Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

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You’ll Never Walk Alone: On Traveling the World with Books

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I can usually remember exactly where I was when I read any given book. Here’s what I mean: when I look to the shelf before me, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, is the title that catches my eye. It’s a hardcover with a matte black jacket and gray print on the spine.

Where was I?

An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, my first in New Mexico. Besides teaching, I waitressed in a cocktail lounge until two or three in the morning. Exhausted and homesick, unable to afford health insurance, I often wondered whether I’d made a mistake in following my heart to Santa Fe.

Next on the shelf: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which I read in a college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks. Rain streamed down the windowpanes for weeks on end. It was finals, but I wasn’t writing my papers — those I stupidly saved until 24 hours before they were due. I was a frantic person then, always running late.

And as for Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, I read that on a pink couch in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up; he packed his bags and moved to Alaska, and I was simultaneously fraught with grief and elated with newfound freedom.

It’s an ability I suspect many of us possess: besides plying our minds for the story’s plot, the characters’ names, and the themes presented, we can send ourselves back to where we were when we read the books we loved. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay even more attention to my journey as the reading of the book is taking place. What mark did the book leave on me, and in turn, what imprint did I impart?

Books have always helped me to find meaning in the chaos of experience. As my eyes scan the shelf, I can picture angsty teenage afternoons, Cynthia Voigt beside me offering up Dicey’s Song like comfort food. I see an October of bad job interviews, red wine, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I see a quick succession of flings and subsequent breakups, Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates stroking my hair as I wept. I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich when my grandmother died. Anita Shreve, Stephen King, and Isabel Allende saw me through romantic weekends, family get-togethers, and summer road trips. Because of the books I have read, I’m a teacher, a traveler, and a chef. I am a fighter and a laugher. I am a writer.

For one bewildering moment, I wonder who I’d be without this shelf.

When I was 22, I worked at a hotel in my hometown for six months and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. While members of my graduating class were accepting real jobs and renting their first apartments, I moved back in with my mom and dad. It took some convincing to get my mom to agree to put me up while I prepared to see the world alone. “I just need to do this,” I told her many times, so many that finally I actually believed it. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so traveling seemed the most logical path, because after 17 years as a student, I needed a break. I needed some culture, some eye-opening excitement. In the end, my mom pitched in for my rabies vaccine, and together we mapped out my route on the family globe.

A few days before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and foolishly I had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. Like most other things, I had left my trip around the world until the last minute. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me goodbye and tore off gleefully in my car — his for the next six months — and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. I looked at the ticket in my hand. This wasn’t how I imagined it would be — already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States.

In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t communicate, and I had terrible trouble reading my map. I didn’t know how to do the most basic things — eat at a café, find a book in the library, buy a train ticket — and I felt stupid and self-conscious trying. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the mornings when only schoolchildren were out walking. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this.

Then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

Of the book itself, I only vaguely remember the plot. The main themes stand out: a desperate childhood, extreme poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. I remember McCourt’s Limerick in stills: a dirty gray street, a freezing Sunday mass, a sour pickled dinner, a Christmas with nothing.

I can remember well the book’s humor, though, and its hope. I remember an adolescent Frank who scrimped and saved, rose in the morning, passed out in bed at night, and watched men throw his mother around. Still, he survived. By the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night and rose with the sun for the first time in a week.

When I think of Angela’s Ashes, what I remember most is the way Hong Kong sounded and smelled. The air was muggy, winey, and fishy by late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes and my senses remember Hong Kong.

The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of my hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and then rode a bus for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was.

Thailand was my next stop. I made my slow way up and down the country, riding buses toward Burma and then back to Bangkok. In the daytime the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a toddler on my lap. The heat would rise and the hours would lengthen, and yet there was always something so calm about those rides. The heat, the long light, and the good-natured Thais all made for easy traveling.

I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were traveling down Thailand’s narrowest passage towards the Malaysian border, having left Bangkok early that morning. We were due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, and a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, “O, Botswana, my country, my place.”

I can still remember that line exactly. I was a continent away from home on a bus in Asia, and yet I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The words somehow matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside me, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. There came an occasional glimpse of the sea. I was content, flung, and anonymous. I had never felt so free. We jostled along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep.

A man in a beach hut on the island of Ko Chang gave me his copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Chang beers. Of that book, I remember round pebbles and a wandering boy, spare prose, a search for treasure, and a long journey home. But I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of that man’s beach hut, his dreadlocks, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, and his sandy kitchen floor. I remember a white-sand beach, creaking palms, shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water. I can still hear the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might not have remembered him at all.

I spent my last months in India, where I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but in the end, I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets, the smells of burnt sugar and sweat, and the rocking of the trains. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages.

Still, India shook me. It shakes most anyone, I imagine, especially if you’re used to orderly streets and personal space. The clamor was jolting. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. I saw sick people, hungry people, and dead people. I was overwhelmed and afraid, and people stared at me constantly.

In the end, it was, of course, a book that saved me. I distinctly remember sitting on a train in a busy aisle seat, deep into A Passage to India. Mrs. Moore was watching from the deck of a ship as India shrank away. She had had a bad go of it, and she was ready to go home to England. On a train pulling through neighborhoods of sprawling Mumbai slums, I read Forster’s description of Mrs. Moore’s departure:
…Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. ‘So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?’ they laughed. ‘What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye!
I put down the book, looked out into mad Mumbai, and laughed out loud.

I heard Forster’s coconut palms everywhere after that: So you thought one bad night was India? One bad meal? One crowded street? India is beautiful, you see. Give it time!

Their whispers strengthened me. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise. By Haridwar, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: In Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the mornings and walking by the glacially blue Ganges in the afternoons. Jaipur held an ancient fort, a raucous flea market, and an organic farm at the end of a dirt road where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens with a group of Israeli hippies. Rajasthan was a city of blue roofs, golden sunsets, and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life.

Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have read so closely or loved so dearly A Passage to India.

That year, only the books in my hands knew where to find me. They were my guides, my teachers, and my friends. Thailand will always resemble Botswana in the afternoon light, and my Hong Kong is Lantau, silent mornings, and Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room. For readers, I have discovered, there will always be two journeys, and if we forget one, we’re bound to lose both, for each sustains the narrative of our lives.

Photos by Katie Thebeau.

Because I, Too, Am Hungry: On Food and Reading

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I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs.

When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something.

If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine.

Hemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged.

And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he—effortlessly, in my head—catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good.

The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there.

Atonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon.

Stop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted?

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food.

Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that.

Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true.

Angela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket.

Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some.

There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Millions Interview: Péter Esterházy

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When I first encountered the work of Péter Esterházy, at the 2008 PEN World Voices festival, all I knew of him was his name. But what a name! The House of Esterházy, like an Eastern European amalgam of the Medicis and the Kennedys, was prominent in Austro-Hungarian culture and politics for centuries, until the upheavals of the 20th Century cost the family almost everything. It’s a cost Esterházy assesses in his magnum opus, Harmonia Caelestis (2000), from which he read that night, in his native tongue. “I don’t speak English,” he said. “You don’t speak Hungarian. This is the problem.” Nonetheless, he sent his audience rushing to the merch tables, where his books promptly sold out.

Esterházy has long loomed large in Europe, having annealed its literary-historical legacy in the crucible of his own idiosyncratic, comic, and humane voice. Among his major novels are Helping Verbs of the Heart and A Little Hungarian Pornography, both available in English, and Production Novel and the enormous Introduction to Literature, both not. This body of work earned Esterházy the distinguished Peace Prize of the German Book Fair in 2004 – the year Harmonia Caelestis appeared in English, as Celestial Harmonies. “A writer whose voice is heard far and wide,” ran the citation. “The youngest of the ‘Joyceans’ didn’t just place his homeland in the center of Europe, he also placed Europe in the middle of literature.”

I finally laid hands on Celestial Harmonies last year and finished it this winter – just in time for Esterházy’s appearance at the 92nd Street Y, in support of the just-released Not Art. Through the good graces of 92Y and Ecco Press, Esterházy agreed to a wide-ranging interview via email, with his stalwart translator Judith Sollosy acting as our intermediary. For those just discovering Esterházy, Ecco has furnished an excerpt of Not Art you can read here.

The Millions: Your acrobatic sentences may remind contemporary American readers of Donald Barthelme, or even of Diane Williams, but I’m guessing that when you turned to novel-writing during the Kádár era, such linguistic self-consciousness was sui generis. Can you tell us a bit about how your style developed, and how it fit into the social, political, and aesthetic climate of Budapest in the ’70s?

