Scott Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles on December 21, 1940, age 44, after spending his last 36 months working as a Hollywood screenwriter. He’d stopped drinking by then, but the well-paying screenplay re-write work that brought him to Hollywood had dried up too. With a weak heart, and a chronic lung condition aggravated by heavy smoking, he was increasingly bedridden, laboring away on a long-planned Hollywood novel.
Benzedrine got him up in the morning; Nembutal tucked him in. A steady intake of cork-filtered cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and pans of chocolate fudge, rounded out the medications. They weren’t enough. Two mild heart attacks anticipated a massive third, which quickly ended things. The Tycoon manuscript, approximately 50,000 words in five-and-a-half chapters, was edited promptly by the preeminent critic Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s friend from their days at Princeton, and published by Scribner’s the next year in a combined edition with The Great Gatsby, titled The Last Tycoon (issued in an edited format half a century later as The Love of the Last Tycoon).
Readers will find good accounts of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood sojourn in Matthew Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur and Scott Donaldson’s Fool for Love; while close-up views are rendered in Aaron Latham’s out-of-print Crazy Sundays; F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood and Against the Current, the 1985 memoir of Fitzgerald’s secretary Frances Kroll Ring. But Fitzgerald’s own reports of his struggles helped to cement his legacy. In 1945, The Crack Up, a collection of his magazine articles, notes, and letters, also edited by Wilson, was published by New Directions. Its title was taken from three confessional essays that appeared in Esquire magazine in 1936, shocking then for the abject candor Fitzgerald used to describe a recent nervous breakdown and his wobbly recovery.
Widely admired by young academics like John Berryman — who published a glowing reappraisal of Gatsby in 1945 — The Crack Up launched a movement in confessional literature that’s lasted to this hour. Once The Far Side of Paradise, Andrew Mizener’s 1951 biography, appeared, Fitzgerald’s brief, dramatic life, as reflected in his writings, became perhaps the central literary legend of the American Century. Gatsby, which had nowhere near the sales of his hit first novel, at last found an audience.
Fitzgerald’s L.A. years are typically regarded as a minor coda to a tragic life, and Tycoon as a brilliant fragment of tantalizing promise. However, Tycoon succeeds in expressing a lot: its portrait of L.A., of studio work, of fully seen characters; how Hollywood’s atmosphere of imagination ruins people. Wilson edited Tycoon and The Crack Up to benefit Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and daughter Scottie, who had been left in no small want at his death. By launching the author’s posthumous career, The Last Tycoon finally let Fitzgerald support his family comfortably with income from his writing, which had been the goal all along.
I propose that this revival-after-death was planned by a man aware that time was running out; that at the end, Fitzgerald was working on something that would endure because he wouldn’t finish it; that Fitzgerald had found a way for his death to give Tycoon, a necessarily fragmented tale of loss, a more moving outcome than anything he might dream up. Largely forgotten by 1940, his subsequent literary resurrection was no less important and lasting than that of Franz Kafka, a writer who died in utter obscurity, and whose own unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Trial, Fitzgerald knew very well.
He had hit bottom in the summer of 1936 following the disappointing reception of his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, which he’d struggled for years to finish. At the end of his financial rope because of Zelda’s hospital bills and Scottie’s school tuition, his short story writing, high-paying romantic hackwork for The Saturday Evening Post, was completely blocked. Hiding out at a cheap North Carolina resort hotel near Zelda’s sanitarium, Fitzgerald consoled himself with a steady intake of beer, which, not being gin, somehow didn’t count as alcohol.
Without money or prospects, he wrote the abject Crack Up essays for Esquire, then a girlie magazine with literary pretensions published in Chicago. In their wake, miraculously, a sympathetic MGM executive offered Fitzgerald a writing job: $1,000 a week for six months. Out of options, he moved west, where he started re-write work on high profile projects like A Yank at Oxford, The Women, and Gone with the Wind.
Edmund Wilson gave Fitzgerald a copy of The Trial in early 1939, during a visit east. In May, Fitzgerald wrote thanking him, the first of his Los Angeles letters Wilson uses in The Crack Up: “It seemed to renew old times [with you] learning about Franz Kafka […]” Fitzgerald wrote another Princeton friend around this time recommending, among other books, “The Trial –fantastic novel by the Czech Franz Kafka which you may have to wait for but it is worth it.”
