Read It Again


I have one memory of my father reading to me.

He’d returned home from work with a gift: the latest Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Circus.  I can still see him standing in the doorway, book in hand, his coat unbuttoned and hat a little askew, a smile on his face.

My father had a distinctive smile during moments that called for tenderness or an admission of affection, a smile that strained to contain itself, as if emotional intimacy was also discomfort, as if displaying pleasure revealed too much of himself.  I’m sure I was aware of none of this when a small child.  I learned the secret pedigree of his expression as I grew older, my memory of it now easily available so many years later.

In the copy I own today—not that original edition but the current, 79th printing—I see on the copyright page that If I Ran the Circus was published in 1956.  I would have been five, in kindergarten, two years away from being able to read on my own, when I sat beside my father, the large pages of the book facing us both, and he began to read to me about a boy named Morris McGurk, who saw the promise of a circus in the junkyard lot behind old man Sneelock’s general store.  Morris felt sure that cleaning up the lot, with its weeds, a dead tree, and three old cars, was probably just “a half hour’s work.”

Soon enough, fantastical circus creatures made their entrance: the “horn-tooting apes from the Jungle of Jorn,” the “Drum-Tummied Snumm,” and a “Foon who eats sizzling hot pebbles that fall off the moon.”  Each page brought another delightful surprise, especially Sneelock’s unexpected abilities of wrestling the Grizzly-Ghastly, training the Through-Horn-Jumping Deer, and taming the ferocious Spotted Atrocious.  The circus grew in size and spectacle, the tongue-twisting rhymes working in concert with elaborate drawings of elaborate feats that enticed the eye to linger.

Each page offered something else: my father’s voice, trying to master the tricky rhymes without stumbling, attempting the book’s wonder with a dramatic reading. In a story that was filled with splendid performances, my quiet father tried his best to hold his own.  I can still hear his bemused voice in the words of Dr. Seuss.

The circus tent expanded, the crowds grew larger, the various acts grew ever more extravagant, and the skills of ordinary Sneelock turned ever more extraordinary.  Yet by the end, we found ourselves back at the junkyard behind Sneelock’s small store.  Because there had been no circus, only young Morris McGurk’s hopes for one—the entire book was a bravura act of invention.  The littered back lot behind Sneelock’s small store was still a littered back lot, and Sneelock was once again a shopkeeper, his supposedly marvelous potential as yet untapped.  I can still remember the delicious shock of surprise, my initial glimpse into the vast spaces offered by imagination.  I had been taken in by a boy’s fantasies that had conjured a junkyard into an extravaganza, and transformed a shopkeeper into a hero.

And I wanted to be taken in again.

Do I remember that moment with my father because it was so rare, or because memory only has room for this one example?  He must have read If I Ran the Circus many more times to me.  I remember at least asking, and the sense of a growing reluctance in his “yes,” as if he thought that once you finished reading a book, that was it, we already knew the ending, didn’t we?  He didn’t seem to understand why a child might be obsessed with returning to a single book, or that my insistence was also connected to him—I wanted his voice, his presence to be included in those pages.

Whether or not I had an inkling that my emotionally awkward father was somehow slipping away from me, by second grade I’d learned to read by myself and hear my own silent speaking voice in the words on the page.

Thirty years after my father read If I Ran the Circus, I became a father and returned to the joys of reading aloud, first to my son, Nathaniel, then to my daughter, Hannah. That’s when I began to understand that children’s literature is one of the most difficult of literary genres.

From the first page, a children’s author faces the immediate task of writing a book that appeals to a kind of two-headed reader—one a child, the other an adult—and almost every sentence must sing a secret harmony. If a child basks in a book but the parent reading it out loud does not, that book may eventually be misplaced in an obscure corner of a bookshelf.  If the adult enjoys a book but not the child, its story will likely never be read again.

What is the alchemy of appealing to this double audience?  Adults write children’s books, not children.  For an author, perhaps it’s a way of remembering the wonder of one’s own childhood.  The transfer of that conjured wonder to another adult can create a bridge linking parent and child.

Sharing a passion for a story is only a beginning, because another challenge arises: the performance.  When you read to a child, you’re offering him or her a slice of the wider world.  You become a travel guide, turning page after page into new territory, and you use your voice to bring it to life.  You flesh out the words with dramatic pauses—a whisper here, a raised voice there—and learn how to deliver a sentence’s punch line.  Perhaps most importantly, you round out the personalities of the characters by creating their different voices.  In doing so, you begin teaching your child the basics of imagining others.  Further, the initial experience of reading aloud a children’s book must be carefully recreated.  Because often, not only is the book beloved, but the child’s first hearing of it is beloved as well.

Although a panoply of fictional figures march through the 24 Tintin books that I read to my son, Nathaniel, the iconic main characters belong to a small club.  It was relatively easy trying on and then recreating the gruff growl of Captain Haddock’s outrageous and inventive insults, Professor Calculus’s calm befuddled responses as he mishears everything, and Tintin’s earnest, boyish voice that can quickly assume a note of determination.

By contrast, the 14 volumes of The Wizard of Oz series that I read to my daughter, Hannah, posed far more challenges.  We all know the basic Oz crew as established in the first book—Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and so on.  The following 13 volumes in the series keep introducing an embarrassment of additional main characters, such as the Patchwork Girl (otherwise known as “Scraps”); Tik-Tok, the mechanical man; Princess Ozma, the true ruler of Oz; the Shaggy Man; the Woggle-Bug, an oversized, top-hatted, and highly-educated insect; Jack Pumpkinhead, whose head is a, well, you know; the Sawhorse, a carpenter’s ordinary wooden sawhorse brought to life by a magic powder; and many others.  Giving them individual voices forced me to tap deeper skills of impersonation.  Yet if a character suddenly recurred after an absence of a book or two in the series, I sometimes forgot what voice I’d assigned them.  I’d have to stall, try to remember, assume a likely voice and—

“That’s not what she sounds like, she sounds like this,” Hannah then insisted.  Thus retrained, I would try again.

More than 60 years since my father read If I Ran the Circus, I now read books to my five-year-old grandson, Dean.  Although he can already sound out nearly anything on a page, limited not by skill but comprehension, he gets it that reading can be both private and communal.  He’s blessed with parents who love to read to him as much as my wife, Alma, and I loved to read to our children.

Some of the books Alma and I read aloud have even survived to another generation, especially those in the Berenstain Bears series.  They tell the tale of a family of bears with the unadorned names of Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and their cubs, Brother Bear and Sister Bear, who live in “the big tree house down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country.”  At their most basic level, these are no nonsense books about how to behave.  Employing a light touch, the books offer advice about how to deal with a bully, make up with friends after an argument, defuse a nightmare, face the consequences of telling a lie.  They would probably be unbearable (yes, pun intended) to both parent and child, if not for a gentle, sometimes ironic humor: all the members of the Bear family have their own foibles, fragile strengths and uncertainties, and, with the possible exception of Mama Bear, they can behave a little foolishly, too.

The books come child-ready: each paperback entry in the series is lightweight, always 32 pages long, stapled not bound, with a carefully calibrated moral arriving by the last page.

Dean loves these books so much he has invented a way to extend bedtime reading, by creating on his own a version of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas.  Dean will open, say, The Trouble with Friends to its middle (where pages 16 and 17 display the two staples that hold the book together), then place another Berenstain Bears book—perhaps The Double Dare—on top of that, also opened to the middle pages.  He’ll place another open-faced book, The Slumber Party or Count Their Blessings, over that, until he has a Dagwood sandwich of four or five books in one.

Once we read to the middle of The Trouble with Friends, then the second book, The Double Dare, takes over, and when we reach the middle of that, then the first half of the next book, The Slumber Party, takes over, and so on, until the book in the middle of this nested collection can be read through completely.  The second half of each remaining book is then read in sequence, to the very end, followed by a hug goodnight and lights out.  Because there’s no need to ask, “read it again,” when one book has been magically transformed into five.

