Kelly Link and I go back a long way. We met in the MFA program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro when I arrived there in 1994, and soon found out that we were kindred spirits in terms of fiction — we were both working somewhat outside the bounds of realism at a time when realism held sway, and we sometimes shared material outside of workshop to get one another’s opinion. We continued our friendship after leaving the program. Kelly has twice been a visiting writer at Clemson University, where I now teach, and we’ve done readings together and a panel at last year’s AWP conference (along with the fabulous Danielle Evans). With my novel Travelers Rest just out from Little, Brown, and Kelly working on her first novel and looking forward to the paperback publication of her latest story collection, Get In Trouble, we thought it might be a fun time to sit down and chat (via e-mail) about the writing process, the novel vs. short story dilemma, dreams, haunted houses, and whether it’s a good idea to have a beer while working.
Kelly Link: I guess first I’ll start off by saying how much I love Travelers Rest. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by you, let’s be clear, but the ending of Travelers Rest just about killed me. Did you know the end when you sat down and wrote the first page? I ask because I almost always know the ending of a short story when I start it.
Keith Lee Morris: First, thank you. I’m happy especially that you liked the ending. And I’m surprised to hear you say that you almost always know the ending to your stories, which I’ll get back to in a minute. I usually know the endings, too — in fact I’ve blamed myself in the past for being too rigid about maintaining my initial story structures. I started writing stories based on dreams as a result — I would take a piece of an actual dream and then start weaving a story around it without thinking about where it might be going — and that’s the method I used when I started writing Travelers Rest. So, no, I didn’t know the ending until more than halfway through. What’s funny, though, is that once I knew the ending, I was right. With my previous two novels, I thought I knew the ending the whole time and then I turned out to be wrong. Characters sometimes do things and say things that you don’t expect and then the story can’t go back to being what it was before, the way you’d conceived it. But I would never have suspected that you’re the type of writer who plans out stories ahead of time. Or maybe that’s not true — in some of your stories, like “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” or “Vanishing Act” (which you know I’ve always loved), there’s a kind of architecture in place that, if you took it apart carefully, you could probably see as something that was intricately planned. But other stories — “The Summer People” and “Stone Animals” and “Travels With the Snow Queen,” for instance — seem kind of enviably “free” to me, loose and comfortable in a way that shows the author is confident enough not to have to know where she’s headed. Or I guess maybe they just give that impression.
KL: Well, if I know what the ending of a story should be, then the beginning is often the most difficult piece to write — and I’d describe writing the middle, actually, as pretty loose and comfortable. Or at least flexible in terms of play. There’s a lot of play in the middle and I mean that in both senses of the word play. Because I often know what the ending is going to be, I spend a great deal of time trying to lay false trails that feel plausible and engrossing to the reader so that they won’t see where we’re headed. It’s funny: I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a novel — a series of novels, maybe, and within a couple of days of thinking about the premise, I knew how I would want to end one book, and then a second book, and then the ending of the last book. It seems like a big project, but I’d really like to get to all of those endings.
Oh, and I remember your dream stories! I didn’t know that’s how you started Travelers Rest. What was the dream? And which character was the biggest surprise to you?
KLM: The dream that it started from was completely different from the novel it turned out to be. The dream was actually about a beach house we go to each summer in St. Simons Island, Ga., and all it involved was a window seen from outside the house that I knew wasn’t anywhere inside the house, and two people, a man and a woman, talking in this nonexistent window. The whole thing morphed weirdly from there. I don’t know which character in the novel was the biggest surprise, but I know what moment regarding the characters was the most surprising. It was [spoiler alert] when I found out that Stephanie was Hugh’s sister. I didn’t know until Hugh literally opened his mouth and said it. That’s the second time I’ve mentioned that — characters doing things I didn’t expect them to or want them to, completely without warning, and ruining all my plans. Sometimes writing is almost like raising teenagers. What about you? Does that ever happen to you? Can you remember a character who suddenly got unruly and started acting out without your permission?
