A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful

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A Year in Reading: Christian Lorentzen

I am on a train to Paris reading Her Not All Her: On/with Robert Walser by Elfriede Jelinek, number 18 in the Cahier Series, translated by Damion Searls, with paintings by Thomas Newbolt. “Writers, not unlike generals, often make the most tedious preparations before they proceed to the attack and bravely deliver your battles. Don’t leave your weapons at home all the time! Are you doing it on purpose? From the art of poetry war has arisen: People were bored by what they knew but they didn’t want to ask anything either. They wanted to answer right off. But there’s one thing they know for certain: Always conquer new ground! That’s what it means to be an artist!”

Sometimes my life seems like an endless process of conquest; other times it feels like an interminable subjugation in exile. People often ask me, do you like it better here in London or in America. The only correct answer is “Stop asking me that stupid question.” When I’m not doing something for money, I read the new books that drift in from the homeland. The first one this year was A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, about his conquest of Berlin and various pilgrimages to Spain, Japan and Ukraine. The Berlin chapter is potently dense, the best thing written on that city’s colonization by American artists. The Spain bit is a buddy movie starring Tom Bissell in Danny Glover-like “I’m too old for this shit” mode. The Japan part has the absurdist quality of a Beckett monologue. And although I am undomesticated and don’t generally go in for family stuff, the resolution of daddy issues in the Ukraine section is comically and dramatically satisfying. The locations don’t matter in the end because you read Lewis-Kraus for his smooth prose style.

You read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder for his smooth way with storytelling, an overvalued quality except when it’s done this well. Who thought the sad New York literary manchild genre could be reconquered to center its gaze not on a mirror but on a woman and who knew the best way to do that would be to filter it through a Catholic morality? This former altar boy didn’t, but amen, peace be with you, and also with you.

Storytelling is not the first thing you look for in a book by Joshua Cohen. You read him for his transgressions, his jokes, his puns, and his piles of similes: “introducing this Word into the story would be…like inviting friends over to my apartment for dinner then serving them individual portions of feces garnished with poems about how much I hate friends and the poetry would rhyme.” It makes you think: what’s worse, actual shit or shitty poetry? A silly blurb on Four New Messages compares Cohen’s last book Witz to a comet. The new one is more like a cluster of asteroids impacting the heartland: a big dust cloud and fossils ensue.

One of the many amazing things about Jim Praley, the narrator of Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa, is that he finds humorlessness sexy. A Map of Tulsa seems to me the third major blow in a series of what-it’s-like-to-be-me-type novels, after Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and that these books will be the litty thing the Obama administration era is remembered for. Lytal’s book has a bit more of a plot than the other two, and the plot involves a penthouse in a skyscraper, an oil fortune, a motorcycle accident, dancing in bars, taking pills, and having sex outside. But mostly it’s about walking around the city — your hometown, reconquered — and wondering what your destiny will be. You probably haven’t heard of this book because it doesn’t come out until April.

Now I have crossed through the Chunnel and I am going to go back to reading Elfriede Jelinek. Next year I plan to read all the posthumous works of Laura (Riding) Jackson.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading 2012

The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).

So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?

We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.

And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.

With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

The Shoddy Afterlife of a Reality Hunger Appropriation

1.
Two years in print, David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, retains its provocative allure as he explores what he argues is the arbitrary distinction between non-fiction and fiction, what’s real and what is made up. His manifesto is still fun and easy to read ­–– open up to any page and you get an aphorism or mini-essay, inciting you to rally to his cause. Here’s a short entry I picked by randomly opening the book, on pg. 133:

391
A conversational dynamic­­––the desire for contact­­––is ingrained in the form.

Interesting, and it certainly makes sense (he’s talking about non-fiction), but who said that? To find out, you can turn to the list of citations in the Appendix, which Shields introduces with a disclaimer, saying the Random House lawyers forced him to put the citations in, as he prefers you not to know who wrote what, and you’ll see that number 391 is associated with Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. No page number is given, for this or any of the other citations, but if you enter key terms from the passage into Amazon.com’s “Look Inside The Book,” you’ll find the source, on page xxv of Lopate’s book, which Shields truncated but otherwise didn’t change. This is interesting, since, as Shields admits, sometimes he rewrites his quotes to suit his artistic goals.

