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Table of contents :
On Reading to Oneself: William H. Gass
Virginia Woolf’s Voyage Out
Forgetful Selves: James Wood
Bodies of Knowledge: Mary Gordon
Invigorating Life: Elaine Showalter
First Love: Michael Cunningham
How Should One Read a Book?: Virginia Woolf
Imagining Italo Calvino
The Imaginary Real: Salman Rushdie
Aerial Maneuvers: Umberto Eco
Art of the Unfinished: Carlos Fuentes
Why Read the Classics?: Italo Calvino
Remembering Jorge Luis Borges
Time After Time: Bradford Morrow
Borges Beyond Words: Alastair Reid
All the Range: Eliot Weinberger
Reaching the Center: Rosario Ferré
Language of the Labyrinth: Robert Stone
1,001 Laughs: Paul Auster
Nothing Simple: John Macrae
Delia Elena San Marco: Jorge Luis Borges
The Writer, The Work: Thrown Voices
A conversation with Richard Howard and Susan Sontag
The Real Story: Literary Fact and Fiction
A conversation with James Atlas, Russell Banks, Millicent Dillon, Charles McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, and Simon Schama
The Play’s the Thing
Thoughts on theater from Jessica Hagedorn, Charles Mee, and Suzan-Lori Parks
An Equation for Black People Onstage: Suzan-Lori Parks
The Most Insidious Censorship
A conversation with K. Anthony Appiah and Benjamin Barber
Flattop for Cherry Hill: Paul Betts
One-Legged Walter: Albert Al timari
Four Poems by C. P. Cavaey
Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Gérard de Nerval, Invisible Man: Richard Sieburth
Octavia: Gérard de Nerval
Translated by Richard Sieburt
PEN AMERICA Volume 1, Issue 1 (Winter 2000/01) Published by PEN American Center, 568 Broadway, Suite 401, New York, NY 10012. Telephone: (212) 334-1660, fax: (212) 334-2181, email: [email protected], web: www.pen.org. This issue is made possible in part by the generous funding of Furthermore, the publication program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. Copyright © 2000 PEN American Center, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this journal may be reproduced by any process or technique without the formal consent of PEN American Center. Authorization to photocopy items for internal, educational or personal use is granted by PEN American Center. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. Printed in the United States of America Postmaster: send address changes to PEN America, c/o PEN American Center, 568 Broadway, Suite 401, New York, NY 10012. COVER PHOTOGRAPH: Christa Parravani
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Borges, Jorge Luis. “A Grandiose Manifesto from Breton.” From Selected Non-Fictions by jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. "An English Version of the Oldest Songs in the World.” From Selected Non-Fictions by jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “Richard Hull, Excellent Intentions.” From Selected Non-Fictions by jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “Sir William Barrett, Personality Survives Death.” From Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “Theodore Dreiser.” From Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “H.G. Wells’ Latest Novel.” From Selected NonFictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “Joyce’s Latest Novel.” From Selected NonFictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “An Overwhelming Film.” From Selected NonFictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morrell.” From Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph,” translated by Andrew Hurley. From Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “In Praise of Darkness.” From Selected Poems by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama; translation copyright © 1999 by Hoyt Rogers. Reprinted by permission of Viking/Penguin Putnam. Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Other Tiger.” From Selected Poems by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama; translation copy right © 1999 by Alastair Reid. Reprinted by permission. Borges, Jorge Luis. “Matthew XXV: 30.” From Selected Poems by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Kodama; translation copyright © 1999 by Alastair Reid. Reprinted by permission. Calvino, Italo. “Why Read the Classics?” From Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino. Copyright © 1999 by Jonathan Cape. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books. Cavafy, C.P. “The God Abandons Antony.” From Collected Poems by C.P. Cavafy. Translation copyright © 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. Cavafy, C.P. “Ionic.” From Collected Poems by C.P. Cavafy. Translation copyright © 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. Cavafy, C.P. “Ithaka.” From Collected Poems by C.P. Cavafy. Translation copyright © 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. Cavafy, C.P. “King Claudius.” From Collected Poems by C.P. Cavafy. Translation copyright © 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. Ferré, Rosario. “Reaching the Center.” Copyright © 1999 by Rosario Ferré. Printed by permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York. All rights reserved.
Gass, William H. “On Reading to Oneself.” From Habitations of the Word, by William H. Gass. Copyright © 1985 by William Gass. Reprinted by permission. Nerval, Gérard de. “Aurelia.” From Selected Writings by Gérard de Nerval. Translation copyright © 1999 by Richard Sieburth. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Classics. Parks, Suzan-Lori. “An Equation for Black People Onstage.” From The America Play and Other Works, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Copyright © 1995 by Suzan-Lori Parks. Reprinted by permission of Theatre Communications Group.
ON READING TO ONESELF
William H. Gass VIRGINIA WOOLF’S VOYAGE OUT FORGETFUL SELVES
James Wood BODIES OF KNOWLEDGE
Mary Gordon INVIGORATING LIFE
Elaine Showalter FIRST LOVE
Michael Cunningham HOW SHOULD ONE READ A BOOK?
Virginia Woolf IMAGINING ITALO CALVINO THE IMAGINARY REAL
Salman Rushdie AERIAL MANEUVERS
Umberto Eco ART OF THE UNFINISHED
Carlos Fuentes WHY READ THE CLASSICS?
Italo Calvino REMEMBERING JORGE LUIS BORGES TIME AFTER TIME
Bradford Morrow BORGES BEYOND WORDS
Alastair Reid ALL THE RANGE
Eliot Weinberger REACHING THE CENTER
Rosario Ferré LANGUAGE OF THE LABYRINTH
Robert Stone 1,001 LAUGHS
Paul Auster NOTHING SIMPLE
John Macrae DELIA ELENA SAN MARCO Jorge Luis Borges
THE WRITER, THE WORK: THROWN VOICES
A conversation with Richard Howard and Susan Sontag THE REAL STORY: LITERARY FACT AND FICTION
A conversation with James Atlas, Russell Banks, Millicent Dillon, Charles McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, and Simon Schama THE PLAY’S THE THING
Thoughts on theater from Jessica Hagedorn, Charles Mee, and Suzan-Lori Parks AN EQUATION FOR BLACK PEOPLE ONSTAGE
Suzan-Lori Parks THE MOST INSIDIOUS CENSORSHIP
A conversation with K. Anthony Appiah and Benjamin Barber FLATTOP FOR CHERRY HILL
Paul Betts ONE-LEGGED WALTER
Albert Altimari FOUR POEMS BY C. P. CAVAFY
Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard GÉRARD DE NERVAL, INVISIBLE MAN
Richard Sieburth OCTAVIA
Gérard de Nerval Translated by Richard Sieburth
Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it is their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
On Reading to Oneself WILLIAM H. GASS
I WAS NEVER much of an athlete, but I was once a member of a team. Indeed, I was its star, and we were champions. I belonged to a squad of speed readers, although I was never awarded a letter for it. Still, we took on the top teams in our territory, and read as rapidly as possible every time we were challenged to a match, hoping to finish in front of our opponents: that towheaded punk from Canton, the tomato-cheeked girl from Marietta, or that silent pair of sisters, all spectacles and squints, who looked tough as German script, and who hailed from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a region noted for its swift, mean raveners of text. We called ourselves “The Speeders.” Of course. Everybody did. There were the Sharon Speeders, the Steubenville Speeders, the Sperryville Speeders, and the Niles Nouns. The Niles Nouns never won. How could they—with that name. Nouns are always at rest. I lost a match once to a kid from a forgettable small town, but I do remember he had green teeth. And that’s the way, I’m afraid, we always appeared to others: as creeps with squints, bad posture, unclean complexions, unscrubbed teeth, unremediably tousled hair. We never had dates, only memorized them; and when any real team went on the road to represent the school, we carried the socks, the Tootsie Rolls, the towels. My nemesis had a head of thin red hair like rust on a saw; he screwed a suggestive little finger into his large fungiform ears. He was made of rust, moss, and wax, and I had lost to him…lost…and the shame of that defeat still rushes to my face whenever I remember it. Nevertheless, although our team had no sweaters, we never earned a letter, and our exploits never made the papers, I still possess a substantial gold-colored medallion on which one sunbeaming eye seems hung above a book like a spider. Both book and eye are open—wide. I take that open, streaming eye to have been a symbol and an omen.
Our reading life has its salad days, its autumnal times. At first, of course, we do it badly, scarcely keeping our balance, toddling along behind our finger, so intent on remembering what each word is supposed to mean that the sentence is no longer a path, and we arrive at its end without having gone anywhere. Thus it is with all the things we learn, for at first they passively oppose us; they lie outside us like mist or the laws of nature; we have to issue orders to our eyes, our limbs, our understanding: lift this, shift that, thumb the space bar, lean more to one side, let up on the clutch—and take it easy, or you’ll strip the gears—and don’t forget to modify the verb, or remember what an escudo’s worth. After a while, though, we find we like standing up, riding a bike, singing Don Giovanni, making puff paste or puppy love, building model planes. Then we are indeed like the adolescent in our eager green enthusiasms: they are plentiful as leaves. Every page is a pasture, and we are let out to graze like hungry herds. Do you remember the magic the word “thigh” could work on you, showing up suddenly in the middle of a passage like a whiff of cologne in a theater? I admit it: the widening of the upper thigh remains a miracle, and, honestly, many of us once read the word “thigh” as if we were exploring Africa, seeking the source of the Nile. No volume was too hefty, then, no style too verbal; the weight of a big book was more comforting than Christmas candy; though you have to be lucky, strike the right text at the right time, because the special excitement which Thomas Wolfe provides, for instance, can be felt only in the teens; and when, again, will any of us possess the energy, the patience, the inner sympathy for volcanic bombast, to read—to enjoy—Carlyle? Rereading—repeating—was automatic. Who needed the lessons taught by Gertrude Stein? I must have rushed through a pleasant little baseball book called The Crimson Pennant at least a dozen times, consuming a cake I had already cut into crumbs, yet that big base hit which always came when matters were most crucial was never more satisfying than on the final occasion when its hero and I ran round those bases, and shyly lifted our caps toward the crowd.
I said who needed the lessons taught by Gertrude Stein, but one of the best books for beginners remains her magical First Reader. Here are the opening lines of “Lesson One”: A dog said that he was going to learn to read. The other dogs said he could learn to bark but he could not learn to read. They did not know that dog, if he said he was going to learn to read, he would learn to read. He might be drowned dead in water but if he said that he was going to read he was going to learn to read. He never was drowned in water not dead drowned and he never did learn to read. Are there any children like that. One two three. Are there any children like that. Four five six. Are there any children like that. Seven eight nine are there any children like that. There turn out to be ten, each with a dog who says he is going to learn to read, and shortly the story gets very exciting. Back in the days of “once upon a time,” no one threatened to warm our behinds if we didn’t read another Nancy Drew by Tuesday; no sour-faced virgin browbeat us with The Blithedale Romance or held out The Cloister and the Hearth like a cold plate of “it’s good for you” food. We were on our own. I read Swinburne and the Adventures of the Shadow. I read Havelock Ellis and Tom Swift and The Idylls of the King. I read whatever came to hand, and what came to hand were a lot of naughty French novels, some by Émile Zola, detective stories, medical adventures, books about bees, biographies of Napoleon, and Thus Spake Zarathustra like a bolt of lightning. I read them all, whatever they were, with an ease that defies the goat’s digestion, and with an ease which is now so easily forgotten, just as we forget the wild wobble in the wheels, or the humiliating falls we took, when we began our life on spokes. That wind I felt, when I finally stayed upright around the block, continuously reaffirmed the basic joy of cycling. It told me not merely that I was moving, but that I was moving under my own power; just as later, when I’d passed my driver’s test, I would feel another sort of
exhilaration—an intense, addictive, dangerous one—that of command: of my ability to control the energy produced by another thing or person, to direct the life contained in another creature. Yes, in those early word-drunk years, I would down a book or two a day as though they were gins. I read for adventure, excitement, to sample the exotic and the strange, for climax and resolution, to participate in otherwise unknown and forbidden passions. I forgot what it was to be under my own power, under my own steam. I knew that Shakespeare came after Sophocles, but I forgot that I went back and forth between them as though they were towns. In my passion for time, I forgot their geography. All books occupy the same space. Dante and Dickens: they cheek by jowl. And although books begin their life in the world at different times, these dates rarely determine the days they begin in yours and mine. We forget simple things like that: that we are built of books. I forgot the Coke I was drinking, the chair, the chill in the air. I was, like so many adolescents, as eager to leap from my ordinary life as the salmon are to get upstream. I sought a replacement for the world. With a surreptitious lamp lit, I stayed awake to dream. I grew reckless. I read for speed. When you read for speed you do not read recursively, looping along the line like a sewing machine, stitching something together— say the panel of a bodice to a sleeve—linking a pair of terms, the contents of a clause, closing a seam by following the internal directions of the sentence (not when you read for speed), so that the word “you” is first fastened to the word “read,” and then the phrase “for speed” is attached to both in order that the entire expression can be finally fronted by a grandly capitalized “When…” (but not when you read for speed), while all of that, in turn, is gathered up to await the completion of the later segment which begins “you do not read recursively” (certainly not when you read for speed). You can hear how long it seems to take—this patient process—and how confusing it can become. Nor do you linger over language, repeating (not when you read for speed) some especially pleasant little passage, in the enjoyment, perhaps, of a modest rhyme (for example, the small clause “when you read for speed”), or a particularly apt turn of phrase (an image, for instance, such as the one which dealt with my
difficult opponent’s green teeth and thin red hair—like rust on a saw), (none of that, when you read for speed). Nor, naturally, do you move your lips as you read the word “read” or the words “moving your lips,” so that the poor fellow next to you in the reading room has to watch intently to see what your lips are saying: are you asking him out? for the loan of his Plutarch’s Lives? and of course the poor fellow is flummoxed to find that you are moving your lips to say “moving your lips.” What can that mean? The lip-mover—Oh, such a person is low on our skill scale. We are taught to have scorn for her, for him. On the other hand, the speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece. The speeding reader is after the kernel, the heart, the gist. Paragraphs become a country the eye flies over looking for landmarks, reference points, airports, restrooms, passages of sex. The speeding reader guts a book the way the skillful clean fish. The gills are gone, the tail, the scales, the fins; then the fillet slides away swiftly as though fed to a seal; and only the slow reader, one whom those with green teeth chew through like furious worms; only the reader whose finger falters in front of long words, who moves the lips, who dances the text, will notice the odd crowd of images—flier, skier, butcher, seal—which have gathered to comment on the aims and activities of the speeding reader, perhaps like gossips at a wedding. To the speeding reader, this jostle of images, this crazy collision of ideas—of landing strip, kernel, heart, guts, sex—will not be felt or even recognized, because these readers are after what they regard as the inner core of meaning; it is the gist they want, the heart of the matter; they want what can equally well be said in their own, other, and always fewer words; so that the gist of this passage could be said to be: readers who read rapidly read only for the most generalized and stereotyped significances. For them, meaning floats over the page like fluffy clouds. Cliché is forever in fashion. They read, as we say, synonymously, seeking sameness; and, indeed, it is all the same to them if they are said in one moment to be greedy as seals, and in
another moment likened to descalers of fish. They…you, I…we get the idea. Most writing and most reading proceeds, not in terms of specific words and phrases, although specific ones must be used, but in terms of loose general sets or gatherings of synonyms. Synonymous writing is relatively easy to read, provided one doesn’t drowse, because it lives in the approximate; it survives wide tolerances; its standards of relevance resemble those of a streetwalker, and its pleasures are of the same kind. If any of us read, “When Jack put his hand in the till, he got his fingers burned, so that now he’s all washed up at the Bank,” we might smile at this silly collision of commonplaces, but we would also “get the drift,” the melody, the gist. The gist is that Jack was caught with his hand in the cookie jar and consequently was given a sack he can’t put his cookies in. Well, the stupid mother cut his own throat just to get his necktie red. Jack—man—WOW!—I mean, he fucked up for sure—and now he’s screwed—man—like a wet place—he’s been wiped up! Punctuation dissolves into dashes; it contracts, shrinks, disappears entirely. Fred did the CRIME, got CAUGHT, now feels the PAIN. These three general ideas, like cartoon balloons, drift above the surface of the sentence, and are read as easily as Al Capp. Precise writing becomes difficult, and slow, precisely because it requires that we read it precisely—take it all in. Most of us put words on a page the way kids throw snow at a wall. Only the general white splat matters anyhow. When I participated in them, speed-reading matches had two halves like a game of football. The first consisted of the rapid reading itself, through which, of course, I whizzzzed, all the while making the sound of turning pages and closing covers in order to disconcert Green Teeth or the Silent Shaker Heights Sisters, who were to think I had completed my reading already. I didn’t wear glasses then, but I carried a case to every match, and always dropped it at a pertinent moment, along with a few coins. Next we were required to answer questions about what we claimed we’d covered, and quickness, here, was again essential. The questions, however, soon disclosed their biases. They had a
structure, their own gist; and it became possible, after some experience, to guess what would be asked about a text almost before it had been begun. Is it Goldilocks we’re skimming? Then what is the favorite breakfast food of the three bears? How does Goldilocks escape from the house? Why weren’t the three bears at home when Goldilocks came calling? The multiple answers we were offered also had their own tired tilt, and, like the questions, quickly gave themselves away. The favorite breakfast foods, for instance, were: (a) Quaker Oats (who, we can imagine, are paying for the prizes this year, and in this sly fashion get their name in); (b) Just Rite (written like a brand name); (c) porridge (usually misspelled); (d) sugar-coated curds and whey. No one ever wondered whether Goldilocks was suffering from sibling rivalry; why she had become a teenie trasher; or why mother bear’s bowl of porridge was cold when baby bear’s smaller bowl was still warm, and Just Rite. There were many other mysteries, but not for these quiz masters who didn’t even want to know the sexual significance of Cinderella’s slipper, or why it had to be made of glass (the better to drink from, of course). I won my championship medal by ignoring the text entirely (it was a section from Vol. II of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the part which begins, “Regard the flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun…” but then, of course, you remember that perhaps overfamiliar passage). I skipped the questions as well, and simply encircled the gloomiest alternatives offered. Won in record time. No one’s got through Spengler with such dispatch since. What did these matches, with their quizzes for comprehension, their love of literal learning, tell me? They told me that time was money (a speed reader’s dearest idea); they told me what the world wanted me to read when I read, eat when I ate, see when I saw. Like the glutton, I was to get everything in and out of the store in a hurry. Turnover was topmost. What the world wanted me to get was the gist, but the gist was nothing but an idea of trade—an idea so drearily uniform and emaciated that it might have modeled dresses. We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality, the mismatch of theory with thing, the gap between program and practice. We must live as we
read; listen as we live. Please: only the melody…shards of “golden oldies,” foreplays of what’s “just about out” and “all the rage,” of what’s “brand new.” We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become. It tastes like the spit in our own mouth, not the spit from the mouth of another. This trail of clichés, sorry commonplaces, dreary stereotypes, boring slogans, loud adverts and brutal simplifications, titles, trademarks, tags, typiques, our mind leaves behind like the slime of a slug—the sameness we excrete—is democratic: one stool’s no better than another to the normally undiscerning eye and impatient bowel. “To be all washed up” is not a kingly expression which “over the hill” or “past his prime” must serve like a slave. Each cliché is a varlet and a churl, but there’s no master. Each one refers us, with a vague wave of its hand, to the entire unkempt class. The meaning we impute to our expressions is never fixed; our thought (and there is a self-important term), our thought moves aimlessly from one form of words to another, scarcely touching any, like a bee in God’s garden. The fact is that Jack has had it. We all know that. He’s run the course. And now he’s been zapped. Why go on about it? There are three other ways of reading that I’d like to recommend. They are slow, old-fashioned, not easy either, rarely practiced. They must be learned. Together with the speeder they describe the proper way to write as well as read, and can serve as a partial emblem for the right life. That seems unlikely, yet they apply to all our needs, our habits: thinking, seeing, eating, drinking. We can gulp our glass of wine if we please. To get the gist. And the gist is the level of alcohol in the blood, the pixilated breath one blows into the test balloon. It makes appropriate the expression: have a belt. It makes dangerous the expression: one for the road. We can toss down a text, a time of life, a love affair, that walk in the park which gets us from here to there. We can chug-a-lug them. You have, perhaps, had to travel sometime with a person whose passion was that simple: it was getting there. You have no doubt encountered people who impatiently wait for the payoff; they urge you to come to the point; at dinner, the early courses merely delay dessert; they don’t go to the games, only bet
on them; they look solely at the bottom line (that obscene phrase whose further meaning synonymous readers never notice); they are persons consumed by consequences; they want to climax without the bother of buildup or crescendo. But we can read and walk and write and look in quite a different way. It is possible. I was saved from sameness by philosophy and Immanuel Kant, by Gertrude Stein and her seeming repetitions. You can’t speed read Process and Reality or The Critique of Pure Reason. You can’t speed read Wallace Stevens or Mallarmé. There is no gist, no simple translation, no key concept which will unlock these works; actually, there is no lock, no door, no wall, no room, no house, no world… One of my favorite sentences is by Gertrude Stein. It goes: “It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself by accident.” Our example is actually two sentences: “It looked like a garden” and “He had hurt himself by accident.” Separately, and apart, each is a perfectly ordinary, ignorable element of proletarian prose; but when they are brought together in this unusual way, they force us to consider their real, complete, and peculiar natures. The injury, we may decide, although it looked self-inflicted, planned, kept up, was actually the result of an accident. How much better we feel when we know that Gertrude Stein’s sentence has a gloss, because now we can forget it. The fellow was actually not trying to defraud his insurance company, although at first it looked like it. Alas for the security of our comfort, her sentence is not equivalent to its synonymous reading—this consoling interpretation. It cannot be replaced by another. It cannot be translated without a complete loss of its very special effect. It was composed—this sentence—with a fine aesthetic feel for “difference,” for clean and clear distinctions, for the true weight and full use of the word. If, when we say we understand something someone’s said, we mean that we can rephrase the matter, put it in other words (and we frequently do mean this), then Gertrude Stein’s critics may be right: you can’t understand such a sentence; and it has no value as a medium of exchange.
We can attempt to understand the sentence in another way. We can point out the elements and relations which, together, produce its special effect. For instance, we can call attention to the juxtaposition of an event which normally happens in a moment (an accident) with a condition which is achieved over a long period of time (a garden); or cite the contrasts between care and carelessness, the desirable and undesirable, between appearance and reality, chance and design, which the two sentences set up; and note the pivotal shift of pronouns (“It looked…but he had…”). We might furthermore comment on the particular kind of surprise the entire sentence provides, because after reading “It looked like a garden, but…” we certainly expect something like “but the plants had all sprung up like weeds.” The isolation of analytical functions in the sentence is accomplished by comparing the actual sentence with its possible variations. What is the force of the phrase “by accident”? We can find out by removing it. It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself with a hammer. We replace “hurt” with “injured” in order to feel the difference a little alliteration makes; what the new meter does; and to understand to what degree, exactly, “hurt” is a more intimate and warmer word, less physical in its implications, yet also benignly general and vague in a way “wounded,” for instance, is not. We can try being more specific: It looked like a rose garden, but he had hurt himself by slipping on the ice. We can also see, if we look, how lengthening the second sentence segment spoils the effect of the whole: It looked like a garden, but he had nevertheless managed to hurt himself quite by accident. The onset of the surprise must be swift, otherwise everything is ruined. Suppose we extend our example’s other arm:
It looked, as well as I could make it out through the early morning mist, like a garden, but he had hurt himself by accident. We can make other substitutions, sometimes rather wild ones, in order to measure the distances between resemblances: It looked like a flower box, but he had hurt himself by accident. It looked like a Dali, but he had hurt himself by accident. It looked like a garden, but he had dug himself up by accident. It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself by post. It is important that we keep our sentence’s most “normal” form in front of us, namely: “It looked very intentional, but he had hurt himself by accident.” By now, through repetition, and by dint of analysis, the sentence has lost its ability to shock or surprise, and like a religious chant has surrendered whatever meaning it might have had. On the other hand, in a month’s time, out of the blue, the sentence will return to consciousness with the force of a revelation. What we’ve done, in short, is to reenact the idealized method of its conscious composition. We have made explicit the nature of its verbal choices by examining some of those which might have been made instead, as if we were translating English into English. If synonymous reading is to be contrasted with antonymical reading, which stresses untranslatability, difference, and uniqueness, then analytical reading, which looks at the way words are put together to achieve certain effects, should be contrasted with synthetical reading, which concentrates on the quality and character of the effect itself. Synthetical reading integrates every element and responds. Imagine for a moment a consummate Brunswick stew. In such a perfect dish, not only must the carrot contribute its bit, but this carrot must contribute its. As we sample the stew, we first of all must realize we are eating just that: stew. This knowledge gives our tongue its orientation; it tells us what to look for, what values count, what belongs, and what (like bubble gum) does not; it informs us
about the method of its preparation. We assure ourselves it is stew we are eating by comparing our present experience with others (or we ask the waitress, who tells us what the chef says). That is, this stew has a general character (look, smell, texture, flavor)—a “gist”— which we then may match with others of its sort. So far we are engaged in synonymous eating (as disgusting as that sounds). One bite of stew, one bowl of chili, one flattened hamburger patty, is like another patty, bowl, or bite. Clearly, for the rapid eater or the speed reader, consciousness will not register much difference, and the difference that does appear will be, of course, in content. I’ve eaten this bowl of porridge, so that bowl must be another one. But the educated and careful tongue will taste and discriminate this particular stew from every other. Tasting is a dialectical process in which one proceeds from general to specific similarities, but this can be accomplished only through a series of differentiations. Antonymical tasting (which also sounds disgusting) ultimately “identifies” this dish, not only as pure stew, but as Brunswick stew, and knows whether it was done in Creole style or not, and then finally it recognizes, in this plate’s present version of the recipe, that the squirrels were fat and gray and came from Mississippi where they fed on elderberries and acorns of the swamp oak. One grasps an act, an object, an idea, a sentence, synthetically, simply by feeling or receiving its full effect—in the case of the stew that means its complete, unique taste. I need not be able to name the ingredients; I need not be able to describe how the dish was prepared; but I should be a paragon of appreciation. This quality, because it is the experience of differentiation within a context of comparison, cannot be captured in concepts, cannot be expressed in words. Analytical tasting has a different aim. It desires to discover what went into the dish; it reconstructs the recipe, and recreates the method of its preparation. It moves from effects to causes. Reading is a complicated, profound, silent, still, very personal, very private, a very solitary, yet civilizing activity. Nothing is more social than speech—we are bound together by our common sounds more securely than even by our laws—nevertheless, no one is more aware of the isolated self than the reader; for a reader communes
with the word heard immaterially in that hollow of the head made only for hearing, a room nowhere in the body in any ordinary sense. On the bus, every one of us may be deep in something different. Sitting next to a priest, I can still enjoy my pornography, although I may keep a thumb discreetly on top of the title: The Cancan Girls Celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t matter to me that Father McIvie is reading about investments, or that the kid with rusty hair in the seat ahead is devouring a book about handicapping horses. Yet while all of us, in our verbal recreations, are full of respect for the privacy of our neighbors, the placards advertising perfume or footware invade the public space like a visual smell; Muzak fills every unstoppered ear the way the static of the street does. The movies, radio, TV, theater, orchestra: all run on at their own rate, and the listener or the viewer must attend, keep up, or lose out; but not the reader. The reader is free. The reader is in charge, and pedals the cycle. It is easy for a reader to announce that his present run of Proust has been postponed until the holidays. Reading, that is, is not a public imposition. Of course, when we read, many of us squirm and fidget. One of the closest friends of my youth would sensuously wind and unwind on his forefinger the long blond strands of his hair. How he read: that is how I remember him. Yes, our postures are often provocative, perverse. Yet these outward movements of the body really testify to the importance of the inner movements of the mind; and even those rapid flickers of the eye, as we shift from word to word, phrase to phrase, and clause to clause, hoping to keep our head afloat on a flood of Faulkner or Proust or Joyce or James, are registers of reason: for reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response; until its conceptual turns are like the reversals of mood in a marriage: petty, sad, ecstatic, commonplace, foreseeable, amazing. In order to have this experience, however, one must learn to perform the text, say, sing, shout the words to oneself, give them, with our minds, their body; otherwise the eye skates over every syllable like the speeder. There can be no doubt that often what we
read should be skimmed, as what we are frequently asked to drink should be spilled; but the speeding reader is alone in another, less satisfactory way, one quite different from that of the reader who says the words to herself, because as we read we divide into a theater: there is the performer who shapes these silent sounds, moving the muscles of the larynx almost invisibly; and there is the listener who hears them said, and who responds to their passion or their wisdom. Such a reader sees every text as unique; greets every work as a familiar stranger. Such a reader is willing to allow another’s words to become hers, his. In the next moment, let us read a wine, so as to show how many things may be read which have not been written. We have prepared for the occasion, of course. The bottle has been allowed to breathe. Books need to breathe, too. They should be opened properly, hefted, thumbed. Their covers part like pairs of supplicating palms. The paper, print, layout, should be appreciated. But now we decant the text into our wide-open and welcoming eyes. We warm the wine in the bowl of the glass with our hand. We let its bouquet collect above it like the red of red roses seems to stain the air. We wade— shoeless, to be sure-through the color it has liquefied. We roll a bit of it about in our mouths. We sip. We savor. We say some sentences of that great master Sir Thomas Browne: “We tearme sleepe a death, and yet it is waking that kills us, and destroyes those spirits which are the house of life. Tis indeed a part of life that best expresseth death, for every man truely lives so long as he acts his nature, or someway makes good the faculties of himself…” Are these words not from a fine field, in a splendid year? There is, of course, a sameness in all these words: life/death, man/nature; we get the drift. But the differences! the differences make all the difference, the way nose and eyes and cheekbones form a face; the way a muscle makes emotion pass across it. It is the differences we read. Differences are not only identifiable, distinct; they are epidemic: the wine is light, perhaps, spicy, slow to release its grip upon itself, the upper thigh is widening wonderfully, the night air has hands, words fly out of our mouths like birds: “but who knows the fate of his bones,” Browne says, “or how often he is to be buried”; yet as I say
his soul out loud, he lives again; he has risen up in me, and I can be, for him, that temporary savior that every real reader is, putting his words in my mouth; not nervously, notice, as though they were pieces of chewed gum, but in that way which is necessary if the heart is to hear them; and though they are his words, and his soul, then, which returns through me, I am in charge; he has asked nothing of me; his words move because I move them. It is like cycling, reading is. Can you feel the air, the pure passage of the spirit past the exposed skin? So this reading will be like living, then; the living each of you will be off in a moment to be busy with; not always speedily, I hope, or in the continuous anxiety of consequence, the sullenness of inattention, the annoying static of distraction. But it will be only a semblance of living—this living—nevertheless, the way unspoken reading is a semblance, unless, from time to time, you perform the outer world and let it live within; because only in that manner can it deliver itself to us. As Rainer Maria Rilke once commanded: “dance the taste of the fruit you have been tasting. Dance the orange.” I should like to multiply that charge, even past all possibility. Speak the street to yourself sometimes, hear the horns in the forest, read the breeze aloud, and make that inner wind yours, because, whether Nature, Man, or God has given us the text, we independently possess the ability to read, to read really well, and to move our own mind freely in tune to the moving world.