Eighteen months later, the Czech was still on his mind, writing Max Perkins, his Scribner’s editor: “Kafka was an extraordinary Czechoslavakian [sic] Jew who died in ’36 [wrong, but the Crack Up year]. He will never have a wide public but The Trial and America are two books writers will never be able to forget.”
He closes: “This is the first day off I have taken for many months and I just wanted to tell you the book is coming along and that comparatively speaking all is well.”
He was dead a week later.
Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, after instructing his friend and executor, Max Brod, to burn his three unfinished novels. Brod instead had them all published in Germany within two years. The Trial’s first English translation appeared in the U.K. in 1936, in the U.S. the following year.
To this day, editions of The Trial and The Last Tycoon are remarkably similar in form. Both were edited, with notes, by a close friend of the writer, both include unconnected manuscript episodes, notebook entries, and letters. Consequently, their authors play large off-stage roles in the novels’ wider drama. Some readers might also note how ably Kafka’s air of absurd paranoia translates, in Fitzgerald’s arch romantic vision, to cutthroat goings on in Hollywood.
Fitzgerald first went to Los Angeles in the ‘20s, when movie sales of his stories were nearly automatic. He returned needing work few years later, and his drunken, show-off antics at Beverly Hills parties quickly sank his prospects. During both stays he spent time with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s creative chief, who, in the Crack Up year of ‘36 successfully worked himself to death: 37, pneumonia.
Thalberg, of course, fascinated Fitzgerald; they were both young, gifted, successful self-made men with glamorous wives (Thalberg was married to Norma Shearer, then MGM’s biggest female star), both preoccupied with popular storytelling. That Thalberg died of overwork the same time as Fitzgerald’s own breakdown made him an irresistible subject.
The Last Tycoon begins narrated by a studio chief’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, looking back to when she was twenty, five years before. Like Nick Caraway’s remembrance of Gatsby, she is recalling a dead man — Monroe Stahr, her father’s studio partner, and bitter rival.
An elegiac mood sets in early as Cecilia describes her particular view of the movie colony with a world-weariness more appropriate to a man of forty: “I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house.”
Published recollections of Fitzgerald’s appearance are in striking agreement on just how ghostly he appeared in Los Angeles: pale green eyes, light brown hair, pallid skin, old, dark Ivy League suits (he drove a used Ford sedan); and how modestly he behaved in public, fading into backgrounds when once he demanded attention. According to Beloved Infidel, his lover Sheilah Graham’s bestselling 1958 memoir, she first sees him at a party, a handsome, very pale man sitting in an armchair smoking, smiling at her from across the room one minute, and, when she looks again, vanished the next.
Perhaps because Fitzgerald’s writerly dialogue and sense of storytelling was so criticized by movie people, Tycoon is built on talk, and an early scene mercilessly dissects a story conference for a bad romantic B picture. Fitzgerald’s L.A. is as sad as Raymond Chandler’s, cruel as Nathanael West’s, though richer than both. He had, in fact, been relieved earlier that last year to find that his friend “Pep” West’s The Day of the Locust, which he greatly admired, didn’t cover Tycoon’s territory.
Cecilia Brady’s monologue soon shifts to a third person narration, though in much the same voice, to describe events she had no way of witnessing. Either Fitzgerald couldn’t quite decide how the story would be told, or was attempting something closer to film narration. Tycoon is held together with cuts, and mood, of making do with fragments.
A sense of the incomplete pervades the story. Nothing Stahr touches is ever finished: not the endless line of movies needing his constant attention (in Chapter IV he fires a director from a set, before reviewing dailies from several different productions); not his half-built Malibu house, the novel’s central symbol; not his marriage to his dead wife, a great movie star whose image can’t disappear, continued (as Sheilah replaced Zelda) in her apparent double, Kathleen Moore. Early, or untimely, death is never far off. Fitzgerald didn’t need a complete novel to show how short Hollywood lives could be.
