1. Huck Out West
The “Wild West” is ultimately a mythological creation, one filled with recognizable motifs: cowboys, 10-gallon hats, revolvers, horses, lassos, cacti, saloons, vast landscapes, and so on. It was the American answer to the European world of medieval chivalry, providing a stage for the stories of many great novelists and filmmakers of the past 150 years. To most people, the Wild West is synonymous with action and adventure, which is why a reimagining of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) set in the Wild West offered so much potential.
Robert Coover picks up where Mark Twain left off, telling of Huck’s experience immersed in the merciless American frontier. Coover’s Huck is certainly consistent with Twain’s: an enterprising, thoughtful youth whose good nature can leave him exposed to manipulation and danger. The author also takes naturally to the dialect of Huckleberry Finn, evoking the slack-jawed voices of the Midwest.
Ultimately, Huck Out West bores more than it entertains. There is no brilliant, overarching plotline; Coover’s narrative merely rambles along, following Huck’s aimless wanderings through America. The scenes of action, physical suffering, and gun-violence are so frequent that they quickly lose their force. In contrast, the best Western films and novels savor the drawn-out tension before an act of violence (think of the sensational five-minute showdown at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly).
Coover populates his Western landscape with a rather lacklustre cast of characters. He inherits the brilliant Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but most of the surrounding individuals, save a few exceptions, feel like reflections of one another. They are stereotypical Wild West nomads, roaming the land with a penchant for violence.
Coover has moments of brilliance. His metaphors are sometimes wonderfully imaginative, like when Huck tells us that his “yallerness” (yellowness) had “begun to fade like fence paint in the sun.” There is no doubt that Coover completely understands and appreciates the dusty, expansive atmosphere of the Old West, but his intense focus on the atmosphere comes at the expense of a good plot.
Furthermore, although not many people notice or acknowledge it, there is already a piece of the Wild West in Twain’s writing.
2. Mark Twain’s Modern Cowboy
Revisiting Huckleberry Finn before reading Coover’s sequel, it became clear that the modern cowboy played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood was born in the pages of Mark Twain. He deserves recognition in the timeline of the Wild West’s genesis, which places heavy emphasis on writers such as Zane Grey and Owen Wister and not enough on Twain.
It is commonly held that Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was the first novel to establish the common features of popular culture’s cowboy. It offers us the gunslinging Lassiter as its hero, an expert shooter and horse rider clad in black. Lassiter’s blend of mysteriousness and masculinity, novel then but clichéd now, laid down the foundations for Hollywood’s cowboy hero. Lassiter actually helps to herd cattle, something John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, in fact, do very little of in their Western films. Riders of the Purple Sage is not a good novel, full of saccharine sentimentality and predictable heroic successes, but it is an important historical point in the Wild West’s development.
Novels about the American frontier previous to Grey’s bestseller lacked the Lassiter figure, the cowboy hero who commits violence with swagger and style. James Fenimore Cooper’s the Leatherstocking Tales series, which includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), was certainly the first popular fiction to romanticize the frontier, but it lacked the kind of hero that Wayne and Eastwood would come to popularize. On the contrary, Cooper’s hero, Hawkeye, is a white man ultimately aspiring to be a Native American — the indigenous figure that would become the Wild West’s most popular villain.
Enter Twain. His claim to having created the first modern cowboy is borne out of only a short scene that occurs on the periphery of Finn’s story — a nugget of gold nestled in the middle of the book.
It is an altercation between a drunkard named Boggs and Colonel Sherburn. Remember it? I didn’t either. The scene reads like one from a 1950s Hollywood Western, the ones you find on television during working hours on weekdays. It is bursting with features that would become typical Wild West motifs. For instance, it begins with Boggs riding up to Sherburn’s property and demanding that he show himself:
Come out here, Sherburn! Come out and meet the man you’ve swindled
The confrontational language immediately suggests one thing: showdown. The two men meet one another before an audience of nervous townsfolk, another fixture of most Westerns. Eastwood’s proficiency with a pistol would be far less thrilling were it not for the gasps and guffaws of numerous spectators. Sherburn gives Boggs an ultimatum, demanding that he stop with his abuse before 1 p.m. or there’ll be hell to pay.
Think of that: Twain was only one hour away from predicting the “High Noon” ultimatum. The Wild West’s obsession with meetings at midday would have to come after Twain’s time. Sherburn talks to Boggs “mighty calm and slow,” preempting the steely coolness so essential to Hollywood’s cowboys.
Boggs fails to meet the terms of Sherburn’s ultimatum, and his murder is extremely histrionic. Sherburn emerges at 1 p.m. and “sings” out Boggs’s name, and the drunkard dies mid-plea: “O Lord, don’t shoot!” Twain exposes a predilection for sound effects, too, imbuing his prototype for the Wild West with a cinematic quality that is astonishingly prescient.
Bang! Goes the first shot…bang! goes the second one
Huckleberry Finn’s evident thrill in narrating this experience is clearly in fact Twain’s. Boggs dies “clawing at the air’” and then hits the ground “with his arms spread out.” His body writhes with that melodramatic gesturing typical of most of Wayne’s anonymous victims. Twain has Sherburn conclude his gunplay with a Hollywood swagger, glamorizing the violence and fashioning the modern Wild West cowboy. When Sherburn turns around “on his heels’”and walks away, it brought to mind Steve McQueen coolly swiveling around in The Magnificent Seven.
The conclusion of the scene is Twain at his most visionary. He recognises that the Wild West is an invention; a product of stories told again and again, until almost all fact is lost and only myth remains. Huckleberry Finn witnesses the first stage in this process of repeated retellings. The townsfolk are instantly captivated by what they have seen, and one man feels compelled to reenact it. Twain sees the theatrical potential in the genre he helped to create.
The man stood up straight and stiff where Sherburn had stood…and sung out ‘Boggs!’, and then fetched his cane down slow to a level, and says ‘Bang!’, staggered backwards, says ‘Bang!’ again, and fell down flat on his back…the people that had seen the thing said he done it perfect.
Twain also predicts Hollywood’s penchant for retelling its own stories. The relatively recent Western films 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010) were both remakes of earlier films, which were in turn adaptations of novels. Of course in September we had The Magnificent Seven, a reimagining of the 1950s blockbuster that was in fact based on the Japanese film Seven Samurai.
The Boggs-Sherburn scene is little longer than a couple of pages, but it precedes Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage by 28 years. Sherburn, in fact, is the first Lassiter. Twain’s novel sold tremendously well; his influence upon the development of the Wild West, even through this short scene, should not be understated. He not only wrote one of the “Great American Novels,” but also provided a building block for one of the great American industries.
It seems likely that Coover saw the germ of the Wild West in Twain’s original, but he allows it to grow until it looms too large over his continuation of Huck’s story. This iconoclastic experiment comes at a cost.
Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle. Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000.
Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present.
Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground.
John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected — correctly — that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field.
Gustave Flaubert possessed more books by George Sand than any other author.
Emily Dickinson owned a copy of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. F. Scott Fitzgerald owned the 1926 edition of The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks by Basil Woon. James Joyce owned the guidebook In and About Paris by Sisley Huddleston. Joseph Roth, it appears, possessed very few books.
Franz Kafka owned all of Max Brod’s books. In a diary entry from 1911, Kafka writes: “November 11. All afternoon at Max’s. Decided on the sequence of the essays for (Brod’s latest collection) On the Beauty of Ugly Pictures. Not good feeling.”
Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times.
Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.”
In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.”
