In early 2016, I had a chance to take my wife and kids to Barcelona for a few months. It felt like a great time to be out of the U.S. in general—primary season!—but especially to be there on the Mediterranean, where winter is what we here call “spring.” I’d been abroad only a handful of times before, never for more than a couple weeks, and now I surrendered giddily to food and architecture and people, a whole different tempo of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell in love with pretty much every book I opened there. I read Open City. I read Spring Torrents. I read Mercè Rodoreda, Catalonia’s answer to Clarice Lispector (and a shamefully neglected writer here at home). I read Isherwood and Saramago. Especially, though, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even later, back in the U.S., I would feel with these writers the connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. Over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The second in this series will be with Enrigue; the third with Marías.
The first is with Cercas, author of the international bestseller The Soldiers of Salamis and the acclaimed “novel with nonfiction” The Anatomy of a Moment, as well as the novels The Speed of Light and Outlaws. His new novel with nonfiction, The Impostor, tells the true story of Enric Marco, who passed himself off for a quarter century as a Holocaust survivor and leader of the resistance to Franco’s dictatorship. In her New York Times review, Parul Seghal wrote of the book’s “hot, charged energy” with the thrill of one discovering Cercas’s work for the first time. It’s a thrill I remember well myself.
The Millions: I wanted to start with a curious discrepancy. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Speed of Light in a used bookshop, and I was struck by the self-portrait you’ve embedded at the beginning there. As in many of your books, there’s a Javier Cercas character, and here he’s a young man in his mid-20s, a kind of writer manqué, but with no sense of what he might want to write. But then in Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction collection Between Parentheses, he has an essay about you [“Javier Cercas Comes Home”] where he says, in essence, that he’s known you since you were 17 and you were always hunting big game, always going to write a masterpiece, and now you’ve come home to Gerona to do so. So which, I guess I’m asking, was the real you: the schlemiel or the focused, ambitious artist.
Javier Cercas: This is very easy, in fact. I was always an outcast. I’m an immigrant, a child of immigrants, from Extremadura. A guy without roots.
TM: Even in language, right? Your parents would have spoken Castilian, and now they’ve landed in Gerona, this city in Catalonia, where everyone speaks Catalan. You’re like the character Gafitas, in Outlaws.
JC: Yes. And I wanted to be a writer from the very beginning, when I was 14, I think. But because I was an outcast, it was like wanting to be an astronaut … a very weird thing to be. In fact, Bolaño was probably my first friend who wrote a book in Spanish—and he was something like 47 when he wrote that piece, 10 years older than me. And he still wasn’t famous yet the way he is today.
I’ll tell you a funny story about Bolaño. We were always on the phone, like boyfriend and girlfriend. One day, around the time when he began to be known, he calls me and says, “Javier, there is this anthology of young writers called Yellow Pages that’s just come out, and you’re not in it. You must have made a big enemy somewhere.” I told him, “No, no, that’s not true. The problem in fact is that no one even knows who I am!”
TM: As in “I should be lucky to have such enemies!”
JC: Well, a lot of that is just the way Bolaño saw the world, and it comes through in the piece you mentioned. He had that wonderful sense of literature as a fight.
TM: The novelist and the critic fencing on the beach in The Savage Detectives …
JC: Exactly. Anyway, for me, at that time, I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, but I was a complete outsider. I was completely outside of any literary milieu.
TM: Which is not such a bad way to be. So basically you were writing fiction for yourself while scraping by with journalism as a day job, like the Javier in your books, until Soldiers of Salamis came along and changed your life?
JC: No, I was in the university. Because I needed to earn my living, you know? This was my idea: being in the university, writing my books, and no one reading them. No one except Bolaño, my mother, and some friends. Which is normal! I have readers now, but that’s not normal. I had gone to America for a couple of years to study, and then I had been writing. But at the moment in my life when Bolaño wrote what he wrote about me, I was in a strong depression. I had come back to Gerona, you know, from the States, then Barcelona. At that moment, his piece was very important to me. And it was all lies!
TM: Prophecies, not lies.
JC: But yes, in any case, Soldiers was the book that changed everything.
TM: How did you come to the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas? I mean, was it all at once, or was it something you had been carrying around? Or a combination: something you had been carrying around for a while that was then catalyzed suddenly by some other thing—the way the Sánchez Mazas story in the first half of book is catalyzed by the story of you and Bolaño and the search for Miralles in the second.
JC: The last of these, I think. I had the Sánchez Mazas story originally from his son, Sánchez Ferlioso, as the Javier Cercas character in the book gets it. I should say that all the characters in that book are real. It’s a false chronicle, so of course everything has to be real. Except for one character, who you’ll never guess.
TM: I surrender.
JC: The fortune teller, the girlfriend of Javier Cercas, who is completely made up. And of course—and this is completely true—that’s the one character who sued me. A real fortune teller in the town where the book is set sued me for using her in my book! The Bolaño part of the story, though, is a little different from the Sánchez Mazas story. Bolaño had told me that part, the story of Miralles, a long time ago. And it occurred to me that I could use it to tell the first story. I went to him and asked him for permission, expecting him to turn me down—
TM: Because in your mind it’s literary gold—
JC: Exactly. And of course he said, “No, no, this is not much of a story,” and he allowed me to have it.
TM: I sometimes think this is how books come about—that you discover you are the only one who sees the fictional value in a thing, and you almost have to write it because if you don’t, no one else will. Anyway, since before Soldiers, from your first work Relatos Reales, all the way up to The Impostor, you’ve been drawn to this borderland between fiction and nonfiction. What attracted you to it?
