Kurt Vonnegut’s caution against the use of semicolons is one of the most famous and canonical pieces of writing advice, an admonition that has become, so to speak, one of The Rules. More on these rules later, but first the infamous quote in question: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
To begin with the lowest-hanging fruit here—fruit that is actually scattered rotting on the ground—the “transvestite hermaphrodite” bit has not aged well. The quote also, it seems, may have been taken out of context, as it is followed by several more sentences of puzzlingly offensive facetiousness, discussed here.
That said, I also have no idea what it means. My best guess is that he means semicolons perform no function that could not be performed by other punctuation, namely commas and periods. This obviously isn’t true—semicolons, like most punctuation, increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal. Inasmuch as it’s strictly true that you can make do with commas, the same argument that could be made of commas themselves in favor of the even unfussier ur-mark, the period. But that is a bleak thought experiment unless you are such a fan of Ray Carver that you would like everyone to write like him.
Finally, regarding the college part, two things: First, semicolon usage seems like an exceedingly low bar to set for pretentiousness. What else might have demonstrated elitism in Vonnegut’s mind? Wearing slacks? Eating fish? Second, in an era of illiterate racist YouTube comments, to worry about semicolons seeming overly sophisticated would be splitting a hair that no longer exists.
But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase Edwin Starr, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?
As we know, semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction. I personally tend to use em dashes in many of these spots, but only when there is some degree of causality, with the clause after the em typically elaborating in some way on the clause before it, idiosyncratic wonkery I discussed in this essay. Semicolons are useful when two thoughts are related, independent yet interdependent, and more or less equally weighted. They could exist as discrete sentences, and yet something would be lost if they were, an important cognitive rhythm. Consider this example by William James:
I sit at the table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about.
The semicolon is crucial here in getting the thought across. Prose of the highest order is mimetic, emulating the narrator or main character’s speech and thought patterns. The semicolon conveys James’s mild bewilderment at the interconnection of act (eating the raisins) and thought (awareness he may eat the raisins) with a delicacy that would be lost with a period, and even a comma—a comma would create a deceptively smooth cognitive flow, and we would lose the arresting pause in which we can imagine James realizing he is eating, and realizing that somehow an awareness of this undergirds the act.
An em dash might be used—it would convey the right pause—but again, ems convey a bit of causality that would be almost antithetical to the sentence’s meaning. The perception follows temporally, but not logically. In fact, James is saying he doesn’t quite understand how these two modes of awareness coexist.
Or consider Jane Austen’s lavish use of the semicolon in this, the magnificent opening sentence of Persuasion:
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
Periods could be ably used here, but they would not quite capture the drone of Elliot’s stultifying vanity. Again, form follows function, and the function here is to characterize the arrogantly dull mental landscape of a man who finds comprehensive literary solace in the baronetage. More than that, the semicolons also suggest the comic agony of being trapped in a room with him—they model the experience of listening to a self-regarding monologue that never quite ends. We hardly need to hear him speak to imagine his pompous tone when he does.
The semicolon’s high water usage mark, as shown here, was the mid-18th to mid-/late 19th centuries. This is hardly surprising, given the style of writing during this era: long, elaborately filigreed sentences in a stylistic tradition that runs from Jonathan Swift to the James brothers, a style that can feel needlessly ornate to modern readers. Among other virtues (or demerits, depending on your taste in prose), semicolons are useful for keeping a sentence going. Reflecting on the meaning of whiteness in Moby Dick, Melville keeps the balls in the air for 467 words; Proust manages 958 in Volume 4 of Remembrance of Things Past during an extended, controversial rumination on homosexuality and Judaism. There is a dual effect in these examples and others like them of obscuring meaning in the process of accreting it, simultaneously characterizing and satirizing the boundaries of human knowledge—a sensible formal tactic during an era when the boundaries of human knowledge were expanding like a child’s balloon.
Stylistically, the latter half of the 20th century (and the 21st) has seen a general shift toward shorter sentences. This seems intelligible on two fronts. First—and this is total conjecture—MFA writing programs came to the cultural fore in the 1970s and over the last few decades have exerted an increasing influence on literary culture. I am far from an MFA hater, but the workshop method does often tend to privilege an economy of storytelling and prose, and whether the relationship is causal or merely correlational, over the last few decades a smooth, professionalized, and unextravagant style has been elevated to a kind of unconscious ideal. This style is reflexively praised by critics: “taut, spare prose” is practically a cliche unto itself. Additionally, personal communication through the 20th century to today has been marked by increasing brevity. Emails supplant letters, texts supplant emails, and emojis supplant texts. It stands to reason that literary writing style and the grammar it favors would, to a degree, reflect modes of popular, nonliterary writing.
Beyond grammatical writing trends, though, semicolons are a tool often used, as exemplified in the Austen and James examples, to capture irony and very subtle shades of narrative meaning and intent. It might be argued that as our culture has become somewhat less interested in the deep excavations of personality found in psychological realism—and the delicate irony it requires—the semicolon has become less useful. Another interesting (though possibly meaningless) chart from Vox displays the trend via some famous authors. As fiction has moved from fine-grained realism into postmodern satire and memoir, has the need for this kind of fine-grained linguistic tool diminished in tandem?
Maybe. In any case, I have an affection for the semi, in all its slightly outmoded glory. The orthographical literalism of having a period on top of a comma is, in itself, charming. It is the penny-farthing of punctuation—a goofy antique that still works, still conveys.
A larger question Vonnegut’s anti-semicolonism brings up might be: Do we need rules, or Rules, at all? We seem to need grammatical rules, although what seem to be elemental grammatical rules are likely Vonnegutian in provenance and more mutable than they seem. For instance, as gender norms have become more nuanced, people—myself included—have relaxed on the subject of the indeterminately sexed “they” as a singular pronoun. Likewise, the rule I learned in elementary school about not ending sentences with prepositions. Turns out there’s no special reason for this, and rigid adherence to the rule gives you a limited palette to work with (not a palette with which to work).
We know, on some level, that writing rules are there to be broken at our pleasure, to be used in the service of writing effectively, and yet writing is such a difficult task that we instinctively hew to any advice that sounds authoritative, cling to it like shipwrecked sailors on pieces of rotten driftwood. Some other famous saws that come to mind:
Henry James: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”
Elmore Leonard: “Never open a book with weather.”
John Steinbeck: “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
Annie Dillard: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place.”
Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
And more Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”; “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”; “Start as close to the end as possible.”
In the end, of course, writing is a solitary pursuit, and for both good and ill no one is looking over your shoulder. As I tell my students, the only real writing rule is essentially Aleister Crowley’s Godelian-paradoxical “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law.” Or alternately, abide by the words of Eudora Welty: “One can no more say, ‘To write stay home,’ than one can say, ‘To write leave home.’ It is the writing that makes its own rules and conditions for each person.”
Tom McAllister’s third book, How to Be Safe, begins with Anna Crawford being accused of a school shooting she did not commit. The news reports, “Former Teacher Had Motive.” Law enforcement interrogates her. When they realize she is innocent, she is left to process the anger and grief that comes from having worked at a school where one student chose to kill 19 people and wound 45 more and from living in a country that can’t seem to do anything about it.
