Tag Archives: Susan Sontag

Talking with Sigrid Nunez and more…

2 Mar



Heller McAlpine, in her smart take* on Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend, echoes my exact experience with Nunez , albeit with an earlier novel, The Last of Her Kind. 

“One of the great joys of reading is discovering a new writer whose work speaks to you — whether an unknown debut novelist or a seasoned author whose many books you’ve somehow missed. Case in point: Sigrid Nunez. I was drawn to her sixth novel as a fresh addition to the literature of grief, but within pages realized The Friend has as much to say about literature as about grief, and was wondering how she’d slipped below my radar.”

The Friend is a rich, layered narrative that  with uncanny fluidity covers suicide, the joys and perils of writing (and is laden with thought provoking aphorisms**) and very significantly the nature of a human/canine relationship. Having a canine companion  I feel obliged to point out that Apollo the Great Dane that the protagonist adopts is  aging with his health on downward trajectory. As the passing of one’s pooch is possibly the worst day in your life, this part of the book may weigh heavily…



The novel begins brilliantly:

During the 1980s, in California, a large number of Cambodian women went to their doctors with the same complaint: they could not see. The women were all war refugees. Before fleeing their homeland, they had witnessed the atrocities for which the Khmer Rouge, which had been in power from 1975 to 1979, was well known. Many of the women had been raped or tortured or otherwise brutalized. Most had seen family members murdered in front of them. One woman, who never again saw her husband and three children after soldiers came and took them away,said that she had lost her sight after having cried every day for four years. She was not the only one who appeared to have cried herself blind. Others suffered from blurred or partial vision,their eyes troubled by shadows and pains

The doctors who examined the women—about a hundred and fifty in all—found that their eyes were normal. Further tests showed that their brains were normal as well. If the women were telling the truth—and there were some who doubted this, who thought the women might be malingering because they wanted attention or were hoping to collect disability—the only explanation was psychosomatic blindness.

In other words, the women’s minds, forced to take in so much horror and unable to take more, had managed to turn out the lights.

This was the last thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the new year.



Sigrid Nunez photograph by Marian Ettlinger



I have spoken with Sigrid a time or two — the first  time follows below:

Sigrid Nunez wanted to be a dancer, and lucky for her readers, that didn’t work out as planned. Nevertheless capable of some deft footwork, she explains to our man in Boston how the two pastimes are similar.
Somewhere in the conversation that follows, novelist Sigrid Nunez opines that great writing seems effortless. She might have been making reference to herself: When I finally picked up a Nunez novel, I was both surprised and pleased at the ease with which I was able to enter and quickly engage with this unlikely story of two college roommates in the volatile and hyper-exciting early 1970s. Apparently the odd gaggle of readers who make up the American literary classes concurred, pouring accolades and smart discussions on The Last of Her Kind. By the year’s end, it had made countless “best books of the year” lists.

Sigrid Nunez has published five novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind, and the recently reissued Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury.

As befits her serious commitment to the writing life, her work is regularly published in leading periodicals as well as being anthologized. She has won numerous awards and has taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Columbia University, and the New School, and has been a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College and Washington University. She has also been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the RopeWalk Writers Retreat. Sigrid Nunez lives in New York City.

Claire Messud, an able novelist in her own right, perceptively writes: Sigrid Nunez is a memoirist of considerable gifts, which is worth remarking only because she is the author of novels rather than of memoirs. Using an intercutting of meditation and careful reconstruction, she has written an impassioned and complicated recollection transformed, by the author’s skill, into a work of fiction rather than of history.Sigrid, who by the way is the child of a Chinese Panamanian father and a German mother, and I discuss her failure as a dancer, writing sequels (or not), what interests her, Susan Sontag and some of the usual things.

Robert Birnbaum: When I was thinking about what we might talk about, I was distracted by my recent acquisition of another iPod—watch me try to connect this [to something that makes sense]. And my big iPod has about 3,000 songs on it and my new one has a 400-song capacity. So I’m thinking about what happens when you try to narrow down your world to what you call your favorites. Though 400 favorites seems a bit much. But how is it as one gets older, that all the information and things that you have liked and that have filtered down, the songs, the literature, the poems, the life experiences? I wonder if they reduce down to just a few cherished things? Are you following me?
Sigrid Nunez: Yes you’re reminding me of one of my favorite quotes from Rilke, who said something like, “When a man is young he needs many, many books and when he is old he needs only a few books.” We all know what he meant, whether you agree with him or not. But at the time he said that life was very different. The universal library was a lot smaller, for one thing. And so the problem is you have to also take into account that now there is an overwhelming amount, an overwhelming number of books and songs and so on, we have access to. I am one of those people who is overwhelmed by all the choices.

RB: So what is your response to that?

SN: Well, to be overwhelmed, for one thing.

RB: [laughs] It stops there? You go, “Oh, I’m overwhelmed.”

SN: [laughs] My first response is to be overwhelmed; my second is to envy people like Susan Sontag, who had this enormous capacity to take it all in and who never narrowed her interests as she grew older, the way other people do, who was always open to everything, who spent all day and evening seeing everything and listening to everything, and reading everything. And for whom it was never enough. She was always interested and curious, always ready to look at the next thing. So, there’s envy of that. And then really just trying to keep up. If you are a novelist you need to pay attention to the culture. So it’s part of your job to take in as much as you can. And it’s a challenge, it really is. There are probably 400 favorites—there are so many great songs—

RB: I was looking for a reasonable number that didn’t trivialize the word “favorite.” Also, in regard to this particular appliance, I can keep changing my favorites. On my desktop I have 7,500 sound files. Which reduces to about a third of that on my mp3 player and additionally I got my son—he’s nine—a Shuffle that stores 250 files. So far he’s only identified 100 songs that he wants access to. What I want to get to in addition to being in touch with the culture, so you can grasp context and background—as you repeat in Naked Sleeper, “Background is everything.”

SN: As a novelist, you do want to keep track of everything that’s going on.If you are a novelist you need to pay attention to the culture. So it’s part of your job to take in as much as you can. And it’s a challenge, it really is.

RB: In the case of your five novels—do you remember them?

SN: I’m often surprised in what I have forgotten in them. For example, I have been trying to improve my German—so I said, “I know what I will do, I’ll read my own books in German. I will know a certain amount, which will help me, and my mind prints are all in them, which will help me to understand them and it’ll help my vocabulary and help get a sense of the structure of the language.” So I’ve been reading Naked Sleeper in German and I am surprised in what I have forgotten. The book came out in 1996. I remember a great deal, of course, but I have forgotten quite a bit. Which is actually all right with me except for the fear of repeating—which is bound to happen. I’m not going to read my own books to make sure—

RB: What might you repeat, situations, a character?

SN: No. A remark, an observation, maybe a name. Above all an observation of some kind, something I might have a character think or say that was already said by a character in an earlier book. That’s my fear. And you’d look foolish if you did that but—

RB: Maybe not, some things are worth repeating. [laughs]

SN: That might be, but I think you would look foolish if you inadvertently used something you’d already used in another book. But being a writer you have to accept that you are going to look foolish now and then.

RB: As opposed to other occupations that guard you from looking foolish.

SN: I mean in print.

RB: Speaking of the 10-year-old Naked Sleeper, do you have any interest in seeing where the characters went, what happened to them or the children in the story?

SN: That’s a very interesting question. The truth is, I have never cared what happens to my characters after I finish the book.

RB: I’m surprised—I assume that the writer invests so much in the characters, making them alive and vivid, that they care about them—

SN: Yes.

RB: So it seems odd that once the book ends you no longer care.

SN: Well, it’s not really that I don’t care about them but that the story that I set out to tell is over and I don’t find myself thinking about their fates after that last page. I really don’t. I can’t think of any character that I have written about that I later thought about the life of that character after the story I tell. I’m not sure why. It’s interesting—

RB: It’s interesting to me because I recall a number of novels that authors went back to, continued though the writers claim they never intended to carry the story forward. The most prominent of these is Richard Ford and his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Julian Barnes did the same thing with the couple from Talking It Over, revisiting them some 10 years later in Love, Etc. I’d bet there are other writers who have asked themselves what happened to a character years down the line. I don’t think Fredrick Busch intended to continue the story in Girls.