JC: Well, I thought from the beginning, pure fiction is always a lie, you know? In some way, the fuel is always reality. I wrote about this recently in an essay called The Blind Spot: that the novel is a wonderful genre where you can invent anything you want—that’s how Cervantes gave it to us. But that the fuel is reality. As for how to mix the two, each book has its own rules; it all depends on the book. To write a book is to create a game. You have to find the rules, to formulate the question in the most complex possible way. As in The Impostor: “Why did this guy, Enric Marco, the false Holocaust survivor, lie about the worst crime in history?” I’m always trying to write what I don’t know. And the first thing the writer must do is figure out the unique rules of the game. If two books have the same rules, one of them is bad.
JC: In the case of The Impostor, one rule was that it would be redundant to write a fiction about another fiction. Instead, I thought, let’s organize the book as a battle between the lies and the truth. And if people ask me, like the man on the radio [NPR’s Ari Shapiro] just now, “Why ‘novel without fiction?'” I think, “why not?”
TM: The “why not” is the freedom. And the rules are the constraints.
JC: Yes. You choose your constraints. And then you become a slave to them. There’s a moment in the book, I’ve been interviewing Enric Marco, picking apart his lies, and then at this one moment, this last lie, Marco says, hands on head, “Please leave me something.” But I couldn’t, because I was a slave to the rules. This was a difficult moment.
And yet when I actually sat down to do the writing, I was incredibly happy writing this book—which is not always the case.
TM: I wanted to ask you about heroism. We’ve talked about the method, but at least from Soldiers on, heroism is the subject—even in The Impostor, where it’s the image of the hero, or some debased idea of heroism, that seems to hold Marco captive and prod him into his many lies. Kitsch heroism, like the story he tells about playing chess with the concentration camp guard and refusing to lose, even though he knows it may cost his life. Are you aware of this as a through-line, heroism?
JC: I don’t know where it comes from. Probably my reading as a boy, adventure books. Stevenson. Verne. The Odyssey and The Iliad. But it’s a specific kind of heroism I’m interested in. Once Le Monde asked me and some other writers a question: What single word is most important for you? It’s a strange question, but the moment I hung up the phone, I knew the answer: the word “No.” Sort of quoting Camus: “The Man Who Says No.” My novels are about these kinds of heroes, people who say no, or try to say no.
TM: What you call, in The Anatomy of a Moment (following Hans Magnus Enzensberger) the “hero of retreat.” Like Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez there, who appears in that one moment or period as a very complicated sort of hero, and was far from heroic in all kinds of other ways.
JC: There is only one pure hero in all the books: Miralles in Soldiers of Salamis. He has to kill an enemy—a bastard—and still he says no. As for me, I would be among the members of parliament in The Anatomy of a Moment, ducking for cover. And then Marco in The Impostor, of course, is the man who says yes. He would love to be a hero, but can’t.
TM: Why do you think that is?
JC: Virtue is something secret, I think. When it becomes public, it’s no longer heroism. Yet Marco had to constantly be saying “I’m a hero, I’m a hero, we’re all heroes.” And of course, Marco is everyone. We are all, in a sense, this guy; he’s a perfect mirror of our time. This book says something awful: We prefer lies to the truth. Lies are beautiful.
TM: Sexy, maybe. Pretty. But not beautiful. Beauty is like virtue. Or is virtue.
JC: My question all along was, Why don’t people call him on his lies? And the answer is that people prefer pretty lies to the truth. The truth about Nazi camps is complex, dirty, and not beautiful. Claudio Magris wrote about Marco something like “He lied, yes, but for a good cause.” But that’s bullshit. What he was spreading was adulterated, romantic, heroic kitsch. And we prefer that. That’s why Donald Trump is in your White House.
TM: And in Spain, what was the reaction to this book? I knew when I first heard about it that American readers would be interested in it. We have the kind of relationship you’re describing with dirty parts of our own history, with slavery and exploitation, but we have this less complicated relationship, at least publicly, with the fight against Naziism. But in Spain, part of the “historical memory” movement you contributed to with Soldiers and write about in Anatomy and The Impostor has to involve negotiating the complicity of ordinary people with Francoism, with fascism. Marco, you suggest, offered a heroic version of “historical memory” that helped ordinary people feel virtuous. So what was the reaction domestically to your writing about Marco, and in a sense calling out the lies?
JC: The answer is quite easy. I have my readers in Spanish. So with them, I have no problem. But many other people were resistant to what I am saying in the book. Don’t get me wrong, “historical memory” is essential. What’s Faulkner’s line? The past is not dead. The past, of which we are living witnesses, is part of the present, without which the present is mutilated. The Spanish Civil War is the present. Francoism is the present.
But the truth is, necessarily, that most people accepted Francoism. And that most people adulterate or erase the worst part of their history. I recently read this suggestion by Tzvetan Todorov, that de Gaulle convinced the French people they were all Resistance: “Les français n’ont pas besoin de la verité,” he said. People tend to mask … and I understand that. But now, it is not possible. The movement for “historical memory” in Spain was insufficient, and became fiction: “We were all anti-Franco. We were all heroes.” It’s completely false—bullshit!
The reality is more complex and ugly: Fascism was supported by many people. And I don’t blame them. To be a hero is very difficult. You go to jail and die, is the usual outcome. Yet it shows a lack of respect to lie about it. If you lie about the past, you lie about the present. Another Faulkner line, from a letter, I think: “There is no such thing as was.”
A lot of Catalans and the Left, in particular, were mad at me for The Impostor. But it’s a national problem. We’re drowning in lies.
TM: Especially you, it seems. There’s a moment in the book, early on, that’s a curious one. You’re at a dinner, in Madrid I think, with Mario Vargas Llosa and some others, and the discussion turns to the just-unmasked Enric Marco, and someone suggests you have to write about him because he’s so much like a character in your books. You say something like, “Well we’re all impostors,” and someone says, “But especially you, Javier.” You don’t return to this line for many hundreds of pages in the book, but it seems to form some secret connection between you and Marco. Why are you, uniquely, an impostor?