McAllister’s debut novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook, about a man who takes a cross-country road trip after his wife passes away unexpectedly, came out in 2017. Bury Me in My Jersey, McAllister’s memoir about his father’s death and his Philadelphia football fandom, came out in 2010. Alongside writing, he is an associate professor at Temple University, an editor for the literary magazine Barrelhouse, and a co-host of the literary podcast Book Fight. (Read his recent essay for The Millions on how to survive the publishing process.)
We spoke by phone about the process of writing How to Be Safe, how he felt about its reception, his work as an editor and a podcaster, and more.
Tom McAllister: I started on the original notes started after I was reading in horror the news about the Sandy Hook shooting. I always tell my students they should be writing about their obsessions and the things that are preoccupying them. And sometimes I don’t take my own advice, and in this case I said, “Oh yeah, you need to do this. This is a thing you’re constantly talking about and reading about and thinking as someone who’s teaching at a college.” I didn’t actually start working on the book meaningfully until about a year later once I finally solved some narrative problems and geared myself up to do it.
TM: What were you working on over that year? What was the research process like?
McAllister: There are some fiction writers who are really great researchers and conduct database and library research, and they do really thorough stuff, and a lot of my research is very Wikipedia level. I read a few books—like I read Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is a really incredible book. I read One of Us by Åsne Seierstad about the mass murder in Norway by Anders Breivik.
But then a lot of it was not so much research as it was trying to figure out what I wanted the book to be. I had the really vague idea of writing about a school shooting, which is not a plot or characters or anything. It’s nothing, right? It’s just a premise. And so a lot of that time was actually trying to figure out who my point-of-view character was going to be. Originally I thought the plot would be a thriller sort of thing, where we build up to the shooting at the school and we’re in the head of the shooter most of the time. And instead I ended up going the exact opposite way, where the shooting happens basically off the page in the prologue and then we follow the aftermath.
TM: How did that big shift in focus for the book happen? The prologue is from the shooter’s perspective and then the shooting happens and we move on from that.
McAllister: The prologue, in a slightly different form, was originally just written as a short story that got published in the online journal Sundog Lit. And those were the first words that I produced related to this project. I liked the tone of it a lot. But then I didn’t think I could sustain interest, my own personal interest in the shooter’s story over the length of a book. And then I tried to write from the perspective of lots of different people in this town. Teachers and some neighbors and so on. And I had started character sketches basically of who these people are and trying to map out their relationships. And I got really bored by a lot of them, too. And it wasn’t until I started writing Anna, the current point-of-view character, that I was actually excited to get back to work on it.
TM: What do you think it was about Anna’s character that made her more appealing to you as a writer?
McAllister: I think there are probably two things. One is the voice. The thing that draws me in, more than any other characteristic of a book that I’m reading, is a compelling voice. This is one where I had fun writing it. Anna is pretty dark and cynical, but I thought that other people might have fun reading it. I really enjoy getting into the head of a character that is kind of a mess and being stuck in their worldview. I also like the idea of having someone who is a little bit separated from the shooter, so that she can be defined by characteristics besides the fact that she’s related to the shooter.
I thought about writing from the shooter’s mom and staying in her head. I feel like there’s a bunch of different waves of trauma. There’s obviously the victims and the victims’ families. There’s the family of the person who commits the crime, which is…They have to deal with a lot. But then there’s all these other people who have to deal with not only the fear but also a survivor’s guilt thing, where they know that it’s completely random chance that they weren’t killed. And so like the idea of having someone who was maybe two degrees away from this kid who knew him and had interacted with him but really had nothing to do with him except that they happened to be in the same town.
TM: Would you consider this to be a political novel?
McAllister: On one hand, I get that it is a political novel because it touches on some really charged hot-button political topics. On the other hand, I was really hoping when I was working on it to avoid writing something that would turn out to seem like propaganda. I was trying to avoid it just being an anti-gun pamphlet and trying to keep it compelling as a story. But I think however one may define it, it probably has to be categorized broadly as a political novel because it’s really engaging in some pretty massive social issues.
TM: I’m interested in how you came to address those social issues in the book. How did you build out the book’s political world from the original anti-gun idea? Did it come from Anna’s character?
McAllister: That was the key to me unlocking this and making this actually a book. I was worried it was going to be too one-dimensional. And the more I wrote about Anna and the more I thought about who she was, I saw her as sharing some characteristics with a lot of women I know. She’s in her late 30s and she spent a lot of her life trying to politely follow the rules and not make waves. And she’s reached her breaking point, and she’s sick of apologizing and sick of being nice and sick of protecting the feelings of the men around her.
Part of the influence was just my wife and my peers and my friends. We’re all getting older, and a lot of the women I know are reaching that point where they’re like, “OK, I’m 40 years old and I’m tired of doing this.” It’s also definitely influenced by social media and being exposed to not just women writers but also accomplished women who have used that platform to express these ideas. I feel like I’ve read a lot of books by women and about those kinds of issues with sexism. But to see women expressing those points of view and discussing their experiences on a day-to-day basis was really influential.
TM: The way that the politicians in the book try to answer the question of how to keep their constituents safe was fascinating and also depressing. Someone proposes that teachers should be armed and that there should also be a cavalry of trained armed kids. My first thought was, “That’s crazy,” but it’s also not all that far off from stuff that’s actually been proposed. When you were writing that, did you think the ideas were dystopic, or were you trying to write something nearer to reality? Or both?
McAllister: It’s kind of a mixture. There are drones and the sentry robots set out on the road. That was me trying to be ridiculous. And then some of the other ones are almost word-for-word on some of the stuff people have said in the standard playbook after the shootings. After the Virginia Tech shooting, I remember people were saying, “Well, if the teachers had been armed…” I feel like sometimes taking the exact things that we say in one context and just putting them in a new context shows you how absurd they are. There’s a bit early on where something is said about how we should make the children bulletproof. And I thought, you know, this is pretty absurd. And nobody’s proposed that exactly yet, but it didn’t take long for them to start selling Kevlar backpacks and trying to market bulletproof vests to children. And it seems crazy to me that we just have to accept that the bullets will be there and need to find some way to help children dodge them better.
TM: Another significant piece of the world in How to Be Safe is that the sun over the town has disappeared. It’s an odd element of the story because at first it seems metaphorical, but then they start putting in lights and it becomes very literal. What were you trying to accomplish with that?
McAllister: I’m shocked that has come up so little. It’s in the first line of the book after the prologue. I liked the sound of that first line and then I said, “Well, let’s experiment and see what happens.” The more I worked on it, the more I liked the idea of presenting it in a way where the reader isn’t really sure whether to take it literally or not.
Over the past several years, I have come to really enjoy reading poetry, fiction, whatever, that has these kinds of magical elements that it doesn’t bother to explain. The first example I think of is Etgar Keret, who has a lot of these great stories. There’s a story called “Bottle” where a magician goes into a bar and says, “I bet I can put you inside this bottle.” And then he does. And then a guy spends most of the story living inside a bottle, and it’s never explained. So I thought, “Let’s see if I can pull that off myself.”