Working from a story outline, trying to keep to a production schedule, he took great care with each emerging chapter, polishing them until they were nearly done. The sketched-in ending — a plane crash related somehow to a studio power struggle — had a possible coda: (spoiler) a boy finds Stahr’s briefcase in the wreckage and keeps it. That is: the papers survive the man.
Wilson was given the manuscript by Perkins and lacking any obvious directions consulted both Graham and Kroll Ring to shape the manuscript for publication. One Fitzgerald biographer asserts that he made the work appear more realized than it was.
Whether Fitzgerald was confident his old friend, a la Brod, would fashion something from the manuscript is impossible to say. But given Wilson’s stature then as America’s foremost critic (he had just published the magnificent historical study, To the Finland Station), it almost certainly crossed his mind. Three weeks before he died, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson, the last letter in The Crack Up, saying how pleased he was with the new novel, and that its emotional honesty will probably get him in trouble. “I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” He closes with a p.s. mentioning he was working under “a horrible paucity of time.”
Late in Chapter V, shortly before the manuscript stops, his heart doctor realizes that Stahr “was due to die very soon now. Within six months one could say definitely. What was the use of developing the cardiograms?” Indeed, Fitzgerald was waiting for a visit from his own cardiologist at Sheilah’s apartment near Sunset when the third attack hit.
“He will never have a wide public,” Fitzgerald, writing about Kafka the week before he died, was probably thinking the same of himself. However wrong that turned out to be, he absolutely knew what he had with The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon: “two books writers will never be able to forget.” That same day he also wrote Zelda to say he was getting better; that he needed rest; that it was odd how, alone of all the body’s organs, the heart was able to repair itself.
Laura and I began 2016 with a weekend trip to Los Angeles, and though I can’t think of a better place to initiate a new life to go along with your new year — what other city is as amenable to Americans’ obsessive sense of self-mythology and cyclical renewal? — I always forget how profoundly strange Los Angeles is, particularly in the winter. The very qualities that make it America’s chosen stage on which to mount the drama of self-creation also make it a site of a profound dislocation. Swaddled year-round in warmth and light, you imagine yourself to be moving through a perpetual present; there’s always time to begin again, to wake up and do things better, to manufacture yourself anew. Time is a renewable resource, plentiful as sunshine. The sky looks like someone’s taken the roof off the world and the city itself stretches on ecstatically, looking like someone jammed a bunch of buildings together with great enthusiasm but little forethought.
You can abide all this for a few months until you actually are moving through a perpetual present in which the seasons at best mark infinitesimal variations in light and warmth and the palm trees are always swaying gently, imperceptibly, maddeningly to and fro like faulty metronomes. This isn’t to say that time is static. No, it dilates and contracts according to the whims of traffic; a trip that took you 20 minutes one day takes you an hour the next. You reminisce about an episode in your life as if it took place a year ago, only to find that three years have elapsed. Henry James disparaged certain giant 19th-century novels without a sense of composition as loose, baggy monsters. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way of describing Los Angeles itself; reverence for the accidental and arbitrary is its operating principle.
I like reading books that honor this reverence rather than treat it as a problem to be solved, ones that don’t try to depict the city so much as appropriate its flux. These books tend towards nothing more than a continual confounding, an arabesque that turns the failure to find composition into something interesting.
In January, serendipity brought me one such book. Laura and I ducked into Skylight Books in Los Feliz and loitered in the fiction section until an attractive, slender little gray volume attracted our eyes — Jarett Kobek’s BTW. The novel follows an unnamed, overeducated, literary young man who flees New York in the wake of a failed relationship, chronicling his attempt to — what else? — restart his life in contemporary Los Angeles He consorts with a cast of distinctly Southern Californian weirdoes who seem to be always high, drunk, weeping, or some combination of the three. The narrative is one of those aforementioned arabesques: we accompany Kobek’s characters as they sit in cafes, drink in bars, get sick at parties, read books, make scant progress on artistic projects, and try their hardest to navigate out of romantic cul-de-sacs. Imagine The Day of the Locust updated so that it encompasses the travails of interracial dating, celebrity worship, and college debt, among other topics. It’s a wonderfully observed novel about Los Angeles because one detects the presence of a mind actively wrestling with the city’s strangeness, rather than drawing from cultural stereotypes.