SN: That’s probably true. In most cases the writer didn’t know. Somehow that character returned and tugged at the writer’s sleeve and said, “Well I’m back. Deal with me.” I have to say I would be totally surprised if I were to return to any of the characters that I have written about.I can’t think of any character that I have written about that I later thought about the life of that character after the story I tell.

RB: Nona and Roy are left in such an interesting pregnant situation.

SN: Right, they are in a completely new life situation and you want to know how she is going to cope, that’s true. And yet when I now—since you have put this before me and I am thinking about them and actually I am seeing them—I have to say that that novel, which would be about their life with these children that they have adopted—

RB: No longer in New York City, to Minnesota?

SN: The idea of writing a novel—when I try to think about how it would be—it would be a novel about their marriage and the children, and I can see it doesn’t interest me.

RB: Because you have said everything that you wanted to say about them?

SN: I’d say because I feel that the issues I deal with have been fully explored by the end of the book. Also, I guess there’s something about the desire to leave some things open at the end, for the reader to imagine. Some people will think, “Well, they may have decided to stay together but I don’t believe they’re going to be happy.” And other people will say, “Well, Nona finally did the right thing and she and Roy are going to be happy.” I would prefer that both possibilities could exist—

RB: That’s not what I think. I wouldn’t presume to take on the novelist’s task and imagine a further story. All the possibilities are there—I wouldn’t speculate this or that. Why would I?

SN: I do think some readers will do that. They’ll make a judgment and the characters will have decided to do something—it will be the end of the book and some character will decide, “Yes, I’m going to do this.” Let’s say—how about Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester—were [laughs] they happy? Brontë has led you to this point where that is absolutely what you are supposed to assume about that story, but we would bring to it all kinds of other things. And we can imagine something. Would you want to read a book, even if it were by Brontë, about how Jane—

RB: Let me put it to you this way—I rarely think a story that I am enjoying is too long.

SN: I agree.




RB: So, in a sense, a sequel is an arbitrary division. It could have just been packed into the one volume. And also, I enjoy someone like William Kennedy or Faulkner, who will create—or Susan Straight—an imagined community. And in a very original way Edward Jones does that. Although not in an obvious way.

SN: Yes, that idea appeals to me more, though. That there would be a community created and then you are dealing with this part of it, this couple, this family of this community and then in an another book you focus on minor or peripheral characters from the first book.

RB: So you could see attending to the [orphaned] children that Roy and Nona adopt [in Naked Sleeper]?

SN: Yes, then you go on and deal with other characters. That would be interesting but isn’t that like Zola—I haven’t read Zola in years—
There you are, 17 or 18 years old, and you are going away from home for the first time and there is a lot at stake and you are very sensitive and vulnerable and all these things and there is this total stranger and you are told to live with them in a very intimate situation, that’s like an arranged marriage.

RB: I never have. I am now embarrassed.

SN: He wrote a series of novels that deal with several generations of the same family.

RB: What do you begin with when you write a story? Do you write short stories?

SN: I have written some but not many. I always start with a character. There is an idea about a character or two. It’s less what would I like to write about than who. So my first book, which didn’t start out as a book—the idea was I wanted to write about my father. I wrote about my father in the last line of that chapter or what would turn into a chapter, called “Chang” in Feather on the Breath of God. I wrote, “It would be so much harder to write about my mother.” That’s when I knew I was going to go on. Later that was not the right sentence to end that chapter—I had a better ending to “Chang,” and so that sentence had to go—but as soon as I wrote that sentence I knew what was coming next. So I knew I wanted to write about my mother and father in that first book. In the second book I knew I wanted to write about Nona, and in my third book I knew I wanted to write about Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s marmoset. But the marmoset, Mitz, was an excuse to write about “the Wolves,” as their friends called them. And then I knew absolutely I wanted to write about a woman who had served as an army nurse in Vietnam—I had been interested in that for years.

RB: Because?

SN: I came of age during the Vietnam War and knew certain things about it, but not much, it turns out. And then in the ’80s, when people who’d been there started talking and writing about it, there were some women among them. There wasn’t very much about the women, but I happened to read some of it and I thought, “This is something I’d really like to write about. A woman who lived through such an amazing experience, which only a handful of women had experienced.” And no one appeared to be writing any fiction about these women. So that’s how I ended up writing For Rouenna. And with this latest book, The Last of Her Kind, I knew I wanted to write about freshman roommates—that is an experience that we all take for granted, that nevertheless when you examine it is really pretty strange. That there you are, 17 or 18 years old, and you are going away from home for the first time and there is a lot at stake and you are very sensitive and vulnerable and all these things and there is this total stranger and you are told to live with them in a very intimate situation, that’s like an arranged marriage. And so I knew I wanted to write about girls in that situation. But I also wanted to write about that era, the late ’60s. So I decided to put them on the Columbia campus at the same time I was there. So all my ideas for books have started out with characters. And once you decide who you want to write about obviously your character has to have a life, and you have to give them things to do and thoughts to think and relationships to have and so on. And a lot of my work really could be described as fictional biography. I like the idea of covering a large number of years in a character’s life. I am fascinated by the various turns a person’s life can end up taking over a period of time. That’s what I like to write about.

RB: So is that fun?

SN: Much of it is fun and satisfying. And in many ways—if the work is going well or well enough—and I do think, I tell my students this and actually meant it, I do think in many ways it does get easier. Much of it gets easier.
When writers say that it doesn’t get easier what they mean is that is that it is always hard. That writing is always hard.

RB: Really?

SN: Yes, in the sense that you pick up your mistakes earlier as you are writing. And you are more alert to certain pitfalls.

RB: How about the part where you worry whether your audience will like what you are doing or whether you can deliver on what you began?

SN: Well, that’s not about writing, that’s about publishing.

RB: [laughs]

SN: What I meant was that the writing gets easier; you become more skillful unless something is wrong. And you waste less time. I can remember this and I see it in my students—this idea that I have spent all these hours, days, even weeks, on these pages, on this story, they must be good. Well, the truth is that it is quite possible that they aren’t. It doesn’t matter that you spent all this time on it. It still might not work. And after you have done this for a while, you are much more willing, much smarter, you know, to throw that away. You have to realize that that’s part of the process and not this big waste. You are able to say that won’t work and cut it. Whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, a page or a whole story or chapter, you learn how to tell sooner when it’s not working. And you begin to feel more confident because you know you’re more skillful as a writer. But when it’s working, when the actual writing is going well and you know you’re doing a good day’s work, that’s enormously satisfying. And in that sense it is fun.

RB: What I hear you saying or that it suggests is that some people can keep those thoughts in the foreground, that is, a focus on the skills that they should have accumulated, so they can accelerate dealing with their mistakes and some people seem to start fresh with every project.

SN: True.




RB: No real explanation for that—just individual character.

SN: But I don’t know if you start fresh again each time—

RB: How to explain writers who say it doesn’t get easier? And that every start is fraught with angst.

SN: When writers say that it doesn’t get easier what they mean is that it is always hard. That writing is always hard. I interviewed Paula Fox at Symphony Space and I quoted something from an interview that I had read of hers with her—she writes children’s fiction, fiction and now these two memoirs—and people want to know what the difference was between the genres? The main thing she said, “It’s all hard.” In that sense it doesn’t get easier—

RB: It can be fun yet still hard?

SN: Part of it is—I wanted to be a dancer when I was young. And I failed at that. I have never gotten over that. I’ll never get over that.

RB: Meaning you feel badly about yourself? A failure?