TM: So the last book-related question I have is also just a general background question. What’s your relationship with guns? Did you grow up with them or have you never interacted with them or somewhere in between?
McAllister: So my wife has three conditions that she says would result in immediate divorce. One is if I start smoking. Two is if I were to buy a snake. And three is if I were to buy a gun. I think she’s not 100 percent serious about that, but she might be. I knew some people who were police officers, so we had family members and friends who had guns. I had some acquaintances who would go hunting with their dads on the opening day of deer season and that kind of thing.
TM: On top of editing at Barrelhouse, writing, and teaching, you also host a podcast called Book Fight with another Barrelhouse editor, Mike Ingram. When you have guests on the show, you always ask them three questions at the end of your “lightning round.” If you’re all right with me stealing your intellectual property, I’m going to ask you those questions.
McAllister: Oh, man. You’ve really turned the tables on me.
TM: First: who is one author, living or dead, that you would like to fight?
McAllister: I don’t want to be like everyone else on the show and just say Jonathan Franzen, who actually doesn’t make me that mad. You know, I would fight Joseph Conrad. Because I realize I’m supposed to like his books, but I’m so mad about all the time I spent reading them in high school and not liking them. And he writes too much about boats. I don’t think boats are interesting. That’s my piece.
TM: That’s as good a piece as any. What is the book or who is the author you have most often pretended to have read?
McAllister: That’s probably still Moby Dick. I’ve got a thing where I’m really interested in whales, and I’ve read all these other books on whales and people just assume—and I let them continue to assume—that I’m very familiar with Moby Dick.
TM: And even though this is not a lightning round like it is called on your show, the last question is: Please share some thoughts about lightning.
McAllister: Just the other day, my wife and I were babysitting my 5-year-old niece and her younger brother, and we were talking about lightning. She was talking about how terrifying it is because lightning can destroy your house. And on one hand, we wanted to reassure her. But on the other hand, she’s not wrong. Of course, we did. We said, “No, no, it’s fine. Has it ever destroyed your house before?” I mean, we just put out some 5-year-old logic. We used to have a giant tree in front of our house. Every time there was a thunderstorm, I was sure it was going to collapse on the house. It was torn down and now we have a 5-foot tree that I am desperately trying to keep alive. Anyway: lightning. Scary.
This interview first appeared in Chinese at the Shanghai Review of Books on June 3, 2018.
I spent my first Iowan winter day at home reading Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer Fiction Prize winner. Outside, snow began to fall. I poured myself a cup of hot tea, sat next to my window, and opened the book to its stunning opening line:
“George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”
Perhaps it was the snow, but my world quieted. Slowly I lost myself in the labyrinth of George’s memory. When, finishing the last line, I looked up again—it was four hours later, the street lamps casting their long bluish shadows on a whole white land.
Ever since then I’ve wanted to talk to Paul Harding, to ask him for his writing recipe, his marvelous use of time and lyricism. As a foreigner who grew up exposed to Emerson, Melville, and Faulkner, I was astonished to hear that in America only high school students are still reading them. I want to ask him about the literary tradition in this country, about the relationship between the self, history, and the present, and how art can reach beyond its creator’s self-obsession and connect to a larger world.
So we had this conversation. Paul’s responses are illuminating and yet sometimes counterintuitive. Instead of encouraging young writers to find their own voices, he says he rids markers of his voice during revision and editing. In Paul’s view, writers and their writings are not a cause-and-effect relation; rather, it’s the subject that desires to be rendered in a specific way, and the writer who needs to listen to this hidden message. As far as literary tradition, the Bible to Paul is both the foundational literary text and a spring of democracy and humanism.
(Paul’s forthcoming novel, Island, is coming out with Random House in 2019 or 2020.)
The Millions: Before you switched your career to writing, you were a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat. What’s a musician’s life like? Does your past as a musician influence your writing?
Paul Harding: Well, mine was a sort of “half-time” musician’s life. When we were not touring or recording or playing shows around Boston and New York City, which was often, I temped in all sorts of lousy jobs. I also worked in bookstores, which was lousy work, too, because it was retail, but wonderful because I read all the new fiction that came out.
I loved working on songs with the other band members. We were not very good, but I was fascinated by arranging and finding different parts for different songs. I loved being in the studio, too, watching the engineers and producers use the studio itself, and the mixing boards almost as instruments in themselves.
Touring was a lot of fun at first, but it grew very tiring. Most days are spent driving for many, many hours from show to show, getting to the theater or club, doing a soundcheck, playing the show, breaking down, sleeping in one motel room with five or six people, getting up in the morning, and driving all day again. Very wearying! But not entirely awful, because it’s interesting to show up in towns and cities you might never otherwise see, and find people in the middle of what they consider “normal life,” which is, from the outside, always clearly highly localized and eccentric in one way or another.
Music absolutely influences my writing. I was a drummer—the “time keeper.” And I think of narrative prose as keeping time, too, of rendering characters’ experiences of time, of “being in time” in the philosophical but also, simply, immanent physical senses. I write by ear, by rhythm, intuitively. I can often tell what the tempo, time signature, accentuations are of a sentence or a passage before I discover its literal meaning. I think of Tinkers, especially, as lyrical, like incantation, song.
TM: When was the first time you introduced yourself to others as a writer? How did you feel about it?
PH: I suppose I went through some version of the self-conscious, pretty much coy mannerism of protesting that I was not a writer; I just wrote. Or something like that. I was never self-conscious about wanting to be a writer, or aspiring to be an excellent one, since neither is the same thing as claiming to be an excellent writer. But now, I accept the job title! From my point of view, I do in fact think of writing as a way or manner of being in the world, that in some deep senses, I do write, as a function of my being a person, of exploring, interrogating, describing the experience of personhood, of being an “I,” that utterly mysterious thing. I guess I also feel a bit like I’m not so much “a writer” but a writer of strange, oddly shaped stories and not much else.
TM: The original inspiration for your debut novel, Tinkers, was your maternal grandfather. Why did you want to tell his story? Do you find your writing experience has changed your understanding of him or your family story? In what ways?
PH: I did not feel compelled to tell my grandfather’s story in the general sense. I felt an urge to describe aspects of his life about which I remained curious after his death, which were mysterious to me, yet also formative, normative. It was also a way to remain in conversation with him, by means of aesthetics, of imagination. George, in Tinkers, though, ended up achieving his own kind of aesthetic critical mass, or momentum, and while he is my grandfather, my grandfather was not him, if that makes sense! It also pleases me to think of my own sons, and perhaps someday their children and grandchildren, reading the book and feeling as if it’s their own, highly local book of genesis: an anthology of family myths and legends.
TM: Were some chapters of Tinkers workshopped before its publication? If so, what feedback did you receive?