According to his interview with The Millions (Part II), Shields doesn’t encourage these investigations into the sources of his material. He says:

My ideal reader is not going to be a quote-spotter or a cite-sifter. I very much want the reader to experience a certain vertigo when reading the book—is this Shields? Is it Chung? [Our interviewer]. Is it some odd combination of the two? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it all of us?

Shields wants us, as he advises in his disclaimer in the Appendix, to “simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter” and cut out the citation pages and read the book as he originally intended. But isn’t this part of the conversational dynamic, as well, to follow his quotes and appropriations to the original sources, to get further provoked, entertained, and delighted? And why should I listen to Shields, anyway? He clearly takes delight in blurring the distinction between truth and fiction, even suggesting that he sometimes lies. Who made him the boss?

2.
When I sat down to talk to Paul Elie about his new book, Reinventing Bach, I had a question for him that was inspired by Shields’ book: I wanted to ask if he believed that writing about his experience and passion for Bach in such a direct and palpable way satisfied the reader’s hunger for the reality that Shields is talking about, that if he believed that by cutting through the obfuscations of most biographies with their mounds of academic detail, be brought us closer to the “real” experience. But Elie brought up Shields before I did, to lament how Shields not only misquoted him in Reality Hunger, but also gravely misrepresented the overall intent of his work, and how recently this has led to another author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, perpetuating this misrepresentation in his new book, A Sense of Direction. I followed the trail of the citations to trace how the original source in Elie’s book morphed via Shields to reach the pages of Lewis-Kraus, and see for myself whether Elie was justified in accusing Shields of falsifying his work.

Let’s start the investigation with the entry in question in Shields’s manifesto, on page 182:

547
Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.

When I read the manifesto for the first time, over a year ago, I was constantly flipping back and forth between the entries and citations, and learned that 547 was from Paul Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which was, unlike most of the entries, from a book I’d actually read. I didn’t look up the source of the quote, though, not then –– the subtitle of Elie’s first book was An American Pilgrimage, so the passage was resonant of his subject matter, at least at a glance. And if the stridency or negativity of the passage set off any warning bells, I don’t remember them, though I may indeed have experienced a tinge of the vertigo that Shields says he likes to provoke, as the passage is not characteristic of Elie’s book, which wasn’t a polemic with a negative spin. It’s anything but. I should have been astute enough to realize that “We’re doomed to an imitation of life” wasn’t something Elie was likely to have ever written, but I was probably too excited to keep reading the manifesto to find out what cool passage-citations I’d discover next. In retrospect, I wish I’d slowed down and read more carefully.

Using “Look Inside the Book” again, I entered different search terms from Shields’s passage to find the source of his entry in Elie’s book –– “contemporary culture” yielded zero results, but “spoiled by self-consciousness” led me page 278, to a discussion of Walker Percy’s essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” which Elie described as “an essay about the ways language stands between the self and reality.” Elie summarizes and comments on a story Percy tells in his essay about tourists struggling to find an authentic experience, including an American couple who “leave town, get lost, and stumble on some natives performing a ‘corn dance’ in a remote village.” The couple, according to Percy’s story, convinced this was the authentic experience they were looking for, bring an ethnologist back with them, to validate it and get his approval. Then comes the encapsulated inspiration for Shield’s entry. Elie writes:

Percy’s point –– in the language of pilgrimage –– is that the modern predicament makes pilgrimage impossible. In the modern world (now generally called postmodern), all experience is always secondhand, planned, and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare authentically direct experience is spoiled by modern self-consciousness. The modern person is doomed to an imitation of life; the self cannot escape itself and know the world or the Other.

Let’s compare Elie’s original passage and Shields’s subsequent riff, restated here so you don’t have to scroll up and down.

547
Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.

You might argue that Shields keeps the gist of the original, and, like any good aphorist, even improves on the point being made by streamlining the main ideas. Shields changes the existential term “modern predicament” to the easier-to-relate to “contemporary culture,” in order to paint a more tangible villain for the crime, and he also gets rid of the religious aspect of the passage by editing out the last part: “the self cannot escape itself and know the world or the Other” –– meaning God or the divine. Nor does he bother including anything from the subsequent paragraph, which introduces Elie’s hopeful counter perspective –– “The self can try, however. That is Percy’s real point.” As he does throughout the book, Elie offers a brilliant, nuanced evocation of a great writer’s ideas –– in this case, Walker Percy’s –– from various angles.

In addition to extracting the quote from a larger narrative and changing words, Shields also purges any reference to the original source of these ideas: Walker Percy himself. So instead of us readers clearly understanding that in the passage Elie is not presenting his own argument, but clearly providing a summarization and commentary on Walker Percy’s essay, we are led to believe through the citation that Elie himself argued for, believed, and was trying to convince us that “we’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

To get at the nuance of this is difficult without reading Elie’s book, but trust me, Elie is not saying “we’re doomed to an imitation of life.” As he stated in our interview, “the thrust of both my books is that you can live authentically and the obvious fact that experience is mediated to us is not necessarily crippling. It’s often enabling.”

But what’s the harm? Shields told us what he was up to, in that disclaimer in the Appendix, that in his book he is appropriating and plagiarizing and us not knowing when and where is part of the fun. And if Elie has a right to be offended, was it even Shields’s fault? Why not blame the Random House attorneys who forced Shields to put in the citations (Upon the threat of what? They wouldn’t publish the book?). If the attorneys hadn’t insisted, it was unlikely anyone would have associated the condensed and rewritten passage in Shields’s book with Elie’s original in the first place. (I studied the book for an interview we did, and I didn’t see the connection). And as for the quote-spotters and cite-sifters who do spot the connection, get a life! As Shields says in his Appendix, reality can’t be copyrighted.

Elie may have forgiven Shields for taking his self-avowed creative license if Elie hadn’t received emails this spring telling him that he was quoted in a new memoir by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A Sense of Direction. Here’s the quote in question in Lewis-Kraus’s book, which I found on page 236.

Paul Elie writes, “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

Yes, you read it right, this quote that Lewis-Kraus attributes to Elie, is not from Elie’s book at all, but an exact quote of the passage in Shields’s book (that is, besides adding the dash to “secondhand”). Lewis-Kraus is quoting Shields, not Elie. And here’s what Lewis-Kraus says next, about the (mis)quote:

Of course, life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life. And no experience is any more or less direct than any other one. But the point of view Elie offers is worth considering, more for its assumptions than its shoddy lament. Being self-conscious about an experience means, to Elie, standing at a remove from it. This remove is created by the fact that we all know, at any given time, that there is an associated cost, that we could be doing something else. (Author’s emphasis).

Let’s review. Lewis-Kraus first misquotes Elie, then he proceeds to contradict what he misquotes Elie had written (“life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life”), and then characterizes what he wrongly alleges Elie having written as a “shoddy lament.”

Since the word “shoddy” struck me as especially harsh here, I looked it up. According to the Free Dictionary, shoddy means: 1. Made of or containing inferior material. 2. a. Of poor quality or craft. b. Rundown; shabby. 3. Dishonest or reprehensible: shoddy business practices. 4. Conspicuously and cheaply imitative. I understand now, with a healthy dash of the vertigo Shields hoped to provoke in me, why Elie was irked. It irks me to read Lewis-Kraus’s excerpt, which I’m afraid epitomizes the term shoddy. Not only does Lewis-Kraus screw up the attribution, assigning it not to Shields but to Elie, he disparages what he says is Elie’s work, and then to top it off, carries on with statements that Lewis-Kraus might believe — this business about self-consciousness and knowing we could be doing something else — that don’t follow from anything that Shields or Elie or Percy wrote.

So let’s agree this is shoddy work. So is it Lewis-Kraus’s fault or maybe his publisher’s? Unlike in Shields’s manifesto, Lewis-Kraus includes no citations at all, with page numbers or not. If he had included citations, perhaps a thoughtful editor would have traced the misquote back to that artsy prankster Shields and this mess would have been averted. But no citations; this is art.

Or maybe we should let Lewis-Kraus off the hook and blame Shields instead? He is the perp, after all, who put this meme out there, however he couched it, associating his shoddy lament (Lewis-Kraus’s term, not mine) with Elie, who I reiterate did not write either of these identical passages attributed to him by Shields and Lewis-Kraus. But whether Shields is culpable or not, he may be delighted at this cascade of appropriations and misquotes –– and why wouldn’t he be? They prompted this inquiry, which will in turn perhaps spur more controversy and further the reality hunger conversation that he has gleefully provoked in our literary culture. Or: maybe he feels, like I do, or any reasonable person who takes the time to follow the trail, a sense we may have lost something with this shoddiness masquerading as art.

Experiencing the Superabundance of Bach: The Millions Interviews Paul Elie

Back in 2003, I interviewed Paul Elie about The Life You Save May Be Your Own, his book on the lives and work of the great Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, and the connections between them. Unlike so many biographers who pummel you with exhaustive detail while affecting a cool academic distance, Elie put his deep emotional connection to his subjects at center stage, inviting us to join him in knowing the lives and work of writers who mean so much to him.

When he told me back then that his next book would be about the recordings of J.S. Bach, it seemed a jump in an entirely different direction, but after reading his new book, Reinventing Bach, I can see that the move makes absolute sense. Here, as  in the earlier book, Elie mixes biography, history, travelogue, and personal reflection to tell the story of the great composer, and also the captivating stories of the most celebrated modern interpreters of his music, including Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, and Glenn Gould, who reinvented Bach for the age of recordings. In doing so, Elie once again gives us a compellingly readable and intellectually satisfying meditation on art that inspires us to discover and find joy in the work — in this case from Bach and the constellation of geniuses who devoted their lives to his music.

This February, Elie, who for many years was a senior editor at FSG, became a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. We met near his shared writing studio at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, with pies and scones on the plank table and Pandora playing loudly in the background, to talk about the book.

The Millions:  When did you decide to write a book about Bach?

Paul Elie: I think I suspected that my interest in Bach would turn into a book even before I wrote my first book, but I didn’t know enough about Bach yet to write it. I had the ardor without the sense to know what to do with it. I kept making notes and listening to recordings and putting myself into encounters with Bach’s music, aware that after some time something would come of it.

TM: Were you conscious of the connections between your two books as you were writing this new one?

PE: Very much so, in the sense that I knew that in the new book as well as the old one I was telling distinct stories that come together as one story. I realized that Albert Schweitzer and Pablo Casals were near-exact contemporaries, that they had similar preoccupations, and that they made their crucial Bach recordings in London in the middle thirties. Casals’s famous recording of Bach’s cello suites, which he began at Abbey Road studios in November 1936, follows Schweitzer’s recording at the church of All Hallows in the old City by about a year. You read those dates in CD liner notes and feel connections emerging unbidden.

Also, the two books are alike in the sense that they are meant to represent areas where transcendence still feels authentic in our society. The four writers whose stories I told in The Life You Save May Be Your Own make Christian belief credible to people for whom it might not otherwise be so, and that’s true of Bach, too. His music seems to find receptive ears among people of faith, people of no faith, and people who don’t think the matter of faith makes any difference one way or the other.