KL: I love Stephanie so much! Let’s see. Unruly characters. I think the most surprising thing a character ever did was in a story called “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” The central character, called Soap most of the time, ends up in a bed with a girl at a party. She falls asleep and it turns out that her little brother is hiding under the bed — I didn’t know until I got to that point that there was a little brother and that he’d be under the bed. Soap leaves the house and the party and he takes the little brother with him. As soon as I thought of it, I knew that was how the story ended. I was on a plane on the way to a workshop when I finished that story — a friend of mine was heading out to the same workshop and he was also finishing up his story. We’d walk by each other in the aisle of the plane and say: Have you finished your story yet? No. You?
KLM: I’ve gotta throw in here that my favorite all-time character(s) of yours are the Loolies in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”–lumpy, soft, hairless, babyish undead creatures who subsist entirely on a diet of marshmallows, if I’m remembering correctly. Love those Loolies.
KL: Thank you! I still remember meeting you in the MFA program at UNC-G — specifically a conversation we had with our friend Margaret Muirhead. We were talking about writing and you mentioned that you did a lot of writing in bars. I was really thrown by that — I couldn’t imagine working in a room with other people. And now, of course, I work in cafes and restaurants and in other people’s houses, preferably with as many other writers as possible. It turns out I get more done when there’s a lot of stuff going on around me. Anyway: do you still work that way now?
KLM: Apparently we switched places in that regard — I now write almost exclusively at home in my little windowless office, although I will occasionally still have a beer while I’m in the process. But I’ve always loved writing in bars — all the noises just drown one another out and I don’t hear a thing after a while. Of course that could also be the beer.
In the interest of informing our readers, we should probably say that we both attended the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro, Kelly one year ahead of me (although I’m infinitely older, let me make it clear). Looking back on that time now, what are your favorite memories of being an MFA student? And what do you regret, if anything?
KL: I don’t do it often, but I love to have one or two beers while I’m writing. I don’t even have an office at home. I work on the dining room table, which we only use for eating on a couple times a year. Mostly it’s just a stack of books and manuscripts. As for UNC-G, my favorite thing was working on The Greensboro Review. Margaret Muirhead was the fiction editor and I was the assistant fiction editor. I loved reading the slush, and I loved proofing the stories that we published. One person would read the story out loud, including the punctuation marks, and the other would sight read the proofs to make sure everything was clean. Oh, and reading Tristram Shandy. I guess my biggest regret was that I lived about a mile off campus — everyone else seemed to live all on one street near campus. I missed a lot of spontaneous parties and a lot of conversations. You?
KLM: Bartlebying! That’s what Jim Clark [Greensboro Review editor] called the kind of proofreading you’re talking about. I wonder if that’s an actual term or if Jim just made it up: it makes sense — that’s what Bartleby did (or was supposed to do), after all, make exact copies of things, and the goal was to make sure that the manuscript and the page proof were exactly the same — but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term used after that. Speaking of Jim Clark, he was one of my favorite things about the program — he made it fun to come in to work every day. I loved the people in the program — we were a really tight-knit group. Like you, I lived kind of away from the action (close to you, actually), but I had a wife and a two-year-old. I think being in an MFA program was absolutely crucial for my development at the time — I needed both that kind of structure and the opportunity it afforded. Do you think you would be the same writer you are now if you hadn’t attended an MFA program? And I’m interested in hearing whether your recollection is the same as mine — to me, at the time, you and I were both writing weird, absurd stuff that left everyone else kind of scratching their heads. Almost everyone was writing more or less straight realism at the time. I sometimes went that route, but I was playing around with a lot of different modes of storytelling. You seemed to have already had your mind pretty firmly made up in terms of the direction you were headed.