PH: Tinkers was originally a 15-page short story. It was one of two stories I submitted to apply to the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was not supposed to workshop it, but I did, because I ran out of material to submit. It was given a life-changing workshop by my teacher and now friend Elizabeth McCracken. Her reading of it was so subtle, attentive, solicitous. She not only taught me a great deal about the story but also how to teach. The feedback, as I remember, mostly had to do with the 15-page version being too elliptical, too obscure. So, when I had the chance, after graduating, to work on it some more, I expanded it from the “inside out,” so to speak. I had the entire plot, such of it as there was (which was and remains not much—plot does not interest me), so I just kept elaborating on the characters’ lives, building up layers of them, slowly, like a river piling up silt or something. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that if you took the five opening pages, the five closing pages, and the five pages right at the middle of the published book, you’d pretty much have the original story. So strange, art—so lovely.
TM: Almost all readers said they marveled at the unique use of time in Tinkers. Time both constricts and expands, which reminds me of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but Tinkers is also very different. How did you come up with this idea? Did you doubt it at any point during your writing process?
PH: I doubted it the entire process. Not what I wanted to do with time but whether I was in fact doing that, or whether I was just being clever, fancy, using pyrotechnics. But that was good motivation. Every twist, turn, redoubt, exploded or accelerated moment had to earn its way into the manuscript. Also, since most of the book takes the form of consciousness—and most of that the form of memory—I had built into the structure of the book that what I think of as a “quantum,” almost supraluminary nature of consciousness, where almost without apparent causality, you can be thinking of yourself as an infant next to a river watching your mother catch a fish and instantly next be thinking of yourself as a parent, feeding your son a bite of shrimp. Or whatever. That’s kind of a silly example, but I certainly had writers like Proust in mind, pushing on how prose that must be read diachronically—that is, in order, in lines of words, can be experienced by the reader as something like the synchronous apprehensions of full memories, and full memories shifting and moving and leading into and out of one another, and so forth. William Faulkner was a huge influence thinking about this. Also, the so-called “magical realists,” like Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes. Emily Dickinson, too, whose poems look so small and compact and yet have the transcendental, metaphysical density of collapsed stars.
TM: Tinkers has an associative rather than linear architecture, as you put it. One tricky thing about this structure is that readers may get lost. Many writers embed perches for readers to rest and reorient. I read the countdown of George’s life as serving this purpose. Did you worry that your readers might lose their way? Did you provide guidance for them?
PH: You have perfectly answered your own questions! Yes, I worried. Yes, I absolutely “staged” the book as a countdown to the instant of George’s death—incidentally, the eight days it takes for a traditional American or European wall clock to wind down. I figured that as long as the prose eventually looped back to “8 days before he died; 7 days; 6,” the reader would have a predictable point to which she’d periodically return and be able to clearly, concretely take stock of what was happening. I think that the narrative takes some getting used to, but once the reader knows the, as it were, rules of the thing, those rules are consistent and wholly organic to the deepest meanings in the book. I feel more or less that it’s fine to ask the reader to do some work, to actively participate in the reading of the book, so long as that work is rewarded two, five, tenfold with art that surprises, delights, activates deep human recognition—all that good, artful stuff. Two things I always tell my writing students are: Don’t write your stories for poor readers, and don’t write your stories for people who won’t like them. If you pick up a copy of Tinkers and read the jacket copy and maybe the opening paragraph or two, you’ll continue reading because you like what you read. The book does what it does, consistently, right from the very first sentence.
TM: After Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize, did you feel any pressure on your second novel? Did you worry whether Enon would replicate the success of Tinkers?
PH: I did feel pressure, and a lot of it. But I also recognized that I was a kind of minor, temporary protagonist in the larger Pulitzer Prize narrative or phenomenon. I certainly worried during my time as a private citizen—that is, for instance, when I lay awake at night, at four in the morning, say—wondering whether I could pull it off. But I either had to write a second book or disappear. Much better, I thought, to get on with it. I did not worry whether Enon would replicate Tinker’s success, although I certainly hoped it would. But being a lifelong avid reader, bookseller, and observer of all (or many) things literary, I knew the usual, very predictable risks. For example, I knew there’d be people who would not like Enon, no matter what, because it was just Tinkers II, and there would be people who would not like it because it was not Tinkers II. No matter. My job was to filter out all the noise best I could and be loyal and attentive to what was coming over the wire from inside the world of that book.
TM: Enon, at least in its first part, reads more like a conventional novel—a lucid point of view with a plot that everyone can relate to. What things were on your mind when you were making writing choices for Enon?
PH: It’s interesting, because you sort of learn things about writing on the fly. At first, because the opening felt more conventional, I tried to make it more, I don’t know what, experimental, or something like that. But that was me inducing meaning, coercing the material. What I found was that much of that book is precisely about this narrator, Charlie, having a more or less common, recognizable, conventional way of looking at and describing his life—a relatable, work-a-day kind of idiom for the love he has, for instance, for his daughter. When his daughter dies tragically and without warning, that idiom, the very language out of and with which his world and place in it has been constructed, is made instantly and totally alien, unrecognizable, insufficient for his experience of the tragedy. Much of the rest of the novel is simply a dramatic presentation of him desperately trying to improvise a new idiom for a universe in which his daughter has died. That improvisation intersects with his romantic, so to speak, imbibing of drugs and alcohol in an effort to give himself just a bit of distance from his own white-hot grief, almost as if the chemicals are like the mirror Perseus must use in order to look at the Medusa and not simply perish. And that combination becomes more and more phantasmagorical, of course, and populated by fairly specific New England ghosts and legends. I also realized that the story was a version of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Persephone and Diana, the narrative of losing someone so dear that you simply cannot accept it and try to go down into the underworld to fetch the lost loved one back. Tons of other stuff in there, too. Hopefully.
But I did find myself with the technically confining structure of a first-person narrative, which I found the hard way is very, very difficult to sustain over a novel-length narrative. And I did find myself in the face of how our culture thinks about drug and alcohol addiction, which made for a very prominent foreground that many readers could not or would not subordinate to the character’s—the true subject of the book—human experience. Certainly, some of that was my shortcoming as an artist. Such is art! Fascinating to learn along the way. Interesting, too, when readers would come up to me and say, Oh, why doesn’t that Charlie guy just pull himself up by his big boy pants and get over it? Well, if he did, there would not have been a book! It’s like asking (on a much, much more sublime level, of course), Oh, why didn’t Hamlet just get on with his revenge? Well, because that’s the play. What would be left of Hamlet if he didn’t agonize? That’s what the whole play is about! If he didn’t agonize, he’d just murder Polonius, assert his right of succession, become a typically vengeful, murderous king, and the play would be two minutes long, and they’d have to bring out the jugglers and dancing bears!
Anyway, Enon was and remains a tough nut to crack. Wholly necessary for me to write (I had close friends who’d lost children, whose experiences were partly why I chose to try to write such a book, and two close friends lost their respective only children while I was writing the book). I am deeply loyal to it. It remains a mystery to me. An occluded vision of something deep and dark and, to me, fascinating.
TM: You teach students to write precisely. What do you mean by “being precise”? How to be both lyrical and precise? Can you give an example?