One book that needs no such augmentation is another favorite, My Valley, by Claude Ponti.  It is wonderfully large, 14.5 inches by 10.5 inches, as it needs to be to offer a world of vast spaces.  It’s certainly big enough for a grandfather and grandson to hide behind.  Ponti illustrates his own work, and while he can zoom in for the close detail, such as the eye of a curious giant, he’s equally good with a broad panorama.  My Valley is filled with many full and detailed pages of the Blue Valley’s landscape, representing all four seasons.  They’re an invitation to pause, regard the view, and get to know the world of the Twims as if you had their eyes, and as if you were their size.

The Twims are furry (in a short-haired way) and round-bellied creatures, smaller than the acorns, walnuts, apples, and pears that they cache in their winter storehouse.  They have silly names my grandson never tires of: Empty-Dempty, Mermay-Moom, Smarghoula, Gussy-Tressy, Nothin’-Doin’ (and his pet parrot, Blahblah), and Poochie-Blue, to name a few.

The individual chapters of My Valley are confined to no more than two pages, and with little overarching drama to speak of, Ponti’s book adopts a relaxed pace in presenting glimpses of the Twims and their lives in the Blue Valley.  Twims live for hundreds of years.  Some fall from the sky and are adopted into welcoming families.  Twims love to jump into a special puddle that can only be exited through other nearby puddles.  They grow umbrellas and boats.  They will steal away to whisper in the ears of the Tree of Secrets, because he “never repeats what you say to anyone.”  They often visit the most charming cemetery you could ever imagine, filled with gardens the dead would have loved, such as “the garden of the Twims that loved to hear children playing,” or “the garden of the never-ending story.”

The large family of Poochie-Blue (the young Twims who serves as our guide) lives in the House Tree on the Blue Cliffs.  Perhaps my grandson’s favorite part of the book is the full page, cut-away look at the House Tree. It’s a multi-storied home you can get lost in, and contains enough whimsy for you to want to visit rooms that have few right angles, and staircases of smooth steps connecting the kitchen, the bathrooms, bedrooms filled with pillows and a swing-like couch, a trapeze room, a room with a swimming pool, and four rooms lined with stuffed bookshelves—because the Twims love to read.  There are helpful labels for identifying the various nooks and crannies of the House Tree: “cozy bed to read in,” and “bedroom to sleep in with a lot of friends,” but also too-obvious labels of the House Tree’s surrounding environment: “Ground,” “Outside,” and “Sky.”  Dean loves pointing out the gentle absurdity of these, and we egg on each other’s laughter as we repeat them, reluctant to turn the page.

Another large landscape page is devoted to labeling the many features of the Blue Valley to which we’ve already grown accustomed—like the Singing Stone, where wishes might come true, if the wind is right.  The majority, however, are places the book will visit later, such as the Dad’s Night Statue, or intriguing corners that are never visited or even further mentioned, which lend to the Twims’ world an expansive aura, an implication that it might never be exhausted.  Many of the place names seem designed to delight a child: “Worstever Field,” the “Could Be” bridge, and “Crazy Hand Forest.”  Why is the “Forest of the Laughing Twims” called that?  My Valley doesn’t say.  Perhaps Ponti is gently encouraging a reader—or a young listener—to make up a reason, and add a story to the stories already recorded here.

Immediately after we turn the last page, Dean will ask me to read the book again.

The Twims are often depicted reading books—either alone or, more likely, a batch of them together.  Sometimes Dean and I have wondered what sort of books they like.  A possible answer arrived recently, in the form of a new book by Claude Ponti, Hiznobyuti.

The creatures in Hiznobyuti have a similar tannish, shorthaired fur like the Twims, but they also sport rabbitty ears, their figures are far less pear-like, and they are not nearly as mellow.  They might be neighbors from one of the lands that My Valley hints at, located either beyond the Island Sea in the north, or a distant place to the south—sometimes glimpsed through breaking storm clouds—called the Land Behind.

The main character, Hiznobyuti, was born with a nose resembling a mini-elephant trunk that spouted little puffs of black smoke, as if he suffered from some sort of sooty flu.  “He’s no beauty!” his sister exclaims, and so he receives his name. Hiznobyuti’s parents, brother, and sister can only see his unusual exterior, and have no interest in his inner self.  Before long he is consigned to a cold dark space beneath the sink, then bricked up inside it—a moment that is as grim as any in Ponti’s books.

In his isolation behind the sink cabinets, Hiznobyuti develops an obsession with “communophones,” a possible way of seeing inside the mystery of others’ thoughts and emotions.  His first attempts—elaborate contraptions made of rope, or DIY radio transmissions—aren’t entirely successful.  True communication, he will come to realize, lies far beyond the mechanical.

As he escapes and travels with his only friend, the two-legged talking, ticking Martin Clock (itself an abandoned creature), Hiznobyuti’s saga of discovery takes him past the challenges of a monster with hammers for hair, or the difficulty of “filling a bottomless pit with a leaky pot” for the old witch Sissyfus.  Eventually, Hiznobyuti assumes perhaps the most productive Tree Pose ever posed, his arms growing into branches and leaves, his legs becoming roots, drawing him to “the secrets of stones that were as old as the earth,” and the “secrets of the sky, which were immense.”  Only then does he brave a reunion with his undeserving but regretful family.

Of course, when we finish, Dean says, “Read that again.” And so we do.  Why not?  We’re already settled into the couch.  As my grandson sits beside me, I feel the echo of my son or daughter when we’d read together, and the even more distant echo of my father, who taught me, with a single book, the power of a human voice channeling the delights of a story, and the surprise of imagination that held it all together.

Stuck Inside of Stockholm with the Nobel Blues Again

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Two months have passed since the 2016 Nobel Prizes were doled out in Stockholm to a worthy group of physicists, chemists, economists, and such, with Swedish royalty and other well-heeled folks dressed and jeweled up in the audience.  Bob Dylan, the celebrated no-show, missed out on the banquet’s sumptuous menu, which featured quail in black garlic and cloudberry sorbet, but Patti Smith gamely made her way through “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the American ambassador to Sweden read Dylan’s short acceptance letter.  This wasn’t exactly the glorious party some might have imagined or hoped for.  But the chastened Nobel committee had certainly come a long way from their initial dismay and then frustration at Dylan’s extended silence following the announcement of his award.

One wonders how closely they had studied his work.  All they had to do, really, was listen to how that harried farmhand drew his line in the sand on 1965’s “Maggie’s Farm” and they could have predicted Dylan’s seemingly cryptic non-response:
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
Dylan doesn’t like to be crowded.  Try to pin him down and he’ll suddenly remember a previous engagement that’s more important than dropping by to collect a Nobel Prize.  What could this award confer upon him anyway?  His artistic achievement stands, with or without it.  As Leonard Cohen noted, giving Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize “is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”  That cloudberry sorbet never had a chance.

But Bob Dylan’s Excellent Nobel Adventure isn’t over quite yet.  His award doesn’t become officially official until he, as all Nobel laureates are required to do, delivers a lecture within six months of the award ceremonies.  If he doesn’t provide that lecture, would the Nobel committee actually consider stripping him of his award?  Certainly there are more than a few observers out there who would be happy to see that happen, because Dylan is one of the more controversial of recent Nobel recipients.

Historically, the Nobel literature committee has always taken a lot of guff for their decisions.  In any given year, critics trot out their favorite choices for who should have won instead, and there is indeed a long, sad list of greats who have been passed over, including Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Clarice Lispector, and Eudora Welty.  I’ve always been mystified why the Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, author of the haunting Tales of the Mountains, was nominated several times and still never got the call.  I once joined a nomination letter-writing campaign for Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe that, sadly, failed.  I’ve been waiting far too many years for the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare to get his chance. Literary life, like the rest of life, is unfair.