KL: Jim Clark is a marvel; UNC-G always felt like a family because of him. I was waitlisted when I applied. He called and said that he liked my stories, but that I was young and unformed and ought to get married and divorced a couple of times and maybe do a stint in jail before I went to an MFA program. So I sent him a picture of me dangling from a rope over a bridge — bungee jumping — like a literal depiction, I guess, of The Fool on the Tarot card — and Jim was so tickled by this that he let me into the program.
I hadn’t written a lot before UNC-G. Maybe four stories in all. Every story that I wrote for workshop at UNC-G, I would think: Am I allowed to do this? Will this work? I think the first of those stories was “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back.” I’d applied to UNC-G because I hoped it would be okay to write weird stuff there (Fred Chappell taught there and I knew his fantastic Lovecraftian story “The Adder” and Orson Scott Card had gone for a little while, so there was at least a tinge of genre.) But yes, everyone else wrote realism and then you would turn in these weird gem-like pieces and stories, and I did whatever I was doing. I only wanted to write stories that were, more or less fantasy, science fiction, ghost stories. I couldn’t think of a story that I wanted to tell that didn’t tend in that direction. What UNC-G taught me as a writer was that I loved workshop. I loved hearing people argue about, and take apart, and defend stories — hearing writers talk about language and the architecture of narrative, and what they anticipated in stories, and what surprised them.
When I teach, I always ask my students: What do you read that you love and admire? And what do you read that you love but you don’t know why? What do you read that you love that embarrasses you, just a little? Because all of that is useful to you, especially the things that you love where maybe you don’t understand why you love it — that you love in spite of feeling that other people might not understand or approve.
You’ve been at Clemson for a long time now. I have a couple of questions about that — what do you read and love that is farthest from the kind of fiction that you write? What kind of stories or narratives? (For example: one of my students a while back ago, when I asked, said he read D&D manuals. He’s a poet. Greg Purcell.) And what do you like about teaching? What don’t you like? And do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
KLM: Hmm…what do I love to read that’s furthest from what I write? I guess the easy answer to that would be the sports page. I spend a lot of time every day perusing basketball statistics and the outcome of tennis matches on ESPN.com. My father was a football and baseball coach and sports are pretty deeply ingrained in my system, even though I was never that great an athlete. That probably explains in part why I gave 10-year-old Dewey in Travelers Rest outstanding athletic ability along with his curious existential angst — it was something I always wished I had. You know how people always ask what superpower you would choose if you could? I would choose to be able to drain 30-foot three-pointers at will. Another answer would be that I love big, sprawling, ambitious 19th-century novels — I wish there were a way to write Middlemarch or War and Peace or Germinal today. Some writers try to match the scope, the structure, even the laconic pacing — Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt come to mind as authors who’ve done so successfully — but even The Goldfinch is still a very different novel from Great Expectations or Sentimental Education. I’m reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country right now. It’s probably not one of her better books, but the feeling I get when I start reading is something that I really miss in most contemporary literature — the feeling that neither of us, the author or myself, is in any kind of hurry. There’s so much emphasis on getting in an early “hook” now, something dramatic and captivating at the beginning of the story. That’s nice, of course, to be able to draw the reader in from the outset, but it also gives you less room to expand, less opportunity to create something that keeps building and building momentum until the tension becomes almost unbearable — the adrenaline rush is already there from the start a lot of times now. With Travelers Rest, I probably pushed my affinity for the slow burn about as far as I felt I was able to. And yes, I love teaching but I don’t like grading. And despite all the years I’ve spent in the South (including being born in Mississippi), I still don’t feel I know the South well enough to call myself a Southern writer. I mostly stick with the Pacific Northwest.
KL: What a useful conversation this is for me, here in the early throes of novel-writing. I take your point about pacing and scope. One of my favorite novels is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which signals right from the first sentence — “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — that it’s going to be about domestic concerns, but also about the strange accommodations and bargains that everyday life and relationships require. I Capture the Castle isn’t necessarily long, but it feels expansive. In the same way that you feel big, ambitious, contemporary novels don’t quite have the same enveloping appeal as Middlemarch, I will always feel a vague sense of disappointment in how much of contemporary realistic fiction works and instead yearn for strangeness, whether it’s the lurid flourishes of Gothic novels, the worldbuilding of science fiction or fantasy, the irresolution of ghost stories, or the peculiar and elliptical language and structure that you get in Kathryn Davis’s novels.