SN: I don’t know how else to put it except to say that I wanted to be a dancer and I failed at that and I’ll never get over that. The thing is, there I am, a young person, a kid, studying ballet, and ballet is extremely difficult. It’s enormously difficult but there isn’t any dancer who wouldn’t say it isn’t fun. It’s more fun than anything could be. So in that sense to me, early on, the idea of something being incredibly difficult and physically painful certainly didn’t mean it couldn’t be the most fun and the most satisfying thing a person could do. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing that I will never get over it. I don’t see why I would get over it. Something that was so important to me I was not able to do, that I lost. It makes all the sense in the world that I would always have that.
Say you’re young and you fall in love with someone, and then you lose that person. Though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it. That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.

RB: It is accurate to say writing was a substitute for—

SN: No, I was a writer first. Maybe I feel like [laughs] if only I had been able to dance I would have saved myself from becoming a writer. When I was a kid, like most writers I know, I wanted to write and wrote these stories about animals and children and so on. And when I was a little older I prided myself on my ridiculous sentimental colorful—but then when I was about 12 and I started thinking about ballet and then a little bit later started studying it—I started too late as a ballet dancer. I didn’t actually start until I was in high school though it was in my mind before that. And then I went off to college and went to Barnard—I chose Barnard because it was in Manhattan and I thought, “Well, I don’t want to go to college, no dancer goes to college, this is ridiculous, but I will choose Barnard because I can continue to study on 57th Street,” where I studied. Almost immediately upon arriving at Barnard almost everything seemed to fall apart; not only did I stop taking [ballet] classes, I also didn’t go to my academic classes. I was just a little wreck.

RB: What year was that?

SN: 1968. Eventually I continued to take dance classes at Barnard—it had and has a very good dance department. But the dream of being a dancer was never real. I would have had to have started much earlier. It was something I could do—but that doesn’t mean that I could have had a good career at it.

RB: Does it weigh you down?

SN: No—

RB: So it’s a biographical detail that you keep in mind, but what’s its impact? That you have tasted disappointment?

SN: No, its impact is partly that I was a dancer.

RB: That simple.

SN: I still have that in me. I know I know what it is to dance and to be a dancer. But what I feel is probably close to other kinds of loss. Like say you’re young and you fall in love with someone, and then you lose that person. And you go on and love other people and have a life and so on, but you know that that person was the one you loved the most, and that you’ll never love like that again. And though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it. That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.

RB: Do you go to dance performances?

SN: Not as much as I used to. But yes, I am a huge dance fan. I live in a city where there is a lot of dance.

RB: What does the body of your work mean to you now? Five novels, and I will assume that you are working on one now.

SN: I am—

RB: So do you even think about what you have written before, other than not wanting to repeat?

SN: Not much. I think it’s very interesting how little it actually concerns me. I don’t know how other writers feel. I mean, the books I’ve published, I don’t think about them much. I don’t think that’s uncommon, though. It’s almost as if the only book you really think and care about is the one that you’re working on. People occasionally say your books must be like—


SN: Nothing can be farther from the truth. The idea would be you had five children and only cared about the one you were [laughs] pregnant with. Or that was just born. You could care less about the others. I don’t think it’s like having children at all.
By the time I am ready to make progress on a longer work I am already at a point at which I know I am going to stick with it. I have never worked for a year on a novel that I thought I was going to finish and have ended up having to drop it.

RB: There seems always to be a search for the appropriate metaphor for the things that we create. There must be a good reason for the French word oeuvre not being translated into English. It doesn’t strike me that American writers are occupied with the bodies of their works.

SN: Maybe some of them do. I wonder if it’s perhaps different for musicians, for composers. Or for painters. Whether it’s more likely for them to see their work in terms of a body of work. I have no idea.
RB: I was rereading a piece about science being progressive but the arts are not—meaning that they don’t build on themselves. And she was trying to figure out whether philosophy was progressive. So it’s the case that writing fiction is not progressive.

SN: No, I don’t think of it as progressive. You certainly don’t get better and better in that sense. There are plenty of writers whose early works are stronger than their later ones. Or the later work can still be very good but have more problems and weaknesses than early work. For novelists in particular, it’s not uncommon for success to be followed by failure.

RB: There are glorious or grand failures. Have you started something and not finished or something you finished that was not what you wanted and you put it in a drawer?

SN: I have work that I have tried to do that hasn’t worked out. Not even in a drawer.

RB: Hard drive?

SN: Not even—in the garbage. [laughs] On the other hand I don’t—by the time I am ready to make progress on a longer work I am already at a point at which I know I am going to stick with it. I have never worked for a year on a novel that I thought I was going to finish and have ended up having to drop it.


RB: Is that what it takes, a year? Is there a normal time frame for writing a book?

SN: No, what I meant by a year was that by that time I would be—it takes about two years. I don’t write very, very long novels. The Last of Her Kind was 375 pages, and that’s my longest book. And that took more than two years.

RB: Is that your most well-reviewed, well-attended book?

SN: It was. It received more attention than my first book.

RB: Do you read those reviews? I noticed there was quite a variety of venues—from the women’s magazines to the Wall Street Journal.

SN: I feel very lucky with the reviews that that book got. There were some very good reviews.

RB: I did like Elizabeth Benedict’s in the New York Times.
SN: Me, too.

RB: It was well written and hit the right notes.

SN: I was thrilled with it. It was in the daily Times and also, I agree, it was well written and generous. When I was young I remember hearing about writers who said they didn’t read their own reviews. I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I believe that. That seems so strange. How could you not read your reviews?” But when I started publishing I discovered that nothing could be easier than not reading reviews, and that in fact one had to force oneself to read them. Because even the good ones can make you cringe. I do read my reviews, but now I understand perfectly why some people don’t, or don’t want to. And sometimes what I’ll do is put off reading them. I’ll collect them and wait for the right moment and then sit down and read them all, getting it all over with at once.More novelists isn’t exactly what the world needs right now.

RB: Among other things, you have the good fortune to continue to be published, which is one of the fears that writers have about not getting reviewed.

SN: Exactly.

RB: Do you look at what you do as being important?

SN: Not as much as I would wish. In fact, I don’t think it has great importance. I very often wish I were doing work that would give me the sense of doing something more important. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about the combat nurse, someone whose work was saving lives. I can’t say my writing makes a big difference to the world, to the lives of people beyond myself. And I feel some regret about this, because you only have one life, and I very often wish I were engaged in some enterprise that was more meaningful—

RB: That made the world better?

SN: For example, once when I was at McDowell there was another resident there, a visual artist whose husband was an agricultural scientist, and one night at dinner she told us about his work—he was involved in trying to develop ways to produce hardier crops, which could help reduce famine in certain parts of the world—and as soon as I heard this I said, “How I wish I were doing something like that with my life!” Which did not go over well at that table.

RB: [laughs]

SN: People said things like, Art is just as meaningful, just as important, and so on and on. I’m not saying they were wrong. But I certainly didn’t feel that way.

RB: Could anything be more self-serving than artists saying how important their work is and art is?

SN: They weren’t saying how important their work was.

RB: Yes they were.

SN: [laughs] Well, man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fine, there just seems to be less and less bread. If it were a different world—

RB: If you go by the numbers and you see how few people pay attention to the sum total of all that artists create—

Sigrid Nunez, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

SN: Here’s the main thing: I feel I put my fiction out there, all fine and good. But there’s lots of fiction out there. There are a lot of good books. There are a lot of great stories. There are all these good writers; I know many of them myself. There is all this great literature already on the shelves. So, no, I can’t possibly feel as if I were doing something extraordinarily important. And the more you read the news, the more alarmed you are at what’s happening in the world, and it’s quite hard to be working as an artist and to think of that as being the most valuable contribution to society you could make. More novelists isn’t exactly what the world needs right now.

RB: Why do you think writing programs have exploded so much in the last generation? Why do so many people want to write?

SN: I’m not sure. I think about that all the time. It is certainly not for the money—they must know that writers don’t make a lot of money.

RB: Most don’t make any money.