It doesn’t hurt that Kobek’s language is impossibly precise, imbued with a crystalline quality, so that when he describes something like the Grand Central Market you don’t just feel the pang of familiarity that any good novel generates, the sense that the author is in your head; you feel like you’re seeing something clearly for the first time. And while Kobek’s acerbic humor (on even more impressive display in anti-tech polemic I Hate the Internet, another of my year’s highlights) is what initially caught my attention, it’s the depth of Kobek’s feeling that haunted me when I finished the novel. BTW is a stinging social satire, but all that humor supports a sensitive evocation of what it feels like to live your mid- to late-20s in an era of ever-accelerating social fragmentation, in a city that reifies such fragmentation.
In those conditions, it’s no wonder Angelenos have developed any number of idiosyncratic practices to ground themselves. To outsiders these practices might seem exorbitant or silly, but they arise out of the starkest necessity. To prevent putting your head through your car window one day as you lurch through the city, you seize upon something, anything that might give your year a shape. When I read Eve Babitz’s glamorously lethargic nonfiction collection Slow Days, Fast Company, which NYRB Classics reissued this past summer, I felt like she understood this. Babitz chronicles a different time than Kobek’s novel, a decade when gas was relatively cheap and writers mingled with models and actors. She and her friends don’t live off much more than spurts of money from family, lovers, or the occasional gig, but they live well anyway, impulsively snorting cocaine, popping Quaaludes, and driving around Southern California as if everything between Palm Springs and Bakersfield were Los Angeles. Sometimes they work, but mostly they gossip and self-medicate. This book is a perpetual motion machine whose elliptic form elides what a canny chronicler of the human mind Babitz is. Her prose is as psychologically savvy as Joan Didion’s, but considerably more playful. Didion looked on her hometown’s surface frivolity and found an apocalyptic lack of substance and order. Babitz looks on the same and finds an aesthetic opportunity.
Nathaniel Mackey’s multivolume epistolary novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate — currently at four volumes and counting — hooked me for the same reason. The novel takes the form of letters written by a L.A. jazz musician known only as “N.” to a mysterious figure named the Angel of Dust, wherein he holds forth on everything from slavery’s legacy to the etymology of the word “oboe.” There are some loosely constructed narratives floating around these volumes (sometimes ghosts emanate from record players, or speech bubbles expand from saxophones, for example) but mostly Mackey is content to let alliteration, rhyme, and copious punning propel the novel forward. I was particularly in love with the third volume, Atet A.D., which constructs an entire storyline out of the fact that one character plays an oboe, a word derived from the French “hautbois,” or “high wood,” which another character later misrecognizes as “high would.” Highbrow hijinks ensue. In this way, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Mackey emulates both jazz improvisation and L.A.’s love of the accidental. The effect is a text that detaches language from the need to communicate anything at all other than beauty, in the hopes that beauty might teach us how to exist in solidarity with one another. This is the kind of writing that reorganizes thought patterns and social relations.
There was so much else that I read and loved this year. Zero K delighted me despite the fact that at this point Don DeLillo seems set on self-parody. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was addictive, employing a narrative structure that has the same effect as a binge-worthy TV show; it doesn’t hurt that Gyasi has sharp observations on black diaspora and slavery’s echo. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a bizarre delight, heart wrenching without being sentimental or cloying. The Underground Railroad is a neo-slave narrative whose speculative fiction elements force us to confront slavery’s lingering horror. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a sensitive and searching epic that chronicles the social effects of AIDS across several decades. And Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is an inspiring debut that undermines its own title: nothing belongs to us, because we are so thoroughly enmeshed with others.
Looking back on my year in reading from the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency, I feel a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, a friction between the great pleasure that characterized my reading life, and the thickening sense of fear at what awaits us on January 20th. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian impulse that Trump represents, such pleasure feels exorbitant. But I also wonder if such exorbitance can be a form of resistance. It puts us in more attentive relation to the people and environments in which we’re enmeshed.