In chapter seven of Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatiana visits the country estate of Onegin, where she is let in by the housekeeper. The chapter is framed as a digression by the narrator: Tatiana does not meet Onegin at the villa, instead she encounters his collection of books, and reads his marginalia, and the scrapbook into which he copied his favorite passages. For the first time, Tatiana encounters what she considers to be the real Onegin — in the marginal notations his mind “declares itself in ways unwitting.” Then what is the true Onegin like? Tatiana begins to see him as a composite of fictional characters from his favorite books.
On a page of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, Mark Twain wrote: “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?”
In the margins of Howards End, Penelope Fitzgerald complains of the author: “He is lecturing us”. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, finds this observation about Lady Russell in a copy of Persuasion: “A right-feeling but wrong-judging parent, who does as much harm as an unfeeling one.” About Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Fitzgerald writes: “We see relentlessly what a difference some money makes.” About Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: “She punishes herself too much.” In a copy of Waiting for Godot: “An attempt to show how man bears his own company.” In her copy of The Good Soldier, Fitzgerald writes: “A short enough book to contain 2 suicides, 2 ruined lives, a death, a girl driven insane — it may seem odd to find that the key note of the book is restraint.”
Among Djuna Barnes’s personal library, now kept at the University of Maryland, is the 1963 edition of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. As a young writer, on commission for magazines, Barnes interviewed other novelists, including James Joyce. She herself was never interviewed by The Paris Review.
Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books — rounded up by librarians — now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe.
Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: “Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her.”
Late in his career, David Markson wrote novels that he constructed, for the most part, out of hundreds of anecdotes and factoids about writers and other artists. Nested amid these catalogues of biographical facts are brief statements by an unnamed narrator, which relate his or her circumstances or distressed frame of mind. All these components are united by two themes: the life of an artist and death. At a reading of his final novel, titled The Last Novel, Markson introduced the work by stating that his book featured no dramatic scenes, no incidents, no chapters, but was “98.5 per cent — and that’s not really a guess” composed of anecdotes and quotes sourced from other books. Markson’s novels are enormous collages full of fragments from his private library. After his death in 2010, his collection was donated to The Strand in New York, where, presumably, he bought most of the books that contained the anecdotes and quotes and facts that comprised his novels. As if completing a perfect ritual, Markson’s library was sorted and integrated into the Strand’s floor stock, and sold and dispersed again.
Image Credit: Flickr/Michael D Beckwith.
I first encountered Azar Nafisi as I was preparing to move from California to Connecticut. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read just two months before departing, Nafisi describes her own “strange” feelings before she left Tehran for the United States. Although I cannot claim a move that momentous, that difficult, her thoughts resonated deeply with me.
Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, explores the idea that books are important because when we get a glimpse of another person’s life, we can be made to feel connected to their emotions and experiences, and gain a new perspective on our own lives. Her new work emphasizes the importance of fiction in a country where many have begun to deem it a frivolous luxury or useless exercise, through the perspectives of three novels: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
We spoke over the phone, I from my home in rural Connecticut, she at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on her book tour.
The Millions: I wanted to ask you a few questions about what you’ve learned as a writer and a reader, looking at the three different countries you’ve inhabited: Iran and then America and then also the Republic of Imagination as a third country. Of course many things have changed since you first published Reading Lolita in Tehran about 12 years ago. Looking back on that length of time, how have your perceptions of your home country, Iran, changed during that time?
Azar Nafisi: Well, you know, they have not changed substantially in terms of what I thought about Iran’s history and culture and the people, also about the Islamic regime, because the changes that have happened in Iran are rooted in what was happening then. For example, you see Tehran’s streets are much, quote unquote, “nicer” and a lot of restaurants and you see women — of course, the situation of women is like the situation of weather here: you have a little bit of sunshine and then there’s a downpour or a tornado, so you never know. But Iranian women have managed to defy the system at least in terms of appearances. That has changed; if one goes to Tehran today women don’t look the way they did when I left Iran.
But the truth of the matter is that the laws have remained the same, and there is no real security until there is real reform and real change. As you can tell from reading Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Iran — the situation of journalists, writers, political prisoners — that also remains the same.
One of the traits I noticed in Iran was this constant defection from within the system. The former revolutionaries and people who were founders of the republic themselves becoming dissidents has accelerated. So for example, the former prime minister [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, just to give you an example which everyone knows about, and Mehdi Karroubi, our former speaker of the house, are now, they are the ones who are suffering and under house arrest. That tells a lot about this progress towards at least certain segments of civil societies.
TM: In another interview you said the U.S. foreign policy should pursue dialogue not only with the regime in Iran but also with the Iranian people. So how do you think they could do this, especially in light of the recent nuclear agreement?
AN: First of all, the Iranian people — and I am not saying that I’m a spokesperson for them — they don’t really have a spokesperson abroad. That is one problem. So everyone is sort of becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for the people. So I’m not claiming to be that, but the way I see U.S. foreign policy, depending on who is in power, and usually a Democrat or Republican is in power, it sort of vacillates between just sheer belligerence and refusal for any form of dialogue, and then the pendulum goes the other way to sheer compromise with the system. What I really would have loved to see was first of all an understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of that society; and an understanding that in the long run, pragmatically, it is to the American people and American government’s well being to have a more open, flexible, and democratic system in Iran and to really encourage the democratic mind of people in Iran who are now either in jail or their voices are being silenced. You can have a fruitful dialogue with the Islamic regime without forgetting about the rights of the Iranian people.
That is not imposition on another culture. Iran, like other countries that violate human rights like China, like Saudi Arabia, are also benefitting from all the advantages of being members of the United Nations. Under the United Nations, nations swear allegiance to certain universal rights, and these are the rights that Iranian people have been fighting for long before Mr. Khomeini had his revolution; it wasn’t something that the shah granted so that the ayatollah can take away. It was something that people fought for and died for in the Constitutional Revolution at the beginning of the century.
What I’m trying to say is that the negotiations with Iran, which I support — there’s this sort of propaganda all around it, people either being for or against it. I don’t see it like that. I see that there should be negotiations, but the U.S. is negotiating from a position of strength, because Iran never comes to a table unless they feel weak, unless they feel that they are really in a bad position domestically. So while the U.S. is in a position of strength, while they are talking to the Iranian government and obviously compromising on certain issues, they should not compromise on the rights of the Iranian people. And they do. Our administration right now is not even talking about the Iranian Americans who are in jail. That is an insight into the weaknesses of the United States foreign policy, be it Republican or Democrat, and being manipulated. So that is what worries.
As a writer and a woman who believes in rights of women and personal liberty, I don’t take political sides, but I do have a position on the issue of human rights. I have seen that what makes tyrants afraid is not military might. The first people who are sacrificed in these regimes are journalists and writers and poets, and actually those who teach humanities. Those are at the forefront of the struggle and are targets.
TM: I also wanted to ask about how your own experiences under the regime in Iran have then shaped the way you approach American politics and your own level of civic involvement here.
AN: Iran taught me many things. One of the first things I realized was that individual rights and human rights are not God-given gifts to the West. This is an illusion some people in this country and in other democracies have; that they have certain traits that makes them deserve freedom of choice and other freedoms. I think that everyone — and I’ve seen that in Iran in terms of its history and in terms of my own life experiences in that country — that people want a decent life. Nobody hates, no matter what kind of culture you come from, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I talk about Iran, I don’t differentiate between rights in Iran and rights in America.
The second thing that the Islamic Republic taught me was that these countries we call totalitarian or tyrannical are only distorted and extreme cases of what we could become in a democracy. What a democracy can learn from countries that are more repressive is to understand that freedom is an ordeal. Coming to the United States I find myself again talking about the ordeals that we all face and the challenges we face here. And the challenge that I am trying to face in the U.S. right now is this complacency and conformity.
The last thing is that I realize how important it is to pay attention to culture and history, and that, even if you are thinking about the military conquest, the first thing you have to do is to understand, not to judge. That is why for me fiction becomes so crucial because that is what it teaches us, to first understand and then try to judge.
TM: Thinking about America now, you talked a little in your book about how a lot of Americans have become complacent and they’ve given up some of their freedoms, especially since 9/11. Why do you think Americans have become complacent and allowed that to happen? Another phrase you used in your book was that safety is an illusion, and I think in giving up our freedoms we’ve really prioritized this illusion of safety. Why do you think Americans have done that and have let that happen?
AN: I think that when we go through periods of too much prosperity and too little thinking, it can very easily be translated into a form of smartness and conformity. Now I was away from America for 18 years, so I am only speaking about what happened in this country in those 18 years from other people’s experiences or what I have read, but it seems to me that especially in the ’80s and right into the ’90s there was this transformation into the other side of the American Dream, which is a gross materialism. On one hand we have this mindset, on the other hand within the academia actually and among the intellectuals and policy makers we have this ideological mindset, and I think both of these mindsets, although they are very different in terms of positions they take, are very similar. Both of them are lazy. They don’t want to think — I mean intellectually lazy. To think and to imagine and to genuinely follow the truth or try to understand and reveal the truth is dangerous, it has its consequences. Once you know the truth, then you have to take action. You can’t remain silent. So most people would rather not know. Ideologies always do that.
I was so amazed when I returned to the United States and discovered how polarized this society has become, even in terms of the news — that you don’t listen to the news from people you don’t agree with. Fox News, for example, for me was a very new and strange and gradually scary phenomenon where you negate reality. There is no more news in most of our channels, from left to right. It is an imposition of your own desires and illusions and ideologies upon reality, so reality doesn’t matter. And that makes it easier, because when you and I think that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we’re always on the side of the good guys, it is like Miss Watson in Huckleberry Finn, who believes that the world is divided into those who go to hell and those who go to heaven. And she obviously belongs to those who go to heaven, and in order to go to heaven, all you have to do is not to question, not to understand complexities, not to have curiosity, not to take risks; only see if somebody believes in your set of formulas. That is one thing that really worries me about America.
Alongside of that is this utilitarian pleasure-seeking, comfort-seeking mindset. You know, I think it is amazing, elections for us have turned into a sort of entertainment. People were a little happy watching the Democrats’ recent debate because it at least talked about issues. It frightens me when we watch Donald Trump, because we either want to laugh at him or we genuinely believe in him. Americans now, it seems to be a reign of ignorance. How you could think someone could be your president who is so ignorant of your own history and culture, as well as the history and culture of the world? This is no laughing matter at some point. We see that in our universities where our students want trigger warnings; they don’t want to read novels that make them uncomfortable. You keep hearing the word “uncomfortable.” And then the celebrity culture, we talk about Michelle Obama and Jonathan Franzen and Beyoncé and this phenomenon called Kim Kardashian. You are dissolving people’s individualities, what they really do in real life, into this generalized term. Michelle Obama is the First Lady, Franzen is a writer, Beyoncé is a singer, and Kardashian, God knows what she is. It’s this greed for everything that wants to be new.
In my book, the second chapter “Babbitt,” Babbitt like Henry Ford believes that history is bunk. Memory is bunk. And all they crave is new gadgets. We have all become like Babbitt, dying to know the latest Apple iPhone or iPad, staying up and queuing in front of the stores to get the new gadgets. The world is going up in flames, in churches people are killing people, our schools are no more secure and we are yet wanting to feel comfortable. I can go on forever, but that is why I said that we need to be able to reflect, to think, to take risks, and to imagine a world not just as it is, but as it should or could be. Otherwise how could you and I vote if we do not learn in schools our own history and the history of the world, our own culture and the culture of the world? How do we have the ability to think and make choices? These are questions that bother me. They are different from the questions that bothered me in Iran where my life was sometimes in danger, but I still feel that something very precious is in danger in this country.
TM: Building on that a little bit, one thing that I noticed in your book was you talked about political correctness. Some would argue that political correctness was born out of a need to redress grievances and show respect to those that have been marginalized, but in your book you point out that political correctness leads to “comfortable questions and easy, ready-made answers.” What alternative would you present to political correctness? How can we still show that respect without putting everyone’s ways of thought into a box?
AN: All of these matters like political correctness, like multiculturalism, came out of a desire to respect others and be curious about others. But the point is that you cannot create these things into a set of formulas, and you cannot assign people to a situation. I think that is dangerous. That is the difference between what I saw under conditions that were far more difficult; for example when we talk about or see documentaries on civil rights movements, when people were fighting for their rights very seriously, you had a conviction and despite the fact that the others or the society or the law tried to victimize you, you refused that victimized status. Nowadays someone who is wearing that status will condescendingly talk about others: “Don’t hurt their sensitivities.” It is not about hurting sensitivities, it is about changing mindsets. Mindsets are not changed by some thug calling women all sorts of names, or calling minorities all sorts of names, and then tomorrow coming on TV to apologize. Or by forbidding people to talk in a way or punishing them the way we are. All we are doing is not changing people’s mindsets, we are making them just become silent and build resentment and then they’ll come out on the attack when the time comes.
As a woman who comes from a particular place like Iran…let me just give you the examples of women in Iran. What women in Iran realized, in comparison with their own past and in comparison with what they desire, was that they were genuine victims of the regime. When you are forced to marry at the age of nine or stoned to death or are flogged, these things make you real victims; it’s not somebody calling you names. But we could have done two things: either just accept that victim status or to actively resist it by not becoming like our oppressors. I think that is the greatest lesson I have learned from James Baldwin. Baldwin talks about the most dangerous thing was not those white racists but the hatred that they stimulated in him, which made him become them.
So if we are victims of race or class or gender rather than constantly complaining or forbidding people to talk about these things, we should stand up and we should act so that people know we are not victims. We refuse that status. If I refuse that status, then whatever somebody says is not going to hurt me. That is what I mean by everybody wanting to be comfortable and find solutions by forbidding, but this forbidding has no end, because you’ll notice that the right is constantly bothered and sensitized about whether we will have another Christmas celebration or not or wants to ban Harry Potter or evolution from the schools; and the left might call The Great Gatsby misogynist or Huckleberry Finn racist, and want to make our job easy and kick them out. What I want to say to people is that the domain of imagination and thought is the only domain where blasphemy and profanity can exist. That is where we should be free to roam and to question and be questioned.
So my students should not only read those writers who for example were fighting against fascism, but they should also understand what Hitler was all about. That domain is the domain of free thought and freedom of the imagination, and we are limiting it by ideology.
That is what I was trying to practice in my classes. I would never begin with theory, because I didn’t want my students to be intimidated or influenced by somebody who they think knows better. So first of all I would have them read the text and talk about the text and come up with their own ideas about the text. Then I would ask them to read theories that I myself hated, but I would not tell them, I would have them read theories from all sides and come to their own conclusion. I don’t want my students to all take the same political positions that I do, but I want them to think and be able to defend their ideas and be able to have that intellectual courage to stand up for their principles.
TM: So if you could give a reading list of a few more works important to the Republic of Imagination, what would those books be?
AN: There are so many. First of all, I don’t believe I have explained it fully in my book; the point about my book was that I ended at a specific period in time because I felt that the 1960s were a time of transition both in terms of American culture as well as politics and society, and whatever we are dealing with now, both good and bad, is partly because of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s.
The second thing is that I had about 24 people on the list for this book, which I reduced to what you see now. For example, I wanted to talk about Herman Melville’s Bartleby; I love that guy who keeps saying, “I prefer not to.” If we talk about before the ’60’s, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the lesser known, I believe, minor masterpieces, like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonely Hearts and The Day of the Locust; I think he beautifully predicts our society today. Of course I mentioned Stoner in my book, but I also love David Foster Wallace, I love Geraldine Brooks, and some of the works by Nicole Krauss. These are writers who are too close to my time and I need to digest them more in order to be able to write about them more. Of course mystery, I would love to write about Raymond Chandler and science fiction like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick.
TM: Do you think you’d ever publish a list of those 24 people that you wanted to write about? Because I think you should!
AN: I’d love to! You know, one of my problems, and I mentioned it in one of my books, is that in terms of books, I’m very promiscuous. There are so many books that I want to write about. I was in Italy for my book last month and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, I want to write about so many of these books now!” I hope I will at least get a chance to write about some of them. It is so joyous to be able to share the books you love.
TM: How would you say that fiction influences and changes the future, from people’s hearts to the changes we make in our societies to even the inventions we create?
AN: Well you know, I believe that fiction, telling stories, is essential to our nature as human beings. If you go back to the first stories that are Greek and Roman mythology, to the Bible to the Qur’an, until you come to epic fiction and all of that, you notice that fiction comes out of curiosity, and curiosity is the first step towards change. Both science and literature are very much dependent on this curiosity. Because to be curious means to leave yourself behind and search for something that you don’t know, and enter a world like Alice and her Wonderland, enter a world that you have not visited before. And that experience, like traveling to other lands, learning other people’s languages, it changes you.
You might not notice the change in a very concrete way, but it changes your perspective on the world. It expands your perspective; it washes your eyes and you look at yourself through the eyes of other people. So I feel that that is one of the greatest contributions of fiction in terms of preserving our humanity. It also gives us continuity because it is the guardian of memory, and that is why I’m so amazed when I read something that was written some years ago and it seems as if they predicted what we are now.
The last thing of course is that fiction touches the heart. It makes you connect to other people through your heart and that experience of connection through the heart is also life changing — to be able to, for a minute even, become another person and then come back to your own being.
TM: You love fiction so much; would you ever consider writing a novel? Or have you decided nonfiction is more of what you want to write?
AN: Well, you know, maybe this is my weakness or obsession that I think for me fiction is the highest form of writing. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m very scared. I mean, I write for myself; I have loads of pages and now computer files of all these things that I have written, but that is one part of it. The other part of it is that I was fascinated — since I wrote my first book in Iran — by these intersections between fiction and reality and how reality turns into fiction and vice versa, how they change one another. And I think for as long as I have that obsession, it will be difficult to make the leap. I don’t want to write fiction which is really just disguised biography. So I hope one day I will reach that stage before I die. Maybe I’ll write my last book as a novel and then die. I want nothing, nothing else in the world.
My son turned six in March, and among the many presents he received on his birthday—Hot Wheels tracks, Lego sets, a bag of eerily gelatinous sand—was Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. This gift came from me, intended as the latest in a string of Dahl books that my wife and I have read to him in recent months: Matilda, The Magic Finger, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though I’d never heard of Danny before buying it, its description seemed right up my son’s alley: a young boy and his dad exact vengeance on a wealthy twit by stealing all his pheasants. Who doesn’t like pheasant theft?
We’d steered him towards such storybooks about a year ago, when we introduced E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to his steady diet of picture books. I wasn’t sure how he would take to Charlotte, with its rural setting and homicidal barnyard talk (“Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer…there’s a regular conspiracy around here to kill you at Christmastime”). But, like Templeton the rat slurping at a rotten egg, my son happily ate it up. He also enjoyed White’s Stuart Little, though it nearly bored me into a coma. But what I found dull and episodic, he thought of as cool. After all, Stuart is a mouse who drives a wind-up car.
After years of reading picture books to my son, this transition has been, like so many as a parent, an instance to make me stop and see that the kid is growing—like a lost front tooth or the need to buy bigger shoes. To be sure, he still likes children’s books; Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss remain very easy sells. But he approaches these longer, sparsely-illustrated stories with a new and eager seriousness, as if each is its own small project. When I ask him if he’s in the mood to hear Charlotte’s Web or Danny, it’s like asking if he wants to head outside to tinker with the car. “Sure,” he’ll say after a pause, his head cocked in consideration. “Yeah, let’s read it.”
Unlike the way he interacts with an Elephant and Piggie book or If I Ran the Zoo—a kind of wouldja-look-at-that sort of romp—his engagement with White and Dahl has been vastly different. There’s so much more to follow in these books, and so much he can’t understand. “I eased my foot off the accelerator,” says Danny as he tries to drive a car. “I pressed down the clutch and held it there. I found the gear lever and pulled it straight back, from first into second. I released the clutch and pressed on the accelerator.” What six-year-old (or, for that matter, 36-year-old) can keep such action straight? And why would my son sit still for it? If that scene had come in a Willems book, he would have squirmed like a worm on a hook. Any sustained lull in a picture book usually spells doom; a mild desperation comes over me when things aren’t “fun” enough, and I can feel my son growing restless.
But with White and Dahl and others, a lack of entertainment has not been a problem. Their books send my son to a different mental area—a deeper, spongier chamber. With no foxes in socks or bifocaled elephants, he’s forced to focus inward, where he creates the pictures himself. This is, of course, no revelation; it’s what reading is. But to see a child venture into this place for the first time has been both heartening and strange. What is he seeing in there? An animated version of Quentin Blake’s artwork? A chaotic Peter Max jumble? Something more cinematic? There is no way to know.
And it ultimately may not matter. I’m beginning to think that when my wife and I read these books to him, the story itself is somewhat beside the point. I suspect that the real draw, for him, is not just the chance to find out what happens in the next chapter, but to nestle in beside us on his football-shaped beanbag chair. Because Dahl doesn’t just make our son think differently; he draws him to us. There’s something about having to direct the action himself that makes him nudge in closer as we read. It’s as if, finally forced to explore a story without the guidance of pictures, he wants us to be near—like when he’s walking through the house after it’s gotten too dark to see.
My fondest memories of my father have to do with the same moment in my own childhood, when he read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. My dad had been in a classic-book-of-the month club, and his Mark Twain volumes were sturdy, slipcovered editions with plates of N.C. Wyeth art. I doubt I understood much in these books beyond their characters’ bare actions—the fence-painting, the river-rafting, the girl-irritating—and I remember almost nothing from them now. But the feeling of being on my dad’s lap, his voice deep and sonorous above me, has stuck with me through the years. His reading enabled a warmth and a closeness that otherwise wasn’t much there. He could’ve been reading the dictionary, and I would have sat there, rapt.
Because of this dynamic—the storybook’s drawing of the child to the reader—I feel closer to my son when we’re reading Roald Dahl. For all the talk of the importance of reading to your child—often eat-your-peas harangues that have more to do with a fear of future failure than enjoyment of the actual act—the emotional and physical closeness that reading facilitates doesn’t get much play. But given my own Mark Twain memories and what happens on the beanbag chair, I’ve come to consider such closeness to be vital and unique. I can think of no other time that my son will sit, his head propped on my shoulder, for a half an hour or more. That I can sense the drama popping in his mind as I read is an obvious added bonus. Reading storybooks has put us at the neat intersection of stillness and excitement.
My wife is currently reading him Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which, as I understand it, takes Charlie into 2001 territory. Meanwhile, we’re closing in on the end of Danny the Champion of the World; we should finish in a couple of days. It’s a quiet, almost sad little story about fighting your own insignificance. But, of course, my son just likes to hear about pheasant poaching and making a rich guy mad. As I’d hoped when he unwrapped it on his birthday, he loves Danny, and begs pathetically for more when I stop reading for the night. Sometimes I give in and read another page or two. All I ask in return is that he’ll remember it fondly 30 years from now.
Image Credit: Flickr/solarisgirl.