arkin hadn’t even known about. ..the radio guy proceeds to ask questions that make clear he doesn’t know who Arkin is or that he has even looked at the book…

Mary Karr: …The way I look at it, these people are doing you a favor. You’re always responsible for ponying up.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s very nice. You’re never put off by somebody’s ignorance?

Mary Karr: No, I don’t mind people who haven’t read the book.Somebody like that is just stupid, actively stupid. You don’t have to have read The Art of Memoir to have three or four questions about memoir. How do you deal with your family? Those are normal questions— a normal person would want to know the answer to those questions. [It’s]Just a total absence of curiosity. It’s hard to be an interviewer when you’re not curious.

Robert Birnbaum: A propos of nothing, where is Mark Costello today [David Foster Wallace’s best friend](3)?

Mary Karr:He lives in New York City, he’s married to somebody I fixed him up on a blind date with, Nan Graham, who’s a big editor at Scribner. They’ve got two kids. I fixed him up on a blind date like twenty years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: I see. Because I talked to him in 2002 and he had published a novel and hadn’t heard of him since.

Mary Karr:Yeah,Big If, which is a terrific book. I think he teaches at Fordham Law School.

Robert Birnbaum: Has he written or published anything since?

Mary Karr: He’s finishing a novel now. I mean, he’s the dad of two kids and he teaches full-time, and his wife is high-powered enough that he gets a lot of the kid duties. I love Mark. One of the great human beings.

 Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: When you write a book called the Art of Memoir, who are you thinking will want to read it?

Mary Karr: You know, it’s funny, people think of it as a how-to book, but the how-to stuff is kind of peppered in. I want to say maybe eighteen percent of it is how-to, maybe eighteen percent of it is a memoir about writing memoir, because people do ask me, “How did your family react?” Anybody with a family imagines how you deal with your beloveds, you know? But I think it is also, in a way, for anybody with an inner life, anybody who ponders how what’s happened to them is affecting how they see the world. Trying to determine what’s true and what isn’t true and what’s real and what’s not real in the course of your day. I have a big inner life and I am always … my tendency is to project onto the landscape what I want to see. I’m like an all-giving loving saint and everybody else is an asshole, but …


Robert Birnbaum: Do you know of the old Jew, Philo of Alexandria? Have you heard of him?

Mary Karr: No, I mean I know the name. He had the library, right?

Robert Birnbaum: I came across a quote of his, and I thought it was a very Dalai Lama like, “Be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone in life is going through a great battle.”

Mary Karr: That’s exactly right.

Robert Birnbaum:I thought of that when I was reading the latter part of your speech at Syracuse,(4) which, by the way, I think an excellent speech. I think some commencement speeches are a new literary genre. There’s are some great commencement speeches by writers, by novelists and writers.

Mary Karr:Steve Jobs also did a great one. I think.

Robert Birnbaum: I was focusing at writers. I put Aaron Sorkin in that group…

Mary Karr: He was also at Syracuse. He gave a really good speech.

Robert Birnbaum:I started noticing with the David Foster Wallace/Kenyon College speech, and then I started seeing others. George Saunders.(6)

Mary Karr:George Saunders’ speech—to me, that’s the pinnacle. That’s as good a commencement speech as I’ve ever heard.

Robert Birnbaum:In the first three lines of yours you said something like, “Memoir takes you from a scary place, it’s a zip line to a truer place,”

Mary Karr:Poetry. Not memoir but poetry. That poetry hopefully takes you to a truer place. I mean, all art should, right? Any art should take you somewhere truer.

Robert Birnbaum: Your speech can stand alone…it’s the kind of piece that would be included in David Shields’s anthology, Fakes.(7) All these odds and ends— a letter from George Saunders, customer relations department. All these odd writings, somebody’s laundry list, you know? But they all seem to become literary, you know?

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Mary Karr:That’s very funny. That’s a great … And David Shields edited it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, Here’s the thing, I’m not inclined to read memoirs. I’m not hungry for them. I read yours, but it turns out if you wrote an instruction manual on how to assemble a tricycle, I be inclined to read it…

Mary Karr:That’s so nice. I’m not much of a writer, but I’m a dogged little re-writer. Everything I have written is about as good as I can make it.

Robert Birnbaum:I gave particular credence to your first chapter and your last chapter, so I hear you.

Mary Karr:Don’t you wish more people rewrote?

Robert Birnbaum: One forgives people for their infelicitous writing.

Mary Karr:Sure, of course, you’ve got to. I mean, journalists or people writing on a deadline, that’s a different kind of writing.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Mary Karr:Everybody makes that distinction, I don’t. I don’t think there is a distinction. I think they’re the same thing. I think there are good memoirs and bad memoirs. I think when they think of a one-off, I think the way it’s used when people make the distinction, is when it’s some film star with fake boobs tells her tale of woe. They think of that as an autobiography, and then they think of somebody who does a literary thing as a memoir. But that’s just using a French word for … I think they’re the same thing. There’s just good ones and bad ones.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. I hesitate to make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, although I know there’s a hard line. I say this is because, I think Gore Vidal’s Empire series is as good a history of the United States as any.

Mary Karr: Really funny.
Robert Birnbaum: So, do you want to read David Herbert Donald or other biographers on Lincoln? Or do you want to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln?

Mary Karr: Yeah, it’s true. I’ve read a lot of books on Lincoln. I love reading about Lincoln.

Robert Birnbaum:I was thinking, besides Jesus Christ, I think Lincoln has the second most amount of books written about him. How many memoirs do you have in you?

Mary Karr:Exactly. I don’t know. Maybe I have as many books as there are advances publishers are dumb enough to give me. All those books, after The Liar’s Club, I wrote the proposal for that book, but every other book, including this one, I wrote because somebody called and offered me money for them.

Robert Birnbaum: Good for you.

Mary Karr: That’s not a bad reason to write a book.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s also pretty flattering.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum:That does remove a little bit of the anxiety about whether or not the publisher is going to support the book once they publish it.

Mary Karr: Right, that’s true. If you can gouge them for enough money, then maybe they’ll try to do it. Yeah, but then your editor leaves and other people have other problems, so …

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have much contact with the publishing world, and the business of books? When you have completed and delivered the book, while you’re writing the book, do you have contact?

Mary Karr:I have a wonderful editor, and certainly for this book, she really helped me think about how to shape it and put it together.

Robert Birnbaum:So it wasn’t you wrote the book and presented it to her, you start crying and saying, “Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit,” and then you call her.

Mary Karr:Right. With this book. Well, I say, “Shit, shit, fuck, shit,” for every book.

Robert Birnbaum: I gathered that.

Mary Karr: Every book is like that. I’m always in a state of torment. She and I basically did a bunch of outlines back and forth over about a four month period. I would work on one and then send it to her, and then she really helped me, the outline that she gave me isn’t how the book ended up, but George Saunders actually helped me a lot, to structure The Art of Memoir.

Robert Birnbaum: One of the things I thought about in reading your,what might be construed as a manual sort of, is that you are suggesting that everyone may have a memoir in them, but not necessarily a book.

Mary Karr:I think, I really believe, as I say in the book, that the most privileged person in any room, as I said in that speech, suffers the torments of the damned. Just like you said, they’re engaged in a great struggle. Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare. Not everybody is going to be a good enough writer to write a great one, but I think certainly in terms of … I think I said I’m always amazed when I’m on an airplane, yes, by the people who you meet who are boring, but also by boring people who you meet who become interesting when they talk with great feeling. Do you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:You never know. I agree with your notion of truth, that there is something, there is a truth that makes everyone, when someone encounters something they think is true, it really does refresh one with great energy. It’s a good place to land.

Mary Karr: Right.

Robert Birnbaum:It may be sort of counter intuitive to the way human beings are constructed. My judgment about, my sense of human behavior is that many people are continuously running away from the truth or pursuit of truths?

Mary Karr: Well, let’s say all of us are running away from the truth. The fact that we’re all going to die, and we’re not all screaming every second of day, is running away from the truth in a way. I think we all are.

Robert Birnbaum: How old are you?

Mary Karr:Sixty.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you find yourself thinking about aging? Will that be the next memoir?

Mary Karr: People keep asking me—Terry Gross just asked me this, two smart people. I don’t know, I don’t have any plans. I don’t know, I’m trying to finish a book of poems.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you think a lot about it?

Mary Karr: More so since I turned sixty. I never really, I thought about it as anybody does, but …I’m not in the middle of anything. When you’re sixty you’re not going to live to be 120, so you can’t bullshit yourself.

Robert Birnbaum: Sixty is the new forty.