I’ve also indulged in my own share of head scratching at some recent Nobel choices.

I’d never heard of the two French writers, J.M.G. Le Clézio and Patrick Modiano, who received their Nobel Prizes in 2008 and 2014, respectively. Yet neither author was obscure, not even remotely so: both had been multi-awarded and bestsellered, though their achievements occurred outside the bubble of American literature.  I now list them both among my favorite writers.

The controversy over Bob Dylan has nothing to do with any supposed lack of visibility — he’s famous the world over.  But he’s a songwriter.  Some observers have suggested that the Nobel literature committee has become a little too frisky, a little too aesthetically restless, because in recent years, there have been a number of choices made outside of the cozy fiction/poetry pendulum: the playwright and performance artist Dario Fo won in 1997, the playwright Harold Pinter in 2005, and in 2015 Svetlana Alexievich won for her nonfiction.

A little historical perspective on this supposed friskiness is in order here.  Alexievich wasn’t the first nonfiction writer to win.  In 1949, Winston Churchill won for his multi-volume history of Great Britain.  Interestingly enough, that was only half of the reason for his award — he also won for his speeches.  The Nobel committee specifically lauded his “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”  And despite the ruckus over the prize going to Dario Fo in 1997, he wasn’t even close to being the first playwright to win.  He was the 12th.   The first awarded dramatist was the Spanish playwright José Echegaray, in 1904 — only three years after the Nobel prizes were launched. In all, 14 writers have won primarily or in part for their dramatic work, most notably George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Wole Soyinka.

Playwriting is a literary form that has a lot in common with songwriting.  Both are written texts that live most fully through extra-literary collaboration.  While many plays are read for pleasure (William Shakespeare, anyone?), they are written specifically not to deliver everything on the page.  “Exit, stage left,” for instance, offers nothing on the subject of how an actor might accomplish that exit.  The words of a script are surrounded by an artful deployment of negative space that waits to be filled by actors, a director, the lighting crew, costume designer, and many others to add nuance and perhaps unexpected interpretations in performance.  Even where a play is staged — whether a proscenium stage, a theater in the round, or an open-air Greek theater — adds further dimension.  It’s harder to imagine a greater contrast with a dimly-lit off-off-Broadway venue than ancient Athen’s theater of Dionysus: plays there were performed outside and during the day, on the southern slope of the Acropolis. In playwriting, words are, you might say, the opening gambit.

In songwriting the lyrics create the possible tone of the accompanying music, and that music can then transform the words by adding emotional depth, suspense, and drama.  Just as the lines of a play are designed for the actors who will speak them, an invitation for collaboration is built into the possibilities of lyrics. The words of a song are designed to be sung, to be performed by any number of instruments and interpreters — and Dylan’s songs have been performed by a ridiculously long list of artists, from The Byrds to Etta James, P.J. Harvey to Diana Krall, Jimi Hendrix to The Ramones,  Caetano Veloso to Adele and beyond.

In his brief Nobel acceptance letter, Dylan acknowledged this connection between playwriting and songwriting.  Shakespeare’s “words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken, not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’  ‘How should this be staged?’  ‘Do I really want to set this in Denmark?’”

Pivoting from this point, Dylan’s letter continued, “I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. ‘Who are the best musicians for these songs?’  ‘Am I recording in the right studio?’  ‘Is this song in the right key?’”

If, after celebrating the collaborative art of playwriting since 1904, the Nobel committee has finally turned its gaze on the related literary genre of songwriting, then the inevitable choice for the prize is Bob Dylan.  He’s arguably the greatest, most transformative songwriter of the past century (though it’s worth noting that Rabindranath Tagore, who won in 1913 for his poetry, was also a songwriter; he wrote over 2,000 songs, many of which are still popular throughout South Asia) (read more on Tagore).

Forging an amalgam of biblical verse, François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, and others, Dylan pushed Tin Pan Alley off the cliff while creating one unlikely masterpiece after another.  “Masters of War,” “Gates of Eden,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Desolation Row,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and “Idiot Wind” are just a few examples of an evolving body of work that has challenged every other songwriter to think more deeply about a wider range of subjects that you could write about, what sort of language you could use to embody those subjects, and just how long your songs could take their time doing so.  And none of this happened by accident.  Sean Wilentz, in “Mystic Nights,” his masterly essay on the making of Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde, observes that during the recording, “Dylan constantly and carefully revised, as he always had and still does, even to the point of abandoning entire songs. Changing the line “I gave you those pearls” to “with her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls” was one example out of dozens of how Dylan, in the studio and in his Nashville hotel room, improved the timbre of the songs’ lyrics as well as their imagery. And Dylan’s voice, as ever an evolving invention, was one of the album’s touchstones, a smooth, even sweet surprise to listeners who had gotten used to him sounding harsh and raspy. By turns sibilant, sibylline, injured, cocky, sardonic, and wry, Dylan’s voice on Blonde on Blonde more than made up in tone and phrasing what it gave away in range.”

Dylan always developed his lyrics and music to reflect his shifting identity as a human.  One might say the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature could be considered a group award for every Bob Dylan there has ever been.

While it’s true that Nobel recipient Anatole France was born François-Anatole Thibault, the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, and the Guadeloupean-French poet Alexis Leger went by the pen name of Saint-John Perse, I think few would venture the opinion that “Bob Dylan” is merely a pen name.  That original, mysterious nub of the middle class and Midwestern Robert Allen Zimmerman didn’t so much rename himself as conjure a fluid mask for the expression of all his future public selves: a Woody Guthrie-like folk singer, the protest singer, a sensitive singer-songwriter, a gritty and poetic rock ‘n’ roller, the elusive figure releasing oracular songs from a basement, then the country gentleman, followed by the very public ringmaster of a traveling musical carnival, leading to the brimstone Christian and then the lapsed one.  These days he’s an increasingly grizzled troubadour of the decades-long Never Ending Tour, bringing his own vast version of the great American songbook to any state fair or refurbished theater that will have him.

Dylan wears each mask until its features begin to harden, and then he sets about fashioning a new one.  Each mask is a part of him but no mask is him.  What Dylan’s oeuvre most celebrates is that busyness of being born, not dying, the life-long squawk of his successive secret selves through the public medium of popular song.  His greatness can’t be confined to a single song, or a single album, or even a collection of “best” albums.  I think a deeper reason we listen to his changing voices, musics, and personas is because his lifelong transformations reflect our own, those we struggle to suppress and those we hope to release.

There’s a crucial moment in the arc of Dylan’s shape-shifting career that occurred during a concert that was, happily, recorded, bootlegged, and eventually released officially as The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert.  It’s the summer of 1966, and Dylan is on tour in England, introducing to audiences his latest electric self, backed by a group called The Jayhawks (which would a couple years later morph into The Band).

Throughout the tour the acoustic sets have gone well, but whenever Dylan plugs in with The Jayhawks the audience mood sours.  A month’s conflict of expectations comes to a head at a concert in Manchester.  Between songs, the audience claps loudly in unison, an ironic, anti-clapping: not applause but criticism.  What were they thinking?  Hadn’t they noticed that the figure on stage had already in his young career shed three previous musical masks?  But “everybody wants you to be just like them” and the heckling continues.  Dylan taunts them in return and performs a searing version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” not for them but at them.  Finally, some poor soul in the audience shouts “Judas!” to appreciative laughter.

Dylan responds with a growling, “I don’t believe you.”  Then, after a tense pause, he shouts, “You’re a liar!”  Turning to the band, he tells them, “Play fucking loud,” and what follows is a roaring kick-ass blast of “Like a Rolling Stone” that finally silences the malcontents.  Yet Dylan wasn’t asking The Jayhawks to just play the song fucking loud, he was also asking them to blare out the necessity of his latest persona to that angry and uncomprehending audience.  He was fighting for his right to wear whatever mask fits.  He was fighting for his right to breathe.

It has recently been announced that in early April, Dylan will perform two back-to-back concerts in Stockholm, which is well within that six-month Nobel lecture deadline.  There are suggestions that these concerts might serve as a substitute.  Or maybe not, and a podium is waiting.  Whatever is decided, tread lightly, Nobel literature committee.  Every Bob Dylan we have ever known and listened to bristles at requirements.  That’s the very path that led him to the Nobel.

Interested readers can find the author’s close look at Dylan’s song “Cold Irons Bound” at his website.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Something You Can Use: The Writer’s Self-Healing Wound

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The writer and critic John Gardner is perhaps best remembered these days for his novel Grendel, and for a quote on the writing life that has influenced generations of writers ever since: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection — a wound inherent in the nature of life itself — and is an attempt either to live with the wound or to heal it.”

Gardner spoke from his own experience. He felt responsible for the death of his brother in a farming accident, a death that took him many years to finally approach in his short story, “Redemption.” In his 1978 Paris Review interview, Gardner said, “Before I wrote the story about the kid who runs over his younger brother…always, regularly, every day I used to have four or five flashes of that accident. I’d be driving down the highway and I couldn’t see what was coming because I’d have a memory flash. I haven’t had it once since I wrote the story. You really do ground your nightmares, you name them.”

Trauma, of course, arrives from many sources: the death of a family member, sexual assault, the psychological and physical abuse wreaked by dysfunctional families, discrimination’s poison, the catastrophe of war or famine, or any crushing event that reorients a child’s understanding of the world. The list of harsh surprises is probably endless. Perhaps that is why Gardner’s description of an art-generating wound resonates with any writer searching for the truths of his or her childhood. Damage survived through one’s art can be a heroic story we tell ourselves, a suspenseful tale of personal struggle and possible transcendence. For me, Gardner’s insight certainly helped shape my understanding of the secret imperative behind my early attempts at writing short stories: they were ripples that arose from but could never undo two defining events of my childhood.

When I was just past 10 years old, my mother twice attacked my father: first, with a steak knife over the dinner table, and another evening she slammed his head between the rungs of a stairwell’s banister, wrapping a towel around his neck to strangle him. Each time, I threw myself between them, a mere child wrestling with an adult drama whose origins I knew nothing about. To this day, the motives for that violence remain obscure. My parents somehow managed to stay together, shedding their worst arguments and over time adopting quiet guerilla warfare. In spite of daily counter-evidence, an official line developed that we were a happy family. Any past violence was a story that couldn’t be told.

Other stories awaited me behind the closed door of my room. I entered a world of books. Though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I must have understood that the more stories and novels I read, the more I increased the real estate inside where I might find a place of my own. My life is unimaginable without books, and that inadvertent gift arising from my parents’ desperate disputes and then silence has provoked my life-long artistic gaze.

Gardner’s insight has helped many writers, but as the years have passed I’ve come to suspect that it also conceals a further truth. A psychic wound can be its own healing agent, may itself contain a gift, and may offer a form of unexpected inspiration. Yet how to embrace this elusive not-damage within the wound?

I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, by the Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, offers one possibility. This brilliant novel takes the form of a memoir-in-progress being written by one Sarah Nour El-Din. Every chapter in the book is a Chapter One, because Sarah can’t seem to find the proper entry into her memoir. She keeps beginning again, trying to start from this angle, then that angle, searching for the most fruitful approach to the rest of her life’s story. But these failed first chapters give the reader a deeper sense of her marriages, her lover, her son, father, mother, stepmother, sisters, grandfather, her life in Lebanon and in America, and her artistic ambitions.

Eventually a first chapter takes on one of her troubled family’s most shameful secrets: Sarah’s sister Lamia, a nurse who overdosed her patients to death. Sarah feels she can’t begin to explain her sister’s actions, so instead she announces, “I will let her speak for herself” and includes in the chapter her imprisoned sister’s awkwardly eloquent letters. By allowing her sister a voice, something breaks through to Sarah. She begins to see her sister from the inside.

Two first chapters later, Sarah writes about a harried day in the life of her despised stepmother Saniya, from what she imagines is Saniya’s point of view. A few first chapters later, Sarah imagines a walk through the streets of New York from her first husband’s perspective. Of course Sarah can’t really know what he contemplated as he navigated from university classroom to apartment, any more than she knows what terrain her stepmother’s thoughts might occupy. But by now the relentless I, I, I of Sarah’s memoir has deepened into the competing perspectives of her extended family. They are no longer mere actors in her story but people with stories of their own, and this realization enables Sarah to move from the role of victim to that of survivor, relinquishing blame through the transformative gift of empathy.

Much like Sarah, for too much of my life I focused on my younger self’s understanding of my parents, turning them into an easy story to tell. We children of dysfunctional families try on certain emotional techniques to survive our parents, to dodge or undermine their worst behavior. Yet if we’re successful at protecting ourselves, in later life we run the risk of holding on to our hard-won tactics too long, and using them — often futilely — against the world, as if the world were our parents. In doing so, we remain locked in childhood without even knowing it.

For writers, the key to avoiding such a fate may lie in our urge to shape our characters’ possibilities. We labor to bestow a depth that allows them to take their first breaths, and by accepting their surprises we may be led to fruitful, unfamiliar territory. These skills we have learned and forged in our writing can be applied elsewhere.

My mother’s name was Edith, not Mom. This is an important distinction for me to remember. Too often, in remembering my parents, I still think of them by their official titles, the names that defined their relationship to me. Yet they were individuals fully existing in their own lives long before I was born. My mother’s father died when she was three. My father, at about the same age, was locked in a rat-infested shed for a day by his older brother. Perhaps the parallel traumas of early abandonment eventually led them to each other.

Throughout her adult life Edith, my mother, smoked heavily but never, ever was her persistent cough to be associated with that smoking. To suggest such a connection invited certain fireworks. My mother also developed an obsession about cholesterol, that dietary evil of all evils. Whenever my mother went into a hacking fit and coughed up phlegm, she announced with some satisfaction that this was a “cholesterol ball” that she had managed to release from her system. She would proudly display her handkerchief to any interested parties.

My mother also developed the habit of driving from our home in Long Island to a town 30 miles away, a 60 mile round trip, to buy a hamburger at McDonalds. I can only imagine the countless unworthy McDonalds she drove past on her journey, but she believed that particular outlet served the best hamburgers, no other could compare. It was wise not to contradict her, or to express disbelief when she asserted that all the traffic intersections on her ride home had been deviously programmed to delay her car at one red light after another.

My mother’s imagination, in these and many, many other examples, used to drive me to infuriated distraction. Why couldn’t she see the foolishness, even the danger of these beliefs? Of course, at the time my exasperation was fueled in part by fear—would I one day become like her, impervious to even elementary logic? Now, I realize that as a child I studied with a master. However emotionally isolated and frightened my mother may have been, she unknowingly gave me the gift of her imaginative skills, and I had just as unknowingly received them. This gift became the key to many of my fictional characters, including the increasingly desperate multiple personalities of the mother in my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, and the construction of fantasies that threaten to go awry in my various characters’ interior lives in the story collection Interior Design.

The empathy I needed to create these characters led me to a belated sympathy for my mother. I came to look at her invention of cholesterol balls as an attempt to convince herself smoking wasn’t dangerous. They served to mask her secret fear. My mother’s championing of a singular, incomparable McDonald’s hamburger outlet simply added a little spark into her life, a way to quit the house and the hours of solitaire she played, and go on a small journey. Those malevolently programmed traffic lights on her return drive offered another sort of excitement: despite this conspiracy against her, Edith, my mother, always triumphed and made her way back home.

My father’s name was Bill, not Dad. He was a quiet man who never learned to say, “I love you.” He’d stiffen in a welcoming hug, a nervous smile pasted on his face. His heavy drinking created an invisible wall between himself and his family. He held inside more than I could imagine. By the time of my teen years, he had stopped arguing with my mother and let her have her way, accepting any derision silently. When I was a young man, his passivity symbolized everything I wanted to avoid in my life. I didn’t understand that he had given up on his marriage and further battling meant nothing to him.

Bill, my father, worked for an import-and-export firm that owned a number of commercial buildings in downtown Manhattan. His job was to make sure the company’s buildings came as close to full occupancy as possible. One of the ways he achieved this was by regularly making the rounds, floor by floor of each building, developing relationships with tenants who hailed from Jamaica, India, and Pakistan, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn and Chinese businessmen and women from Hong Kong.

One summer my father found me a job operating the freight elevators for his company’s buildings — an easy enough task once I got the hang of it, and completely off the books, since I was replacing the regular elevator operators as they took their vacation time. Sometimes my father would take me along on his rounds during my lunch break, and I watched his easy banter with the tenants, the jokes they threw back and forth, his attentiveness to their concerns. Though they all called him Bill and not Mr. Graham, their affection and respect was obvious. I took it all in, shocked that he was so admired, since he’d long been an object of contempt in his own home.

Only many years later did I begin to suspect that my father, Bill, offered this glimpse of his business life so I would see a side of him he buried at home. He attempted to transform himself in my eyes from a one-dimensional to a three-dimensional character. Here is another gift I accepted without knowing I had accepted it — or without acknowledging, unfortunately, that I had any clue I understood what he was trying to give me. Too often I have been a slow learner, and in this case I learned too late to thank him for this, and for something else, perhaps my father’s best gift: his easy camaraderie at work with so many different types of people. I believe his example helped me appreciate my high school encounter with the Middle-English thicket of The Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer’s sly generosity revealed the voices and contradictions of the bawdy Wife of Bath, the corrupt Pardoner, the vain Squire, and the rest of that motley group of pilgrims, and showed me how to use, in my first budding attempts at stories, what I’d already gleaned from my father: a necessary curiosity about everyone one encounters.

James Baldwin, with his usual wisdom, has written, “Any writer, looking back…finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way.”

We writers are used to looking back, locating in our rough drafts any glimmer that might show the way forward. A story, a poem, a novel, or a memoir won’t reach its best destination without the labor of reconsideration, without the ability to see afresh what is obscure, or incomplete. And neither will the story of our lives.

Let’s say your family has given you…a sweater. A common enough gift, but it’s a terrible, perhaps even an evil sweater. The combination of clashing colors resembles several things you might have once stepped on, in a nightmare. Worse, it doesn’t seem to fit. There are three arms, each one a different and incorrect length, and no hole for the crown of your head to peek through; instead, a round empty circle in the back gapes open about halfway down your spine.

What to do with this? It can’t be worn in any comfortable way. Hide it in a drawer and hope the moths will find it? Place it in the middle of a box of old clothes, deliver it to Goodwill, and rush out the door before anyone notices? Or take the sweater out to the backyard, improvise a ceremony, and then burn it, trying to read the smoke trails as they slip away in the air?

Each of these tactics is a possibility, and they may even be the most popular choices. I’d like to suggest something else. You cannot wear the damn thing, it will never fit, so stop trying. But you can’t ignore it, either. And its destruction would only be an illusion. Instead, take the sweater apart. Unravel it thread by thread. Examine the length, thickness, and color of each thread and discard nothing of what you’ve been given. Then, prepare your own pattern and make a new sweater, one that fits. Or make a set of gloves, a hat with the warmest earflaps, hand puppets, or a scarf. If you don’t like the scarf, take that apart and make a tea cozy.

Whatever you create will still be made from that evil ugly sweater. There’s no escaping that, it will always be there. So make it into something you can use.

An early version of this essay was initially delivered as a craft lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Image Credit: Pexels/Nguyen Nguyen.

Trouble Using Light: The Complications of Art in the Fiction of Christine Sneed


Making art can gnaw at you, wake you up in the middle of the night, and promise you too many paths or none at all. Christine Sneed is a writer who, from the beginning of her career, has been drawn to characters who attempt art, whether it’s painting, acting, screenwriting, or sculpture. What adds a distinctive depth to her work is this added complication: in her stories and novels she reveals the changes that occur from this quest in not only the artist’s life, but in the lives of surrounding friends and family.

In her first story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry (winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction), we see Sneed play out the first examples of this obsession. In the title story, the painter and sculptor Antonio Martedi has been dead for over a year, and his granddaughter April still feels the force of his personality and art. Shortly before his death he gave her the present of three sketchbooks of his work, with a warning never to show them to anyone else, saying, “If I wanted someone other than you to have these notebooks, I would have sold them myself a long time ago or donated them to some art school library.”

April, a struggling scriptwriter, becomes involved with a young artist who has already achieved some minor success, but she’s never quite sure if his interest in her isn’t only a reciprocation of her own attraction, but also a disguised desire to “claim some part, no matter how doubtful, of her grandfather’s genius.” He particularly wants to see those private sketchbooks, and even if April suspects that she is being used, she is increasingly prepared to use her grandfather’s art to get what she wants.

Throughout this subtle, unsettling story, we see the dead Martedi and his art as described by the memories and interests of others, even through the critical summations of obituaries. Sneed’s first novel, Little Known Facts, in some ways seems like a tree grown from the seed of that short story. The central character, Renn Ivins, a Hollywood actor in his early 50s still enjoying a charmed career (fashioned by Sneed as an amalgam of perhaps Harrison Ford and George Clooney), is seen through the eyes of others in chapter after chapter. Lucy, his first wife, has never remarried; his second wife is writing a tell-all memoir; his son Will walks unprotected beneath the famous cloud of a father who has already won two Academy Awards and is well on his way to a third; Anna, his daughter, is a resident doctor who has begun an affair with a married doctor her father’s age. In each case their lives have been affected by the presence of Ivins’s well-rewarded talent and outsized fame. With every additional success that comes his way, his family members have to struggle against further diminishment.

Yet in the middle of the novel, Ivins himself is allowed to speak, through a secret diary that he keeps, and here the reader is offered the stone that has set so many ripples in motion. We eavesdrop on reflections and revelations not meant for us, and discover that, while Ivins balances a serious artistic work ethic with time he spends on charity work for Katrina victims, he also relies on a spiritual advisor to help him decide what scripts to accept, and that while he is publicly partnered with a celebrated young actress, he is also conducting a secret liaison with his son’s former girlfriend. It’s a complex portrait, and we see how his indulgences, blind spots, and well-crafted excuses for his behavior set in motion much of the toxic aftershocks of fame that are felt by his family. When Ivins, in writing in his diary about tragedy in film, observes that there is “so much poetry in sadness, a very different and possibly more potent variety than the kind of poetry you find in happiness,” he isn’t nearly as aware as he should be of the personal ironies of this insight.

It comes as a relief to see, in the final chapters, his family members beginning to take baby steps away from his emotional influence. His first wife, Lucy, has rediscovered a man who knew her before she became the wife of a famous actor; with increasing confidence Will is writing a screenplay; and Anna is beginning to take a closer look at her affair. But how strong are these steps? At book’s end, Ivins’s affair with his son’s ex-girlfriend is a revelation still waiting to be fully revealed, a foolish risk that may very well unsettle his family once again.

Sneed’s latest novel, Paris, He Said, her most subtle and accomplished work to date, may seem at first to follow a similar narrative pattern. Jayne Marks is a young artist in New York who struggles through two dead-end jobs to simply pay her rent. Her budding career as a painter is slowly slipping away, until she meets Laurent Moller, the co-owner of the Paris art gallery Vie Bohème that is opening a branch in New York. Though Laurent is decades older than she, they quickly become lovers, and perhaps too quickly he invites Jayne to return with him to Paris and live together in his apartment.

It’s not just about the sex, or their easy way with each other. Laurent claims to see something in Jayne’s work worthy of being nurtured, and he offers her space — and time — in his Paris apartment to create a studio where she can work uninterrupted, without the cares of having to pay any bills. Though other cares take the place of concerns about money. Perhaps Jayne is merely a modern version of a kept woman, indulged in by her lover. Or he genuinely admires her work, but there is an unspoken contract in place, sexual comfort for the possible opportunity of a showing at Laurent’s Paris gallery.

The first third of Paris, He Said, is told from Jayne’s perspective, with all her undermining worries on display, mixed with her attraction to Laurent, her rediscovered ambitions as an artist, her love of Paris. Like Little Known Facts and the revelation of Ivins’s perspective in a central chapter, the middle section of Paris, He Said is devoted to Laurent’s attempt at a memoir. When I looked ahead at the novel’s table of contents, I have to confess to an increasing anticipation that Laurent’s section would reveal the truth of some of Jayne’s worries, or worse.

But Laurent turns out to be more complex than any bad guy disclosures might offer. A failed artist himself, he turned to displaying others’ art in a gallery he established with an inheritance from his family’s vineyards. With his gift for discerning artists whose talent is also salable, his gallery becomes a success, and Laurent takes it upon himself to become an informal patron of selected artists whose work he believes to be promising. Sometimes his hunches work out, sometimes not. Sometimes he mixes sexual attraction with his patronage, and he believes enough in his motives for supporting art not to be too concerned about this potentially compromising complication.

Jayne is his latest hunch. With the time to think out her art’s possibilities and apply those insights to canvas, her art flourishes and Laurent offers her a place in a group showing at the gallery. All might seem to be well, but in the third section of the novel the internal contradictions of her relations with Laurent can’t be sustained indefinitely. With a Gallic insouciance he continues — not secretly enough — meetings with a number of his former lovers (some of whom are also artists he supported). Jayne, eventually able to interpret his absences, finds herself drawn back to the still-devoted boyfriend she left for Laurent. The power of art alone can’t keep them together, and the way Sneed recounts the initial steps of Jayne and Laurent’s eventual estrangement is quietly devastating.

“Before you make up your mind about me, slashing an X through the box of my murky character, you should know there is more to the story,” Laurent writes in his memoir, but this sentence could apply to every character in Paris, He Said. Because Sneed never descends to an easy headline of revelation, or a plot twist that offers a finality of judgment, Paris, He Said is a brave book. Sneed offers, with quiet confidence, her characters’ increasing complexities. People, like the best art, deserve more than one interpretation. There is little black and white contrast in Sneed’s work, and she lingers in every gradation of shade in between, as if gray were a full palette of color. Lurking in the areas where easy judgments can’t survive, she builds up and undermines a character at the same time, creating an attractive surface with her prose that also fills us with disquiet.

Few fireworks here, instead a slow, unsettling burn.

Silently, Side by Side: Reading with My Son

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From the crucial moment in second grade when I discovered Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins, I became hooked on the intimate practice of grasping the world through words. Eventually moving on to the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series, I would carry around a book the way younger children would hold onto a beloved blanket. I read so much, and so often, that my parents considered taking me to a child psychologist, to find out why in the world I resisted getting a little fresh air every once in a while, for Pete’s sake!

My second crucial discovery came in seventh grade, when a lucky encounter with an abridged edition of War and Peace helped me take a giant step into the pleasures of reading adult literature. From then on, journeys into the internal worlds of characters rather than the quick thrill of external adventure fueled my reading habit.

As a life-long reader, I reveled in the pleasure of introducing books to my son Nathaniel from his earliest days: Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, the Spot books, the Berenstain Bears, the Little Miss and Mister Men series. Every night, first my wife, Alma, and then I would read to him, giving Nathaniel a combined bedtime reading of a good hour or more. Even after he learned how to read, he insisted on continuing our evening ritual, and so we marched through the Encyclopedia Brown detective series, the early Narnia books, even some of those old Hardy Boys mysteries.

When our daughter Hannah was born, Alma and I expanded our evening regimen to both our children. We created a kind of tag-team structure, reading to Hannah in her room, and to Nathaniel, then eight years old, in his. Inevitably, after a couple of years, our son grew less interested in what he had come to consider a babyish ritual, and he read on his own, mostly sci-fi adventures. By the time he reached 12, I worried that my son might be stuck in a literary rut, as I had once been — old enough to enjoy more challenging work but unaware of where to begin.

Maybe those days of curling up in bed with a story were long gone, but what if we read the same book together silently, side by side, in the living room? If I bought two copies of a novel, we could take on chapter-length chunks each evening and then discuss what we’d just read. Perhaps in this way I could gently lead my son to an appreciation of the deeper internal landscapes that literature offers.

Where to begin? I remembered a book I had loved in my teens, an obscure Jack London novel, Before Adam, about a modern man haunted by intense dreams of an earlier, ancestral existence as a proto-human named Big-Tooth. The book combined rollicking pre-historic escapades with serious issues of developing consciousness and what it means to be human. Though a bit skeptical at first, Nathaniel agreed to my proposal. And so one evening, as he sat on a chair by the fireplace and I settled on the couch across the room, my son and I read of Big-Tooth and his friend Lop-Ear, the implacable Red-Eye, the desirable Swift One, saber-toothed tigers, wild boars, packs of wolves and, lurking in the background, the dangerously advanced Men of Fire.

The pace of the plot kept us constantly engaged. Sometimes Nathaniel would draw in his breath, and I knew some surprise awaited me, or I’d pull ahead in the reading and laugh, and he’d ask, What?”

“Just wait, you’ll see,” I’d reply.

The novel also grew contemplative in unexpected ways. At one point in the story, as Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear played along the banks of a river, a log that Lop-Ear rested on drifted into deeper water, a danger the two friends realized too late: “Swimming was something of which we knew nothing. We were already too far removed from the lower life-forms to have the instinct for swimming, and we had not yet become sufficiently man-like to undertake it as the working out of a problem.”

I remember Nathaniel and I both paused in our reading at the idea that a character’s limited understanding might lead to disaster. But Lop-Ear was still stuck on that drifting log, so we returned to the story:

“And then, somehow, I know not how, Lop-Ear made the great discovery. He began paddling with his hands. At first his progress was slow and erratic. Then he straightened out and began laboriously to paddle nearer and nearer. I could not understand. I sat down and watched and waited until he gained the shore.”

Soon, Lop-Ear and Big-Tooth learned how to manipulate the logs in the water, even combining two together for better balance, but only up to a point: “And there our discoveries ended. We had invented the most primitive catamaran, and we did not have enough sense to know it. It never entered our heads to lash the logs together with tough vines or stringy roots. We were content to hold the logs together with our hands and feet.”

This passage occupied us for some time. Would the characters we’d come to care about be able to expand their minds enough to help them out of any future dilemmas? And what of our own limitations — what insights, what solutions to seemingly intractable problems were just beyond our understanding in our own lives?

The novel’s 18 chapters held us for nearly three weeks, and our discussions were so rewarding that I thought something quieter might not be too much of a reach: Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. The novel recounts Einstein’s dreams during the spring and summer of 1905, when he was living in Berne, Switzerland, and developing his theory of relativity. Each short dream chapter is ruled by a different law of time: in one version of Berne, time is discontinuous, creating minute, barely observable changes; in another, time has three dimensions, like space; and, in another Berne, time is visible. Nathaniel and I often spent many more minutes talking about how Lightman turned time into a kaleidoscope of possibilities than we had spent reading an individual chapter.

As with Jack London’s novel, we kept to the rule of only one chapter a day.

Normally, as a reader I plunge in, reading page after page after page, burrowing into a fictional world (my secret rule is that if I make it to page 30, I’m committed for the rest of the book). I can read a novel in a single day if the book’s imperative and my schedule permits. But pausing for a day after a single chapter? I’d never done this before, but both Nathaniel and I grew to enjoy the stately pace of our reading. We had 24 hours to reconsider or linger over particularly exciting or intriguing moments, and anticipate what would come next. A few years after our reading experiment, I came upon the poet James Richardson’s Vectors — a marvelous collection of “aphorisms and ten-second essays” — and found a gem that underlined the discovery Nathaniel and I had made: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?”

With our reading ritual well established, while we were in the middle of one book I’d already be considering what we might try next. When I read the Lightman chapter on how a lack of memory alters time — “Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first. A world without memory is a world of the present” — I thought we’d next try Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, an elegiac novel on the stresses that come to undermine a traditional African culture. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? When Nathaniel was six, he’d lived in a West African village one summer with his anthropologist mother and me, among the Beng people of Ivory Coast, and the daily rhythms of rural African life was a world he knew. It was while we lived in the village of Asagbé that Nathaniel had taught himself how to read, following my finger pointing out the word bubbles of the Tintin books I read to him. But his African experience couldn’t easily be expressed or shared with any of his friends in America. Now, I thought, Achebe’s novel might help Nathaniel set his memories and give him a space to remember and reflect.

Nathaniel settled in easily to the depictions of village life with a nostalgia that was touching to see in a 12-year-old. But soon the more uncomfortable aspects of the novel took over, particularly the rift that grew between the main character, Okonkwo, and his son, Nwoye. With my son on the outskirts of adolescence, this aspect of Achebe’s novel disturbed me in ways it hadn’t when I’d first read it many years before. Now I worried that it presaged the inevitable distancing that all fathers and sons must one day face. But this wasn’t a subject I was ready to confront, and so I didn’t bring it up openly in any of our discussions.

By now I thought Nathaniel might be ready for Kurt Vonnegut and his signature blend of humor, empathy, and excoriating truthfulness. And thus arrived the beginning of the end of our reading ritual. Starting with Slaughterhouse-Five, Nathaniel refused to stop after a single chapter, and so we’d read two, three, more at a sitting.  When we moved on to Cat’s Cradle, he began reading on his own during the day, arriving at our nightly book sessions scores of pages ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up with him, and so eventually, and reluctantly, I left him on his own.

Now in his mid-20s and a father himself, Nathaniel is still a voracious reader — not of novels, but mostly books (and blogs) on politics, economics, and alternative architecture. At times I wish fiction had taken a greater hold of him, but mainly I’m proud that he navigates his own reading catamaran. Back when he was 12, my son did Big-Tooth one better: he’d strapped together two logs with his own imaginative cord and then paddled on his way, my reading companionship no longer needed, into the waterways that matter to him most. And now, Nathaniel reads to his 15-month-old son Dean some of the same children’s books my wife and I once read to him. Who knows where the comfort of a lap, a steady voice, and Five Little Monkeys will eventually lead his child?

Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro.

Shepherding Sadness: The Fiction of Mia Couto

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The Mozambican writer Mia Couto has been having a great year. Last week, he was nominated for the 23rd Biennial Neustadt International Prize for literature, his fellow nominees including César Aira, Edward P. Jones, and Haruki Murakami. And a mere six weeks before that, Couto won a major international literary award: the Camôes Prize for Literature (which includes a tidy 100,000 euro take-away).

The Camões Prize, which honors a writer working in the Portuguese language, serves a similar function in the Portuguese-speaking world that the Man Booker Prize does in the English-speaking world. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese built an empire that ranged from Brazil in the western hemisphere to Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique in Africa, Goa in India, Macau in China, and East Timor in the Indonesian archipelago. That empire largely dissolved in the previous century, but out of the over five hundred years of an empire’s usual cruelties and tragedies there also developed a pan-Portuguese culture, the language serving as a midwife for remarkable literary and musical invention. Mia Couto, long regarded as one of the leading writers in Mozambique, has now been recognized as one of the greatest living writers in the Portuguese language.

So, why all this recent success for a writer that you’ve probably never heard of? Well, Couto is no new kid on the block. He is the author of over twenty books: novels, short story collections, and poetry have been adapted into films, plays, even a musical, and have sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide. Yet despite David Brookshaw’s fluid translations of Couto’s work into English, those sales come mainly from the eight countries spanning the globe where Portuguese is the official language.

As if on schedule, two new editions of Couto’s work have been published in English recently, the collection of stories The Blind Fisherman, and his latest novel, The Tuner of Silences.

The Blind Fisherman is actually a compendium of Couto’s first and second story collections, Voices Made Night, and Every Man Is a Race, books that established his literary reputation. I remember coming upon that first collection while visiting London in the early 1990s. Here’s the beginning of the first story, “Fire”:
The old man approached slowly as was his custom. He had shepherded his sadness before him ever since his youngest sons had left the road to no return.
That arresting phrase about shepherding one’s sadness, an image both local and universal, kept me reading. Still standing there in the bookstore by the third story, “The Day Mabata-bata Exploded,” I was not only hooked but caught when I read a description of a cow that, while being led by a young cowherd, steps on a landmine:
Suddenly, the cow exploded. It burst without so much as a moo. In the surrounding grass a rain of chunks and slices fell, as if the fruit and leaves of the ox. Its flesh turned into red butterflies. Its bones were scattered coins. Its horns were caught in some branches, swinging to and fro, imitating life in the invisibility of the wind.
This passage is typical of Couto’s strengths as a writer: terrible things remain terrible but are transformed into strange beauty by the power of language, which describes the world and alters it at the same time. He is a master at inverting reality, reversing the order of the world with a swift aphoristic grace that leaves us puzzling over our normal assumptions. “Life is a web weaving a spider,” he writes in another early story.

Perhaps language is a survival skill in the face of so much violence and turmoil in his country’s recent history. Mia Couto frequently writes of Mozambique’s long war of liberation from Portugal, its subsequent civil war that lasted nearly two decades, and the tragic aftermaths of so much destruction on the lives of ordinary people. Couto, born into a privileged white Mozambican family, himself dropped out of medical school to engage in the liberation struggle, until Mozambique gained its independence in 1975.

His first novel, Sleepwalking Land (named by a jury of the Zimbabwean International Book Fair as one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century) depicts a bleak world of shattered lives, and yet this world, transformed by violence, is transformed by Couto into something else, more hopeful, perhaps — certainly more magical. Though so many of his compatriots have been stunned into a kind of sleepwalking in their lives, Couto declares that we are all kin, that each of us resembles a “sleepwalker strolling through fire.” Above all, from the beginning he has been a poet of the disenfranchised, and in the author’s forward to Voices Made Night, he wrote, “The most harrowing thing about poverty is the ignorance it has of itself. Faced with an absence of everything, men abstain from dreams, depriving themselves of the desire to be others.”

While Mia Couto has won the premier literary award of the Portuguese-speaking world, he would be the first to admit that the former colonies of Portugal also have their own vibrant indigenous languages, which in turn are influencing the development of written and spoken Portuguese. The aphoristic strength of Couto’s prose seems particularly touched by the tradition of proverbs, a form of African oral literature that spans the continent. Ruth Finnegan, in her comprehensive Oral Literature in Africa, observes that, “In many African cultures a feeling for language, for imagery, and for the expression of abstract ideas through compressed and allusive language phraseology comes out particularly clearly in proverbs.”

The power of Mozambican proverbs like “A reflection does not see itself,” or “When you live next to the cemetery, you cannot weep for everyone,” have clearly worked their way into Couto’s writing. His prose can often pause a story as a reader contemplates the richness of sentences such as “love is a territory where orders can’t be issued.”

This aphoristic strength remains in full force in Couto’s latest novel, The Tuner of Silences. The narrator of the novel, Mwanito, is the son of Silvestre Vitalício, a man who attempts to escape the Mozambican civil war by transporting his two sons to a remote and desolate corner of the country. There, he creates his own “country”: Jezoosalem, “a land where Jesus would uncrucify himself,” a land where “God will come and apologize to us.”

But the civil war is not the only tragedy Silvestre has run from. The death of his wife has altered him, created within him a need for silence. Mwanito, too young to remember the brimming world left behind, apprentices himself to his father’s stillness: “Some are born to sing, others to dance, others born merely to be someone else. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence.”

Because their Father refuses to discuss the cause or details of his wife’s death, Mwanito and his older brother Ntunzi can’t help speculating that perhaps their father killed her himself. Whatever the real story, the uncertainty over the truth creates a distance between the boys and their father.

Another citizen of Jezoosalem is Zachary Kalash, a former soldier and friend of Silvestre’s who now hunts to provide food for everyone. To this end he presides over a cache of weaponry in a shed that Mwanito can’t help visiting, as it offers him an escape from silence: “[S]trangely enough it was the war that taught me to read words. Let me explain: the first letters I learnt were the ones I deciphered on the labels that were stuck on the crates of weapons.”

Though Silvestre has tried to create his own small world “far from everything, far from wars,” one that was “governed by obedience,” with the sudden advent of Marta, a damaged and naive Portuguese woman in search of the husband who deserted her, the emotional structure of Jezoosalem is upended, and unhappy truths can no longer be contained, and only language, and stories, might offer redemption.

Each chapter of The Tuner of Silences begins with an excerpt from a poem, almost always by the Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, or the Brazilian poets Hilda Hilst or Adélia Prado. Here we find a striking example of the international ties of literature in the Portuguese language. Though perhaps unknown names to most of us in the English-speaking world, they are well-known poets to an educated reader of Portuguese. This literary tradition is only slowly beginning to become visible to us in the U.S. The Portuguese writers Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago are now widely acknowledged as world-class writers, the Cape Verdean writer Germano Almeida’s reputation is growing, and Benjamin Moser has been heroic in his efforts to build a wider audience for the great Brazilian modernist writer Clarice Lispector, both through his biography of Lispector, Why This World, and his project to re-translate and reprint her entire oeuvre. Nightboat Books has begun a project to translate the work of Hilda Hilst, beginning with her novella, The Obscene Madam D.

So, The Tuner of Silences not only offers a reader an example of a great writer’s most recent work, but with those chapter epigraphs it also cracks open a welcoming window onto a vast world of literary pleasures that has for too long remained under the radar in the English-speaking world.

Every Day I Open a Book

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I remember the moment, the slow walk across the second grade classroom, to one of those bookshelves that could be pushed around on wheels.  This one was parked, though, and I was heading for it.

What was I thinking at the time?  That, I can’t remember now, I can only recall the purposeful walk, as if something about that bookshelf called to me.  And when I got there, I found a book that would change my life.  Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary.

I don’t know why I picked it.  I shouldn’t have.  I was one of the worst readers in the class, and I can remember tearful sessions with my parents at home as I tried to make my way through the simplest of texts.  This book was far more difficult than anything I’d ever attempted to read before.

Perhaps it was the story, of Henry Huggins determined to take a stray dog home, the uncooperative bus driver indifferent to the delivery of Henry’s heart’s desire.  At the time I had no dog myself.  Did I want a dog, was that it?  I can’t remember.  Perhaps it was Henry’s quiet insistence in keeping this companion, his inventive persistence at achieving his goal.  Maybe Henry’s example inspired me, helped me to teach myself how to use the dictionary so I could to make my way through this book filled with difficult words.

Because I needed a companion too.  Outside the closed door of my room, my parents’ inexhaustible battles played themselves out, arguments I could further muffle by entering the world of a book, though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I’m sure.  But I must have understood that I needed to learn how to read, in order to open the invisible door I sensed was there.  Once I’d navigated Henry Huggins, other books easily followed, other companions: Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and then, as I grew older, a succession of adventure books set on fantastic worlds, packed with swords and gunplay.  I wonder now, as I write this, was all that drama a way of domesticating the domestic warfare still waged by my mother and father, a way to ease the sting of conflict?

Or was some form of escape the secret desire, the traveling to the distant worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, following John Carter to Mars, Carson Napier to Venus and David Innes to the center of the earth.  Even now, I can’t believe that I can remember their names, or that Mars was called Barsoom.

Whatever the desire, I read so much that eventually my parents forced me to go outside and play, and they talked to each other—and I overheard—of taking me to a child specialist to see if there was anything wrong with me.  And still I devoured books, increasing the real estate inside me where I could find a place of my own, where my heroes always managed to slip away from disaster.

But no book could prevent the disaster that occurred when I was eleven, when arguments seemed to serve no further purpose, when my mother tried to stab my father with a knife, when on another occasion she strangled him with a towel around his neck, his head stuck between two rungs of a banister.  In both cases I worked my way between my struggling parents, and at this moment as I write I’m struck by a new thought, that perhaps all those years of reading adventure stories had given me a vocabulary of action, a means to save my father’s life, as if I’d been preparing, through books, for those charged moments without knowing it.

Some poison had been leached by that violence, and in the months and years that followed my parents reverted back to the rituals of verbal sparring.  What had set all this in motion, the steps to that terrible brink, and then the retreat?  I couldn’t know.

A change had occurred in me, too.  My beloved adventure books had somehow lost their adventure.  I would still read obsessively, but now dutifully, because the literary rituals of crisis and escape felt somehow empty—what I read no longer gave me what I wanted, though I didn’t yet know what I wanted.

One day in seventh grade I ordered my usual stack of books from the Scholastic Books Service; one of them was an abridged version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  A little skeptical, I figured I could skip past the peace parts if they proved too boring.  When the nine or so books I’d ordered finally arrived I saved Tolstoy’s novel for last—even abridged, the book was 500 pages long, longer than any book I’d ever read before.  But its length was not the challenge, not in the way the vocabulary of Henry Huggins had been for me years ago.  The challenge was of an entirely different order.

I can remember the moment I realized I’d stumbled into new territory.  I was sitting on a lawn chair in the backyard, beneath the clothesline, in the shadow of a tree.  I set Tolstoy’s novel on my lap, then picked it up and checked the page number.  Page 73.  I can actually remember the page number.  And what most struck me was that, after reading 73 pages, of a novel titled War and Peace, nobody had died yet, there was none of the action that I’d come to expect from all my previous reading.  And most surprising, I didn’t care.  Because I knew that this was already the best book I’d ever read.  And nobody had died yet.  Now how could that be?

Here was action of a different sort: the action of the heart, the revelation of interior lives, the drama of inner conflict, all of which gave voice to my growing awareness of my own secret self.  Here was a vast world that wasn’t Mars, or Venus, or the center of the earth.  What had once been the pleasure of escape was now a pleasure of a different sort—that of a journey, a way to map inner landscapes.  And a way, perhaps, to make sense of the tangled knots of my family, what we’d tied ourselves into.

But never quite to make sense, never to completely unravel, because the books I read now offered no easy solutions, and that was the confounding joy of them, the messy truth no matter how elegant the prose or canny the structure.

Such books gave me my future, not so much my future as a writer, though of course there is that, but my future as a human, a fallible human engaged in the futile attempt to know oneself and others. Each new book, like Zeno’s arrow, gets closer to but never hits the target.  There is no easy or final understanding, but without the attempt, who can bear to live the isolation that is the alternative?  And the more I read, the more I think that all readers have secret histories connected to the books they love, the books that have served for them as havens, or interventions.

So every day, I open a book.  Its words were once the thoughts of another human being, thoughts that could have remained private but are instead lined up in row after row on each page.  An invitation to begin, to take the first steps into another mind, to step and step until there are no steps but instead the blessed drama of art’s illusion delivering the pith of human contradiction, the greatest gift of one mind offering itself to another, the foreign air we best breathe.