In other words, there are so many novelistic modes that I do like that I’m finding it very hard to make the most basic decisions about the way to tackle a novel. There are so many appealing options! I’m drawn to all of them! I’ve spent over 10 years now working with novelists as an editor and it’s become increasingly easier for me to see the questions that I can usefully ask a novelist during the revision process. But I can’t do that for myself. What’s revision like for you? Did Travelers Rest go through multiple drafts? Are there alternate ghostly versions (which seems appropriate for this particular book — the writer Howard Waldrop says that every book or story works as a metaphor for the way in which that writer wrote their book, by the way)? Do you save the versions as you go? And finally, I’ve heard any number of novelists say that figuring out how to write one novel doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to write the next one. That each book is its own set of problems. Has this been true for you?
KLM: I agree that the sense of freedom you experience when starting out on a novel can be daunting. The field seems so wide open, and yet you realize that if you make poor decisions you could be wasting months, even years of your time (and I’ve got a “drawer novel” to prove it). At the same time, the process can feel more restrictive. I found that I had to do some things I normally wouldn’t do in writing short stories — make an outline, for instance, write character sketches in order to try to maintain consistency, especially with characters’ backstories. And yes, each novel feels like a completely different excursion, so that the lessons you learn one time don’t necessarily offer you any assistance the next. But even though Travelers Rest was a much different kind of novel in some ways than the ones I’d written before, I did find that there was a substantial amount of carryover. My previous novel, The Dart League King, employed a rotating third-person POV, and I used the same technique in Travelers, which made things seem more familiar even though the story itself was very strange and difficult to navigate. And regarding your question about multiple drafts, I wouldn’t say that there were a whole lot of drafts but a single draft that kept constantly shifting and flowing and resettling itself into new shapes and formations. Chapters moved around, scenes expanded and contracted, narrative sequences popped up out of nowhere while others disappeared. It was kind of like a pot set at a rolling boil. My editor, Ben George, really put me through my paces on every level, and the novel is much better because of his efforts. Here’s something I’m interested in asking you. First, Get in Trouble is your fourth short story collection — do you see any clear differences between your early stories and the stories in this book? And, now that you’re working on a novel, do you see it as an entirely new endeavor or a simple extension of the ideas you’ve already been working with in your short fiction?
KL: I’m not the best judge of my own stories. There are a couple in Get in Trouble that I like as much as anything that I’ve ever written, and I truly hope that they don’t feel like I’ve been treading water. My Israeli translator, Debbie Eylon, who is much smarter than I am, said that these were harder stories to translate because in the earlier collections, the metaphorical language was more loosely attached to the characters and ideas and descriptions. This time around, she said that it was more of a pain to figure out replacements when there was no exact match in Hebrew for a particular word or phrase, because the relationship of the metaphorical language to the matter of the story was more enchained. She seemed pleased by this, although it meant a lot more work for her. As for the novel, I’m of two minds. With a story, I usually come up with a piece of structure or misdirection that seems difficult to pull off successfully, and most of the fun in writing comes from achieving something that I wasn’t sure how to do before I sat down to do it. For example, I wrote “The Lesson” from the ending backwards for about three or four pages because I was curious about whether or not I did know the ends of my stories before I began — and because it seemed to me that it would change the way I wrote the beginning. With a novel, though, the thing that I would most like to achieve is a long-form narrative that has a conventional and pleasurable shape in which the reader gets to spend a couple of days with interesting people. I have no idea whether or not I can pull that off.
KLM: What do you mean by “writing from the ending backwards for about three or four pages”? I’m fascinated. Please explain.
KL: I wrote the last sentence of the story first, and then the next to last sentence, and so on for as long as I could — maybe I could have done it all the way back, but at a certain point I got really interested in figuring out how it started.