Mary Karr:You might live to be eighty, but you’re not going to live to be 120, so it becomes a different thing when you can’t double it, when you don’t have that much left. You’re definitely on the losing end of it. I play all kind of games with myself where I say, “I sort of became a person when I was thirty, so I probably don’t have another thirty years left in me, but maybe I have another twenty.” You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Joseph Epstein, wrote a piece when he was seventy,(8) talking about, it was a take-off on film producer Robert Evans’s memoir/autobiography The Kid Stays in The Picture . Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned Seventy. He said every time he has a birthday he just wants ten more years. It seems like a reasonable figure to ask for.

Mary Karr:I think that’s the way I feel. Instead of people thinking I want another fifty years, I do think if I could just make it to seventy I will have accomplished something.

Mary Karr: How old are you?

Robert Birnbaum: 68—two thirds of a century.

Mary Karr: Do you think about it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes. I don’t feel my age at all, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I see people who are younger who are in terrible shape. Can hardly walk, have blank facial expressions and flat affects… I do a lot of stuff,umpire little league, work the sticks at home high school football games, walk my dog regularly..

Mary Karr: What a great thing to do. I bet that’s a great thing to do. I coached little league, and I always said it was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life. It was really one of the funniest things I ever did in my life.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Being around ten-year-olds on a regular basis. Plus, I get to push them around.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a lot of fun doing that, but it’s hard to be a good umpire.

Mary Karr: It’s hard to know what’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a test, you know? A 68-year-old guy who can still bend down over 100 times in two hours and remember things from instant to instant while attending to countless other things …

Mary Karr:It’s testing your short-term memory all the time, which is deteriorating.

Robert Birnbaum:I don’t know what your worst fears is, but one of my worst fears is losing my sentience.

Mary Karr: Your marbles?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, and even my memory, you know?

Mary Karr:I remember stuff so well, I kind of aspire to it. I have way too good a memory. I wish I could forget more. I’m better at it now.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m amazed at what I remember. Especially when a smell triggers something.

Mary Karr:That’s the amazing thing, right? It’s the most primitive sense.

Robert Birnbaum:You smell something and you go back forty years.

Mary Karr:It’s in your snake brain. No, it is. It’s like the most primitive part of you, smells.

Robert Birnbaum:I think I’d be willing to say we don’t forget anything. It’s not a question of forgetting. Everything we need to encounter is somewhere there, but the ability to access it.

Mary Karr:Yeah, that’s a problem.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.I’m amazed sometimes at the distinctive, vivid way that I remember stuff.

Mary Karr:Oh yeah. And especially the further back the more vivid often, right?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, yeah.

Mary Karr: I know, me too.

Robert Birnbaum: How much do you still recall the life that you talked about in The Liar’s Club? Is that still vivid to you?

Mary Karr: I think the traumatic memories remain very lucid, because they’re probably stored in another part of the brain, actually. You now how when people who have strokes, they keep all the curse words. You’ll often hear, go in the nursing home, you’ll hear cursing . It’s because those emotions— my daddy, when he had a stroke, if the World at War came on or something, and there was all this World War II stuff, he would say, “Cannons your tank, ” and he couldn’t say yes or no. He would say, “General Montgomery.” He would name, “Luftwaffe.” He could say things from having been in the war. Those memories, he couldn’t say he wanted a cup of juice or not, but I think those things seared in your brain meat from a very emotional time. I always say you remember the most important things to you. Things that are most important to you, to who you are.

Robert Birnbaum: Do people remember their funnest, wonderfullest, most loving moments in their life?

Mary Karr: People unlike us do. Regular people do. We don’t. We remember all the … Every time we were knocked in the dirt. Exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: You mentioned a time in your family when it was somewhat healed ?

Mary Karr:I think we were as healed as we could’ve been without everybody going into therapy. But I mean, I think to the extent that we took care of aging parents and buried people, showed up and did stuff, kids went to graduations, that’s pretty healed for a family like mine.

Robert Birnbaum: It was your mother, father and your sister. Did you count your mother’s husbands?

Mary Karr:No.

Robert Birnbaum: Once they left …

Mary Karr: Gone, that was the end of it.

Robert Birnbaum:How about your mother? Did she maintain memories of past husbands?

Mary Karr: Not that she ever shared. I think they were dismissed by my mother. I think once she divorced she opens that door and…

Robert Birnbaum: She had seven husbands?

Mary Karr: I know, right? Who know how many? There were seven she told us about.

Robert Birnbaum: And you didn’t lose touch with her once you started going to school, moved to Minnesota.

Mary Karr: It’s weird, I still, for much of my life, when I could afford it, I talked to her every day. She was an interesting person.

Robert Birnbaum: Sounds like.

Mary Karr: Not a great mother as a mother, but she’s very smart and she was curious. She was extremely curious and could be very charming. She was fun to talk to.

Robert Birnbaum: How is it that your mother and your father met?

Mary Karr:She had a flat tire. Yeah, I think she had a flat tire and he came out to fix it and …

Robert Birnbaum:That was it.

Mary Karr: That was it.

Robert Birnbaum: Did he charm her, do you think?

Mary Karr:I think they charmed each other. I think they both charmed each other. He was labor organizing then, working class hero. Handsome, kind of Clark Gable-type guy.

Robert Birnbaum: And told good stories.

Mary Karr:Tells good stories. A lot of fun to be with. She was beautiful and wild, I think it was like seeing a great thoroughbred somewhere.

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Robert Birnbaum: What is your foray into songwriting and recording about, is that a one-time thing (9)?

Mary Karr: No, I have at least one song on Rodney’s Christmas album, and he and I have worked on a couple of other songs. We’re actually meeting tomorrow night to talk … I think we’re going to get together this winter and work on another album.

Robert Birnbaum: Where do you do it, in Syracuse?

Mary Karr:No, no. He’s in Nashville. We mostly met on the road though. He and I were both on the road, and so I’d be in Berkeley, he’d be in San Francisco, we’d meet. Or I’d be in LA, he’d be in Orange County, we’d meet in some hotel. Or I would go stay with him and his wife down in Nashville, or he would come to New York a lot, quite a bit. So wherever we were, found ourselves, we’d work on the side. We did a lot on the phone too.He would call me and send a recording of a guitar thing, and then I’d call him back, and we’d go back and forth and then we’d arrange to meet.

Robert Birnbaum: Who do you like singing your songs?

Mary Karr: I had so many great people sing my songs. I’ll be honest with you, there’s nobody who did a shitty job. There’s really nobody who did a shitty job. I mean, I think Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill, Kris Kristopherson, Rodney, Lee Ann Womack, I mean, it doesn’t get much better, Rosanne Cash. Couldn’t get much better than that lineup.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s true. Does that fuel your interest or urge in writing more songs, doing more music?

Mary Karr:Yeah. I would love to do it. It was really fun. The fun part was going on the road with the band. That was really fun. I did that for a couple of weeks. That was the most fun I ever had.

Robert Birnbaum: How did you do that and stay sober?

Mary Karr: Rodney doesn’t drink.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, but musicians are known to drink and such. What did you do?

Mary Karr: His musicians he travels with, don’t.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the fun part of being on the road?

Mary Karr: They call it playing.

Robert Birnbaum: Oh, the playing is the fun part?

Mary Karr: It’s fun, and also you’re traveling. You’re with the band, you’re in a band where the .. He has very smart, interesting musicians play with him. He doesn’t have just anybody. Stuart Smith is a guitar player for the Eagles now. He’s an incredible classically trained guitar player, an incredibly smart human being. He reads everything. His crew … It’s not like being with the drummer from AC/DC. It’s not a lot of booze and girls. It’s a lot of smart people reading books and talking about them. I’m sure it was a lot of booze and girls …and coke [at one time].

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago  circa 1969

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago circa 1969

Robert Birnbaum: Well I can tell you about tne music scene because after I graduated college, I worked in one of the first, sort of. psychedelic dungeons[like the Fillmore] in Chicago, it was called the Kinetic Playground, and every big group at that time played there …

Mary Karr: Psychedelic dungeon?

Robert Birnbaum: Uh huh. I took drugs as part of a regular diet of loud music, late nights and mindless sex…

Mary Karr:So did I. But that’s the name of a memoir. Psychedelic Dungeon, that’s a great memoir title.

Robert Birnbaum:The first time that Led Zeppelin played in America, they played there, Santana, everybody… you know.

Mary Karr:Wow, Santana.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That was my experience. And then the drugs, of course.

Mary Karr: And then the drugs.

Robert Birnbaum: You weren’t in Plainfield, Vermont (Goddard College) in 71 were you?

Mary Karr: I was in Plainfield, Vermont in ’78.

Robert Birnbaum: I attended the now famous Alternative Media Conference there in ’71 or ’72.(10 It was just outlandish and unfettered and hopeful…

Mary Karr: That’s the way things used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: I had never really taken Goddard seriously. I didn’t get a sense of there there. It seemed so ethereal.