SN: Right, but of course if you enter these programs there is a fantasy that you will be the big literary star. Sometimes I worry that for certain people this is a culture totally obsessed with fame and for certain people they have this idea that it is the only way they can become famous. They know they are not going to be a supermodel or get up on the stage and sing La Traviata.

RB: There is American Idol.

SN: Right. They are not going to write a great song and they can’t make visual art. But they feel that because everyone writes, and because they like to read, they had some idea that that is something they can do and it will get sold and published and that would make them feel all right. That’s what it is—it’s about the fact that everyone can write and they don’t think of it in the same way as people think about dancing or even sport. With writing they think—

RB: Everyone assumes there is a base level of competence at writing that they can improve—

SN: They do, they do. And that they have a story. I agree with that part: They do have a story. When they read other peoples’ stories, if the writing is good, it strikes them as effortless. And they get the idea that all they have to do is get in touch with their own inner writer and it will all come pouring out. Many people believe that, given enough time and lots of encouragement, they can write a novel, too, and that someone will want to publish it, and that lots of people will want to read it.


RB: Is there a noticeable change in your writing students—do you teach regularly?

SN: I teach fairly often. I don’t have a position. I do adjunct teaching—quite a bit. I taught at Columbia, undergraduate and the MFA program, Amherst, Smith, and the New School, Hofstra, and I’ve been a visiting writer at Washington University, Sarah Lawrence, and then I’ve done some of these conferences. And at the poetry center at the 92nd Street Y. Those are all different kinds of students. Different ages. So what was your question?

RB: Is there something about the students that has changed?

SN: The first time I ever taught was at Hofstra in ’93. People participating workshops are getting better all the time. But all this workshopping and people paying attention to the craft of writing has had an effect.

RB: But there is a backlash that argues that the fiction has become sterile and antiseptic and incestuous, and the stories are written to satisfy a certain benchmark—

SN: Yeah, there is such a thing as a workshop story. And I do see a lot of that. But it also depends whether it’s undergraduates or MFA students or people who take these workshops at the 92nd Street Poetry center—who are of any age. Gary Shteyngart was a student of mine at the poetry center. He was 27 at the time, and he was working on that first novel that became The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.



Sigrid Nunez circa 2007 copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: We talked before about how you don’t refer back to your work much—and yet here you are, ostensibly on tour for a novel that you must have completed two or three years ago. So what does that feel like?

SN: I don’t know how it feels, exactly. It feels like business. [both laugh] It feels like what happens when a book comes out.

RB: Is it difficult for you to tear yourself away from your current work?

SN: Yes, but on the other hand I wouldn’t really want to talk about that novel, which is just in its earliest stage. And so in a way it’s interesting to talk about The Last of Her Kind at this point, a year after it was published, a year and three months after I handed it in.

RB: When authors go on tour for their books, I think the audience that comes to readings for the most part hasn’t read the book. But going out on tour for the soft cover, there is a good chance some or most of the audience has read the book.

Even if a book were thrilling, I would still rather hear the author talking and answering questions. I can read—I don’t need you to read to me.

SN: It’s true. It’s more interesting. In this bookstore in Kingston, Pa., The Tudor Bookstore, most of the people had read the book and the questions were very interesting. And also now there are book clubs—now I am in touch and talking with book clubs. But yes, it really is more interesting to talk to people who have read the book—the best part of any of these meetings or readings or whatever—it’s never the reading—

RB: For sure.

SN: Authors should read a little bit but talk a little bit more about the book, anticipating some of the questions that people will want to know. For example, “Why did you write this book? What is this book about?”

RB: As opposed to “How do you get an agent?” or “Do you use a computer or write longhand?”

SN: Exactly. So you begin by reading a very few pages and then asking for questions. And then it can become quite lively.

RB: It’s surprising that more readings haven’t adopted what is done in Europe—which is to have an interlocutor or interviewer talk to the visiting writer in front of an audience.

SN: We need more variety. For example, last month I did an event with Gary Shteyngart at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum—he’s written about immigrants, and I have written about immigrants. And we each read for five minutes. There was a moderator and we talked and then there were questions and it was terrific and much more interesting than it would have been if I had read for a half-hour and Gary read for a half-hour—Gary is one of the funniest writers around, so it is great fun to hear him read. But it was just much more interesting, and the audience questions and the discussion and getting more than one writer who has a book out at the same time—but just the minimal number of pages just to get a flavor of the book and then the talk—it so much better and interesting. I don’t enjoy going to readings.

RB: Amen. Though occasionally someone will do well, Charles Baxter and Jim Shepard come to mind.

SN: I have heard Charles at Bread Loaf. Colum McCann is very good. When he reads, he has his own special way of doing it.

RB: Those Irish guys have a gift. [laughs]

SN: But even if a book were thrilling, I would still rather hear the author talking and answering questions. I can read—I don’t need you to read to me.

RB: There is something to be said for getting the tone or coloration through an author’s reading.

SN: A bit. The standard thing, the standard book tour reading—it’s often not so conducive to discussion. The audience feels like they’re there to listen to a reading, and they aren’t prepared to ask questions. Whereas if it were more like “I’m here to discuss my book but before I do I will read just a few pages,” that would be different. And as I say, maybe it’s better when it’s more than one writer.

RB: It has gotten mechanical and pro forma. Writers are being thrown out there left and right. I imagine that the skies of America on any given day are full of literary minds. Anyway, is there a movie to be made of The Last of Her Kind?

SN: It’s been optioned.

RB: So is a movie going to be made?

SN: That I don’t know. I hope so. Nothing is in production now.

RB: Was it optioned by someone who read it?

SN: Indeed, and he said, “I will be totally honest with you, it wasn’t a review that made me think of reading this book, I was in a bookstore …and the cover of the book made me interested.” That pleased me because I found that Eggleston photo myself.

RB: The picture of the two girls?

SN: It’s from the ’70s. I forget what stage I was in with the book. I wasn’t finished yet. And there was this photo from Memphis and I clipped it—I had this idea that Farrar Straus could work with it because it seemed right. And then I went off to Berlin in January 2005 and sent it to my editor [Jonathan Galassi] at Farrar Straus and then I didn’t hear anything and time passed and I knew the book was being put together and I inquired and he said they were working with it. And the next thing I got the mockup of the cover, and people have responded well to that image. And they used it on the soft cover because Picador also really liked it. And it’s from the right era, and when you look at it you don’t know who’s who. I just like it. It’s beautiful. When it was published in Italy they said, “We also want to use the cover,” and they rarely use the same image.

RB: Any interest in your earlier novels?

SN: None of them. This was the first time. Who knows? I don’t know how these things work.

RB: People who are supposed to know how they work don’t know how they work.

SN: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see what happens. Many things get optioned and few things get made. Jawal Nga is the producer who got in touch with me and optioned the book. I’ve met with him twice, and I really like the way he talked about the book and his ideas for a film version.

RB: I took the hint that you don’t really want to talk about what you are working on now.

SN: I’ll just say it’s a new novel that I began writing in October. I was away at this wonderful place called Ucross, in Wyoming. It’s the first book of mine in which the main character is not female. And I have a contract now, and it’s due in about two years.

RB: Good, I hope to see you then.


Conversations with Authors: Sigrid Nunez, Boston, 2011


** Opening epigram: “The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?” Nicholson Baker, “The Art of Fiction No. 212,” The Paris Review

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)


More Than Words

9 Oct


We should able to set aside issues of civilizational decline and stipulate that the art of oratory is not experiencing a golden era. Of course, one of the attractive attributes of the previous president is his ease in speaking in public (not necessarily a plus when dealing with the Congress he was burdened with).

My first experience with the allure of declamation might have spoiled me. I was young and therefore impressionable so in 1960, Senator Eugene McCarthy  (of whom we hear much more from eight years later) at the Democratic National Presidential Convention in Los Angeles, placed into nomination as a candidate, Adlai Stevenson (a former Governor of Illinois) and twice a loser to Dwight Eisenhower i(1952 and 1956). An eloquent speech and a noble gesture, worthy of being in a included of a well-curated anthology and perhaps the last time one could find politicians worthy of articulate praise.