KLM: [Deep, deep sigh.] I can’t even bend my mind around that. I’m not even going to try. It sounds like an impressive thing to be able to do on a level at which I would be completely incapacitated.
KL: Let me ask you a couple more related questions before we wrap this up — you can do both things. Short stories and novels. Are you more drawn to one than the other? When you get an idea, do you know if it’s a short story or a novel idea? And what are you working on at the moment?
KLM: As I get older, I’m increasingly drawn to novels. I like waking up every day and knowing that I’m working on the same thing I was the day before, and it almost makes me sad when I get to the end of a draft. For that reason, I think, my ideas these days tend to take the shape of novels. I almost have to force myself to think in terms of short stories, and I write short stories now, mostly, as a way to fill up the time in between book projects. That said, I still find short stories really satisfying — I just finished one called “Sleigh Bells for the Hayride” that I feel very good about. And I’m not working on anything new as far as novels go — I like to let one thing completely play out before I start on another. One last question for you — do you want to tell us anything about the novel you’re working on, give us readers a sneak peek?
KL: Well, I had been thinking about that particular story for a couple of years and hadn’t figured out any other way to write it. Furthermore, this ending wasn’t a plot driven ending, more of an emotional capstone. And what a persuasive argument to make for the novel. I’ve been married for 15 years now. I’ve lived in the same house for almost a decade. I like the same thing for breakfast every morning, so maybe it will be comfortable to settle into a novel and stay for a while. I’d been wistfully thinking about how science fiction writers in the pulp era used to knock out a novel in a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t that be fun to try? But already I think I’ve spent too much time wrestling with this book. So far it has a bunch of ghosts in it and a high school music room. I badly want to put some haunted houses in it too — not the real kind, but the fake kind that you pay a lot of money to be chased through.
KLM: Haunted houses are fun, real or fake. I guess part of the fascination is with that time in our lives when we can’t tell the difference. I remember going into the haunted house at Disneyland with my sister when we were kids. I saw my dad buy the tickets, but that didn’t convince me I wasn’t about to die. I suppose that was the impulse behind Travelers Rest, too — I wanted to put an average, everyday family in an old, abandoned hotel and see what happened to them. So I hope you find a place to include the haunted houses, and I’ll look forward to reading the book.
During summer break, sophomore year, my father and I took a short trip from our house on Sugarbush Drive (memorable streetname, unmemorable neighborhood) to visit the Jack Kerouac House. It was a 20 minute drive down I-4 to the small quaint house that is now situated a few blocks from a sprawling commercial development. Orlando was an agreeable town when Kerouac’s mother moved there, and while Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums there. A few years later, the arrival of the Walt Disney Corporation would radically alter the landscape, physically and culturally.
We walked around the House and knocked on the door. Answering the door was an early-career MFA graduate, the House’s resident writing fellow. The three-month fellowship ostensibly afforded him the time to work on a play about a New Orleans jazz musician. A pair of sunglasses slid down his nose, exposing his puffy eyes: he was just then emerging from a hangover. Work, he explained, was going slowly.
When we asked for details about the House and Kerouac, the playwright politely pointed us to a neighbor, a retiree who was walking across the street. The pensioner claimed to have known Kerouac’s mother, who had actually owned the house, as well as Kerouac. She kept “a nice lawn” and “was a sweet woman,” but he was “a drunk” and a “druggy.” Whether or not it was true was beside the point. My father and I agreed the Orlando Tourism Board couldn’t have dreamed up a better touch of embellished authenticity than a curmudgeonly, fist-waving, stay-off-my-lawn Floridian to America’s Own Free-Love Dionysus. Granted, a residence of a 20th-century American novelist probably never earned much notice in the Tragic Kingdom.