PH: I guess I have an idealistic, or Platonic, spirit in the use of language; my sense is of a perfect version of, say, Tinkers somewhere out there in or beyond the universe. What I got of it onto paper is the buckled, scorched, dented, imperfect version of it that I managed to fetch from my forays toward that perfect version and bring down through the atmosphere into the English. As it precipitates from that imaginary, perfect state into language, it distorts. But English is a pretty magnificent, flexible, rich, dense language. So I revised. And revised. And revised some more. There’s not a sentence in the book I did not go over 100 times, pushing on the precision of the language to see how close to perfect I could get. That pushing is, of course, aesthetic, too. It is applying aesthetic pressure to the language for precision, largely with the faith that every further degree of precision is a further degree of revelation, of beauty.
When I began to realize this, it took a huge leap of faith, exactly because I thought of myself as a lyrical writer. Even the word itself, “precision,” seemed to contradict the very spirit of lyricism. It seemed surgical or like something from engineering. But again, it is used in this kind of writing to achieve aesthetic sophistication.
The matter was one of learning to trust your subjects. If you sense beauty and lyric essence in your subjects, that means that beauty and lyricism inhere in them. That is, they are already beautiful and lyrical in themselves, before you even stumble by and notice. Which means that it’s not you, the writer, who induces those qualities, with “your” writing. You don’t happen along, sprinkle glitter and fairy dust on the subjects, and they become lyrical. That would be a form in itself of distortion, imprecision. It’s not a cause-and-effect phenomenon, where the writer “causes” subjects to be lyrical or whatever via her writing. The writer pays deep, sustained, considerate, selfless, solicitous attention to subjects she intuits are beautiful and lyrical, and if they indeed are, then the best—really, finally, the only—way to render those things is by precisely describing them as they are. That’s all the difference between poetry and writing that sounds poetic, between beauty and pretty writing.
It seemed counterintuitive to me at the time, so as I said, it was a huge leap of faith. I had to be very deliberate, conscious of writing that way. It took a lot of work to make myself write that way and to keep writing that way. But it was faith well rewarded. It’s a wonderful mystery, but it works every single time.
I should say that this way of thinking is undertaken in the context of writing about character, that is, about experience, so much of the beauty and lyricism also come from refracting, for instance, the description of a striking landscape through a character’s perception of it, experience of it, which in itself is something that, if precisely attended, strikes the reader as true, authentic, thus beautiful. I never write “objectively” about a stand of birch trees in the golden sun near a stream of cold clear water, but of a mind perceiving those things. So the mind and landscape become coextensive and so forth.
TM: Nineteenth-century spirituality is rare to see in contemporary American literature (with the exception of you and your teacher Marilynne Robinson). Based on your reading experience, what do you like most about contemporary American fiction? What don’t you like about it?
PH: The only contemporary American fiction I read is that written by my students! Not because I’m doctrinaire or anything, but because when I teach, I teach a novel-writing workshop in which we read and critique a full-length novel manuscript every week, no upper page limit. That’s a ton of reading, but the students are so good that I get to read a rough draft of a good or great novel every week. The rest of my reading time I devote to nonfiction—tons of theology, lately a lot of history, like John Foxe’s massive Actes and Monuments, which chronicles English history from the dawn of time, practically, through the reign of Queen Mary (I think).
Anyway, what I love about the books I see from my students is a willingness to try new ideas, to write unabashedly big, smart, beautiful books. Generally, I dislike books that complain so much about, say, crass, white, middle-class materialism that they themselves becomes artifacts of the very phenomenon they allegedly lament. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say. What could be easier that pinching the noses of burghers?
TM: One common critique is that contemporary American fiction is small. But our world is big and chaotic. We need a novel that is about the right size. What do you think of the “size” of contemporary American fiction?
PH: Oh, that’s a tough one! “Size” has to be dictated from inside the work outward. There are a lot of 600-page novels that have about 75 pages of substance to them and the rest is just self-indulgent riffing. “Size” is properly about the seriousness and depth of idea, of subject. There’s nothing I like better than a big book. You get to live with it longer. It becomes like a friend or lover. Moby Dick, by now, is less a book than a place for me, an actual sort of aesthetic ontological dimension I go back to and live in periodically. I can do that with Melville because the book is 600 pages, but more importantly, each page is 100 pages deep in a sense. It’s so rich, dense, gorgeous, big-spirited, generous, genius. Every page is a feast! So if you crank out several hundred pages of received popular opinion about whatever this season’s version of the American dream or nightmare is, you’ve still written a small, sad little book.
TM: Another contemporary writing trend is that, perhaps under the influence of postmodernism, writers are bold in trying experimental forms with their novels—very often by the use of visual art. But I find, quite often, those forms are a way to legitimize a weak plot or string together a collection of slightly related scenes. In your opinion, what’s the ideal relation between form and content? How to make experimental forms organic?
PH: Well, I think you’ve given a great answer to another of your questions! This is very, very much a matter of personal taste. At this point, we’ve crossed over into personal aesthetics, so this is all purely a matter of my own preferences.
But, for me, first, all good writing is experimental. You experiment with the material to see what works and doesn’t and how and why. I spend tons of time collaging passages, juxtaposing them in various ways, improvising and experimenting with them to see what tones, textures, nuances, harmonies, dissonances, revelations, etc., they generate on their own, almost independent of my own intelligence, as it were. But I do not ever induce form prior to writing or insist on form as I write. I mean, sometimes I do, but in the former case only to jump start the writing in a very early stage of a project, to invoke it, for example, but with the full understanding that the formal structure is a prompt or conceit that the material, if it’s good, will inevitably outgrow and shrug off, and in the latter case usually because I’ve unconsciously or stubbornly persisted in some formal conceit past its usefulness or necessity and have been disfiguring the material so that it accommodates the form. That’s an instance of the writing becoming the subject of the writing, if that makes sense. The writing is the predicate of the proper subject—for me, the characters, their experiences, the phenomenology of things. The writing is subordinate to the people whose lives it serves to portray (which goes back to what we were talking about in terms of precision). I often tell my students, never preserve a conceit at the expense of the story.
One way to revise and edit for this kind of thing, I’ve found, is to listen for your own voice. Whenever I can hear my own voice in my work, I know that I have somehow improperly become the subject of the writing. It’s no longer about my characters but about me being clever, showing off, getting revenge or whatever. So to my thinking, form is an organic function of the process in that it is what physicists might call an “emergent property.” I’m probably fudging the proper definition of the concept, but roughly, I understand emergent properties to be ones that arise from the interactions of a system that could not be predicted prior to that system being set into motion (or whatever—I think it must have something to do with thermodynamics). Form emerges from the inside out, then, rather than being something the writer thinks of abstractly, intellectually, rhetorically beforehand and then induces onto a plot or set of characters or whatever.
Of course, some authors can do this brilliantly. But as you suggest, a lot of writers try fancy formal stuff because there’s no necessity to the work. There’s the mortal danger of constructing something that is purely ornamental. Which is in no way to suggest writers should not use such experimentation as a way of getting to things they find true and essential. But there’s also the risk of a shallow level of appeal. Look! The whole novel is written backwards! How clever. Who cares, you know? It’s not strictly the same thing, but the spirit is similar when the American jazz critic Whitney Balliett described musicians who are technically brilliant but have no vision or soul as possessing “mere virtuosity.”