Mary Karr: It was, it was. I still remember Ray Carver, there was a little pond, and there were these women who would go shirtless in their kayak. The pond was from here to the back of the deli, and they would paddle back and forth about thirty yards. It was the strangest thing, with no shirts on. Ray just couldn’t get over it. He called them the Nudie Veggies. That’s what Goddard was like. When you read the list of professors I studied with there, they’re all MacArthur Fellows, you know, Bob Hass, Charlie Simic, it’s nuts … Heather McHugh, they’re all amazing.

Robert Birnbaum: You were lucky in the people that you ran into as a student.

Mary Karr: Unbelievably lucky, unbelievably lucky. Geoffrey and Tobias [Wolff]. Frank Conroy was there. In terms of memoir, that was probably one of the planet’s most interesting conversations about. Three memoirs of that caliber, in one spot, you’d be hard to come by.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. I never read Stop-Time [by Frank Conroy], but I did feel like his …

Mary Karr:You have to read Stop-Time. It’s so good.

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, okay. I read his novel and I really liked his essays.

Mary Karr: His essays were great.

Robert Birnbaum:The Dogs Bark and the Caravan Rolls On, that kind of thing. Just thought that was spot on.

Mary Karr:I liked it too.

Robert Birnbaum: He interviewed Keith Jarrett, and he asked him how he prepared, and Jarrett says, “I walk out on the stage and I sit down on the piano, and I try to clear my mind of everything. No, I don’t want any notes in my head. I just want to not think about [what I am going to do]. That approach to doing something …

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary Karr:Takes some big brass ones. That’s how Rodney is. Rodney is very … I mean, he’s not a jazz musician, but he hates to put together a set list. He’d rather just go out there and play what hits him.

Robert Birnbaum:Has he worked on any movies?

Mary Karr: No, but he just was music director in the new Hank Williams movie.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the name?

Mary Karr:I can’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum: I think a lot of the narratives in movies and films and TV now are really making good use of the music, not necessarily well known songs. I think of T Bone Burnett’s stuff for True Detectivesor Nick Cave on Peaky Blinders.

Mary Karr: Right, right. I heard T Bone Burnett in Cambridge, I think. I also saw James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1966.

Robert Birnbaum: I saw him at the Regal Theater at about that time.

Mary Karr:That was amazing.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes it was. I think back now, and I think, I was afraid of black people. I don’t know why, because when I went to the Regal Theater, which is all black, me and three other white people, we never had a problem.

Mary Karr:I went with my daddy. We were the only white people there. You qualified yourself by being there, to be there by liking the music. I think that’s … You know what I mean? You had to be a different kind of person to be that into African American music.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Why did I feel any anxiety? Where did all that come from? Who told me that black people were scary … You know?

Mary Karr: Well, it’s the same way, certainly they feel that way about us, with better reason. You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Mary Karr:I can’t believe what happened to the tennis player (James Blake, who was mistakenly and forcibly arrested) in New York. It’s unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s actually not unbelievable Ever been asked to write a film treatment?

Liar's Club by Mary Karr

Liar’s Club by Mary Karr

Mary Karr:Many people have. I’m currently working on Liar’s Club at Showtime with Mary Louise Parker slated.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your participation?

Mary Karr: Executive producing and writing. I’ve written a pilot, so we’ll see, we’ll see if they do it.

Robert Birnbaum:Yea,there is that.

Mary Karr: There is that.

Robert Birnbaum:Is there a subject or a theme or person that you’d like to create … Is there a biography you’d like to do? Is there one person that you learned about, that you think other people should know about, learn about…have you discovered somebody who’s been undiscovered?

Mary Karr:Oh, in memoir?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah.

Mary Karr: Maybe Harry Crews, Childhood Biography of a Place. I think Black Boy, the Richard Wright book, isn’t undiscovered, but I think it’s in some ways a better book than Native Son, which I know is scandalous to say, but I think that’s a brilliant memoir.

Robert Birnbaum:I remember reading Richard Wright. I remember things about it very vividly. They were part of my, the images was part of my growing up. I look at it and I go, the Sixties would be such a small window, cultural literacy. How do people know about James Baldwin, who are twenty years ,twenty-five years old?

Mary Karr:I think everybody who reads. Anybody who is a reader.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s only 400,000 people in the world.

Mary Karr:I was going to say, yeah exactly. There’s nobody left.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m assuming that all the memoirs you listed in the back of The Art of Memoir and the people are ones you admire.

Mary Karr:Yeah, I wouldn’t list them if I didn’t.

Robert Birnbaum:Would it be impolitic to ask you what are some memoirs that you think fall short?

Mary Karr:Yeah, I probably wouldn’t say that. We all know what they are. We all know the … Mostly the memoirs of the liars are mostly badly written, even if they had good stories to them. They are mostly pretty bad, pretty shabby written. I mean, a memoir like Black Boy, Richard Wright, you’re not going to forget, Dispatches, Michael Herr’s book, Maxine Hong Kingston Woman Warrior, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, I mean those are books nobody is going to forget…

Robert Birnbaum:You mentioned Mary McCarthy’s memoir, and I’ve always been fascinated by her, what I know about her, what I’ve read about her. That memoir doesn’t sound very promising…

Mary Karr:Really? She’s so smart, so funny, and so well-written. And it was right at the time when the notion of subjective truth hadn’t really been invented, in a way. She spends a lot of time correcting herself and second-guessing, and you see her idea of truth eroding, over the course of her book.

Robert Birnbaum: I read a piece she wrote for The New York Review of Books, from Saigon in ‘66, when she did a stint in Saigon. I thought it was just brilliant.

Mary Karr:Oh, she’s so brilliant.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you have a routine where you sort of engage the news of the day? Do you read newspapers?

Mary Karr: Just The New York Times, you know. I’m not a big news junkie. In fact, I kind of don’t like the news. I’m much more interested in history. I prefer everybody to sift experience and tell me what’s interesting fifty years later, sadly.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve come to think that people like Stewart and Colbert and now John Oliver, are the news.

Mary Karr: Well, the people watching it think they are, so yeah.

Robert Birnbaum:. How much time do you have spend talking about this book in the coming months?

Mary Karr:Probably just this week and next week, and then I go back to sitting around in my pajamas, so not so long.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your schedule at Syracuse? You go there, what, one semester a year?

Mary Karr:I do a fall semester there, yeah. But I also supervise students, often in the spring, so that involves them coming to New York, or me going there.

Robert Birnbaum: I gather you travel a lot, for any number of reasons.

Mary Karr:I do, I do. My gentleman caller is a big traveler. He’s the head of a real estate development firm, and so he builds big buildings all over. But he’s also just an inveterate adventurer. I think I get to Asia more than I would have done with a different gentleman caller.

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read anything good lately?

Mary Karr: Other than the Art of Memoir? Yeah, I just taught Black Boy, I just read that, and I’m teaching Mary McCarthy next week, so I’m reading that.

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have any particular inclination to read newly, fresh-off-the-press books?

Dear Mr. You by  Mary-Louse Parker

Dear Mr. You by
Mary-Louse Parker

Mary Karr: Sure I do. I mean, sure I do, but not in the middle of teaching. When I’m teaching, I’m reading what I’m teaching. Actually, Mary Louise Parker has a great book called Dear Mr. You that I think is a terrific kind of …Very poetic. She reads a lot of poetry and it shows in the prose, very poetic memoir. Oh, Dana Spiotta has a novel coming out called Innocence and Others.

Robert Birnbaum: Anything else you want to tell me, that you want might to confess to me?

Mary Karr: I’m going to have to take my sins with me when I leave.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s okay. I really wasn’t expecting a confession

Mary Karr: A smooth exit, there we go.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah a smooth segue.

Mary Karr: You can absolve me. Well, happy new year.

Robert Birnbaum: Happy[Jewish] New Year to you. Thanks

Mary Karr: Thank you. Shabat tova…

End Notes

(1) Michel Silverblatt, long time host of LA radios’s Bookworm

(2) Alan Arkin book trailer

(3) Mark Costello Interview at Identitytheory

(4 Commencement speech at Syracuse

(5)George Saunders 2013 Syracuse Commencement speech

(7)David Shields interview at Our Man in Boston

(8) Joseph Epstein The Kid Turns 70 in the Weekly Standard

(9) Kin Recording of songs written by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

(10) Alternative Media Conference, 1971

Just Talking: Me & Anthony Doerr

20 Mar
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This conversation took place on May 14 2014 at my one time favorite neighborhood place The Keltic Krust (gone now). Anthony Doerr’s most recent novel,All the Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and (for what its worth) named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. As is my way, Tony and I spent a pleasant and engaging hour chatting about this and that. The account of which you can read below:


RB: What do you want to talk about? Have you spoken with a lot of people?