READING THE CLASSICS EDWIDGE DANTICAT: When I was in school in Haiti, we read mostly French writers, Victor Hugo, Proust. At that time, we didn’t even read Alexandre Dumas, who I later found out was part Haitian. We read dead French writers. I find that, even now, my writing in French takes immediately the voice of French Romanticists because that’s the literature I knew. When I came here, in my instant nostalgia, I started looking for Haitian writers. Jacques Roumain, who is read now in universities I think more than any other Haitian writer, was one. I found the Marcelin brothers, who wrote together, in translation. I really started reading Haitian literature as a personal quest once I was outside Haiti. E. M. FORSTER: “Study” has a very solemn sound. “I am studying Dante” sounds much more than “I am reading Dante.” It really is much less. Study is only a serious form of gossip. It teaches us everything about the book except the central thing… JOAN DIDION: Hemingway…taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes. Henry James wrote perfect sentences too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them. I wouldn’t dare to write one. I’m not even sure I’d dare to read James again. I loved those novels so much that I was paralyzed by them for a long time. All those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down. JORGE LUIS BORGES: A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and
durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.
William H. Gass is the winner of the first PEN/Nabokov Award, given for a lifetime of achievement in letters.
Virginia Woolf’s Forgetful Selves JAMES WOOD
READERS EITHER WORSHIP or denigrate Virginia Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness. I will admit that there are times when her characters’ mental ambling can seem frustratingly opaque, and I begin to grumble to myself about the soft metaphysics of English leisure. But Woolf was a revolutionary, more even than Joyce in one respect, and precisely in the area of stream of consciousness. I believe that Woolf, with perhaps the example of the newly translated Chekhov in her mind, introduced absent-mindedness—in all senses of the phrase—to English fiction. Consider Woolf’s most delicate treatment of absent-mindedness in To the Lighthouse. Readers will remember a lovely moment when Mrs. Ramsay, at dinner, thought well of her husband, and then a minute later felt “as if somebody had been praising her husband to her and their marriage, and she glowed all over without realizing that it was she herself who had praised him.” Thus, comically and lyrically, Mrs. Ramsay travels out of herself, forgets herself for a moment, and we experience this selfforgetfulness in the same way that Mrs. Ramsay does. An even finer passage occurs, I think, about twenty pages into the novel. For the first twenty pages, more or less, we have been seeing things through Mrs. Ramsay’s drifting thoughts. She thinks about how much her son wants to go to the lighthouse; she is cross with Tansley for saying that the weather will not be good enough for the trip; she thinks a little about Tansley and her husband’s earnest followers. We are then told that Mrs. Ramsay is sitting and looking out of the window at the lawn. She sees Augustus Carmichael, the poet, and she sees Lily Briscoe painting, and decides that Lily Briscoe is not really a serious artist. And suddenly, Mrs. Ramsay remembers that Lily is painting her, painting Mrs. Ramsay, and that “she was supposed to
be keeping her head as much in the same position as possible for Lily’s picture.” Now perhaps this doesn’t seem like a very remarkable event; but consider the implications of what Woolf has written. Mrs. Ramsay has forgotten and only just remembered that she is at the center of Lily’s painting. The remembrance is sudden to us too; it realigns the whole scene, for we realize that Mrs. Ramsay, just as she is actually at the center of Lily’s portrait, is also actually at the center of this novel. Yet Mrs. Ramsay’s slow forgetfulness, and ours too, has taken twenty pages to accumulate, twenty pages in which, in fact, Mrs. Ramsay has been at the center of the novel without realizing it until this moment. She has been at the center of the novel all along, and we have hardly noticed it, because seeing the world through her own drifting thought, we have inhabited her own invisibility. And we have experienced this self-forget-fulness, because it has been ours, as readers, too. It is not as if Woolf simply wrote: “Mrs Ramsay forgot that she was at the center of the painting”; no, the entire preceding twenty pages has been our experience of her forgetting this. Even so, you may say, this is a technical point, a literary sleightof-hand. But think of how Woolf thus revolutionizes the scope of what could be done with a certain kind of upper-class female character, an elegant mother and mistress of the house. Woolf is able to convert a cliché—the domestic absent-mindedness of a woman with too much time on her hands—into a ghostly ontology, whereby we discover ourselves in the process of forgetting ourselves. Mrs. Ramsay, we are told later on, dislikes anything that suggests that she has been sitting thinking. But that is precisely what we as readers have just done: we have seen Mrs. Ramsay sitting thinking, and she has seen herself in this mode, too. Mrs. Ramsay is the kind of woman, we’re sure, who if asked what she was thinking about, would probably say “Nothing” and instantly get up to busy herself with some domestic task. But Woolf’s delicate use of drifting thought has shown us that Mrs. Ramsay is never thinking of nothing, that we are always thinking of something, even if the thought is merely the process of forgetting something.
Return, one last time, to that sentence, “she was supposed to be keeping her head as much in the same position as possible for Lily’s picture.” Suddenly we realize that, in fact, Mrs. Ramsay’s head has not been still, is never still. Yes, externally, it might have been as still as Lily Briscoe could want it, but inside her head nothing has been still, nothing has been “in the same position.” She has been in the deepest sense absent-minded. In Woolf’s novels, thought radiates outwards, as in a medieval town, from a beautifully neglected center. And it is we as readers who renovate this neglect as we read Woolf. This, perhaps, was her greatest feminism. By endowing her female characters, like Mrs. Ramsay and Clarissa Dalloway, with truly random, drifting thought, she endowed them with a freedom which had generally been seen by society as an idleness, as nothing more than the irrelevant freedom of housebound women sitting thinking about nothing. And this is a dangerous literary innovation, because such random thought will seem to hostile critics no more than the literary analogue of that despised female idleness: all these women thinking about nothing, all these irrelevant thoughts. One still hears this about Woolf. Yet that is the risk of random thought: that it will seem irrelevant. For when thought is truly random, then remembered detail has no metaphysical superiority, no privilege, over what has been forgotten. One of the reasons that random thought is random is that it is treading over what has been forgotten, over the corpses of thoughts. Thought then resembles the old fiendish punishment that used to be handed out in English boarding schools, in which the victim had to color in every other square on a piece of graph paper. There is no necessary difference between a colored square and a blank one. The delicate question then becomes, what is the status of irrelevant thought? Is it remembered data or forgotten data? Is it the very definition of the self, or everything but the self? Are absentmindedness and present-mindedness the same thing? Do Clarissa Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay remember themselves? Do they know who they are? St. Augustine points out in the Confessions that memory is partly convincing yourself of what you already, really knew all along. We are always forgetting things until the moment
when we actually remember them. And at that moment, are we really remembering them, or paying a kind of tribute to their forgettability? What does Mrs. Ramsay think she is worth? Worth remembering or only worth forgetting? Surely Mrs. Ramsay is real to us in part because she seems real to herself. She is real to herself but she does not know herself. In this way, Woolf turns female absentmindedness into the most searching philosophy of the self, and we suffer with her heroines, who are suspended between forgetfulness and remembrance, between their fulfillment and their irrelevance.
These talks were originally presented at a tribute to Virginia Woolf, sponsored by the PEN Forums Committee, at Town Hall, New York City.
Bodies of Knowledge MARY GORDON
THE WAVES is Virginia Woolf’s most difficult book. It is a difficult book by any standards, and its difficulty and its greatness are intertwined. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the form; there are six narrative voices, long sections separated by pure descriptions of the ocean, but only the loosest of narratives. It requires an attentiveness of reading that is sometimes exhausting. This is because The Waves is saturated by Woolf’s own relentless observation, the quality of her seeing, the pure lyric intensity that drenches every sentence. The soil of this book is entirely porous; there are no dry spots that the mind’s feet can skate or slide over. We must be with her at every moment, riding alongside her on the galloping horse of her rhythms, as Bernard gallops at the end, his lance couched, defying death. “It is all written against a background of death and the sea,” Woolf says of this book in her diary. Death and the sea provide the background, but the subject is life, or life seen as consciousness. The doubleness of anguish and exaltation is the body’s own. For The Waves suggests that we learn who we are and what life is through the body. In his last soliloquy, Bernard, the summer up, recalls a moment from a childhood bath. “Mrs. Constable raised the sponge above her head, squeezed it, and out shot, right and left, all down the spine, arrows of sensation. And so, as long as we draw breath, for the rest of time, if we knock against a chair, a table, or a woman, we are pierced with arrows of sensation. Sometimes indeed when I pass a cottage with a light in the window where a child has been born, I could implore them not to squeeze the sponge over that new body.” Sensation, consciousness bring gifts and also desolation when the gifts are taken back or so far obscured as to be inaccessible. “It seems we go on living,” Rhoda notes. It is an exhausting and dangerous prospect, this living, taking place as it does against the backdrop of death. But there are moments of great
beauty, great value, some of them in the company of friends. “We have proved, sitting eating, sitting talking, that we can add to the treasury of moments,” Bernard says. If we compare The Waves to two other great first-person narratives, Notes from Underground and À la recherche du temps perdu, we find in Woolf glimpses not only of joy but of life’s goodness that the other writers nowhere provide. Certainly, Proust grants us moments of aesthetic bliss: the hawthorns, the sea at Balbec, the sonatas of Vinteul, the charms of Odette. But for Proust, human connection is a snare, a distraction from the important work of contemplation, apprehension, and creation. Dostoevsky’s underground man finds the possibility of friendship risible to the point of nausea. Woolf, on the other hand, by the very nature of her structure, insists on the possibilities of human connection and indeed interpenetration. Bernard, who speaks for the other characters, is not sure whether he is himself or an entity made up of himself and his friends. A six-sided flower, as he calls it. Singularity may be a chimera; it is moments of union, moments only to be sure, that strike the spine with the piercing and enlivening arrows of sensation. And yet for some, like the character Rhoda, like Woolf herself, a suicide, these moments are not strong enough to make up for the ordeal, the horror of living. In her diary, Woolf refers to the form of this novel as a “poemplay.” If it is a play, it is a play with six characters: Bernard, Jinny, Neville, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Or perhaps it is a play with only one character having six sides. The plot is a series of variations of the story “This is who I am.” As a poem (and it is important that it includes the entire text of one of the greatest English poems, “O Western Wind”), The Waves relies on images, images repeated, images with changes wrung upon them, as an essential way the I knows itself as the I. Each of the six characters bears within him- or herself an image that he or she carries from childhood through old age: for Bernard it is words that bubble up from the bottom of a saucepan, for Louis it is the great beast on the shore that stamps and stamps, for Jinny it is the body that puts forth a frill, for Susan the hard thing, her grief, her anger, that she screws up into a pocket
handkerchief, for Neville it is the path of the Latin language throughout the sand, and boys eating bananas out of a paper sack, for Rhoda the petals that she rocks in her brown basin and the swallow who dips his wings in a pool at the end of the world. There are sentences in The Waves that have the lapidary quality of great lines of blank verse, sentences that lodge forever in the memory. I often find myself repeating sentences from The Waves at moments of stress. I hear Neville’s “The reign of chaos is over, knives cut” when I have found my lost keys or discovered I have not in fact run out of toilet paper. Or all too often, in circumstances too obvious to be gone into, I hear Susan’s words: “I shall be debased and hidebound by the bestial and beautiful passion of maternity. I shall push the fortunes of my children unscrupulously. I shall hate those who see their faults. I shall lie basely to help them.” And there are passages whose beauty stops the heart: “The gold has faded between the trees and a slice of green lies behind them, elongated like the blade of a knife seen in dreams or some tapering island on which nobody sets foot.” In The Waves, Virginia Woolf came closest to fulfilling her aesthetic ideal. This ideal is a fiction in which the stuff of realistic fiction-money, class, social placement, the details of family connection—is notable for its absence, and attention is paid only to that which reveals the inner life. In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in which she asserts that the inner life of the ordinary woman on the train, Mrs. Brown, is the true business of the modern novelist, she asserts her creed. “I was strongly tempted,” she disingenuously says, “to manufacture a three-volume novel about the old lady’s son and his adventures crossing the Atlantic and her daughter and how she keeps a milliner’s shop in Westminster… though such stories seem to me the most dreary, irrelevant and humbugging affairs in the world. But if I had done that, I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant I would have had to go back and back, to experiment with one thing and another, to try this sentence and that, referring each sentence to my vision.” This decision, of course, deprives the reader of many of the pleasures of fiction, even the experimental.
We have none of Proust’s delicious biting satire; we miss Dostoevsky’s speculations about the nature of moral choice. But in focusing so intently upon the task of The Waves, Virginia Woolf triumphantly realized the goal she had set for herself in the privacy of her diary. “I want,” she said, “to tell the truth and create something of beauty.”
Invigorating Life ELAINE SHOWALTER
A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN must be the most popular book title that any author has ever written. Since its publication in 1929, Virginia Woolf’s witty manifesto has not only become the mandatory reference for every feminist literary critic, but also has inspired the titles of scores of books on subjects very remote from Woolf’s subject, the conditions of artistic creation. I did a quick search of the Princeton Library catalogue among books published merely since 1988, and found the following variants and homage: a place of one’s own, a life of one’s own, a profession of one’s own; a field of one’s own, a garden, a house, a studio, a school, a hut of one’s own and a mine of one’s own (for women prospectors). There are books on a journey of one’s own, a view, a faith, an art, and a style of one’s own; and ominously, there are books on a doctor of one’s own, a death of one’s own, a corpse of one’s own, and a courtroom of one’s own. Someone has even written a book entitled A Trumpet of One’s Own. I think that Virginia Woolf, who was not in favor of tooting one’s own horn, would have been astonished and amused by the fame of her title, and by the extraordinary influence of her book. A Room of One’s Own had its beginnings in two lectures, or papers, on women and fiction she delivered at Newnham and Girton, the women’s colleges of Cambridge University, in October 1928. In her diary, Woolf was more than usually ironic and self-critical about her performance: “Thank God,” she wrote, “my long toil at the women’s lecture is this moment ended. I am back from speaking at Girton, in floods of rain. Starved but valiant young women—that is my impression. Intelligent, eager, poor; and destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals. I blandly told them to drink wine and have a room of their own… I felt elderly and mature. And nobody respected me… Very little reverence or that sort of thing about.” As she finished revisions on the book, she continued to be skeptical: “I
have just set the last correction to Women and Fiction or A Room of One’s Own. I shall never read it again. Good or bad? It has an uneasy life in it, I think: you feel the creature arching its back and galloping on, though as usual much is watery and flimsy and pitched in too high a voice.” And on the eve of its publication, she predicted that it would not be well received: “the press will be kind & talk of its charm, & sprightliness; also I shall be attacked for a feminist and hinted at for a sapphist… I am afraid it will not be taken seriously.” The night of publication she dreamed that she had a fatal heart disease that would kill her in six months, and woke up to find that A Room of One’s Own was selling very well, and the Estonian Ambassador had asked her to lunch. Of course Woolf’s successors have taken A Room of One’s Own very seriously indeed. In it, she had told the disrespectful young women of Cambridge that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The room, moreover, must have a lock on the door. And the five hundred pounds, ideally, should be earned, although Woolf’s narrator admits that hers is a legacy. The room is not just a material space, not a literal office or separate chamber: “Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate,” Woolf explains. “A lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.” Finally, she insists, financial independence and privacy doesn’t mean separation or ghettoization or isolation: “When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life.” As Woolf’s details and images of starved young women hinted, that invigorating life should also include a wine cellar and a dining hall of one’s own. It’s amazing to read the attention this most famously anorexic of novelists pays to good food, as she contrasts the lavish cuisine of Trinity College—the men’s college—with the beef, custard, and prunes of the women’s college. “For one cannot think well,” she notes, “one cannot love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” And also, I suspect, she means, one cannot write well. This section of the book made such an impression on me as a student that in 1973, when I first visited Cambridge University and
had dinner at Trinity College, I noted the evening’s menu in the yellowing margins of my paperback copy of A Room of One’s Own: chef’s salad, chicken Washington, new potatoes and peas, creme brulée, crab on toast, followed by port, madeira, sauterne, claret, biscuits, cheese, fresh peaches, coffee and cigars, brandy and seltzer. How anyone wrote anything after such a dinner is still a mystery to me. Maybe there is something to be said for prunes and custard. The part of the book most readers remember, I think, is Woolf’s invocation of Judith Shakespeare, the sister of literary genius Shakespeare might have had, who would not have been able to become a great poet and playwright, but would have killed herself in despair. In her conclusion, Woolf called upon the women of 1928 to work to make possible that when Shakespeare’s sister is born again, she shall be able to live and write her poetry. “If we live another century or so…and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.” As an American, I’m always struck by how much importance Woolf placed on the story of Shakespeare’s sister, and on the coming of the great female literary messiah. Americans have not been so reverent, at least not American men. Herman Melville argued that to worship Shakespeare showed a want of gumption and proper democratic feeling. “This absolute and unconditional adoration of Shakespeare has grown to be a part of our Anglo-Saxon superstitions…what sort of belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature as well as into Life?” Melville claimed that already in 1850, rather than a century in the future, “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are…being born on the banks of the Ohio. And the day will come when you shall say, Who reads a book by an Englishman that is modern?”
Virginia Woolf was by no means a superstitious follower of received literary ideas, but she would not have been so confident about the future of women’s writing. Perhaps it’s independence or braggadocio that has made many brash American women readers of Woolf, including myself, so eager to update, democratize, modernize, and retitle A Room of One’s Own. In 1977, Marilyn French’s feminist novel, The Women’s Room, seemed like a response to Woolf. In 1978, I wrote that if the room of one’s own becomes a retreat, a feminine secession or escape from male power, logic, and violence, it can be a tomb. Alice Walker, in an essay called “One Child of One’s Own,” offered her own response to Woolf’s prescription. And Camille Paglia announced that a room of one’s own “was already too bourgeois for my subversive generation, whose brash rock spirit counsels: ‘Get out of the house and keep on running. A car of one’s own, the great equalizer, is more the mode of American Amazonism.’” But whether in car or truck or SUV, we are still following Woolf’s path. In her superb 1997 biography, Hermione Lee concludes that no critic can have the last word on Woolf: “Virginia Woolf’s story is reformulated by each generation. She takes on the shape of difficult modernist preoccupied with questions of form, of comedian of manners, or neurotic highbrow aesthete, or inventive fantasist, or pernicious snob, or Marxist feminist, or historian of women’s lives, or victim of abuse, or lesbian heroine, or cultural analyst, depending on who is reading her, and when, and in what context…and the debates she arouses—over madness, over modernism, over marriage”—over Shakespeare and his sister—“cannot be concluded and will go on being argued, well after this book is published.” Women may be waiting around for Shakespeare’s sister even longer than for Godot, but we’ll each have a Woolf of our own.
First Love MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
MRS. DALLOWAY is the first great book I ever read. I was fifteen, a not very promising student at a not very good public high school in Southern California, where I read the books that I was made to read but thought of literature as a dying art form. One day I was out having a cigarette where we went to have cigarettes, and suddenly found myself standing beside the pirate queen of our school. She was beautiful and mean and smart, she had long red fingernails, and long straight hair. Fringe, pretty much everywhere. I found myself standing next to her, and I thought, “Uh oh, uh oh… Think fast, be suave, say something that will make her love you forever.” So I said something that I thought then—and I think today—was very winning, about the poetry of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. She was kind to me. She sucked in her entire Marlboro in one drag, but the ash didn’t fall, and exhaled an immense cloud of smoke, and said, “Well, yes, they’re very good, but how do you feel about T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf?” Now, I wasn’t completely illiterate—I had heard of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and I knew Virginia Woolf was very tall and insane and lived in a lighthouse and jumped in the ocean, but I never expected I’d have to read either one of them. I went to the library, the Bookmobile, the little trailer where the books were. They didn’t have any Eliot, but they did have one book of Woolf’s, and it was Mrs. Dalloway. I took it out, and I took it home and read it, tried to read it, and I didn’t know what was going on. In another way I did get it. I did get the depth and density, and the sentences, and it did turn on some little light inside my stupid skull. Everybody who reads has a first book—maybe not the first book you read, but the first book that shows you what literature can be. Like a first kiss. And you read other books, you kiss other people, but especially for those who are romantically inclined, that first book
stays with you. I felt wedded to Mrs. Dalloway in a way I’ve never felt about any other book. I finally, finally, finally grew up and wrote The Hours, in which I tried to take an existing work of great art and make another work of art out of it, the way a jazz musician might play improvisations on a great piece of music. I learned so much from Woolf as a writer. I think what I learned most importantly was her conviction that the whole of human existence, while it is copiously contained in foreign wars and the death of kings, and the other big subjects for big novels, is also contained in every hour in the life of everybody, very much the way the blueprint for the whole organism is contained in every strand of its DNA. If you look with sufficient penetration, and sufficient art, at any hour in the life of anybody, you can crack it open. And get everything. Virginia Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor, in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own, where he or she was the hero of another great tragic and comic tale.
How Should One Read a Book? VIRGINIA WOOLF
IN THE FIRST PLACE, I want to emphasize the note of interrogation at the end of my title. Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The Battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none. But to enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rose-bush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully, here on the very spot. This, it may be, is one of the first difficulties that faces us in a library. What is “the very spot”? There may well seem to be nothing but a conglomeration and huddle of confusion. Poems and novels, histories and memories, dictionaries and blue-books; books written in all languages by men and women of all tempers, races, and ages jostle each other on the shelf. And outside the donkey brays, the women gossip at the pump, the colts gallop across the fields. Where are we to begin? How are we to bring order
into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read? It is simple enough to say that since books have classes—fiction, biography, poetry—we should separate them and take from each what it is right that each should give us. Yet few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. The thirty chapters of a novel—if we consider how to read a novel first—are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment. But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued; others emphasized; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself. Then turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelist—Defoe,
Jane Austen, Hardy. Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery. It is not merely that we are in the presence of a different person—Defoe, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy—but that we are living in a different world. Here, in Robinson Crusoe, we are trudging a plain high road; one thing happens after another; the fact and the order of the fact is enough. But if the open air and adventure mean everything to Defoe they mean nothing to Jane Austen. Hers is the drawing-room, and people talking, and by the many mirrors of their talk revealing their characters. And if, when we have accustomed ourselves to the drawing-room and its reflections, we turn to Hardy, we are once more spun round. The moors are round us and the stars are above our heads. The other side of the mind is now exposed—the dark side that comes uppermost in solitude, not the light side that shows in company. Our relations are not towards people, but towards Nature and destiny. Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that. To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you. But a glance at the heterogeneous company on the shelf will show you that writers are very seldom “great artists”; far more often a book makes no claim to be a work of art at all. These biographies and autobiographies, for example, lives of great men, of men long dead and forgotten, that stand cheek by jowl with the novels and poems, are we to refuse to read them because they are not “art”? Or shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim? Shall we read them in the first place to satisfy that curiosity which possesses us sometimes when in the evening we linger in front of a house where the lights are lit and the blinds not yet drawn,
and each floor of the house shows us a different section of human life in being? Then we are consumed with curiosity about the lives of these people—the servants gossiping, the gentlemen dining, the girl dressing for a party, the old woman at the window with her knitting. Who are they, what are they, what are their names, their occupations, their thoughts, and adventures? Biographies and memoirs answer such questions, light up innumerable such houses; they show us people going about their daily affairs, toiling, failing, succeeding, eating, hating, loving, until they die. And sometimes as we watch, the house fades and the iron railings vanish and we are out at sea; we are hunting, sailing, fighting; we are among savages and soldiers; we are taking part in great campaigns. Or if we like to stay here in England, in London, still the scene changes; the street narrows; the house becomes small, cramped, diamond-paned, and malodorous. We see a poet, Donne, driven from such a house because the walls were so thin that when the children cried their voices cut through them. We can follow him, through the paths that lie in the pages of books, to Twickenham; to Lady Bedford’s Park, a famous meeting-ground for nobles and poets; and then turn our steps to Wilton, the great house under the downs, and hear Sidney read the Arcadia to his sister; and ramble among the very marshes and see the very herons that figure in that famous romance; and then again travel north with that other Lady Pembroke, Anne Clifford, to her wild moors, or plunge into the city and control our merriment at the sight of Gabriel Harvey in his black velvet suit arguing about poetry with Spenser. Nothing is more fascinating than to grope and stumble in the alternate darkness and splendor of Elizabethan London. But there is no staying there. The Temples and the Swifts, the Harleys and the St Johns beckon us on; hour upon hour can be spent disentangling their quarrels and deciphering their characters; and when we tire of them we can stroll on, past a lady in black wearing diamonds, to Samuel Johnson and Goldsmith and Garrick; or cross the channel, if we like, and meet Voltaire and Diderot, Madame du Deffand; and so back to England and Twickenham—how certain places repeat themselves and certain names!—where Lady Bedford had her Park once and Pope lived
later, to Walpole’s home at Strawberry Hill. But Walpole introduces us to such a swarm of new acquaintances, there are so many houses to visit and bells to ring that we may well hesitate for a moment, on the Miss Berrys’ doorstep, for example, when behold, up comes Thackeray; he is the friend of the woman whom Walpole loved; so that merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author. But this again rouses other questions. How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life—how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal. But also we can read such books with another aim, not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people, but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers. Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase? How delightful to stop reading and look out! How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan. The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that
have perished. But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbishreading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to molder. It may be one letter—but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences—but what vistas they suggest! Sometimes a whole story will come together with such beautiful humor and pathos and completeness that it seems as if a great novelist had been at work, yet it is only an old actor, Tate Wilkinson, remembering the strange story of Captain Jones; it is only a young subaltern serving under Arthur Wellesley and falling in love with a pretty girl at Lisbon; it is only Maria Allen letting fall her sewing in the empty drawing-room and sighing how she wishes she had taken Dr Burney’s good advice and had never eloped with her Rishy. None of this has any value; it is negligible in the extreme; yet how absorbing it is now and again to go through the rubbish-heaps and find rings and scissors and broken noses buried in the huge past and try to piece them together while the colt gallops round the field, the woman fills her pail at the well, and the donkey brays. But we tire of rubbish-reading in the long run. We tire of searching for what is needed to complete the half-truth which is all that the Wilkinsons, the Bunburys and the Maria Aliens are able to offer us. They had not the artist’s power of mastering and eliminating; they could not tell the whole truth even about their own lives; they have disfigured the story that might have been so shapely. Facts are all that they can offer us, and facts are a very inferior form of fiction. Thus the desire grows upon us to have done with half-statements and approximations; to cease from searching out the minute shades of human character, to enjoy the greater abstractness, the purer truth of fiction. Thus we create the mood, intense and generalized, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry; and that is the time to read poetry, when we are almost able to write it. Western wind, when wilt thou blow? The small rain down can rain. Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again! The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing here to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight. The illusion of fiction is gradual; its effects are prepared; but who when they read these four lines stops to ask who wrote them, or conjures up the thought of Donne’s house or Sidney’s secretary; or enmeshes them in the intricacy of the past and the succession of generations? The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centered and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, it is true, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections. The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion. We have only to compare the force and directness of I shall fall like a tree, and find my grave, Only remembering that I grieve, with the wavering modulation of Minutes are numbered by the fall of sands, As by an hour glass; the span of time Doth waste us to our graves, and we look on it; An age of pleasure, revelled out, comes home At last, and ends in sorrow; but the life, Weary of riot, numbers every sand, Wailing in sighs, until the last drop down, So to conclude calamity in rest, or place the meditative calm of whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home, Is with infinitude, and only there; With hope it is, hope that can never die, Effort, and expectation, and desire, And effort evermore about to be, beside the complete and inexhaustible loveliness of The moving Moon went up the sky, And nowhere did abide: Softly she was going up, And a star or two beside— or the splendid fantasy of And the woodland haunter Shall not cease to saunter When, far down some glade, Of the great world’s burning, One soft flame upturning Seems, to his discerning, Crocus in the shade, to bethink us of the varied art of the poet; his power to make us at once actors and spectators; his power to run his hand into characters as if it were a glove, and be Falstaff or Lear; his power to condense, to widen, to state, once and for ever. “We have only to compare”—with those words the cat is out of the bag, and the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the
questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish; it is a barn, a pig-sty, or a cathedral. Now then we can compare book with book as we compare building with building. But this act of comparison means that our attitude has changed; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. There they hang in the mind, the shapes of the books we have read solidified by the judgments we have passed on them—Robinson Crusoe, Emma, The Return of the Native. Compare the novels with these—even the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best. And so with poetry—when the intoxication of rhythm has died down and the splendor of words has faded, a visionary shape will return to us and this must be compared with Lear, with Phèdre, with The Prelude; or if not with these, with whatever is the best or seems to us to be the best in its own kind. And we may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old. It would be foolish, then, to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first—to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadowshape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating— that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, “Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it
succeeds; this is bad; that is good.” To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself. Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our own identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathize wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love,” and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts—poetry, fiction, history, biography—and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective. It will begin to bring us not merely judgments on particular books, but it will tell us that there is a quality common to certain books. Listen, it will say, what shall we call this? And it will read us perhaps Lear and then perhaps the Agamemnon in order to bring out that common quality. Thus, with our taste to guide us, we shall venture beyond the particular book in search of qualities that group books together; we shall give them names and thus frame a rule that brings order into our perceptions. We shall gain a further and a rarer pleasure from that discrimination. But as a rule only lives when it is perpetually broken by contact with the books themselves—nothing is easier and more stultifying than to make rules which exist, out of touch with facts, in a vacuum—now at last, in order to steady ourselves in this difficult attempt, it may be well to turn to the very rare writers who are
able to enlighten us upon literature as an art. Coleridge and Dryden and Johnson, in their considered criticism, the poets and novelists themselves in their unconsidered sayings, are often surprisingly relevant; they light up and solidify the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds. But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it. If this is so, if to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, and you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.
Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.” 
READING THE CLASSICS | 2 DON DELILLO: When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a playground attendant—a parkie. And I was told to wear a white Tshirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck—which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wore blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my pocket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulkner, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a light and a history. And I’d look up a sentence in Ulysses or Moby-Dick or Hemingway— maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at this point, it was Portrait of the Artist—but certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx. HELEN ELAINE LEE: The Native American poet Joy Harjo…talks about “pulling on the river” of her ancestry, and this sense of depth and vitality, of fiction being informed by this kind of tribal connection, spiritual power, and meaning seems to me to be missing from a great deal of contemporary fiction. VIRGINIA WOOLF: If Pride and Prejudice matters, and Middlemarch matters, then it matters far more than I can prove in an hour’s discourse that women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat shut up in her country house among her folios and her flatterers, took to writing. Without these forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontës and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without the forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. For
masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind a single voice.
Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Real SALMAN RUSHDIE
IN 1981, ITALO CALVINO’S BOOK If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler was published in England to what I remember as a more or less resounding silence. Very few people in England had ever heard of Italo Calvino, even though this was relatively late in his distinguished series of books. I remember ringing the London Review of Books and saying, “Are you planning to review If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler?” and they said, “Whose book is that?” I said, “It’s by Italo Calvino,” and they said, “Who’s that?” I was horrified and asked if I could write not just a review of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler but a larger piece introducing the readers of the London Review of Books to the work of this writer so little known to them. So I wrote the piece, and somebody sent it to Calvino. Shortly after that, I very briefly became flavor of the month in England because a book of mine won a prize. And everybody in the world was ringing me and asking me to do things I didn’t want to do. In the middle of this I was telephoned by David Gothard, a friend who ran the Riverside Theater in Hammersmith, London, who told me that Calvino had agreed to do a reading (a rare event in England) and would like me to introduce him. Then he began to tell me that while he knew I was very busy, and of course my schedule must be full, nevertheless he would be grateful… All that time I was trying to interrupt to tell him that I wanted to accept. It took me really quite a long time. This was the first occasion on which I met Calvino. I went along to the Riverside to do sound checks, and I suddenly realized on my way that I was in the terrifying position of being the only person who’d written something new for the evening, and I was going to have to say it in Calvino’s presence. I began to sweat. When I got there, he greeted me and then said, “Have you written something?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Show it to me.” And I thought unprintable
things, but handed over these little cards, thinking, “If he doesn’t like it, what the hell do I do?” Fortunately, early on I had made a reference to The Golden Ass of Apuleius and that settled him down. “Apuleius,” he said. “Very good.” He gave it back, and as a result I was able to make my introduction. I think Calvino perhaps didn’t realize the degree of affection there was for his writing in England. I have never seen a theater so crowded. There were people hanging from the rafters, literally. There were people who had come with dog-eared copies of every book written by Calvino. It was an amazing demonstration of admiration and affection, and I’m sure he was very moved by it. I was, and it wasn’t even my work. A year later, in October 1982, Italo and his wife Chichita were invited as guests of honor to the Booker Prize dinner. I was invited as well, as the outgoing Ms. World, so to speak, because I’d won it the year before. They don’t usually like inviting writers to the Booker Prize dinner—they invite as few as possible. The only writers who get there are the six on the short list and the person who won it the previous year. The Booker people forgot to announce that Italo was there, so that nobody knew he was present. After they’d flown him from Italy at great expense and put him up and given him a chauffeur-driven car and so on, they just didn’t bother to say he was in the room. The year was notable for two other things. One was that the Booker was won by a book called Schindler’s Ark, which was published as fiction, even though in its introduction the author, Thomas Keneally, said that he’d tried to eschew all fiction. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Booker Prize for fiction—a completely Calvinoesque turn of events. As a result Schindler’s Ark, republished in America as nonfiction, garlanded with the Booker Prize for fiction and retitled Schindler’s List, of course became a very important text. The other thing that happened in 1982 was a little dispute between Britain and Argentina, which depending on where you came from you called the Falklands War or the War of the Malvinas, and since Chichita came from Argentina, we know what she called it. I remember her coming up to me in the moments
before we all had to sit down for dinner, very displeased, and she said, “What will I do? They have asked me to sit next to an English admiral.” A further example of the subtlety of the evening. I said to Chichita, “Well, as far as I can see there’s only one thing you can do. You have to be very rude.” She said, “Okay,” and every so often during the evening I would look over from my table to where Chichita and the admiral were sitting. The admiral was very stiff and rather silent, and Chichita was very mobile and fantastically voluble. The admiral plainly had a bad night. There’s one other memory I have of Italo. He came to do an event at the Italian Institute in London and we had dinner together afterwards. It so happened that it was the day on which García Márquez won the Nobel Prize. And I remember asking Italo, who was the same age as García Márquez, if he had heard the news from Stockholm. “Yes,” he said, “it’s a scandal.” I said, “Well, Italo, you know, García Márquez, he’s a good writer. Surely it’s a good thing.” And Calvino said, “Yes, Garcia Marquez, he’s a good writer, but he can wait.” And he then went on to say that to give the Nobel Prize to García Márquez before giving it to Borges was like giving it to the son before the father. One of the things Calvino’s writing showed me is that there is a mistake about what we call realism in the novel. That is to say, most people who write about realism in the novel talk as if realism were a set of rules. As if naturalistic conventions had to be obeyed, and as long as you kept to those rules what you were writing was something called realism. It seems to me that those conventions, the tools you use, have more or less nothing to do with whether your work is realistic or not, and this is what Calvino’s writing shows us. Pieces ranging from the metaphysical to the fanciful to the concrete to the comical are all realistic, in that they show us something about what it is to be a member of the human race or alive on the earth or going about our day. They are realistic in intent. That is the point about realism which Calvino demonstrates and which almost all literary critics fail to notice. It’s got nothing to do with technique, it’s got everything to do with intention, with what the writer is trying to do. A naturalistic novel about adultery in the English upper classes seems
to me like magical realism, you know, like fantasy, and certainly like escapism. Whereas Calvino’s books—fantastic, fabulistic, playful— seem never to lose sight of what is real and what is false. That is the greatest lesson I learned from him. All writers build roads from the world in which they live to the world of the imagination, and I think Calvino more than anyone else was interested in that road: How is it built? What are its bricks? How do you get there from here? By what journey does one reach Wonderland, or Alphaville, or Oz? What is their relationship to the world we live in, and literally how do you build the road? I think that was an amazingly consistent element of his vision, and to illustrate it I want to tell an extraordinary story Chichita once told me about the death of Calvino. I tell it not because I want to say something gloomy but because it seems to me to be a story of incredible beauty, a story which could perhaps only have happened to Calvino. It has to do with his last words. He emerged from a coma almost for the final time, and spoke the words, “Vanni di Marsalia, fenomenologo…” Vanni di Marsalia, phenomenologist. And in the pause between these words, Chichita heard “comma.” Now the question arose, who was Vanni di Marsalia and why might Italo have been thinking about him? It was difficult to find anybody with that name in Italian history, but eventually in an old file of some of Calvino’s earliest writings, which he had done for the Piedmont edition of L’Unità when he was a young radical writer, Chichita discovered that he had invented a Marxist Utopia of sorts with the name Marxalia. And at some point the “x” in Marxalia had become an “s,” and this had become Marsalia. That Calvino in his last moments should have returned to his earliest writing, going back to the world of his beginning and ending on a comma—this seems to me to be quite beautifully Calvinoesque. It’s a measure of the greatness of his imagination that its coherence lasted even into his last, incoherent moment.
These talks were originally presented at a celebration of Italo Calvino, organized by Giovanna Calvino and sponsored by the Cooper Union and PEN.
Aerial Maneuvers UMBERTO ECO
CALVINO’S THE BARON in the Trees, the book of his I love most, has accompanied me through life as a sort of moral and political manifesto. It may seem curious to speak of the moral and political lesson of a book that was criticized for its lack of political engagement when it was published in 1957. The Baron in the Trees troubled many Italian intellectuals because it made clear that The Cloven Viscount of six years earlier could no longer be seen as a parenthesis in the work of an author who otherwise wrote in a realistic vein. With this new novel Calvino was abandoning the path to the spider’s nest, moving definitely toward a poetics of the fantastic, surfing through new worlds, cosmicomic galaxies, invisible cities, Zenonian astral trajectories. One cannot imagine today how The Baron in the Trees upset the official Italian left. But remember that in the same decade the Communist intellectual Luchino Visconti dared to tell, with Senso, not a story of the workers but rather the romantic and decadent passions of two nineteenth-century lovers, and was practically excommunicated by the guardians of so-called socialist realism. I want to explain how, when I was a young man of twenty-five, reading The Baron had such a powerful impact on my notions of political engagement and the social role of intellectuals. It goes without saying that the book delighted me as a stupendous work of literature, making me dream of those enchanted woods of Ombrosa sloping triumphantly down toward the sea. A few days ago I reread the novel and felt the same impression of felicity, enchanted once more by the spell of a transparent language through which (and not in spite of which) I felt myself, in a quasi-physical way, climbing from branch to branch with Cosimo, and becoming successively a golden oriole, a squirrel, a wild cat, a sparrow, even a cherry and an olive leaf. The language of The Baron is crystalline,
and in Six Memos for the Next Millennium Calvino said that the crystal, with its precise faceting and its ability to refract light, was the model of perfection that he always cherished as an emblem. But in 1957 my main reaction was philosophical rather than aesthetic, which shouldn’t amaze anyone. I was not reading a fairy tale, as many considered it, but a great conte philosophique. The young intellectuals of the forties and fifties, whether communist or Catholic, were obsessed with the moral duty to be, as they used to say, “organic” to their own ideological group. One felt blackmailed by the general call to be militant and rally one’s intellectual power against the ideological enemies. Only two voices offered another conception of the role of intellectuals. The first was Elio Vittorini, who would later collaborate with Calvino on Menabò, a journal which profoundly influenced the course of Italian literature in the sixties. In 1947 Vittorini said that intellectuals must not play the flute for the revolution: Rather than act as press agents for their political group, they must become its critical consciousness. Vittorini belonged at that time to the Communist Party and published a rather independent and short-lived journal, Il Politecnico. Obviously, he was considered a traitor to the working class. Il Politecnico died, and Vittorini’s appeal remained, for a long time, unheard. In 1955, my generation and I were fascinated by a book on political philosophy, Norberto Bobbio’s Politica e Cultura. Bobbio defined in more rigorous terms the profile of an intellectual who shapes his or her own duty by seeking a truth which cannot be identified with the ideological truth of any particular group. Bobbio developed a severe philosophical argument, and Vittorini had launched only a slogan: too much or too little to produce an epiphany. The epiphany came later, with The Baron in the Trees, which had the persuasive power of a parable, the deep appeal of a myth, the charm of a fairy tale, the gentle force of poetry. Calvino had deleted from his manuscript certain moralizing passages which could have made his lesson too intrusive. Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò does not teach readers anything; he simply embodies an example. Only twice does the novel suggest its possible moral interpretation. The first time is when Cosimo
maintains (in chapter 20) that he must keep a necessary distance from the world to see it in the right way. This reminds me of a remark from Six Memos: “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live.” The second instance is when (in chapter 25) Cosimo’s brother wonders, without finding an answer, how Cosimo’s passion for social affairs can be reconciled with his escape from society. Cosimo decides to spend his entire life in the trees, flying away from the earthly world. But for him these trees are no ivory tower. From their tops he acquires a superior wisdom, since the people he sees look very small, and he understands better than anyone else the problems of the poor humans who have the misfortune of walking on their own feet. But in time Cosimo is compelled to take an active role in the life of his land. By becoming a sort of trickster god, or Schelm, not so dissimilar from the animals that are his friends, his food, and his clothes, he transforms nature into culture without destroying it, and is pulled step by step to engage himself in the social life not only of his small territory, but of the whole of Europe. Living as a good savage, he becomes a man of the Enlightenment. Escaping from society, he becomes a revolutionary leader—but one who is always able to criticize those who fight on his own side, always able to feel sorrow and disenchantment for the excesses of his idols. Really, he is the model of an engaged intellectual who never plays the flute for anybody, only for reasonableness and compassion. Calvino later acknowledged that, for Cosimo to be an interesting character, he could not have been a misanthrope but needed to be a man involved in the problems of his times. And he remarked that solitude and uncomfortable singularity were the vocation of the poet, of the explorer, and of the revolutionary. This kind of lesson was fundamental to me. I remember that years later, during one of those overheated student meetings of 1968, when I was asked to define the role of the intellectual, I proposed Calvino’s novel as the only reliable textbook. Quoting Cosimo as a model, I said that the first duty of engaged intellectuals was to live in the trees, to keep a distance from their companions in
order to criticize them. Their second duty was not to provide slogans against their adversaries. I also said that intellectuals must be ready to face a firing squad in order to testify to their beliefs. At that time this was not a popular view, but many of the students who booed then are now working for Berlusconi, the leader of the Italian Tories. Why was the lesson suggested by this novel so convincing to me, as I believe it will be for many readers to come? Calvino explained, indirectly, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium: moral lessons are usually very heavy, and those who succeed in making them memorable do so by virtue of the gift of lightness. Aerial like his Baron, Calvino’s prose has no weight; it is plus vague et plus soluble dans l’air, sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose, as Verlaine would have said. Or, to conclude with Calvino’s words: “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The image of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future…” That was what Calvino did, and left us as a legacy.
Art of the Unfinished CARLOS FUENTES
I READ THE NEWS about Italo Calvino’s death sitting at my desk in Harvard University’s Boylston Hall on September 18, 1985. My phone rang. It was The Boston Globe calling; I imagined that they wanted me to say something about Calvino. No. No, the same day that Italo died, an earthquake of eight degrees on the Richter Scale destroyed vast sections of my city, the world’s largest, Mexico. Well, in Mexico nature likes to shake history. It trembled when the Spanish conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1521. It trembled when the revolutionary leader Madero rode into town in 1911, and it trembled when Italo Calvino died. Were the ancient gods of Mexico raging against the death of the fabulist who had written the most imaginative of imaginary interviews with the last Aztec emperor, Montezuma? I do not know which shook me most that day fourteen years ago. Italo had written announcing that he would be giving the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures that semester and hoped that we could meet. The lectures finally came out as Six Memos for the Next Millennium. There they are—we can read them with admiration and even a slight shudder of premonition. But I would like to refer to another prescient book of Calvino’s called The Literature Machine. In it the great Italian author, writing on politics and the novel, offers a precise distinction. There are, he says, two mistaken political uses of the novel. The first is that the novel should repeat a “truth” already manifested politically. The second is that literature should illustrate eternal human sentiments. Both of them—one political, the second apparently humanistic but more usually melodramatic—simply assign to literature the function of telling us what we already know. (In any case, you know, melodrama has been very well defined recently: melodrama is comedy without humor.)
The correct uses of politics and literature lie elsewhere. According to Calvino, politics is in need of literature when literature gives a voice to those who lack a voice, and when it gives a name to the anonymous. This is a ticket that eminently suits us in Latin America, where for too long literary silence reigned, first because writing or reading novels was forbidden by the Spanish Crown in its colonies, second because the century of our first independence, the nineteenth century, we were too busy copying political, legal, economic, and aesthetic models from Europe in the erroneous belief that we would thus become instantaneously a democratic and progressive society. We simply became Nescafe republics, swinging between dictatorship and anarchy. Only in our present and gasping century did we discover that we had a tradition to build on, and that it did not exclude our European and Iberian, but also Jewish and Arab heritages (vide Borges). We had to recover our Indian (vide Asturias), and our black (vide Carpentier, Amado, and Glissant) heritages. Only by recovering tradition could we build on it creation. Here again we felt a strong companionship with Calvino when he explained that as a value model literature possesses the gift of “offering standards of language, imagination, vision, mental effort, and the correlation of facts.” Calvino’s conclusion is typically his. “Literature offers solid ground for anyone trying to establish a system of such flexibility and subtlety that it can forgo a perfect absence of any system whatsoever.” Again, Calvino’s book saved us from the absurd dichotomy: virtuous literature of political import versus sinful art for art’s sake. So in great measure it is thanks to Calvino that I, and many others in Latin America, could go beyond simplistic and sometimes Manichaean oppositions and consider literature as a constant expansion, a constant expansion of both social and aesthetical expectations. A reader of García Márquez or Cortázar not only shares actual experiences, but anticipates possibilities that might otherwise remain hidden, thus broadening, as Hans Robert Jauss puts it, “our desires, our claims, and our goals.” Or as I put it: Does not literature, apart from our own personal political convictions, serve the social function of maintaining the vigor of language and imagination, two values that dictators such as Hitler and Stalin did
not particularly prize, and does it not serve the aesthetical and historical function of linking past, present, and future, demonstrating that there is no living present with a dead past, no new creation without a previous tradition to nourish it, and no tradition without a new creation to prolong it? Italo Calvino, in his philosophical fables as well as in his great tales of the imaginary, is telling us that there is always a hypothetical reader who after all will not only read today but will also read tomorrow. The Calvinian conception of literature, I believe, rests on this proposition: tomorrow there shall be a reader; therefore the writer must imagine a reader more knowledgeable and intelligent than the writer. The writer is addressing a reader who will know more than the writer. And what the reader knows is what not a single writer knows today. The reader will know tomorrow. Thanks to this vision of supreme and fantastical literary intelligence, Calvino was able to see the desolate part of our existence—that is, the part demanding to be written. He was the writer of the unwritten world, he was the writer who could register in the name of us all what in the Cosmicomics he describes as a darkness streaked with voices. Supremely gifted with grace and humor, intensely connected to love, to books, and to friendship, Calvino’s fantasies are also perhaps a form of his personal courtesy. Let me simply stake out the territory of Calvino’s humor as he establishes the comical limits of literature, when he spies Ian Fleming writing a structuralist novel. Or when the Italian author applies the techniques of the French nouveau roman to the art of jogging. The beauty and the limits of the literary imagination also come together in Calvino’s fictions. With a smile in his heart, he incessantly attempted to fix the literary image of a world in search of its own image, or as he puts it, of the world when it began to offer an image of itself. Calvino’s is an art of reading, and an art of parody, an art of fragmentation, and above all an art of the unfinished. Calvino wished to capture within a book the unread but not unreadable part of the universe. Sometimes this appears as a world without a center and without a self, yet Calvino knew that all that is not written shall always be more than what is already written. And that is why he so
successfully makes the written page vibrate, creating the illusion that the reader, when he or she reads what is written, also reads what has not yet been written. This was his homage to every one of us. The reader shall know the future. He, you, and I will not. Lest this sound too despairing, Calvino lovingly offers us the fragments of a book in the making of itself and thus at work. His novels are full of ellipses, enigmas, questions designed to invite us into his creation of a book as a creation of the world. His humor nevertheless saves him from the dangers of foreclosing his own creation. A perfect book, a total book, would be, he tells us, a sacred book, and thus an unreadable book. Because in a perfect, that is a sacred, book, no more questions would be asked, since the sacred book would have all the answers. Thus his option for the open work, of which If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler continues to be a supreme example. In his opera aperta Calvino deprives us of the pleasure of knowing how it will end, offering us instead the even more pleasurable chance to imagine how it all will not end. That is, how it all will renew itself, how any piece of literature reinitiates, relates, and correlates with itself, with the reader, and with other books, creating previously unsuspected constellations of meaning: the art of the unfinished. The reader knows the future, and in order to respect the reader we shall offer the reader a book which is a continuous event, not an established or concluded fact. Italo Calvino kept us readers and writers on our toes, and he did it with a fabulous sense of the playful, with a humor offering us a guarantee of spiritual health in a world both terrifying and terrified.
Why Read the Classics? ITALO CALVINO
LET US BEGIN by putting forward some definitions. 1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: “I’m rereading…,” never “I’m reading…” At least this is the case with those people who one presumes are “well read”; it does not apply to the young, since they are at an age when their contact with the world, and with the classics which are part of that world, is important precisely because it is their first such contact. The iterative prefix “re-” in front of the verb “read” can represent a small act of hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, all one need do is to point out that however wide-ranging any person’s formative reading may be, there will always be an enormous number of fundamental works that one has not read. Put up your hand anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and Thucydides. And what about Saint-Simon? and Cardinal Retz? Even the cycles of nineteenth-century novels are more often mentioned than read. In France they start to read Balzac at school, and judging by the number of editions in circulation people apparently continue to read him after the end of their schooldays. But if there were an official survey on Balzac’s popularity in Italy, I am afraid he would figure very low down the list. Fans of Dickens in Italy are a small elite who whenever they meet reminisce about characters and episodes as though talking of people they actually knew. When Michel Butor was teaching in the United States a number of years ago, he became so tired of people asking him about Émile Zola, whom he had never read, that he made up his mind to read the whole cycle of Rougon-Macquart novels. He discovered that it was entirely different from how he had imagined it: it turned
out to be a fabulous, mythological genealogy and cosmogony, which he then described in a brilliant article. What this shows is that reading a great work for the first time when one is fully adult is an extraordinary pleasure, one which is very different (though it is impossible to say whether more or less pleasurable) from reading it in one’s youth. Youth endows every reading, as it does every experience, with a unique flavor and significance, whereas at a mature age one appreciates (or should appreciate) many more details, levels and meanings. We can therefore try out this other formulation of our definition: 2. The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them. For the fact is that the reading we do when young can often be of little value because we are impatient, cannot concentrate, lack expertise in how to read, or because we lack experience of life. This youthful reading can be (perhaps at the same time) literally formative in that it gives a form or shape to our future experiences, providing them with models, ways of dealing with them, terms of comparison, schemes for categorizing them, scales of value, paradigms of beauty: all things which continue to operate in us even when we remember little or nothing about the book we read when young. When we reread the book in our maturity, we then rediscover these constants which by now form part of our inner mechanisms, though we have forgotten where they came from. There is a particular potency in the work which can be forgotten in itself but which leaves its seed behind in us. The definition which we can now give is this: 3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious. For this reason there ought to be a time in one’s adult life which is dedicated to rediscovering the most important readings of our youth.
Even if the books remain the same (though they too change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we certainly have changed, and this later encounter is therefore completely new. Consequently, whether one uses the verb “to read” or the verb “to reread” is not really so important. We could in fact say: 4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading. 5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before. Definition 4 above can be considered a corollary of this one: 6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers. Whereas definition 5 suggests a more elaborate formulation, such as this: 7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed. This applies both to ancient and modern classics. If I read The Odyssey, I read Homer’s text but I cannot forget all the things that Ulysses’ adventures have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering whether these meanings were implicit in the original text or if they are later accretions, deformations, or expansions of it. If I read Kafka, I find myself approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective “Kafkaesque” which we hear constantly being used to refer to just about anything. If I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Dostoevsky’s The Devils I cannot help reflecting on how the characters in these books have continued to be reincarnated right down to our own times. Reading a classic must also surprise us, when we compare it to the image we previously had of it. That is why we can never recommend enough a first-hand reading of the text itself, avoiding as
far as possible secondary bibliography, commentaries, and other interpretations. Schools and universities should hammer home the idea that no book which discusses another book can ever say more than the original book under discussion; yet they actually do everything to make students believe the opposite. There is a reversal of values here which is very widespread, which means that the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used as a smokescreen to conceal what the text has to say and what it can only say if it is left to speak without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text itself. We can conclude, therefore, that: 8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off. A classic does not necessarily teach us something that we did not know already; sometimes we discover in a classic something which we had always known (or had always thought we knew) but did not realize that the classic text had said it first (or that the idea was connected with that text in a particular way). And this discovery is also a very gratifying surprise, as is always the case when we learn the source of an idea, or its connection with a text, or who said it first. From all this we could derive a definition like this: 9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them. Of course this happens when a classic text “works” as a classic, that is when it establishes a personal relationship with the reader. If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love. Except at school: school has to teach you to know, whether you like it or not, a certain number of classics amongst which (or by using them as a benchmark) you will later recognize “your” own classics. School is obliged to provide you with the tools to enable you to make your own choice; but the only choices which count are those which you take after or outside any schooling.
It is only during unenforced reading that you will come across the book which will become “your” book. I know an excellent art historian, an enormously well-read man, who out of all the volumes he has read is fondest of all of The Pickwick Papers, quoting lines from Dickens’s book during any discussion, and relating every event in his life to episodes in Pickwick. Gradually he himself, the universe and its real philosophy have all taken the form of The Pickwick Papers in a process of total identification. If we go down this road we arrive at an idea of a classic which is very lofty and demanding: 10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans. A definition such as this brings us close to the idea of the total book, of the kind dreamt of by Mallarme. But a classic can also establish an equally powerful relationship not of identity but of opposition or antithesis. All of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts and actions are dear to me, but they all arouse in me an irrepressible urge to contradict, criticize, and argue with him. Of course this is connected with the fact that I find his personality so uncongenial to my temperament, but if that were all, I would simply avoid reading him; whereas in fact I cannot help regarding him as one of my authors. What I will say, then, is this: 11. “Your” classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it. I do not believe I need justify my use of the term “classic” which makes no distinction in terms of antiquity, style, or authority. (For the history of all these meanings of the term, there is an exhaustive entry on “Classico” by Franco Fortini in the Enciclopedia Einaudi, vol. III.) For the sake of my argument here, what distinguishes a classic is perhaps only a kind of resonance we perceive emanating either from an ancient or a modern work, but one which has its own place in a cultural continuum. We could say:
12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works. At this point I can no longer postpone the crucial problem of how to relate the reading of classics to the reading of all the other texts which are not claries. This is a problem which is linked to questions like: “Why read the classics instead of reading works which will give us a deeper understanding of our own times?” and “Where can we find the time and the ease of mind to read the classics, inundated as we are by the flood of printed material about the present?” Of course, hypothetically the lucky reader may exist who can dedicate the “reading time” of his or her days solely to Lucretius, Lucian, Montaigne, Erasmus, Quevedo, Marlowe, the Discourse on Method, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Coleridge, Ruskin, Proust, and Valéry, with the occasional sortie into Murasaki or the Icelandic Sagas. And presumably that person can do all this without having to write reviews, submit articles in the pursuit of a university chair, or send in work for a publisher with an imminent deadline. For this regime to continue without any contamination, the lucky person would have to avoid reading the newspapers, and never be tempted by the latest novel or the most recent sociological survey. But it remains to be seen to what extent such rigor could be justified or even found useful. The contemporary world may be banal and stultifying, but it is always the context in which we have to place ourselves to look either backwards or forwards. In order to read the classics, you have to establish where exactly you are reading them “from,” otherwise both the reader and the text tend to drift in a timeless haze. So what we can say is that the person who derives maximum benefit from a reading of the classics is the one who skillfully alternates classic readings with calibrated doses of contemporary material. And this does not necessarily presuppose someone with a harmonious inner calm: it could also be the result of an impatient, nervy temperament, of someone constantly irritated and dissatisfied. Perhaps the ideal would be to hear the present as a noise outside our window, warning us of the traffic jams and weather changes,
while we continue to follow the discourse of the classics which resounds clearly and articulately inside our room. But it is already an achievement for most people to hear the classics as a distant echo, outside the room which is pervaded by the present as if it were a television set on at full volume. We should therefore add: 13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without. 14. A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway. The fact remains that reading the classics seems to be at odds with our pace of life, which does not tolerate long stretches of time, or the space for humanist otium; and also with the eclecticism of our culture which would never be able to draw up a catalogue of classic works to suit our own times. Instead these were exactly the conditions of Leopardi’s life: living in his father’s castle (his “paterno ostello”), he was able to pursue his cult of Greek and Latin antiquity with his father’s formidable library, to which he added the entirety of Italian literature up to that time, and all of French literature except for novels and the most recently published works, which were relegated to its margins, for the comfort of his sister (“your Stendhal” is how he talked of the French novelist to Paolina). Giacomo satisfied even keenest scientific and historical enthusiasms with texts that were never exactly “up to date,” reading about the habits of birds in Buffon, about Frederik Ruysch’s mummies in Fontenelle, and Columbus’s travels in Robertson. Today a classical education like that enjoyed by the young Leopardi is unthinkable, particularly as the library of his father, Count Monaldo, has disintegrated. Disintegrated both in the sense that the old titles have been decimated, and in that the new ones have proliferated in all modern literatures and cultures. All that can be done is for each one of us to invent our own ideal library of our classics; and I would say that one half of it should consist of books we have read and that have meant something for us, and the other
half of books which we intend to read and which we suppose might mean something to us. We should also leave a section of empty spaces for surprises and chance discoveries. I notice that Leopardi is the only name from Italian literature that I have cited. This is the effect of the disintegration of the library. Now I ought to rewrite the whole article, making it quite clear that the classics help us understand who we are and the point we have reached, and that consequently Italian classics are indispensable to us Italians in order to compare them with foreign classics, and foreign classics are equally indispensable so that we can measure them against Italian classics. After that I should really rewrite it a third time, so that people do not believe that the classics must be read because they serve some purpose. The only reason that can be adduced in their favor is that reading the classics is always better than not reading them. And if anyone objects that they are not worth all that effort, I will cite Cioran (not a classic, at least not yet, but a contemporary thinker who is only now being translated into Italian): “While the hemlock was being prepared, Socrates was learning a melody on the flute. ‘What use will that be to you?’ he was asked. At least I will learn this melody before I die.’” Translated by Martin McLaughlin 
READING THE CLASSICS | 3 SAMUEL JOHNSON: The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book. RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In fourth grade I embarked upon a grandiose reading program. “Give me the names of important books,” I would say to startled teachers. They soon found out that I had in mind “adult books.” I ignored their suggestion of anything I suspected was written for children. (Not until I was in college, as a result, did I read Huckleberry Finn or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) Instead I read The Scarlet Letter and Franklin’s Autobiography…. At the library I would literally tremble when I came upon whole shelves of books I hadn’t read. So I read and I read and I read: Great Expectations; all of the short stories of Kipling; The Babe Ruth Story; the entire first volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (A-ANSTEY); the Iliad; Moby-Dick; Gone with the Wind; The Good Earth; Ramona; Forever Amber; The Lives of the Saints; Crime and Punishment; The Pearl… WILLIAM FAULKNER: Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it, just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window. GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect…” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing stories.
HENRY JAMES: Be one of those on whom nothing is lost.
Jorge Luis Borges: Time After Time BRADFORD MORROW
IN HIS 1978 LECTURE “Immortality,” Jorge Luis Borges makes the typically astute observation that “Immortality is in the memory of others and in the work we leave behind.” He goes on to share an unforgettable anecdote about how his mother told him that whenever he recited English poems, he did so in the very voice of his father, who had died in 1938, so that: “When I recite Shakespeare, my father is living in me. The people who have heard me will live in my voice, which is a reflection of a voice that was, perhaps, a reflection of the voice of its elders.” Ever the master of connectivity, Borges proposes further that “what matters is that immortality is obtained in works, in the memory that one leaves in others,” and concludes with the embracingly humane view that “I believe in immortality, not in the personal but in the cosmic sense. We will keep on being immortal. Beyond our physical death, our memory will remain and beyond our memory will remain our actions, our circumstances, our attitudes, all that marvelous part of universal history.” Borges’s immortality, cosmic or otherwise, seems more assured than ever, and tonight through his words and ideas we have a chance to understand once more what we’ve inherited from him.
These talks were originally presented at a centenary celebration of Jorge Luis Borges, sponsored by the PEN Forums Committee and the New School Writing Program.