TM: “Tradition” is a word Americans don’t often mention. I was told by workshop friends that only high school students read Faulkner. In your opinion, what’s American literary tradition? What are the greatest things that young writers can learn from reading them?
PH: American literature by now is so vast it’s hard to describe it as a single tradition. Historically, the tradition probably began with people like Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, who was a magnificent writer. I think of the tradition, if somewhat narrowly, as arising from the New England Reformed Protestant tradition that led to Transcendentalism.
I see that vein as being disciplined by the idea of the primacy of personal experience. Not in a romantic sense but in the deepest intellectual, aesthetic, moral, spiritual sense of using your brain as much as possible to ponder experience itself—the experience of being human, of experiencing a self, the experience of being human as a self. That leads to all sorts of pretty lovely democratic, humanist implications, having to do with allowing every person the freedom to experience her own given humanity, free from coercion, having to do with the premise that every person’s experience has the same ultimate value, and so forth. It’s not the same thing as radical relativism, or simple license to do whatever you’d like.
Parts of the literary and philosophical traditions arise from the earlier theology of what was called the “I and thou” of things. A person activates, cultivates, deepens her own self to the extent that she cares for and dignifies other people’s selves, lives. Pondering one’s own experience makes one more sensitive to the experiences of others, or that’s the spirit of it. Empathy, pretty much. Not a naturally occurring impulse, always, perhaps, but through the discipline and the habit of deliberately thinking as deeply and constantly as possible about such things, one can, so the thinking goes, meaningfully participate in the true value and valuing of human beings. That’s a pretty radically abbreviated description of what I think of as humanism.
In America, but also wherever such thinking has any efficacy, I think it’s fair to say people’s lives are enriched materially and spiritually. In America, such thinking and art, broadly, helped to give rise to things like the abolitionist movement, then civil rights, labor rights, women’s suffrage, an overall lessening of discrimination against and disenfranchisement and of various groups of people. Emerson and Thoreau certainly wrote and thought in that tradition. Emily Dickinson. Herman Melville. Later, Faulkner, for sure. One of the problems of keeping the heart and soul of such a tradition intact is that all those writers, regardless of differences of denomination or faith or however you’d like to describe it, wrote from within the literary and cosmological traditions of the Bible.
Well, if only high schoolers read Faulkner these days, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that no one at all reads the Bible. The book has become so encrusted in ideological nacre that it’s almost impossible for Americans to approach the book and what’s in it as they would, say, Moby Dick, which is not necessarily to say secularly but as literature, which is not to demean religion but to elevate narrative, poetry, song, art to the level of the sacred. Anyway, not knowing the Bible is a certain state of illiteracy. It’s not a value judgement (in my judgement!) but a factual description having to do with the simple, unalterable fact that the Bible is the headwater of so-called “Western art.” You don’t have to like it, but it is the case. To the extent that people are ignorant of that tradition, they are separated from what I’m sketching as a kind of stipulated “American tradition.”
Basically, I love the combination of the most sublime, sacred, essential aspects of human experience with the impulse that those things are available to everyone, no matter how high or low they appear in life. Think, again, of Faulkner’s characters. Think of “unlettered Ishmael” in Moby Dick, all those sailors who sign their names “X,” and to whom Melville gives the language of kings and prophets and angels. I love William Tyndale, who made the first translation of the Bible into modern English, and who almost miraculously, single-handedly invented modern literary English by putting the kind of aesthetic pressure I’ve mentioned on it to raise it to a level where it was fine enough to render the sophistication of Biblical literature. His stated goal was to make a translation so lucid and clear that it could be read by the boy out plowing the field. There’s something essential and recognizable to me in that idea in the best parts of the American tradition of democracy, imperfect, severely compromised, often corrupt, battered and embattled thing it has always been.
TM: What is the thing you wish you knew when you were just beginning to write Tinkers?
PH: Easy: nothing! For me, writing is not engineering, in the sense that I do not care much about efficiency. For me, the inefficiency of writing—improvising, discovering, screwing up, searching, finding, not finding, interrogating, exploring, unveiling, revealing—is what yields art. You can’t think it up first, then type it. The putting of language on the page and seeing what meaning you’ve released into the world and shaping it, revising it, building it up, layering it, scraping it back down, and all that is what I love about making beautiful artifacts out of words. There were plenty of technical things it may have been nice to know ahead of time, but I don’t really think much about them, because once you know them, the problems you consider only get deeper. I mean this as a guarantee, a promise to all writers, when I say that one of the best things about writing fiction is that it only gets harder the more you know, in some ways, and that is, to me, a wonderful thing. Whatever I learned writing Tinkers, when I turned to Enon, it was not as if but in fact that I had to learn to write all over again. Fantastic! What good fortune!
I interviewed André Aciman in his Upper West Side apartment on a bright July morning. His book Call Me by Your Name has recently been adapted in a film directed by Luca Guadagnino, which is already a hit. His last novel, Enigma Variations, has been praised by The New York Times as a Proustian tale of conflicted desires.
Aciman is also Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of City University of New York where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust.
This interview has been adapted from a documentary, American Journey, directed by Lucia Senesi and produced by Abuelita Film. All Rights Reserved
Lucia Senesi: You said that young people interested in writing should do two things. First, understand that writing is not only a career, sometimes it’s a mission. And second, read the classics.
André Aciman: Yes, you have to absolutely read the classics. Most people nowadays do not read the classics or they don’t consider the classic writers who have written in 1940, 1950, 1960, and which is not the way to go. You should really go back, a long long time, and familiarize yourself with all the great writers and some of them are anonymous, as in The Bible, for example. And you should really read all these. As for the mission, it’s not just a vocation, it’s that you are really trying to capture something that is essential about yourself, and you hope that by getting it about yourself correctly that you’re touching other people, and that is the job. It’s not just to write and publish and publish and publish.
LS: Do you think that there is some difference between the generations, for example is the younger generation more taken with the fashionable aspect of writing?
AA: Well, there’s definitely a sense that one writes a lot, very fast, especially very fast and quite voluminously and the idea that you should work on a sentence for half a day would never occur to any young writer today. And so the price for this is that a lot of young writers, who are talented essentially, are writing the same way each of them, so that you can’t tell them apart. You really have to try, very very hard to tell one from the other.
LS: Do you think that maybe it’s about our society? I mean, today with social media, a lot of people just write on Facebook or Twitter. Before we had to spend time to reflect on what we really wanted to express, now we think something and we can express it immediately.
AA: Not only it is expressed immediately and very fast, but you press the return button and it’s out, whereas even when I send an email normally I will write the email and then I will read it and maybe read it twice or three times just to make sure that the ideas concretize well enough. And then with a lot of hesitation I would press the send button. Most people will immediately text their reply. And it’s because it’s an exchange of information and information is fundamentally cheap. What you want to convey from one e-mail to another is also a whole gamut of emotions, reflections, hesitations, irony, all these sort of superficial things, considered superficial, take time.