AD: The book came out eight days ago—so yeah, I’ve been talking a lot. I usually am skilled enough to deflect conversation away from myself. I get tired of it. I am flattered. It’s a lot better than having no one interested your work.

RB: Is this the first time you have done a book tour?

AD: I came to Boston for the 3rd book—Four Seasons in Rome. For About Grace (my 2nd book) I went to a bunch of cities. The Shell Collector won a prize (Barnes & Noble) and so I went to 20 cities-or-so cities visiting B&Ns.

RB: Here’s a personal question—what’s it like living in Boise, Idaho?

AD: It’s not a personal question. I love it. It’s great. We always feel we need to crank up the drawbridge and not tell people how great it is. It’s a beautiful little town. I can ride my bike to work. 300 days of sunshine a year.

RB: Where is work?

AD: I’m just a writer as my work. But I rent an office for $150 a month, outside my house.

RB: You can’t write at home?

AD: Even before we had kids it was too difficult. My wife would be at work and I would just do things at the house. Productive procrastination—it’s not like I would lie down. I would clean the garage meticulously.Fold every piece of laundry very carefully. And as hours ratchet by, I start to get more and more upset with myself and anxious.

RB: Why wouldn’t you go to the public library?

AD: I did at first, before I could afford this office. My problem is I have to pee every few hours—

RB: —the library doesn’t have lavatory?

AD:They do but it’s more of a laptop issue. Especially when I am in a good place, the last thing I want to do is pack up everything in my carrel and go to the bathroom. Then I come back and the carrel is gone. For me, fiction is often this house of cards you are building and if the kids come in or my wife wants me to do something or someone interrupts me–the phone rings–the house of cards falls over.

RB: Do you put things on a wall as visual aids?

AD: I do. There were a lot of photographs that I used writing this book. I covered a couple of walls.

RB: Did you travel to Germany?

AD:I did. I went to Europe three times. Germany, France. Normandy—Saint Malo. I visited three different times.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Lets get back to Boise— Gail Collins wrote a column on state legends and mentioned Idaho. Was the potato a part of the state motto?

AD:I don’t know. The potato I would understand. The university football team plays on blue turf.

RB: Yeah, what’s up with that?

AD: And then you get the white supremacists.

RB: Well, who can forget Ruby Ridge and its aftermath?

AD: That’s 9 hours north of our house—of course the reputation was earned.

RB: I met one other Idahoan, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter who is from Moscow Idaho.

AD: I’ve never met him but I like his work.

RB: I met him because he wrote a novel a few years back.

AD: You interviewed him—I read that. I hadn’t give him a chance as a novelist (which wasn’t fair because he is a wonderful songwriter) because I tend to be skeptical of someone who is really good at something and then they try to do something else. But his novel is good.

RB: Back to you—what determined the way you structured this story? Do you decide the form before you started the actual writing?

AD: : A lot of those decisions are not conscious. You are just kind of fumbling around, trying to figure out how this scaffolding will be built. But if I look back and start thinking about it critically, I realized that I’ve been building larger narratives our of little title pieces for a decade or so now. I think at least three of the stories in my last book, Memory Wall were long stories built with titled sections. “Memory Wall,” itself, the title novella is built from sections, each a little less than a page and each section has a title. What I liked about it was that it allowed me to move between points of view and employ a narrator who can go on little runs of lyricism and then you can give the reader a rest, some white space, between them.

RB: Janet Maslin commended you for doing that.

AD:Yes, she did. Which was surprising. She found an interview I had given at Powell’s and pulled that out. I was glad — I am getting a lot of questions about it. I didn’t think it was so unique or different; I’m certainly not the only contemporary writer to do it; Anne Carson, Jenny Offil, etc. I am getting a lot of questions like, ”Is it a response to short attentions spans?” Or Internet culture?

RB: That’s a reasonable question. Francine Prose’s recent book uses different forms —letters, book excerpts—to advance the narrative. You did the same—

AD: I wanted to make a symmetrical pattern and then occasionally disrupt it and see what that would do for a reader and try to keep in a reader’s head. See if she can keep both of these narratives—its almost as if I spat two lines straight up towards the sky and just inclined them slightly toward each other. . I want a reader to intuit that they are going to intersect and start anticipating that. And hopefully that builds some narrative momentum.

RB: And there are echoes of Rashoman — 2 people looking at the exact same thing…

AD: Yeah, thanks. I love that. Certainly that’s true for radio in the novel. Radio plays a different role in each of their lives. It’s both a curse and a gift.

RB: Philip Kerr, who has a novel series about a homicide detective in Nazi Germany says when he is finished with one of those novels, he feels like “he is climbing out of a dirty basement.”

AD: : I totally understand what he was saying. It felt so good to finally take those photos down. I had photos of the Hitler Youth in my office; I’d have friends come over and they’d emphatically ask, “What are you doing in here?” And I was beating myself up any time I read something that wasn’t about World War II or written in German around that time—something that I couldn’t qualify as research. For almost a decade, anything I was reading, I felt it should bend itself toward this project. So it felt so nice just really in the past three months to move into this Panama piece or start reading things about another time in history. Part of the reason that All the Light took so long was the psychic damage of reading incessantly about the destruction of human beings, especially when you read about the Eastern front and the Ukraine and this ravine called Babi Yar.

RB: ‘Killing fields’ before the term was coined.

AD: Unreal. The most destructive conflict you can imagine. And even forgetting what happened to Gypsies and disabled people and Jewish people, just what happened to soldiers on both sides —the level of violence and brutality in those two winters—‘42 and ’43 was obscene So sometimes reading those things I would have to stop. That’s why I wrote two other books. Partially as procrastination because this book was so difficult to put together. And partly because psychologically it was really difficult to live in the space for so many months..

RB: So, you first had the idea for this story and then you began to research? Or you began research about something and it got a little sharper and you researched more…

AD: Mostly the latter. You write yourself into these unknowns and you realize, ”I need to understand what a kitchen in 1939 would look like in Brittany.” So now I have to go figure that out. My problem there is you have to avoid letting that balloon into a kind of research/procrastination. Because after while I’m like, “Ooh maybe I ‘ll look at some more photos.” (laughs) It’s a lot easier than writing new sentences.

RB: Did you read all of [Joseph] Goebbels’s* writing?

AD: No, no, mostly his speeches in translation. Everything that is on Werner’s radio as a boy is real. I’m not making it up. All those slogans — that’s at that NAPOLA school (National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta). Yea, that stuff is so sinister.

RB: You read memoirs of students who attended that school?

AD:: Yes, a lot of that is in German, which I cannot read, I had to punch them into some god-awful Google translator. But those schools were real and sometimes in the novel I am toning down the punishing nature of those environments—I don’t really want to shine the light so brightly just on violence. That’s true, too, in what happens to Jutta [Werner’s sister] very late in the novel. In all likelihood, in real life, that would have happened to her many, many more times.

RB: Were you relieved to finish this novel?

AD: Yeah. At some point I had so many colored note cards out on the floor and I felt like: If I get hit by a bus my poor wife is never going to be able to piece this thing together.

RB: You could have an editor like Michael Pietsch who put together David Foster Wallace’s post humus novel.

AD: I know. But for a couple years there, I don’t think anyone could have assembled that mess into something functional. But later there’s that amazing moment when you can print the thing off and you don’t have to worry about your computer crashing or a your auxiliary hard drive crashing. That feels good.

RB: So after you complete the writing part, how long does it stay with you?

AD: For me its kind of like painting. Maybe it’s a forced metaphor, but the paint starts to dry after a couple of weeks if your subconscious isn’t working on it. That’s true for really any project—even if you are halfway through it. For me even little things like Thanksgiving or a family vacation for a week —if I am away from the work for even that short of a time, the ice really starts to form over it. It takes a week of chopping away at the prose before you can get back into it Because for me the times I am most happy and working well is when I am getting 3, 4, 5 sometimes 9 hours a day of working and then you do something like this—you come to a coffee shop or you walk the dog or you go to your kid’s baseball game, and suddenly your subconscious solves one of those problems you’ve made for yourself. Or you read something in the newspaper that seems totally unrelated, but it’s not—when you’re working a lot, everything starts to become relevant. But if your brain moves on to something else, it takes a couple of weeks. And then it seals over.

RB: There is that oft-repeated truism that writers write even when they are not writing.

AD:Yeah, you interviewed David Mitchell once [actually 5 or 6 times]? He compared writing to farming “there are a lot of different activities that comprise farming,” he said, or something like that. I like that—writing is not just confronting a blank white page all the time. You’re reading through what you’ve got so far. Or you’re seeding the fields by looking for other ideas. Or you are polishing your tools, or flipping through the seed catalogs.