JC: I’m going to tell you a secret, and it’s very interesting: There is one chapter in this battle between truth and lies that is invented. It’s a dialogue … I don’t know, a daydream or something. And the answer is there. Because there Marco can say what he really wants, can attack me. He says, OK, I lied. But you did, too. In fact, Marco wanted to be Miralles. But he tells me “You married fiction and fact, you became famous, a millionaire”—which is not true, of course—”But I did the same and I was a pariah. And remember,” he’s saying, “You are me. I am you.”
Of course, he’s lying.
TM: In the midst of a chapter you’ve invented.
JC: But that’s the idea. The book, really, is a fight between impostors.
My daughter’s birthday comes in June. Every year since the first year, I’ve made her a birthday cake — strawberry shortcake, which seemed appropriate for the summery month, her love of berries. The cake became an instant tradition, as many things with children instantly do. It’s a Hot Milk Sponge Cake, berries macerated in sugar, whipped cream. It isn’t a shortcake, which is commoner. And it isn’t better than another sponge cake recipe I have, one that’s quicker, easier, requiring fewer ingredients and less time. But I keep going back to the Hot Milk Sponge, because of the recipe.
Not the ingredients. Not taste. The paper with the handwritten recipe itself. Because it reminds me of Betty, a long ago boyfriend’s mother, the woman who first made the cake, then wrote out the recipe for me. The writing’s faded, the green lined paper it’s written on going waxy with age. I’ve typed it out against the possibility that one day I’ll open my Joy of Cooking, where I store recipes I’ve cut out of magazines or printed or that have been given to me like this one, and like an ancient Polaroid photo, it will have disappeared. And along with it, my connection to her.
Because what I’m looking for when I hunt through my recipe collection isn’t really Hot Milk Sponge Cake. It’s a connection to my personal history, a road map of where I’ve been and who I’ve known. Recipes are connectors, the roads too small to show on maps.
And they aren’t all written down. Like The Odyssey or a Studs Terkel interview, they can be passed along in other ways.
When my mother-in-law died, we had a small service with food afterwards. It was mostly family, a few close friends. Her friend Anita was there. They’d known each other for more than 50 years, and Anita was very upset. I extended a hand, reached out to touch her shoulder, but she didn’t want consolation.
After the service, we ate the food we’d carried there. I’d brought egg-and-onion, a dish my grandmother made. She knew it was a dish I loved, and when I was coming, she made it for me. It is how some people show love, by giving you the things they know you like to eat: that repetition. I once told someone I liked her lemon meringue pie. She made it every time she saw me after that.
I’ve updated my grandmother’s dish — I make it with olive oil, though she likely used chicken fat. Mine is lighter, less deadly. Anita had some after the service.
“Who made this?” she said. “I haven’t tasted this taste since my mother died.”
I told her its history — the part about my grandmother, the part about the olive oil. I’ve told this story many times, I am fluent in it.
“It’s so good,” Anita said, and said again. Later, she asked me for the recipe. I sent it to her. It comforted her in a way she couldn’t otherwise be comforted. And it connected us — me to my grandmother, Anita to her mother, the two of us to each other.
In the front of my Joy of Cooking is a recipe, in her hand, for Elizabeth’s Raspberry Buns. I make them smaller than she did, and my daughter and I renamed them Thumbkins, because you push a floured thumb into the center of each ball of dough before filling it with jam, but what I remember when I make them is Elizabeth herself, the antique samplers she collected and hung on her walls, the lunches and dinners we had together.
There is Andy’s rice salad, written on a piece of stationery so familiar to me it trips longing to be in their house whenever I see it.
There is a recipe in my own handwriting on the back of a piece of paper with notes from a biography of Margaret Mead I wrote and published years ago. There I am.
Recipes are a way of bridging metaphorical distance too: another way they are like maps. On Thanksgiving, we go to Kate’s house, where a table is set for 20 or more — some who wander in because they are — temporarily or otherwise — without family, others who always come. Everybody brings food.
Last year I made a green bean casserole, the kind my aunt always made at Thanksgiving when I was a girl out of canned soup and crispy canned onions. I made a version that used fresh everything and I brought it to Kate’s and two of the other women there came over and said How did you do it?! We’ve been trying to make a good version of this for 25 years! I told them what I’d done.
There I am again.
We are cooks, my friends and I: cooking is something that binds us and grounds us. My sister takes cookbooks to bed, reads them the way other people read novels. My daughter and I like biographies, or volumes of letters about/by people who’ve made their lives in food — James Beard, Ruth Reichl, Amanda Hesser. Recipes, like maps, give you places to go, tell you how to get there.
I’ve been friends with Tessa since childhood, we’ve had many many meals together. I ate the wonderful food her mother prepared when we were girls; now I cook some of it. We’ve cooked together and separately, with and for each other. The orange marmalade she and Andy make every year, a long, painstaking process. My pasta with tomatoes and breadcrumbs. Her cinnamon rolls.
A few Saturdays ago we were speaking on the phone. We hadn’t talked in a while, we had things to catch up on, some difficult. We are at an age where, often, things are difficult — work, aging parents, questions of health. Things that made me feel cracked with sadness. And then we talked about lentil soup.
How much better it is made with tiny green lentils than the musty brown kind. How I like to make it thick and put tomatoes and vegetables in it and serve it over rice.
We were reassuring each other. Patting our way back to the beginning of adult life, when we both first started to cook — to continue the traditions of food we’d grown up with or to transcend them, begin our own. My egg and onion isn’t my grandmother’s. My green bean casserole isn’t my aunts. But they also are. Food — recipes — are what we talk about when we are telling each other: I’m here. It’s okay. Life, despite sadness, has this in it too.
Recipes themselves appeal to me because they are small and finite: little works. You set yourself a goal, pursue and finish it, it doesn’t take very long. That’s the opposite of what I spend my time doing. The longest, most complicated recipe I ever made took me a day. A novel takes years.
But recipes connect me to people too, both people I don’t know (James Beard, Ruth Reichel, Amanda Hesser) and people I do — all the people who took the time to write out a recipe for something I loved, something they’d first prepared for me — friends, my aunt, my once-upon-a-time boyfriend’s mother. I haven’t always made the recipes. But it’s the handwriting, the road that travels both forward and back, that’s important to me.
When we were talking about lentil soup, Tessa told me Zina, her daughter, had made one with coconut and lemon grass.
“That sounds delicious,” I said. “Will she send me the recipe?
And when my daughter calls and says she wants me to teach her to make a certain dish my heart expands.
She once asked me what the most valuable thing I had was. I wanted to say “you,” but she was too old for that answer to satisfy. She meant something tangible — silver, paintings, pearls.
I don’t have things like that, or miss them or crave them, nothing spectacular to leave her. But if I had said to her then “It’s my old Joy of Cooking, stuffed with recipes,” I don’t think she would have understood it. Now I think she will. Because inside the front cover of that book is her past and mine and my grandmother’s. Tastes she’s grown up with, things she can give her children when they come. A true inheritance.
Oh, look, she’ll say one day, thumbing through the recipes. Hot Milk Sponge Cake. I remember that.
Image courtesy of the author.
Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions.
I’m not sure why certain regional writers remain regional; why someone along the way — a publicist, a reviewer, perhaps even the author himself — imagines that only those familiar with the setting, or particular sorts of characters, will “connect” with the work. Someone once said, “The more particular the detail, the more universally it strikes us” — it may have been a well-known author, or a student in one of my workshops (or both), I’m not sure. Regardless, I’ve been repeating this idea, to myself and to others, along with its converse — that generalized descriptions, and familiar or broadly-painted characters, are in fact harder to connect with as a reader.
In a brief blurb about Susan Starr Richards’s story collection The Hanging in the Foaling Barn — on a site called KentuckyLiving.com — the reader is told: “Those in the racing industry in particular will enjoy her writings on the horse world in Kentucky.” I found this site after reading the collection, while attempting to do research on Richards (and finding very little online); and it may have been that narrow idea of who “in particular” would enjoy this collection that confirmed my inclination to feature Richards in this column.
“Joel came around a curve on Sorter Ridge, hauling a mare to the breeding shed, and found the local murderer trying to choke a pony.” There is pretty much nothing about this opening sentence (to the story entitled, “The Murderer, The Pony, and Miss Brown to You”) that is personally familiar to me: I’ve never lived on anything like a ridge; I’m not at all sure what happens in a breeding shed, technically speaking; and I’m even less sure what sort of community spawns and maintains a “local murderer.” I may have seen a pony once, at a grade school jamboree, but who knows if what our suburban town was calling a pony wasn’t in fact a large dog wearing a wig and a party hat. My point being that I found this opening sentence masterful in its humor, particularity, menace, and mystery — even as (perhaps because) the world she is introducing is quite obviously going to be one with which I ostensibly have very little in common.
About half of the stories in Richards’s collection are immersed in the world of rural Kentucky and horse breeding (the other half might be described as dark romances). These characters are portrayed in predictable ways on the one hand—as simple, hard-working folk whose lives are closely tied to the land and the animals in their care. At the same time, it’s the complexity of their moral reasoning that strikes the reader, and reminds us urbane sophisticates that moral hazard — which is to say blind, unsophisticated non-thinking—occurs more often in complicated systems than in simpler ones.
“In Clarence Cummins and the Semi-Permanent Loan,” James Petrie, a level-headed foreman on a wealthy man’s tobacco farm, is faced with reconciling a conflict between his tenant farmer, the eponymous Clarence Cummins, and his employer, the money-minded Bud Finnell. Clarence is good-hearted but a simpleton, prone to self-delusion and wobbly judgment; James mostly humors him, seeing no harm in enjoying Clarence’s eccentricities. But Clarence is also proud, with a fierce sense of his own dignity, so when Bud Finnell accuses him of stealing his wife’s pony cart, all hell breaks loose, and Clarence threatens to shoot Finnell. The misunderstandings that led to the crisis comprise a jolly comedy of errors; but what interests me about the story is James’s interior considerations of whether he could have prevented the conflict:
Maybe he should have made Clarence sign an affidavit that he would never sell, try to sell, or let anybody else try to sell the pony cart. Maybe, earlier, he should have made it clear that he was running the farm, and not Clarence. Maybe he should have even pointed out to him that mares always have longer legs than their babies, and that Clarence was the one who thought the fence would hold.
In other words, maybe a man should not be allowed to be self-deluded, no matter how harmless he seems or how happy it makes him to live in his own reality; maybe this man is harming himself, if not others. Maybe it is one’s job, as friend and neighbor, to speak hard truth, and to encourage conformity of mind, for the other’s sake. And yet, the story ends on both a lofty and complex note (humorous, too): Clarence’s defense against Finnell’s accusation was that he loaned the cart to his shopkeeper friend to help draw in more business, which the friend desperately needed. It was the shopkeeper who then tried to sell the cart, to Finnell’s wife herself. When James asks Clarence if he made clear to the shopkeeper that he could not sell it, Clarence answers, “’Why no? I never told him that?’ Clarence looked over at James, a mild, amazed glance. ‘Don’t you know? That would have broke his spirit?'” It’s an ending reminiscent of Chekhov.
When Finnell asks James if he thinks Clarence would really shoot him, James answers, “On the subject of Clarence it doesn’t pay to think. He’s a loose horse.” Other loose horses — human and equine—abound in this collection. In the title story — the O. Henry Prize-winner for 1994 — the nightman in a foaling barn calls the breeder in the middle of the night to announce that he is planning to hang himself in the barn. After a bit of banter, Luther, the breeder, preoccupied with the horses that are about to foal, says,
“You got to call up and want to kill yourself here in the middle of May. Couldn’t you wait till June, at least, when foaling season’s over?” He slammed the phone down. Then sighed.
It’s the sighing — it’s own full sentence in that passage—that speaks to the dramatic, and literary, gravitas of a story that opens rather wryly. We laugh nervously at Maurice the nightman’s ridiculous threat, and yet at the same time we understand, as Luther does, that the tragic often comes in ridiculous packages. Maurice is dead serious about his despair, just as Clarence was about his rage. People’s lives are at stake, right alongside their livelihoods: Luther’s preoccupation with the foaling mares in the face of Maurice’s announcement is on the one hand ironic comedy, and on the other straight-faced reality. Which is to say that Richards is not sentimental about the difficulties of rural life and of human-animal relationships.
But foaling — that is, the birthing of these creatures who are as engaging and lively as the humans — is also a deep reality of this world, a kind of cyclical imprint. It’s the direct experience of a foal’s birth, orchestrated and witnessed by men, in both “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn” and the aforementioned pony murderer story, that offers powerful narrative and emotional opposition to the sheer physical grit of farm life and the rough-around-the-edges characters it engenders.
Two of the collection’s romantic stories, “Man Walking” and “Gawain and the Horsewoman,” are fantastical tales of not-quite-human passion. Of the two, the latter for me was more absorbing, fully immersed in the genre of myth (the story is based on Celtic legend), as opposed to the more cerebral, and a bit confusing, mystery-solving drive of the former. From “Gawain:”
The most beautiful mare he’d ever seen, he said to himself, and not a sign of a saddle or bridle on her. Pure white. A fine head, high withers, a strong shoulder; and she was long and deep, all her lines flowing together smoothly. A step like a dancer; neck drooping, easy.
Following the mare now through twilight meadows. It was a matter of faith to see her — the almost-shape, as if the mist thickened a little, there. If he looked hard at what he saw, he wouldn’t see it any more.
He, Gawain, follows the mare and comes upon its siblings, along with its mysterious, laconic mistress — “slim and brown, her dark hair clipped straight across by her ear.” This magical story of a stormy, sea-cliff horse race between Gawain and Dana the Horsewoman unfolds not only into lush, lyrical fantasy (“did you never see the horses’ heads, with their manes all silver, rising above the great combers on full-moon nights?” Dana asks) but also creeps up on you deliciously as feminist fiction:
He found himself, sometimes, almost wishing for some threat to the quiet life of the little farmstead, so that he might be of use in defending it — for a big cat preying on the foals? […] for an awful giant trying to carry off the younger woman on his horse? but […] What giant could catch her? […]
The two women [Dana and her sister Maude] seemed to have no curiosity about him. It was as if his life had begun, as far as they were concerned, when he appeared at their place […]
If women were confusing to him before—and they had been — now he was lost indeed, presented with a woman who apparently wanted nothing in the world from him but that he would ride in a race against her. Something in him warred with the idea of doing anything against a woman—he’d always been taught to do things for them. But he meant to oblige her in this way since he couldn’t in any other.
Richards doesn’t seem to have referred to herself publicly as a feminist per se, but in a 2004 interview with the Journal of Kentucky Studies, she did speak of the “fairly sexist environment” of writing classes in the late 1950s, “the ‘Southern boy’ world — that’s what I was thrown into, and […] that’s kind of a brutal world for a woman. Some of your sensibilities are ridiculed; you’re afraid to have them.”
Born and raised in Florida, Richards and her husband moved to Kentucky when she was in her 20s. She had a job teaching at the University of Kentucky, but they also quickly got into the horse business, starting as market breeders and then both breeding and racing their own horses (from which they’ve since retired). In an interview with her publisher Sarabande, she said:
I’ve walked the mares’ field in the dark, in the fog, checking to see if some mare’s decided to foal on the wrong night […] I’ve stayed up all night for nights on end with my husband, milking a mare out every two hours and lifting a sick foal up onto its feet, till it could get back to nursing on its own again. I’ve been kicked, I’ve been knocked down and jumped over, I’ve been shoved around innumerable times, I’ve been exhilarated by what just happened, I’ve been terrified by what just happened, I’ve been euphoric about what just happened, I’ve been in desperation about what just happened.
All these things in one way or another have influenced my life. My time was always fairly equally divided between the horses and my writing, the difference being that the horses always came first, and the writing had to be fitted in around their needs and their schedules. But in my imagination, there was always a confluence of visions. You don’t take up the horse business unless horses have already captured your imagination — it’s an abstraction to you before it becomes a reality.
Richards published a collection of “Horse Fables” in 1987, when she was 49, and began publishing her stories after that, when she was in her 50s. A poetry collection, The Life Horse, was published in 2005, and The Hanging in the Foaling Barn came out in 2006, when she was 68. Other than a few classes with Andrew Lytle at the University of Florida, she has not studied fiction writing formally in a workshop or conference setting. Her husband Dick, who was also in that class with Lytle, has been her primary reader. She has said that she is more influenced by her life in Kentucky than any particular author, but names Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and The Odyssey as influences.
Richards’s first novel, Chapel of Carnal Love, will be available as an e-book later this fall on Amazon. She is now 74 years old.
Listen to Susan Starr Richards read an excerpt — recorded in the shed on her farm where she writes — from the O. Henry Prize-winning story, “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn.”
The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog.
The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back.
But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone.
The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes — present tense — the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on.
And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone.
To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby.
As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the ’70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the ’80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” near what was then occupied Liberty Square.
As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009.
Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye.
Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.”
Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before?
In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing:
Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us…Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one…To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be.
With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply.
There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other.
Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel’s demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don’t seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.”
In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: “There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture.”
The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving — even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours.
“There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It’s fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.”
Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there’s something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.”
Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room.
This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do — or do not — match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against…”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon — and Wallace.
If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much. The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast.
Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings — we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there — the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love — exactly in the same way we did when we were children.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby?
Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so.
That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him.
The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year — in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that.
Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard.
Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity — both in size and subject matter — every 10 years sounds just about right.
Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?)
Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.”
So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share.
Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.
The first time I ever heard of Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians was in a comment posted on Twitter. I follow a lot of avid (even rabid) readers, and one of them had, apparently, stepped out of their comfort zone to give this book a try. She had decided to follow the crowd and read this novel that was being called “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” She was not a fan. She called it a rip-off and accused Grossman of stealing from her beloved J.K. Rowling. Her response was so strong, so passionate, that my curiosity was piqued.
I looked up Grossman to see what he had done before. It turns out that he knows something about good writing. Grossman is the lead book critic for Time and has made a career out of both praising the efforts of writers who take risks and calling out those who he felt were overrated. He knew that he was entering dangerous territory when he set about writing a book that bears even a passing resemblance to anything as recognizable as the Harry Potter franchise. It was a big risk to take, but it has paid off, as evidenced by the The Magicians’ bestseller status.
The anticipation for his follow-up, The Magician King, has been building all summer, with some readers looking to it to fill the void left by the final Harry Potter film. It is well-suited to the task. Like The Magicians before it, the book is a collection of carefully chosen allusions to the books that have influenced Grossman as a writer. While these allusions were off-putting to some readers, they are a large part of the appeal for the readers who grew up reading the same books he did. I have to admit; each new reference that I stumbled across made me smile a little wider and drew me in a little further.
After seeing the wide-range of responses that the book has received, I found myself hoping that responses like the ones that first caught my attention were in the minority. Grossman has assured me they were.
The Millions: What sort of comments have you had regarding the many literary allusions that are found throughout The Magicians?
Lev Grossman: There have been fewer than you would think. There was a lot of focus on it before the book came out, which was worrying. Publishers Weekly dismissed the book as “derivative.” Viking’s own lawyers delayed the book’s publication – they demanded rewrites to make clearer the differences between Fillory and Narnia. But following publication almost all the readers and critics I heard from have read the similarities correctly, as allusions rather than theft. People like them – they like the fact that they’ve read the same books I have. It’s a way of recognizing our shared culture.
TM: Has anyone ever questioned you about similarities that they saw between what you wrote and another book? What did they point to, and how did you respond?
LG: I’ve seen it here and there, in blog comments and Amazon reviews – people harping on the Harry Potter allusions. But it’s a very small minority. Early on I toured the Harry Potter conventions, talking about what I was doing and the spirit in which it was intended, to try to get the word out. I think that helped. But when people do think you’ve plagiarized from another writer, rather than alluded to them, the reaction is extreme. They get angry. It’s a dangerous game; you have to get it right. Allusions can be very polarizing.
TM: As you wrote the novel, were you aware of your inspirations? How did you keep them from overtaking your story? How did you keep from crossing the line?
LG: I think I’m more aware of my influences than some writers – maybe it’s my training as an academic, but I look for them: Rowling and Lewis, obviously, but also writers like Ursula Le Guin, Neal Stephenson, Waugh, Hemingway. In truth, it’s difficult sometimes to know where the line is, to avoid getting overpowered by a strong influence. But it’s also energizing. I think Harold Bloom was right in Anxiety of Influence: some writers need to feel like they’ve gone to war with their literary progenitors, then made their peace with them.
TM: One of the criticisms that I have seen regarding the allusions in the text is that so many of the references (Gulliver’s Travels aside) are to relatively recent works. The expectation is to see mythology or Shakespeare or some other “classic.” Are the modern references lost on readers? Does it make a difference?
LG: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how allusions to contemporary works have a different resonance than references to “classic” literature. They’re certainly not lost on readers, but they can sound a bit cheap and hollow. It’s a difficult line to walk – you want your characters to live in a realistic version of the contemporary cultural environment you see around you, but if you get too specific with your references, they can take on that gimmicky quality. And they date rapidly. I spent a lot of time and effort fine-tuning the allusions in The Magicians, to get the right balance.
TM: If you had to explain the difference between alluding to another work and copying that work to a classroom full of students, how would you go about it? What sort of examples would you use? Would you refer to your own writing?
LG: The key, to me, is making it clear to the reader that you’re borrowing another writer’s elements for a reason. You have to make sure they know not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. It can be confusing for a writer. Initially when I would make allusions to C.S. Lewis, I would avoid overtly criticizing or satirizing Lewis’s work, out of respect, and a worry that I would outrage Narnia fans. I quickly realized that the danger isn’t going too far, it’s not going far enough. If you’re going to borrow from Lewis, you have to travesty him, openly poke fun at him, say something about him. Anything less and readers will see your allusions as merely plagiarism.
TM: What is your favorite literary reference in the novel? Do people pick up on it?
LG: The Magicians is a web of allusions – they’re thicker than most people realize, and nobody gets them all (even me, probably). One of my favorite sequences in the book has Quentin and his friends turning into geese and flying south to Antarctica. This is an allusion to one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite novels, The Once and Future King, in which a young King Arthur is changed into a goose by Merlin as part of his education. I thought it stuck out by a mile when I wrote it, but surprisingly few people catch it.
TM: What references have others pointed out to you or asked about?
LG: People most often point out the more obscure references – it’s a good feeling when you pick up on a reference to something that’s really arcane, that you know hardly anybody else is going to spot. Cellists sometimes write to me about the Popper exercises that the characters at Brakebills have to do. They’re a reference to a famous book of cello etudes that I tried, and failed, to master during my brief career as a cellist. It’s something I put in there for myself, really, but when people spot it, it makes them happy.
TM: Were there any new influences that you were aware of as you wrote The Magician King? What should readers be watching for as they read?
LG: The Magician King’s ancestry is a little different from that of The Magicians, so it draws from a somewhat – but not entirely – different palette of references. It’s a book about journeys and quests, so there are allusions to T.H. White’s and Malory’s accounts of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and to The Odyssey and The Aeneid as well. It’s also a little more of a mystery than The Magicians was, so there are nods – there’s one in the first paragraph – to Raymond Chandler. But the most consistent presence is still C.S. Lewis, in particular Lewis’s own take on the epic, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Grossman has put together A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians for Tor.com. It paints a pretty interesting picture of the world that Grossman lives in and the one he has created. The Magician King is full of the same pop-culture references and allusions to the works of Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and George R.R. Martin as The Magicians. Some are a bit more direct, such as Quentin referring to Janet as “Fillory Clinton.” They are also more time sensitive.
What The Magician King has that was a bit lacking in the first is a rich undercurrent of mythology and folklore. When searching for the root of all magic, it only makes sense that they turn to the “old gods,” an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. They are the ones who harnessed the magic that gave rise to Fillory, and, it would seem, they are none too happy that it has fallen into mortal hands. Here are a few of the less modern references from Grossman’s new book The Magician King:
p. 8: “Good luck,” Julia said. “Dryads fight. Their skin is like wood. And they have staves.”
“I’ve never seen a dryad fight,” Quentin said.
“That is because nobody is stupid enough to fight one.”
In Greek Mythology, the dryads are tree nymphs most closely associated with oak trees. They appear extensively throughout literature, typically as shy creatures who keep to themselves. It is C.S. Lewis who made them fighters, putting them alongside Aslan and the Pevensie children.
p. 22: “Et in Arcadia ego.”
A Latin phrase, meaning “I too was there in Arcadia.” It was meant as a memento mori, or a reminder of one’s own mortality. Here, Quentin is remembering that Alice’s death was not then end of the darkness that exists in Fillory.
p. 101: “They straggled to a stop in front of it, a brave company of knights assembled before the Chapel Perilous.”
The Chapel Perilous first appears in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It is where Sir Lancelot fends off the advances of the sorceress Hellawes. This is just one of many Arthurian references throughout the novel, though it is the least direct.
p. 182: “At the end of the poem, hadn’t he run to the Goat (by which he meant the constellation Capricorn, a footnote gallantly informed her) to find New Love? Or was it lust?”
Julia is referring to John Donne and his poem “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucies Day.” By the end of the poem, Donne has decided to move on, just as Julia decides to leave magic behind for good.
p. 185: ViciousCirce and Asmodeus
The screen names of Julia and one of the other members of Free Traders Beowulf (a reference to the sci-fi role-playing game Traveller). ViciousCirce is a refrence to Circe, a minor goddess of magic in Greek mythology who plays an important role in The Odyssey. Asmodeus is the king of demons, mentioned in The Book of Tobit. Julia is very surprised to find the person behind the screen name is a 17 year old girl.
p. 321: Reynard the Fox
A European trickster figure from medieval times, Reynard is described by Grossman as “some kind of anti-gentry, anti-clerical hero of the peasantry.” There are references to Reynard in both The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
p. 338: “Benedict is in the underworld. He is not a ghost. He is a shade.”
A shade, in various mythologies, refers to the spirit of someone that is residing in the Underworld. Quentin is sent to visit Benedict there, making a trip similar to the one Aeneas makes to visit his father in The Aeneid.
The Magicians is very much a product of the world that Grossman grew up in and the type of life he led. Geeks everywhere could find something to identify with in that book, be it Harry Potter or Advanced D&D. The Magician King appeals to a wider audience, bringing the old and the new together, and creating a whole new mythology.
For six days in the fall of 1996, I was an excellent tight end for the Warriors of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. I ran the post route and the flag route and once in practice nearly caught a very long pass. I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered.
It never quite panned out. There was an inauspicious 76 on a geometry test: I had been too busy studying quarterback signals to learn the defining characteristics of an isosceles triangle. This is a woeful mishap for the son of a mathematics teacher. The day before a game against either Windsor Locks or Enfield, I was pulled by my father from the team. Later, I participated in the far less demanding sport of volleyball, my infrequent spikes resounding in a gymnasium that had never known much glory.
That’s all just to say that I wanted very badly to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, the football drama that recently concluded a five-season run on NBC. I was primed for its cavalcade of disappointments, because I had known those disappointments myself.
In addition, both my wife and I came of age in that golden age of the artistic television drama. We are both in our thirties, and remember when TV was impossibly crude (Married…with Children), low-brow (Walker, Texas Ranger), and utterly untroubled by reality (Saved by the Bell).
With the advent of NYPD: Blue in 1993, that started to change. TV, all of a sudden, could be serious and real. You didn’t need Don Johnson anymore, and you didn’t need a laugh track. And with The Sopranos and later The Wire, even with Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV could be something even greater than that. “Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment…But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in a 2009 New York magazine article entitled “When TV Became Art.”
And we had arrived with it. Freshly minted graduates of liberal arts institutions, we were primed to treat the new TV drama like an object worthy of our Catholic, overripe intellects. We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault.
For many people, Friday Night Lights, which first appeared in 2006, represents the pinnacle of the new TV drama. It is less polished than Mad Men and less dour than The Wire, and somehow more relatable than both, as far as its numberless fans are concerned.
I am not one of those fans, despite having watched all five seasons. In fact, my distaste for Friday Night Lights only increased as the seasons went on, so that I was taken with launching lengthy diatribes at the television. I am fortunate to still be married.
Now, there is still plenty of bad television around, and I am content to render Dancing With the Stars unto those who want to watch it. But Friday Night Lights has somehow became a cause célèbre among the sort of crowd that would much rather spend its Sunday afternoons brunching in Brooklyn than watching a Houston Texans game. They have elevated the show to high art, with appreciations of resident hunk Tim Riggins in the same Paris Review where Norman Mailer once roamed and, on ever-so-sober NPR, “A Late-Blooming Love Letter to NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights.‘”
“Heartbreakingly good,” says Entertainment Weekly; “an exquisite bit of anthropology,” opines the New York Times. Bullshit, I say to all of them. Friday Night Lights is bad television. And if it is art, then it is art that is purposefully misleading, which is art of the worst kind.
Forget the amateurish acting, which vacillates between maudlin enthusiasm and shrill discord. Forget, too, the recycled plotlines that always have the hometown fans of Dillon pinning their hopes on fourth and long. Something is truly rotten in the state of Texas.
It begins with the whole “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra, which coach Eric Taylor, the show’s protagonist, delivers with all the growling gusto of Churchill before the Battle of Britain. Now, every sports team – and every sports show – is entitled to its inspirational bromides. But on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is elevated to a central tenet to which the characters subscribe as if it were religious truth.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism, not even with optimism that crosses over into delusion – that’s the kernel of nearly every Raymond Carver story. That unmoored optimism we reference when we call something “Ahabic” or “Quixotic.” But in a Carver story, the careful use of irony allows the reader to make an independent judgment of the characters. Each one of Carver’s down-and-outers thinks his break is right around the corner, even though the narrator subtly broadcasts to us that it isn’t. This is the situational irony that Aristotle found in Oedipus – the arrogant king is looking for the transgressor who has cursed Thebes, unaware that it is himself.
Mad Men has its Oedipus in Don Draper, an outwardly successful man living a life as transparent as tissue paper. Baltimore is the Oedipus of The Wire, a sick city that nobody is capable of healing. In watching Don sink deeper into alcoholism and drift farther from his family, in witnessing the failure of every institution in “Body More” except for the drug trade, we feel pity and fear – the two emotions that, for Aristotle, give great art its pathos. Three thousand years after he wrote the Poetics, all is as should be.
But Friday Night Lights has no Oedipus of its own, no fallen king – and it has no irony, either. Nobody here is ever in danger of ever really losing. Characters do not so much overcome their troubles as they are saved from them providentially – every pass in FNL is a Hail Mary caught by a diving, flailing wide receiver for a last-second, game-winning touchdown. As such, all that overcoming is superficial and rushed.
Tyra Collette, a rebel with no interest in her studies, suddenly becomes inspired and crams for the SAT. Presto, she’s into the University of Texas’s flagship Austin campus. Matt Saracen, a middling athlete if there ever was one (and I should know), becomes a Manning brother overnight and wins the state championship. His friend Landry Clarke walks onto the Varsity squad of a championship team, though he appears to have minimal knowledge of and enthusiasm for football. More troublingly, he kills his girlfriend’s assailant, but they get over the body-dumping in the span of a couple of episodes. Because what’s the law when love is on your side?
Then there’s queen bee Lyla Garrity, who leaves paralyzed quarterback Jason Street for the aforementioned Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins for Jesus and ends up having a dalliance with a youth leader at her megachurch. Then she comes back to Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins and goes to Vanderbilt.
I don’t dislike Lyla nearly as much as I dislike what Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg and his writers did to her – or failed to do with her, rather. Is she tortured like Anna Karenina? Is she yearning for freedom like Emma Bovary? She can’t just smile through every scene in her cheerleading outfit. It can’t always be all-good, all the time. If it could be, I would have long ago moved to East Texas.
The Season 2 case of Santiago is especially infuriating. He is a young criminal with apparently boundless athletic potential, and Buddy Garrity takes him into his own home so that he can qualify to play for the Dillon Panthers. He does, but just as he starts to excel on the field, and just as his old criminal friends start to intrude on his new life, he is gone from the show without even the most peremptory explanation. This isn’t Stalinist Russia; you don’t just disappear a character like that.
And the treatment of race is just absurd. Is this not the same Texas where James Byrd was killed in 1998 by three white men who dragged him behind their truck until his head came off? Apparently not, since every social event is a Rainbow Coalition of well-dressed, happy families. There is no color line, no class divide, only the love of football.
This robs Friday Night Lights of any pathos and makes it instead an unwitting champion of the bathetic, which Alexander Pope called a work of art’s fall “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” You can be sure that if Oedipus were on Friday Night Lights, he would soothe the pain of his sin by joining the football team. His mother Jocasta would cheer from the stands, and he would wear a patch on his jersey with his dead father’s image.
I don’t care if art is realistic, but I want it to be true. This is what Aristotle demanded in the Poetics and it is what we should demand today, whether from our novelists or our television producers.
To be realistic, art has only to have fidelity to material reality, which is easy enough and not that important anyway. Beowulf and The Odyssey are not real, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest. It doesn’t diminish Harry Potter, either.
Truth is much harder. What Keats said about beauty and truth hasn’t changed in the 127 years since he wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – the two are still one and the same.
This is where Friday Night Lights fails – there is nothing true about it. It ignores hard battles in favor of superficial ones. I know enough about the world, and you surely do as well, to know that Vince Howard’s mother could not turn, in the span of two episodes, from a drug addict to a spry middle-aged mother. It would be pretty to think so, as Hemingway once wrote, but all experiential evidence is against it. This kind of ease with fate may be uplifting in the space of forty-five minutes, but it makes for a hollow show. It’s not that I want Matt Saracen to fail; I just want him to struggle the way real people do, the way that Oedipus struggled against his fate. That will make his victory more meaningful in the end.
There is one great scene in Friday Night Lights. Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter, does not want to return to college in the middle of Season 5 because she has had a disastrous affair with a teaching assistant. Her father is furious and insists that she go back to school and face the consequences of her romance, but when he tries to drag her out of the house, she resists in a paroxysm of tears. The scene is unexpected but inevitable, as Aristotle said great drama should be. It is real, it is true, and you don’t know where it’s heading. The show needed more of that – much, much more.
What bothered me most, though, was Tim Riggins’s hair. It is always unfairly perfect, a surfer’s locks falling over his face. It is perfect when he is playing football, it is perfect when he is drinking beer in the afternoon, it is perfect when he drops out of college, it is perfect when he goes to jail, and it is perfect when he schemes to buy an enormous plot of land without, seemingly, enough in his bank account to pay for a round of drinks.
My wife told me to stop screaming at the television, but I couldn’t. Nobody has hair that perfect. It isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t art. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.