LS: When you were young, how did you approach the classics? And when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
AA: Oh, I always knew I was going to be a writer. When I was, I think, 10 or even 9 years old. I knew that I liked writing poetry and I liked the fact that I was putting on paper my emotions. That was very important. But I didn’t know that I could become a writer. My first published piece came out when I was in my late 30s. So all these years were a process of long incubation. But I read the classics because there was nothing else. My father was also very devoted to the classics, so he told me to read X, Y and Z. There was no censorship. In other words, if it was a bad dirty book or a clean book, it didn’t matter, it had to be well written. And so I was always reading, I was reading classics all the time. And I have written about this, but when I was living in the Alberone district in Rome I hated it so much that all I did was stay home, especially in the summer, with the blinds drawn, because I didn’t like the lighting and I would read all the time and my mother couldn’t understand and nobody could understand. What is this boy doing? Let’s go to the beach. I said the beach is too far. I didn’t want to go to the beach. So I read everything I consumed. I think all the Russians, the French classics, and the English classics as well.
LS: That reminds me Proust because he basically writes that for his parents and his family the time he spent reading was a sort of waste.
AA: I think that he himself considered it. I mean he loved it, but he was not sure that it was the way to be and therefore there was always a touch of dysfunctionality in being a reader. But he loved it and I loved it too. I loved reading, but I was considered that I am hiding from life because my father says you should read, but at the same time you should go and have fun and have friends and do all those things. Except that I couldn’t do those because they were not mutually exclusive. It was just said the reader in me didn’t know what to do with other people. I mean I desired other people but I didn’t know how to how to meet them.
LS: Do you think that for Proust this dysfunctionality was also about being a writer? I mean, in the Recherche he wonders if he actually could be a writer and then says that all the first part of his life was a waste because he spent it in society whereas he should have work.
AA: Work was very important for him and the idea that he had a vocation was also very important. The whole book is the story of this vocation. But I think that the beginning of his life was not wasted. But at the same time he was sheltered, it was so sheltered that you had a feeling that this boy’s reading in order not to go out and live. But I don’t think in my case it was the same thing. I didn’t know how to go out and live. But as soon as I went to graduate school then I began to socialize, aggressively, because I hadn’t done anything before that and I loved social life and I still do.
LS: You said that Proust’s book is one of the few books that changes who you are because when you read him you read things you already know.
AA: I teach Proust to graduate students. In other words, they’re writing the dissertations, so they’re all in their mid to late 20s. I teach Proust to college students and I’ve taught Proust to high school students, in the jail. And what happens is that everybody understands Proust because he is simple, he’s transparent. Once you accept the terms of the reading experience. Everything he says about our behavior, our emotions, the way we think of other people, is totally true and we accept it right away. Now when you read his book, the whole sort of epic, once you’ve been absorbing all this, you cannot be the person you were before.
LS: It’s true.
AA: In other words, if you read Dostoyevsky, which I read when I was very young, you begin to understand that Dostoyevsky thinks that everybody lies. I had never thought of that but it didn’t surprise me that Dostoyevsky said that people lie all the time and that people are guilty. And at the same time all these combinations of contradictions made perfect sense to me. Once you’ve accepted, you’ve been absorbing it by osmosis, it begins to color your way of seeing life. As a writer, once you realize that human beings are not consistent, but they are constantly paradoxical and contradictory, then at that point you begin to reproduce that emotion with your own signature as a degree.
LS: Indeed, even Camus took that way.
AA: He was ambivalent. And I think an entirely intelligent person is always ambivalent. There’s no such thing as having a point of view. You have to be ambivalent because you can always see the two sides of the same thing. And if you see one and you hear somebody seeing one, you necessarily must contradict them out of intellectual spite.
LS: Then we have Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who are a contradiction themselves.
AA: They are contradictory. I think she’s more important. He has become totally obfuscated, there’s nothing really going on there anymore. I never liked him. And now I feel justified. I knew that there was nothing there to begin with, but that’s me.
LS: You know, they are a difficult couple.
AA: He was ugly and he knew it. And that is a very important fact.
LS: I love him as a writer, but for sure I would never have him as a boyfriend!
AA: [Laughs.] I believe you!
LS: But to come back to Proust, you said that present doesn’t exist for Proust. He is always in the past or in the future, right?
AA: This is a new idea. We’ll see if you like this idea.
LS: [Laughs.] Okay.
AA: Time does not exist.
LS: For him or in general?
AA: I think it does not exist at all. There’s no such thing as Time. And Proust is a genius. Precisely, I mean, he believes that there is time and there is wasted time and wasted space. But fundamentally he’s always shuttling. He’s constantly shuttling between one temporal zone to another temporal zone, and he’s very comfortable doing that, from the past to the present, to the anticipated past, because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s in the future, back and forth, and he’s constantly doing this game because he’s really not comfortable in one time zone.
LS: I think it’s time to talk about the style and how he uses the verbs in French.
AA: Everybody knows that he does something that’s totally un-Orthodox when he begins his novel in the “passé compose.”
LS: Indeed the problem with the translation. Last year I read Melville, Moby-Dick. Basically we have this situation: “Call me Ishmael,” in Italian can be “Chiamami Ismaele” or “Chiamatemi Ismaele” [in the first person or in the third person].
AA: Yes! I wrote a lot about translation. Proust is difficult to translate.
LS: I guess especially in English.
AA: It’s very difficult to translate in English. French is extremely supple and extremely forgiving. Just to give you an example of the terrible things that can happen in English is that after the third relative pronoun, the sentence is dead. So you cannot have three relative pronouns, or four, or five, because the reader will loose you, especially modern readers, so you try to work around this. But if you work around this, you’re changing the rhythm of the sentence and therefore the rhythm of meaning, because Proust’s sentences have a meaning that is implicit to the style.
LS: Let’s talk about the style, because again, when I read Moby-Dick and Dracula—
AA: Bram Stoker?
LS: Yes, Bram Stoker. I thought that Proust took something here and there, in term of style.
AA: It’s difficult to say. I don’t think that there is anything similar to Proust and he knew it. I mean, it’s a complicated thing. I teach the style, usually that’s all I teach when I do Proust because the style is in fact semantically constructed in such a way that it means something. I think that, just to give you an example, Proust’s sentences always begin with a yearning, a call. Let’s begin with the beginning: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” He’s already in the rhythm, he’s summoning us into emotions. But that was how Proust wrote at the beginning of his career. And then suddenly something happened, I think in his mind, some genius thing happened to Proust and he realized that he had a sense of humor and that he liked humor.
LS: [Laughs.] Of course.
AA: So what happens is the sentence that begins with this kind of summoning this sort of, the Yiddish word is “descry.” It’s like a yell for help for inspiration. It’s like Wordsworth, you begin with this “oh, as a boy, blah blah blah blah blah,” and then suddenly the sense of humor comes and closes the sentence. And both work together beautifully. Now, Melville did not quite have that, and the person who has it even less, and therefore is not really a stylist is Henry James, who is a writer who has a style simply because his sentences are all over the place. But the wit that is so typically French and has been retained from classical times onto Proust is there. The French call it “la pointe.” It’s that moment when suddenly something happens at the very end of the sentence that closes. Now the only other author who did that with some degree of difference, and Proust knew it, is Saint-Simon. Long sentences, investigating, in excavating personality. And at the very end, damning them totally or totally forgiving them. And I think that’s the genius of Proust, there’s nobody can write like Proust. Now it’s a hundred years. And guess what. We still haven’t come up with that yet.