RB: It’s a total life experience —for some people. I was watching True Detective and I was thinking that that’s another occupation or calling that is total.

AD: That’s part of the reason I have that separate space. To my family when I am home I am home. I’m present. Even if that means I get up at one in the morning to work on a piece. When my kids are around and they need help, I try to be there. And if I am not at home I am at work.

RB: How do you get along with people?

AD: I love people! They’re fascinating. There are times—I don’t have a sign on my door and I wear headphones like a chain saw operator—so there are times when I am being anti-social probably, just because it takes so long to get something done. Some of the chapters in this book, I have probably combed over hundreds of times. So, you do spend hours away from your family and friends.

RB: Really when you think about it, writers are abnormal. I find it difficult to gauge to what people are paying attention. If your interests are literary or about narrative and thoughtful, how do you deal with people who follow the Kardashians or whatever the latest trivia dominates the news cycle? Or spend their time sending selfies?

AD: My wife helps me try to be a less judgmental person and to try to understand everybody’s following a story and even the Kardashians, for some people are some kind of narrative they are following. I can relate to it terms of sports—I follow the narrative arcs of games but also of seasons and players within a season, coming back from injuries. So for some people it might be movie stars or whatever—they’re still big narratives that are interesting to them. I try to appreciate that.
RB: Am old Jew, Philo of Alexandria offered, ”Be kind, everyone in life is in a great battle.”

AD: Dr. Sherman Nuland said that in one of your interviews. It’s a beautiful quote.

RB: Have there been any negative reviews of your new opus?

AD: There has been one so far. In the Sunday Times. It was painful—William Vollman wrote it. The rest have been really good. Vollman did not enjoy Werner’s trajectory as much as Marie’s. His argument is a little cluttered to me but that’s because I didn’t like it. He says that spend more empathetic effort making Marie an individual and relied more on stereotype for Werner. And the next review will say the exact opposite.

RB: I don’t see that as a criticism as much as statement of taste.

AD: Yeah.

RB: But it still bothered you.

AD:I wish it didn’t. (pause)That is a really important thing for me to struggle with— I try to pretend, to myself, that I don’t care. But I am also skeptical of the writers who tell me they never read reviews of their own work and they don’t care how their books are received. You make this thing alone for so long and it goes into the world and the point of it is optimistic—to hope to connect with a stranger. To hope that somehow there is something inside this language that meets a reader and the reader has to meet you halfway. And so you’re curious to find out how readers will respond to it. At least I am.

RB: That’s an articulate way of saying we want to be acknowledged and liked.

AD: Another way of thinking about it is that you are an engineer and you are making this machine and you want to find out of the machine is working.

RB: Maybe your best hope is people read the whole book.

AD: (laughs)

RB: I read a review of a biography of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee and it stated that there should be no 800-page book a bout a sports figure. So immediately I am wondering if the reviewer read the entire book. I thought the same thing — I don’t think anyone merits an 800-page biography. But having read entire book I thought Bradlee made it work.

AD: I think you can write 800 pages on weeds and the lawn if you are good enough at it. Nicholson Baker could probably do that. With that length you are announcing: I know a lot about this and it’s going to be really interesting. Your reader has to come into it with a lot of skepticism, and if you win you reader that’s an achievement.

RB. On the other hand you have the case of Robert Caro on LBJ.

AD: Yeah, amazing

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: That’s good example of how much information is contained in many lives. We are so packed with all the stuff that happens and if you are world historical it has more valence.

AD: Of course, any life you can unspool a day for a thousand pages

RB: Mostly we don’t pay attention too much of it.

AD: That brings me back to your saying that writing is a way of living. I got into reading because I didn’t want to sleepwalk my way through life. But you can’t stay awake and alert to the majesty every day, every minute. Occasionally if you train you mind to pay attention, slowing down and looking at things very deeply, you do get to focus a little more. I don’t believe in reincarnation. You get one trip and if you are lucky you get 80 years — so why not pay attention to every thing that you can and learn as much as you can while you are here.

RB: True dat. You never know when you are going to come across a good story or storyteller. I marvel that there are people who claim to be bored and played out in life—essentially dead. I don’t know how that happens.

AD: Me neither. I feel like the world is way too interesting—just say yes. That’s what I tell young people, my students—somebody asks you to do something say yes, even if you are tired. If they want you to go mountain biking I in the middle of the night. Or they want you to scrape and paint a mural on a wall, go do it. You might learn something and you might run in to the storyteller you were talking about. And helps you recast everything I a bright and different light and help you re-see the world.

RB: Have you a prognosis or prediction for the world of literature?

AD: Oh man, no. (both laugh) No, I am so grateful that people read my work and I’m reading a lot of interesting and vital writers who are alive right now.

RB: That’s quite true—it seems that the people who are perpetually grousing about all the crap being published make too much noise. But so what— if there is a lot of good work being published?

AD: Maybe there is a greater need for gatekeepers, maybe curators is a better word. I like the ‘Readings’ section of Harper’s —anything that helps me find beautiful, important pieces that I have missed.

RB: Literature is not disappearing in the foreseeable future

AD: We still crave narrative. People maybe turning to True Detective instead of William Gass. And that may be something to mourn but I think True Detective is a really interesting piece of work.

RB: Yes, created by a novelist, Nic Pizzolatto.
(Brief interlude discussing the Wire) The cable channels have provided writes with great opportunities.

AD: Yeah, pretty nice. I didn’t know much about it but Nic Pizzolatto. He had two books with Scribner before he made True Detective.

RB: Galveston was one.

AD: [writer] Ben Percy told me he was a pretty good storywriter and just decided to try a screenplay. You can tell he’s read Faulkner and some Flannery O’Connor.

RB: The commercial imperative coming from publishers seems to be to keep grinding out series.

AD: I like the idea of each of the boards of the book closing,and that making its own universe.

RB: Have you read Alan Furst?

AD: No.

RB: His novels cover the WWII era in Europe and they are exceedingly well researched. And his rigor and conscientious commitment to get the fact right is because as he related to me, “Too much blood was shed not to be accurate.”

AD: I felt that too—very much so. For me in this novel the Holocaust is underneath the book all the time. Its kind of a silence between the sentences and there are times when I told myself, “Tony you have to do this with a lot of respect.” Especially because I am not shining a light directly upon the camps—they are just always in the background behind Werner’s childhood.The weight of responsibility to do a respectful reverent job was hopefully achieved.

RB: I came across Peter Matthiessen’s newest book [ After Paradise]which is set in Auschwitz— a group of Buddhists make a pilgrimage—

AD: Long after the fact, you mean?

RB: Yes, yes. It’s a very peculiar entry point to a touchy subject. I loved the first book I read by him back in 1967— At Play In the Fields of the Lord.

AD: He was important to me. The whole Shadow Country Trilogy —those books are amazing. He ability to be in love with the natural world and tell stories about it—he and Rick Bass and Andrea Barrett —those were really models for me, people who care deeply about the environment and use storytelling to communicate that.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Cormac McCarthy also.

AD: Yes, he does have a love for landscape and it’s complicated. It comes, primarily though narrative. And that’s what I had to learn. For years I would just describe what I would see. I loved to backpack .I loved to be outside. It was really Rick and Andrea and reading Mattheissen who started me thinking that maybe I could make narratives out of it. I really infect my characters with interests that I have.

RB: You like to repair radios? [Werner does this in the novel]

AD: I like to play with radios. I am not very good at fixing them.

RB: Speaking of McCarthy, I caught a scene in No Country for Old Men with Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Corbin, which was elliptical but perfectly understandable. It was this gem of a conversation.

AD: You’re looking at the surface of the lake but there is the lake underneath…

RB: Did he write the screenplay?

AD: The Coen brothers did. I have been in love with McCarthy since I was in my teens. That’s maybe not his best novel but it’s probably the best film made from one of his novels. That’s because it was true to the essence of the book without being true to the actual material of the book.

RB: I didn’t recall the hit man[played by Javier Badem] being that dark and evil a character in the novel.

AD: Archetypal—the Devil. This makes me want to go watch it. I should watch the Counselor when I am on an airplane sometime; haven’t seen that one yet.

RB: Yeah, the Counselor is an odd movie—full of ponderous dialogue and speechifying but Ridley Scott always makes watchable movies.

AD: Interesting. I like it in his books—the Judge’s rant in Blood Meridian fascinate me. I am glad nobody has made that [in to a film]. I feel like that book is a book and should remain just a book.

RB: Garcia Marquez famously refused a million dollars for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read somewhere that he agreed to someone’s offer with the following conditions—each chapter would be presented as 2 minutes in film and each of the chapters would be shown in sequence, each year, for 100 years.

AD: That’s funny (laughs)

RB: That book was important to me as was Pynchon’s— what about you?

AD:So many, although I think of Gravity’s Rainbow now that you mention Pynchon. To the Lighthouse, Blood Meridian, and Rick Bass’s the Watch (his first story collection). So much energy and movement in that book, especially the novella that names the collection. All these bicyclist’s whizzing through the dark. And in love with the magic of nature —fireflies in jars. He has a story called “The Hermit’s Story” about swamp gas erupting under the bottom of this lake, all this magic that is around us. I love that story.

RB: I can’t remember the last time I saw a firefly.

AD: Aw, Robert. We don’t have them in Idaho but when I visit my parents in Ohio, of course.

RB: Or monarch butterflies.

AD: That’s a problem—that’s real.

RB: The Panama Project you mentioned, is that novel?

AD: I don’t know yet. I finished the edits on this book in January [2014]. The published version of the novel is 110,000 words —the original was 170,000. We worked really hard on it. I can get a little verbose so my editor [Nan Graham] helped me trim and prune and gain a little more momentum. The great thing about her is I never feel like she is trying to make the book more commercial; she’s just trying to make the book better. So, I think it will take me about three months or so before I can really get the next thing off the ground.

RB: So while you try to decide what do you do?

AD: Y: You just keep trying to make things, and you see if they can stand up on their own.

RB: Do you do journalism?

AD: I say ‘yes’ to travel magazines sometimes. Often those things fuel my fiction. Especially when I review science books —that stuff funnels back in to my work. Also I go mountain biking a lot.

RB: Do you envision every leaving Boise?

AD: For the quality of life we have and the amount of work I can get done. I never sit in traffic. There are days that go by that I ever get in a car.

RB: I lived South Coastal New Hampshire for a while. I get that. A life where a car is an option not a necessity. Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Did we talk about everything you wanted to talk about?

AD: Sure. [A brief exchange about moi] Thanks.


Anthony Doerr Tony’s website

Literary Jackpot, Against the Odds NY Times article (not a review) on All the Light We Cannot See

Alan FurstOne of my conversations with Furst

Ben Bradlee My chat with Ben about The Kid.

Philip Kerr A conversation with the creator of a slew of Bernie Gunther novels and a bunch of stand alones.

Josh Ritter The singer songwriter tries his hand at fiction.

Sherman Nuland My chat with the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.

Powell’s Interview

True Detective

Norman Mailer’s Summer Reading List

27 May
Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I have no doubt come late to the party—the beach/ summer reading lists having been proffered by the usual experts on beach/summer reading. I am not versed in this genre (though I can recall reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Foster Wallace’s magnum opus at a beach in Rincon Puerto Rico).Late, but not empty handed. Here’s a list (scroll to the bottom of this article if the name of the list confuses you):

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t SeeAnthony Doerr (Scribner)

Excellent narrative, riveting characters and the use of WWII Europe and Nazi depredations are not cliched.

Everything I Never Told You by  Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never told You -Celeste Ng(Penguin Press)

Ng’s debut novel about a teenager’s death and its reverberations in the family and community is nimbly told (no small feat with such a weighty subject.

The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs-Leonardo Padura(FSG)

Trotsky, his assassin, The Spanish Civil War, Stalin and the Moscow show trials, an aging Cuban writer, two wolfhounds— its a far flung story (times and places) written with Carribbean alacrity.Don’t believe me? Here’s Ann Louise Bardach take:

A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura’s novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland.

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return-Elizabeth De Waal (Picador)

Adam Kirsch’s paean to Ms De Waal should move you. Or not:

…appearing now, as a historical document, it gains an additional interest, as Elisabeth de Waal’s imaginative response to her own exile…This is not, perhaps, a new story, but in The Exiles Return it is told with sharpness and authenticity.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek– Smith Henderson (Ecco)

I am partial to American novels set outside urban cultures and with a minimum of consumer activities. Like this one, set in the Fly over zone.

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair- Olen Steinhauer (St Martin’s

As sure-handed as Le Carre reporting on the activities of spooks and various secret police. A world normally Byzantine in its alliances and
fluidity of loyalties, this plot set in Cairo seems especially volatile

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons-  edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons- edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (Voice of Witness)by Ayelet Waldman , Robin Levi (Editor)

In case you were charmed into seeing incarceration as a vacation by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black here’s a corrective. Or Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart Women,Prison and the World Behind Bars

They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full    by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon)

Fishermen on Sea of Galilee

A citizen said, Every action
born out of pure spontaneity
is correct. It’s possible
he said corrupt but I was
eavesdropping. Correction:
minding my business: he was
performing, saying, also,
to his fellow citizens, I know
you agree with me on this.
Look, it’s autumn in our
hairlines and some smear
on the pavement’s been run
over so many times we can’t
tell whether or not it started
out as an animal.
My heaven is populated
with conures, llamas,
and adolescent bears
but is otherwise
fairly quiet. I’m done
looking for approbation
from people for whom I have
no respect and would respect
less if I met them.
Was this the sea they parted.
Understatement, so rarely
biblical: there is no quill pen
half as sinister as the lone
piece of penne in a dish
of farfalle. Today we rock
anonymity and tomorrow find
further evidence of same
dying in the comment fields.
Wake me when you can
tell me whether every taxi
must engage in a dialogue
with all previous taxis,
when you do something
impossible, when you leave
the party, when you take
my worst advice. This is,
friends, this was the sea.

Midnight  in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Random House)

Since I discovered Furst I have continued to read his regularly published and dependably entertaining and instructive war time “thrillers” I confess that was a brief period when I wasn’t entertained or instructed but the probability is high that was a shift in my attention or something even more subjective. But his latest opus, I can report is up to (my) snuff. Paris,1938 and the Spanish Civil War goings-on make for a great setting. And that infamous place where the Bulgarian waiter is shot is per Furst’s practice, cleverly insinuated into the plot.

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning– Greg Iiles (William Morrow)

A densely plotted post racial novel set in Natchez—that’s in Mississippi for all you Yankees that is thick on Civil Rights Movement era history as well lots of things you didn’t know about Natchez. Frankly I thought it was about 200 pages too long (800 pages). Reportedly, this is the first volume of a trilogy

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl– Robert Stone (houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Robert Stone is the gold standard of American fiction. That’s it.

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik (Pushkin Press)

Writer Stefan Zweig has garnered lots of attention recently not the least because of Wes Anderson’s film Grand Hotel which in turn reportedly owes something to The Impossible Exile by George Prochnick (Other Press). I like this novel about Zweig’s last few months of life very much

A Permanent Member of The  Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member of The Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member go there Family by Russell Banks (Ecco)

Russell Banks is also the gold standard of American Fiction.

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves– Nick Turse (Picador)

Sorry to saddle this book under the rubric of Important book but if you are in doubt about whether the perpetrators of the Indochinese Debacle were/are war criminals a few chapters of Turse’s exhaustively researched
account should shake up your belief in American moral superiority.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams  by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR (Little Brown)

See my chat with Ben Bradlee

Euphoria   by  Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic)

Author Alice Greenway expiates

Euphoria is a love story set against the scramble by anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea to record or map the traditions and beliefs of societies coming apart under the brutal onslaught of miners, traders, missionaries and colonialists. Lily King writes with astonishing insight and authority about a number of New Guinea tribes and particularly about their distinct gender relations. At the same time, she delves into the intellectual flights and passions of three anthropologists – as complex, rivalrous and brutal as any of the cultures they study. Euphoria is a brilliantly written book and entirely fascinating from start to finish. The character of Nell Stone, slight, wracked with fever and insect bites, with a slight limp from a fall in the jungle and large cuscus-like eyes, capable of joy and huge intellect, is extraordinary.

 American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Ward Just is a dependable novelist who chronicles both remote and familiar pockets of American Life, in this case the life of an American foreign service officer who’s brief tryst with a German nurse in Vietnam seems to haunt him through his years of world wide diplomatic postings to his pleasant but solitary retirement in France

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything  by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)

Who doesn’t love Barbara Ehrenreich‘s smart and compassionate views on the world? This,Living with a Wild God, would be her most personal book and reaches into an area that many people who spend time thinking, think many hours about. To quote one review

The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”

“When I am asked what’s on my summer reading list… I read the all year long” Norman Mailer

A Deuce That Beats a Full House

13 Jun

Tibor Fischer’s story of his struggle to get published will forever be emblazoned on a few of my neural pathways and so when I see something new by Tibor, I feel compelled to have a look-see.

Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer

In the present case, Crushed Mexican Spiders (Unbound/UK) is a small, handsomely published tome containing two stories: the title story set in contemporary London— grimy Brixton to be specific —where the so called “poet laureate of London grime” (Fischer?) snaps off a quick-witted tale of legerdemain. The second entitled “Possibly Forty Ships” purports to be the true story of the Trojan War (and here I thought Ridley Scott’s version was true— I mean Brad Pitt as Achilles— what could be more plausible?) The two stories bound are in a beautiful small hardback edition, with captivating cover photographs by Czech photographer Hana Vojáková

Here’s a taste:

Ahead of her, struggling up the stairs strugglingly was a mother and pushchair, laden with bags and a screaming kid. Homebound workers salmoned past without offering a hand, blinkered by visions of supper or respite.

The comatose staff of London Underground didn’t think of helping the mother. She wouldn’t be helping either. Ten years ago when she had moved to London, she would have. Imperceptibly but perceptibly the city toxified you. Parking across strangers’ driveways, not saying thank you when a door was held open for you, murder. Somehow it got you.

London informed you that you got nothing for a lifetime of decency; not a free glass of water. Not that behaving badly necessarily got you anywhere, but it was generally easier and more fun; and finally any career criminal from Albania or genocidist from Rwanda passing through London got the same medical treatment as you and better housing rights.

You didn’t want to become the sort of person who didn’t help an entoiled mother, but you became one. No one had helped her when she had needed it. And now her help muscles had withered away. Single mothers were especially annoying because of their dishonesty. Very few of them could hack it. They either leeched off friends and family, sucking in services and cash or they botched it up, while maintaining how coping they were.

Outside, on the pavement, a Portuguese junkie was kneeling, while a buxom exorcist wielding a bible, intoned with two back-up entreaters and sprinkled him with holy water…

Crushed Mexican Spiders continues

Interventions by Kate Russo and Richard Russo

Richard Russo, author of a slew of wonderful books (including, if you care about such things a Pulitzer Prize winning novel) and screen plays (including the greatly under appreciatedIce Harvest) teams up with his artist daughter Kate, to produce Interventions (Down East Books), a lovely slip cased collection of four slender bound volumes containing four never-before-published novellas (whatever they are) by Russo.

Given that this is the season of superabundant commencement addresses and that David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College address, This Is Water, stands as a paradigm of well-spoken, if not useful, advice, I nominate Richard Russo’s Colby College oration as one to keep at hand and savor, not in the least, for containing within it this amusing parable:

About ten years ago I was teaching at a large Midwestern university while I waited for the opportunity to teach at a small, eastern liberal arts college, which came in due course. One Friday night my wife and I went to a party given by one of my graduate students in a house that, if it had been a car, would have been a Studebaker up on blocks. The keg had run dry half an hour earlier, a collection had been taken up to buy another, and it had only just dawned on the people at the party that nobody knew the guy who’d volunteered to go get it. In the living room the rickety furniture had been moved out onto the porch to create a dance floor, and Grace Slick was singing “Somebody to Love,” a song I’ve never been able to resist, especially when the volume on the stereo is set on stun, as it happened just then to be. “When the truth is found to be lies,” Grace wanted us to understand, “you know the joy within you dies.”

Across the room, dancing with a kind of free-spirited abandon that I happened just then to admire, was a good-looking young professor of religious studies with whom I’d had a couple of run-ins and never particularly cared for, though she was far too attractive to dislike entirely. She approached life, it seemed to me, with the kind of bitter cynicism that I associate with academics who have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they will not be granted tenure. Is it even necessary to add that she lacked a sense of humor? Anyway, at the moment, the young religious studies professor’s face was lit up from the inside with something I’d never witnessed before–joy, unless I was mistaken–which made me wonder if I’d misjudged her. I hope this might be true. Did I say she was attractive?

It was maybe an hour later when we professors, perspiring and red-faced from our exertions, and unused to being up after ten o’clock, began to take our leave, so that our grad students could begin the real party. My wife and I left through the kitchen so we could thank our hostess, and there we encountered an intimate and utterly unexpected scene. The professor of religious studies was sitting at the kitchen table, her head in her hands, sobbing pitifully, over and over again, “All I ever wanted was to sing a little rock and roll.” Staring at the chipped, beer-soaked Formica tabletop, she’d had a revelation, you could tell. Thanks to Grace Slick she was beginning to see her life in a whole new way. To this point she’d imagined that her problem was that she wasn’t going to get tenure, whereas she now saw, to her complete horror, that of course she would. Whatever had lit her face on the dance floor had been extinguished, and it was hard to imagine it would be rekindled any time soon. In this, her moment of terrible truth, I found myself liking her better than I ever had before, though, with her defenses down, she wasn’t nearly so good-looking. Seeing her sitting there, so despondent, you could imagine the effort it took to present herself to the world each morning.

Currently reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Ecco)

“If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?”

23 May

Being the time of year when college’s graduate their student/debtors, the ceremonies hold forth the possibility, if not the promise of wise words flowing forth from the various commencement speakers called upon to ease graduates into their new reality. David Foster Wallace’s2005 Kenyon College graduation day peroration has been enshrined in a cleverly designed tome entitled ‘This is Water” And currently Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s Syracuse oration is making the Internet rounds.Its a creditable speech and its worth reading if just for his acknowledgment, “Don’t ever forget that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”

One of my favorites is Richard Russo’s 2004 Colby College disquisition Which he concludes in his special,understated style:

Okay, that’s pretty much it. It’s all I know, and then some. Four simple, deeply flawed rules to live by. Go to it. Be bold. Be true. Be kind. Rotate your tires. Don’t drink so much. There aren’t going to be enough liver transplants to go around.

Good luck.

There is an issue of special importance for me (and perhaps other parents of teen agers) buried in all this graduation—what is the value of college in the modern world? Andrew Delbanco who among other things wrote a splendid biography of Herman Melville takes on this issue in his latest opus College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press) The title of course aptly tips you off to what he is about and he previews his thoughts in a magazine piece here where he observes

As the literary scholar Norman Foerster once put it, the American college has always sought to prepare students for more than “pecuniary advantage over the unprepared.” To succeed in sustaining college as a place where liberal learning still takes place will be very costly. But in the long run, it will be much more costly if we fail.

Delbanco extemporizes here:

And here he (wearing a tie) talks with PBS’s Jeffrey Brown here:

Currently reading The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Riverhead)

Best Books of the Year

27 Jul

Creating best-of lists used to be a seasonal matter, heavily skewed toward the year-end summations and not a little influenced by commercial considerations stemming from the media business’s dedication to service, uh, journalism. Now, of course, the ubiquity of lists is only tamped down by the media attention to the latest tsunmami, oil spill, nuclear disaster or impending plague or rampant contagion. And, of course, the current crime of the century.

Thus, the sins of my colleagues afford me the license to indulge in the lazy practice of forming a list. The only labor involved being under what pretense such an enumeration is entitled. And having so labored I inclined to proffer Best Books (of 2011) as the appropriate rubric. If you have a better idea, give me a yell.

The Sisters Brothers:A Novel by Patrick deWitt (Ecco)

Once Upon a River:A Novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell (W. W. Norton & Company)

To Be Sung Underwater:A Novel by Tom McNeal (Little Brown)

Rules of Civility:A Novel by Amor Towles (Viking)

Galore by Michael Crummey Other Press)

Doc:A Novel by Mary Doria Russell Random House

The Informant by Thomas Perry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Mink River by Brian Doyle (Oregon State University Press)

Rodin’s Debutante by Ward S. Just (Houghton MIfflin Harcourt

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Little Brown)

Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya and (New Directions)

You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard (Knopf)

The Cut by George P. Pelecanos(Reagan Arthur Books)

Remember by Stephen Harrigan (Knopf)

Broken Irish by Edward Delaney(Turtle Point Press)

The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Anne McLean (Riverhead)

This and That

20 Apr

One of the more cherished legacies of Spy Magazine is the coinage of the phrase and its attachment to New York real estate huckster Donald Trump. These days there is an inglorious din in the media shitstream coming from the attention paid to Trump, grugged psycho Charlie Sheen and congressional viper and Ayn Rand devotee Paul Ryan. So much so, that you may have missed some interesting items that actually can be categorized as news.

Cuba’s first Communist Party assembly in 14 years brought some attention to Uncle Sam’s feisty little nephew in the Caribbean giving the usual suspects the opportunity to trot out predictable and stale rhetoric. Which makes this an opportune time to mention Yoani Sanchez and her newly published Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth about Cuba Today (Melville House).The much celebrated Sanchez is a young woman who has been hosting a Havana based weblog Generation Y which simply reports what life is like in Havana today—reportage which has made her troublesome to the current regime

And speaking of Cuba, my conversation with Havana born,Yale historian Carlos Eire revolves around his two memoirs—the award winning Waiting for Snow in Havana, and his latest, Learning to Die in Miami. You can find that chat over at The Morning News.