[Elie pauses and smiles at the music being played on the radio — the slow organ opening to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”]

Listen to that. That organ riff is basically the same riff as in Bach’s “Air on the G String.” Gary Brooker of Procol Harum said that he was noodling around on Bach on the piano and the song came out — a song that has made millions of dollars for him and the rest of the band. It’s not just the two of us sitting here in a café saying, “That sounds like Bach.”  The songwriter himself actually said so. People often describe the instrumental middle section of the Beatles’s song “In My Life” as Baroque-like, but it’s not just an impression: John Lennon himself said to George Martin, “Play like Bach” — and then went out for a smoke or whatever.

TM:  When you first mention Abbey Road (in regard to Casals’s recording of the cello suites), I of course thought of the Beatles and hoped they’d come into the story, and they do.

PE: If you are writing a narrative work, you never flash-forward if you can help it; you forbid yourself to make comments like “Abbey Road, which would later become famous as the studio of the Beatles.” So many biographies are ruined by that move: it’s a biography of Shelley, say, and the author will intone, “It was now a week before Shelley’s death.” And so you know when Shelley goes out sailing that he’s never coming back — when the power of Shelley’s story lies in the fact that his life was cut off abruptly when he was still a young man.

TM: Takes away the suspense.

PE:  Withholding some of the information you have is a way to produce the narrative effect that you need. The excitement of writing the book is figuring out where to do certain things — when to withhold, and when to disclose.

TM:  How, in the practical sense, did you work out a story that covers 75 years and brings in Bach’s own story, which took place two hundred years earlier? Did you have timelines? An architecture you were trying to fit the pieces into?

PE:  At one point early on I had a giant piece of graph paper, as big as a tablecloth, with a lot of Post-Its on it — but that was just a way to get the brain working; once it was made, I never looked at it again. The decision to give Schweitzer, Casals, and Stokowski each his own part or suite came pretty early. When I realized that each suite coincided with a great leap forward in audio technology, the structure firmed up considerably. The wild card was Bach — how to get Bach himself in there. When I realized that he was an inventor­­ — the composer of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions — it clicked. Bach’s way of invention could run in parallel to the inventive powers of his modern interpreters and of pioneers in recording technology. But that was several years in. You have to be ready to work in the dark.

TM:  It seemed you used musical techniques, not only in making the overall structure akin to a suite but in particular passages. For example, you return to certain key scenes, like Schweitzer making his seminal recording of the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” as if they are recurring musical motifs.

PE:  I definitely wanted the book to feel musical, but I didn’t attempt to use musical motifs in a rigorous way. In Bach’s cello suites, the fifth suite is longer than the others, so I made my fifth suite a little longer. But I left it at that. I’m not a classically trained musician. I don’t know canon and fugue inside out the way some musicians do.

I’ve noticed that those formal preoccupations sometimes deform books about music. Take Anthony Burgess, a writer whose more naturalistic work I love: in the works where he’s expressly trying to make a piece of music in words, the formal element can become a distraction. I was definitely wary of overdoing the musical effects that way. I hoped instead to absorb enough of Bach’s way of doing things to approximate some of his effects. All the while I was writing the book, after all, I was listening to recordings of the music of Bach, the best pattern maker who ever lived, and I hope that I was able to bring a little of that patterning into the book through my own patterns.

TM:  By listening, the inventions get inside of you, and you let it come out organically.

PE:  Right. Even if you don’t know every jot and tittle of the Inventions, you can hear that they are inventive. You can hear how they are distinctly different from one another. When I was teaching writing at Columbia, I found myself stressing the need for variety, especially in longer work. You need to keep making it new straight through to the end, not just develop the motifs you’ve already set going. So if you opened chapter three with a long descriptive passage, you might try to open chapter four with dialogue, and chapter five by extending a metaphor that goes outside the main story, or whatever — the way Bach varied his openings  in his suites, or the way a card player would  vary his openings.

TM:  How do you approach listening to this near inexhaustible supply of great music? Did you strive for a sense of completeness or trust your explorations would take you were you needed to go?

PE: I had to trust that the book would take me there. The fact that there is so much of Bach’s music, and so many recordings, means that you know from the start that you are never going to hear it all, even if you live to be 100. There’s always going to be a freshly rearranged cantata, or another new recording. So as a writer you know you have to cover all the important works and let other pieces fill themselves in.

Once FSG moved from Union Square to 18th Street, I had the tremendous good fortune of working upstairs from Academy Records, the best CD shop I can imagine for obscure CDs of classical music remastered from old 78s. I’d go down to the shop religiously at least once a week and keep an eye out for strange stuff: the lute suites played on the Lautenwerk, an instrument Bach invented, or a straight-through live recording of the Goldberg Variations by a pianist who threw the I Ching with John Cage. I would also talk about Bach with people and they would send me things — links to YouTube videos, movies with Bach used as incidental music. Somebody told me that Jimmy Page quotes a Bach bourrée in the live version of “Heartbreaker” — and sure enough, in the Led Zeppelin video from Earls Court, there it is.

One evening I was walking up Broadway on my way to teach at Columbia, and I noticed that a street vendor selling CDs had about three quarters of a “complete” Bach set issued in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. I took one look and said, “Forty dollars,” and he said, “Done.” I showed up at class five minutes late with a rubber-banded stack of CDs as long as my arm and told the students — this is the way the book is being written. You have to be willing to get lucky.

TM:  There’s so much depth there, how did you know when to stop? The book is 400 pages and probably includes the stories of a hundred musicians, not just your protagonists. Was the manuscript much larger in draft? Did you have to prune it down?

PE:   It wasn’t that much larger. I like the definition of art given by St. Thomas Aquinas. A work of art, Aquinas said, possesses wholeness, harmony, and radiance, and some translators render it as order, proportion and radiance. In writing the book, I was always thinking about proportion. Before you go too deeply into an arcane exploration of the “St. Matthew Passion” or whatever, you have to ask yourself whether the structure of the book you are writing can bear it. In the case of the “St. Matthew Passion,” I found a way to dovetail the two main narrative lines of the book so that the account of Bach composing the work in 1727 was followed immediately by the account of Otto Klemperer leading a recording of it in London in 1961. That kind of joinery is what makes the structure hold up. That’s the idea, anyhow.

TM: In the prelude of the book, you write that the recorded music from Bach “defies the argument that experience mediated by technology is a diminished thing.” Glenn Gould embraced this idea — he believed that the microphone and his ability to record his performances in relative solitude and them send them out into the world expanded his possibilities as a musician, rather than diminished his creative life.

PE:  All of us are aware of the potential of technology, but we assume that there’s a cost too — that there’s something inhuman about technology, and that the inhumanity is the price we have to pay for the convenience. But Gould’s experience was very different.  He said, No, I’m more myself when I am playing before the microphone than in the crazy circus of a recital, where I’m wearing awkward concert dress and I have to talk to strangers afterwards. I’m more human when I’m in a recording studio.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own was written out of the conviction that mediated experience is not necessarily inauthentic. The four writers in the book had religious experience “mediated” to them through the works of great writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; they sought such experience for themselves, and then in effect “mediated” their experience to the next generation through their own writing.

In Reality Hunger, as you know, David Shields made a hodgepodge of riffs on other people’s work and one of the riffs is taken from my first book.  It’s a baffling revision of what I wrote — he got the sense of the passage and the book exactly wrong. It’s a paraphrase of a stock late modern or postmodern point of view that Walker Percy was writing his way out of, in a particular essay and then, in effect, in his entire subsequent 30-year career, and the story I tell in the book is of the great effort he made to transcend that point of view in his life and his writing. Percy succeeded, I’d say, and that he and his counterparts managed to do so is the heart of my book.

TM:  Shields is attributing the paraphrase to you.