LS: You said something that could be very controversial, but I feel I totally agree with that: “Proust is about possession. He doesn’t know what love is, he doesn’t believe in love. He just wants someone immediately because he needs.”
AA: Yes. I think he does not understand love. I don’t even know what love is in any novel, but in Proust what we have a sense is that what really animates and feeds the emotional life is a desire to have someone else. And I’ve made the point in my own book, Enigma Variations. That is never love or it could be love, but it’s not really love and love is of no interest. What we are interested in Proust especially is that he wants someone. He wants somebody to possess them or he wants to have them in his house. He wants to have a nearby. Whether he loves the person that he wants is irrelevant.
LS: Marcel doesn’t even like Albertine. But he wants her because she’s not available.
AA: Exactly. What he can’t have is what he wants.
LS: You know that I live in Los Angeles. I actually live between Santa Monica and Venice, so I often go to the beach and I read Proust to California surfers. Unfortunately, I have the sensation that they don’t get the point.
AA: [Laughs.] That’s California, isn’t it? Well, [Proust] has no special effects. I mean, the whole sensibility of the young people today is very much guided not by complexity and characters. A lot of it has to be, I want to say special effects. I was exaggerating of course, but Hollywood and the industry of Hollywood has re-sensitized a huge contingent of the population, to the point where the only access they have to what maybe the ideal situation is given to them from television and films.
LS: And we come back to the beginning of our conversation: the new generation.
AA: If you think of Madame Bovary, it’s a very good point. Madame Bovary was herself a stupid woman. Why? Because all she did was look what she had seen, not in movies of course, but in books. She had read cheap romances and she wanted the same things in real life. And of course Flaubert is making fun of her. I think a lot of people in California…I don’t know. I like Santa Monica because it reminds me of other places like Naples and Cannes. And I like it not because of what it is, but of what it can be, in my imagination.
LS: How do you use the sense of humor in your novels?
AA: I think the one where I have most of the fun is when I revisit my family and because they were all regular individuals. But what I realized is that they were old extravagance in every conceivable way, not just money. They were absolute constructions of the imagination. They were monsters. And yet at the same time to be ordinary with ordinary passions. My uncle for example, the one I start the book with [CMBYN], was a man who was essentially a salesman but he didn’t think of himself as the salesman. He thought he was an aristocrat. And so he surrounded himself with all the accoutrements of an aristocrat when in fact he was just the salesman. He was not even a salesman, he was an auctioneer which is even lower than a salesman. But he knew how to make money and he made money. And at the same time, he had certain points of view that suggest that he was aware that human beings needed to be manipulated. And so in examining a character like this you have to realize that he is a salesman, he has a career, he has had a very checkered life. At the same time he is ridiculous. And how do you get this character whom you have to, at the very end, you have to salvage them because it’s easy to make fun of a character. You have to also give them back their dignity after you’ve demolished and made fun of them. And I think the movie was precisely that, to always rehabilitate what you just made fun of. And this you learn from Proust, is that whatever it is that you’re doing to make fun of someone, because you desire them, then you realize they’re stupid and arrogant and flatfooted and at the same time you really have to admit to yourself that you may not like them but that they have a dignity and a life of their own and you have to give them that back and that whole sort of circuit is important.
LS: I consider the incipit of Call Me by Your Name perfect. A lesson on how to write an incipit. In terms of style, rhythm, sound.
AA: I think it came to me later.
LS: [Laughs.] “Later.” I love your incipit. I love the sound. Maybe it’s because I’m Italian. For example, when I read Cesare Pavese—
AA: Oh, Cesare Pavese, great writer!
LS: La Bella Estate.
AA: I love that book! That is a wonderful book! It was given to me by my ex roommate.
LS: “A quei tempi era sempre festa,” a perfect incipit. Pavese is a poet, so he’s interested in sound. And when he writes novels, he pays a lot of attention to it.
AA: He does, and that’s why he’s also a good stylist. My theory has always been that a very good prose writer is always the product of having been a failed poet. Now I think James Joyce was a case and so was Proust. Proust and Joyce started their lives as poets. They were mediocre poets, totally. But of course they realized that they imported the gift for poetry, the love of poetry, into prose whereas I think a lot of writers who come to prose, particularly in this country, come to it from journalism. And so the ear is attuned to the necessities of journalism. And what I call information, as opposed to what poetry does.
Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading.
Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art.
Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake
As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!”
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea.
The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth.
Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it.
Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it.
Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, “Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? … Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton’s daughters did to their father?” In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties.
Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis
Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be.
Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons.
Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice.
The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster
Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things.
Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd
Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer.
The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie
Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold.
Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble,” a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.”
But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
First, a parable for manliness in the 21st century:
Throughout graduate school, I’ve made ends meet by clearing land on a ranch owned by an acquaintance. Not long ago, my daughter, who is four, came to work with me. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off in boots and a cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids.
While I worked, my daughter followed behind me with a miniature set of clippers, chopping the ends off of cedar branches and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.
The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because at home her mother does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it. I braided her hair.
I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”
The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.
In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, it doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness — like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead, it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.
Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions, we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now — and always have been — as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.
This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at a number of controversies related to religion and the contemporary world. You might remember, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the Catholic Church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers or women readers or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then — as Michael Boyle points out — those men need to grow up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up.
Speaking of learning from women, a few months ago, a “manliness” website called the Art of Manliness posted the commencement address Adm. William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes 10 things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven said:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech — and I really, really liked it — these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.
“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes:
The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards — the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.
A high point of the essay comes in this passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect:
In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days, I need Didion the drill sergeant.
The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer, maybe the girliest. Caitlin Flanagan writes that “to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”
Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. When I read Flanagan’s article, I rolled my eyes, and went to the library right away to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem, just to prove her wrong.
But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in The White Album:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in HaightAshbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. ‘I’m not good with clothes,’ he admitted, ‘so I don’t remember what it was.’
Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, she said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized, when my wife said that, that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?
Of course it’s not — as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not?”
I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in a 2007 post from author “Jessica” at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.
Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. She puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s: Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.
(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)
Besides Didion’s subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings — they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”
The point is, Didion herself is — or acts like — one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece — except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters — two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who ‘saw death’ in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty — and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was ‘precisely what I want to be doing,’ Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised ‘Serfdom’ essay: ‘When a mother works, something is lost.’ So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? ‘Yeah,’ Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. ‘The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.’
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person — she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother.
But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of British writer VJW Smith’s observation that “the experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity — the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met my wife, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)
In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly;” when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”
Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
‘The men’ believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. ‘The men’ didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.
I want to make clear, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I also think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping a Notebook,” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.
And I can’t know that for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her, I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings — and we all have them — that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr