During my last two years of college in Chicago, I rode downtown by commuter train a few times each week. The trip took about 40 minutes, and I always brought a book to pass the time.
I read most of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain on the tracks between the Loop and the Davis Street stop. I paged through The Satanic Verses that way too. These were strange book choices, but I was a strange reader. I never felt like I had read the right books. Everyone else seemed to have read everything. I was so far behind I had no idea where to start. I had hunger, but no sense of taste.
I certainly got no guidance from what other people on the train were reading. My fellow riders seemed to subsist on the Trib or Wall Street Journal alone. No novels other than the occasional Scott Turow or John Grisham. This was the golden age of the courtroom potboiler. I didn’t understand the priorities of these people whose lives were swarmed with mortgages, kids, and 401(k)s.
In 1998, I came to New York for graduate school, and at once I felt as if I’d found my people at last. I loved how so many people read books on the subway. Not just bestsellers, either. Novels, biographies, poetry collections. Books for people who loved reading.
To pay my bills, I got a job downtown at the Seaport. Once again, I was riding a train for most of an hour a few times a week. Nearly every day I would see a person reading a book that I had on a class syllabus, or a title from my own personal reading to-do list. New York felt like a place I knew, even though I didn’t really know it yet. The covers of books I recognized would stand out like friendly faces—well, hello, Gabo! What’s up, Woolfie? I see you’re a thing they carried, too, Mr. O’Brien!
Because I wanted so much to be a writer in those days, I spent many hours every week at the many bookstores of Manhattan. I bought used books because I couldn’t afford brand new ones. I was always waiting for a new release that I really wanted to show up as a remainder or as someone else’s cast off. If you want something that you cannot afford badly enough, then the packaging itself becomes an object of desire, and I began to be able to identify a book that I wanted after just the barest glimpse of its cover.
My favorite book covers were Vintage International paperbacks; their stately design, metallic hues, and dark tones were so lovely and pure. I would pick up a new author just because of the Vintage colophon. This was how I met Julian Barnes and William Maxwell. They had the right kind of references.
As it so happens, on a crosstown bus many years later, I fell into conversation with a woman who was the purchasing editor for Vintage International. I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude to her; later, when she got off at her stop, I resisted the urge to ask for her email address. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.
Even after I finished graduate school, I still carried a book to the office each day. (In this way, I told myself I was different from those commuter train riders in Chicago years earlier.) Sometimes, at work I’d put the book face down on my desk, but usually I’d leave it out in the open: not to parade what I was reading but as a kind of invitation to anyone who wanted to talk books.
One winter, a colleague stopped by every few days to see how far along I’d gotten in War and Peace. Eventually, he began to offer up his own daily updates on his journey through books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Killer Angels. I learned that he was a one-time history major who got swallowed up by the corporate world and was trying to find his way out.
Shortly before I got married, I was transferred from the office at the Seaport to the corporate headquarters out in Newark. Once again, I found myself on a commuter train each day. My friends would grimace when I told them about my daily commute. To reassure them that it wasn’t terrible, I pointed out that I had time to read.
Smartphones and e-readers made their debut while I was commuting to Newark. I tried this out one evening when I downloaded The Time Machine onto a first-generation iPad. At the time, I was sitting in bed while my wife slept, and I needed no lamplight because the screen was illuminated. This pleased me at first. But as I read, I realized that the tablet weighed just a fraction too much; it pulled gently at my fingertips, tugging me back to the real world more than a physical book.
The technology for e-readers has improved greatly since then. I read more digital books than physical ones now. I don’t feel quite right about it. But I love the convenience and simplicity of reading via Kindle. I opted for a digital copy of Ian McEwan’s
Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading.
Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art.
Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake
As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!”
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea.
The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth.
Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it.
Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it.
Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, “Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? … Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton’s daughters did to their father?” In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties.
Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis
Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be.
Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons.
Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice.
The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster
Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things.
Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd
Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer.
The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie
Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold.
Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble,” a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.”
But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Planning to attend this Saturday’s National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.? The Washington Post has provided five sample itineraries. And for an entirely different, vicarious trip, revisit Mythili G. Rao’s account of visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival a few years back: “To voice their disapproval of the circumstances of Salman Rushdie’s absence, four writers read from The Satanic Verses — a book that has been banned in India. They were advised to leave. What kind of real intellectual discussion could go on in a setting that had proved itself so hospitable to self-censorship?”
Turkey’s greatest humor writer, Aziz Nesin, was born on December 20, 1915. When, in 1993, 35 secularist intellectuals were burned to death in the hotel in which they had assembled in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, he stood at the center of the events. Dozens of mainstream papers had accused Nesin of inciting hatred by publishing a Turkish translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses months before the attack.
The torching of the hotel was seen as a violent reaction to Nesin’s marginal publishing activities — at least this was what we were instructed to think by the Turkish media. As a 12-year-old, I remember watching images of the Madımak Hotel; from the flames that covered the facade of the hotel, Nesin had emerged rather miraculously, like some kind of supernatural figure, being saved from the flames by the ladder of the fire brigade.
Twenty-three years later, in Istanbul, I wondered how this writer who was born when the Ottoman Empire still existed, had ended up on that ladder, meters away from flames ready to take his life. And I wondered about something else, something I found crucial for my own fragile position as a writer in Turkey: what would Nesin think were he alive in the Turkey of today? This year Turkey had been rocked by a number of chilling developments: a reignited war with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) unsettled life first in eastern Anatolian cities, then in Ankara, finally in Turkey’s touristic heart Istanbul, where bomb attacks have become part of the daily routine. A worsening geopolitical clash with Russia and numerous ISIS bombings intended to further destabilize Turkish society have resulted in the contraction of the national economy and the near collapse of Turkey’s tourism industry, which the government attempted to heal by making major shifts in its foreign policy. And finally a failed coup attempt on July 15, which ended in the deaths of hundreds of people and a momentary new spirit of unity. What would Nesin say about all this?
Serving as a career officer for many years in his 20s, Nesin became the fiercest critic of the state he had spent years to protect with his life. Here was a man of contradictions: A defender of republican reforms and a committed enemy of conservatism, Nesin had kept his diaries in Ottoman script and became a hafız (someone who has memorized The Qur’an) in his childhood. Nesin was the perfect symbol of the cultural crises Turkey experienced throughout the last century. Watching images of military tanks cutting citizens into two on the streets of Ankara, and the bomb attack and crying tourists in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, I wondered if Turkey’s formula for keeping those contradictions in uneasy harmony at home would survive the attacks against the country. With the rise of fear and violence, were we losing the nuance that is the inheritance of our shared history? Nesin’s story was also relevant for other parts of the world. After all, he was a composite of the kind of people a conservative society creates and the kind of person who passionately rebels against that culture.
For a long time Turkey has had a strictly secular regime that has often tipped into authoritarianism as it presides over a largely religious population. It was in this strained cultural atmosphere that Aziz Nesin lived and produced his work. After his death, a new wave of politicians reconfigured Turkey’s public sphere; this new politics, a combination of Islamism with modern economic growth, seemed to be on the verge of unravelling in the eyes of some through the past few years.
In Turkish, Aziz means Saint. Paradoxically it fits perfectly the country’s most famous atheist and stubborn provocateur. In 1993 Nesin started putting out his translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Not long ago, in my Istanbul apartment, I picked my copy of Rushdie’s 2012 autobiography Joseph Anton, where the novelist describes Nesin (“newspaper publisher and provocateur”) as an irritating, stubborn old man. Nesin’s Turkish edition of The Satanic Verses had infuriated Rushdie, who had first met him a year before the Satanic Verses controversy “when the Turkish writer was the one in trouble. Harold Pinter invited a group of writers to the Camden Hill Square house to organize a protest because Nesin had been told that Turkey had decided to confiscate his passport.”
Nesin’s troubles were due to his fierce criticism of the secular-nationalist junta that had usurped political power in Turkey. This was ironic, given how he was accused of being a secular-purist in his later life, despite having spent so much of his life fighting against the institution that most vigorously defended that stance. When Nesin started publishing unspecified extracts from The Satanic Verses in Aydınlık, a socialist newspaper, without having any agreement with him, Rushdie was shocked to see how his text was represented in Turkey.
The headline over the excerpts read SALMAN RUSHDIE: THINKER OR CHARLATAN? In the following days there were more extracts, and Nesin’s commentary on those extracts made it clear that he was firmly in the ‘charlatan’ camp. The Wylie Agency wrote to Nesin to tell him that piracy was piracy and, if he had, as he said, fought for the rights of writers for many years, would he be willing to object to Ayatollah Khomeini’s infringement of those rights? Nesin’s reply was as petulant as possible. He printed the agency’s letter in his newspaper, and commented, “Of what concern is Salman Rushdie’s cause to me?” He said he intended to continue publishing, and if Rushdie objected, “you may take us to court.”
Such was Nesin’s talent at getting on people’s nerves: as an iconoclast he continuously got into trouble with iconoclasts. In today’s Turkey he would most probably critique Islamists, secularists, and liberals with equal passion: he was an author who loved making waves. Besides Rushdie, the people Nesin drove crazy with his attitude included Turkish civil servants and prime ministers, generals and figures in the highest echelons of Turkish political power.
Like Christopher Hitchens, Nesin was a great contrarian: fighting authority was his lifeblood. It was, also, something that regularly cost him his freedom. In 1947, Nesin was sentenced to 10 months in prison for a piece he wrote; in 1955 he was imprisoned again, this time for nine months, accused of “organizing a communist plot.” He would most probably get into trouble in the Ergenekon trials in 2008, where around 300 journalists, opposition figures, and military officers were given life sentences for “plotting a secularist coup against the government.”
It was only in 1965, at the age of 50, that Nesin would be allowed to get a passport and travel abroad. He also angered some powerful people from outside Turkey — Queen Elizabeth no less. She had sued the Turkish humorist in court in 1949 for an article where Nesin was accused of degrading the monarch, alongside Iran’s King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and King Farouk of Egypt. A Turkish court accepted Queen Elizabeth’s application via Turkey’s Foreign Office, and Nesin went to prison for six months.
“When I first opened my eyes to this world, I was surrounded by fire,” Nesin writes in his autobiography, describing a scene eerily similar to the hotel fire that was meant to kill him. “My first memory in life is that of crimson colored flames that have covered the black sky entirely.” Nesin’s mother wakes him up and immediately takes and kisses The Qur’an in the room, carrying it with her before rescuing her daughter whom she leads out of the burning house. Such was the importance of the holy text in the Nesin house — and such was the continuous connection it would have with fires in Nesin’s life.
“I was not one bit scared by what had happened; the whole thing remained in my memory as if it was some kind of a nocturnal entertainment, a holiday celebration,” Nesin writes and describes how he spent the night in the graveyard. “It was either 1919 or 1920…My father was not around. He had moved to Anatolia much earlier, leaving us there like that…”
Abdülaziz, Nesin’s father, was a gardener who grew up in one of Istanbul’s Princes Islands, Heybeliada. Young Aziz had a fascinating relationship with this man who had fought in Turkey’s war of independence. Firstly, he owed him his name: born as Mehmet Nusret (the name of his grandfather), Aziz Nesin started using his father’s name when he became a writer, so as to keep away from the wrath of authorities. Secondly, he owed him his education: in order to enroll at Istanbul’s prestigious Darüşşafaka School, which only accepted orphans as students, he had to pretend that the man whose name he chose as his nom de plume, was dead.
One day in July two years ago, I took a ferry to Heybeliada where Nesin had lived before his family moved to Istanbul in 1928. It was a beautiful summer day and the private boat I took from the European neighborhood of Kabataş was filled with Arab tourists, young Turkish couples, pleasure-seeking Americans, and bike lovers who had carried their vehicles with them on board –they seemed like characters from a Nesin story. I had my Nesin books in my tote bag and was happy with the prospect of spending the day at Heybeliada, a great place to party, picnic, and cycle with its deserted beaches and its long, intricate roads that surround the island.
The ferry ride takes an hour and I spent it browsing through Nesin’s reminiscences of his childhood. “The day when the Bosphorus was frozen, the Istanbul pier was covered by towers of ice,” Nesin writes as he remembers the difficulty of commuting between Heybeliada and Istanbul every school day. “I saw icebergs which had the size of a two or three storied apartment block…From the windows of the ferry we watched the icebergs for awhile. Then dusk fell…All the ferries were canceled.” Nesin would take the 5:30 a.m. ferry every day from Heybeliada to Istanbul so as to be on time in Darüşşafaka School where lessons began at 8 a.m. After my arrival there, I walked on Heybeliada’s streets, trying to imagine the young humorist trying to make it to the ferry in time.
Nesin wrote his first play, which was five pages long, in 1922, before the founding of Turkish republic. In 1927, while at high school, he sent letters to publishers about his desire to write a novel, but those dreams were cut short when he lost his mother to tuberculosis. When, subsequently, the Turkish government introduced a “Surname Law” and asked all citizens to pick a surname, he found himself in the curious position of choosing a surname for himself. His surname Nesin came from the question he desired to ask himself throughout his life — Nesin means “What are you?” in Turkish. “The most close-fisted called themselves ‘Generous’ while the most fearful citizens picked the surname ‘Brave’ and the laziest among us became ‘Hardworking,'” he later recalled. This was one of Nesin’s earliest encounters with the absurdities of his country.
In 1937 Nesin became an officer and later confessed to feeling “like a Napoleon…I was among the many Napoleons in the Turkish army…I would conquer the world a few times every day with my red pencil. My Napoleon delusion went on for a few years. But even during my sickness I never became a fascist.” From 1942, he started sending out short stories, and started using the name Aziz Nesin for the first time. By 1945 he was writing for the left-wing newspaper Tan. The next year, he started publishing the satirical magazine Marko Paşa with his novelist friend Sabahattin Ali (Ali’s masterpiece, Madonna in a Fur Coat, was published in English translation by Penguin Classics this year). The wry tone of the paper proved a big success: Turkey’s leading newspaper Cumhuriyet, had a dead serious style and ultra-nationalist editorial line at the time, frequently denouncing dissident figures like the poet Nâzım Hikmet as “enemies of the republic” in Pravda fashion. It sold 30,000 copies every day; Marko Paşa which mocked everything with trademark irreverence, sold 60,000.
Nesin had a particular sense of humor based on a thoroughgoing disregard of authority, which in the 1940s was represented by the secular-republican single-party regime. He loved giving a difficult time to three Ps of Turkey: police, politicians, and the People with a capital p. The first Nesin accused of being ineffective and useless, focused only on stifling freedoms. In his story “I am Sorry” a man shouts non-stop for police to inform them about a crime that is about be committed. “A man is going to be murdered in that building over there,” he informs a police officer who ignores him: “I’m sorry, I can’t interfere in this matter…Because I am a police officer controlling the traffic. If I leave my post, who do you think will look after the traffic muddle?” Another cop turns him down, giving the excuse that his duty is to check the rates of vegetables fixed by the Municipal Corporation. Next, a crime branch officer tells him he only deals with theft cases; another says he is on leave that day. As he loses all hope a man approaches him to say: “If you really want the police to come right to your feet, go to that open space across the road, stand on a soap box and start delivering a forceful speech.” When he gets onto a soap box and utters the words “Fellow countrymen! Isn’t it disgraceful living like this in our own country?” policemen materialize in four corners, hold the man by his collar, and take him away, still paying no attention to the crime that has just been committed nearby. This is not terribly different from what imprisoned journalists have often felt in Turkey: you can publicly threaten people with death and little happens to you, while journalism is frequently considered a crime, often an act of treason.
In a similarly surreal story named “A Unique Surgical Operation,” Nesin shifts his focus to Turkish politicians. He describes scenes from the fictional International Surgical Congress where prominent doctors from 23 countries read scientific papers on various subjects. An American surgeon announces his plans to completely change a person’s fingerprints, while a British surgeon manages to replant a soldier’s severed head on his body, years after his death. Meanwhile a German surgeon collects the surviving organs of dead bodies to convert them into a live human. Finally, on the last day of the congress, a delegate climbs the podium to talk about a recent operation he performed, involving the removal of his patient’s tonsils. The audience, shocked with the simplicity of the invention, mocks the doctor when he tells them: “Do you know who the person was whose tonsils I removed? Worthy friends! Let me tell you that my patient was a journalist.” This is followed by a speech about the lack of freedom in Turkey. “Accordingly, journalists were not allowed to open their mouth at all. As my patient happened to be a journalist, I had no alternative but to approach his diseased tonsils through an opening other than his gagged mouth.” All doctors agree that this is the most unique and difficult surgical operation proposed in the congress. This cynical and absurd tone has proved popular among readers who would be irritated when Nesin’s criticisms started targeting them.
During a panel, a fan asked Nesin whether Turks were very clever as descendants of Nasreddin, the 14-century Sufi and folk hero known for his wit and funny stories. Nesin answered that 60 percent of Turkish people were stupid. He later explained those inflammatory remarks and said the stupidity was connected to “the national diet,” which did not include enough proteins. In interviews with the German press, Nesin was asked whether those comments were not similar to things racist and xenophobic politicians and journalists said about immigrant Turks. But Nesin didn’t take back his words: in old age he became a more passionate contrarian. This would surely give him a difficult time in today’s Turkey, where “condescension” has become a key concept in public debates. It would be easy to instrumentalize instances of Nesin’s condescension towards Turkey’s people, and easily condescend the condescending figure — but then again, Nesin could turn that into comedy as well.
In Heybeliada, I started climbing the steep uphill that starts from the pier and leads to the island’s residential areas, where numerous luxurious mansions and hotels are located. Walking past them I thought of Nesin’s father Abdülaziz, a committed supporter of the Sultan, in whose house Nesin spent his first years. I thought about the Ottoman-loving father and the communist child, and how their relationship so closely resembled contemporary father-son relationships in Turkey.
I wandered around the island, which has a museum devoted to İsmet İnönü, Turkey’s second president, under whose single-party rule Nesin suffered intensely, and another for the novelist Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar. When I spotted the offices of Heybeliada Volunteers Organization at the end of the road, I was sure that they could point me toward Nesin’s home. “Aziz Nesin?” the volunteer lady asked, looking as if she heard the name for the first time. “I don’t believe we have anything on him.” When I asked a real estate office about his house, I was told that Orhan Pamuk used to live on Heybeliada but they knew nothing about Nesin.
“No one, including Nesin himself, could find the house he grew up in,” Süleyman Cihangiroğlu tells me a month after my 2015 visit to Heybeliada. “He went to the island many times but just couldn’t locate that house.” We are sitting in the garden of the Nesin Foundation, run by Cihangiroğlu for the last six years. Under the shadow of a long tree, I listen to stories about how Nesin was devastated by the loss of his mother whilst living in Heybeliada. “Nesin was very young when she died of tuberculosis. In his later life, he always tried to find in his love affairs a resemblance of her.”
Cihangiroğlu was born in Şırnak in 1977, four years after the foundation of the Nesin Foundation. He comes from a family of 12 children; one of his elder brothers, a fan of Aziz Nesin, was aware of the existence of the foundation, which Nesin wrote about in special chapters in his books published throughout the 1980s (“The way Nesin gave news about the foundation in his books was a bit like Facebook status updates,” Cihangiroğlu says).
The foundation is in Çatalca, around two hours’ drive from the centre of Istanbul. Founded to educate children in need of help, it accommodates around 40 kids a year. Graduates, still called “Nesin kids,” rarely stop visiting the place after their “graduation,” which occurs when kids achieve financial independence.
Cihangiroğlu first came to the foundation in 1990. “My brother had written a letter to Nesin and asked him to be allowed to stay here. Nesin wrote back, saying that although he seems like a bright kid, he was too old. ‘Bring two of your younger brothers here.'” This would be the first time Cihangiroğlu traveled outside Şırnak, which at the time was at the heart of the conflict between the Turkish state and armed Kurdish militants. While writing this piece, the city again turned into a violent place, with the intensification of the armed conflict between the Turkish army and militants of PKK, leading many to flee their homes and move to western cities.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before the day we traveled here,” Cihangiroğlu remembers. “In my room I drew a straight line from Şırnak to here. I tried to imagine what kind of a journey it would be.” When he arrived one late night, Nesin was not inside, having gone abroad for a book tour. It took Cihangiroğlu only a few hours to get used to living at the foundation. “By the next day, it was as if I had been living here my whole life,” he says.
When I took a walk in the foundation building I was surprised to see how many facilities it contained: a swimming pool, a basketball pitch, a carpentry atelier, large reading rooms with comfy sofas, a huge library that houses thousands of books, and a museum floor filled with Nesin’s personal items. In one room I was startled by the sound of notes. A little boy, who had come inside unannounced, was playing the piano by the wall.
“I used to call him Aziz Dede (Grandfather Aziz),” Cihangiroğlu says. “He was this figure that all the kids really respected and were a bit afraid of. Thanks to him I had a great childhood.”
While growing up, Cihangiroğlu discovered how famous Aziz Nesin was. He read all his books, no mean feat when you consider Nesin wrote more than 100. In the 1980s, after the military coup, Nesin’s tireless defense of human rights and freedom of speech got him into trouble. In his role as the lead campaigner of Aydınlar Dilekçesi (The Intellectuals’ Petition), Nesin had infuriated the generals in 1984. Submitted to the Presidency and the leader of Turkish parliament on May 1984, the petition was entitled “Observations and Demands Concerning the Democratic Order in Turkey.” It started in a stark tone (“Turkey is undergoing one of its heaviest crisis which is yet to come to an end. Without a doubt, all sectors, levels and officials of our society are responsible for this massive crisis”) and highlighted the importance of democracy. “Preserving it formally while clearing it of its contents, is as dangerous as destroying democracy.”
The petition called for an immediate end to torture and demands from the state “to follow legal rules whilst fighting acts of terror.” Signed by 1,300 intellectuals, the text had drawn the fury of President Kenan Evren, who called its signatories “a group of intellectuals who don’t know better” before suing them en masse. “Everyone speaks against Evren and his coup today,” Cihangiroğlu tells me in the garden of the foundation. “But it demanded guts to say these things in the 1980s and Nesin did have guts. Many old leftists who had taken asylum in Europe in 1980s now come to Nesin Foundation and tell us how they had disagreements with Nesin (some of them hated him). ‘Now we respect him for his fight against the dictators; he never left the country like we did!’ they confess.”
After the “Intellectuals’ Petition” and the Satanic Verses controversy, which ended in disaster, Nesin was a tired man. It was during this time that the German journalist Günter Wallraff wanted to put right “the misunderstanding” between Nesin and Rushdie and brought them together. Rushdie described the meeting in detail:
He flew from Biggin Hill to Colongne, and at Günter’s home the great journalist and his wife were loud, jovial and welcoming, and Wallraff insisted they play Ping-Pong at once. Wallraff turned out to be a strong player and won most of the games. Aziz Nesin, a small, stocky, silver-haired man, did not come to the Ping-Pong table. He looked like what he was; a badly shaken man who was also unhappy with the company he was in. He sat in a corner and brooded. This was not promising. In the first formal conversation between them, with Wallraff acting as interpreter, Nesin continued to be as scornful as he had been in Aydınlık.
Wallraff’s attempts at reconciling two secularist writers ended successfully: “in the end Nesin, muttering and grumbling, extended his hand. There was a brief hand clasp followed by an even briefer hug and a photograph in which everyone looked ill at ease and then Wallraff cried, ‘Good! Now we are all friends!’ and took them all for a motorboat ride on the Rhine…Wallraff’s people had filmed the whole event and put together a news item featuring Nesin and himself in which they jointly denounced religious fanaticism and the weakness of the West’s responses to it. In public at least, the rift was healed. Aziz Nesin and he had no further contact, Nesin lived on for two years, until a heart attack bore him away.”
After Nesin’s death in 1995, his mathematician son Ali became the president of the foundation. Cihangiroğlu remembers how all their income had come from sales of Nesin’s books when he was alive; after his death the sales dropped dramatically and Ali Nesin decided to invest all their money in real estate. One third of their income comes from rent, a third from donations, and a third from book sales (they founded Nesin Publications in 2004; the publishing house sold 270,000 copies of Nesin books last year).
On the birthday of Nesin on December 27, 2009, the directorship of the foundation was handed to Cihangiroğlu, who was 32 at the time. “My father had written in his will that one of our kids should run the foundation in the future,” Ali Nesin told him.
Before leaving the foundation, I took a walk in the garden where Nesin’s dream of building a space free from rules and punishments seems to have come true. As I looked at children from different ages sleeping in the shade of trees, I was reminded of Nesin’s perpetual desire to pay his debt to the society he was born in. The state had treated him in the most cruel manner imaginable. And yet, this man of contradictions and surprises always felt that he had to pay his debt to the state, and the people he loved to shock with his views. “You don’t owe me a thing,” Nesin had told Cihangiroğlu shortly before his death. “You owe Socrates and Edison for what they did for humanity. You should be worthy of our species. That is all I ask from you.”
Back in Istanbul I visited DEPO gallery, a former tobacco warehouse, to see their show “A Life Overflowing: Aziz Nesin.” Bringing together letters, diaries, notes, unpublished texts, drawings, cartoons, and objects from Nesin’s archive, this was a meticulously researched show. That it was exhibited in Tophane, one of Istanbul’s most passionately conservative neighborhoods, made it even more interesting.
In November 2015, I talked to the show’s curator Işın Önol, who devoted months to researching Nesin’s legacy. “I had read Nesin’s work before but I didn’t know his writing enough to curate a show about him,” Önol says, before confessing to have assumed that Nesin was a staunch republican.
“I discovered that he was instead a staunch critic of the People’s Republican party.” Önol realized that the problem lied with her own wish to classify and pigeonhole the great humorist. Like many of us living in Turkey, she had forgotten about the nuance; the grey area Nesin had spent his life in. “I was reading his notes about the Yassıada trials, where the conservative prime minister of Turkey Adnan Menderes was tried for treason. I assumed that Nesin would be in support of the mentality that hung Menderes. Instead I saw how he acted like a scientist: he looks at everything from a critical perspective.” Describing Nesin as unorthodox in his desire to have democracy not only for himself but also for others, Önol believes that Nesin was gravely misunderstood as a result of the political convictions of people who supported him.
“Nesin struggled for the freedom of expression of all people, whatever their belief, and whatever cost he would have to pay,” Önol says. The legacy of Nesin showed itself during the first week of the exhibition, when someone threw paint on the exhibition poster outside DEPO, a sign that the thick air of anxiety that surrounded Nesin’s name was still with us.
“It was not a violent act but rather an amateurish one,” Önol muses. “We thought that if the attackers went inside the building and visited the exhibition, they might not have done what they did.” The exhibition team chose not to inform the press about the incident.
“In the past, DEPO Gallery has opened numerous exhibitions which courageously questioned issues like the Kurdish and Armenian question,” Önol tells me. “Despite being located in a sensitive place like Tophane, it was never attacked. And yet we were aware of having this exhibition about a writer whom people wanted to burn alive in Sivas in 1993. Inescapably we felt anxious about what could happen.” After the event, thousands of new visitors flocked to Tophane; the increased interest forced Önol’s team to extend the show.
Nesin’s life was illustrative of the contradictions of Turkey, a young country, in the 21st century. Twenty-one years after his death, as I took the ferry from Heybeliada to Kabataş after another visit to Nesin’s childhood locale, it seemed like the nuance Nesin represented so passionately amidst all those contradictions was worth fighting to preserve. In a public rally in Istanbul in August, secularist republicans and conservatives marched together, as right-wing politicians read poems by the Marxist Nâzım Hikmet, and left-wing leaders voiced conservative sounding views. Nesin’s island was serene and distant from the violence of the July 15 coup attempt and I felt sad to leave it. From my seat in the ferry, the same ferry Turkey’s greatest humorist took to school at 5:30 a.m. everyday, I could see the outlines of Istanbul growing larger and larger, like Nesin’s legacy itself.
Images: The Nesin Foundation, courtesy of the author
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
Feeling overwhelmed by a profound sense of inadequacy brought on by the growing list of “Before You Die” lists, I recently hunted down a book that I suspect may have started it all – one that, at least, surely inspired the authors of books like A Lifetime Reading Plan and Book Lust.
The List of Books: A library of over 3,000 works was published in 1981 by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. It’s a slim volume with an unusual page configuration — more than twice as tall as it is wide. In a scant 159 pages, Raphael and McLeish list more than 3,000 titles grouped into 44 categories, mostly non-fiction, with allowances made for drama, poetry, and novels. The intent, in their own words, was to design “an imaginary library … in which a reasonably literate person can hope to find both instruction and inspiration, art and amusement.”
Back in the 1980s, I borrowed this book from the library a lot. I always meant to buy it. For whatever reason, the book never saw a third printing, so it disappeared from brick and mortar bookstores (dozens are available on Amazon for a penny) and I forgot about it. It last rolled off the press in 1988 — so long ago that one could read the “newest” titles recommended by the authors and likely not find a single reference to the Internet.
What sets The List apart from its younger cousins are the thirteen Michelin Guide-type symbols (a magnifying glass, an American flag, an armchair, etc.) that Raphael and McLeish used to flag titles as (for example) a “major masterpiece,” a “seminal work that changed our thinking,” “a particular pleasure to read,” and so on. Some are “recommended for beginners on the subject” while more advanced volumes are deemed “difficult, worth preserving.”
These symbols of literary merit are liberally scattered throughout. Many titles have none; some boast as many as half a dozen — like Plato’s Phaedo, which is: 1) a particular pleasure to read, 2) a seminal book that changed our thinking, 3) a standard work on the subject, 4) recommended for beginners in the subject, 5) a major masterpiece that is 6) not to be missed.
As a teenager, the titles that most interested me were those flagged by a magnifying glass or an asterisk, with the former denoting “difficult; worth preserving” and the latter “infuriating; possibly illuminating.” This second category was particularly exciting. I figured an “infuriating” book demanded more of a reader than one that was merely “difficult.” A book so supremely difficult that it was … infuriating! Yet, with sufficient intellectual energy brought to bear, the serious reader might crack the code and bask in the glow of illumination. Honestly, these were not books I was likely to read, but they were books I wanted to know about.
Recently, I found The List of Books at the library — the same library, in fact, where I first encountered it a quarter of a century ago, raising the delightful possibility that it was the same copy that I held in my hands so long ago. Once again, I drifted toward “difficult” and “infuriating,” curious to know how decades had colored my perceptions and whether my original interpretation was correct.
Sixty-one titles, clustered mostly in history and politics, are ranked as “infuriating.” The subjectivity of the entire enterprise became clear, and I found myself slipping into the same indignant space late 20th century critics occupied when demanded to know why this or that title was excluded from a “Best Books of the 20th Century” list. I haven’t actually read Lewis Morgan’s Ancient Society, for example, but I know enough about it (and that counts for something, doesn’t it?) to know that excluding it from the list is an abomination. Questions abound. How can Peter Brooks’s 1968 treatise on dramatic theory be termed a seminal work that is both difficult and recommended for beginners? Why in the world is Ulysses not flagged as difficult?
Initially, my first hunch seemed correct. Reviewing these 61 titles, one gets the impression that Raphael and McLeish were highlighting books they believed were extremely difficult to read. Studies in Ethnomethodology, after all, can’t be a book you fly through. And the reader comments section on Amazon.com for Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero includes a telling remark: Writing Degree Zero is one of those 100-page books you need a 500-page book to really understand,” writes Mark Nadja. “You know you’re in trouble when, like me, you find yourself having a problem fully comprehending even the `explanatory’ preface.”
So it makes sense that Marx’s Das Capital is in the club, because — his brilliance notwithstanding — the man’s prose was frequently impregnable. But the exception to that rule complicates matters: The Communist Manifesto, a slim volume that happens to be very readable (thanks largely to the fact, one suspects, that Engels was there from the get-go to help). The Book of Lists would have you believe that it, like Capital, is also infuriating. Why?
At this point, it’s helpful to recall that the root of “infuriate” is fury, which begs the question: Do the bourgeoisie authors consider Marx, regardless of the difficulty of his prose, infuriating because he enraged their mid-19th century cousins? How could anyone have been infuriated by Capital, when few people likely even understood what the hell he was talking about?
The implication here seems to be that “infuriating” means “controversial.” It makes sense, then, to include Richard Aldington’s scandalous biography, Lawrence of Arabia — one so hostile toward its subject that one Amazon reviewer has said reading it is “like standing under a waterfall of venom.” But if Aldington gets to be infuriating for throwing darts at T.E. Lawrence, why does Jerzy Kosinski get a pass for screwing around with the Holocaust? His controversial 1965 novel The Painted Bird appears in the list, but it didn’t make the “infuriating” cut. Curious, since many readers were infuriated to learn that Kosinski may not even have written it.
“Infuriating” clearly works both ways. I cannot believe, for example, that Robert Graves retelling of The Greek Myths is infuriating for any of the same reasons that Jean Paul-Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is. I haven’t read the latter, but I’ll bet it’s a sonofabitch to get through.
Consider William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (which doesn’t appear in the list), the book Allen Ginsberg famously predicted would “drive everybody mad.” An obvious reference to the fact that the novel is incomprehensible. Naked Lunch is a notoriously difficult text – one might say infuriatingly so. I actually have read it, but it didn’t make me angry. I can understand, however, why June and Ward Cleaver would have been appalled if they’d found a dog-eared copy and a flashlight stuffed under Beaver’s pillow.
It seems to me that if we’re considering a book’s capacity to illicit genuine fury, it cannot merely ruffle feathers within a community of specialists. Sigfried Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition is deemed “infuriating,” but who, other than architects, becomes infuriated by a 960-page book about architecture? This seems insufficient. In my lifetime, the publication of a book that infuriates the general population has been a rare event. The Satanic Verses comes to mind, although that presents a different problem: The vast majority of those angered by Salman Rushdie’s book never actually read it.
Isn’t that the case, really, with most “infuriating” books? How many people actually finished (or even started) American Psycho? I’m no different when it comes to judging books by the covers. While perusing the history shelf at a bookstore recently, I saw a book called Being George Washington, by Glenn Beck, and immediately felt a sensation that approximated fury. The history shelf! A low-grade fury, to be sure; it wasn’t what I’d feel if someone harmed my child. But having observed the Beck phenomenon closely over the years, I feel justified saying that the man has no more business writing authoritatively and insightfully about George Washington than I do writing a book called Space, Time and Architecture. And yet, I never picked it up; its very existence enrages me.
But I’m neglecting the rest of the phrase denoted by an asterisk: These books are not only infuriating, but “possibly illuminating.” What does that mean? Possibly illuminating? The author may sound like he’s on crack, but we concede he may be on to something! Or: If you’re not a complete imbecile, you may learn something by reading this book.
This is a minor matter, to be sure. One reader’s “infuriating” is another’s “exhilarating.” The bigger problem with The List of Books, of course, is that it’s horribly outdated. It has a science and technology section devoid of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Ernst Mayer, David Quammen, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould or even Carl Sagan. A current “paranormal and occult” section without Whitley Strieber’s Communion books is like a list of best fantasy novels that excludes The Lord of the Rings. Speaking of fantasy, a similar problem looms over in children’s literature: No Harry Potter. Also, since 1981, graphic novels have evolved light years beyond the cheap paper they were once printed on. Consequently, those relying on The List of Books to decide which titles to scrape together in anticipation of the Zombie Apocalypse would remain oblivious to the work of Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, and Craig Thompson. Not to mention The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. Which might come in handy.
Three decades on, The List of Books highlights better than its many predecessors the ephemeral quality of all lists of books and other artistic works. It’s a simple – and perhaps even instinctive – matter to argue about or even dismiss a list of the “best” (although perhaps not “favorite”) books because of this or that inclusion/exclusion. What, after all, is wrong with debate? Ultimately, the lesson we ought to take from Raphael and McLeish is the importance of embracing our Amazon- and Goodreads- and Riffle-fed obsession with listography. The sheer number and availability of our book lists may be infuriating, but they are often a pleasure to read. And even possibly illuminating.
A religious tyrant decides that Salman Rushdie should die for writing a “blasphemous” book. For ten years he is forced to flee from one safe-house to another with no one for company but his bodyguards and an increasingly estranged wife. How does he pass the time?
How about video games?
In his newly released memoir Joseph Anton, which is narrated in the third person, Rushdie briefly describes how he went through a phase when he found himself immersed in Super Mario Bros, the popular Nintendo game that his son Zafar taught him to play.
Those were dark days for the 41-year-old writer. Every morning brought fresh reports of either The Satanic Verses being burnt or him being burnt in effigy. Then came the chilling news that the police had foiled a group of assassins dispatched from overseas to execute the fatwa. If it sounded straight out of a bigoted video game, well, it wasn’t – or not yet, at least. But more on that later.
Given Rushdie’s lonely and claustrophobic circumstances in what his late friend Christopher Hitchens called “the time of the toad,” it was scarcely surprising that the fantasy-loving novelist whose favorite childhood stories were The Wizard of Oz and The Arabian Nights should occasionally transform himself into Mario the mustachioed plumber and run away to Mushroom Kingdom. The magic console was the next best thing to a magic carpet or magic lamp, and it quickly became the “Genie-come-lately” in his fantasy arsenal. It helped that in this digital world of magical mushrooms and fire flowers, he was hunter rather than hunted. A vital role reversal, even if his wife didn’t think so.
Marianne came around and scolded him for playing video games. Thanks to Zafar, he had grown fond of Mario the plumber and his brother Luigi and sometimes Super Mario World felt like a happy alternative to the one he lived in the rest of the time. “Read a good book,” his wife told him scornfully. “Give it up.” He lost his temper. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” he exploded, and she made a grand exit.
And, gleefully, a few days later:
Alone at Hermitage Lane he reached the end of his Super Mario game, defeating the big bad Bowser himself and rescuing the insufferably pink Princess Toadstool. He was glad Marianne was not there to witness his triumph.
Rushdie’s triumph must have dissipated quite rapidly, however, when reality intruded with cruel irony in the form of a flesh-and-blood West Indian plumber who showed up at the shoddy safe-house to fix the central heating, forcing him to scurry out of sight and “hide in the bathroom for several hours, drenched in the now habitual sweat of shame.”
But no experience is wasted on a writer who is a compulsive memory-miner, and Rushdie put his video-game expertise to good use in the two children’s novels he wrote for his sons, though the second, Luka and the Fire of Life, is more directly indebted to Mario and Luigi than the first. The first, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was dedicated to Zafar and written during the fatwa years, investing it with an immediacy that gave it a haunting power. Easily the most enchanting of Rushdie’s many novels, this allegorical tale about the war between Storytelling and Silence was an acutely topical portrayal of the synchronous real-world battle between free speech and fanaticism. In the novel, one of young Haroun’s tasks is to rescue the talkative and tuneless Princess Batcheat (baatcheat is the Urdu word for conversation) from Khattam-Shud, the emperor of Silence. Was the chatterbox Princess a reincarnation of the “insufferably pink Princess Toadstool?” And did Mario inspire the character of the mustachioed water genie Iff, who uses his plumber’s wrench to turn on and turn off the faucet through which the Stream of Stories flows via “a P2C2E” (Process too Complicated to Explain)?
It certainly seems like it. But where the impact of Super Mario bursts forth in full bloom is in Luka and the Fire of Life, which Rushdie wrote for younger son, Milan. (Incidentally, Rushdie, with an over 4,00,000 Twitter following, is quite the Geek Dad. He plays Angry Birds on his iPhone and when asked by the Wall Street Journal how he, living in New York, had managed to tell his boys in London bedtime stories, he replied, “There’s Skype and Apple’s Facetime.”) Luka is an Arabian Nights-meets-Nintendo novel in which “Super-Luka” is cast as a modern-day Prometheus who sets out to execute “the most deliciously Disrespectful Deed in All of Time.” Namely, to steal the fire of life and carry it back home in order to wake his beloved storyteller father Rashid Khalifa from his fatal coma-like sleep.
The young boy’s quest is constructed almost exactly like a Super Mario video game. He is given 999 lives, and has to pass through several levels of increasing difficulty to reach the magic fire. Each level is given a suitably video game-sounding title – the Respectorate of Rats, the Mists of Time, the Great Stagnation, the Inescapable Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths and the Great Rings of Fire. Each time an enemy pots him with a loud BLLLAAARRRTT!, Luka loses one or more of his lives and bursts into “millions of shiny fragments” that join up again with “loud sucking noises.” Each time he clears a level, he saves his progress by punching a gold ball, which makes a loud and satisfying Ding. Eventually, after going through many “bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels” and P2C2Es and magical M2C2D (Machines too Complicated to Describe), the plucky fire-thief and his friends ding their way to victory.
Naturally, a punster like Rushdie couldn’t pass up the temptation to game with the word “console.” Early in the novel, Luka’s mother, Soraya, who disapproves strongly of her son’s love of video games, angrily asks her husband if all these “hedgehogs and plumbers” will help improve their son’s poor handwriting. Rashid, a genial stand-in for Rushdie, is actually quite sympathetic about Luka’s gaming passion. Which is bad enough as far as his wife as is concerned, but then he makes the additional mistake of correcting her mid-rant to say that the right term for the “pisps” and “wees” her son is addicted to – “Such names! They sound like going to the bathroom or what” – is console. At which point, she stages a grand exit from the room (like Marianne?) declaring over her shoulder: “I am in-console-able.”
On a more serious note, video games seem to hold a special appeal for Rushdie for reasons that go the very heart of his writing. First, as glorious purveyors of an “infinite number of parallel realities,” they fit perfectly into his exuberant mosaic of magical realism in which everything from the mythological and historical to tabloid headlines jostle for space. Which other writer can give you Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Akbar, and Angelina Jolie in one line? And what other game allows the player to become a “plumber” or a “zooming hedgehog” or even an “Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles?”
The other reason is the discursive narrative architecture of a video game, a non-linearity which he finds fascinating. Rushdie’s elliptical, story-within-story, detour-friendly, digression-heavy style is anything but linear. It can be maddening when he overdoes it, and he often does, but also richly rewarding if one just goes along for the ride. His books are not clean, blue Olympic swimming pools where each story has the good manners to stick to its own lane. Rather, they are an unruly and inquisitive and shape-shifting Ocean of Stories, into which hundreds of rivulets from different centuries and cultures – or streams of our collective sub-conscious, if you like – pour to pollute and mingle and fertilize one another.
Over the last few decades, with the exponential growth in the popularity of video games, writers have often been asked about the impact of these games on the future of the novel. Few have responded with as much insight as Rushdie did two years ago in this excellent Big Think interview. It’s worth listening to it in full. While he agreed that the concerns are legitimate and that too much gaming could have a dumbing-down effect and perhaps even erode man’s ancient attachment to the story, he made a powerful case for the new form. It interested him, he said, because of “the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided. He doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time. There are all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find mini stories to stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story. I think that really interests me as a storyteller…To tell the story sideways.”
It’s no coincidence that one of the trickiest levels that Luka has to pass through is called The Trillion and One Forking Paths. This was Rushdie doffing his cap to Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” widely credited with having predicted hypertext on the Internet. “I’ve always thought of the Borges story of the garden of the forking paths as a kind of model,” Rushdie said in the same interview.
It’s a story whose author has gone mad because what he’s tried to do is to offer every possible variation of every moment. So boy meets girl, they fall in love or they don’t fall in love. That’s the first fork. And he wants to tell both those stories and every variation of every moment down both those lines. And of course it’s like nuclear fission. The possibilities explode into millions and billions of possibilities and it becomes impossible to write the book. It seems to me, the internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad possibilities offered at the same level of authority, if you like. I think that’s one of the ways storytelling could move. These games, these more free-form games, where the player can make choices of what the game is going to become, is a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility.
To loop back to the fatwa years where it all began, it’s quite strange that video games should continue to pop up in the relationship between Rushdie and Iran. Though the fatwa was lifted more than ten years ago, the present government evidently has no qualms about stoking the old death diktat. Earlier this year, the government-sponsored Islamic Students Association in Iran, as if determined to prove that history repeats itself as farce, announced that it had completed initial production on a video game called The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict. Two years ago, Rushdie told Big Think that in his opinion the great conflict in the world today is not so much the conflict between the West and the Islamic world but the conflict within Islam, between modernity and tradition, between the youth and the greybeard mullahs. This held true for Iran too, he said, and joked: “I often think the best way to liberate Iran is to drop Nintendo consoles from the air.” On second thought, perhaps not.
Publicity image via nintendo
In the fifth episode of the hit sitcom New Girl, a self-styled stud tries to impress an Indian-American woman by declaring that he loves India. When pressed for details, he stumbles his way through the following catalogue:
I love Slumdog. I love naan. I love pepper. I love Ben Kingsley, the stories of Rudyard Kipling. I have respect for cows, of course. I love the Taj Mahal, Deepak Chopra, anyone named Patel. I love monsoons. I love cobras in baskets…I love mango chutney, really, any type of chutney.
The point is clear: the average American’s knowledge of Indian culture is superficial, stereotypical, and offensive. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the joke — and an Indian-American woman in a leading role on primetime TV — confirms how much Indian culture has permeated American pop culture. This should not be surprising: With a population that increased to 2.8 million from 1.7 million between 2000 and 2010, Indians are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They may also be one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in literary fiction — in America and the larger Anglophone world.
Fiction written in English by authors of Indian descent has been critically acclaimed and commercially successful for decades. Now a new wave of talent has arrived: In 2012, the Indian-American writers Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James published their debut short story collections — I Am An Executioner: Love Stories and Aerogrammes, respectively — while British-Indian author Hari Kunzru published his fourth novel, Gods Without Men: While it may be too soon for these authors to have achieved the heavyweight status of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, their imaginative, provocative, and well-crafted books suggest the continuation of a literary legacy and a move into “post-post-colonial,” “post-ethnic” territory.
Parameswaran, James, and Kunzru inherit three decades of Anglo-Indian literary success. Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children, about a boy born on the precise moment of Indian Independence, won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. His most notorious novel The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini that sparked international controversy and massive sales, an experience upon which he reflects in his memoir Joseph Anton, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. In recent years, the Booker has gone to Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, a hybrid of Invisible Man and Native Son set on the subcontinent. And as recently announced, the six authors shortlisted for the 2012 Booker includes Jeet Thayil, born in India, raised in Hong Kong, India and the U.S., and the author of the novel Narcopolis, about a 1970s opium den.
The new wave is also indebted to Lahiri, who rocked the American lit establishment — and book clubs nationwide — with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by the novel, The Namesake, later a Mira Nair-directed movie, and Unaccustomed Earth, another stunning and more ambitious story collection that cemented Lahiri’s reputation as the marquee Indian-American fiction writer and a master of short fiction.
Beyond heritage, Parameswaran, Kunzru, and James have similar pedigrees. Parameswaran went to Yale for college and law school, Kunzru went to Oxford, and James went to college at Harvard and grad school at Columbia. (Rushdie went to Cambridge). Too old to be wunderkind, all are still young by literary standards: James is 31, Parameswaran is 40, and Kunzru is 43. And while they hail from Michigan and Texas, Kentucky, and London, all three now live in the New York area. Perhaps a brunch is in order?
True to their heritage, all three address issues of Indian identity. In the central storyline of Gods, an Indian-American man marries a Jewish-American woman and the incipient tensions in their marriage combust after their son disappears. In “Ethnic Ken,” a story in Aerogrammes, an Indian-American girl plays with a brown-skinned version of Barbie’s boyfriend; the doll apparently cost half the price of the “regular” Ken. In one of the many tragicomic stories in Executioner, an unemployed Indian computer salesman pretends to be a doctor — the paradigmatic profession for high-status Indian Americans — with ghastly consequences. In their treatment of ethnicity, all three books join Lahiri in a subgenre that one of James’s characters, an aspiring screenwriter, calls “not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.”
Nevertheless, all three authors transcend the stereotypical expectations of “ethnic” fiction, including the notion that characters must share their author’s ethnicity.
Several stories in Executioner and Aerogrammes feature non-Indian characters. And the Indian-American protagonist in Gods shares a stage with non-Indians including an 18th-century Spaniard, a 19th-century Mormon, and a contemporary (Caucasian) British rock star. Even among the Indian characters, there is diversity: James’s Indian characters speak Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, Kunzru’s Indian characters speak Punjabi, spoken in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, and Parameswaran’s titular executioner speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” Such simple differences may remind Western readers that India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot and internationally engaged country, not a monolithic, homogenous, insular place.
As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters. The narrator of one story in Executioner is an elephant; another is a murderous, guilt-stricken tiger, a literal version of Adiga’s titular “white tiger.” A story in Aerogrammes concerns a chimpanzee that nearly convinces a woman he is human. Strangest of all, Gods opens with a cryptic fable with characters named Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, Southern Fox, and the protagonist Coyote, who sets up a meth lab in the desert. Take that, Kipling.
Regardless of species, all three books grapple with physical, emotional, and existential despair, albeit in different tones and moods. Gods is cerebral, somber, and grim. As he did in the reverse outsourcing fable Transmission, Kunzru assaults his characters until they break, and relents only after they have lost nearly everything. (For the film, perhaps Werner Herzog or P.T. Anderson could direct?) By contrast, Aerogrammes is sweet, sad, and painfully earnest. Characters are naïve, blind, or delusional, whether it’s the Indian wrestlers who don’t realize the sport is supposed to be fake, or the boy who refuses accept his mother’s new husband. There’s pain suffering in Executioner, too but it’s often undercut by humor or an authorial wink, either implied or in meta-fictional parentheses or footnotes.
While Aerogrammes essentially falls into the category of realist fiction, Parameswaran and Kunzru flirt with other genres. Besides the two talking animal stories, Executioner includes a spy thriller, “Narrative of Agent 974702,” and a science fiction tale, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319).” Perhaps most fantastical — yet paradoxically most credible — is the cult at the center of Gods, a desert commune that fuses Christianity, Buddhism, New Age, and Alien Worship into an explosive whole. Then again, as Kunzru semi-subtly implies, such a group is not so different than the Europeans who Christianized Native Americans or Mormons who found Zion in the American West.
While fundamentally contemporary, all three books derive depth from history. In Executioner, the meta-fictional tale “Four Rajeshes” concerns a railway clerk in colonial India at the turn of the 20th century and his version of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The opening story in Aerogrammes features a pair of Indian wrestlers who arrive in England in 1910 to engage in literal and figurative battles with their colonial overlords. Perhaps because it is a novel, Gods is even more historically ambitious, with a storyline that spans more than 200 years. Ultimately, all three authors use history to transcend personal experience, shattering the expectation that “ethnic” fiction must be autobiographical. In a way, they all respond to the question that Rushdie poses in Joseph Anton when recalling his inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses:
The great question of how the world joins up — not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.
In terms of style and structure, Aerogrammes is the most conventional of the three. The plainspoken prose obeys the aesthetic in which the writer’s voice is secondary to the story. The nine stories are more or less uniform length, each about 20 pages. Ultimately, James seems to value cohesion and consistency over shock and surprise. Parameswaran takes the opposite tack. His voice is always strong and varies widely from story to story; some seem like the work of different authors. If the books were Beatles albums, Aerogrammes would be Rubber Soul, the harmonious whole with songs of essentially equal weight, and Executioner would be The White Album, a hectic hodgepodge of competing voices. (Speaking of The Beatles, didn’t they help bring Indian music and spirituality into Western popular culture?)
Gods splits the difference between these two extremes. Like Executioner, it’s grandiose, sprawling, and dense. With its multiple points of view, multiple settings, and non-linear structure, it often reads like a collection of loosely linked stories. Some plots literally converge; others merely inform each other. Yet over 369 pages, Kunzru maintains cohesion. Part of this may stem from his use of the close third person point of view (which James does in most of her stories). It may also be a matter of experience; perhaps on their fourth books, James and Parameswaran may find a similar balance of ambition and unity.
For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger? Will these books be a curiosity or a gateway to wider American interest in Indian culture? Will more Indian Americans join Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as high-profile politicians? Will we see more Indians Americans in popular entertainment: TV, movies, sports?
In a poignant scene in Interpreter of Maladies that sums up the cultural barriers at the heart of the book, an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix, an Indian snack. The Indian clerk dismisses her with four words: “Too spicy for you.” Perhaps one day, that scene will seem outmoded, if not unfathomable.
“Salman was the messenger.”
— Christopher Hitchens
Ayatollah Khomeini had not read The Satanic Verses at the time his fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie was proclaimed. After all on February 14, 1989, the novel had yet to be translated into Arabic, let alone Farsi. Rather, the Iranian leadership had witnessed on television the immolation of a copy of Rushdie’s book by a council of Muslims in Bradford, which triggered a succession of replicate demonstrations of ire and rage across parts of the Islamic world. Heine’s assertion, “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,” was thus eerily appropriate – “Wherever they burn books, they also burn people in the end.”
“The Rushdie case,” as it was dismissively referred to at the time, has been pushed back into the public consciousness with the release of Rushdie’s memoirs, Joseph Anton, and his torture has come to be seen as a forewarning. The order of Rushdie’s execution by a theocratic dictator in Iran, the assassination of the novel’s translators, the bullying and intimidation of publishers, the destruction of bookstores, and the burning of books – all for the offense of writing a literary novel – was not an isolated incident. As recent events in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have demonstrated, vociferous reaction of this type is a phenomenon which affects the world still.
But as important as the physical consequences of the fatwa was the test it placed on our most fundamental, inalienable right, that of freedom of speech. For, at the time of publication and reaction, there were a good number of cultural and political commentators who deemed that Rushdie had made a rod for his own back by daring to write a novel which played with themes pertaining to the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad.
John Berger, the Marxist critic and novelist, suggested in The Guardian in February 1989 that Rushdie should self-censor and withdraw the book from circulation, “not because of the threat of his own life, but because of the threat to the lives of those who are innocent of either writing or reading the book,” in essence accusing him of starting “a unique 20th-century holy war, with its terrifying righteousness on both sides.” President Carter, concurring with Berger, entered the dispute via a New York Times op-ed in March of that year. Rushdie, Carter wrote, “must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” adding that Westerners “tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Muslims whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”
When faced with such hostility, this willingness to undermine essential Enlightenment values to avoid confrontation was then and remains now very dangerous indeed. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks William Roper if he would be satisfied to “cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” A particularly vigorous prosecutor, Roper answers, “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” “Oh?” More replies, advancing on Roper. “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”
In other words, when the free speech of another is violated such as Rushdie’s wont to write and publish without prior restraint, the violators and those who aid and abet them make themselves hostage to their own reckless actions. The question has to be asked of individuals as diverse as Berger, Carter, and Charles Krauthammer who condemned Rushdie at the time: What would happen when the book burners and the Bible bashers turn up in your neighborhood, your rights to answer back having been suppressed, “the laws all being flat?”
If anything, the Rushdie affair remains an absolute affirmation of the essential character of the First Amendment to the Constitution, in defiance of the sort of cultural and moral relativism which would grant exceptions to the universal principle of freedom of speech on religious grounds. The fatwa confirms the correctness not only of the lack of law “abridging the freedom of speech,” but any edict “respecting an establishment of religion.” The most awful consequences of the latter are on display all around the world, nowhere more so than at this time than in Pakistan, where the Constitution mandates Islam as the official religion of state, and the application of their draconian and anti-pluralistic blasphemy law had authorities imprison a mentally deficient 14-year-old girl, accused of defiling the Qur’an.
Jefferson’s wall of separation and the principle as dictated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that no civil authority ought to “restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency” are not without their unfortunate consequences. But the right to free speech, including on matters of faith, means nothing unless it protects the right to dissent. “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden,” Rosa Luxemburg once wrote – freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently.
So that the publication of Rushdie’s memoir should introduce this story to those yet to hear it, and remind those who have forgotten it, willfully or otherwise, is no bad thing at all, if it serves to reaffirm in the popular imagination the essential and unalterable nature of the freedom of speech and the Establishment Clause, and the importance of protecting those rights not just for ourselves but those who require the shelter such civil liberties afford us. “Mutato nomine et de te fabula narrator,” Christopher Hitchens concludes of Rushdie’s ordeal. “Change only the name and this story is about you.”
The New Yorker has published the chapter of Salman Rushdie’s forthcoming memoir, Joseph Anton, that describes the circumstances of his life immediately after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s spiritual leader in 1989, called for his execution by proclaiming a fatwā on the writer, after the controversial treatment of Islamic history and the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses. PEN American, by the way, accepts donations online.
Writers often make cameo appearances in films based on their stories. Occasionally, they play themselves in movies. Some playwrights, by nature of their proximity to actors and the theater, are almost better known for acting than for their writing (Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard, for example).
There are writers, however, who act in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Who are some of these authors, and how do they fare on the big screen?
1. Calvin Trillin – Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
In his debut performance as Uncle Milton in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy, Calvin Trillin can be called subtle. The author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out and About Alice is doing one of the things he does best: eating dinner. He is also relatively avuncular, if your uncles are, like mine, the sort who basically ignore you. (You can catch most of his performance here starting at 1:05.)
Trillin followed up his Sleepless in Seattle performance with a role in another Nora Ephron film, Michael (1996). As the sheriff who throws the eponymous archangel and his entourage in jail, Trillin has a few lines, but he appears acutely conscious of the camera — and determined to turn away from it. How like a writer.
2. George Plimpton – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The late editor of the Paris Review auditioned for the role of himself in Paper Lion (1968), based on his book of the same name, but the part went to Alan Alda. However, Plimpton brought his transatlantic honk to many movies. He made his film debut as a Bedouin running across the desert in David Lean’s epic and went on to make 18 more big-screen appearances. He donned a cowboy hat in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) and partied with club kids in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). He logged bit roles in The Detective (1968), L.A. Story (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), among others.
3. Jerzy Kosinski – Reds (1981)
George Plimpton appeared as an editor in Reds (1981), which also featured writer Jerzy Kosinski as Grigory Zinoviev, the Russian revolutionary-turned-bureaucrat. Kosinski’s portrayal of Zinoviev is cold, furious, and authentic. Before filming began, Kosinski also convinced director Warren Beatty that the latter was having a panic attack. Beatty says, “I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely…Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually.”
Plimpton and Kosinski also had cameos in A Fool and His Money (1986). Plimpton played God. Kosinski was a beggar. Literary Brat-Packer Tama Janowitz made a brief appearance as a talk-show host. By all reports, the film is terrible. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock had a small role. She is featured prominently in the re-cut trailer.
4. Maya Angelou – Poetic Justice (1993)
Poetic Justice was directed and written by John Singleton but Maya Angelou supplied the poetry recited by Justice, played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also had a small role as June, one of three sisters whom Justice encounters at a family reunion. Angelou also played a woman named May and read her poem “In and Out of Time” in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). The writer is comfortable on camera, impressive and sonorous. Really, though, Maya Angelou plays Maya Angelou, even when she’s ostensibly a character named after a month.
5. Martin Amis – A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
A very blond, 13-year-old Amis appeared in the film based on Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel. The story has been described as The Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. British children who are being sent to England for schooling find their ship commandeered by pirates. The pirates prove juvenile, while the children find their blood lust awakened by the plundering and pillaging. Amis describes the making of the movie in his memoir, Experience. Puberty hit the future writer during filming, forcing filmmakers to overdub Amis’ voice with that of a young girl’s.
6. Salman Rushdie – Then She Found Me (2007)
In the film based on Elinor Lipman’s book of the same name, the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children plays physician to a pregnant Helen Hunt. The film is filled with off-puttingly familiar mugs: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Colin Firth. Most distracting of all may be Rushdie’s. He tries his best, but let’s face it: SALMAN RUSHDIE, fatwa survivor, ex-husband of Padma Lakshmi, plays an obstetrician who is not using enough gel while operating an ultrasound machine. Disbelief has not been suspended if the audience* starts yelling, “Use more gel, Rushdie! Use more gel!”
*Okay, I was watching it alone in my living room. Still.
8. Norman Mailer – Cremaster 2 (1999)
Mailer acted, directed, and wrote many films (including Maidstone , in which Mailer’s character’s fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn, turns into a real-life brawl). But Mailer also received good notices for his role in Ragtime (1981), based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, in which he portrayed architect Stanford White, and as Harry Houdini in artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999). Barney’s avant-garde film was loosely based on the story of Gary Gilmore, who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and was convicted of killing two Utah gas station attendants. Gilmore was also the subject of Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner’s Song.
9. Gore Vidal – Gattaca (1997)
In 1971, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett show (the on-camera portion of the spat can be found here). Clearly, the two writers shared a sense of theatricality which might explain their attraction to the cinema. Vidal enjoyed turns in Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) and the comedy Igby Goes Down (2002), among others. Vidal also had a supporting role as the sinister head of a space agency in the dystopian thriller, Gattaca, which also starred novelist Ethan Hawke.
10. Anita Loos – Camille (1926)
This 33-minute silent film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, probably shouldn’t qualify for this list — it’s essentially a home movie of a drunken party — but the cast is completely insane. Paul Robeson! Clarence Darrow! Charlie Chaplin! Loos, writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame, played the title role. Essayist H.L. Mencken, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and W. Somerset Maugham made appearances. Publisher Alfred Knopf also had a cameo.
N+1 editor Keith Gessen had a minor role in Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore Mutual Appreciation (2005). Beat writer William S. Burroughs appeared in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff acted in Capote (2005) and Strangers With Candy (2005). And finally, novelist and professional egoist Ayn Rand, an uncredited extra in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927), probably spent her life wondering why she wasn’t the star.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Recently Salman Rushdie spoke at a conference in Delhi. He had been scheduled to appear with the Pakistani politician Imran Khan, who later pulled out of the event citing the “immeasurable hurt” that The Satanic Verses had done to Muslims. Rushdie, who had earlier been prevented from attending the Jaipur literary festival for fear of his presence inciting a riot, dismissed Khan’s claims: “The chilling effect of violence is very real and it is growing in this country.”
The line to see Oprah stretched far down the highway. At the entrance to Diggi Palace, the front of the queue fanned into a thick crowd spread across several police barricades. A row of khaki-uniformed officers stood blocking the entrance. I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd, made eye contact with some police officers and waved my press pass. “Press, okay,” I heard someone say. “Okay?” I said, jumping over the barricade. Perhaps I’d misheard: A group of officers moved towards me, berets and rifles at alert. It was my second day in Jaipur.
I arrived at the Jaipur Literature Festival a day late. After flying into India from New York, the plan had been to spend a day sightseeing with friends in Delhi — despite many India trips over the years, it had been more than 20 years since I visited north India — before taking an early morning train into the Pink City just in time for day two of the festival. This plan turned out to be a something of a miscalculation. Though I’d been following the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s invitation, I didn’t realize that the real drama of the “the greatest literary show on earth” (in Tina Brown’s words) would play out just hours after the festival opened.
Up until the day before JLF began, there were rumors that Rushdie — who reportedly had been dropped from the official program due to “a very real threat of violence at the venue” — planned to make a surprise appearance. Then, on the first day of the festival, Rushdie issued a statement: “I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me,” he wrote. “While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances.”
To voice their disapproval of the circumstances of Rushdie’s absence, four writers, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi, read from The Satanic Verses — a book that has been banned in India — in their sessions later that day. They were subsequently advised to leave the festival, and the local police opened an investigation into their activities. There were still four days of panels left.
What was left to discuss? Anything but Rushdie. On guidance from the event organizers, everyone from Shashi Tharoor to David Remnick was talking around the debacle, momentarily alluding to it — knowingly, coyly — but never quite addressing it or the full array of issues it raised on India’s thorny history with censorship, religious fundamentalism, democratic and bureaucratic processes (and Salman Rushdie himself). It was a strange predicament for a symposium of ideas to find itself in. “So many awkward Rushdie references,” I scribbled in my notebook after day three. That’s all they were, though — fleeting references, fleetingly observed.
The show must go on! the organizers seemed to be saying. And, with 200-some authors still lined up to speak, it did. Lively on-stage conversations abounded. High-profile ones did too. Amy Chua debated economic policy. Teju Cole riffed on why it wasn’t necessarily only African writers who inspired him to become a writer. Oprah advocated for women’s rights. Fatima Bhutto discussed the future of Pakistan. Akash Kapur meditated on India’s changing rural landscape. Yet the topic of Rushdie continued to remain largely untouched, and a nagging question lingered in my mind: What kind of real intellectual discussion could go on in a setting that had proved itself so hospitable to self-censorship? When you gathered a hundred-thousand writers and book-lovers and then stripped away the opportunity for a truly free public exchange of ideas, what was left?
At a glance — and, as evidenced by my own exertions to see Oprah in a sari — the answer seemed to be: quite a bit of excitement, and quite a lot of people. All day long, throngs of festival-goers filed through Diggi Palace. When they weren’t frantically crowding into the next session (securing a seat in any session was a herculean task; I gave up on several panels because I couldn’t find any place to position myself within earshot of the stage), attendees bought lunch, drinks, books, and snacks and sized each other up. College students flirted with one another over cigarettes. Small children chased authors for autographs. Expat journalists and writers mingled. Graduate students sipped chai from clay cups. Sassy aunties traded notes. It was, for all appearances, a happy bazaar — if not strictly of ideas, then, broadly, of culture.
The show went on — and what a carnival it was! — but it was impossible to fail to notice what was missing from the festival. “A panel entitled Creativity, Censorship and Dissent” — sponsored by Google — “made only glancing reference to Salman Rushdie in a list of other authors who have been similarly persecuted,” India Today reported. “After a brouhaha following readings from The Satanic Verses … the silence spoke volumes.” In that silence, the boisterous advertising that littered the whole affair seemed louder and all the more off-key. Panels were listed with their specific sponsors noted by name (a panel on “Reconstructing Rumi” was, poetically, sponsored by the maker of heavy-duty construction equipment). The young literati sported cute tote bags (“The Bag of Small Things” and “A Suitable Bag”) issued by Penguin to mark the publisher’s 25th anniversary in India. Food stands selling pakoras, paninis, dosas, daquiris, chaat, and chocolate cake were around every corner. Sitting under a Tata Steel beam listening to one more author make one more emphatic marketing pitch for Katherine Boo’s new book (a title that enjoyed a “deafening publicity blitzkrieg” at the festival, as The Hindu put it), it seemed to me that — in the absence of any higher ideal — the pressure to purchase had become an organizing principal.
I wasn’t the only one questioning the festival’s priorities. At an extravagant 25th “birthday” bash thrown by Penguin at The Raj Palace — think tulle canopies floating above a regal courtyard and mini gulab jamuns served by bowing turbaned waiters — an open bar encouraged widespread theorizing. One Delhi-based writer (a panelist himself) told me he suspected the festival organizers had deliberately leaked news of Rushdie’s invitation months in advance as a publicity stunt. They knew they’d provoke hard-liners, he said; that was their intention. I had trouble imagining that the festival’s organizers were so naïve or cynical about India’s history of free speech controversies — or so ready to use a much-celebrated writer and friend for purely mercenary purposes — but it was an interesting explanation for someone so close to the eye of the storm to make. I was reminded of a simple argument put forward by Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India: “Indians, no more than their counterparts anywhere else, are not virtuous, moderate, principled, or even especially tolerant people: they are deeply self-interested.” India is a capacious and often confusing place — for “insider” and “outsider” alike — so it didn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that the forces motivating the Rushdie fracas were even more complex than they appeared.
“But it is that self-interest — ” Khilnani goes on, hopefully, “so apparent in the conduct of the political elite — which encourages them to make compromises and accommodations.” Indeed, major compromises had been made to keep the festival alive, and through that compromise, many writers and readers had been connected. But in this case, there had been a significant cost. Although the energy and sense of possibility in Jaipur far surpassed anything I’d encountered at, say, the New Yorker Festival in Manhattan (or even the beloved Brooklyn Book Festival), Jaipur Literature Festival’s inability to send a clear message about the value of free speech was dispiriting.
Take, for example, the cagey statement issued by JLF’s press team after Kunzru’s, Kumar’s, Thayil’s, and Ruchir’s readings:
This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival.
William Dalrymple, one of the festival’s organizers, has since vocally defended how the JLF team handled the fuss. “I for one hope I am never again forced to choose between putting at risk all the principles upon which literary life is based, if I was to cancel an appearance by Salman, or knowingly igniting a major religious riot if his appearance went ahead,” he wrote in The New York Times, “and so putting at risk the lives of everyone who had come to the festival — including the authors who were our guests, and lines of school children in their blazers and elderly couples with their sandwiches and flasks of chai who had come to hear them.”
Lines of school children! Elderly couples with flasks of chai! Yes, it was a good thing the young and old alike had been able to safely partake in the delights of literary life in vibrant Jaipur. On the plane home, though, I found myself daydreaming about how very different my own earliest encounters with the world of books had been in India, on childhood trips to see my grandparents. With my American pastimes on hold for the summer, I’d plant myself under an oscillating fan and read. Some of those books transported me back to the U.S. and others rushed me away to new faraway lands but many took me deeper into the India I was slowly, haltingly, coming to understand and love. When the supply of books in my suitcase ended, there would be a trip to the bookstore, and after that, to the local lending library, where I’d find still more books to burrow into as hours, days, and weeks passed by. Outside my window, a world of activity whirled on — much of it, due in part to my age, gender, and foreignness, still beyond my comprehension and reach. Inside, alone, I quietly read.
image courtesy of the author
2010 has already been a strong year for fiction lovers, with new novels by the likes of Joshua Ferris, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, and David Mitchell. Meanwhile, publishing houses offered up posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Robert Walser, and Henry Roth, and the font of Roberto Bolaño fiction continued to flow.
The second half of 2010 will bring much anticipated work by Gary Shteyngart, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and especially Jonathan Franzen. So that readers may set their literary calendars anew, we’ve selected a few dozen books we’re looking forward to. (The writer of each preview is noted in parenthesis.)
July (or already available)
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman: I first took note of Allegra Goodman’s off-kilter prose thanks to a New Yorker short story five years ago. As it turns out, that story, gently poking fun at the exuberance of the late 1990s, but also quietly weighty, touching on pain, religion and the whole idea of being “centered,” was a piece of Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector. The book focuses on a pair of sisters at the turn of the millennium toiling on either end of the technology continuum, one the founder of a dot-com startup, the other an antiquarian book dealer. PW loves the book, calling it “Goodman’s most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet.” (Max)
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now…er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody’s short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth)
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr: Doerr came to the attention of many readers with his debut collection of stories The Shell Collector. Now, after a novel and a travel memoir, he’s back with another collection that includes two novellas and four short stories. As with The Shell Collector, Doerr’s scope in Memory Wall is global. A recent profile with Boise Weekly — Doerr is wrapping up his tenure as Idaho’s writer in residence — places the action in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and, of course, Idaho. (Max)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The author of the critically acclaimed and deliriously off-kilter novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan returns with a third novel set in an apocalyptic near-future. Books are all but extinct and America is functionally illiterate, there are riots in Central Park and National Guard tanks on every Manhattan street corner, and the narrator is, as the Random House publicity department puts it, “the proud owner of what may well be the world’s last diary.” It’s difficult to resist the book’s opening lines: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.” (Emily M.)
Faithful Place by Tana French: Faithful Place is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of July. (This is a big deal—it means that independent booksellers across the United States have picked French’s new novel as their favorite out of all the books being published in the US in July 2010.) This alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice,
but the plotline is particularly beguiling: when Frank Mackey was nineteen, he made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to leave the poverty and dysfunction of their lives in Dublin’s inner city and flee to London. But Rosie never appeared on the night they were supposed to meet, and Frank, assuming that she’d changed her mind, went on to England without her. Twenty-two years later, a suitcase is found behind a fireplace in a run-down building on the street where Frank grew up; when it becomes clear that the suitcase belonged to Rosie, Frank returns home to try and unravel the mystery of what happened to her. French is also the author
of two previous critically-acclaimed novels: In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and The Likeness. (Emily M.)
The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: Adam Langer, who is the author of the well-received Crossing California and two other books, will publish The Thieves of Manhattan this month. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “an über-hip caper that pays homage to and skewers the state of publishing and flash-in-the-pan authors… Part Bright Lights, Big City, part The Grifters, this delicious satire of the literary world is peppered with slang so trendy a glossary is included.” (Edan)
The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) — more stories, plus two essays — was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there’s more “new” Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max)
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: Simpson, author of Anywhere but Here and Off Keck Road, among others, took ten years to write this new novel about Claire, who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young son, and Lola, their Filipina nanny. In Publishers Weekly, Simpson said, “There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what’s important.” (Edan)
Hollywood by Larry McMurtry: Although Texas epicist Larry McMurtry has written dozens of novels, he’s best known for the films that have come from them: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud, and the CBS colossus “Lonesome Dove.” Over the last five decades, he’s turned others’ work into triumph (Brokeback Mountain), seen his own ground into pabulum (Texasville), and written a screenplay for The Cougar (John Mellencamp’s Falling From Grace). In short, he’s a veteran of the L.A. movie wars, and in Hollywood—his third memoir in as many years—he’ll share the stories behind them. Or, at least, he should: in a harsh review of his second memoir, 2009’s Literary Life, The New York Times wrote, “Too often… Mr. McMurtry will sidle up to an interesting anecdote and then tell the reader to wait for his third and concluding memoir, Hollywood… He’ll explain then.” (Jacob)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max)
Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya)
You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin: In this debut novel by the co-founder of one of The Millions’ favorite sites, The Morning News, Alzheimer’s researcher Victor Aaron discovers his late wife’s notes about the state of their marriage. Her version of their relationship differs greatly from his own, and Victor is forced to reexamine their life together. Wells Tower says the novel “is a work of lucid literary art, roisterous wit, and close, wry knowledge of the vexed circuits of the human mind and heart.” (Edan)
Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt: This anthology will collect stories from an impressive roster of writers — Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others — with the devil being the common thread. This being a reprint anthology, fans of the individual authors included may find nothing new, though they may appreciate the clever theme and may encounter work by writers they don’t regularly read. (Max)
The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: While many readers might associate Guilfoile with McSweeney’s, where he’s a frequent contributor, or The Morning News, where with John Warner he provides essential commentary for the Tournament of Books, his fiction occupies a space that some readers might not associate with these latter-day literary tastemakers. Case in point, the titular Thousand are “a clandestine group of powerful individuals safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras.” That may sound like Dan Brown fodder, but you’ll be getting something much, much smarter. (Max)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nearly a decade, is a love story – albeit one surrounded by more ideas and insights and plot-lines than many novelists manage in a career. As he anatomizes the marriage of Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund, Franzen also looks at environmentalism, politics, sex, gentrification, and the pains and pleasures of growing up. And though a youthful anger animates his writing on the Bush years, his patience with Patty, in particular, suggests a writer who has done some growing himself. Franzen’s longest book is also, for great swaths of pages, his best. (Garth)
Bound by Antonya Nelson: If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level. (Anne)
Zero History by William Gibson: Zero History will round out a trilogy that also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson recently laid out how the three books fit into our 21st century milieu: “If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event.” (Max)
Ape House by Sara Gruen: Following her surprise hit with Water for Elephants, Gruen earned a $5 million advance for Ape House and whatever she writes next. Whether or not Gruen earns back that hefty advance, the new book sounds like madness: super smart apes — bonobos, specifically — escape a lab in an explosion and not long after, a mega-hit reality TV show appears featuring the missing apes. This reminds me of that movie Project X. (Max)
C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne)
True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd: The Official Preppy Handbook had that rare spark of wit that makes a good joke many things to many people. Actual preppy people were chuffed to find themselves the subject of a well-drawn lampoon (or earnestly concerned with inaccuracies), the great unwashed found an arsenal or an atlas, depending on their aspirations, and people somewhere in the middle could feel a sheepish pride in being kind of sort of related to a tribe important enough to have its own book. People with real problems, of course, didn’t care either way. Now, True Prep is upon us, and if it fulfills the 1.3 million-print run promise of its precursor, Knopf Doubleday and authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd (original collaborator Jonathan Roberts did not participate, fearing the project wasn’t true to the subversive intention of the Handbook) stand to rake it in. But the popularity of the original book, the shifting sands of American society and wealth, and the proliferation of lifestyle blogs by people with no sense of humor or irony have created a monster simulacrum of “prepdom,” one without easily defined parameters. Will the sequel be able to paint such a sharp and comic portrait as the first Handbook, or will it be yet another non-book littering the aisles of Borders? (Lydia)
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, who is the author of one other novel, Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger, is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps the Workshop inspired her new book, which is about poets at a renowned writing school. At just over 200 pages, this slim novel examines the age-old question, “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” (Edan)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Cunningham’s last novel Specimen Days didn’t quite replicate the critical and commercial success of The Hours. This new novel was initially called Olympia, and a long excerpt of it was published in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature. Discussing the novel, Cunningham told Entertainment Weekly, “Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife.” (Max)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez: In early 2009 in these pages, Sana Krasikov considered the contention the women aren’t known for writing novels of ideas. Her rejoinder to this was Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, “a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters.” This new novel exploring a dystopia — it’s set in the near future after a flu pandemic has ravaged the world and a sheltered, but cultish community has survived the carnage — seems likely to extend Krasikov’s thesis. (Max)
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago: From the late Nobel laureate, this novel “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria.” (Max)
Nemesis by Philip Roth: This latest novel from Roth should prove to be more accessible than his last, The Humbling. The book is set during a war-time polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. At the center of the book is a 23-year-old playground director who sees polio ravage the children he looks after. The book has been in the works since at least early 2009, when it was first described by Roth. (Max)
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier: If, like me, you were wowed when you read in The New Yorker Ian Frazier’s expansive, two-part travelogue of a trip across Siberia at the turn of the millennium, then you’ll be thrilled to find out that this massive piece was likely just a small fraction of Frazier’s forthcoming 544-page book. Frazier’s entertaining guides Sergei and Volodya (they are a pair of lovable, though sometimes frightening, curmudgeons), his insistence on traveling by car (which lent Frazier’s NYer piece many comic moments but also an unimpeachable authenticity), and the moment in history when his trip takes place (he arrives at the Pacific on September 11th, 2001), seem likely to make this book a classic. (Max)
Listen to This by Alex Ross: If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s second book Listen to This lives up to its title essay, then we’re in for a treat. I remember being floored and invigorated by that essay in 2004; Ross’s depth of knowledge, passion, and youth – just 36 then – converted me to his cause in a blink. “I hate ‘classical music,’” he wrote, “not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past… Yes, the music can be great and serious… It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values.” In other words, no music, classical or otherwise, is categorically superior nor the moribund realm of rich ladies; all great music is by definition “something worth loving.” In Listen to This, Ross reaches beyond “classical” (his award-winning first book The Rest is Noise explored 20th century classical composers) into a more eclectic canvass — in Ross’s words, a “panoramic view” – of music worth loving, including Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Chinese classical music, Kiki and Herb, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Bob Dylan. (Sonya)
Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry: For the visually patient—those who inspect collage, squint into details, and willingly sift through doodles—Lynda Barry’s work is a unique gift. The cartoonist/novelist/lecturer’s Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book will continue the thread begun with 2008’s What It Is, her bust-out graphic memoir-cum-instructional. As What It Is encouraged the act of writing, Picture This will push the reader to draw and remind us of the happiness it once could bring. Remember when you filled your looseleaf margins with rough Darth Vaders and ridiculous monsters? If anyone can get us to put down our phones, pick up our pencils, and get back to that pleasure, it’s Barry—whose boundless, cramming technique is evidence of both the work and reward of creation. (Jacob)
The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul: V.S. Naipaul, hoping to reach “the beginning of things,” traveled to six sub-Saharan African countries and examined the belief structures found therein for The Masque of Africa, a travelogue and treatise on the role of religion in culture. Apparently Naipaul learned much from this project, which complicated his sense of an old-new dichotomy and his notion that religious practices varied greatly between nations. Naipaul’s detractors have accused him of being a colonial apologist, so it will be interesting to see how this work of non-fiction will engage with complex ideas of faith and progress, neither of which can be separated from Africa’s colonial past, nor, as Naipaul concedes, from the present-day politics of the nations he explores. (Lydia)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): Pevear and Volokhonsky’s vigorous translations have turned new editions of the Russian greats into publishing events, and we’ve watched as their translations of classics like War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories climbed our otherwise contemporary-leaning top-ten lists. Last year, we interviewed the husband and wife team and got a sense of their unique process. In an interview around the same time with the Wall Street Journal, the couple called Zhivago the toughest of the 16 books they’ve translated: “The issue is the prose. It’s not that rich or ornate, but it’s extremely difficult to translate. His language is very studied. Even when it looks simple, it’s not. The sentences aren’t long or complex, but it’s the quality of the words. It’s never what you expect.” (Max)
The Great House by Nicole Krauss: Bestselling author of The History of Love, Nicole Krauss returns with The Great House, a novel about a desk that, according to the publisher’s description, “contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through… a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away.” Krauss was one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers, and “The Young Painters,” published in the magazine’s June 28, 2010 issue, is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. You can read a Q&A with her here. (Edan)
X’ed Out by Charles Burns: I once saw a comics panel discussion in which Charles Burns complained, fairly wryly, about the amount of effort he forces into his work: in one issue of Black Hole, he said, he spent hours applying his sharp black inks to an endpaper image of twigs—a picture that each reader would spend “maybe three seconds on,” then move along. Such frustration is understandable, but I don’t know that he was actually right. Each page, each panel, of Burns’ work claws you in; each line is unsettling in its perfection. He cannot be read casually. His newest, X’ed Out, will touch on typically Burnisan themes: quiet distress, eerie isolation, a heavy apocalyptic oddness. But, as always, the look of the book is the thing: we’ll be gripped by its feel as much as by its story—and, yes, take our time with its potent renderings of splintered boards, broken walls, and specimens shut in jars. (Jacob)
False Friends by Myla Goldberg: We included Goldberg on our own “20 under 40” list and suggested that “literary mandarins” put off by her smash-hit debut Bee Season take a look. Another opportunity to do so will arrive in October with Goldberg’s third novel. (Max)
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki: In October, Millions contributor Edan Lepucki will publish her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me under Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint. The title will initially be available for limited edition presale under Flatmancrooked’s LAUNCH program, designed for emerging authors. (Max)
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: In the wake of the fatwa and accompanying media frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, apparently at the prodding of his then nine-year-old son, shifted gears to focus on something much less contentious, a children’s book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now, twenty years later, Rushdie is returning with a sequel to the book he wrote for his son. Fatherhood has once again inspired Rushdie, who, according to bookseller.com, decided to write this new book for his “youngest son, Milan, who was born in 1999.” (Max)
Autobiography of Mark Twain: On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died of a heart attack. His death brought to a close maybe the greatest literary life America has ever known, and it started the countdown to the publication of Twain’s autobiography, which Twain instructed was not to be released until he had been good and gone for 100 years. Well, the waiting is finally over, and from early reports it appears as though it might have taken an entire century to wrestle the mass of writing Twain left behind into publishable form. This November, the University of California Press will release the first volume in a trilogy that Twain wrote according to the rambling dictate, “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment.” (Kevin)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher’s description of this one lays out its unique premise: “In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives.” It’s another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max)
Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer: FSG will collect the “best” short fiction from the South African Nobel laureate in this hefty volume. (Max)
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Readers mourned the death of punk poet Jim Carroll last year. As Garth wrote in these pages, “Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.” For Carroll fans, this posthumously published novel that takes the late-1980s art scene as its inspiration, will at the very least be another opportunity to experience his work and at best may be another one of those “very good books.” (Max)
Selected Stories by William Trevor: This volume will collect nearly 600 pages worth of short stories from this verable master of the form. (Max)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick: This forthcoming novel from Ozick is framed as a nifty literary trick. It’s a retelling of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, but, according to the publisher’s description, “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.” (Max)
Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy: It’s actually been seven years since the last Tom Clancy book came out, the longest gap of his career. This fact plus the usual excitement from Jack Ryan fans could make this more of a publishing event than expected. (Max)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard’s focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: “Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Karen Russell was just 23 when she had a story in The New Yorker’s 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, she has published an acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and been named to The New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 list. With the accolades already piled sky high, this will be one of the more anticipated debut novels in recent years. The publishers’ description suggests we should expect big, ambitious things: “think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades.” (Max)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III Dubus, already much feted for his short stories and novels, will be trying his hand at the memoir. In this case, the trajectory is from hard-bitten youth to redemption in writing. Fans can expect perhaps to gain some insights into the genesis of Dubus’ fiction. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard: You Think That’s Bad will be Shepard’s fourth collection of short stories, and from the Knopf catalogue description, it sounds like it won’t disappoint; there’s a story about a farm boy who “becomes the manservant of a French nobleman who’s as proud of having served with Joan of Arc as he’s aroused by slaughtering children”–need we say more? Shepard’s previous collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was nominated for the National Book Award. (Edan)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Obreht secured a special place in the literary pantheon not just by being on The New Yorker’s recent 20 under 40 list, but by being, at 25, the youngest one on it. With her debut novel, readers will get a larger sense of what the praise for Obreht is all about (an excerpt of the novel, in the form of a peculiar story of the same title, appeared in the magazine last year). (Max)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When he died in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left behind more than 1,000 pages of notes and drafts of an unfinished novel that he had given the preliminary title The Pale King. The book had been in progress for more than a decade and one of the last things Wallace did before taking his own life was to tidy what he written so that it would be easier to sort after he was gone. Since then the manuscript has been in the hands of Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, and it is expected that a version of the book running about 400 pages will be published late this year or early next. Four confirmed excerpts from The Pale King have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s. They suggest a story centered around IRS agents at a Midwestern processing office struggling to deal with the “intense tediousness” of their work. (Kevin)
There are many other exciting books coming out in the coming months not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in the comments section below.