PE: I know him a bit, and I have admired his work. I couldn’t figure out whether he’d gotten the point wrong because he had honestly missed it, or because he was angry at me and decided to falsify my work, or because it’s part of the game he’s playing to show that you can rewrite other people’s conclusions to suit your own, or because he didn’t actually read the book, just saw that passage quoted somewhere. I don’t know. In any case, now people are writing to me — “do you see you’re quoted in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book [A Sense of Direction]?” Well, I’m not quoted, and it seems to me that the whole passage as I wrote it would have been more apt for Lewis-Kraus than the paraphrase he wound up citing. I’d like to send him my book. Because the thrust of both my books is that you can live authentically and the obvious fact that experience is mediated to us is not necessarily crippling. It’s often enabling.

TM: If I picked up a typical biography of a vaunted figure like Bach, I’d expect a crushing amount of “authoritative” detail. Your book is almost the opposite. You’re not trying to say, “This is the final authoritative work on Bach,” but “This is my experience of this great artist and his work. See and listen for yourself.”

PE:  I’m not capable of writing the definitive book about Bach. I don’t have German. I’m not a musicologist. But the fact is, the books by musicologists and German language scholars aren’t definitive either. Five biographies of Bach were published in English or in English translation in the last 10 years. They are remarkable works, and I was able to draw from an amazing flowering of research and scholarship that is found in them. The fact that those books exist enables me as a writer on Bach to get everything right, I hope, but also frees me from certain obligations. I don’t have to produce a chart or table showing which pipe organ Bach inspected at which date in his career. It has already been done.

I think the presence of the web can be liberating for nonfiction writers. In the age prior to ours, there was a certain kind of biographer who felt a professional obligation to work stuff into the book, because if it weren’t in the book there would be no access to it. You wound up with multi-volume biographies of middling people, books that are a combination of a life story and a scholarly resource. I don’t want my book to be a resource. I want it to be a work of art in its own right an invitation to the reader to experience all the music of Bach that’s out there.

TM:  You’re saying to the reader you don’t need to have a certain background. You can experience Bach as music. That just listening can be your way in.

PE:  My most important formative experience of Bach was the WKCR Bachfest, which airs every year. In graduate school, I listened to the station for jazz, and suddenly the music of Bach took over for 10 days around Christmas and I was blown away. I know now that I was getting educated in Bach, but at the time I was just blissing out. I was having what to me is the fundamental experience of Bach­­ — the experience of the superabundance of the music. There is so much Bach. WKCR can play Bach for 10 days and have lots left over. As a listener, you’re buoyed up by the knowledge you’re not going to reach the end of Bach — not ever.

That’s a long way of saying my point of entry was pleasure, full stop. I hope the pleasure comes through in the book.

TM: As I was reading, I was engaged in the stories of Schweitzer, Casals, Stokowski, and Gould, but then they all die about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I wondered how could you possibly sustain the narrative drive to make me want to keep reading. Then you interject yourself into the story and you give the reader another opportunity to experience the seminal recordings, through you.

PE: People often say that you have to decide whether your book is written in the first person or the third person, that you must have a scheme. But the FSG way is to figure out what feels right rather than working in absolutes. Most great works of literature are mongrel works, blended things. When he was editing my first book, Jonathan Galassi warned me not to load up the story with personal experiences early on. He was absolutely right. This time, at some level he let me know that it felt right for me to come into the book later rather than earlier. As for the earlier sections, I drew on my own experiences as a listener — and I tried to make my descriptions of the music personal and passionate but without suddenly putting the reader in my apartment in 2000 and spoiling the flow of the story that is taking place in the war years.

The narrative possibilities for non-fiction are just extraordinary right now. We know that we don’t have to make our books resources. We don’t have to take timeouts from the narrative to enter data into the record. We know that we can make a nonfiction book a work of art — a sculpted thing that does allow the reader to be immersed, does have the vividness associated with fiction, the sense of layering, of recapitulations, and of a whole figurative scheme working organically between the lines. That’s tremendously exciting.

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