Years after visiting the Kerouac House, during a vacation in Prague, I visited Bohumil Hrabal’s cherished pub, U zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger). He once shared a drink with Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel in the same boisterous, salty, regulars’ bar. At one of the shared tables in the backroom, I met a half-British, half-Czech jazz singer who boasted that he played cards with Hrabal’s frequent collaborator, the film director Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, Larks on a String). According to the singer, who can be found performing a fine version of “Strange Fruit” on the west bank of the Charles River most nights, Menzel was the worst director of live opera in history and, at 75, an incorrigible womanizer. The latter, at least, was meant as high praise.
These are examples in my long-held fascination with writer lore and the places they immortalized. It probably began, at eight, when I first checked out the collected short stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the Poplarville Public Library, and read the short, breathless biography in the introduction (Virginia Clemm, alcoholism, his vexed relationship with a father figure). Since, I have sabotaged dates, relationships, other people’s vacation plans, among other things, for a few extra hours in the Eudora Welty House, Rowan Oak, the Lake Isle of Innisfree, Berggasse 19, Richard Wright’s elementary school (or perhaps it was just his schoolchair and the school had been torn down — I can’t remember). How could anyone not be shaken up by reading Franz Kafka’s famous (and famously unsent) 1918 letter to his father now on display at the Kafka Museum? Imbued with the authenticity of Franz’s own cramped, unerringly legible handwriting? Partly, in all these journeys, I was looking for that very same authenticity, the dirt and the air Hrabal or William Faulkner had actually breathed, the unmediated sources of their perfect art. But I was also looking for, and more often finding, myth. Sometimes there were anecdotes embellished by the author, for instance, the public images enthusiastically promoted by Sigmund Freud and Nathaniel Hawthorne; other times, the rumors had been mooted by rivals, promoters, surviving family, and friends.
Over a recent weekend, I consumed Sarah Stodola’s Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. Stodola reconstructs the careers, habits, and influences of major writers in English of the last century, from Edith Wharton to David Foster Wallace; each section ends by summarizing the author’s daily writing routine, and anything that might have disrupted it (Wharton’s frustration over an unsatisfactorily arranged hotel room, Wallace’s lack of discipline). It’s a well-researched book that is affably written and organized, though the choice to avoid quoting or expanding on each writer’s career development seems like a missed opportunity.
Though each chapter takes a writer in detail, Stodola has focused on the “horizontal and vertical,” things that avid readers might find interesting, such as the controlling “image” that guides Toni Morrison’s work or how much time Ernest Hemingway really gave over to socializing. I was reminded of peculiar trivia I had read years ago, but hadn’t fully appreciated at the time: James Joyce’s early infatuation with Henrik Ibsen, Philip Roth’s habit of writing hundreds of pages before finding the first useable syllable.
I’ll almost certainly return to Process when my own enthusiasm for revising wanes, or when I finally start The Custom of the Country, and would like to pluck some well-curated details about its author. Though I also know my interest is slight compared with the insatiable, obsessive appetite of some writers, my fascination is not just a type of highbrow celebrity cult, which tends to be less about the person’s work and more about Puritan pillorying. There is no prying into their intimate lives, either, since I’m mostly interested in things that the authors considered “fair play” — documents sold to libraries, autobiographical writing published with their permission, property that their families curate on their behalves — rather than, say, Henry James’s sexuality.
Instead, I, and thousands of others, are interested in how they chose to live with their work. I too live with their work, sometimes comfortably, sometimes miserably, the terrible beauty that their novels and poems are. Stodola offers some research, but I still wonder: How did Faulkner gain perspective on a place and people that were in such uncomfortable proximity to his Oxford house, while Joyce was able to sustain an intimacy with his city, his country, and its politics from more than 1,600- kilometers away?
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women explores this theme with deft control and cool poise: how we mortals interact with genius. In these 13 stories, Bergman observes a range of influential, often-mythic, often-thwarted women: a jazz singer, bit actresses, artists. The collection’s stories examine how both their fame and femininity exerts a powerful attraction on the hangers-on, attendants, and survivors that orbit them. The “almost famous” are alternately callous, benevolent, brilliant, self-effacing, self-serving, merciless, and wounded. That word, “almost,” is singly devastating, salvific, and penetrating: their failures haunt them but haven’t doomed them.