Borges Beyond Words ALASTAIR REID
BORGES USED TO TELL an endearing story that continues to haunt me. When he was a child, his paternal grandmother lived in the house with his family. She was English; and Borges described how, as a small child, he knew that when he went to visit his grandmother, he had to speak in a certain way, and that when he spoke to the maids in the kitchen or to his mother, he had to speak in a quite different way. Much later, he learned that the way in which he spoke with his grandmother was called “English” and the way he spoke with the maids and his mother was called “Spanish.” I think this is a crucial element in Borges’s formation. For people who are truly bilingual, an immediate separation sets in between language and the unsayable beyond, what we call “reality.” In other words, this object is not a desk; “desk” is merely one of many words we use to describe it. A gulf sets in between what we perceive and the words we use. Borges, I think, was always aware of this intense dualism. We have a dual nature. We are physical beings who live in the continuum of time, and we are also language users. Language enables us to take pieces of our lived time, and to move them out of time into the form of what Borges always called a “fiction”—poems, essays, stories, they are all fictions. A fiction is a construct of language, and we make fictions to make sense of a reality which we fail to understand. This is the essence of Borges: our fictions are attempts to bring the world into order for the time being, but unless we continue to believe in them, they dissolve like smoke. There is one quotation which Borges loved—I think it was his favorite quotation in all of English literature. It was from an essay of G. K. Chesterton’s on a fairly unknown painter called G. F. Watts. “Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn
forest…. Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.” In other words, language can never accommodate the enormous reality beyond it. Over a period of six or seven years, Borges wrote his most astonishing and moving poems. This one is called “Matthew XXV:30.” He wrote it in a state of great unhappiness. There’s a vast railroad station in Buenos Aires called Constitución, and he went up on the bridge above the station and had this revelation, recalling his whole life. The first bridge, Constitution Station. At my feet the shunting trains trace iron labyrinths. Steam hisses up and up into the night, which becomes at a stroke the night of the Last Judgment. From the unseen horizon and from the very center of my being, an infinite voice pronounced these things— things, not words. This is my feeble translation, time-bound, of what was a single limitless Word: “Stars, bread, libraries of East and West, playing-cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars, a human body to walk with on the earth, fingernails, growing at nighttime and in death, shadows for forgetting, mirrors busily multiplying, cascades in music, gentlest of all time’s shapes. Borders of Brazil, Uruguay, horses and mornings, a bronze weight, a copy of the Grettir Saga,
algebra and fire, the charge at Junin in your blood, days more crowded than Balzac, scent of the honeysuckle, love and the imminence of love and intolerable remembering, dreams like buried treasure, generous luck, and memory itself, where a glance can make men dizzy— all this was given to you, and with it the ancient nourishment of heroes— treachery, defeat, humiliation. In vain have oceans been squandered on you, in vain the sun, wonderfully seen through Whitman’s eyes. You have used up the years and they have used up you, and still, and still, you have not written the poem.” Translated by Alastair Reid The tiger was a pervasive image for Borges. He had seen tigers at the zoo as a child, he drew pictures of tigers, and the tiger comes up often in his writing as a symbol of absolute physicality, sensuality, that lives entirely in a world without language. And this is a poem about writing a poem about a tiger and, inevitably, failing to write a poem about a tiger. It’s called “The Other Tiger.” I think of a tiger. The fading light enhances the vast complexities of the Library and seems to set the bookshelves at a distance; powerful, innocent, bloodstained, and new-made, it will prowl through its jungle and its morning and leave its footprint on the muddy edge of a river with a name unknown to it (in its world, there are no names, nor past, nor future, only the sureness of the present moment) and it will cross the wilderness of distance
and sniff out in the woven labyrinth of smells the smell peculiar to morning and the scent on the air of deer, delectable. Behind the lattice of bamboo, I notice its stripes, and I sense its skeleton under the magnificence of the quivering skin. In vain the convex oceans and the deserts spread themselves across the earth between us; from this one house in a far-off seaport in South America, I dream you, follow you, oh tiger on the fringes of the Ganges. Evening spreads in my spirit and I keep thinking that the tiger I am calling up in my poem is a tiger made of symbols and of shadows, a set of literary images, scraps remembered from encyclopedias, and not the deadly tiger, the fateful jewel that in the sun or the deceptive moonlight follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra, of love, of indolence, of dying.. Against the tiger of symbols I have set the real one, the hot-blooded one that savages a herd of buffalo, and today, the third of August, ’59, its patient shadow moves across the plain, but yet, the act of naming it, of guessing what is its nature and its circumstance creates a fiction, not a living creature,
not one of those that prowl on the earth. Let us look for a third tiger. This one will be a form in my dream like all the others, a system, an arrangement of human language, and not the flesh-and-bone tiger that, out of reach of all mythologies, paces the earth. I know all this; yet something drives me to this ancient, perverse adventure, foolish and vague, yet still I keep on looking throughout the evening for the other tiger, the other tiger, the one not in this poem. Translated by Alastair Reid In thinking about Borges, and in translating him, what I remember mostly is his voice, both in Spanish and English. I can hear it at will, and I think it became so important because I realized, in all the years I knew him, that what he knew of other people came from their voices entirely. Being blind, he could hear the totality of someone— he would intuit the people from their voices. So his voice became equally important to me in trying to translate him. This is a passage from one of his most famous stories, “The Aleph.” A rather foolish fellow poet tells him that he has a secret Aleph in his cellar and volunteers to show it to Borges. The Aleph is one small point in space that contains all points of space. Borges, paradoxically, uses words to convey the amazement of the Aleph, a vision that cannot be conveyed in words. Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was
infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spiderweb at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror, saw all the mirrors on the planet (and none of them reflecting me), saw in a rear courtyard on Calle Soler the same tiles I’d seen twenty years before in the entryway of a house in Fray Bentos, saw clusters of grapes, snow, tobacco, veins of metal, water vapor, saw convex equatorial deserts and their every grain of sand, saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget, saw her violent hair, her haughty body, saw a cancer in her breast, saw a circle of dry soil within a sidewalk where there had once been a tree, saw a country house in Adrogué, saw a copy of the first English translation of Pliny (Philemon Holland’s), saw every letter of every page at once (as a boy, I would be astounded that the letters in a closed book didn’t get all scrambled up together overnight), saw simultaneous night and day, saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the color of a rose in Bengal, saw my bedroom (with no one in it), saw in a study in Alkmaar a globe of the terraqueous world placed between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly, saw horses with windwhipped manes on a beach in the Caspian Sea at dawn, saw the delicate bones of a hand, saw the survivors of a battle sending postcards, saw a Tarot card in a shopwindow in Mirzapur, saw the oblique shadows of ferns on the floor of a greenhouse, saw tigers, pistons, bisons, tides, and armies, saw all the ants on earth, saw a Persian astrolabe, saw in a desk drawer (and the handwriting made me tremble) obscene, incredible, detailed letters that Beatriz had sent Carlos Argentino, saw a beloved monument in Chacarita, saw the horrendous remains of what had once, deliciously, been Beatriz Viterbo, saw the circulation of my dark blood, saw the coils and springs of love and the alterations of death, saw the Aleph from everywhere at once, saw the earth in the Aleph,
and the Aleph once more in the earth and the earth in the Aleph, saw my face and my viscera, saw your face, and I felt dizzy, and I wept, because my eyes had seen that secret, hypothetical object whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked upon: the inconceivable universe. Translated by Andrew Hurley
All the Range ELIOT WEINBERGER
BORGES WAS AN IMMENSELY prolific writer who never wrote anything long, and what he mainly wrote, besides his thousand pages of short stories and around five hundred poems, was nonfiction prose. There are something like twelve hundred pieces of nonfiction: essays, book and film reviews, prologues to hundreds of books, transcribed lectures, notes on politics and culture, brief histories, and capsule biographies. In English these are almost entirely unknown, and even in Spanish only about a third of them are included in his Complete Works; a few hundred more are gathered in another dozen or so scattered volumes; and hundreds still remain to be collected in book form. It seems that every week I come across more of them. They are endless. Beyond their mass, what is astonishing about them is their range. English-language readers already know about such Borgesian preoccupations as time and eternity, dreams and nightmares, The Thousand and One Nights, nineteenth-century English literature. But these are merely one corner in the Borges library. He wrote extensively, and without snobbism, about pop culture, from Hollywood movies to detective stories to sci-fi. Decades before Cultural Studies, he was studying tango lyrics and the inscriptions painted on horse-drawn carts in Buenos Aires. Contrary to the erroneous image formed in his old age of Borges as an extreme right-winger, he was a courageous anti-fascist and Semitophile in an era when most of his compatriots were decidedly the opposite. (He is one of the very few major writers whose political writings from the thirties and forties can be read today without embarrassment.) He was perhaps the first Spanish translator of Langston Hughes, and was an enthusiast for King Vidor’s all-black silent film Hallelujah. He may be the first Latin American writer to talk seriously about machismo, and he dared to mention its aspect of repressed
homosexuality. He could talk effortlessly about mathematics, Dante, gnosticism, American cowboys, Icelandic sagas, medieval theologians, Chinese ghost stories, Chicago gangsters, and German philosophers. In Latin America I’ve often heard people say that the best Borges, or the place where he is consistently at his best, is in the essays. Even more astonishing than the range is the quality. Almost every page of his nonfictions is a wonder and a delight. The nearly six hundred pages of the book I edited only scratch the surface; I could easily do a few more books of equal size. The idea of a major essayist is unimaginable here, where the essay is mainly represented by certain of its subgenres—personal journalism, memoir, book review, academic criticism—and where the nonfiction work of major writers is usually considered ephemera of interest only to fans and scholars. The kind of free-ranging, nonacademic, intellectual essay that Borges wrote barely exists in this country, and there is nowhere, outside of a few small magazines, to publish such work. Most of Borges’s nonfiction was written for newspapers, as has been the case for most Latin American and many European writers in this century. One might say that, until his fame late in life, Borges was known in Argentina as a poet and a short-story writer, but actually read as an essayist. It’s no coincidence that he started out writing fiction by disguising his stories as essays. I’m going to read a few pieces from the 1930s, when Borges worked, amazingly, for El Hogar, the Argentine equivalent of Ladies’ Home Journal. Borges worked for this magazine for three years, contributing essays, hundreds of book reviews, and a regular feature of capsule biographies of contemporary writers. Though his style was breezy, his subject matter was by no means modified by his audience. He talked about Benedetto Croce and Ramón Llull, Lady Murasaki and Paul Valéry, as well as the latest mystery novels. And he left his citations from the German, Latin, French, and Italian untranslated. Here is a review of a completely forgotten detective novel called Excellent Intentions, by Richard Hull:
One of the projects that keeps me company, that will in some way justify me before God, and that I do not think I will accomplish (for the pleasure is in foreseeing it, not in bringing it to term) is a detective novel that would be somewhat heterodox. (This last is important, for the detective genre, like all genres, lives on the continual and delicate infraction of its rules.) I conceived it one night, one wasted night in 1935 or 1934, upon leaving a café in the Barrio Once. These meager circumstantial facts will have to suffice for the reader; I have forgotten the others, forgotten them to the point where I don’t know whether I invented some of them. Here was my plan: to plot a detective novel of the current sort, with an indecipherable murder in the first pages, a long discussion in the middle, and a solution at the end. Then, almost in the last line, to add an ambiguous phrase—for example: “and everyone thought the meeting of the man and woman had been by chance”—that would indicate, or raise the suspicion, that the solution was false. The perplexed reader would go through the pertinent chapters again, and devise his own solution, the correct one. The reader of this imaginary book would be sharper than the detective…. Richard Hull has written an extremely pleasant book. His prose is able, his characters convincing, his irony civilized. His solution, however, is so unsurprising that I cannot free myself from the suspicion that this quite real book, published in London, is the one I imagined in Balvanera, three or four years ago. In which case, Excellent Intentions hides a secret plot. Ah me, or ah Richard Hull! I can’t find that secret plot anywhere. Translated by Eliot Weinberger This is a review of a book called Personality Survives Death, by Sir William Barrett: This book is truly posthumous. The late Sir William Barrett (ex-president and founder of the Society for Psychic Research)
has dictated it from the Other World to his widow. (The transmissions were through the medium Mrs. Osborne Leonard.) In life, Sir William was not a spiritualist, and nothing delighted him more than to prove the falsehood of some “psychic” phenomenon. In death, surrounded by ghosts and angels, he remains unpersuaded. He believes in the other world, of course, “because I know that I am dead and because I do not wish to believe that I am mad.” Nevertheless, he denies that the dead can assist the living, and he emphasizes that the most important thing is to believe in Jesus. He states: “I have seen Him, I have talked with Him, and I will see Him again this coming Easter, in those days when you will think of Him and of me.” The other world described by Sir William Barrett is no less material than that of Swedenborg or Sir Oliver Lodge. The first of those explorers—De coelo et inferno, 1758—reported that things in heaven are brighter, more solid, and more numerous than those on earth, and that there are streets and avenues. Sir William Barrett corroborates these facts, and speaks of hexagonal houses made of brick and stone. (Hexagonal…is there an affinity between the dead and bees?) Another curious feature: Sir William says that each country on earth has its double in heaven, exactly above it. There is a celestial England, a celestial Afghanistan, a celestial Belgian Congo. (The Arabs believed that a rose falling from Paradise would land precisely on the Temple in Jerusalem.) Translated by Eliot Weinberger Here’s the first paragraph of a review of Arthur Waley’s translation of The Book of Songs, entitled “An English Version of the Oldest Songs in the World”: Around 1916, I decided to devote myself to the study of Oriental literatures. Working with enthusiasm and credulity through the English version of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “A man condemned to
death doesn’t care that he is standing at the edge of a precipice, for he has already renounced life.” Here the translator attached an asterisk, and his note informed me that this interpretation was preferable to that of a rival Sinologist, who had translated the passage thus: “The servants destroy the works of art, so that they will not have to judge their beauties and defects.” Then, like Paolo and Francesca, I read no more. A mysterious skepticism had slipped into my soul. Translated by Eliot Weinberger And finally, a three-sentence essay on those Canadian sensations of the 1930s, the Dionne Quints. One of the disconcerting features of our time is the enthusiasm generated across the entire planet by the Dionne sisters, for numerical and biological reasons. Dr. William Blatz has devoted a large volume to them, predictably illustrated with charming photographs. In the third chapter, he states: “Yvonne is easily recognizable for being the eldest, Marie for being the youngest, Annette because everyone mistakes her for Yvonne, and Cecile because she is completely identical to Emilie.” Translated by Eliot Weinberger
Reaching the Center ROSARIO FERRÉ
JORGE LUIS BORGES was invited to Puerto Rico in 1981 to receive an honorary degree and to speak at a reading of his poems. At 82, he was frail and almost completely blind. Impeccably dressed in a dark gray suit, he was led by two professors to a long table covered by a red table-cloth, with a single red rose in a vase by his side. His devoted companion, María Kodama, usually walked everywhere with Borges, like a benignant shade, her arm linked to his, whispering constantly in his ear. On this occasion, however, the maestro appeared alone, and I remember thinking, “It must be terrifying to walk into the middle of an empty stage surrounded by darkness, with at least four thousand eyes fixed upon you.” The university’s theater was packed with students and professors who were thrilled to meet the author of “Hombre de la Esquina Rosada,” “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “Funes el Memorioso,” and other extraordinary stories. Every seat of the more than two thousand was filled, and people were sitting in the aisles all the way to the back of the auditorium. A professor read several of Borges’s poems, and the maestro was asked to explain them. Borges spoke deliberately, as if he were interpreting dreams. A dream and a poem were sometimes impossible to differentiate, he said. Perhaps that was why he saw himself more as a maker of dreams than as a man of letters. Mesmerized by the author’s slow drawl and by the way he stared in front of him as if trying to decipher the double darkness of the stage’s open maw, the students began to raise their hands to ask Borges questions. A young man who looked like a freshman proceeded to the microphone. Since Borges was already a very old man, the student said, and he was probably going to pass away soon, would he mind telling how it felt to be at death’s door? What
were the insights that one gained from this perspective? Had blindness given him a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries? There was a universal gasp from the audience, followed by silence. Everybody was afraid the maestro would feel insulted. Borges thought for a few seconds and, instead of being upset by the tactless question, he answered patiently and with exquisite manners. “Old age,” he said, smiling, “could in some cases be el tiempo de nuestra dicha, the time of our true happiness. The animal in us is mostly dead by then, and we are left only with our humanity and our soul.” And blindness, he said, slowly looking around him, blindness could become a purification. It could purify us of visual circumstances. The world, which was always trying to grab our attention, became fainter. It faded away in the distance. It was a slow, not unpleasant return to one’s beginnings, to the first books we read, to the first words of love we heard. But most important, since it required fortitude to go on living once you were blind, it brought back to him the memory of his own heroic ancestors. That afternoon hundreds of students left the university theater feeling inspired. We had been made better persons, more courageous and generous, by Borges’s beautiful words, by his heroic example. The next day, I was supposed to pick up Borges and María Kodama at the hotel, to drive them to San Juan’s Ataneo, where Borges was to give a lecture on Schopenhauer. The couple sat in the back seat throughout the trip, which took us by one of the most spectacular views of San Juan. María Kodama, dressed as usual all in black, sat next to Borges, her arm linked to his. Speaking softly into his ear, she described every detail that could be seen from the car: the Atlantic’s white breakers rolling toward the city and bursting against San Juan’s ancient walls, the uneven cardboard rooftops of La Perna slums glinting dark green in the distance, the capitol’s white dome shining in the sun like a giant meringue, dozens of cats sunning themselves on a hill nearby. And Borges, staring in front of him, an avid smile on his face, listening to every word mixed with the sound of the waves. María Kodama was literally Borges’s eyes that day.
When we arrived at the Ataneo, Borges’s lecture was a devastating apology for suicide. He talked at length on Schopenhauer’s and his own pessimistic view of the world. Individuality, Borges said, was an illusion. I was amazed. I had his speech from the day before still fresh in my mind, and I stood up to ask a question: “Yesterday at the university,” I said, “you talked movingly about how a brave man always accepts his destiny. For example, when God blinded you, and you accepted blindness as a gift which added a profound dimension to your writing. How do you reconcile the idea of a universe where individual heroism is impossible with the concept of courage as the redeeming virtue in the face of tragedy?” Borges turned his head slowly towards where my voice was coming from and stared at me with sightless eyes. “Blindness is the great tragedy of my life. I assure you, there is no heroism in blindness, only pain,” he said. I blushed and sat down, ashamed of myself. Borges was telling me that a hero is a historic and a literary creation, a fiction of our imagination, and he preferred to be remembered not as a hero, but as a man who had experienced the deepest suffering and the most intense happiness. “In Praise of Darkness” is one of my favorite poems. I’m an agnostic so I don’t pray anymore, but when I feel like praying I usually pick up Borges and read one of his poems. ELOGIO DE LA SOMBRA La vejez (tal es el nombre que los otros le dan) puede ser el tiempo de nuestra dicha. El animal ha muerto o casi ha muerto. Quedan el hombre y su alma. Vivo entre formas luminosas y vagas que no son aún la tiniebla. Buenos Aires,
que antes se desgarraba en arrabales hacia la llanura incesante, ha vuelto a ser la Recoleta, el Retiro, las borrosas calles del Once y las precarias casas viejas que aún llamamos el Sur. Siempre en mi vida fueron demasiadas las cosas; Demócrito de Abdera se arrancó los ojos para pensar; el tiempo ha sido mi Demócrito. Esta penumbra es lenta y no duele; fluye por un manso declive y se parece a la eternidad. Mis amigos no tienen cara, las mujeres son lo que fueron hace ya tantos años, las esquinas pueden ser otras, no hay letras en las páginas de los libros. Todo esto debería atemorizarme, pero es una dulzura, un regreso. De las generaciones de los textos que hay en la tierra sólo habré leído unos pocos, los que sigo leyendo en la memoria, leyendo y tranformando. Del sur, del Este, del Oeste, del Norte, convergen los caminos que me han traído a mi secreto centro. Esos caminos fueron ecos y pasos, mujeres, hombres, agonías, resurrecciones, dias y noches, entresueños y sueños,
cada ínfimo instante del ayer y de los ayeres del mundo, la firme espada del danés y la luna del persa, los actos de los muertos, el compartido amor, las palabras, Emerson y la nieve y tantas cosas. Ahora puedo olvidarlas. Llego a mi centro, a mi álgebra y mi clave, a mi espejo. Pronto sabré quién soy. IN PRAISE OF DARKNESS Old age (the name that others give it) can be the time of our greatest bliss. The animal has died or almost died. The man and his spirit remain. I live among vague, luminous shapes that are not darkness yet. Buenos Aires, whose edges disintegrated into the endless plain, has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro, the nondescript streets of the Once, and the rickety old houses we still call the South. In my life there were always too many things. Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think: Time has been my Democritus. This penumbra is slow and does not pain me; it flows down a gentle slope,
resembling eternity. My friends have no faces, women are what they were so many years ago, these corners could be other corners, there are no letters on the pages of books. All this should frighten me, but it is a sweetness, a return. Of the generations of texts on earth I will have read only a few— the ones that I keep reading in my memory, reading and transforming. From South, East, West, and North the paths converge that have led me to my secret center. Those paths were echoes and footsteps, women, men, death-throes, resurrections, days and nights, dreams and half-wakeful dreams, every inmost moment of yesterday and all the yesterdays of the world, the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persan’s moon, the acts of the dead, shared love, and words, Emerson and snow, so many things. Now I can forget them. I reach my center, my algebra and my key, my mirror. Soon I will know who I am. Translated by Hoyt Rogers
Language of the Labyrinth ROBERT STONE
A YOUNG ASPIRING writer, I discovered the work of Borges at about the same time that I began to read Beckett. Neither of these writers indicated directions I believed that I would ever attempt to follow, yet I found them tremendously liberating and inspiring. Years later it fell to me to teach a fiction course that included an examination of Borges’s work. Just as the course began, for unfathomable Borgesian reasons, an article appeared in Parade magazine, the popular Sunday supplement. It was a short history of the western outlaw Sam Bess by Jorge Luis Borges, and my students, who did not look to Parade for exemplars in contemporary prose, were puzzled. What I learned from trying to teach that course was more of what I had already experienced in looking in those two different directions: the one leading to Beckett, and the other to Borges. The journey toward Beckett led to a turf-covered blasted heath, where language constantly seemed to fail, where life flickered on with language failing it—a place very much like the world. Borges’s direction lay through great vaults, a labyrinth, a labyrinth perhaps without a center, but filled with language, filled with narrative, an enormous quantity of invisible light, black light, an infinite passage of narrative over narrative upon narrative. Also a place very much like the world. The more I pondered his choice of the word “fictions,” the more appropriate it seemed. And it seems even more appropriate today as we further explore the essentially fictional quality of all narratives. I’d like to offer a very brief passage from one of these fictions. The wonderful obsessive intensity of its title and its prose in this translation offers all the pleasures of Borges’s fiction. It is from A Universal History of Iniquity, from that passage which deals with “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell.” This passage concerns “The Place.”
The Father of Waters, the Mississippi, the grandest river in the world, was the worthy stage for the deeds of that incomparable blackguard. (Alvarez de Pineda discovered this great river, though it was first explored by Hernando de Soto, conqueror of Peru, who whiled away his months in the prison of the Inca Atahualpa teaching his jailer chess. When de Soto died, the river’s waters were his grave.) The Mississippi is a broad-chested river, a dark and infinite brother of the Parani, the Uruguay, the Amazon, and the Orinoco. It is a river of mulatto-hued water; more than four hundred million tons of mud, carried by that water, insult the Gulf of Mexico each year. All that venerable and ancient waste has created a delta where gigantic swamp cypresses grow from the slough of a continent in perpetual dissolution and where labyrinths of clay, dead fish, and swamp reeds push out the borders and extend the peace of their fetid empire. Upstream, Arkansas and Ohio have their bottomlands, too, populated by a jaundiced and hungry-looking race, prone to fevers, whose eyes gleam at the sight of stone and iron, for they know only sand and driftwood and muddy water. Translated by Andrew Hurley
1,001 Laughs PAUL AUSTER
BACK IN THE THIRTIES, Borges worked for an Argentinean women’s magazine called El Hogar—magazine of middle-class attitudes and presumptions, roughly similar to Redbook in America today. I hadn’t known about these pieces until a few days ago, when I started reading Selected Non-Fictions, the wonderful volume that Viking has published. Borges’s prose is nutty and funny and unexpected at almost every turn. Here’s an example, from a portrait of Theodore Dreiser, the American writer. Dreiser’s head is an arduous, monumental head, geological in character, a head of the afflicted Prometheus bound to the Caucasus, and which, across the inexorable centuries, has become ingrained with the Caucasus and now has a fundamental component of rock that is pained by life. Dreiser’s work is no different from his tragic face: it is as torpid as the mountains or the deserts, but like them it is important in an elemental and inarticulate way. Translated by Esther Allen Here’s the first paragraph of his review of a collaboration between André Breton and Diego Rivera. It’s entitled “A Grandiose Manifesto from Breton.” Twenty years ago there were swarms of manifestos. Those authoritarian documents rehabilitated art, abolished punctuation, avoided spelling, and often achieved solecism. If issued by writers, they delighted in slandering rhyme and exculpating metaphor; if by painters, they defended (or attacked) pure color; if by composers, they worshiped cacophony; if by architects, they preferred the humble gas meter to the cathedral of Milan. Each, nevertheless, had its moments. Those garrulous sheets (of which I had a collection
that I donated to the fire-place) have now been surpassed by the pamphlet that André Breton and Diego Rivera have just emitted. Translated by Eliot Weinberger Or how about this one, the first paragraph of a review of an H. G. Wells book. Borges was a tremendous admirer of Wells. I don’t quite understand his opinions, but he states them with such conviction that you almost believe he has to be right. Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights), I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther or Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful…. (In poetry, I need only mention one unforgivable name: Flowers of Evil.) I raise these illustrious examples so that my readers will not tell me that a book with the absurd title Apropos of Dolores must necessarily be unreadable. Translated by Eliot Weinberger Here he is reviewing Finnegans Wake in 1939: Work in Progress has appeared at last, now titled Finnegans Wake, and is, they tell us, the ripened and lucid fruit of sixteen energetic years of literary labor. I have examined it with some bewilderment, have unenthusiastically deciphered nine or ten calembours, and have read the terror-stricken praise in the N.R.F. and the T.L.S. The trenchant authors of those accolades claim that they have discovered the rules of this complex verbal labyrinth, but they abstain from applying or formulating them; nor do they attempt the analysis of a single line or paragraph….I suspect that they share my essential bewilderment and my useless and partial glances at the text. I
suspect that they secretly hope (as I publicly do) for an exegetical treatise from Stuart Gilbert, the official interpreter of James Joyce. It is unquestionable that Joyce is one of the best writers of our time. Verbally, he is perhaps the best. In Ulysses there are sentences, there are paragraphs, that are not inferior to Shakespeare or Sir Thomas Browne. In Finnegans Wake itself there are some memorable phrases. (This one, for example, which I will not attempt to translate: “Beside the rivering waters of, hither and thithering waters of, night.”) In this enormous book, however, efficacy is an exception. Finnegans Wake is a concatenation of puns committed in a dreamlike English that is difficult not to categorize as frustrated and incompetent. I don’t think that I am exaggerating. Ameise, in German, means “ant.” Joyce, in Work in Progress, combines it with the English amazing to coin the adjective ameising, meaning the wonder inspired by an ant. Here is another example, perhaps less lugubrious. Joyce fuses the English words banister and star into a single word, banistar, that combines both images. Jules Laforgue and Lewis Carroll have played this game with better luck. Translated by Eliot Weinberger And here is Borges writing about Citizen Kane in 1941: Citizen Kane (called The Citizen in Argentina) has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women. Like an earlier collector (whose observations are usually ascribed to the Holy Ghost), he discovers that this cornucopia of miscellany is a vanity of vanities: all is vanity. At the point of death, he yearns for one single thing in the universe, the humble sled he played with as a child!
The second plot is far superior. It links the Koheleth to the memory of another nihilist, Franz Kafka. A kind of metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined. The same technique was used by Joseph Conrad in Chance (1914) and in that beautiful film The Power and the Glory: a rhapsody of miscellaneous scenes without chronological order. Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances. (A possible corollary, foreseen by David Hume, Ernst Mach, and our own Macedonio Fernández: no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.) In a story by Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth. We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an atmosphere of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth. The production is, in general, worthy of its vast subject. The cinematography has a striking depth, and there are shots whose farthest planes (like Pre-Raphaelite paintings) are as precise and detailed as the close-ups. I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have “endured”—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is the
work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word. Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
Nothing Simple JOHN MACRAE
THIRTY YEARS AGO, Borges stopped off to visit on his way back to Buenos Aries from Iceland, where he was working over the Norse Sagas. He arrived at 19 West Twelfth, where I had a simple bachelor’s apartment, and he was tired. I said, “Borges, would you like a bath?” I had robed and disrobed Borges in the past, and he said, “Yes, please.” It was an old-fashioned high-walled tub. I helped him undress, put him into the bath, and gave him his soap and a washcloth. He looked up at me expectantly—a look part grimace, part smile—and he said, “Would you mind closing the door? You see, I am very modest.” Borges’s wit was wonderful, and it still surrounds me. After his death, when I visited Buenos Aries with my wife, Paula Cooper, it was a coincidence to find ourselves in a hotel almost next door to a house that Borges once occupied. To see his spartan bed, to see his simple chair—I should not say “simple,” because Borges once corrected me and said, “There is nothing simple in this universe. Nothing is simple. The universe has one unarguable characteristic, complexity.” When we returned to the hotel, the receptionist called to me, “This is an extraordinary coincidence.” And she passed me a message. “This person with the same name as Borges’s widow has been calling you.” Of course it was María Kodoma, and I then realized how important she is, and how loved she now is in Buenos Aires. When Paula and I were there, we wanted to walk the literary landscape of Buenos Aires, the landscape of his stories. We needed to find the Hotel du Nord from “Death and the Compass.” I knew it was actually the Plaza Hotel, but there were several Plaza Hotels and we never found the right one. We knew about Morano and Suarez and the knife fights, and we also knew that the knife Borges
gave Morano was Spinoza’s knife. It was the knife that had to fulfill a prophecy—everything has its own being, its own need. It’s not the wielder of the knife, it’s the knife itself that does the killing. We knew that Morano was a man from the North Side, from Palermo, and that he had to protect himself from somebody, possibly Suarez, who had invaded from the South Side. We took buses, we walked: we had to see these places, and many more. Obviously we had to visit the Palermo Zoo, of the tigers real and dreamed. There was so much to see and it was all so alive that memories of Borges came flooding back, again and again. It was impossible not to have memories, real or imagined. On Florida, the great walking street that Borges called the place of greedy pedestrians, I saw somebody in the distance who looked like Borges talking to a tall, rather good-looking younger man who looked exactly like Tom Seaver, the baseball player, at the time he was playing baseball. I didn’t dare mention the sighting to Paula because she already had doubts enough about my sanity. Back in 1970, at a Dutton sales conference, I had invited Tom “Terrific” because we were about to do a book with him on the amazing Mets, who had won the 1969 World Series; the next speaker was to be Borges. While Tom was rattling on about his prowess on the mound, a note was passed, saying “Borges is out front.” I went to the lobby and brought him in, and in a loud stage whisper, he declaimed, “Who is that man speaking—the Texas Ranger?” Borges then spoke of Keats’s Nightingale—a bird and verses unfamiliar to most sales reps, and totally unknown in Argentina. I’ll conclude with a memory that brings on tears. When Borges won the Jerusalem Prize, I had the good fortune to be there with him. After an endless evening of ceremonies, we had trouble finding food that Borges could eat—he was by then diabetic. The next morning we needed a treat so I picked up a car and we drove to Bethlehem. As he stepped into the church—those of you who’ve been there know you have to go down some very steep, difficult steps—Borges knew exactly what to do, as though he had been there many times before. I started to lead him, but he was already bowing his head to avoid the low stone ceiling, working his way
down the steps. Later we drove to the Dead Sea, and he said, “I want to go into the water.” I replied, “Borges, you know, that water is really disgusting. It’s heavy and salty.” He said, “No, no I want to go into it.” So I took off his shoes and socks, and my own, rolled up his trousers, and together we marched into the sea, all the way up to his chest. When we came out, the day was so hot and dry that we could easily brush the salt off our clothes. We then drove to the wilderness to share a fine Arab meal. He was having the time of his life, and so was I. Finally, about eleven, we returned to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. After he was in bed, I started to shut his door. He smiled, pleading, “Don’t close it all the way,” so I didn’t. I walked out of his room to the door that led to the corridor, and just as I was opening the door, I heard him humming a tango. It had been the perfect date. I’ll never forget it.
