PEN World Voices Report: Public Lives/Private Lives

May 1, 2008 | 2 books mentioned 2 min read

A crowd representing all ages, income brackets, and nationalities basking in the brilliant comedy of a Hungarian literary genius: isn’t this why one moves to the big city? Seduced by movies and periodicals (here Woody Allen and The New Yorker deserve much of the credit and/or blame), I came to New York a few years ago in search of a writer’s paradise. What I found more often resembled the galley of a Roman ship – rows of freelancers in the cafes hammering away at their laptops. But every so often, as at last night’s Private Lives/Public Lives reading at The Town Hall, the dream city breaks the surface of the everyday.

The house seemed a little less packed than it did at this event last year, which may have been a tromp l’oeil brought on by my marginal seats (thanks, PEN!) The draws in 2007 were Steve Martin, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie; this year, the big names included Annie Proulx, Ian McEwan, and Michael Ondaatje. Perhaps the festival organizers should have added George Carlin to the bill to spice things up. The brilliance of the PEN World Voices festival, however, is the chance to encounter new writers from abroad. This year was no different.

Among my favorite discoveries last night were the South African writer Rian Malan – whose lovely reading voice has affinities with Ondaatje’s – the Mexican poet Coral Bracho – and especially the Hungarian Peter Esterhazy. In what I believe is a new twist, writers read in their first language, with a translation projected onto a screen behind them. I applaud this, in theory; in a festival that prides itself on a global outlook, it seems questionable to force readers into English. That said, the projectionist’s manic-depressive speeding-up and slowing-down of the scrolling text added a rather surreal dimension to the evening.

coverPart of what made Esterhazy’s and Bracho’s readings stand out was the rhythmic richness of their delivery. Though my Hungarian is worse than my Spanish (which is to say, nonexistent), these writers’ attention to the sonic qualities of language kept me up-to-speed with the translation. In Bracho’s case, a meditation on the qualities of water became a sexual rhapsody, all languorous vowels. By contrast, Esterhazy’s reading – from his massive novel Celestial Harmonies – had the tempo of a drunken machine gunner. Oddly enough, his conversational rapidity made his long, contortionist sentences easy to follow. What emerged, above all, was the book’s surreal comedy – what Joseph Mitchell called “graveyard humor.”

The owlish Annie Proulx, with her reading of Aidan Higgins’ Langrishe, Go Down, may have outdone Esterhazy in polish, but Celestial Harmonies was the book I walked away burning to read.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.

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