Jennifer Egan has achieved wide-spread laudation for her latest novel Visit from the Goon Squad—not the least is the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I’ve chatted with Ms Egan a number of times over the years, latest being last summer. You can also find that tete et tete at the Morning News.

There is lots to be said about David Foster Wallace’s recently pots humously published opus The Pale King (Little Brown) And apparently everyone of a literary bent is trying to say it. I’ve had my say here and of all the commentary and ululating about Foster Wallace’s genius and whatever, his editor Michael Pietsch has some useful and valuable things to say about how he made sense out of the inchoate mass of papers David Foster Wallace left behind.

Brilliant Christopher HItchens, of course, plays out his role as an iconoclastic icon with much brio and alacrity. The maturation of his politic did cause him to be become alienated from his progressive comrades and his legions of lefty fans. Now, battling cancer, suggests that his body of work may be limited by his mortality (and thus cheating his readers and the public cultural conversation of a genuine and original voice. His recent piece on the upcoming British royalty nuptials is a wonderful reminder of his mastery of limber and sharp edged prose and a prodigious memory keenly attuned to the whole wide world. I spoke with HItchens over ten years ago, one before the crucible of 9/11 and once after.

These days there seems no end to the efforts to conceive and publish small literary journals. Thus bookstore chain bankruptcies not withstanding while it may be all gloom and doom for the commerce of literature. the ranks of commentators are swelling. The latest entry being the Los Angeles Review of Books which is a good thing especially since the neophyte journal has not yet offended anyone.

Chicago chef Grant Achatz, whose battle with cancer is well noticed has written about his experience in Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat with Nick Kokonas (Gotham Books). Achatz also recently made news by selling tickets to his restaurant Next sparking the headline,”Bidding Frenzy for Tickets to Eat at Next in Chicago” and an article in the New York Times.

My chat with Carlos Eire makes mention of the sad case of Alan Gross, an American recently sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison— this after spending a year incarcerated without charges. Gross’s family is leaving a seat open for him at their Passover seder as his wife Judy asks for her husband’s release. Good luck with that.

If you have any influence or concern about Gross’s imprisonment, by all means, do something. That’s all, folks.

The King is Dead

5 Apr

Though he was hidden in plain sight (like so many fine authors ) having published a novel and a story collection, David Foster Wallace went unnoticed ( he didn’t make Granta’s 1996 “Best of the Young American Novelists”) until his 1000 page, 100 footnote novel Infinite Jest. I recall when I talked to Foster Wallace in 1995 ( a conversation I will try to unearth at some future date) he was serious, polite, edgy and seemingly uncomfortable. Not the least due to lame publicity like a New York Times Magazine article anointing him the “grunge” novelist. Oy veh!

Well, what could you expect? A pack of puerile cultural scavengers affixing themselves to a rising literary star is the way of the world is it not. Luckily, Dave Eggers arrived on the scene with a penchant for showmanship and an interesting book and a clear evidence that the kids were still reading (at least some were) You may not know anything about David Foster Wallace but you probably know he hung himself (the kind of thing TMZ would report) in 2008. Certainly in the intervening years since the publication of Infinite Jest Wallace secured a place for himself in American letters and no lesser authority than Time Magazine included Infinite Jestin its All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list.

Now comes the post-humous publication of Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (Little Brown). You can read about how Micheal Pietsch, Wallace’s editor and Little, Brown publisher,took on the prodigious task of reading the pages Wallace left behind which he lovingly brought The Pale Kinginto a publishable and readable form in Lev Grossman’s faithful recapitulation of Pietsch’s editor’s note.

Grossman does offer this thought though:

The Pale King is complete in one sense: it asks a question and posits an answer. Here and there throughout the book, Wallace alludes to a state of mind, or perhaps a way of being, in which a human being can set aside boredom, or pass through it, to experience reality calmly and openly, appreciating it for its richness without demanding from it anything as easy or satisfying or ready-made as meaning. There’s both a whiff of dorm-room, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance mysticism to this idea and a whiff of truth as well. Not everybody in The Pale King is able to find this state of mind, but everybody is looking for it.

Now, part of my motive for writing this notice is to suggest that you restrain yourself from reading the avalanche of chatter that the Pale King will surely loose—unless we are blessed with Charllie Sheen developing aphasia or some other next big thing. The NY Times has already had two reviews and one article on the faux embargo imposed by Little Brown (book was supposed to go on sale April 15 and reviewers were asked not to review or quote from it, or even mention they had copies in their possession). I say read the book. Or read something by Foster Wallace. Or listen to his Kenyon College commencement speech published as a wonderful little book This is Water.

Okay, you might read one piece on Wallace —which I found in an unlikely place—there being odd pockets of intelligence and insight in world of big commercial media. John Jeremiah Sullivan has some smart things to say about Wallace and his place in a fluid evaporating culture. I like this bit of acuity:

Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified. And Wallace was speaking to them; his native conscientiousness prevented him from shirking the role of sage altogether. It’s in this way that we can understand his frequent and uncharacteristically Pollyanna statements about the supposed power of fiction against solipsism, i.e., that only in literature do we know for sure we’re having “a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness.”

By the way, I have read about 100 pages of The Pale King. It is hilarious. It is dark. And it is dense.

Old Age,Death and the Whole Shebang

21 Feb

In explaining their upbeat anthology The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, Brad Morrow and David Shields quote David Foster Wallace by way of explaining their intention:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self, (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I ‘m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple fingered theoretical justification, I strongly suspect a big part of [a writer’s]job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people; to move people to countenance it;since as any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

Personally, I am of the opinion this is the most sophomoric if not dumbest thing I have ever read by Foster Wallace but that’s ambient to this book note—though I wonder if the editors of The Inevitable gave the Wallace citation to the participating authors before they accepted their contributions?

Writers included in this collection are Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard, Robert Clark, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sallie Tisdale, Mark Doty, Geoff Dyer, Peter Straub,Terry Castle and Diane Ackerman,Christopher Sorrentino and David Gates

Susan Jacoby is lionized (at least by her publisher as a “unsparing chronicler of unreason in American culture”) And in Never Say Die: The New Old Age:The Myth and Marketing of the New Old (Pantheon) she has found a subject worthy of her unsparingness. Reading Jacoby, Baby Boomers as well as the 70 million American who will be over 65 by 2030 will quickly learn that the economic engine driving a joyous and untroubled old age is very effective in steam rolling the less than hopeful reality. Here is Jacoby:

I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from real­ity, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age fills me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undefiable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubi­ous notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and com­petitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.

Nicholas Delbanco, has a decidedly more measured take with his rumination, Lastingness The Art of Old Agee (Grand Central Books). As one would expect the opening epigram from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, succinctly suggests Delbanco’s attitude

Grow Old along with me.
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

Delbanco explaIns:

This book is about tribal elders in the world of art; what interests me is lastingness: how it may be attained.For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter: I publish my first novel in 1966 and very much hope to continue…An ever growing number of Americans are middle-aged or elderly:no natural catastrophe has thinned our swelling ranks. And the habit of creation does not die, so there are more who paint the sunset or take piano lessons or hunt the perfect end rhyme at day’s end…

Yet its a daunting proposition. To try to fashion work that might last more than one season is to recognize how hard it is to make a thing of beauty be “a joy forever”— that proud bias of a poet who died at twenty five…”

In these pages I consider what has been left behind: testimonials we hear and see and read…

Add to the mix of these somber thoughts on that particular unyielding certainty are Joseph Epstein’s evocation of Cicero as he presents his own thoughts on Jacoby’s rant:

Unlike Ms. Jacoby, with her penchant for doctor-assisted suicide, Cicero thought with Pythagoras that we mustn’t “desert life’s sentry-post till God, our commander, has given word.” He was of course aware of the arbitrary nature of death, which can strike at any age: “What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not to make one’s own.”

Death, Cicero knew, is an old joke that comes to each of us afresh; and he also knew that old age is a straight man who prepares us, always inadequately, for the punch line. He was himself murdered at 63, by order of his enemy Mark Antony: the hands that had composed attacks against Antony cut off and displayed alongside his head in the Roman Forum. Cicero was wise enough to know that even wisdom itself is no protection against the forces of nature or the malevolence of men

Finally, Epstein’s own views on aging are worth mulling over: Upon turning 70 Epstein opined:

I much like the Internet, adore email, and probably use Google seven or eight times a day. But must I also check in on YouTube, have a posting on MySpace, and spend a portion of my day text-messaging? At 70, the temptation is to relax, breathe through the mouth, and become comfortably rear-guard.