To close the year out, I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s indispensableThe Origins of Totalitarianism. Early on, she makes a point that clarifies the nature of the threat looming over our nation: “Totalitarian politics — far from being simply anti-Semitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value …have all but disappeared.” Totalitarian politics want to estrange us from lived experience, from the fact that we’re wrapped up in and with others. My year in reading taught me that such immersion is what we must fight hardest for.
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I first encountered Azar Nafisi as I was preparing to move from California to Connecticut. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read just two months before departing, Nafisi describes her own “strange” feelings before she left Tehran for the United States. Although I cannot claim a move that momentous, that difficult, her thoughts resonated deeply with me.
Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, explores the idea that books are important because when we get a glimpse of another person’s life, we can be made to feel connected to their emotions and experiences, and gain a new perspective on our own lives. Her new work emphasizes the importance of fiction in a country where many have begun to deem it a frivolous luxury or useless exercise, through the perspectives of three novels: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
We spoke over the phone, I from my home in rural Connecticut, she at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on her book tour.
The Millions: I wanted to ask you a few questions about what you’ve learned as a writer and a reader, looking at the three different countries you’ve inhabited: Iran and then America and then also the Republic of Imagination as a third country. Of course many things have changed since you first published Reading Lolita in Tehran about 12 years ago. Looking back on that length of time, how have your perceptions of your home country, Iran, changed during that time?
Azar Nafisi: Well, you know, they have not changed substantially in terms of what I thought about Iran’s history and culture and the people, also about the Islamic regime, because the changes that have happened in Iran are rooted in what was happening then. For example, you see Tehran’s streets are much, quote unquote, “nicer” and a lot of restaurants and you see women — of course, the situation of women is like the situation of weather here: you have a little bit of sunshine and then there’s a downpour or a tornado, so you never know. But Iranian women have managed to defy the system at least in terms of appearances. That has changed; if one goes to Tehran today women don’t look the way they did when I left Iran.
But the truth of the matter is that the laws have remained the same, and there is no real security until there is real reform and real change. As you can tell from reading Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Iran — the situation of journalists, writers, political prisoners — that also remains the same.
One of the traits I noticed in Iran was this constant defection from within the system. The former revolutionaries and people who were founders of the republic themselves becoming dissidents has accelerated. So for example, the former prime minister [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, just to give you an example which everyone knows about, and Mehdi Karroubi, our former speaker of the house, are now, they are the ones who are suffering and under house arrest. That tells a lot about this progress towards at least certain segments of civil societies.
TM: In another interview you said the U.S. foreign policy should pursue dialogue not only with the regime in Iran but also with the Iranian people. So how do you think they could do this, especially in light of the recent nuclear agreement?
AN: First of all, the Iranian people — and I am not saying that I’m a spokesperson for them — they don’t really have a spokesperson abroad. That is one problem. So everyone is sort of becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for the people. So I’m not claiming to be that, but the way I see U.S. foreign policy, depending on who is in power, and usually a Democrat or Republican is in power, it sort of vacillates between just sheer belligerence and refusal for any form of dialogue, and then the pendulum goes the other way to sheer compromise with the system. What I really would have loved to see was first of all an understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of that society; and an understanding that in the long run, pragmatically, it is to the American people and American government’s well being to have a more open, flexible, and democratic system in Iran and to really encourage the democratic mind of people in Iran who are now either in jail or their voices are being silenced. You can have a fruitful dialogue with the Islamic regime without forgetting about the rights of the Iranian people.
That is not imposition on another culture. Iran, like other countries that violate human rights like China, like Saudi Arabia, are also benefitting from all the advantages of being members of the United Nations. Under the United Nations, nations swear allegiance to certain universal rights, and these are the rights that Iranian people have been fighting for long before Mr. Khomeini had his revolution; it wasn’t something that the shah granted so that the ayatollah can take away. It was something that people fought for and died for in the Constitutional Revolution at the beginning of the century.