“The Autobiography of Allegra Byron” envisions the too-short life of Lord Byron’s tragically neglected daughter by Claire Clairmont. Sent to the Convento di San Giovanni before she had turned four, Allegra is a confused, frustrated child patiently nurtured by one novice nun. In one indelible scene, the abbess begins to praise the theological education of her wards to Percy Bysshe Shelley, a surprise visitor. Shelley, the formidable Romantic poet and polemicist who was expelled from Oxford in 1811 after he published The Necessity of Atheism, has turned up at the Convento to visit his niece, but is appalled to discover that the child of a Romantic arch-firebrand has to recite church creed.
Can you recite the Apostles’ Creed for your friend? the abbess said, a note of pride in her voice, as if she was eager for Shelley to report Allegra’s progress to her father.
I believe in God, the Father almighty. Allegra looked up at Shelley’s eyes, perhaps sensing his horror. Her voice fell flat.
That won’t be necessary, Shelley said, holding up one hand in protest. I’m quite confident in Allegra’s recitation.
After the girl is taken away for her evening prayers, he says to the narrator, the younger nun,
She appears greatly tamed, Shelley said to me as the abbess and Allegra disappeared down the hall, though not for the better.
A story that balances mischief and bleakness, “Romaine Returns” is about a servant named Mario, who manipulates the household of the early-20th-century artist Romaine Brooks. Brooks’s decadent youth has been ravaged by post-traumatic stress disorder, and she has become a reclusive shut-in and virtually given up art. When her friend-dealer contacts her, Mario is surprised that she had ever had friends. He wonders, “It’s hard for Mario to imagine Romaine deep in anyone’s heart. He stares at the lavender card stock with disbelief and jealousy. He wants words this intense, this loving, coming in a letter with his name on it. But he’s never been in love.”
In “Saving Butterfly McQueen,” a medical student remembers a semester she spent as a confused young religious proselytizer. In Augusta, Ga., her vanity and ambition leads her to the doorstep of McQueen. The well-known African-American actress has publicly disowned her celebrated career as a racially stereotyped movie actress and any belief in God. In Bergman’s imagined Augusta neighborhood in 1994, McQueen is glimpsed in a pitch-perfect scene: her most famous role, as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, is profoundly embarrassing in post-Civil-Rights America — the cringe-worthy “I don’t know nothing bout birthing no babies,” the staircase scene in which Scarlett O’Hara shoves her down. McQueen attempts to reclaim part of that dignity. She renounces her faith. She donates her body to science. She proudly reminds a reporter that she wouldn’t allow Vivien Leigh to slap her.
The narrator, the proselytizer, has the grace and wisdom not to explicitly point out her hypocrisy or other failings. Marco’s soul-destroying jealousy is also tautly drawn. As in many of Bergman’s stories, the writing shines through understatement, the well-placed detail, the disciplined accumulation of theme and style. That few of the sentences or passages pull at your cuff to highlight them and paste them on a Goodreads page is a testament to Bergman’s craft. Each sentence is deeply rooted in story and voice and is more effective for not having too-precious prose.
Another strength is the way that she manages to balance romanticizing her subjects with providing characters with depth and mystery. I think about my trips to see subjects when I read Bergman, because she has accomplished the hope of every literary pilgrim: reaching for a greater depth of understanding without grasping, seeing without gazing.
None of this cult-worship started with my generation. Remember that Aristotle tells a fanboy story about Heraclitus: a group of foreigners decide to go out of their way on a journey to visit the famous Greek philosopher. When they arrive at his house, “they saw him warming himself at his stove.”
Surprised, they stood there in consternation — above all because he encouraged them, the astounded ones, and called for them to come in, with the words, “For here too the gods are present.”