Senator Eugene McCarthy (Democrat, Minnesota)

Other than some excellent commencement speeches  by some of our great literary figures and a few standouts by Obama —2004 Dem Convention  and his victory speech in Chicago on victory night 2008, the only oratory that broke away from the hackney-boilerplate speechifying was Susan Sontag’s speech accepting Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2003**


Susan Sontag (photo William Coupon)


To speak in the Paulskirche, before this audience, to receive the prize awarded in the last fifty-three years by the German Book Trade to so many writers, thinkers, and exemplary public figures whom I admire – to speak in this history-charged place and on this occasion, is a humbling and inspiring experience. I can only the more regret the deliberate absence of the American ambassador, Mr. Daniel Coats, whose immediate refusal, in June, of the invitation from the Booksellers Association, when this year’s Friedenspreis was announced, to attend our gathering here today, shows he is more interested in affirming the ideological stance and the rancorous reactiveness of the Bush administration than he is, by fulfilling a normal diplomatic duty, in representing the interests and reputation of his – and my – country.


Ambassador Coats has chosen not to be here, I assume, because of criticisms I have voiced, in newspaper and television interviews and in brief magazine articles, of the new radical bent of American foreign policy, as exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should be here, I think, because a citizen of the country he represents in Germany has been honored with an important German prize.

An American ambassador has the duty to represent his country, all of it. I, of course, do not represent America, not even that substantial minority that does not support the imperial program of Mr. Bush and his advisors. I like to think I do not represent anything but literature, a certain idea of literature, and conscience, a certain idea of conscience or duty. But, mindful of the citation for this prize from a major European country, which mentions my role as an “intellectual ambassador” between the two continents (ambassador, needless to say, in the weakest, merely metaphorical sense), I cannot resist offering a few thoughts about the renowned gap between Europe and the United States, which my interests and enthusiasms purportedly bridge.

First, is it a gap – which continues to be bridged? Or is it not also a conflict? Irate, dismissive statements about Europe, certain European countries, are now the common coin of American political rhetoric; and here, at least in the rich countries on the western side of the continent, anti-American sentiments are more common, more audible, more intemperate than ever. What is this conflict? Does it have deep roots? I think it does.

There has always been a latent antagonism between Europe and America, one at least as complex and ambivalent as that between parent and child. America is a neo-European country and until the last few decades was largely populated by European peoples. And yet it is always the differences between Europe and America that have struck the most perceptive foreign observers: Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the young nation in 1831 and returned to France to write »Democracy in America«, still, some hundred and seventy years later, the best book about my country, and D.H. Lawrence, who, eighty years ago, published the most interesting book ever written about American culture, his influential, exasperating »Studies in Classic American Literature«, both understood that America, the child of Europe, was becoming, or had become, the antithesis of Eu-rope.

Rome and Athens. Mars and Venus. The authors of recent popular tracts promoting the idea of an inevitable clash of interests and values between Europe and America did not invent these antithe- ses. Foreigners brooded over them – and they provide the palette, the recurrent melody, in much of American literature throughout the 19th century, from James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain. American innocence and European sophistication; American pragmatism and European intellectualizing; American energy and European world-weariness; American naïveté and European cynicism; American goodheartedness and European malice; American moralism and the European arts of compromise – you know the tunes.

You can choreograph them differently; indeed, they have been danced with every kind of evaluation or tilt for two tumultuous centuries. Europhiles can use the venerable antitheses to identify America with commerce-driven barbarism and Europe with high culture, while the Europhobes draw on a ready-made view in which America stands for idealism and openness and democracy and Europe a debilitating, snobbish refinement. Tocqueville and Lawrence observed something fiercer: not just a declaration of independence from Europe, and European values, but a steady undermining, an assassination of European values and European power. »You can never have a new thing without breaking an old,« Lawrence wrote.Europe happened to be the old thing. America should be the new thing. The new thing is the death of the old.« America, Lawrence divined, was on a Europe-destroying mission, using democracy – particularly cultural democracy, democracy of manners – as an instrument. And when that task is accomplished, he wrote, America might well turn from democracy to something else. (What that might be is, perhaps, emerging now.)

Bear with me if my references have been exclusively literary. After all, one function of literature – of important literature, of necessary literature – is to be prophetic. What we have here, writ large, is the perennial literary – or cultural – quarrel: between the ancients and the moderns.

The past is (or was) Europe, and America was founded on the idea of breaking with the past, which is viewed as encumbering, stultifying, and – in its forms of deference and precedence, its standards of what is superior and what is best – fundamentally undemocratic; or »elitist,« the reigning current synonym. Those who speak for a triumphal America continue to intimate that American democracy implies repudiating Europe, and, yes, embracing a certain liberating, salutary barbarism. If, today, Europe is regarded by most Americans as more socialist than elitist, that still makes Europe, by American standards, a retrograde continent, obstinately attached to old standards: the welfare state. »Make it new« is not only a slogan for culture; it describes an ever-advancing, world-encompassing economic machine.

However, if necessary, even the »old« can be rebaptized as the »new.«

It is not a coincidence that the strong-minded American Secretary of Defense tried to drive a wedge within Europe – distinguishing unforgettably between an »old« Europe (bad) and a »new« Europe (good). How did Germany, France, and Belgium come to be consigned to »old« Europe, while Spain, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, The Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria find themselves part of »new« Europe? Answer: to support the United States in its present extensions of political and military power is to pass, by definition, into the more desirable category of the »new.« Whoever is with us is »new.«

All modern wars, even when their motives are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations – culture wars – with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to »our way of life,« an infidel, a
desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example. What is worth remarking is that a milder version of the same terms of disparagement underlies the antagonism between Europe and America. It should also be remembered that, historically, the most virulent anti-American rhetoric ever heard in Europe – consisting essentially in the charge that Ameri- cans are barbarians – came not from the so-called left but from the extreme right. Both Hitler and Franco repeatedly inveighed against an America (and a world Jewry) engaged in polluting European civilization with its base, business values.

Of course, much of European public opinion continues to admire American energy, the American version of »the modern.« And, to be sure, there have always been American fellow-travelers of the European cultural ideals (one stands here before you), who find in the old arts of Europe a liberation and correction to the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture. And there have always been the counterparts of such Americans on the European side: Europeans who are fascinated, enthralled, profoundly attracted to the United States, precisely because of its difference from Europe.

What the Americans see is almost the reverse of the Europhile cliché: they see themselves defend- ing civilization. The barbarian hordes are no long- er outside the gates. They are within, in every prosperous city, plotting havoc. The »chocolate- producing« countries (France, Germany, Belgium) will have to stand aside, while a country with »will« – and God on its side – pursues the battle against terrorism (now conflated with barbarism). According to Secretary of State Powell, it is ridiculou for old Europe (sometimes it seems only France is meant) to aspire to play a role in govern- ing or administering the territories won by the coalition of the conqueror. It has neither the mili- tary resources nor the taste for violence nor the support of its cosseted, all-too-pacific populations. And the Americans have it right. Europeans are not in an evangelical – or a bellicose – mood.

Indeed, sometimes I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming: that what many people in my own country now hold against Germany, which wreaked such horrors on the world for nearly a century – the new »German problem,« as it were – is that Germans are repelled by war; that much of German public opinion is now virtually … pacifist!

Were America and Europe never partners, never friends? Of course. But perhaps it is true that the periods of unity – of common feeling – have been exceptions, rather than the rule. One such time was from the Second World War through the early Cold War, when Europeans were profoundly grateful for America’s intervention, succor, and support. Americans are comfortable seeing themselves in the role of Europe’s savior. But then, America will expect the Europeans to be forever grateful, which is not what Europeans are feeling right now.