What I’m trying to say is that the negotiations with Iran, which I support — there’s this sort of propaganda all around it, people either being for or against it. I don’t see it like that. I see that there should be negotiations, but the U.S. is negotiating from a position of strength, because Iran never comes to a table unless they feel weak, unless they feel that they are really in a bad position domestically. So while the U.S. is in a position of strength, while they are talking to the Iranian government and obviously compromising on certain issues, they should not compromise on the rights of the Iranian people. And they do. Our administration right now is not even talking about the Iranian Americans who are in jail. That is an insight into the weaknesses of the United States foreign policy, be it Republican or Democrat, and being manipulated. So that is what worries.
As a writer and a woman who believes in rights of women and personal liberty, I don’t take political sides, but I do have a position on the issue of human rights. I have seen that what makes tyrants afraid is not military might. The first people who are sacrificed in these regimes are journalists and writers and poets, and actually those who teach humanities. Those are at the forefront of the struggle and are targets.
TM: I also wanted to ask about how your own experiences under the regime in Iran have then shaped the way you approach American politics and your own level of civic involvement here.
AN: Iran taught me many things. One of the first things I realized was that individual rights and human rights are not God-given gifts to the West. This is an illusion some people in this country and in other democracies have; that they have certain traits that makes them deserve freedom of choice and other freedoms. I think that everyone — and I’ve seen that in Iran in terms of its history and in terms of my own life experiences in that country — that people want a decent life. Nobody hates, no matter what kind of culture you come from, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I talk about Iran, I don’t differentiate between rights in Iran and rights in America.
The second thing that the Islamic Republic taught me was that these countries we call totalitarian or tyrannical are only distorted and extreme cases of what we could become in a democracy. What a democracy can learn from countries that are more repressive is to understand that freedom is an ordeal. Coming to the United States I find myself again talking about the ordeals that we all face and the challenges we face here. And the challenge that I am trying to face in the U.S. right now is this complacency and conformity.
The last thing is that I realize how important it is to pay attention to culture and history, and that, even if you are thinking about the military conquest, the first thing you have to do is to understand, not to judge. That is why for me fiction becomes so crucial because that is what it teaches us, to first understand and then try to judge.
TM: Thinking about America now, you talked a little in your book about how a lot of Americans have become complacent and they’ve given up some of their freedoms, especially since 9/11. Why do you think Americans have become complacent and allowed that to happen? Another phrase you used in your book was that safety is an illusion, and I think in giving up our freedoms we’ve really prioritized this illusion of safety. Why do you think Americans have done that and have let that happen?
AN: I think that when we go through periods of too much prosperity and too little thinking, it can very easily be translated into a form of smartness and conformity. Now I was away from America for 18 years, so I am only speaking about what happened in this country in those 18 years from other people’s experiences or what I have read, but it seems to me that especially in the ’80s and right into the ’90s there was this transformation into the other side of the American Dream, which is a gross materialism. On one hand we have this mindset, on the other hand within the academia actually and among the intellectuals and policy makers we have this ideological mindset, and I think both of these mindsets, although they are very different in terms of positions they take, are very similar. Both of them are lazy. They don’t want to think — I mean intellectually lazy. To think and to imagine and to genuinely follow the truth or try to understand and reveal the truth is dangerous, it has its consequences. Once you know the truth, then you have to take action. You can’t remain silent. So most people would rather not know. Ideologies always do that.
I was so amazed when I returned to the United States and discovered how polarized this society has become, even in terms of the news — that you don’t listen to the news from people you don’t agree with. Fox News, for example, for me was a very new and strange and gradually scary phenomenon where you negate reality. There is no more news in most of our channels, from left to right. It is an imposition of your own desires and illusions and ideologies upon reality, so reality doesn’t matter. And that makes it easier, because when you and I think that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we’re always on the side of the good guys, it is like Miss Watson in Huckleberry Finn, who believes that the world is divided into those who go to hell and those who go to heaven. And she obviously belongs to those who go to heaven, and in order to go to heaven, all you have to do is not to question, not to understand complexities, not to have curiosity, not to take risks; only see if somebody believes in your set of formulas. That is one thing that really worries me about America.