Péter Esterházy: My admittedly conscious use of language, I think, was not conscious. It was my hand or my stomach that knew. In short, I didn’t approach writing from the vantage point of theory, but from the side of practice – much like a stonemason. A stonemason is brick-centered, too. At the time this was considered marginal, but at the time marginality seemed the natural state of being. The center is suspect. Everything that is official is suspect. Except, in essence, it’s basically the official that exists. This is what we call a dictatorship.

TM: Did you feel yourself to be part of a broader movement of younger writers or artists, or did you have a sense of doing something quite radical? And how did your academic training as a mathematician inform your approach to fiction?

PE: I think that as far as my reflexes are concerned I would have liked to have been a so-called l’art pour l’art writer. But in a dictatorship everything takes on political coloring, and though a writer may declare, or rather practice, that a text is a text is a text (and a rose), still all this ends up in a pronounced moral sphere, it takes on social function; in fact, whether the writer intends it or not, that’s the role it plays. But that’s all right. It is what happened to my books as well.

At first I noticed similar aspirations among contemporary poets (Dezső Tandori, Imre Oravecz). Clearly, the same thing comes off as a sort of radicalism in prose. But my temperament is less radical than it is consistent. I may have brought this with me from mathematics. You can’t divide by zero if you’d like to win over lots of readers, or if it would seem beneficial for the nation. It is language that is radical, and I accommodated myself to it instinctively. I could tell that it was creating me [and not the other way around]. Whereas at the time I hadn’t read Wittgenstein. But no, I take that back. I read him for my Logic in Mathematics class.

TM: And yet, even as you interrogate language in a decidedly postmodern manner, you’re deeply engaged with the earlier tradition of the bourgeois novel – as if you were, like Nurse Emma in Not Art, “the land of avid readers all rolled into one.” I’m curious about your habits and history as a reader: how you came to these works, what they meant for you, and how your reading practice and your writing practice interact.

PE: For a long time I didn’t read contemporary authors, but I did read a lot of classical literature, all the Hungarians – Kosztolányi, Móricz, Mikszáth – the great French, the great Russians, the great English writers. When I read something, I didn’t think of it as a chore. I always read for my own amusement, my own pleasure. The way I drink wine. And whiskey. And grappa… The way I eat.

When I was thirtysomethingish there came a time when I realized that I was reading almost exclusively as work. I immediately made it a rule to read fifteen minutes of poetry every morning. I go to my room in the morning and read poetry.

TM: The first part of Celestial Harmonies, in particular, is like a conversation with Joyce, Nabokov, Thomas Mann, and Lampedusa, among others.

PE: I read Joyce the way I read Balzac. But Joyce was important because – though it sounds like the arrogance of a young man – I saw that I wasn’t alone. That’s why the Austrian avant-garde was also important [to me] at the time. For example, Handke. Or the modern classical authors, mostly the Austrians rather than the Germans, Musil rather than Thomas Mann, Broch rather than Hesse. Still, I had great, orgiastic experiences reading Mann into the wee hours of the morning. That goes without saying. I didn’t know what I was doing, where I was headed (I still don’t, nor do I mind), and I needed some affirmation. I later happened upon a good anthology of American postmodern writers. (Naturally, the title was Entropy.) Pynchon, Barthelme, Sukenick, Barth. The Eastern European postmodern is always more charged with history. When I use June 16th as a motif, it is Bloomsday and also June 16, 1958, the day that Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian revolution, was hanged.

TM: I was intrigued, in light of these references, to learn from the end matter of Celestial Harmonies that you also leaned on Frank McCourt. Are you a fan? What in Angela’s Ashes appealed to you?

PE: I’m not a great fan. But then, I come to someone’s writing not out of admiration but out of necessity. McCourt knows so much about poverty, and the face of Irish poverty is a little different from Hungarian poverty. When I rewrote some passages, it was this richness and strangeness that was important for me. If I had a streak of envy in me (which I don’t, I’d say modestly), I’d say that I envy those for whom the act of writing is so obviously not a problem.

TM: In the second half of Celestial Harmonies, the allusive symphony of the first part gives way to something more nakedly personal. American reviewers seemed to prefer the latter, but in my mind the two constitute a unity, like the stool and wheel that comprise Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.”

PE: I also hope that the two together make up a unit. At least, it would be good if this were true. I think that if the Good Lord or Goethe had written this novel, it certainly wouldn’t be in two parts.

TM: How did you arrive at this conception for the novel’s structure? Why is each part necessary to the other?