Martin Heidegger, in his “Letter on Humanism,” claimed that the anecdote illustrates the banal, everyday dwelling of genius, or godliness. He suggests that the unfamiliar thing (god or genius) happens here among all these familiar things. They expect intellectual charisma — incendiary, paradigm-shattering, irascible — or at least a man baking bread, but find an old man in a quaint house, the most ordinary of places, where the great Heraclitus is heating his bare feet.
Another recent novel has also shone some insight on impressionable youth, the cult of genius, and the problem of familiarity and estrangement. Lars Iyer’s novel Wittgenstein Jr is set at a British university, among a group of graduate students enrolled in a seminar by a man who might either commit suicide or write a great philosophical work in the style of Being and Time or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The students half-mockingly name him after the great German philosopher. Iyer mirrors some of Jr’s behavior on the actual Wittgenstein’s own insane antics, including beating a sick child unconscious in the 1930s Austria, as catalogued in Wittgenstein’s Poker.
Aside from picking off biographical details, the novel itself seems to draw inspiration from the arc of Wittgenstein’s career. The first half is dense with the study of logic and propositions, before the second half gives way to a looser, direct, yet more conventional and approachable style. In the second half, Iyer almost completely discards the preoccupation with philosophical puzzle-solving altogether. The last hundred pages could be described as a kind of campus love story.
The flinty personalities. The abrupt changes in style and approach. The disembodied philosophical chatter. It’s a triumph that Iyer pulls off this high-wire act so brilliantly. It’s irreverent, smart, and off-kilter. One of my favorite passages describes the professor’s arrival at the university:
He’s trying to see Cambridge, Wittgenstein says. He’s done nothing else since he arrived. But all he sees is rubble.
The famous Wren Library!, he says, and laughs. The famous Magdalene Bridge! Rubble, he says, all rubble!
We look around us—immense courts, magnificent lawns, immemorial trees, towers, buttresses and castellated walls, heavy wooden gates barred with iron, tradition incarnate, continuity in stone, the greatest university in the world: all rubble? What does Wittgenstein see that we do not?
The bitterly wry tone comes to inform how his students respond to Wittgenstein’s baffling lectures. Wittgenstein’s classes dwindle in size, and his remaining students are mostly half-hearted in their attempts to emulate his philosophical dedication. Instead they’re preoccupied by his general oddness, his sexuality, his comments that seem to indicate that he plans to kill himself, and his tendency to use intellectual palaver to disrupt Cambridge’s bourgeois conventionality:
A don, walking his dog, greets Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein nods back.
The dog is a disgusting creature, Wittgenstein says when the don is out of earshot. Bred for dependency. Bred for slobbering. We think our dogs love us because we have a debased idea of love, he says. We think our dogs are loyal to us because we have a corrupted sense of loyalty.
People object to pit bulls and Rottweilers, but pit bulls and Rottweilers are his favourite dogs, Wittgenstein says. They don’t hide what they are.
People love Labradors, of course. But the Labrador is the most disgusting of dogs, he says, because of its apparent gentleness.
Some undergraduates might be able to resist such deliberately provocative cant. But a handful of students can’t resist those kinds of observations, the type that seem to reanimate the banal surface of things, spoken by a deeply knowledgeable university professor. They form a quasi-cult around him and can’t resist his unusual charisma. To this day, I can’t resist charismatic thought, however flawed or incomplete the idea might be, and I’m not likely to learn how to anytime soon.
For that matter, I can’t resist putting together a “lit-itinerary” for a trip I plan to take to East Asia later this year. Did you know there is a recreated statue of Apollo on display at the Yukio Mishima Museum? How well did Kenzaburō Ōe’s mother keep her lawn? Perhaps, the Museum has a recorded testimonial from one of his neighbors, complaining how he was really just a lazy, drunk slob — I can hope. And I ask myself, in what Kyoto bar might a fellow literary pilgrim relate to me the praiseworthy sexual longevity of one of Japan’s great dilettante artists?