Alongside of that is this utilitarian pleasure-seeking, comfort-seeking mindset. You know, I think it is amazing, elections for us have turned into a sort of entertainment. People were a little happy watching the Democrats’ recent debate because it at least talked about issues. It frightens me when we watch Donald Trump, because we either want to laugh at him or we genuinely believe in him. Americans now, it seems to be a reign of ignorance. How you could think someone could be your president who is so ignorant of your own history and culture, as well as the history and culture of the world? This is no laughing matter at some point. We see that in our universities where our students want trigger warnings; they don’t want to read novels that make them uncomfortable. You keep hearing the word “uncomfortable.” And then the celebrity culture, we talk about Michelle Obama and Jonathan Franzen and Beyoncé and this phenomenon called Kim Kardashian. You are dissolving people’s individualities, what they really do in real life, into this generalized term. Michelle Obama is the First Lady, Franzen is a writer, Beyoncé is a singer, and Kardashian, God knows what she is. It’s this greed for everything that wants to be new.
In my book, the second chapter “Babbitt,” Babbitt like Henry Ford believes that history is bunk. Memory is bunk. And all they crave is new gadgets. We have all become like Babbitt, dying to know the latest Apple iPhone or iPad, staying up and queuing in front of the stores to get the new gadgets. The world is going up in flames, in churches people are killing people, our schools are no more secure and we are yet wanting to feel comfortable. I can go on forever, but that is why I said that we need to be able to reflect, to think, to take risks, and to imagine a world not just as it is, but as it should or could be. Otherwise how could you and I vote if we do not learn in schools our own history and the history of the world, our own culture and the culture of the world? How do we have the ability to think and make choices? These are questions that bother me. They are different from the questions that bothered me in Iran where my life was sometimes in danger, but I still feel that something very precious is in danger in this country.
TM: Building on that a little bit, one thing that I noticed in your book was you talked about political correctness. Some would argue that political correctness was born out of a need to redress grievances and show respect to those that have been marginalized, but in your book you point out that political correctness leads to “comfortable questions and easy, ready-made answers.” What alternative would you present to political correctness? How can we still show that respect without putting everyone’s ways of thought into a box?
AN: All of these matters like political correctness, like multiculturalism, came out of a desire to respect others and be curious about others. But the point is that you cannot create these things into a set of formulas, and you cannot assign people to a situation. I think that is dangerous. That is the difference between what I saw under conditions that were far more difficult; for example when we talk about or see documentaries on civil rights movements, when people were fighting for their rights very seriously, you had a conviction and despite the fact that the others or the society or the law tried to victimize you, you refused that victimized status. Nowadays someone who is wearing that status will condescendingly talk about others: “Don’t hurt their sensitivities.” It is not about hurting sensitivities, it is about changing mindsets. Mindsets are not changed by some thug calling women all sorts of names, or calling minorities all sorts of names, and then tomorrow coming on TV to apologize. Or by forbidding people to talk in a way or punishing them the way we are. All we are doing is not changing people’s mindsets, we are making them just become silent and build resentment and then they’ll come out on the attack when the time comes.
As a woman who comes from a particular place like Iran…let me just give you the examples of women in Iran. What women in Iran realized, in comparison with their own past and in comparison with what they desire, was that they were genuine victims of the regime. When you are forced to marry at the age of nine or stoned to death or are flogged, these things make you real victims; it’s not somebody calling you names. But we could have done two things: either just accept that victim status or to actively resist it by not becoming like our oppressors. I think that is the greatest lesson I have learned from James Baldwin. Baldwin talks about the most dangerous thing was not those white racists but the hatred that they stimulated in him, which made him become them.
So if we are victims of race or class or gender rather than constantly complaining or forbidding people to talk about these things, we should stand up and we should act so that people know we are not victims. We refuse that status. If I refuse that status, then whatever somebody says is not going to hurt me. That is what I mean by everybody wanting to be comfortable and find solutions by forbidding, but this forbidding has no end, because you’ll notice that the right is constantly bothered and sensitized about whether we will have another Christmas celebration or not or wants to ban Harry Potter or evolution from the schools; and the left might call The Great Gatsby misogynist or Huckleberry Finn racist, and want to make our job easy and kick them out. What I want to say to people is that the domain of imagination and thought is the only domain where blasphemy and profanity can exist. That is where we should be free to roam and to question and be questioned.