From »old« Europe’s point of view, America seems bent on squandering the admiration – and gratitude – felt by most Europeans. The immense sympathy for the United States in the aftermath of the attack on September 11, 2001 was genuine. (I can testify to its particular ardor and sincerity in Ger- many; I was in Berlin at the time.) But what has followed is an increasing estrangement on both sides.

The citizens of the richest and most powerful nation in history have to know that America is loved, and envied – and resented. More than a few who travel abroad know that Americans are regarded as crude, boorish, uncultivated by many Europeans, and don’t hesitate to match these expectations with behavior that suggests the ressentiment of the ex-colonial. And some of the cultivated Europeans who seem most to enjoy visiting or living in the United States attribute to it, condescendingly, the liberating virtues of a colony where one throws off the restrictions and high-culture burdens of »back home.« I recall being told by a German film-maker, living at the time in San Francis- co, that he loved being in the States »because you don’t have any culture here.« For more than a few Europeans, including, it should be mentioned, D. H. Lawrence (»there the life comes up from the roots, crude but vital,« he wrote to a friend in 1915, when he was making plans to live in America), America was the great escape. And vice versa: Europe was the great escape for generations of Americans seeking »culture.« Of course, I am speaking only of minorities here, minorities of the privileged.

So America now sees itself as the defender of civilization and Europe’s savior, and wonders why Europeans don’t get the point; and Europeans see Americans as a reckless warrior state – a description that the Americans return by seeing Europe as the enemy of America: only pretending, so runs rhetoric heard increasingly in the United States, to be pacifist, in order to contribute to the weakening of American power. France, in particular, is thought to be scheming to become America’s equal, even its superior, in shaping world affairs – »Operation America Must Fail« is the name invented by a columnist in the »New York Times« to describe the French drive toward dominance – instead of realizing that an American defeat in Iraq will encourage „radical Muslim groups – from Baghdad to the Muslim slums of Paris« to pursue their jihad against tolerance and democracy.

It is hard for people not to see the world in polarizing terms (»them« and »us«) and these terms have in the past strengthened the isolationist theme in American foreign policy as much as they now strengthen the imperialist theme. Americans have got used to thinking of the world in terms of enemies. Enemies are somewhere else, as the fighting is almost always »over there,« Islamic fundamentalism having replaced Russian and Chinese communism as the threat to »our way of life.« And terrorist is a more flexible word than communist. It can unify a larger number of quite different struggles and interests. What this may mean is that the war will be endless – since there will always be some terrorism (as there will always be poverty and cancer); that is, there will always be asymmetrical conflicts in which the weaker side uses that form of violence, which usually targets civilians. American rhetoric, if not the popular mood, would support this unhappy prospect, for the struggle for righteousness never ends.

It is the genius of the United States, a profoundly conservative country in ways that Europeans find difficult to fathom, to have devised a form of conservative thinking that celebrates the new rather than the old. But this is also to say, that in the very ways in which the United States seems extremely conservative, for example, in the extraordinary power of the consensus and the passivity and conformism of public opinion (as Tocqueville remarked in 1831) and the media, it is also radical, even revolutionary, in ways that Europeans find equally difficult to fathom.

Part of the puzzle, surely, lies in the disconnect between official rhetoric and lived realities. Americans are constantly extolling »traditions«; litanies to family values are at the center of every politician’s discourse. And yet the culture of America is extremely corrosive of family life, indeed of all traditions except those redefined to promote »identities« that fit into the larger patterns of distinctiveness, cooperation, and openness to innovation.

Perhaps the most important source of the new (and not so new) American radicalism is what used to be viewed as a source of conservative values: namely, religion. Many commentators have noted that perhaps the biggest difference between the United States and most European countries (old as well as new in the current American distinction) is that in the United States religion still plays a central role in society and public language. But this is religion American style: namely, more the idea of religion than religion itself.

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his »favorite philosopher,« the well-received answer – one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock – was »Jesus Christ.« But, of course, Bush didn’t mean and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would feel bound to any of the precepts or social programs actually expounded by Jesus.

The United States is a generically religious society. That is, in the United States it’s not important which religion you adhere to, as long as you have one. To have a ruling religion, even a theocracy, that would be just Christian (or a particular Chris- tian denomination) would be impossible. Religion in America must be a matter of choice. This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self- righteousness, and moralism (which Europeans often mistake, condescendingly, for Puritanism). Whatever historic faiths the different American religious entities purport to represent, they all preach something similar: reform of personal behavior, the value of success, community cooperativeness, tolerance of other’s choices. (All virtues that further and smooth functioning of consumer capitalism.) The very fact of being religious ensures respectability, promotes order, and gives the guarantee of virtuous intentions to the mission of the United States to lead the world.

What is being spread – whether it is called democracy, or freedom, or civilization – is part of a work in progress, as well as the essence of progress itself. Nowhere in the world does the Enlightenment dream of progress have such a fertile setting as it does in America.

Are we then really so separate? How odd that, at a moment when Europe and America have never been so similar culturally, there has never been such a great divide.

Still, for all the similarities in the daily lives of citizens in rich European countries and the daily lives of Americans, the gap between the European and the American experience is a genuine one, founded on important differences of history, of notions of the role of culture, of real and imagined memories. The antagonism – for there is antagonism – is not to be resolved in the immediate future, for all the good will of many people on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet one can only deplore those who want to maximize those differences when we do have so much in common.

The dominance of America is a fact. But America, as the present administration is starting to see, cannot do everything alone. The future of our world – the world we share – is syncretistic, impure. We are not shut off from each other. More and more, we leak into each other.

In the end, the model for whatever understanding – conciliation – we might reach lies in thinking more about that venerable opposition, »old« and »new.« The opposition between »civilization« and »barbarism« is essentially stipulatory; it is corrupting to think about and pontificate about – however much it may reflect certain realities. But the opposition of »old« and »new« is genuine, ineradicable, at the center of what we understand to be experience itself.

»Old« and »new« are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world. We cannot do without the old, because in what is old is invested all our past, our wisdom, our memories, our sadness, our sense of realism. We cannot do without faith in the new, because in what is new is invested all our energy, our capacity for optimism, our blind biological yearning, our ability to forget – the healing ability without which all reconciliation is not possible.

The inner life tends to mistrust the new. A strongly developed inner life will be particularly resistant to the new. We are told we must choose – the old or the new. In fact, we must choose both. What is a life if not a series of negotiations between the old and the new? It seems to me that one should always be seeking to talk oneself out of these stark oppositions.
Old versus new, nature versus culture – perhaps it is inevitable that the great myths of our cultural life be played out as geography, not only as history. Still, they are myths, clichés, stereotypes, no more; the realities are much more complex.

A good deal of my life has been spent trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarize and oppose. Translated into politics, this means supporting whatever is pluralistic and secular. Like some Americans and many Europeans, I would far prefer to live in a multilateral world – a world not dominated by any one country (including my own). I could express my support, in a century that already promises to be another century of extremes, of horrors, for a whole panoply of meliorist attitudes – in particular, for what Virginia Woolf calls »the melancholy virtue of tolerance.«

Let me rather speak first of all as a writer, as a champion of the enterprise of literature, for therein lies the only authority I have.

The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the »intellectual ambassador,« the human rights activist – those roles which are mentioned in the citation for the prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self- doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference – for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences – experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not being corrupted – made cynical, superficial – by this understanding.

Literature can tell us what the world is like.

Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.

Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?

On the occasion of receiving this glorious prize, this glorious German prize, let me tell you something of my own trajectory.

I was born, a third-generation American of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish descent, two weeks before Hitler came to power. I grew up in the American provinces (Arizona and California), far from Germany, and yet my entire childhood was haunted by Germany, by the monstrousness of Germany, and by the German books and the German music I loved, which set my standard for what is exalted and intense.

Even before Bach and Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms, there were a few German books. I am thinking of a teacher in an elementary school in a small town in southern Arizona, Mr. Starkie, who had awed his pupils by telling us that he had fought with Pershing’s army in Mexico against Pancho Villa: this grizzled veteran of an earlier American imperialist venture had, it seems, been touched – in translation – by the idealism of German literature, and, having taken in my particular hunger for books, loaned me his own copies of »Werther« and »Immensee.

Soon after, in my childhood orgy of reading, chance led me to other German books, including Kafka’s »In the Penal Colony,« where I discovered dread and injustice. And a few years later, when I was a high school student in Los Angeles, I found all of Europe in a German novel. No book has been more important in my life than »The Magic Moun- tain« – whose subject is, precisely, the clash of ideals at the heart of European civilization. And so on, through a long life that has been steeped in German high culture. Indeed, after the books and the music, which were, given the cultural desert in which I lived, virtually clandestine experiences, came a real experience. For I am also a late beneficiary of the German cultural diaspora, having had the great good fortune of knowing well some of the incomparably brilliant Hitler refugees, those writers and artists and musicians and scholars that America received, starting in the 1930s, and who so enriched the country, particularly its universities. Let me name two I was privileged to count as friends when I was in my late teens and early twenties, Hans Gerth and Herbert Marcuse; those with whom I studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, Christian Mackauer and Paul Tillich and Peter Heinrich von Blanckenha- gen, and in private seminars, Aron Gurwitsch and Nahum Glatzer; and Hannah Arendt, whom I knew after I moved to New York in my mid-twenties – so many models of the serious, whose memory I would like to evoke here.

But I shall never forget that my engagement with German culture, with German seriousness, all started with obscure, eccentric Mr. Starkie (I don’t think I ever knew his first name), who was my teacher when I was ten, and whom I never saw afterward.

And that brings me to a story, with which I will conclude – as seems fitting, since I am neither primarily a cultural ambassador nor a fervent critic of my own government (a task I perform as a good American citizen). I am a story-teller.

So, back to ten-year-old me, who found some relief from the tiresome duties of being a child by poring over Mr. Starkie’s tattered volumes of Goethe and Storm. At the time I am speaking of, 1943, I was aware that there was a prison camp with thousands of German soldiers, Nazi soldiers as of course I thought of them, in the northern part of the state, and, knowing I was Jewish (only nominally, my family having been completely secular and assimilated for two generations, but nominally, as I knew, was enough for Nazis), I was beset by a recurrent nightmare in which Nazi soldiers had escaped from the prison and had made their way downstate to the bungalow on the outskirts of the town where I lived with my mother and sister, and were about to kill me.

Flash forward to many years later, the 1970s, when my books started to be published by Hanser Verlag, and I came to know the distinguished Fritz Arnold (he had joined the firm in 1965), who was my editor at Hanser until his death in February 1999.

One of the first times we were together, Fritz said he wanted to tell me – presuming, I suppose, that this was a prerequisite to any friendship that might arise between us – what he had done during the war. I assured him that he did not owe me any such explanation; but, of course, I was touched by his bringing up the subject. I should add that Fritz Arnold was not the only German of his generation (he was born in 1916) who, soon after we met, insisted on telling me what he or she had done during the Nazi era. And not all of the stories were as innocent as what I was to hear from Fritz.


Anyway, what Fritz told me was that he had been a university student of literature and art history, first in Munich, then in Cologne, when, at the start of the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht with the rank of corporal. His family was, of course, anything but pro-Nazi – his father was Karl Arnold, the legendary political cartoonist of »Simplicissimus« – but emigration seemed out of the question, and he accepted, with dread, the call to military service, hoping neither to kill anyone nor to be killed.

Fritz was one of the lucky ones. Lucky, to have been stationed first in Rome (where he refused his superior officer’s invitation to be commissioned a lieutenant), then in Tunis; lucky enough to have remained behind the lines and never once to have fired a weapon; and finally, lucky, if that is the right word, to have been taken prisoner by the Americans in 1943, to have been transported by ship across the Atlantic with other captured German soldiers to Norfolk, Virginia, and then taken by train across the continent to spend the rest of the war in a prison camp in a small town … in northern Arizona.

Then I had the pleasure of telling him, sighing with wonder, for I had already started to be very fond of this man – this was the beginning of a great friendship as well as an intense professional relationship – that while he was a prisoner of war in northern Arizona, I was in the southern part of the state, terrified of the Nazi soldiers who were there, here, and from whom there would be no escape.
And then Fritz told me that what got him through his nearly three years in the prison camp in Ari- zona was that he was allowed access to books: he had spent those years reading and rereading the English and American classics. And I told him that what saved me as a schoolchild in Arizona, waiting to grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books, books in translation as well as those written in English.

Access to literature, world literature, was escaping the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.

Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged,

literature is freedom.



+*Achebe 2002 Habermas 2001 Djebar 2000 Stern 1999 Walser 1998 Kemal 1997 Vargas Llosa 1996 Schimmel 1995 Semprún 1994 Schorlemmer 1993 Oz 1992 Konrád 1991 Dedecius 1990 Havel 1989 Lenz 1988 Jonas 1987 Bartoszewski 1986 Kollek 1985 Paz 1984 Sperber 1983 Kennan 1982 Kopelew 1981 Cardenal 1980 Menuhin 1979 Lindgren 1978 Kołakowski 1977 Frisch 1976 Grosser 1975 Frère Roger 1974 The Club of Rome 1973 Korczak 1972 Dönhoff 1971 Myrdal 1970 Mitscherlich 1969 Senghor 1968 Bloch 1967 Bea/Visser ‘t Hooft 1966 Sachs 1965 Marcel 1964 Weizsäcker 1963 Tillich 1962 Radhakrishnan 1961 Gollancz 1960 Heuss 1959 Jaspers 1958 Wilder 1957 Schneider 1956 Hesse 1955 Burckhardt 1954 Buber 1953 Guardini 1952 Schweitzer 1951 Tau 1950


** The last time I looked I could find no record of  McCarthy’s text and no recording of Sontag’s speech. There is a nicely designed  chapbook by Winterhouse Editions that contains the Peace Prize speech


German Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

The Crucible

15 Sep
Susan Sontag by Annie Leibowitz (assuming she would give me permission to use image)

Susan Sontag by Annie Leibowitz (assuming she would give me permission to use image)

When Susan Sontag responded to the events of Sept 11, 20101 in the New Yorker she was pilloried and defamed almost universally (if I recall correctly Howard Zinn also). She wrote:

Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

Literature is Freedom by Susan Sontag

Literature is Freedom by Susan Sontag

When the Germans awarded Sontag a peace prize (the Germans, people!) previously awarded to Hermann Hesse, Vaclav Havel, Jürgen Habermas and Chinua Acheba, the US Ambassador, contravening protocol, absented himself from the ceremony.* Sontag gave a speech published in a slender, elegant chapbook by Winterhouse editions. She declaimed:

All modern wars, even when their aims are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations — culture wars — with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to “our way of life,” an infidel, a desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example. What is worth remarking is that a milder version of the same terms of disparagement underlies the antagonism between Europe and America. It should also be remembered that, historically, the most virulent anti-American rhetoric ever heard in Europe — consisting essentially in the charge that Americans are barbarians — came not from the so-called left but from the extreme right. Both Hitler and Franco repeatedly inveighed against an America (and a world Jewry) engaged in polluting European civilization with its base, business values.

Sontag went on to assert:

The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the “intellectual ambassador,” the human rights activist — those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference — for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding.

The responses to Nine Eleven are worth recalling, as again the caravans start rolling, with the dogs barking. Setting aside for a moment the horrific images of beheadings (as horrific as the drone murders of innocent civilians,off screen) I am chagrined at the media lynching of Ray Rice and the scarcity—actually the total absence — of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. No doubt my assertion that I have no sympathy with wife beaters and child abusers will be overshadowed by my calling for some measure of reflection on the consequences of all the herd ululating about throwing Rice in jail blah, blah, blah. As if that solves one thing except to clear the hysteria agenda of one more villain.

Personally, I am more disturbed at the notion that a tax exempt, 10 billon dollar enterprise led by a 45 million dollar a year salaryman is able to wield so much influence in civil society. And of even more concern that the US of A
is, to borrow an old school phrase, a nation of sheep (note: 4 million people have ordered the newest Apple smart phone—what does that tell you)

Currently reading the The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Pantheon)

*MS Sontag noted his absence

Ambassador Coats has chosen not to be here, I assume, because of criticisms I have voiced, in newspaper and television interviews and in brief magazine articles, of the new radical bent of American foreign policy, as exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should be here, I think, because a citizen of the country he represents in Germany has been honored with an important German prize.

A Mighty River to Cross

20 Jan

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

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

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

The Hole  by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter (Enchanted Lion Books)

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

Natural Takeover of Small Things  by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Things by Tim Z. Hernandez

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

Room 1219   by Greg Merritt

Room 1219 by Greg Merritt

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

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


Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

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

Furious Cool   by David Henry  &   Joe Henry

Furious Cool by David Henry & Joe Henry

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

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

Unfathomable City  by Rebecca Solnit  &  Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker

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

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

George Orwell  by Robert Colls

George Orwell by Robert Colls

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

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

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

David Aaronovitch credits Colls with pointing out

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

Mira Corpora   by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio)

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

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

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

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

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs  by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel,

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

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

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

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

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

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

Dickens and the Workhouse    by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse by Ruth Richardson

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

The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka,

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

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

The Taste of America   by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews (Phaidon Press)

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s)

Moments That Made the Movies  by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson

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

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

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

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

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

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas (Oxford University Press)

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

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

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

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood   by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud

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

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf  by Gaito Gazdanov

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

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

 The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book by Eugene Smith

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

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

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

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

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

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

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

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


15 Sep

It’s not that I don’t believe that the terrorist bombing in Manhattan ten years ago is significant and worthy of commemoration. Or that real suffering attaches to that event. But I am vexed by appropriation of that event and attendant consequences by the same self-righteous pontificators who facilely hand out the consoling news that god is on our side and who managed to embroil the United States in fruitless imperial adventures costing exponentially more lives and suffering than the Twin Towers destruction.

I did manage to find some sensible commentary on 9/11 —Tom Englehardt at the ever dependable Toms Dispatch weighs in

If September 11th was indeed a nightmare, 9/11 as a memorial and Ground Zero as a “consecrated” place have turned out to be a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell. They have helped lead us into fields of carnage that put the dead of 9/11 to shame.

Lawrence Weschler also has something to say in a piece called Memory and among other things, Weschler recalls Susan Sontag’s remarks (for which she was excoriated):

Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong,” we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.

Weschler, it should be noted, found it disquieting that he could not get any radio outlet to air his radio version of Memory.

The New Yorker’sDavid Remnick, of course, comments and as does Weschler recalls the General Slocum sinking disaster of 1904. He also offers this:

Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits. Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.

Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman experienced two memorable 11ths of September and he draws an interesting and somber parallel between 1972 and 2001

Okay, then.

Currently reading: American Boy Larry Watson (Milkweed)

Nasty is As Nasty Does

26 Apr

Having ignored my predilection to (with some exceptions) avoid reading reviews, by reading two of such regarding Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan (Atlas & Co.), I was steered to an exercise in nastiness masquerading as a book critique, after speaking with Sigrid —she told of the unfavorable notice in New York Times Book Review.

Now I believe any reader, professional or not has the right to grind their cutlery in opining about a book or movie or recording. There is a large and emphatic BUT though—which is that good sense and dare I say intelligence ought to be exercised by the editors of literary journals publishing ill tempered, ill mannered and misbegotten pseudo cogitations from which alchemical wizardry would be required to draw anything useful or instructive.

From the very first sentence—”It’s not easy to pick the most unforgettable image from the many that flutter through this memoir like snippets from an overturned wastebasket” —an unkind metaphor is offered for the images that MS Nunez evokes in her slender remembrance of the few years in her youth that she spent orbiting around the celestial intellect that was Susan Sontag. And among other quibbles leveled against this insightful book, using an Italian word in the title and that Nunez’s attitude toward her subject is a”mystery”.

Of course, there is no real” mystery” as the writer of this purple faced screed proffers in a full disclosure attached at the end:

Full disclosure: I met Sontag once myself in the ’70s, interviewing her while she was on a book tour, and came away bewitched. She was the smartest woman in the world! Just as [Terry] Castle suggests, if you were a would-be intellectual feminist in those days, you had to idolize Sontag; it was the cost of doing business. But you didn’t have to sign on for years of fealty the way she and Nunez did

Susan Sontag was a true original in an age of branded copies and outright imposters. And however her intellectual and creative legacy resonate in today’s cultural playground, monographs like Sempre Susan are fascinating snapshots of a rare original operating in a millieau not exactly overstocked with her peculiar species. And what is not mysterious at all is Nunez’s well expressed fascination with the singular Susan Sontag.

Listing to the Left

10 Dec

One who aspires to recognition for acute and nimble observations will not gain such by beating to death a horse already in rigor mortis—such as the ubiquity of lists all over American culture and its portals. I point this out because the end of the year makes this plague especially virulent. All the usual suspects present some form of a list to their audiences, real and imagined. One cannot avoid a suspicion of cynicism amongst the editors and editorial chosen who spew out this stuff, though the more odious superlatives like “best” have been supplanted by the more (seemingly) humble “favorite”.

Anyway,happy as I am to skirt the perimeter of hypocrisy I have my own list(of books). But I am not going to reveal the unifying element that brings these listees together(though most, I think, are of 2010 vintage).Rather I ‘d like this list thing to at least incite some brain activity. Here goes:

Inventing American History– William Hogeland (Boston Review/MIT Press)

You’re A Genius All The Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose– Jack Kerouac (Chronicle Books)

The Communist Postscript– Boris Groys translated by Thomas Ford (Verso)

Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Post War Philosophy – Alain Badiou translated by David Macy(Verso)

The Communist Hypothesis -Alain Badiou translated by David Macy and Steve Corcoran (Verso)

Poetry as Insurgent Art – Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New Directions)

The Bomb– Howard Zinn (City Lights)

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time– David L Ulin ( Sasquatch Books)

The Post Human Dada Guide Tzara & Lenin Play Chess– Andrei Codrescu (Princeton University Press)

Never Use White Type on Black Background: And 50 other Ridiculous Design Rules Anneloes van Gaalen (Bis Books)

Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books – edited by Jo Stephens with an essay by Walter Benjamen (Yale University Press)

One thing though— which may serve as a hint of sorts. Three of the books I treasure are, in a number of aspects, similar to the above listed. A Winterhouse Editions tome, Susan Sontag’s Literature is Freedom (her Friedenspreis Acceptance Speech), This is Water by David Foster Wallace (Little Brown)and JM Coetzee’s 2003 Nobel Lecture in Literature (Penguin Books)

Ok, then, you’re on your own.

Perhaps only one gifted or burdened (as the case may be) with a grasshopper mind would make this connection(to be honest, I would have found a way to mention Joe Bageant and his latest essay in which he unpacks Cultural Ignorance in America, AMERICA: Y UR PEEPS B SO DUM? Ignorance and courage in the age of Lady Gaga Here’s a taste to whet your appetite:

If you hang out much with thinking people, conversation eventually turns to the serious political and cultural questions of our times. Such as: How can the Americans remain so consistently brain-fucked? Much of the world, including plenty of Americans, asks that question as they watch U.S. culture go down like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit.

One explanation might be the effect of 40 years of deep fried industrial chicken pulp, and 44 ounce Big Gulp soft drinks. Another might be pop culture, which is not culture at all of course, but marketing. Or we could blame it on digital autism:Ever watch commuter monkeys on the subway poking at digital devices, stroking the touch screen for hours on end? That wrinkled Neolithic brows above the squinting red eyes?

An d friends,if I might say, this piece gets better…