Delia Elena San Marco JORGE LUIS BORGES
WE SAID GOOD-BYE on one of the corners of the Plaza del Once. From the sidewalk on the other side of the street I turned and looked back; you had turned, and you waved good-bye. A river of vehicles and people ran between us; it was five o’clock on no particular afternoon. How was I to know that that river was the sad Acheron, which no one may cross twice? Then we lost sight of each other, and a year later you were dead. And now I search out that memory and gaze at it and think that it was false, that under the trivial farewell there lay an infinite separation. Last night I did not go out after dinner. To try to understand these things, I reread the last lesson that Plato put in his teacher’s mouth. I read that the soul can flee when the flesh dies. And now I am not sure whether the truth lies in the ominous later interpretation or in the innocent farewell. Because if the soul doesn’t die, we are right to lay no stress on our good-byes. To say good-bye is to deny separation; it is to say Today we play at going our own ways, but we’ll see each other tomorrow. Men invented farewells because they somehow knew themselves to be immortal, even while seeing themselves as contingent and ephemeral. One day we will pick up this uncertain conversation again, Delia —on the bank of what river?—and we will ask ourselves whether we were once, in a city that vanished into the plains, Borges and Delia. Translated by Andrew Hurley 
The Writer, the Work: Thrown Voices RICHARD HOWARD & SUSAN SONTAG
SUSAN SONTAG: I think of Richard Howard as a very central figure in our culture, maintaining and giving eloquent voice and illustration to standards that are in peril today. Richard and I go back a long way. He’s my first serious literary friend. He’s not the first writer I ever met, but he was my first profound chum, ally, buddy, accomplice, brother in literature. We met soon after I came to New York in the beginning of the sixties, and we immediately started cooking up projects— things we wanted to sponsor and impose—so this is a special occasion for me. I’ve invited Richard to begin by reading a few poems. RICHARD HOWARD: When Susan and I first knew each other, she responded wonderfully to some early poems, and I’d like to read one that she knew about at the very beginning—this goes back to 1962— and then I’d like to read one poem from the new book, so that we have a range. This first poem is called “Jubilary Ode on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Marlene Dietrich”: And even after hours Of waking and a little sleep, When you by impulse walk Abroad some natural morning Or immoderate night, So fondly will the earth adjust Its formal longitudes To fit your stride; so freely will The light consent to fall In with your way of looking at
The world; so willingly Water itself run up to your Dry mouth (as for dear life) When you would drink: it is as if You slept through every one Of all the ages requisite To raise the bright trapeze Of blood within your body, hang Your acrobatic eyes From the still unruined arches That chamber in your skull. Like love in Shelley, moving with The easy unconcern Of its own motion, the purpose Of your overpowered Self lives upon itself, and each Excess of separate Feature balks some other of its Singular growth by a Kind of general song. There is An innocence in such Accord, a music I can hear Beyond our carnival And all its obstreperous cries. Simple to tell by your Breathing, by your heart’s meters, that You are no accomplice (The record makes it clear—you were Erroneously charged)
In our crime of being Somewhere The night of Anytime. And then, from last year, “My Last Hustler,” which has a little clip from Robert Browning, from a poem called “My Last Duchess”: …all smiles stopped When “Brad” is lying naked, or rather naked is lying in wait for whatever those he refers to as clients require by way of what they refer to as satisfaction, denying himself the distraction of alcohol or amyl, there appears in his eyes no flicker of shame, no flare of shameless desire, and what tribute he is paid finds him neither tender nor fierce. On a bed above suspicion, creases in obviously fresh linen still mapping a surface only a little creamier than the creaseless hills and hollows of his compliant flesh, Brad will extend himself (as the graphic saying goes) and the upper hand—always his—will push into place the man who happens to be there till happening comes to blows (another saying you now more fully grasp): full-blown, Brad will prepare himself, though not precipitately, for the grateful-kisses stage; he offers cheek and chin but objects to undergoing your accolade on his mouth: he has endured such homage too early, too often, too lately, and for all his boyish ways Brad is not wholly a youth. Routines on some arduous rigging, however, can restore him to himself in mirrors, every which way surrounded by no more than what he seems and mercifully by no more. Booked by a merciless Service for a thousand afternoons, Brad will become the needs of his “regulars” confounded by his indifferent regard, by his regardless expense… Take him—young faithful!—there and then. Marvel! praise! Fond though your touch may be and truly feeling your tact,
yet a mocking echo returns—remote, vague, blasé— of Every Future Caress, so very like your own! However entranced the scene you make (the two of you act as one to all appearance, but one is always alone), derision will come to mind, or to matter over mind: the folly, in carnal collusion, of mere presented skill. Undone, played out, discharged, one insight you will have gained which cannot for all these ardent lapses be gainsaid —even his murmured subsidence an exercise of will— is the sudden absolute knowledge Brad would rather be dead. SONTAG: Richard, let’s start talking about your poetic project—your particular project as a poet. In a lot of your poems, your characteristic mode is a mode of address. Often it’s in the form of a dramatic monologue, or it’s actually addressed to a figure. There’s an incredible suite of poems in the new book, Trappings, which is a set of variations on the theme of Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters, based on real and imaginary paintings. It’s a virtuoso exhibit of different registers and different voices on the same theme. This is not the only thing you’ve done as a poet but it is certainly the principal strand in your work. Could you talk about where it comes from, how it relates to Browning, Eliot, all the rest… HOWARD: Well, it comes from reading and it comes from the fact that I was an only child, and I grew up in my grandfather’s house. He had died four years before I was born, but his library was there—he was a gentleman who liked to move among fine bindings—and I was a little boy alone in the library. And I learned to read very early, and I communicated with these volumes from a very early age, and it was the most authentic and responsible communication that I had. When it gradually became possible to extend that communication by writing my own, in a sense, responses to what I had been reading, I found it quite natural to do so in voices—as Susan has suggested, in terms of address. It was a question of talking back. And talking back to something that I had heard. I didn’t know how to do it at first, and I
think there was a lot of fumbling. In the first two books, in fact, I was learning, and with the third book something happened and I found that I could speak more accurately and validly, for myself, if I spoke through what I suppose might be called a mask. And I began writing these poems in the voices of someone else. That has persisted pretty much till now. And as you say, there are other things going on, but that is the way I now think of poems. That is the project. There was the example of Robert Browning, most powerfully; there were a couple other figures who helped— SONTAG: —some of Eliot, obviously. HOWARD: Sure, and some Tennyson, but it was mostly Browning. The secret that Robert Browning communicated was that when you speak in the voice of someone else, the speaker, thus registered, reveals something without realizing he or she is revealing it. There is something unacknowledged in the speech, in the discourse, that escapes with the speaker unaware. And it was that—the drama of the speaker revealing more than was known or suspected—that appealed very strongly. I was a very sneaky little boy, and it was a way of getting what I wanted. I continued, and the poems that I think of now usually have this double impulse of saying one thing and meaning something else. Or perhaps meaning one thing and saying something else. That’s been a powerful inducement to the project. SONTAG: When I think that we’ve been talking almost forty years, I can’t believe that we’ve never had this particular conversation. You’ve taken the thing that I started with one step further because I realize as you are talking that when I first thought about becoming a writer, I thought of trying to write in almost every form, but poetry is the one form that I found, and continue to find, extremely daunting. Despite my involvement with and admiration for your work, I thought of poetry as first person, as the lyrical mode, the poet always speaking in the voice of the poet, whereas prose fiction is for me the thrown voice, the impersonation, the portrait. It never occurred to me, actually, for myself at any rate, that one could use poetry in that way. I always thought of poetry as the direct lyrical I—
HOWARD: —I think we all do— SONTAG: —and by and large it is. Yes. So that is the originality: you are doing something which is absolutely poetry insofar as any kind of sharp distinction can be made, and yet it adopts, as its method, one that is much more characteristic of prose than of poetry—namely, impersonation, what I call the thrown voice. Or, to use another image, portraits. You not only are very visual and have a very intense involvement with the visual arts, but many of your poems could be described as portraits, portraits of other people. “My Last Hustler,” for instance, is clearly a portrait. One thing is to say it’s an impersonation, another thing is to say it’s a portrait—really two different images, but I think they both describe what you’re doing. Another thing that I wanted you to talk about, and know you’d like to talk about, is the project of the relation to the past, of poetry or literature as a way of honoring, or continuing to explore, or keeping alive certain complexities that one finds perhaps more easily in the past, if only for the obvious reason that there’s more of it than there is of the present. This is something that interests me very much because of the more ambitious fictions that I’ve been writing. I’ve found a greater freedom in setting them in the past rather than in the present… So, let’s say you are more likely to make a portrait of the Goncourt brothers than of Ronald Reagan. HOWARD: I am fascinated by the way you put it. Judging now from some fifteen years of experience teaching, I don’t think that in the minds of most young people, certainly most writers, especially poets, there’s more of the past than the present. I think that for them, as I’ve come to know them, and respond to their work, and work with them, there is more of now than there is of then. You are absolutely right, it has been my project to work in another mode and to suggest that then is more copious, more various, and in a sense more responsive to the dramas of the self than now. I am also responsive, as you said, to what has been made in terms of image by painters and photographers. I now discover that if you add up the work, a great deal of it is responsive to imagery, especially painting and
photographs, and I think that is also a little suspect. It is regarded as if there were something wrong with poetry which moves upon its purposes with the sense that there is already something there to which it is addressed, and I am aware of that, and I think my discomfort stimulates me to do whatever it is I do. SONTAG: I’m surprised you talk about discomfort. Don’t you feel, on the contrary, belligerent in your espousal of these discredited riches that you are continuing to evoke? I remember years ago when you were doing some of your first teaching, you told me you were amazed that your students in the poetry workshop didn’t want to be assigned poems to read. They wanted to work on their own poetry, and if you suggested that they read Emily Dickinson or John Donne or Tennyson, they felt indignant, as if you were asking them to compromise their originality, or their individuality. The presumption was that they had nothing to learn, that they had only their own self to explore, and maybe you might give them a few tricks or techniques, but the material was already there, it just had to be put in a slightly more shapely way—or maybe not. Maybe they just wanted you as reader. I’ve had a similar experience. I haven’t done as much teaching as you, but I remember years ago while teaching a fiction workshop at Brown, I said the most obvious thing. The most obvious thing in the world you can say while teaching a short-story workshop is “read Chekhov.” What could be more obvious? It’s so obvious that you might almost be embarrassed, but it’s of course absolutely the thing to do to introduce your student writers to perhaps the single most admired writer of short stories that we know. And lots of my students said, “Well, why would I want to read somebody else?” They were willing to read each other, of course; they were willing endlessly to circulate the work of and read the work of other students. But they didn’t want to read somebody from the past, certainly not somebody who might be better than they, because that might make them feel bad. This is part of a larger picture: a certain arrogance, a certain smugness. We have all kinds of names for it: barbarism, philistinism (though philistinism is sort of beyond imagination), but above all, the
idea, which I think we both agree is not the point, that literature is a question of self-expression. It’s a kind of autotherapy. And what you’re doing, of course, is expressing your feelings or something like that. Of course your feelings are part of your material, needless to say, but they are not the point. Because if you want to just express your feelings, literature would be a very roundabout way to do it. As Samuel Goldwyn, I think, is supposed to have said—it’s one of those legendary, wonderful phrases—when asked about the message of a movie he had produced, “If I wanted to communicate a message I would send a telegram.” If you wanted just to communicate your feelings, many other things would be much more correct. I mean a tantrum, an assault… HOWARD: A caress… SONTAG: A caress. What literature is about now has taken second place to various notions of the primacy of the expressive self, to put it politely, and I think that here you are going even more against the grain. Of course there is a continuity with your work, it isn’t as if each time you become an entirely different writer (obviously I can recognize a Richard Howard poem—any important poet has a signature), but you change. The idea is not simply or only to express yourself—and that already seems somewhat illegitimate. Would you agree? HOWARD: That’s certainly my sense of the discomfort, and perhaps the illegitimacy, of the project, but it is also the pleasure of the project and, as I like to remark in my classes, your job is to express the poem and not the poet. I work quite hard to do that and I’m happy to be engaged in that process. I think the self comes through no matter what, but the poem is what has to be produced and worked at. That is the madness of art, as Henry James said, and I’m happy to be engaged in that folly. One more thing about the past: Obviously there are so many pasts, and the richness of the past is such that one makes choices. I do not write, for instance, the same poems about the past that I wrote twenty-five years ago; it’s another past and I have another present. I think that has been one of the surprises of
this enterprise, this life. It wasn’t as if I had found my mode and could therefore exploit it. It changed as I changed, and the poems are no longer quite what they were. When I was looking at poems to read tonight, I found that I was enormously dissatisfied with the ones that I sort of suspect might be what you would call the signature poem, and I wanted to think about the ones that I have written recently, or have yet to write— SONTAG: You were going to read a Wilkie Collins poem but decided not to. Is that something that you found yourself dissatisfied with? HOWARD: Mmm-hmm. SONTAG: Talk a little bit more concretely about which past and how it evolved. Again, very superficially, a number of your subjects are French, or English, and from the nineteenth century. You make a very special selection from the past… HOWARD: It began with the books that were in the library. It began by my responding to the voices that I had read there, and the Americans were not in it. My grandfather didn’t find those books attractive. There were not sets of the American writers, there were sets of the European writers. One of them was a large turquoise set of volumes, turquoise leather. I was, as I say, a little boy, and I was struggling with this set of books, and each volume was stamped in gold with the phrase “Masterpieces of George Sand.” I didn’t know who Mr. Sand was, but apparently these were only the masterpieces. Thirteen volumes of masterpieces. And I was very attracted by that. And I read them, or as many of them as I could bear, and there were those voices and those representations to work upon, so that, initially, once I had found that there was this method of a sort of ventriloquism, the voices that were produced were from a certain era or realm, and it was Victorian, the world of my grandfather and the world that he recognized as of his grandfather. I think the earliest original pieces were from the middle of the nineteenth century, someone like Macaulay, and on through about the beginning of the twentieth. That has changed, and I now write voices that are much
more nearly contemporary with my parents’ generation at least, and a different past has become available. SONTAG: But it’s still more focused on the nineteenth century, would you say? HOWARD: Well, it is an accent that I can manage, yes. SONTAG: I can’t imagine that your grandfather didn’t have any Russian books in his library. He didn’t have any Tolstoy, for instance? HOWARD: Oh yes— SONTAG: But the Russian didn’t enter into this group of voices that you wanted to have a dialogue with, because it was too remote? Or because the language was one you were unlikely to master? HOWARD: Well, I think I must have had some sense about translating, even then. And in any case, I was not at all moved by the Russians when I was a boy. It was something that happened much later. And although there are some Russian voices in the poems now, they are only there marginally and, you are absolutely right, I would never have thought of such a thing. SONTAG: Years ago we had a conversation about writing being based on emulation. I didn’t have a grandfather’s library, but I was a very precocious reader and certainly any idea I had of writing started with being in love with literature, with what was not me—I mean that was the whole point, that it wasn’t me and it wasn’t about anything that was in my life. It was space travel, a flying carpet. HOWARD: Yes, absolutely. SONTAG: So when would you say that you first had the idea of writing? I know you worked as a lexicographer briefly when you were in your twenties. You had a very good literature degree—the heroic period of Columbia University, Lionel Trilling and so on. You began translating at a relatively early age and have amassed more books, French books, than I think any other translator. How did that all come together? And was poetry always at the beginning of it?
HOWARD: No, only reading was at the beginning of it. And it still is at the end of it. It has something to do with fetishism of the book, and with something that we used to do together, which was acquiring books— SONTAG: Used to! HOWARD: Well, we haven’t done it so much together, although I think we still do it on our own quite often. It was terribly important, not only to know about books, but to have them. And of course, there came a point where having them could be done by writing them. Disraeli once said, “A novel? A novel? When I want to read a novel, I write one.” The kind of poetry I want to read now is obviously something I have to write, but— SONTAG: But yet, you’ve written so marvelously of poets who were not like you. As you know, one of my favorites among your essays is on Emily Dickinson, and you might say that Emily Dickinson is precisely not the thrown voice; it is the single voice, very much the single voice that is always herself saturated, hyper-saturated. There have been many other models and many other appreciations. It’s not as if you only want to read the kind of books you might want to write — HOWARD: Not at all. There no longer is the kind of book I want to write. I have to do it. But there was once a sense that certain figures had achieved what I wanted, and that I wanted to emulate them. That is no longer the case, but it was there for many, many years. SONTAG: Let’s go back, for a moment, to American literature, using the paradigm, which I suspect is ever so slightly fictitious, of your grandfather’s library making the borders of your original sensibility and projects. You weren’t tremendously interested in American literature and didn’t think, first of all, of portraits of American figures —with the vast, looming exception of Henry James, of course, and I wish you would speak of your relation to James because here we move away from poetry to a model of sensibility that has been decisive for you. James was a great, great writer who never wrote
any poetry; certainly one would not think of him as a poet. Just tell me about the relationship to American Literature and why the European has loomed so large. American Literature is important, but not the center… HOWARD: I don’t think what I’m going to say is going to be acceptable, but I think it’s because we were Jews, and we were a certain kind of upper class Jew. When I was a child, until 1935, the trunks always appeared in May and my mother and my grandmother and other relatives were always going to Europe. That was simply the way they lived. And I expected always to imitate them. In 1936, it was no longer possible. I remember the travel brochures for places in Austria, and we couldn’t go any longer, and instead my grandmother, who was a wealthy woman, and a somewhat responsible one, began bringing Jews from Europe to America. The word “affidavit” entered my vocabulary, and I discovered that one signed an affidavit in order to bring a certain kind of European to this country. Susan wrote an extraordinary piece about Thomas Mann and her encounter with him. That kind of encounter is sometimes decisive, though perhaps not in the way one might assume or hope it would be. In my case I was eight and one of my grandmother’s choices appeared, a European intellectual, and he came to Cleveland, where we lived, before taking up residence at Princeton in the Institute for Advanced Study. At the time Hermann Broch was merely a rootless European refugee émigré. The encounter with this rather alarming figure burned itself into my soul. I must tell it. He was interested in my mother, who was between marriages. I was accustomed to dissuading my mother’s suitors by questioning them rather nastily about subjects which, in Cleveland at least, I knew would not be easily picked up. My favorite question, which was always a poser, was “What’s your favorite Opera?” I had never seen an opera, but I had studied The Victor Book of Operas very carefully, and of course I had heard opera on the radio. (Every Saturday I listened to the Met.) Well, Hermann Broch, who had children of his own, listened to me rather charmingly, and he answered me, unlike my mother’s other
suitors, with two syllables I had never heard before, and I fled screaming from the room, in tears. He said Wozzeck. It was a real defeat for me. But I think that sort of thing had something to do with my European commitment. I would like to think that I have now encountered American literature on attractive terms, and that I am interested not only in contemporary authors, but the authors of the American past, in a creative way, although it is only now that I can begin to hear those voices in my own work. And it is Henry James, of course, who is the pivotal figure—the swivel, as it were—for me. There was, by the way, no set of Henry James in my grandfather’s library. SONTAG: I think people forget—you have to be as old as we are to remember—that Henry James wasn’t rediscovered until the 1940s. He was really quite forgotten from his death in 1916 until an issue of The Kenyon Review in 1944, an all-Henry James issue, which was the beginning of the revival. So if your grandfather’s library was amassed in the twenties and thirties, Henry James would not be there. HOWARD: Joseph Conrad was there, and George Meredith—in other words, contemporaries of James. It wasn’t that he was modern, it’s that he was American—and there were other problems as well. When I got to Columbia, I fell in with the man who became my best friend and closest associate, and we became fanatical Jamesians together, Robert Gottlieb and I. We began accumulating those books, making tremendous expeditions to Fourth Avenue and other places in order to acquire those books, and we read all of James— which was a considerable achievement for a young person in those days. And we have continued to respond to that work and that solicitude for the verbal—for verbality at its most excruciating—ever since. Anything that James approached, from the point of view of language or verbality, he was all in it, whether he was writing a note thanking somebody for a present, or giving directions, or writing a text. James was the figure that Gottlieb and I, in college, found to be the perfect baffle and screen behind which we could conduct
ourselves in any way we chose. He became the figure that governed my sense of what literature was. And it had nothing to do with agreeing with him, or wanting to be like him. He and Virginia Woolf were the people we admired the most, and knew would dislike us the most. But that had no bearing on the case, none at all. SONTAG: One more subject, and maybe it will get you to read another poem. The future—future projects, the sense of going on. You do so much and you sponsor so much and at a certain point you know you don’t have unlimited time. Is there perhaps a feeling of having to choose this rather than that? Fewer translations, more essays, more poetry, different kinds of poetry? HOWARD: Unfortunately, the system by which I am able to do anything at all consists of promiscuously doing everything. And it is so ingrained now, in the spirit, that I don’t think I could work by elimination any longer, but only by profusion and proliferation. It’s only by distraction that I can operate. So I translate and write essays and write poems and teach classes and attempt to get other people to publish what I think of as good work. Susan made a reference to our early collusion, and I can’t tell you how important that was to me in those years. We really did have a kind of subversive effort going there, where we tried to interest a lot of publishers—Susan had more control over that than I—but together we had a notion about what should be done. And we tried to do it. SONTAG: There were two writers in particular that Richard and I had both read in French who were not translated at all. One was Roland Barthes and the other was Émile Cioran. Very early on in our friendship—it might have been the first night, actually—we said, they have to come into English, and of course Richard did the lion’s share because he translated all their books, and I helped get them published and wrote early prefaces and blurbs. We literally brought those two writers into English—and many others as well. HOWARD: You remember how we met. Susan had written a review of a book I had translated. She didn’t know me, but she knew the book,
which was called Manhood by Michel Leiris, and she wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books. She said, “Plumped down on my desk in translation is this book,” and then she said, “Translated by Richard Howard, whoever that is—” SONTAG: I didn’t say that! I couldn’t have said that! HOWARD: She did get a phone call from the translator saying, “Let’s do lunch,” and that’s when it started, right then. I can remember the day— SONTAG: We had an incredible sense of complicity. I’m talking about the early sixties, a time that seems dazzlingly cosmopolitan compared to today, but still there was enormous indifference or ignorance— HOWARD: Resistance— SONTAG: And resistance to what was going on in Europe. I wrote the first essay on Godard! It’s hard to believe people didn’t love all this from the beginning, but it was fun, it was enormous fun, and we had a terrific time because we were so gloriously self-righteous, in the best sense. We knew we were promoting the best stuff and people were bound to like it and be influenced by it and care about it if only it were available to them. And that’s exactly what happened. It was, as crusades go, very innocent and very successful and very much worth doing. I wish we could talk longer about this relation to the past because I think it’s something that does influence us a lot—some feeling that one doesn’t want the past to be forgotten, to be oversimplified, one doesn’t want this kind of barbarism that reduces and flattens out all complexity, linguistic and otherwise, to prevail. And of course you have the sense that you’re in the minority, and yet there is, I think, a very real audience for other kinds of work, and it’s important to keep on supporting it through one’s passions. I have a very different temperament from Richard—I function well not being promiscuous, being very, very focused, and I am constantly giving things up in order to try and do something better. But we are alike in that we feel the important job is not to attack but
to promote and proselytize. I think it’s far more important to show people what they should be reading or seeing or thinking about than to write why this is trash and this is garbage and that’s not worth paying attention to, and I would say that’s true of you too. In one of your early books, an original and beautiful exercice de style called Alone With America, you found something positive to say about fifty poets. Not for a minute did you think that all these poets were of equal value, but you had something interesting and eloquent to say about each of them that illustrated certain larger ideas about the poetic project. You’re a master of the art of praise, and that’s a high compliment because the art of praise is the art of promoting and sponsoring and upholding certain values and standards against and above other values and standards. It’s very, very profound cultural work. People should read your essays, but I’m glad that we have talked some about the poems. Would you like to finish with the last poem in the book—or don’t you like it anymore? HOWARD: No, I’d love to. This poem was written five years ago, and it was never published in a magazine. It only appeared in this book. It’s called “At Sixty-Five”: The, tragedy, Colette said, is that one does not age. Everyone else does, of course (as Marcel was so shocked to discover), and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements are imposed; but that garrulous presence we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny it exists at all despite its carping monologue, is the same as when we stole the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran away from home. What has altered is what Kant called Categories: the shapes of time change altogether! Days, weeks, months,
and especially years are reassigned. Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit told me her “method”: asked to do something, anything, she would acquiesce next year— “I’ll commit suicide, provided it’s next year.” But after sixty-five, next year is now. Hours? there are none, only a few reckless postponements before it is time… When was it you “last” saw Jimmy—last spring? last winter? That scribbled arbiter your calendar reveals—betrays—the date: over a year ago. Come again? No time like the present, endlessly deferred. Which makes a difference: once upon a time there was only time (…as the day is long) between the wanting self and what it wants. Wanting still, you have no dimension where fulfillment or frustration can occur. Of course you have, but you must cease waiting upon it: simply turn around and look back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you will be petrified—astonished—to learn memory is endless, life very long, and you—you are immortal after all.
Conversation from “The Writer, the Work,” a series sponsored by PEN and curated by Susan Sontag.
The Real Story: Literary Fact and Fiction CHARLES MCGRATH: It seems fair to say that we’re living in an age of porosity; the traditional boundaries between fact and fiction have become permeable, with factual narratives borrowing techniques from fiction. Edmund Morris’s Dutch is the most notorious example. A better example, I would suggest, is Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which in the best sense reads like a novel because it has some of the textures and detail that we expect from fiction. On the other hand, we have fictional narrative borrowing the authority of fact —and maybe the glamour of real-life characters and historical incident. I think it’s somewhat suprising to see two of our best and senior novelists, i.e. Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks, rather late in their careers, turning to huge historical subjects. You think of this as something that people do when they’re young, or perhaps not at all. RUSSELL BANKS: Or never again. MCGRATH: There are a number of questions that might usefully be asked tonight. One is almost metaphysical: Is there such a thing as actuality when you’re writing a literary text? As soon as you commit words to paper, aren’t you to one extent or another making something up? Are there any rules? What are the writer’s responsibilities, if any, to the truth and to the reader? Is there a difference between historical novels, so called, and a novel that uses historical characters? What’s the difference, if you’re a historian, between reconstructing a scene and making one up? But first, I think we ought to ask whether this problem is as new as it seems. And I therefore would like to turn to Simon Schama, our historian. Is this new? SIMON SCHAMA: Noooo. No, what is? Herodotus, the father of history, was a shocking liar, really. Macaulay describes him as a delightful child who babbles away, and you’ve no idea whether
anything he says is the truth. It’s half gossip, hearsay, rumor, invention. And Thucydides comes on very much as the genre cop, taking Herodotus to task for disgracing the good name of history, for dealing in the murky waters of myth. Thucydides, who clearly resents Herodotus’s patriarchal status, says that one must be critical with sources. One must be honest and remain relentlessly anchored in the data, or Greek words to that effect. And then he says, “I wasn’t actually there when Pericles was giving this speech, but I think I know what he would have said,” and out rolls the passage in the History of the Peloponnesian War which we all remember as justifying the ideology and principles of that extraordinary book. So very early on, there is a caveat emptor issue being taken on board by those who commit history, or rather those who report on what history commits, but who, even as they’re trying to determine what the rules are, have a very hard job abiding by them. No one is suggesting that Thucydides was deliberately tendentious, or that he was committing some sort of nonfictional fraud. This was all done in good faith; it was owned up to. The historian’s obligation is to tell the truth. I’m happy to hear, and flattered to hear, parts of Rembrandt’s Eyes compared to a literary work, which was certainly the intention. But there is absolutely nothing invented in that book. In The Idea of History, an extraordinary meditation on the imagination, R. G. Collingwood says that history will not be history if it does not tell the truth, and also if it lacks the faculty of imagination. Imagination is what draws us close to the world of novelists. But imagination does not mean you make things up. Imagine someone who came to dinner last night. Imagine the inside of an egg, from looking at the outside of an egg. Imagine the back of the moon, before we had orbital photos of it. The reach of the imagination is necessary to build the presence of the past with any kind of power and persuasiveness. Collingwood says that there are poles, struts, planted in the ground, and they are authorities, sources that have to be questioned. Across these struts, the historian uses the imagination to weave a web, and if he does his weaving work well, the fabric will come together. It will start to have
color and form and persuasiveness and coherence and credibility. Historians use their imagination to tell the truth about the past. MCGRATH: Let’s look at it another way. At a certain point historically we had novels that were pretending to be history. In the seventeenth century, when the novel was just beginning, Defoe quite deliberately borrowed the techniques of history, as if fiction were in dubious repute. And I’m wondering if we’re not somewhat in that state now. Does apparent factuality have an appeal for novelists that perhaps it didn’t have in the recent past? I’ll be quite cynical for a minute: one appeal might be that nonfiction sells much better than fiction these days, which I think is probably a reversal of what it was forty or fifty years ago. MILLICENT DILLON: Maybe I could take this to the personal level for a minute. The book that I just published is called Harry Gold. It’s a novel that began in my mind as a biography. But to go back further, I met Harry Gold about fifty years ago, when I was living with my family in Queens. My older brother was working in a laboratory in Brooklyn. There was a man working in the lab called Harry Gold. My brother said he was a sad, lonely guy, and he’d like to invite him to dinner. So one night, Harry Gold comes in the door; I’m going out the door. I have never seen this man before, I look at him and I have the strangest experience. I don’t understand that experience at all. It makes me extremely uneasy. I was not a writer at the time—I was working in science. Three years later I was in Los Angeles, and I went to the corner newsstand and looked down at the newspaper stack. And there was a picture of Harry Gold, and the headline said, “Atom Spy Confesses.” Some years later, I started writing. I wrote fiction and biography. And in the mid eighties I realized I’d been thinking about that man for a long time. It occurred to me that I could write a biography of him, so I did all the research. He had died by this time. I went to the FBI files, read a thousand pages. I went to see his lawyer. I went to see his brother. When I got through, I had all these facts, but he was a flat character. I just put the stuff away.
Then I did a book on Paul Bowles, and after that book was done, a conversation came back to me. I had asked Paul, who was a composer as well as a writer, if he could say something about the way he heard things. At first he was reluctant to say anything, but then he said, “When I used to go on the subway under the East River, at the midpoint I heard a strange hum.” I said to him, “I don’t hear a hum, but I do get this pressure in my ears.” At the moment that conversation came back to me I saw Harry Gold on the subway going under the East River. He reached the midpoint and he heard this hum and had this pressure in his ears. Now that was an alteration of fact. With this one alteration, everything began to change, and all of the factual stuff that I’d learned about Harry Gold became an undercurrent for me. I did follow the timeline of his history, but I was free to do what I wanted to do in the narrative. So the thing I am trying to say is this: The imagination can come into play in fiction, and in biography as well, when you least expect it. MCGRATH: Let’s ask the other two novelists, who didn’t begin in quite the same way. Both of you chose historical subjects, and one could argue that you were tying your own hands. Joyce, you could have written a book about a Hollywood star that wasn’t recognizably Marilyn Monroe. Russell, you could have written a novel about an abolitionist who wasn’t recognizably John Brown. BANKS: That might have been perceived as à roman a clef, however, and thought to be about a University of Chicago philosopher… No. I have a problem with the vocabulary we’re using right now— the word subject or what a novel is about. And I think there’s an essential difference here between history or journalism, nonfiction, on the one hand, and fiction and poetry, on the other, at least for me. Insofar as fiction, like poetry, has no subject. And I discovered this inadvertently, when I published my first book with a commercial publisher and was asked by the publicist what my novel was about so that it could be better marketed. I no more know what my novel is about than I know what my dreams are about. And my relation to fact
as a novelist is very close to my relation to fact as a dreamer. I don’t foreground or background any fact, any detail, any element of a work of fiction because it happens to be historical or because it happens to be autobiographical, or because it happens to be something I read in the newspaper yesterday, or something that happened to my brother, or something that didn’t happen to anybody so far as I know, ever. They all remain in the same plane of reality for me. That is to say they all remain in the plane of imagery, which I use with a kind of freedom that I suppose a poet or a fiction writer takes for granted to arrange into a pattern that makes a story. Ultimately, a story is its own self, and not about something other than itself. Just as a poem is its own self and not about anything else. This to me is the crucial difference. MCGRATH: Let me be literal for a minute. Your John Brown is not exactly the John Brown of a dream. He lives in Lake Placid. He goes out West. The outline of his life pretty much hews to what we think of as the outline of John Brown’s life. BANKS: Well, the interests of plausibility are what kept me adhering to some degree, but only to some degree, to historically received knowledge about John Brown. Just as it would if I were writing a novel set in New York City today. In the interest of plausibility I couldn’t have Broadway going from the Upper East Side to the Lower West Side, because most people who read the book would have trouble imagining it. It would be a disjoint, and it would break the suspension of disbelief that I would be interested in sustaining. I could do it, but it would have to be a somewhat different aesthetic program than the one that I work with, which is conventional realism. I adhered to history in the interest of plausibility, which was required from my point of view to obtain the suspension of disbelief necessary for the dreaming state I was talking about. JOYCE CAROL OATES: I tend to agree with Russell. I think of works of the imagination as primarily dealing with voice and language— with imagery, as Russell said—and these images do tend to float from the unconscious. A work of fiction tends to be very selective. In
writing about a complex and various life, like the life of the person we think we know as Marilyn Monroe, I had to drop out so many facts that it emerges as a kind of simplified dream. I suppose I had in mind something like Moby-Dick. There was actually a white whale, and Melville was writing in meticulous detail about whales. And part of the novel that’s so wonderful, I think, is the reliance upon the objective world. It’s very catalogued and very beautifully written. But then it’s mythic, and one would not think that Moby Dick was just any whale. So I guess Marilyn Monroe became my Moby Dick, so to speak; I’m working with mythic structures and images and much that is imagined. Basically, all of it is imagined, but I try not to invent very much. I think Russell’s position is a little more radical than my own. I would feel that I wanted to adhere to reality as much as is possible, and not be inventing very much. I tend to love reality. There’s a poetry of reality and working with what’s given and maybe transforming it in some way but not violently changing it. In Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, whether they’re history plays or about fabulous situations, nobody really thinks that people were speaking in such words of surpassing beauty. It’s obviously elevated, and it’s poetry, yet there may be some residue of reality. And what we’re all working with is what I would call psychological realism, the inner poetic and spiritual realism of characters who may have had historical existence, but as we reimagine them they become works of fiction. JAMES ATLAS: It’s interesting to me that Joyce and Russell are struggling with the issue of how close to the truth they should be. For the biographer, it’s a different struggle. All we want to do is break free from this prison of facts and just make it up. It requires tremendous restraint not to do that. And sometimes you do it inadvertently. Because what you discover about fact when you’re a biographer is a lesson in humility. To reconstruct something as it happened is beyond inordinately difficult. It’s impossible to do, and you realize that in a way what you are writing is very close to fiction. And your goal is the same, which is to get at the deeper truth. You’re using a different narrative means in that the biographer is ostensibly
trying to deal with things as they really happened and the novelist is also trying to deal with things as they really happened, but within a construct of fantasy and imagination. Yet the two are remarkably alike in the end result. The art, not the genre of the book, brings out truth. DILLON: It seems to me that there is something that the biographer does that has in it the quality of fiction, and is, in some way, unobtainable. You can’t manage it. It’s the relationship between the writer of the biography and the subject. This is a very odd relationship. ATLAS: You’re telling me. DILLON: It gets odder and odder the more you go into it. You find yourself pulled toward the subject, hating the subject, loving the subject, thinking you’re the subject. If you read biographies with the care and attention that you might give to, say, a fine novel, you will see great shifts taking place in that relationship. I am thinking, for instance, of Richard Holmes’s wonderful biography of Coleridge. You get so excited as you read that book, it’s almost as though you are reading a work of fiction that is carrying you and you don’t quite know why. There is something about his relationship to Coleridge that is not only respectful but also quite mysterious. SCHAMA: One of the reasons that two-volume biography is so astounding is that Holmes has brooded self-consciously on the relationship of the biographer to his subject. The great classic is Footsteps. There is no book I know of that is more astute and more profound. Footsteps is about Holmes’s relationships with a series of Romantic subjects—Romantic in the sense of the Romantic Movement, Gérard de Nerval and Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. It begins when he is thinking about writing a biography of Stevenson, and he is following the footsteps of Stevenson’s travels on a donkey through France. And he thinks that he may never get Stevenson, but at least he’s got the route right. And there is a particular bridge in which Holmes is interested; it looks
old and it looks right. And he says, “That’s it!” And he goes to the local bookstore and learns that it’s the wrong bridge. The real one is broken and has been replaced. This is, of course, the metaphor from dreamland. Holmes says the bridges are always going to be broken. One other thing: Much of what Joyce Carol Oates was saying about fiction’s need to pick and choose in order to create a compelling fictional reality (if that’s not an oxymoron) is somewhat the same for history and biography. History certainly begins with a subtraction of facts. Its form and purpose and significance come about with subtraction and loss. If you believe that your job is to report every known datum about your subject, you’re hopelessly remote from the purposes of history. One has to ask why this person or event signifies something that matters to our understanding of the human condition. That always begins with cutting stuff away. ATLAS: Biography, of course, is primarily a matter of selection. As Lytton Strachey says, you go out in your boat and you dip down your net and retrieve the facts, but then you’ve got to organize these facts. You can’t use this vast array of notecards and manuscripts and documents that you’ve assembled on your shelf. You have to select ruthlessly. And what is it you are looking for? I think you are looking for the details that elicit character and life. Bellow gave a eulogy for a friend of his a few years ago, someone he had gone to high school with who died in old age. Her name was Yetta Barshevsky. And he talked about the mysterious specificity of human beings, the essence that was Yetta, who was a person remarkable in the way that we are all remarkable. BANKS: We are being very democratic here as we compare fiction and story, let’s say, to biography and history. And I’m normally democratic in my approach to these matters. I resist having a hierarchy amongst works, but nonetheless feel it would be foolish for anyone to read fiction for history or biography. And yet I know that I have all my life read history and biography for story. And this suggests to me that there is hierarchy. That one of these enterprises has a greater and perhaps even universal reach. Story. Whereas the
others by comparison, if you’ll forgive me, biographers and historians, are parochial and narrow in that way. DILLON: I think there is another way of looking at it that could still be democratic. When you’re writing, ordinarily you’re not consciously thinking of the reader, but nevertheless in each book there is an implied contract between the reader and the writer. BANKS: That’s a very important question. And I certainly have in my mind when I have written a historical novel, or any novel for that matter, that it is to be read in the context of other novels. It is to be measured against other novels, and that’s its aspiration. It adheres to the principles of storytelling, not to the principles of history or biography or journalism, no matter what material I might make that story out of. And that’s quite a different contract than I feel is in existence when I pick up a work of history or biography. SCHAMA: That’s so high-minded, Russell, I can’t bear it. Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Lampedusa—I mean, some biggies, really—were all telling stories. But if you said, “Come on, Leo, you’re just a storyteller, you have nothing to say about history,” it would be ludicrously disingenuous. I don’t want to blur the boundary between ultimately having the responsibility to tell the truth and having the freedom to create fictions, but I do want to say in terms of attempting to reveal truths about what it’s like to be a human being, there is a shared purpose in some cases of history writing and some cases of fiction writing. L’Education sentimentale is not a bad example. ATLAS: There is this assumption that fiction somehow is more of an art than history or biography, that fiction is what you want to go for if you’re going to obtain the expressive heights of literature at its most transcendent. And I am not persuaded that this is so. I think that historically speaking it was so, at a certain moment. In the nineteenth century, for example, fiction was the dominant genre. Now we live in a society with different needs and requirements and forms of curiosity about human character, and so we turn to history and biography. And that’s why they are now a more popular form than
fiction. We’re not here to debate which is better, but each has its separate purpose, and I think all biographers and historians who aspire to the condition of art have the same ideas in mind that novelists have. They use radically different means to achieve identical ends. DILLON: To get back to the question of factuality in a literary text or factuality in biography. Is it possible that fact itself is different now, that fact and information do not have quite the same impact on us that they once did? MCGRATH: Yes. And it seems to me that in some ways we are living in a crisis of confidence in the fictional arts. There’s the whole memoir craze—instead of writing a first autobiographical novel, people now write a memoir, or they write something that they sell as a memoir. And it’s as if the fact that this supposedly really happened gives it interest and authenticity that it wouldn’t have if the author had done what we used to think was the old magic, which is to take the facts and transform them. OATES: I think it’s perceived maybe as a little easier and more accessible to the reader, but maybe just in terms of a crisis in what nonfiction is, too. How do you classify My Alien Abduction or My Romance with an Alien? You would think that this is clearly fiction, and yet it is being presented as a memoir. MCGRATH: Recently, I had a well-known writer claim that the rules for memoir are different than the rules for journalism or biography. That is, “This is how it seemed to me at the time, and it’s how it seems to me at the time of writing. And therefore I am under no obligation to go back and check it.” BANKS: My eighty-five-year-old mother, who lives in the same town I do, and with whom I’m very close and whom I admire, recently finished, after four years of work, her memoir, her book of her life, and I love the title she gave it. It’s called My Autobiography As I Remember It. So the disclaimer is right up front. And the contract with the reader is very clear. My sister and brother and I have each
read it, and it’s not exactly as we remembered. And we brought this to her, and she has a perfect defense and explanation for it: “Well, it’s as I remember it.” DILLON: I’m reminded of the works of W. G. Sebald. He’s a writer, originally German, now living in England, who does something with memoir, and does something with fiction, so they are meshed so strangely that you feel you are really in a dream. BANKS: And yet when you read it, you measure it against fiction, not against autobiography or against memoir, and you experience it as fiction. MCGRATH: Let’s go back to something I began with, the notorious case of Edmund Morris’s Dutch. Much of what all of you have said the historian is supposed to do, I can say, “This is what Morris did.” I’ll go further and say that the Hollywood section is, from a literary standpoint, the single best part of that biography, and that it told me more about Ronald Reagan than the rest of the book. I suddenly understood where Ronald Reagan came from. As we all know, the boom got lowered on Mr. Morris. It was felt that he had clearly gone over some line. ATLAS: The book is fabulously entertaining and accurate in large patches, but when he deconstructs and fictionalizes his own work, he creates a tremendous problem for the reader. MCGRATH: Would it have been so bad if it was clear what he’d been doing? ATLAS: I think that his own personal struggle to write this book interfered and he finally had some kind of unconscious rebellion against the material. I mean the opening scene, when he’s actually with Reagan, is great writing. It’s really a masterpiece of a scene. He can write. He can create character. Even real character he can create. MCGRATH: According to a lot of what we’ve been saying tonight, that seems like all we need.
ATLAS: No, that’s not all we need. We need an agreed-upon framework. BANKS: If he had titled it Reagan’s Biography As I Imagined It, that would have been okay. OATES: I may be the only person on the panel, or perhaps even in the room, who is the subject of a biography. It is a very interesting experience because we tend to live our lives without any great sense of pattern or design. I mean, we’re really not fictitious characters, and yet when you read a biography that’s about yourself and the biographer has done this sort of Leon Edel thing, looking for the figure in the carpet and seeing a pattern or maybe a myth in your life, you start to see that someone has invented you in order to conform to a possibly interesting story or a plausible story. And I didn’t want to interfere—I’m on a panel with biographers and they do not want to be interfered with by their subjects. This biography was really well done by a young man named Greg Johnson, whose focus was on literary criticism. But I could see that he was extracting some things and dropping out other things in order to make a story. I don’t know what the story was, a sort of Cinderella up from the ashes of upstate New York, or something like that. The story was plausible, and yet one could argue that it was a completely invented fairytale that my life could be used to exemplify. MCGRATH: Did you feel it was you? OATES: I don’t know how to answer that. My husband read it. I think we just sort of read it and thought, well, it’s like seeing a photograph of yourself in some way that you don’t remember where you were and it doesn’t look too much like you but maybe it was you. But I will say one thing to the biographers who are on this panel with me: there is a lot that’s confabulated. If people don’t remember too much about, say, Saul Bellow, they will deliver memories to you because they don’t want to disappoint you. ATLAS: You’re telling me this now, Joyce? I just handed in my book today!
OATES: You know this. They also don’t want to not be in a biography. They won’t say, “Jim, I just don’t remember one thing we talked about.” They won’t say that. They’ll seem to remember some things and if it sounds good you may put it in the biography, and it’s confabulated. It’s fiction. ATLAS: I don’t want to be boastful here, but I have come to believe over many years that you can hear a truth as accurately as you can hear a note of music. This is not scientific, nor is it even biographical, but an instinct develops by which you edit out what people are saying while they’re saying it and arrive at certain essences that just are true. OATES: How would you know that? People lie on witness stands and they lie in the throes of a delusion—how would you know that? We can’t wait to read this biography! ATLAS: No, actually, after ten years of working on this book, I drove up to Bellow’s house in Vermont, and he said, “So tell me, what have you learned?” I said, “What I’ve learned is that you can’t know anyone.” And I meant that. MCGRATH: Let’s open it up to questions from the audience. As you talked about history and biography, I’ve been thinking in terms of representational and abstract art, having some thoughts about different ways of coming to truths about characters. What about parallels between painting and writing? OATES: Certainly, in the past our ancestors belived that if a portrait was painted of a specific individual, the portrait should resemble the way this person actually looked; it might have symbolic or cultural significance as well. Through the centuries, however, this fundamental principle has altered. By the twentieth century, for instance, if we consider Picasso, portraits are very different. They’ve become violently subjective: people’s eyes are on one side of their noses, etcetera, yet they may exude a true personal identity you might call poetic. The more recent portraits by Francis Bacon, for
instance, I find very exciting as art and as psychology. I feel a kinship with Bacon; that’s probably the kind of portraiture I would be interested in creating, and possibly in my fiction I’m moving in that direction. But I would not be contemptuous or even critical of someone who simply hates this; who denounces it as immoral or unethical. The Picasso/Bacon species of portrait can be perverse and “unlike” the historic person…unless in a way it’s the very essence of that person. I hope you all know what I mean? This is an ethically ambiguous issue. We could discuss it forever, even those of us who’ve written fiction in which we transgress boundaries. (Writing is by nature a transgressive act.) Still, we would have to acknowledge that there is a reality there that should perhaps be honored. BANKS: That’s a lovely analogy. I mean to speak especially of Bacon, but also to speak to the history of portraiture and how it’s changed and altered, and the use for the human body that artists have as being approximate to the use a novelist might have for another kind of fact. I was just thinking that there are stories I have not told. There is material I have not used in fiction because it would be read by individuals as fact. For instance, there are members of my family and friends who have fascinating stories, and if I used their story in fiction, they would read it as being biography, or about them. And so I’ve not done that. I’ve not written that. It would be misread to such a degree that it would hurt and embarrass people whom I love. And that tells me something about my relation to fact, and to my reader. If my reader can’t see it as fiction, then I can’t use it. Why would you choose to inhabit someone who actually existed instead of making it up? OATES: I saw a photograph of Norma Jean Baker when she was seventeen years old in 1944, and she was a girl who looked like someone with whom I might have gone to junior high school. She even looked a bit like my mother. She did not look like Marilyn Monroe. She didn’t have the synthetic, platinum blond hair. She had brown hair that was very curly. She had a little heart locket. She
wasn’t glamorous; she wasn’t beautiful. But she was very sweet, very pretty, and she was just smiling so hard. And my heart went out to her, and I thought, she’s seventeen. She’s not the quintessential American girl because she was very deprived economically and in other ways. Her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who could never really be a mother to her. Her father never acknowledged her. She was powerless. She belonged to that region of humanity Dostoevsky spoke of as the insulted and injured. Anyway, I had this feeling, this very strong emotional feeling: I would like to write about the girl who was transformed into an iconic figure. But I was going to write a novel of about a hundred seventy-five pages. It was going to be sort of mythic and postmodernist and it would end with the name Marilyn Monroe being given to her. However, I did get involved and eventually wrote fourteen hundred pages. BANKS: I was going to write a magazine article about John Brown, about his farm and his burial place, because of the trivia question, “Where does John Brown’s body lie moldering?” The answer to that is in North Elba, New York, which is only a few miles from my house. And that would have been all right except that Brown entered my dreams, and the image of John Brown became as powerful and irresistible to me as, say, the image of my dead father. So I wrote him that way rather than make it a roman à clef. And there were other reasons, too. Why you choose a particular body of material to make a story out of is very complex, and many of the reasons are just intuitive, as the pressure in your ears just changes. DILLON: I think there is also the question of investigating a certain era in time. In other words, you not only inhabit a character, you inhabit a world. BANKS: But the world that I was trying to gain access to is really my own world. Just as sometimes we travel to another place in order to understand our home more clearly, I think we often travel to other times in order to understand our own time more clearly. That was certainly one of the reasons for going there and trying to look at the world through John Brown’s eyes.
I just feel that I’ve learned more about the history of the Civil War from reading Cloudsplitter than I have from reading history books. SCHAMA: You were reading bad history. BANKS: You wouldn’t want to read Homer in order to understand the Trojan War. I think that it’s a bad idea to read Cloudsplitter as history. It’s one of the objections I’ve had to the reviews of the book, which have objected to its historical inaccuracy, as they see it. Historians in particular felt territorial about this particular period and characters and so forth and held me to the standard of history. If you read the novel for history, you’re making a mistake. I lied. Frequently.
Conversation from PEN’s “Getting Real: Literary ‘Fact’ and Fiction” forum, Stanley Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center.
The Play’s the Thing BEGINNINGS CHARLES MEE:
I had polio when I was a kid, and up until I was fifteen I had never read anything but comic books. Then a high school English teacher of mine brought me a copy of Plato’s Symposium when I was in the hospital, which was a very odd thing to give to me. I read it and was completely taken with it because I myself was a sort of battlefield of conflicting emotions at that time, and of course the Symposium is in dialogue form. After that I always thought in dialogue form, and everything I ever thought about or think about today occurs in my mind as a lot of voices, usually not agreeing with each other. I wrote for the theater in the early sixties (I’m a very old person), and then I got distracted by anti-Vietnam war activities and I spent fifteen or twenty years as a political activist, really, writing about politics and history. I didn’t return to write for the theater until about fifteen years ago, when I took my two very young kids to see a revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway. I got seats in the first row all the way over on one side so you could look into the wings and see the stage hands, and all the artifice of the theater was completely evident, which I thought would be fun for my kids to see. We were sitting there watching the actors put on their make-up, and this guy sitting behind us leaned over to my ear and said, “This is the real world.” So I turned around to see who he was, and no one was there. And since I’ve never heard voices, either before or since, I thought I should pay attention. So I started writing for the theater again. SUZAN-LORI PARKS:
Before I started writing plays I loved musicals. I still have Oklahoma! on top of my CD pile at home. Once a day I play the last song and
it’s great. You know, “Oklahoma O.K.” For me, that’s brilliant. I love musicals, forties musicals, the cheesier the better. I think they’ve influenced my work. JESSICA HAGEDORN:
The first thing I ever did here in New York was Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon with Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis, right here at the Public in the old cabaret upstairs. After that, Joe, who was very much alive at the time, offered me the chance to do a workshop piece of my own, which I did downstairs here. It was called Mango Tango. It was a piece with a band, and one other actor, and even the musicians had to play parts; this was a very streamlined production. I’ve always loved the theater. I think theater feels natural because everybody’s so melodramatic, and everything’s high drama in the Philippines, so theater makes sense. Even if you’re not formally schooled, it comes to you because everybody’s always heightened. I grew up listening to a lot of radio dramas and then of course whatever plays were around my parents took me to. I love musicals too, those older MGM musicals. You grow up on that stuff, you can’t get rid of it—it’s a wonderful influence. When I was living in San Francisco in the seventies I went to theater school, ACT, and I wanted to be an actor and a director and a writer, all those things. And when I realized there wasn’t going to be any work for me as an actor, I thought that perhaps what I could do was write for the theater and create work not just for myself but for other performers who were not getting hired, or were playing hookers all the time.
When I was in college, I took a creative writing class with James Baldwin and was very excited when I had to read my work aloud. We would sit around a big table and read our work and I would always ham it up or act out all the parts—this was a novel I was writing, or a short story. So he asked, “Have you ever thought of writing plays?” and I said no. I didn’t like theater people—they were always dressed in funny ways and wearing funny hats. But I decided to give it a try, playwriting, because I wanted to be a writer.
POLITICS SUZAN-LORI PARKS:
People tell me there are lots of political ideas in my work, but I don’t think about any of those matters when I’m writing. It’s more like, “Who is the woman in the play and what does she want and where is she going and what does she have in her hand and what is she doing with it?” That kind of thing. I don’t sit back and think, “I want to write a play about XYZ because that is an issue which should be addressed.” The idea for Venus was born when I was at a cocktail party and heard a wonderful director talking about the Hottentot Venus. A bell went off in my head and I said, “Ooh, she’s going to be in a play of mine.” Why? Because she had a big butt. I’d just written an article on Josephine Baker, and the article was about how the rear end works. So I was really keyed into black women and black women’s black female booty. Not the meaning of it, the fact of it, you know: the butt. So I said, “Hey, yeah, I’ll write a play about a woman with a butt.” I wasn’t thinking about colonialism, I was thinking about flesh. JESSICA HAGEDORN:
I think there’s a simple way to explain how many of us work. It starts with something specific like the butt, or perhaps the idea of a street kid, which inspired me to write Dogeaters-seeing children on the
street who live by their wits. That’s not the only thing the book or the play is about, but that one image resonated and grew. I think it always does start with a real thing—this flesh or this person or this fruit in one’s hand—and then the politics and the colonialism and the poetry and the romance and the spirituality grows out of that. I think that’s the only way it works. For me what Suzan-Lori does is poetic and language-driven, and yet the ideas are all present. I suspect that many of us start with the images, or we hear the voices, and that drives the whole act of faith.
I start out either hearing something or with an image, something very specific. When you make something around that grain of sand, you just make it the way you think the world is or the way it feels good to you. I think that the familiar tradition of psychological realism and naturalism is a certain understanding of what it is to be a human being, what motivates a human being, what makes people live the way they do. In that tradition of theater there’s been a vision of what it is to be human that seems single-minded to me. Human beings are created by psychology, yes, but also by culture, history, economics, gender, class, biology. You can’t have a person onstage without having all of that onstage too. And then I throw in chunks of image and chunks of text—sort of slam all the broken pieces of glass together—because that’s what feels true to me, that’s how the world feels to me. I remember that an architectural critic once said that architects build buildings so that the structure of the building in some way replicates the structure of their own bodies. And I think I build plays in a way that replicates the structure of my body—that is, the plays are shattered, they’re broken, they don’t work so well, and I move on, seeking some harmonious place to live. It feels as though the work comes not from an idea but from my molecules. JESSICA HAGEDORN:
I want to create a landscape that feels more real to me. Much of what I see is disturbing because it’s so limited, or it’s so homogeneous, and for me the world is much more. It’s many colors and stories and voices, not just Asian American, African. I don’t mean that the agenda comes first, it doesn’t for me. I think I write unconsciously. I hear the voices first, and it always is a sort of dialogue, many dialogues and monologues going on. I don’t know why this child is haunting me as opposed to the child’s mother who’s standing right there, who’s fourteen years old, who’s just as tormented. But for some reason the kid’s face is stuck in my mind
and I have to go with that. I don’t know where it will lead me, but the characters seem very rich to me and so I try to evoke them.
COMMUNITY JESSICA HAGEDORN:
When JoAnne Akalaitis was the artistic director here at the Public, she tried to put together a group of artists from different genres to talk about ideas and be a salon of sorts. I met Michael Greif then and he said Dogeaters had really touched him, and then a few months later he called and asked if I’d ever thought of turning it into a play. And I said, “Hell, no, it’s too big and unwieldy, and I’d always thought of it as a film.” He said, “I don’t see why you can’t do both.” Of course my interest was provoked and he was very persistent in a gentle way. I thought, “How is this ever going to work, with the state of the theater what it is today? Because I’m not going to want to reduce this novel to a two-character piece, it’s impossible, so realistically what are the chances of it ever getting done?” But there was an opportunity to go to the Sundance Theater Lab, which turned out to be a really great thing for me because I got to work with incredible actors. It was a trial by fire, and I work well that way. I like to do things spontaneously with the actors right there, rewriting on the spot. I arrived with maybe four scenes, and at the end of two and a half weeks I had drafted the first act, which I couldn’t have done here in Manhattan. I got good feedback and I started to see that perhaps it was possible to do this, and I fell back in love with the process of working in theater. It had been a long time since I’d done anything like this and it was also such a big piece— not a performance piece where I was controlling everything, but a production where I was collaborating with a huge group of people. We were all depending on each other, having to trust each other. From then on, the play became a reality. I got permission from La Jolla and we produced it last year. When we did Dogeaters in the San Diego area, which has a large percentage of Filipinos, we did a massive outreach to get them into
the theater, offering ten-dollar tickets, or lawn tickets for free, and working with community centers and libraries. It was a lot of work but I think it was worth it because it did bring in people who wouldn’t have come otherwise. But after the play closed, the question became: Are those same people going to keep coming? Because you want people to continue going to the theater, to see everybody’s plays and not just the play that relates to their immediate concerns. That’s an ongoing problem, but I think there are many many ways that a theater can try to help, because I certainly saw it happen. I went out there, as the writer, and so did the cast. It was important to them, as Filipino American actors, to get the community to come and see them. SUZAN-LORI PARKS:
I feel really lucky. Before I had a play done here in New York I was welcomed into the Yale School of Drama community. And before that there was BACA Downtown. I feel as if I’ve been at BACA and Yale and now The Public, surrounded by love, which is very important to me as a writer. It doesn’t mean that I don’t write angry plays anymore, but I know how supportive a home can be. CHARLES MEE:
I saw a piece in the meat market which some of you may have seen. It was produced by Anne Hamburger, who ran En Garde Arts at the time. The piece was in and out of the streets of the meat market, and then in and out of warehouses. Carpenters were walking through, and you didn’t know if they were actors or audience members or if they were working. At one point I took a wrong turn and I ended up standing at the window of a restaurant for about ten minutes, watching everybody having dinner. I thought it was part of the piece. It was incredible, so I went home and I called Annie Hamburger and left a message on her machine. For me, it was a total rethinking of what a theatrical experience could be. That is to say, you take it into the streets so that it breaks down the walls between life and art.
It’s exhilarating. People come to see this event who never otherwise go to the theater; some people see it by accident. You incorporate the life of the city within it, the city becomes a set, everything that happens in the piece is played against the architecture of the city and the social economic structure of the real world. I could go on and on about all the things that I thought were so thrilling about what Anne Hamburger set up as a producer.
I wanted to do a piece about people on the fringe, marginal people. So we got an abandoned cancer hospital on 106th and Central Park West, and we set up a dinner table in the courtyard. I thought of the piece as nothing more than some strange people who come out and break bread with the audience. With them we perform the most fundamental sort of social and befriending ritual that we have, which is to share a meal together. So these weird people come out, they sit around the dinner table and say weird stuff, and the audience, which feels odd and uncomfortable in the beginning, gradually relaxes—until by the end, I think, they love the people onstage. They’ve made a human connection with these people. That was the event. There was a rock band—guys who had recently been discharged from a mental hospital—who played great music. People came in from the neighborhood, kids came in. Annie gave away a lot of free tickets, so there were forty, fifty kids in the house every night who’d never seen a live theatrical event before. Many of them came back night after night, a great audience. There was the downtown art crowd, and there were these adolescent boys, and they all laughed in different places. We did another piece on the banks of the Hudson River. It was based on Orestes. I remember going to rehearsal one night. I got in a cab and said to the driver, “Could you take me down on West 57th Street to where the Department of Sanitation pier is, and you take a right turn through the storm fence and you go up this dirt road along the Hudson River.” He said, “I don’t think so.” I said, “No, no, no, I understand it seems weird, but actually we’re rehearsing a play there.” He said, “I haven’t heard about it.” And then I saw from his license that he had a Greek name, and I said, “You know it’s based on the great Greek play Orestes.” And he said, “I’ve never heard of it.” So he called his dispatcher and had a conversation in Greek, and finally I saw his body relax, and he turned to me and said, “He killed his mother, right?” And I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Okay.” These plays were done in scary neighborhoods, or neighborhoods that normal theater people don’t go to. It meant that you got an audience of adventurous people—they were really alive. It was exciting to be with them.
PROCESS SUZAN-LORI PARKS:
With most of my plays, I go down into the basement and wrestle with the monster there. Or to choose another one of my favorite metaphors, I dig. I go down to the basement, to the floor of the cellar, and I dig and dig and dig. And one year I’ll come up with this thing that’s a play, but it won’t feel right. I’ll have to continue working on it. It continues to change and I have to let the draft lead me; I have to listen to what I know the play is. I have this belief: the play is already written, I have to get out of the way. I have to listen because the play is calling me and I just have to keep listening to what I know it is on some subconscious level, and continue to work toward it, which sometimes takes a week, sometimes takes seven years. CHARLES MEE:
I’ve never felt that I do one thing and that I’ll be doing it forever. The Magic Theater in San Francisco commissioned a piece from me about a year ago and they said, “You can use eight actors,” and I thought, “God, how do you write a play with only eight actors?” But I thought that would be an interesting challenge so I started writing, and the play turned out to have twenty-two characters, with all the actors doubling. It got to be fun. Part of it was a game of “He-goesoff, now-he-comes-on.” So we had a rhythm going. Late in life I have discovered a love for Shakespeare. I did a number of pieces based on the Greeks because they deal with characters who murder their mothers and fathers and cut up their sons for dessert. These are the problems that they take for plays, not moderate little misunderstandings we can clear up before the commercial break. They say: This is how people are, they’re savage —now make a civilization out of that. Shakespeare was writing for a company of actors. There were twelve actors, and sometimes a few others, and a lot of doubling. And so you get into the pleasure of finding the multiple human beings that exist in a single human being.
I think it’s a challenge to deal with a particular time in history that very few Americans know about. And you can’t just throw it all out there and hope that people get it. At the same time I don’t want to be didactic or do a history lesson. So the ten Filipinos who come get the whole picture, laughing, weeping. And then you’ve got the other two hundred people sitting there thinking, “What is this?” I don’t want to do exposition, ever. I was fortunate because, from the beginning, George Wolfe said to me, “Don’t explain.” But you still have to think about how to be as clear as possible. I don’t think anyone has the answer, but I’ve been fortunate in working with people who are very sensitive to how tough it is. CHARLES MEE:
I’m sixty-one years old; I’ve never made a living as a playwright. So writing is a form of illness, I guess. If I’m not doing it I feel confused and hopeless and stuff blows through my mind—it’s disorienting unless I can contain it in some vessel. But I feel that I’ve become happier in the last few years, and I think my plays are happier. I don’t think I’m less connected to what horrifies me in the world, and I reserve the right to write something really nasty in the future, but at the moment I’m happy and that seems like a bigger difference than having forty characters or eight actors. SUZAN-LORI PARKS:
I knew when I finished Venus that my plays might be different after that, though I didn’t know how. But I’ve written three little ones since then. There used to be a lot of dead people in my plays—I would just haul them all out onto stage. Now there seem to be fewer dead people, there are really no dead people. There are of course murders, but no one’s dead for the whole play. As a playwright I always feel haunted, but if you’re haunted by someone dead who’s way, way back there, like the Hottentot Venus, for example, who lived in the year 1800, it’s very different from being
haunted by Hester, La Negrita, who’s the heroine of In the Blood, because she’s right here with us. CHARLES MEE:
I like to put aside a play and repeatedly come back to it over the course of a year or a year and a half because I think that the principal reason for rewriting is not to take something that isn’t perfect and polish it until it is perfect, but to take this thing and turn it over and look at it in different moods and different frames of mind, with different emotions. To come at it after you’ve just had a fight with somebody, to come at it after you’ve just made love, to come at it after you’ve just been to France, so that by the time you’ve finished it has all of you in it. It’s a piece that is as rich as you can be as a person—it finally contains all the emotions and points of view that you’re capable of.
Excerpts from “The Play’s the Thing,” a discussion at Joe’s Pub, the Public Theater, New York City. Co-sponsored by PEN’s Open Book Committee.
An Equation for Black People Onstage SUZAN-LORI PARKS
Simply this: The bulk of relationships Black people are engaged in onstage is the relationship between the Black and the White other. This is the stuff of high drama. I wonder if a drama involving Black people can exist without the presence of the White—no, not the presence—the presence is not the problem. As Toni Morrison writes in her essay “Black Matters,” the presence of the White often signifies the presence of the Black. Within the subject is its other. So the mere presence of the other is not the problem. The interest in the other is. The use of the White in the dramatic equation is, I think, too often seen as the only way of exploring our Blackness; this equation reduces Blackness to merely a state of “nonWhiteness.” Blackness in this equation is a people whose lives consist of a series of reactions and responses to the White ruling class. We have for so long been an “oppressed” people, but are Black people only blue? As African-Americans we have a history, a future and a daily reality in which a confrontation with a White ruling class is a central feature. This reality makes life difficult. This reality often traps us in a singular mode of expression. There are many ways of defining Blackness and there are many ways of presenting Blackness onstage. The Klan does not always have to be outside the door for Black people to have lives worthy of dramatic literature. Saying that “Whitey” has to be present in Black drama because Whitey is an inextricable aspect of Black reality is like saying that every play has to have a murder in it, is like saying that
every drama involving Jews must reference Treblinka. And what happens when we choose a concern other than the race problem to focus on? What kind of drama do we get? Let’s look at the math: BLACK PEOPLE + “WHITEY” = STANDARD DRAMATIC CONFLICT (STANDARD TERRITORY) i.e. “BLACK DRAMA” = the presentation of the Black as oppressed so that WHATEVER the dramatic dynamics, they are most often READ to EQUAL an explanation or relation of Black oppression. This is not only a false equation, this is bullshit. so that BLACK PEOPLE + x - NEW DRAMATIC CONFLICT (NEW TERRITORY) where x is the realm of situations showing African-Americans in states other than the Oppressed by/Obsessed with “Whitey” state; where the White when present is not the oppressor, and where audiences are encouraged to see and understand and discuss these dramas in terms other than that same old shit. A black man from Nigeria asked me once “What is this interest with watermelon you Black Americans have? I do not understand.” His not understanding does not make him non-Black/White/an inauthentic Black man. His not understanding simply means that he grew up Black yes! but Black somewhere else. An old acquaintance of mine, a somewhat revered theatre scholar, once suggested that a fabulous production of The Importance of Being Earnest would feature Black principals with Whites as the servants.
This is NOT an interesting use of Black people. This is the thinnest sort of dramaturgy. Ideas like these— equations featuring this lack of complexity—are again and again held up to us as exemplar, as the ultimate possibilities for Black people onstage. Black presence on stage is more than a sign or messenger of some political point. 4 Questions Can a White person be present onstage and not be an oppressor? Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed? For the Black writer, are there Dramas other than race dramas? Does Black life consist of issues other than race issues? And gee, there’s another thing: There is no such thing as THE Black Experience; that is, there are many experiences of being Black which are included under the rubric. Just think of all the different kinds of African peoples. I’m continually encouraging myself to explore TheDrama-of-the-Black-Person-as-an-Integral-Facet-of-theUniverse. This exploration takes me, in a very organic way, into new territory; because, in encouraging myself to listen to the stories beyond my default stories— because the story determines the shape of the play—the play assumes a new structure. So. As a Black person writing for theatre, what is theatre good for? What can theatre do for us? We can “tell it like it is”; “tell it as it was”; “tell it as it could be.” In my plays I do all 3; and the writing is rich because we are not an impoverished people, but a wealthy people fallen on hard times. I write plays because I love Black people. As there is no single “Black Experience,” there is no single “Black Aesthetic” and there is no one way to write or think or
feel or dream or interpret or be interpreted. As AfricanAmericans we should recognize this insidious essentialism for what it is: a fucked-up trap to reduce us to only one way of being. We should endeavor to show the world and ourselves our beautiful and powerfully infinite variety.
Suzan-Lori Parks is this year’s winner of the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for an American playwright in mid-career.
The Most Insidious Censorship K. ANTHONY APPIAH & BENJAMIN BARBER
K. ANTHONY APPIAH: As members of PEN’s Freedom-to-Write Committee, we’re heirs to a tradition of worrying mostly about the role of governments in restricting access to information, which is what censorship conventionally means. But since the end of the Soviet empire, it’s become less easy to use the old picture of the old problem. It seems to me that there are at least two major questions, and they have to do with God and Mammon. BENJAMIN BARBER: Or God as Mammon… APPIAH: Well, yes, the horrible combination of the two. It’s true that a state got involved, say, in the Rushdie matter, but it didn’t have to. If Salman Rushdie was in danger, it was because of the religious sentiments of people, not in Iran, but in the places that Salman Rushdie hung out. On the other side, all of us, as writers, are very conscious of the concentration of power in the media—you know, Bertelsmann owns Knopf and Time Warner is owned by AOL and in turn owns CNN. There is this vast accumulation of what we now are pleased to call content—which means it’s possible that certain voices can be kept out of the discussion. And you don’t have to threaten anybody with prison and you don’t have to burn any books. BARBER: The great irony is that writers and intellectuals who are usually populists and progressives and on the Left—not all of them, but some of them—begin to sound like Republicans when it comes to censorship. Which is to say, they carry on about the overweening state and the powers of government, and they talk about freedom as the sphere of independence from government interference. And like Republicans they have a sturdy eighteenth-century picture of the world in which they live. It’s certainly true that, historically, from the end of the Middle Ages until well into the nineteenth century and the
advent of corporate capitalism in its early form, the primary source of power, authority, and thus potentially of censorship, was the state. Quite properly, early writers on censorship like John Stuart Mill, and before him Milton, understood very well that the state was the source of peril and the place to watch. The trouble is in the twentieth century —or no, it’s the twenty-first century, isn’t it? APPIAH: I think that it’s like the sixties, which went on well into the seventies. BARBER: Right, right. You know, for intellectuals to be talking like Republicans about the overweening power of the state, in the face of these new forms of coercion which are neither visible nor rooted in brute force and power and which indeed are often even welcomed by those who are being coerced, is to miss the central political feature of the new millennium. The caveat of course is that a lot of the world still looks eighteenth century, and I understand that in much of the developing world the state still represents a perilous danger for writers and intellectuals. I don’t mean to say that we are now free from the traditional perils of state intervention. I do mean to say, even in such countries as those, there are other, equally dangerous, powers afoot, and you exactly identified them under the rubric God and Mammon. But particularly, for me, Mammon. The power of God is in a certain sense the pre-modern paradigm—the paradigm of the Middle Ages, when the Pope and the Emperor were the two great dangers to liberty, and the Inquisition certainly put flesh on those particular bones. What’s striking about today is not the persistence of state power, or the persistence of theocratic power, but the invention of new forms of market intervention that seem to work inside the head, rather than out of it. These forces don’t put a pistol to the head but manipulate the wiring inside the head in ways far more dangerous to liberty because they’re so hard to resist. And indeed very often those forms of coercion work with, if not the outright volition, certainly the manipulated compliance of those being imprisoned. Tom Stoppard tells a story about his time in Eastern Europe before the revolution,
when liberty of expression was forever threatened and as a consequence was vital and productive, and the time after the revolution, when freedom of expression was utterly unthreatened and nobody could think of anything to say. You could say anything and nothing seemed worth saying. And in that paradox is perhaps much of the new problem of censorship, of which I think institutions like PEN have yet to take the full measure. APPIAH: It’s difficult, I think, to grasp these new forms of censorship, especially if our consciousnesses are being inhabited by forces outside ourselves, which was one of Mill’s great worries. His form of liberty was the liberty of self-creation, and the market can colonize your consciousness and stop you from exercising your imagination, stop you from making decisions about what kind of life you would want to live. And I do think that one of the great roles of literature and the arts, generally, is to allow people materials for thinking about those questions. If your consciousness is colonized by the market to the point where you can’t think about those questions, you don’t necessarily notice. And it’s a hard story to tell. I mean, what does it look like? It looks like somebody shopping at the Gap… BARBER: Our imagination fails to leap the chasm from the totalitarianism of a political tyranny to a much softer form of—one hesitates to call it totalitarianism, but it bears some resemblance to it —the totalitarianism of the market. Totalitarianism suggests the infusion of every realm of being, every domain of activity, by a single set of norms and values. In the case of a dominant ideology, we call it political totalitarianism; in the case of an overweening religion, we call it theocracy. But when the market infuses every domain of activity—when everything is privatized, everything is commercialized, whether it’s culture or education or even politics— that we call freedom. I used to go to Eastern Europe in Soviet Days and was, of course, appalled by the billboards that were everywhere in Moscow and Budapest and Warsaw. There was a sense of our public space, the air we breathed, being pervaded by state slogans—which were
actually old Enlightenment slogans about brotherhood and universalism. What was noxious about them was that they took over our public space. They were everywhere and you felt that you couldn’t breathe, that there was no place for the self or relationships or anything else. Now you go to Budapest or Warsaw and there’s Coca-Cola and Nike and IBM, and in fact it’s exactly the same. Everywhere you go there are billboards, but because their message is “private” and “commercial,” they somehow strike us as part of a world of choice, a world of options. I find them far more base than the old messages, and equally pervasive. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of liberty in modern society, which I think goes to the heart of what we think of political and literary free expression. Liberty is essentially a public good and requires public space. Our freedom is forged by our public institutions and requires public space. The privatization of space— the privatization of cities and suburbs, the privatization of choice itself—actually inhibits, limits, and ultimately paralyzes real liberty. In Sophie’s Choice, that remarkable and awesomely titled epic, the commandant of the camp tells Sophie, “Yes, the sign says, ‘Work Will Set You Free.’ I will prove to you that it’s about freedom. I will let you choose which of your two children I will kill.” So much of the choice in modern privatized society is a trivialized version of Sophie’s choice. Choices without meaning, without dignity, without a real capacity to change the nature of the world we live in. And yet the forces that shrink those choices are not recognized as coercive or seen as a threat to freedom of expression, and so are not seen as an appropriate subject matter for the work of PEN’s Freedom-toWrite Committee. APPIAH: I guess that seems— BARBER: hyperbolic and overstated? APPIAH: Right, and a bit more pessimistic than I think I am. Perhaps we could think about the problem in another way. Let’s consider the possibility that, whereas in the old world we had to work against states all the time, part of the task in the new world may be to work
with governments to help them help us, as a public, shape the public sphere, which is something that government, in the end, must be able to do. That is, part of the function of government is to define public spaces. BARBER: I think that’s exactly right, and that’s, in a sense, the shiny and bright side of the tarnished coin that I’ve been talking about. The celebration and exaggeration of the liberty of the private realm have been accompanied by an ongoing onslaught against not just the idea of government but the idea of democracy, because every onslaught on government in our country and in Europe is also an onslaught on democracy. People talk about “the government” as if we lived in Moscow, or as if the governors dropped in from Mars, rather than being our elected representatives. When you attack government, you’re really saying, “We, as a people, together, can’t do anything. Better let us flourish as selfish individuals.” In fact, the government representing us turns out to be, in many cases, the only viable instrument we have to take on the new, powerful, private monopolies that themselves present a threat to freedom. We’ve seen this in what to me was a landmark and disastrous recent case; the Democrats and the Republicans conspired on the 1996 New Federal Communications Act, which updated the Federal Communications Act of 1934. Now in 1934 it was clear to everybody that radio, the new radio technology, was a public utility, and that it had to be regulated in the public interest, and the undergirding for the 1934 Act was simply that statement: Radio broadcasting is a public utility, and it has to be used in the public interest, and we will intervene where necessary to ensure that this happens. The 1996 Act in effect repealed that fundamental principle. It said that the new technologies afford a spectrum, a broad pluralism of alternatives, which means that the primary usages of the new technologies are private and not public and that therefore governments should stand aside, should deregulate, should get out of the way. This led then Senator Dole to call the privatization “the giveaway of the century.” Digitalized spectra worth seventy billion dollars were being handed over for free to the companies that owned the pre-digital bandwidths.
There you have a kind of innocence about what happens in the private realm, an innocent belief that the private realm is made up of Adam Smith’s small competitive enterprises, that the world of telecommunication is inhabited by a thousand newspapers, five thousand publishers, ten thousand TV stations, all in competition with one another, so many eighteenth-century broadsides, and that what government has to do is get out of the way and watch freedom flourish. The reality is that ownership in telecommunications, since 1945, has been monopolized and concentrated—by most accounts something like six or seven global telecommunication corporations own over half of the television stations, satellite stations, film studios, book companies, entertainment companies, and ball teams in the world. You get a new form of vertical integration in which the whole entertainment business—in its content, the conduits that convey it, and the hardware on which we receive it—is owned by a tiny handful of monopolistic corporations. Finally, the U.S. Justice Department got enough gumption to understand that Bill Gates, well named the gatekeeper of the new software, was actually a threat to competition and to liberty. To come full circle, you are exactly right to say, not only is government not the enemy, but where government is democratic, it can indeed become a friend of pluralism, and of the variety and competition that capitalism boasts it’s about but systematically undermines. APPIAH: You’ve made most of your points in terms of the diminishment of liberty, but from time to time you invoke other values, among them dignity. The old way of thinking about censorship led us to be very skeptical about attempts to regulate content, to make it wholesome. And that’s what we’re talking about when we worry that our public sphere makes it impossible for people to live dignified lives. We’re not worrying about the things that the Puritans thought unwholesome, but we are worrying about a kind of unwholesomeness, and there’s a reason such thinking makes people nervous. There’s a deep Libertarian instinct in many Americans which says, “It’s not that people can’t do terrible things if left to themselves, it’s that government can get in the way of doing
good things, and we don’t trust the government to be left in charge of deciding what’s good.” But if these are truly democratic institutions, everybody gets a fair say. In a functioning liberal democracy majorities respect minorities. One of the things that I think is lacking, increasingly, in the industrialized western world is the kind of culture one notices, or at least noticed—perhaps it’s disappearing there, too—in Scandinavia, for example, where the basis for democracy seemed to include notions of respect for people who were, in your view, weird and strange. This kind of toleration is not imposed, as we often have to impose toleration here by getting the ACLU to come in and prevent somebody from doing something; it flows from an understanding of all of us as real equal citizens of a shared public. That brings me, in a rather rambling way, to a point about education. It’s difficult to prepare people to live in this world, and writers of fiction and nonfiction, intellectuals, ought to be, I think, at the forefront in thinking about how best to prepare them. What do we say to young people, as we invite them into this world, which will innoculate them to some extent against the risk of having their consciousnesses colonized? BARBER: I couldn’t agree more that education is one of the primary ways a democratic society defends its pluralism and some sense of its dignity, and its standards, without relying on a cultural establishment backed by government force to impose it. But education is being colonized by the same commercial and marketing forces that are colonizing everything else. Many universities have now signed exclusive contracts with cola vendors and apparel vendors and so forth. A lot of student unions now look like malls; education is becoming a training in the acquisition of brand loyalty. So, we’ve got a circle: at the very point we’re appealing to education to help us defend against privatization and commercialization, the institutions that we depend upon are themselves being privatized and commercialized. The other issue that you raise, of course, is the very delicate one of how we sustain our moral and cultural standards without creating
a cultural tyrant to impose them—which always ends up destroying both liberty and culture. Part of the problem is the assumption—and this is the assumption of Mill and the old liberals—that in the competition of ideas, good values will thrive. That’s true in a genuinely free and egalitarian market. But markets aren’t free and they aren’t egalitarian and they’re run largely by profit, and consequently the value that’s least expensive to produce and cheapest to buy is the one that wins. This suggests that a role for government, a noncensorious role, might be to try to guarantee that the free market allows cultural values some space to thrive. That’s what public television and public radio are about. That’s what special postage rates for journals of opinion were supposed to be about. There are lots of things government can do without imposing its own norms, to assure a fairer and better competition, but we’ve gone in the other direction. We deregulated, we said, “Don’t worry, the market will take care of it.” You talked about education. My daughter is in a public school in New Jersey. She just went into the fourth grade, and last night she gave me a piece of paper which she had to sign and I had to sign. She’s now going to go on the Internet—which, courtesy of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, is supposed to mean new access to new wealths of culture and information, but you would think that she was being wired to a cesspool. She came home with a piece of paper that said, “We are not responsible for commercial uses; your child may not use the Net commercially. We are not responsible for illegal and pornographic sites that your child accesses, and she may not access such sites. We are not responsible for any misuses of the information she gets. We are not responsible for the quality of information she gets—most of which will not be any good.” In other words, this great new age of the wired schools is one in which the schools are worried only, apparently, about liability, about the tainting of the child’s mind by a largely commercialized and privatized Internet that is a far cry from the electronic frontier we hoped for back in the nineties. Over and over again, the market, which is supposed to be the source of competition, the source of a variety and plurality of goods,
is making inadvertent but certain choices about what will prevail. The Internet today is 95 percent commercial, and of that, 25 percent of the hits are pornographic. I’m not a Puritan, but if you’re going to wire up the schools to the Internet with the idea that it will improve education, maybe you’re misjudging the scene. It seems to me that we need government to assure fairer competition, to assure that public, educational, and cultural institutions have at least some voice. APPIAH: Just to be my normal, Pollyanna-ish self, it does seem to me that if I go on the Web now, I have unprecedented access to information. A few months ago, preparing to give a talk to the Phi Beta Kappa class at Harvard, I was trying to remember a favorite poem of mine that I wanted to tell them. It’s a poem by Horace, and I could remember almost all of it, but not quite all. I found it in one minute on the Web—the whole text, in Latin, with a good eighteenthcentury translation, because the twentieth-century ones are all in copyright and the person who put it there, someone who loves Horace, didn’t want to infringe on anyone’s copyright. It seems to me that as the cost of making information available to anybody goes down, there are real benefits. I mean, if I type something in, anybody in the world who has access to this system can find my words or Horace’s words—or, of course, endless images of people having endless kinds of bizarre sex. So— BARBER: Horace has something to say about that as well, come to think of it… APPIAH: Yes, and Catullus too, whom I did not quote to the students. But the point is that we ought to have a terrain in which it’s possible to find what we need, not merely to have it there. BARBER: Exactly. The point about technology is that while it always has its own entailments, which often can move, as new technology does, in democratic and educational and pedagogically worthwhile directions, new technologies almost always reflect the societies in which they are forged. For some people, the new technologies are a
tremendous facilitator, no question about it. But to use these technologies in a discriminating way takes a lifetime of education and literacy. We are telling uneducated people that the Net will educate and render them literate, when in fact they require the very literacy and education that the Net is supposed to produce in order to use it wisely and intelligently. Otherwise there is no way to distinguish between the gossip and the lies and the truth. You type in Whitehouse.com and you get a hardcore porn site (which some people would say is appropriate). You’re looking for information about the genome project and instead find a site about uplifting people onto Martian vehicles and rewiring their brains. The Net gives you access to endless data—hard data—but it doesn’t give you access to information organized as knowledge, let alone as wisdom. That takes a serious education. What if, in 1996, the government had said, “The new technological tools that we have available to us offer tremendous assets for culture and education, and we’re going to insist that 10 percent or 15 percent be set aside for such uses. We will not, ourselves, prescribe the standards, we will simply say that anybody who wants to use them in such ways and meets minimal standards will be subsidized.” That would have been terrific. Instead, government said, “Give it to the market. The market will take care of it.” And the market sank to its lowest level, engaging in a race to the bottom. Precisely because it is a mirror of the society in which it grows, technology needs direction, which our democratic institutions can provide. APPIAH: You mentioned at the start, when I was talking about God and Mammon, that they can come together very easily in our world. One can think of certain kinds of television evangelists who are making pots and pots of money, and you don’t have to be heavily religious to feel upset by what they’re doing in the name of religion. Not because it’s blasphemous but because it seems to trivialize the most important things about human life. I wonder if we could spend a minute talking about what you rightly call the pre-modern worry, the one about religion. Religious institutions have borrowed all the apparatus of modern technologies—the apparatus that marketing
people use. Yet, because they’re still able to generate quite powerful senses of community, religions also connect with something that represents a powerful obstacle to Mammon. The Rushdie affair brought together Muslims, not just in Britain and the United States, but all around the world; it brought them together in an argument. Some of them were deeply hostile to the Fatwa, and some of them understood its motives and disapproved, and some of them were in favor of it, but they realized that they all were affected by it. Religion has something that Mammon doesn’t have, except perhaps in France, where it’s still possible to mobilize ideas of Frenchness in the market—to insist that you can’t have McDonald’s—but that doesn’t work in this country. Buying American just doesn’t mean anything anymore, and I don’t think buying British means anything to Brits. But religion can generate powerful community feeling. BARBER: It does more than that. It generates a powerful sense of values that aren’t merely materialistic and trivial. And in that sense it’s a potential source of the dignity that you were saying is absent in the culture of private markets. I want to agree with you that the state’s abstention from its proper duties is causing some of the problems religion has right now. People forget that the separation of church and state was designed not simply to protect the state against religion, but to protect religion against the state. What we now need is a separation of religion and market enforced by the state. We need the same wall there, and the state ought to spend energy and money making space for religion in a society where the market colonizes it. When was the last time anybody has seen on prime time or commercial television a portrait of religion that is other than sanctimonious, or right-wing reactionary, or aimed at simply ridiculing piety? APPIAH: For most people, in most places, to the extent that they have a commitment to noncommercial values, that commitment is connected with their sense of themselves as religious. I’m not enforcing the view that atheists can’t have values, but it’s a fact that
in most places in the world, the power of those values, for most people, comes from some sense of the transcendent, which pulls them away from simply being market consumers and asks them to think about other things. Here again, to come down to our more parochial concerns, this is a difficult subject for the Freedom-to-Write Committee. BARBER: In a sense, a simplistic sense, religion, or religious orthodoxy, is always seen as the enemy of freedom of expression. APPIAH: It shouldn’t be taboo to raise questions about how religion, or matters that are important to religious people, should be represented in a multi-religious society. It seems fine to raise them. We don’t want the state to come in and determine which religious positions are going to be permitted. We don’t want people to express their strongly felt feelings in ways that amount to coercing rather than engaging in dialogues with each other. The standard Freedom-toWrite view is that while it’s perfectly fine for a religious organization to stand outside the theater, it’s not fine for them to threaten to blow it up. (And I do not wish to be held to have implied that any particular organization actually threatened to blow anything up. It’s an example out of the air.) Our response would be that we deal with such disagreements by having a dialogue about them, discussing them, and the discussion starts with the assumption that everybody is worthy of respect. BARBER: The other thing is, particularly in America, we want everything both ways. We want deeply held religious convictions that nobody takes too seriously, we want freedom of expression to say absolutely anything but not to offend anyone, we refuse the reality that there are real value conflicts and that we have to make compromises. We pay homage to the power of religion sociologically without giving it the space to do what, sociologically, it’s supposed to do. You see that in what I would call the ongoing privatization of religion. There’s a notion that religion, like everything else, should be private and not public. That’s on its face absurd. Religion is, by its very nature, about communities—it has to be public. To take an
unpopular example, I would rather live in a community that is allowed to put a crèche in a public square, if the community is Christian, and maybe put up a Star of David at Passover as well, than in one where they say, “No religious symbols are going to be allowed. They can be displayed in the privacy of your home.” Because the whole point of these displays is their public nature, the sense of belonging to a community. Or we could of course just say that we’re going to live in a wholly secular atheist society where religion is nothing more than a trivial private matter. But we don’t want to; we want it both ways. If I lived in seventeenth-century or eighteenth-century Massachusetts, I would say we need more freedom and less public display of religion. But looking at the United States today, I’d say we could afford a little more display of religion without undermining the secular base of society, without offending the variety of people who are here. If we at PEN are really concerned about free expression, then maybe we should be a little less sensitized to displays of religion and a little more sensitized to the implicit censorship that goes on when these displays are forced inside. APPIAH: Perhaps we should distinguish between two publics. There’s the public as the state and there’s the public as civil society. BARBER: You’ve put your finger on the crucial conceptual issue. When we talk only about state and private sector, we miss the middling reality of civil society, where most people live their lives. I think there’s a lot of confusion about that. We have polarized our world into state and government, which we label the public world, and the market (the private world). But in fact, though we vote and pay taxes in the state world, and though we shop and work in the private world, most of what we care about—when we pray, when we play, when we go to school, when we create, when we work with foundations and community associations—is done in civil society. Civil society is public like the state sector without being coercive, but voluntary like the private sector without being private. If we can make civil society the arena for public expression of religious and moral
sentiments, we can avoid coercion from the state and trivialization from the market sector. APPIAH: Right, right. I’m sometimes resistant to talk of privatization in this society because it seems to muddle up things that ought to be kept clearly distinct. The social and the economic are not the same thing, and neither is the same as the government. BARBER: You know, maybe here you and I, and PEN, can represent the best form of liberalism. Liberalism is about boundaries. It’s about boundaries between government and civil society, between civil society and the economic sector, between public and private, and we’ve been fighting a war of boundaries as if there is only one boundary—that between the market and the state—instead of a series of boundaries, all of which have to be protected for liberty and pluralism to be protected. If we begin to think about censorship in the context of a series of boundaries, we could sometimes use one perilous source of authority—government—to help secure these boundaries, and at other times we might use the economic market to help secure boundaries for civil societies against government. APPIAH: Yes, and then we, ourselves, of course, are society. We don’t have any money— BARBER: —so we’re not economic. And we don’t have any power— APPIAH: —so we’re not governmental! But we also want to play a role in shaping how things turn out for ourselves and for each other. BARBER: And we have there the greatest power, which Tocqueville understood. Civil society has the power of public opinion. And if we can recognize the varied threats that are presented to freedom of expression and to the values we care about, we can provide a kind of leadership that makes for a stronger and more vital civil society and allows it to fight these good fights with courage.
Flattop for Cherry Hill PAUL BETTS
THIS IS A STORY about the experiences I have had as a prison barber. I was incarcerated at the C.E. Egeler Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, 1995-1998. Cherry Hill is a cemetery for the prison system in Michigan. It is where prisoners are buried when they die in prison and they have no one to claim their bodies. A flattop was one man’s dream to die with dignity. When you are put in prison you are left on your own to maintain your sense of self-worth. It is something that you must choose to do. The option is to blend into the blue haze of card games and cigarette smoke that can become prison life. I chose to write for the prison paper. I thought it would allow me the opportunity to write about positive things. One of the first self-created assignments was to write about the barbering class that was just starting up. The instructor, a very dignified and private lady, Ms. Davis, allowed me to become a student so that I could write a story about the entire process. The first day there were twenty-eight inmates who came to class. The class was led by an older inmate who had many years of experience in prison barbering. There were not enough books for all the men so we had to share. The course involved a lot of book assignments, but we were not allowed to take the books back to our cells. By week twelve there were only a few men left in the class. At the end I was the only one to complete the course. I got a barbering certificate but not the success story I had wanted. I actually did not want to become a barber, but I felt a sense of responsibility for my education. I volunteered to cut hair at the prison hospital chronic care unit. D. Waters Hospital is where prisoners go to die. They die from acute problems—heart attacks and injuries caused by prison violence. They also die from the lingering slow
processes caused by AIDS, tuberculosis, cancer or from the results of violence in their crime of commission. Old Henry was dying slowly, seventeen years so far. As a young man he was the driver of a getaway car at a gas station robbery. Henry did not know his friends had guns. The owner of the gas station shot one of his friends, killing him. Henry was hit with a stray bullet. He was paralyzed from the neck down. Henry has a big dent in the side of his head. I know because when I cut Henry’s hair we work together to keep the hair longer in the area of the dent to make it look less obvious. There are no mirrors in the room. Henry never gets out of bed, but how he looks matters to him. Henry does look better without the big dent. The last time I cut Henry’s hair I had to put on protective clothing for an especially virulent infection he had contracted. Henry will die in that bed. Henry will die with a smaller-appearing dent and a slightly better self-image. Hair day at the Hospital was an event and an ordeal. The entourage of barbers assembled at the prison academic school building. We put clippers and combs into paper bags, then walked across the prison yard, through the scattered picnic tables full of men playing cards, to a large separate building, D.W. Hospital. We were in prison blues, but when we got processed into the hospital area we were required to strip and put on overalls. These were one-size-fits-all uniforms. There are exceptions to every rule. One size did not fit me. Two of my legs could have fit into one of the legs on the uniform. The legs required so much rolling up I looked like I had large blue donuts around my ankles. After processing we waited in the hall for the escort that took us up to chronic care. As soon as the elevator door opened, we smelled “it.” To me “it” was a memory of high school biology class, jars with frogs in progressive stages of disassembly floating in formaldehyde. To the other barbers, who had missed high school biology, it was the smell of death and pain. The smell of emergency rooms where bullets were removed from them or their friends. I was happier with the memory of biology class.
Lining the corridor of the chronic care unit was a convoy of wheelchairs. Each had a unique but equally interesting occupant. Diane Arbus, the famous photographer of carnivals, would have felt quite at home with this collection of curious photo opportunities. There were the old, with their wobbling heads of white hair, facial stubble caked with dried drool, and whose shaky hands were no longer capable of shaving. They sat in their wheelchairs, with their torn gowns exposing their aging frailty. There were other general groups, amputees waging war against diabetes and losing one limb at a time. There was some morbid kidding that they were escaping piece by piece. It seems that humor is difficult to amputate. There was a self-proclaimed Indian Chief, a young 700 lb. Black man whose girth was his disability. He could not physically fit through any standard doors into a cell. Hospital doors are much larger. He sat on two chairs and waited his turn. Time is the pallbearer of the old. The younger men were mostly battlegrounds for disease. Internal cancer soldiers were bombed by radiation in the colons, brains, lungs and prostates of the involuntary inmate hosts. As the war waged within, they waited their turn. That got Billie his most recent trip to Waters Hospital. I don’t know if there is a Guinness record for speed haircuts, but if there is the guards can attest that Billie and I are contenders. I wandered back past the convoy of wheelchairs. The nurse told me my next victim, her choice of words, was Jimmie. Jimmie had less drool, less wobble, more hair, and more pain. Jimmie was losing his war with cancer. He was in his early fifties. His hair was beginning to gray. He had watery eyes, thin arms, and a strong smile. Jimmie looked disheveled. The radiation bombs that were aimed at his cancer army had been having little effect. The war was close to over, only his smile did not know. Jimmie was wheeled over to me, in the corner of the dayroom that served as a temporary barbershop once a month. The room was strewn with old Reader’s Digests, large print edition, various magazines and discarded old library books. Everything appeared well read. The window had a view of a marshy field.