So my students should not only read those writers who for example were fighting against fascism, but they should also understand what Hitler was all about. That domain is the domain of free thought and freedom of the imagination, and we are limiting it by ideology.
That is what I was trying to practice in my classes. I would never begin with theory, because I didn’t want my students to be intimidated or influenced by somebody who they think knows better. So first of all I would have them read the text and talk about the text and come up with their own ideas about the text. Then I would ask them to read theories that I myself hated, but I would not tell them, I would have them read theories from all sides and come to their own conclusion. I don’t want my students to all take the same political positions that I do, but I want them to think and be able to defend their ideas and be able to have that intellectual courage to stand up for their principles.
TM: So if you could give a reading list of a few more works important to the Republic of Imagination, what would those books be?
AN: There are so many. First of all, I don’t believe I have explained it fully in my book; the point about my book was that I ended at a specific period in time because I felt that the 1960s were a time of transition both in terms of American culture as well as politics and society, and whatever we are dealing with now, both good and bad, is partly because of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s.
The second thing is that I had about 24 people on the list for this book, which I reduced to what you see now. For example, I wanted to talk about Herman Melville’s Bartleby; I love that guy who keeps saying, “I prefer not to.” If we talk about before the ’60’s, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the lesser known, I believe, minor masterpieces, like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonely Hearts and The Day of the Locust; I think he beautifully predicts our society today. Of course I mentioned Stoner in my book, but I also love David Foster Wallace, I love Geraldine Brooks, and some of the works by Nicole Krauss. These are writers who are too close to my time and I need to digest them more in order to be able to write about them more. Of course mystery, I would love to write about Raymond Chandler and science fiction like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick.
TM: Do you think you’d ever publish a list of those 24 people that you wanted to write about? Because I think you should!
AN: I’d love to! You know, one of my problems, and I mentioned it in one of my books, is that in terms of books, I’m very promiscuous. There are so many books that I want to write about. I was in Italy for my book last month and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, I want to write about so many of these books now!” I hope I will at least get a chance to write about some of them. It is so joyous to be able to share the books you love.
TM: How would you say that fiction influences and changes the future, from people’s hearts to the changes we make in our societies to even the inventions we create?
AN: Well you know, I believe that fiction, telling stories, is essential to our nature as human beings. If you go back to the first stories that are Greek and Roman mythology, to the Bible to the Qur’an, until you come to epic fiction and all of that, you notice that fiction comes out of curiosity, and curiosity is the first step towards change. Both science and literature are very much dependent on this curiosity. Because to be curious means to leave yourself behind and search for something that you don’t know, and enter a world like Alice and her Wonderland, enter a world that you have not visited before. And that experience, like traveling to other lands, learning other people’s languages, it changes you.
You might not notice the change in a very concrete way, but it changes your perspective on the world. It expands your perspective; it washes your eyes and you look at yourself through the eyes of other people. So I feel that that is one of the greatest contributions of fiction in terms of preserving our humanity. It also gives us continuity because it is the guardian of memory, and that is why I’m so amazed when I read something that was written some years ago and it seems as if they predicted what we are now.
The last thing of course is that fiction touches the heart. It makes you connect to other people through your heart and that experience of connection through the heart is also life changing — to be able to, for a minute even, become another person and then come back to your own being.
TM: You love fiction so much; would you ever consider writing a novel? Or have you decided nonfiction is more of what you want to write?
AN: Well, you know, maybe this is my weakness or obsession that I think for me fiction is the highest form of writing. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m very scared. I mean, I write for myself; I have loads of pages and now computer files of all these things that I have written, but that is one part of it. The other part of it is that I was fascinated — since I wrote my first book in Iran — by these intersections between fiction and reality and how reality turns into fiction and vice versa, how they change one another. And I think for as long as I have that obsession, it will be difficult to make the leap. I don’t want to write fiction which is really just disguised biography. So I hope one day I will reach that stage before I die. Maybe I’ll write my last book as a novel and then die. I want nothing, nothing else in the world.