PE: Let me try [to say it] briefly: As I got more and more immersed in my family’s history, I realized that there were a great many stories, practically infinite, which also meant that the family was wealthy, very wealthy. But I couldn’t find a natural linear way of presenting this, not to mention the fact that it was not the relating of the family history as faithfully as possible that motivated me but the other way around; I wanted to say something universal through the family history. In short, there was this heap of stories. Then I attempted to sort them thematically, daytime stories, nighttime stories, where someone is kissed, where it’s raining. But then what am I to do with the story where someone is kissed in the rain who immediately died as a result? In short, I couldn’t come up with a viable choreography, I couldn’t put the stories in order, because this order didn’t exist inside me. So I was left with the numbering.

TM: Is there some specific effect you imagined the two halves having together?

PE: With the numbered stories I managed some sort of historical perspective. By making “my father” the main character of these stories, meaning that I turned everyone into my father, I basically destroyed the taboo of fatherhood. And so it seemed apt that once we’d come to accept this fatherless world, I should relate a Twentieth Century father-story which is very much like my own father’s story.

The relationship of the two parts to reality is different (just as Revised Edition is different, too). Anyway, it’s something like this. Heine was supposed to have said that bad writers write whatever they hear, we good writers write whatever we can, and Herr Goethe writes whatever he wants.

TM: You’ve mentioned Revised Edition – a kind of third part of Celestial Harmonies that appeared 2004. The climax of the earlier novel, in certain ways, is your late father’s arrest – or maybe I should say the character Mátyás Esterházy’s arrest – amid the crackdown of 1956. In Celestial Harmonies, as in “reality,” your father is released and settles into the quiet life of a translator. However, as you learned after the novel’s publication, he also became an informer for the secret police. It’s this discovery you recount in Revised Edition, which (unconscionably) has not been published in English…

PE: Its non-appearance in English I regret, just like you.

TM: For an American, it’s tempting to read this discovery in black-and-white terms – the hero turns bad guy – but most of us have little conception of how the police state works. Or anyway, I don’t. What understanding of your father’s actions did you arrive at while writing Revised Edition? Do you still see him, as he was in Celestial Harmonies, as representative of his time and place? And what kind of information did he provide to the authorities? Have you made your peace with that?

PE: I even grumble when they say that in Celestial Harmonies I erected a memorial or whatnot to my father. But there’s no doubt that I’m to blame for this popular misconception. Also, if we look at the novels and plays in world literature where there is a father, the father in my novel resembles my real father the most. To me, this complicated answer is important, and judging by your first question, I know that you know this. I use my life as raw material for my novels. If I didn’t have a father, I couldn’t have written Celestial Harmonies this way.

I know, of course, that this is not what your question is about, and I don’t wish to digress. My father’s life is an example of how Eastern European history can crush people, their lives and fate, like a steamroller. In a dictatorship, weakness brings its own immediate reprisal. I think that an American can have little idea about dictatorship. (I know that this may sound rather conceited, as if we know something here, or know it better. I do not think this.) A totalitarian dictatorship – and at the time this is what it was – essentially puts an end to society, and the individual is completely at the mercy of the powers that be. This is an entirely different dimension than America in the fifties, the McCarthy era, let’s say.

Paradoxically, for others my father, while he lived, embodied the independence and generosity of spirit that we discover in the hero of Celestial Harmonies. But when he looked in the mirror in the morning, he saw only an informer. And the day began, and he went about his duties as the father of four children, he went to work, seemed cheerful, etc., without any moral backing – there wasn’t any, because he’d destroyed it himself. In the book I could achieve, sentence after sentence, a balance between the personal memories and love and the recently learned facts, but I can’t do it any more. Now I see only my father’s great loneliness (he died eleven years ago), and all the things for which I am grateful to him. In short, my memories are at work, not my knowledge. (Which also means that I could never reconcile the two properly, because I didn’t understand the whole thing, not really.) But I have no wish to play down what happened to him and because of him. If someone who finds himself in my father’s position swears that he never harmed anyone, he is either mistaken or is telling a lie. It is not possible not to cause harm. That’s the problem.

I read through the reports – the ones they gave me, anyway – from 1958 to 1980, and you can see him slipping into the bottomless pit, the filth, the way he initially puts up a fight, sabotaging, then he tries keeping only to form, at which he often succeeds, though not always. If I didn’t mind the risk of being misunderstood, I’d say that I’ve read lots of reports, I saw German Stasi reports, and my father’s is that of an amateur, meaning that he was not spiteful just to be spiteful. But it makes almost no difference. It would be a mistake to use it as an excuse. Not that I want to make excuses. I know many wonderful things and many ugly things about my father….

My father now appears to me like the world: it’s a pretty bad place, but it is very good, it is magical to be alive.

TM: Your most recently translated book, Not Art, concerns “my mother,” who was not an incidental figure in your previous work. Are the challenges of writing about a mother distinct from those of writing about a father, or are they more or less the same?

PE: To me, everything is merely (“merely!”) a linguistic problem. I can mobilize lots of emotion with the words “father” and “mother.” But my approach is not psychological in nature, and so I see no difference. Or else I deny it, even to myself!

TM: Broadly, it seems, your writing has traced a trajectory from romantic love to filial love…

PE: Not so much with Revised Edition as with Celestial Harmonies, something came to an end, I finished writing something to the end, I walked all through the garden. I must now put the camera someplace else…. For instance, if I write about the family, I will not be looking and writing from the inside, because I’ve already provided the inside view. For me, Not Art already indicates a slight shift, there’s a father and a mother, but their fictional nature has gained weight. It’s my autobiography that I consider fiction. On the other hand, all this is just intellectual sleight-of-hand; practice paves the way. (The way that does not exist, and which comes into being because I walk towards it.)

TM: Finally (just for the hell of it): as a committed and enthusiastic appropriator of texts, do you have any thoughts about the case of Helene Hegemann, the Leipzig Book Fair prize nominee who’s been painted in some quarters as a plagiarist?

PE: I haven’t read her book, and whether what she’s done is all right or not can only be answered in concrete terms. These are not easy questions, and the Internet has changed the situation. Friends teaching at the university tell me how prevalent cut and paste jobs have become, the control-c, control-v “culture”. I wouldn’t dream of supporting this lack of culture. But it wouldn’t be a good idea to leave the regulation of such matters to the law either. It would limit freedom needlessly. At the same time, other people’s work should be honored, including the authors of blogs. We need to find a way of balancing these two, to find a solution. A friendly solution.

[Translated by Judith Sollosy; Esterházy photo copyright Nancy Crampton]

Family Ties: Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in Literature

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In advance of Mother’s and and Father’s Day (May 10 and June 21 respectively) I am putting together a catalog of the best representations of Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in literature.There is a long list of great childhood memoirs, many of which pivot around either a mother or a father. So far I’ve got:An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us by James CarrollAngela’s Ashes by Frank McCourtAn American Childhood by Annie DillardThe Color of Water by James McBrideGrowing Up by Russell BakerI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouWhen it comes to fiction, many books involve mothers and fathers, but fewer are specifically focused on themes of what it is to be a mom or a dad. Some of the titles below are specifically about the parent-child relationship, while for others the connection is there, but it’s more of a stretch.About mothers, sons and daughters:A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail GodwinThe Joy Luck Club by Amy TanPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothThe Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneAbout fathers, daughters and sons:A Death in the Family by James AgeeDombey and Son by Charles DickensFathers and Sons by Ivan TurgenevGilead by Marilynne RobinsonIndependence Day by Richard FordTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (perusing blogs and discussion groups, Atticus Finch might be the most beloved literary father of them all)King Lear by ShakespeareThe Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas HardyThe Risk Pool by Richard RussoWashington Square by Henry JamesI’ll send out the complete list once it’s compiled. Any suggestions welcome!

New Book Previews: Thomas O’Malley, Xue Xinran


In the Province of Saints, a first novel by the Irish writer – and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad – Thomas O’Malley is being compared to Angela’s Ashes. The subject here is a down-on-its-luck family in an Ireland of the late 70s and early 80s that was still ravaged by sectarian violence. PW says “his sentences have a judicious clarity even as they twist into gnarled shapes; they carry O’Malley’s characters though their incomprehension with poise and assurance.” Here’s one excerpt and another. The book comes out in late August.Xue Xinran was a radio show host in China before she moved to England. Her first book, The Good Women of China collected the stories she heard from women who called in to her radio show. Xinran’s first novel, Sky Burial, is fictionalized from a story she heard in her more recent journalistic endeavors. It’s about a couple split up by the conflict in Tibet in the 1950s. Scott recently pointed to this review in the SF Chronicle, and PW says, “Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran’s story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation.” The book is out this week. Here’s an excerpt.

Surprise Me!