The area surrounding the prison was typical Michigan farmland. A row of remaining trees defined what was once an agricultural field, long since abandoned. It was bordered by a tangled, useless, old barbed-wire fence. This stood in stark contrast to the shining perimeter fence of the prison. The gleaming talons of the razor wire stretched on forever like a slinky gone mad. On either side of the razor ribbon was a twelve-foot fence, topped with dream-defeating, flesh-eating, uniformly twisted wire. Jimmie was patient while I covered him from the neck down with a sheet. As I began to slowly trim his mangy matted hair, Jimmie stated, “I guess they are going to win.” “Win what?” I asked. He began to talk about his last appeal. Everyone in prison has an issue or an appeal. Without one you have lost all hope. Jimmie’s hope was gone. “Life means life in Michigan, only I cheated them. I’m going to die young,” he laughed. One is somewhat at a loss when confronted with an aspect of reality that we ordinarily choose to ignore. We generally look away from a dead dog along the side of the road. We are privately angered that we had to see death at all. We all like anonymous death. Jimmie had about two weeks left and was anything but anonymous. He seemed reconciled to his personal clock. I asked if his family had been to see him. It was then that I learned about Cherry Hill. Somewhere near the State Prison of Southern Michigan, the largest walled prison in the world, is a mound of earth. Blanketburied for decades on this mound are the truly forgotten. Not only has society turned its back on these people, but their families have forgotten them. Some were old men who outlived their families and friends, some whose heinous acts separated them completely from society, and some so poor families had no alternatives. Jimmie told me these people would soon be friends and neighbors. I was cutting his hair slowly. I was not used to touching the living dead. Jimmie smiled. He could tell that his story troubled me. He asked if I could do him a favor. He wanted a flattop haircut. When he
was young and before he had real problems he had a lot of friends. They all had flattops, and it made them feel “cool.” He would like to be “cool” again. I had never given a flattop. Truth is, I was not all that good a barber, but I said I would try. There was much trial and error and eventually a fairly decent flattop. I took the handheld mirror, and showed him the results of my efforts. “Man, those guys on Cherry Hill are going to be real envious,” he said. He did look good. It was mostly his smile. All the nurses made comments about how handsome he was. There was a certain comradeship that had developed among those of similar fate in the chronic care unit. A big, young, good-hearted male nurse pushed Jimmie up and down the hall to stop and talk for a few seconds with the bedridden long-termers he had gotten to know. Comments of “Go, Jimmie, they can’t beat you,” and “Lucky there aren’t women on Cherry Hill, they sure would be in trouble,” echoed as Flattop Jimmie was wheeled down to his room, put in bed and locked in. His dying memories, I believe, were of the times of his youth when he had friends with flattops, and hope.
Paul Betts won first place in the memoir category of this year’s PEN Prison Writing Contest.
One-Legged Walter ALBERT ALTIMARI
He always made me wonder. Eyes crow-footed from sun on snow. Body slumped from slack times. He lived in Sullivan’s junk-yard, in a gutted ’51 Chevy. On the floorboard, tattered blankets, neatly sewn together, made his bed. Sunkist orange crate, along the passenger door, held rice, beans, flour, and Annie Green Springs. Coleman stove warmed his food, and body. Up front, floor to cracked windshield, a pine-board bookcase bulged, with Miller, Michener, Kant, and Freud.
Albert Altimari won first place for poetry in this year’s PEN Prison Writing Contest.
Ithaka C. P. CAYAFY TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY AND PHILIP SHERRARD
As you set out for Ithaka hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them: you’ll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians and Cyclops, wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you. Hope the voyage is a long one. May there be many a summer morning when, with what pleasure, what joy, you come into harbors seen for the first time; may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind— as many sensual perfumes as you can; and may you visit many Egyptian cities to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you would not have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Edmund Keeley is this year’s winner of the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, given every three years to a translator whose work demonstrates a commitment to excellence.
The God Abandons Antony C. P. CAVAFY TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY AND PHILIP SHERRARD
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, as is right for you who were given this kind of city, go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotion, but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward; listen—your final delectation—to the voices, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
Ionic C. P. CAVAFY TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY AND PHILIP SHERRARD
That we’ve broken their statues, that we’ve driven them out of their temples, doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead. O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you, their souls still keep your memory. When an August dawn wakes over you, your atmosphere is potent with their life, and sometimes a young ethereal figure, indistinct, in rapid flight, wings across your hills.
King Claudius C. P. CAVAFY TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY AND PHILIP SHERRARD
My mind now moves to distant places. I’m walking the streets of Elsinore, through its squares, and I recall the very sad story of that unfortunate king killed by his nephew because of some fanciful suspicions. In all the homes of the poor he was mourned secretly (they feared Fortinbras). He was a quiet, gentle man, a man who loved peace (his country had suffered much from the wars of his predecessor), he behaved graciously toward everyone, humble and great alike. Never high-handed, he always sought advice in the kingdom’s affairs from serious, experienced people. Just why his nephew killed him was never precisely explained. The prince suspected him of murder, and the basis of his suspicion was this: walking one night along an ancient battlement he thought he saw a ghost
and he had a conversation with this ghost; what he supposedly heard from the ghost were certain accusations against the king. It must have been a fit of fancy, an optical illusion, (the prince was highly strung in the extreme; while he was studying at Wittenberg, many of his fellow students thought him a maniac). A few days later he went to his mother’s room to discuss certain family affairs. And suddenly, while he was talking, he lost his self-control, started shouting, screaming that the ghost was there in front of him. But his mother saw nothing at all. And that same day, for no apparent reason, he killed an old gentleman of the court. Since the prince was due to sail for England in a day or two, the king hustled him off posthaste in order to save him. But the people were so outraged by the monstrous murder that rebels rose up and tried to storm the palace gates, led by the dead man’s son, the noble lord Laertes (a brave young man, also ambitious;
in the confusion, some of his friends called out: “Long live King Laertes!”). Later, once the kingdom had calmed down and the king was lying in his grave, killed by his nephew (the prince, who never went to England but escaped from the ship on his way there), a certain Horatio came forward and tried to exonerate the prince by telling some stories of his own. He said that the voyage to England had been a secret plot, and orders had been given to kill the prince there (but this was never clearly ascertained). He also spoke of poisoned wine, wine poisoned by the king. It’s true that Laertes spoke of this too. But couldn’t he have been lying? Couldn’t he have been mistaken? And when did he say all this? While dying of his wounds, his mind reeling, his talk seemingly babble. As for the poisoned weapons, it was shown later that the poisoning hadn’t been done by the king at all: Laertes had done it by himself. But Horatio, whenever pressed, would produce even the ghost as a witness:
the ghost said this and that, the ghost did this and that! Because of all this, though hearing Horatio out, most people in all conscience pitied the good king, who, with all these ghosts and fairy tales, was unjustly killed and disposed of. Yet Fortinbras, who profited from it all And gained the throne so easily, Gave full attention and great weight To every word Horatio said.
Gérard de Nerval, Invisible Man RICHARD SIEBURTH
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE OBSERVED that he was one of the few authors of his age who had successfully managed, even in death, to remain “forever lucid.” Marcel Proust ranked him among the three or four greatest writers of the nineteenth century, singling out the novella “Sylvie” as a crucial inspiration for his own explorations of time lost and regained. André Breton declared him a precursor of surrealism, while Antonin Artaud placed him in the same visionary company as Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Van Gogh. For most English-speaking readers, however, Gérard de Nerval still remains a relative cipher, a name perhaps associated with a stray alexandrine at the close of Eliot’s Waste Land (“Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie”) or else vaguely remembered, via Arthur Symons’s influential Symbolist Movement in Literature, as the amiable eccentric who walked live lobsters on blue ribbons through the streets of Paris before eventually succumbing to madness and hanging himself one cold winter evening in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne. His friend Théophile Gautier remarked of him, “Gérard seemed to take pleasure in disappearing from himself, in vanishing from his work, in leading his readers astray.” If Nerval’s tactics of invisibility rendered him elusive to many of his mid-nineteenth-century contemporaries, the particular scope of his accomplishment has all the more continued to evade full-scale English translation. One of the reasons for this no doubt lies in the fact that so many of his writings—which fill three substantial tomes in their most recent Pléiade edition—escape classification by standard literary genre and thereby seem to resist the canonical shape or weight accorded to classics. Though he tried his hand at the novel, Nerval’s fictions have none of the girth or stamina of his more celebrated contemporaries—Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo, Sue, Dumas. Compared to Hugo, Baudelaire, or even Mallarmé, the body of his major poetry
is slight indeed: his “Chimeras” reinvent the French sonnet in a mere 168 lines. The minor or marginal modes in which Nerval excelled—the short story or novella, the biographical sketch, the essay or travel reportage, the brief vignette or reminiscence, the literary letter or memoir—are inextricably bound up with the newspaper and magazine culture of his day. Forced, after squandering his inheritance, to support himself as a professional journalist and man of letters, he acquired a certain celebrity as a critic and feuilletoniste during the July Monarchy; indeed, the light humorous touch of many of his pieces earned him the unlikely sobriquet of “le Sterne français.” But while actively disseminating his texts in the periodical press, Nerval remained for much of his career an author without an actual opus, a literary personality without an oeuvre, for with the exception of his teenage translation of Faust and his play Léo Burckart, he had no major books to his name. It was only during the last four years of his life that the real contours of his work began more visibly to emerge. Between 1851 and 1855, fighting off creditors, desperately trying to gather his scattered writings into marketable form, he published six volumes of prose in quick succession, amounting to some two thousand pages. But by then it was too late. He would not even live to see his most extraordinary piece of writing, “Aurélia,” into final print. Its first installment appeared in the Revue de Paris on 1 January 1855 with the indication: “to be continued in the next issue.” What followed the next month, however, was merely a terse editorial note informing readers of its author’s demise. Legend has it that the conclusion of the text, posthumously published, was printed from the manuscripts found in the hanged man’s pockets.
Richard Sieburth is this year’s winner of the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize, for Selected Writings of Gérard de Nerval.
Octavia GÉRARD DE NERVAL TRANSLATED BY RICHARD SIEBURTH
IT WAS IN THE SPRING of 1835 that I was overcome by a keen desire to see Italy. Every day, upon awakening, I would imagine the pungent whiff of Alpine chestnut trees; every evening, the waterfall of Terni and the foaming spring of the Tiber would bubble forth for me alone amid the battered props of a small little theatre… An enchanting voice, a siren’s voice, would murmur in my ear, as if all the reeds of Lake Trasimeno had suddenly taken on a voice… I had to get away from Paris; I hoped the distraction would allow me to put an illstarred love behind me. My first stop was Marseilles. Every morning, I would go bathing at Château-Vert, and as I swam about I could see the balmy isles of the gulf in the distance. And every day out there in the azure bay, I would come upon an English girl, her lithe body slicing through the green water at my side. This water nymph, whose name was Octavia, came towards me one day all radiant in triumph at the strange catch she had made. She was holding a fish in her white hands and she presented it to me. I could not help but smile at her gift. The town, however, was at that moment in the grip of cholera, and in order to avoid the quarantine I decided to continue my journey by land. I saw Nice, Genoa, Florence; I marveled at the Duomo, the Baptistery, the masterpieces of Michelangelo, the Leaning Tower and Campo Santo of Pisa. Then, travelling by way of Spoleto, I spent ten days in Rome. The dome of St. Peter’s, the Vatican, the Coliseum appeared to me as in a dream. I hastened to get the post-chaise to Civitavecchia, where I was to catch a boat. A storm at sea delayed the arrival of the steamship by three days. One day, as I was walking along the deserted beach, lost in thought, I was nearly devoured by dogs. The night before my departure, a French light comedy was playing at the local theatre. A blonde and sprightly figure caught my eye. It was the
English girl, occupying a box at the front of the house. She was in the company of her father, who, it turned out, was an invalid whose doctors had recommended the climate of Naples. The following morning, elated, I bought my boat ticket. The English girl was striding up and down the deck and, impatient with the ship’s slow progress, was imprinting her ivory teeth in the rind of a lemon. “Poor girl,” I said to her, “you have a chest ailment, if I’m not mistaken, so this can’t be what you need.” She shot me a hard glance and said, “Who on earth told you?” “The Tiburtine sibyl,” I replied without batting an eye. “Go on,” she said, “I don’t believe a word you’re saying.” She gazed fondly at me, and I could not resist kissing her hand. “If I had more strength,” she said, “I would teach you how to lie…” And then, with a laugh, she threatened me with a gold-knobbed switch she was holding in her hand. Our ship was approaching the port of Naples; as we crossed into the bay, Ischia and Nisida lay on either side, awash with the flames of the East. “If you love me,” she continued, “wait for me tomorrow at Portici. This is not the sort of appointment I would grant any stranger.” She got off at the piazza del Molo and accompanied her father to the Hotel Roma, newly constructed on the quay. As for me, I found lodgings behind the Theatre of the Florentines. I spent the day exploring the via Toledo and the piazza del Molo and visiting the Museo degli Studii; that evening, I attended the ballet at the Teatro San Carlo. There I met the marquis Gargallo, whom I had known in Paris and who invited me to tea at his sisters’ after the performance. I shall never forget the delicious soirée that followed. The marquise was entertaining a large group of foreigners who had gathered in her immense salon. The conversation was somewhat reminiscent of the Précieuses; I thought I was back in the “blue room” of the Hôtel Rambouillet. The marquis’s sisters, who were as lovely as the Graces, reawakened in me all the glory that was Greece. There was a long discussion as to whether the stone of Eleusis was in fact triangular or square in shape. The marquise could have certainly settled the question, for she was as beautiful
and as stately as Vesta. I left the palazzo, my mind reeling from this philosophical discussion, and was unable to find my way back to my lodgings. Wandering all over town as I was, I was bound to end up the hero of some adventure or another. The encounter I had that night is the topic of the following letter, written some years later to the object of that fatal love I had hoped to flee by leaving Paris. I’m at my wits’ end. It’s been four days, and I haven’t seen you, or rather I’ve only seen you in company; I sense something ominous in all this. That you’ve been sincere with me, I can believe; whether you’ve changed over the past few days, I cannot tell, but I fear the worst. Oh my God! Take pity on my uncertainties, lest you call down some calamity upon us. And yet I should probably be accusing myself. I have been far more timid and devoted than a man should ever allow himself to appear. I was so bashful about the love I felt for you, so terrified of offending you—you, who had already punished me so cruelly once before-that I may well have pushed my delicacy so far as to cause you to assume it was mere indifference. None the less, I did respect a day that was important to you, I stifled emotions that were strong enough to break anybody’s spirit, and I put on a mask that was all smiles, even as my heart ached and smoldered. No one else would have exercised such self-control, but then again perhaps no one else has ever shown you this degree of true affection or has so keenly esteemed your worth. Let us speak frankly: I know a woman may find there are ties she considers it difficult to sever, or awkward relations that it takes time to break off. Have I demanded too painful sacrifices of you? Tell me your troubles, I shall understand. Your fears, your whims, your social obligations—none of this can shake the immense affection I feel for you or cloud the purity of my love. Let us examine where we stand, and if there are knots to be cut and not untied, rely on me to take care of the matter. To be less than frank at a moment like this would perhaps be inhuman; for, as I’ve told you, your wish is my command and you know very well that I have no greater desire than to die for you! To die, good heavens! Why does this idea always come back to haunt me, as if only my death could be equal to the happiness you
promise me? Death! And yet this word casts no pall over my thoughts. She appears to me, wearing a crown of pale roses as the banquet draws to its close. I have sometimes dreamt that she was waiting for me with a smile at the bedside of a woman I adored, and that after all the bliss, after all the rapture, she said to me: “Come along, young man, you’ve had your fill of the joys of this world. It’s now time for you to come to bed and rest within my arms. I may not be beautiful, but I am kind and helpful; I may not give pleasure, but I can provide everlasting calm.” But where had I seen this image before? Ah, as I’ve told you, it was in Naples, three years ago. It was night, near the Villa Reale, that I met a woman who resembled you, a very kind creature who made her living doing embroidery in gold for the decoration of churches; she did not seem quite right in her mind; I accompanied her back to her place, even though she kept talking about her lover who was in the Swiss Guards and who she feared might arrive at any moment. And yet she made it quite clear that she preferred me by far… What can I tell you? I had a sudden urge to drown my sorrows for a night and to allow myself to imagine that this woman, whose language I could barely comprehend, was in fact you, descended upon me by magic. Why should I hide this adventure from you? Why not speak of the bizarre illusion to which I effortlessly gave myself over heart and soul, especially after the several glasses of foaming lachryma christi that were served to me after supper? The room in which I found myself had something mystical about it whether by chance or because of the odd array of objects it contained. On a chest of drawers near a bed with green serge curtains there was a black madonna clothed in antiquated finery, which my hostess was in the process of restoring; in the back of the room, there was a figure of St. Rosalia with a crown of violet roses, who seemed to be watching over the cradle of a sleeping infant; the whitewashed walls were hung with ancient paintings of the four elements, depicting various mythological gods. In addition, there were swatches of gaudy fabric strewn about; artificial flowers; Etruscan vases; mirrors with spangled frames which sparkled brightly with the reflected light of the single copper lamp; and one of
the tables held a treatise on divination and dreams, which led me to suspect that my lady friend was something of a witch or, at the very least, a gypsy. A kindly old woman with strong solemn features shuffled to and fro, serving us; I think it must have been her mother! Meanwhile, lost in thought, not saying a word, I could not take my eyes off this creature, who reminded me so exactly of you. The woman kept asking me, “Why so sad?” I replied, “Don’t say a word, I can barely understand you; it’s such an effort for me to speak or listen to Italian.” “Well,” she said to me, “I have other ways of talking.” And she suddenly launched into a language I had never heard before, a medley of rich, guttural syllables and delightful warblings, a primeval language no doubt-Hebrew, Syriac, who knows. She smiled at my astonishment, went over to her chest of drawers and proceeded to pull out costume jewelry, necklaces, bracelets and a crown; having adorned herself with these baubles, she returned to the table and sat there for some time looking quite earnest. When the old lady came back into the room, she burst out laughing and I think informed me that this was how she usually decked herself out for festivities. At that point the child woke up and started crying. The two women rushed over to his cradle and shortly thereafter the younger one returned to my side proudly holding the lulled bambino in her arms. She was chattering away to him in the language that had so enchanted me, teasing him with beguiling little gestures. As for myself, unaccustomed to the effects of the fiery wines of Vesuvius, I felt everything spinning before my eyes: the strange behavior and regal attire of this handsome, unpredictable woman reminded me of those witches of Thessaly to whom one would give one’s soul for a dream. Oh, why have I gone ahead and told you this story? Because you know full well that it was nothing but a dream of which you were the sole queen. I tore myself away from this phantom at once so seductive and so terrifying; I wandered through the deserted streets until the first strokes of dawn; then, sensing the break of day, I wound my way
through the alleyways behind Chiaia and started climbing up Mount Posilipo, overlooking the grotto. When I reached the summit, I strolled around and gazed out over the sea, which was already blue, and out over the city, where only the faint bustle of morning could be heard, and out over the islands of the bay, where the sun was just beginning to gild the roofs of the villas. I wasn’t in the least despondent; I strode along, I ran, I scrambled down slopes, I rolled around in the damp grass; but the idea of death was in my heart. Great gods! I don’t know what exactly it was that was haunting me, but it was probably the sorrowful awareness that I was unloved. I had been afforded a phantom glimpse of bliss, I had availed myself of all the gifts of God, here I was under the most beautiful skies in the world, experiencing nature at its greatest perfection, looking out on the most sublime scene known to man, and yet I was four hundred leagues away from the only woman who meant anything to me, a woman who did not even know I existed. To be unloved, to despair of ever being loved! It was at that moment that I was tempted to go and call God to account for my singular life. All it would take was a single step: I was standing directly over a cliff, the sea was churning below, blue and pure; one moment, and it would all be over. I reeled at the very thought. Twice I leapt, and twice I was hurled back to the ground alive, kissing the earth, held back by some mysterious force. No, my God, you have not created me so that I should suffer in eternity! I do not want to dishonor you with my death; but grant me the energy, grant me the power, above all grant me the determination that guides some to the throne, others to glory, and others to love. Over the course of this strange night, a rather rare phenomenon had occurred. Shortly before dawn, the windows of the house where I had spent the night were lit up by a glow, the hot sulphurous ash made it virtually impossible for me to breathe and, leaving my easy conquest asleep on the terrace, I wended my way through the alleys that led up to the castle of St. Elmo. As I gradually climbed the mountain, my lungs took in the pure morning air; I stopped for a delightful rest beneath the vine arbors of the villas, and, feeling no
terror, I gazed out at Vesuvius, still hidden beneath a dome of smoke. It was at that moment that I was seized by the vertigo I have already described; the thought of my appointment with the English girl tore me away from my thoughts of death. After having refreshed my mouth with one of those enormous bunches of grapes women sell in the markets here, I proceeded on to Portici, visiting the ruins of Herculaneum along the way. The streets were all powdered with metallic ash. Having reached the site of the ruins, I descended into the underground city and spent a considerable while wandering from building to building, querying each monument as to the secret of its past. But the temples of Venus and of Mercury spoke in vain to my imagination, empty as they were of any signs of life. I continued on to Portici, and waited for my stranger beneath a vine arbor, lost in thought. She soon appeared, guiding her faltering father along; giving my hand a firm squeeze, she said, “Delighted.” We got into a carriage and set off to visit Pompeii. I was elated to be guiding her through the silent streets of this ancient Roman colony. I had studied all its secret passageways in advance. When we reached the small temple of Isis, I had the pleasure of explaining in depth all the details of the cult and the ceremonies that I had picked up from my reading of Apuleius. She decided she would play the part of the Goddess, and I accordingly obeyed by assuming the role of Osiris, whose sacred mysteries I also explained. On our way back, overwhelmed by the loftiness of the ideas we had just brought to life, I did not dare speak of my love for her… She reproached me for being so cool. I confessed that I no longer felt worthy of her. I told her about the mysterious apparition who had awakened an earlier love within my heart and described the unbounded sorrow I had felt in the wake of that fateful night, whose phantom bliss had merely served as a reproach to an act of betrayal. Alas, all this is now long gone! Ten years ago, I again passed through Naples on my way back from the orient. I stopped at the Hotel Roma and met the English girl again. She had married a famous painter who, shortly after their wedding, had been stricken
with total paralysis; he lay there on a couch, his features entirely dead except for his two large dark eyes and, despite his young years, there was no chance of his condition improving with a change of climate. The poor girl had devoted her life to the sad business of caring both for her husband and her father; and yet her sweetness and light could not allay the ferocious jealousy that festered in the former’s heart. He absolutely refused to let her go out on her own for walks, reminding me of that black giant who stands eternal watch in the cave of the genii and whose wife is compelled to beat him lest he fall asleep. Oh mysteries of the human soul! Should one read the cruel hand of the vengeful gods in this scene? I could only devote a single day to the spectacle of such suffering. The ship that took me back to Marseilles carried off the memory of this sweet apparition like a dream, and I wondered to myself whether I had not left true happiness behind. Octavia has kept its secret to herself.
ALBERT ALTIMARI has served twenty years of a life sentence and is incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, Pennsylvania. KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH is a professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author of three novels— most recently Another Death in Venice—and five nonfiction books. He edited, in collaboration with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Dictionary of Global Culture and the Encarta Africana. JAMES ATLAS, editor-in-chief of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives series, is the author of a biography of Saul Bellow. His previous books include The Great Pretender (1986), a novel, and Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet. He has been a staff writer for the New Yorker, a consulting editor of the New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and an associate editor for The Atlantic. PAUL AUSTER’s most recent novel is Timbuktu. He lives in Brooklyn. RUSSELL BANKS’s novels include Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, and Cloudsplitter, an account of the life of John Brown. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent book is The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks (HarperCollins). BENJAMIN R. BARBER is the Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and the director of the Whitman Center for the culture and politics of democracy. His books include Strong Democracy (1984), Jihad vs. McWorld (1995), and the forthcoming My Affair with Clinton: An Intellectual Memoir (Norton, 2001). During the five years PAUL BETTS was incarcerated, he taught classes in Spanish, assisted in organizing a book fair, worked as a
literacy tutor, and was assistant director of the drama club. He was released earlier this year, and now resides in Michigan. JORGE LUIS BORGES (1899-1986) published numerous collections of poems, essays, and fiction. Director of the National Library of Buenos Aires from 1955 to 1973, Borges was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, from both Columbia and Oxford. He received various literary awards over the course of his career, including the International Publishers’ Prize (which he shared with Samuel Beckett in 1961), the Jerusalem Prize, and the Alfonso Reyes Prize. C. P. CAVAFY (1863-1933) was born in Constantinople, and lived most of his adult life in Alexandria, Egypt. He is well known to English readers from the many references to his work in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. ITALO CALVINO (1923-1985) was born in Cuba and grew up in San Remo, Italy. His works of fiction include The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, The Baron in the Trees, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Cosmicomics, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Invisible Cities, Mr. Palomar, The Nonexistent Knight & The Cloven Viscount, and The Watcher and Other Stories. His works of nonfiction include Six Memos for the Next Millennium and The Uses of Literature, and he edited the anthology Italian Folktales. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM’s novel The Hours, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, won the PEN/Faulkner and Pulitzer prizes in 1999. He is also the author of the novels A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood. MILLICENT DILLON is a novelist and biographer. Her most recent novel is Harry Gold. Her biographies include You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles, A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, and After Egypt: Isadora Duncan and Mary Cassatt. UMBERTO ECO was born in Alessandria in 1932. His works of nonfiction include The Open Work, A Theory of Semiotics, The Role of the Reader, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, The
Limits of Interpretation, and Kant and the Platypus. His fiction includes Misreadings, The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before. He is professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. ROSARIO FERRÉ has published several novels, collections of short stories, and collections of poetry, in both English and Spanish. Her novel The House on the Lagoon was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995. Her forthcoming novel is Flight of the Swan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). CARLOS FUENTES, born in Panama in 1928, has received many awards for his accomplishments as a novelist, essayist, and commentator, among them the Cervantes Prize in 1987. He is the author of more than twenty books, most recently The Years with Laura Díaz. He divides his time between Mexico City and London, and lectures frequently in the United States. WILLIAM H. GASS’s fiction includes Omensetter’s Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, The Tunnel, and Cartesian Sonata. He received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1985 and 1996, His most recent book is Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. MARY GORDON has written the novels Final Payments, The Company of Women, Men and Angels, The Other Side, and Spending; a memoir, The Shadow Man; the story collection, Temporary Shelter; and two books of essays. Her most recent work is a biography of Joan of Arc. Gordon is a professor of English at Barnard College. JESSICA HAGEDORN is the author of Dogeaters, The Gangster of Love, and Danger and Beauty. She is the editor of Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. Most recently, she collaborated on Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines, with photo-journalist Marissa Roth. Hagedorn’s stage adaptation of Dogeaters will have its New York premiere at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in February, 2001.
RICHARD HOWARD has published over one hundred fifty translations. In 1970 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his third book of poems, Untitled Subjects. He is the poetry editor of The Paris Review and Western Humanity Review, and Professor of Practice in the School of the Arts (Writing Division) of Columbia University. His most recent book of poems is Trappings. EDMUND KEELEY has taught at Princeton, where he served for some years as director of the Creative Writing Program and of the Program in Hellenic Studies. The author of novels, poetry, and works of nonfiction, including Cavafy’s Alexandria and Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47, he is also the translator of many modern Greek poets. He received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999. JOHN MACRAE edits a list of nonfiction and fiction titles for Henry Holt. For fifteen years he was editor and president of E. P. Dutton; earlier he was briefly an editor and the deputy director of trade publishing at Harper &. Row—now HarperCollins. He also does pro bono human rights work. CHARLES MCGRATH has been the editor of The New York Times Book Review since 1995. Previously, he was a deputy editor of The New Yorker, where he wrote a variety of pieces and edited such writers as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Muriel Spark. CHARLES MEE is a playwright, historian, and editor. He has written more than a dozen plays, and his work has been performed in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Europe. Among his work for the theater is Orestes 2.0, The Bacchae, Another Person Is a Foreign Country, and Big Love. He has written a memoir, A Nearly Normal Life. BRADFORD MORROW has recently completed his fifth novel, Nambé Crossing. Recipient of a 1998 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Morrow is editor of the literary journal Conjunctions and teaches literature at Bard College.
GÉRARD DE NERVAL (1808-1855) was born Gérard Labrunie in Paris, and gained fame at the age of nineteen for his translation of Goethe’s Faust. Between 1852 and 1855, he published The Illuminati (a portrait gallery of Enlightenment mystics and eccentrics), “October Nights” (a satire of Dickensian “realism”), Castles in Bohemia (a memoir of his youth), and The Daughters of Fire (a collection of short stories which included his masterpiece, “Sylvie,” as well as the sonnets of “The Chimeras”). JOYCE CAROL OATES, a longtime member of PEN, is the author most recently of the novel Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the editor of The Best American Essays of the Century. SUZAN-LORI PARKS’s plays include Venus, which won an Obie Award in 1996, The America Play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Fucking A, and In the Blood, which premiered at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in November 1999. She is a twotime NEA playwriting fellow and has received grants from the CalArts-Herb Albert, Ford, Lila Wallace, Rockefeller, and Whiting foundations. ALASTAIR REID first met Borges in Buenos Aires in 1964, and has never stopped reading and translating him. SALMAN RUSHDIE is the author of Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and several collections of essays. Midnight’s Children received the Booker Prize and the “Booker of Bookers” Prize as the best of the award’s recipients in its twenty-fiveyear history. SIMON SCHAMA has taught history at Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard and is now University Professor at Columbia. He has published several prize-winning works of history, as well as essays and criticism for The New Yorker and other publications. His most recent book is Rembrandt’s Eyes, ELAINE SHOWALTER’s books include A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, Hystories: Hysterical
Epidemics and Modern Media, The New Feminist Criticism, The Female Malady, and Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing. She is Avalon Professor of the Humanities in the English Department at Princeton University. RICHARD SIEBURTH teaches French and Comparative Literature at New York University. His translations include Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hymns and Fragments, Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary, Michel Leiris’s Nights as Day, as well as texts by Blanchot, Michaux, Artaud, and Roubaud. He is also the author of Instigations: Ezra Pound and Rémy de Gourmont and editor of Pound’s Walking Tour in Southern France. SUSAN SONTAG is the author of the novels The Benefactor, Death Kit, and The Volcano Lover, and the essay collections Illness as Metaphor, Under the Sign of Saturn, AIDS and Its Metaphors, and On Photography, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent novel, In America, won the 2000 National Book Award. ROBERT STONE is the author of A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers (winner of the National Book Award), A Flag for Sunrise, and Bear and His Daughter, a collection of stories. ELIOT WEINBERGER’s most recent books are Karmic Traces and a translation of Bei Dao’s Unlock, both published by New Directions. His edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions (Viking Penguin) received the National Book Critics’ Circle award for criticism. JAMES WOOD, who was for several years The Guardian’s chief literary critic in London, has been senior editor at The New Republic since 1995, and writes regularly for that magazine and for The London Review of Books. His book The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief was published last year. VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1941) is perhaps best known for her novels, including Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves, and her long essay A Room of One’s Own. Her many works
of nonfiction appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and other journals and periodicals, and were collected in The Common Reader, The Second Common Reader, and The Essays of Virginia Woolf.