June 21, 2017

Susan Faludi on "In the darkroom" at AWF 2017

I was silencing my phone when a burst of applause told me that Susan Faludi had emerged from the wings of the ASB Theatre. To my surprise, when I looked up, the woman I'd seen in author photos and youtube clips wearing an intelligent gaze and understated knitted things in black or crocodile green, was teetering across the stage on very high heels wearing a neon-blue ruffled lampshade. Oh wait, that was Noelle McCarthy, our chair for the session.

Noelle did a zesty job of taking us through the origins of Faludi's latest book and the book itself. In fact, so focused was she on that topic, that I found myself wondering if someone more noteworthy than I had also complained about how, at her Irvine Welsh session at a recent AWF, she had not seemed to have even read his latest book, having instead much to say about Trainspotting, published twenty years before but clearly still in pole position for her -- and probably for most of the audience, come to think of it.

Susan Faludi's latest book, In the darkroomon the other handtakes second place to none of her previous work, and surpasses it in personal content and, probably, wide audience interest (although I am now reading one of her books of socio-cultural criticism, Stiffed: the betrayal of the American man, and highly recommend it as very readable and fascinating socio-cultural criticism).

There on the stage, with indeed the intelligent gaze I had remembered, and such understated attire that I can't actually remember what it was, she began, "I had grown up with a father who was an autocrat, the ur-patriarch, physically violent to my mother and their children, in particular, me".

"I had a set idea of who my father was."

If you have read the book or heard about it, you will know what she was leading up to. Many people are surprised by things they learn as adults about their parents, but few are handed as big a surprise as Faludi was, receiving a letter from her father after years of bitter estrangement, announcing that "I have had enough of living as a man" and that he was now going to live as a woman, a complete woman, and call me Steffi.

Ironically, or perhaps not at all ironically, in her career as a journalist and author, Faludi had written about gender issues, and "When I knew what was happening with my father I couldn't imagine another way of grappling with it".

What she had to grapple with now, on top of figuring out her relationship with her father, was figuring out who her father really was, on various levels-- personality, gender, and personal history as well, in particular the all-American Steve Faludi's childhood and youth in Hungary as István Friedman, which included escaping being rounded up and deported as a Jew during World War II. "I thought I had my father pegged but in fact I knew nothing about her."

There was even, on travelling to Hungary to see her father, who had returned there to live after sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, an aspect relating to the history of Hungary, which was going through a shift in those years from communist to free market, and having to reckon with a very bad past.

They argued a lot the first year "about what it means to be a woman", but being a journalist helped her to set aside her own judgments, and learn to back off, "which is not my strength". Journalism, she said, was her "superhero outfit."

Reading the book, I had a sense of two people circling around each other, guarded, but looking for openings. "My father took pride in being a trickster, in slipping out of your grasp", something mirrored in his profession: altering images in the dark room. On her part, Faludi says, "I am a big believer that you can't shed your history, your past experiences".

She encapsulates the thread that runs through her book as "Is identity something we choose, or is it something we can't escape?"

Does she have an answer? "Like all chicken and egg questions, it's both. We can't help but construct our identities on what we've inherited, but at the same time we reconstruct."

The most memorable moment, for me, was the sequence which began with Faludi confessing "I felt such grief that my father had had to lock herself away so deeply." Who hasn't had that feeling, on being finally let in on the secret a close family member or friend has been living with, of seeing the initial indignation at having been left out suddenly swallowed up by sorrow, when the empathy hits home.

It was her father who, on his own, volunteered that she should tell his story in a book. "You could do it like Hans Christian Andersen, with fairy tales," he said. "In fact", Faludi pointed out, "Hans Christian Andersen revealed himself more honestly in his fairy tales than in his autobiographies".

"Hans Christian Andersen's theme is one of transformation; the Ugly Duckling was one of my father's favourites."

"What my father was really inviting me to do was to write the most utmost book I could."

And if your daughter is a journalist known for her straight-shooting, well, what is that going to do to "My father had been insisting that the past had no relevance, that it could be locked away in a dark room"?

June 08, 2017

George Saunders on "Lincoln in the Bardo" at AWF 2017

So now he was going to appear, the man who gave me my most disturbing reading experience in recent memory (at least until I read Roxane Gay's Untamed state, which has now joined it at the summit). It was "The Semplica-Girl Diaries", one of the stories in the must-read collection Tenth of DecemberIts hallucinatory defining image shattered me. For months I'd flash back to it while driving, or waiting in the check-out line at the supermarket, or taking off my makeup, each time with the same feeling of claustrophobia and dread, my heart wanting to claw its way out of my chest and the ocean roaring in my ears.

There is a hallucinatory quality to all the stories in Tenth of December, although mostly of a Salvador Dali type rather than the Goya of the Semplica-Girl Diaries. The evident love for science fiction, most noticeable for me in the echoes of Ray Bradbury, though funnier, and his having grown up in Chicago, not just a Chicagoan but a White Sox fan, led me to imagine their author as someone who would spend a lot of his time in a basement den with his computer -- or typewriter in the early days -- amid shelves full of his cult books (Bradbury? John Wyndham?) with an athletics cup or two from his high school years. A kind of a big guy, a Root Beer drinker.

Instead George Saunders is kind of small, and kind of monochromatically sandy-coloured. His face is inscribed with a multitude of expression wrinkles, and the prevailing expression is quizzical and bemused. He is talkative!

Paula Morris opened by reminding us that novels have always been a form for experimentation, and in a nice twist she likened what Saunders has just done literally in Lincoln in the Bardohis first attempt at the form, to all novels, "stories told by a cast of ghosts, exploring what it is to be alive". Turning to him, she asked the long version of what appears in my notes as "1st historical novel - planned? like Hilary Mantel?" -- I confess I don't worry too much about getting down the exact phrasing of interview questions, unless they aggravate or stun me.

Saunders had a friendly, self-deprecating, and predictive (not predictable) reply.

Not really, he said, it was more that "I realised when I was young I had a wedge of talent, and I've been going along on that. I'm not a natural writer. My first drafts are crummy. Though actually, it doesn't mean you're not a good writer. Writing is a craft."

As I said, predictive, because what followed was, for most of the hour, a conversation between two writers, both creative-writing professors after all, about the craft of writing, with Saunders sharing tips such as:

On writing fiction: "You write Frank is an asshole. The gods of fiction don't like it. The gods of fiction say, How so? You explain. The gods of fiction say, Tell us more".

On writing short stories: "When I started I decided, I like Hemingway a lot and I agree with his world view, so I am going to use a Hemingway construction. It was like going on a date with index cards. In the short story, it's important not to know where it's going and let the writing take you where it wants to."

(I actually thought for a second he said "going on a diet with index cards" and maybe he did. It possibly fits even better with attempting a Hemingway style.)

He quotes Einstein, "No problem was ever solved on the original plane of its conception".

He quotes someone else as having said to him, "The story is always talking to you. Listen to it."

He talks about how every story has an understory, and describes it like this: "There's something beautiful (he personifies it as a reindeer) coming up behind you, and if you keep your eyes on the table and don't spook it, the story and the understory will come together".

My favourite lines came when the subject turned to the book at hand. The departure point for the book is Abraham Lincoln's little son's death from typhoid, in the middle of the Civil War. It's known that Lincoln made repeated visits to the crypt where his son's body had been laid in the days after his death. At the heart of the book, which Saunders sets in that time, is the idea that the boy is in the Bardo, the state of existence between death and rebirth according to Tibetan Buddhism, together with a cast of ghosts who, a bit like a Greek chorus, tell the story.

Morris asked Saunders, a practicing Buddhist, to tell us more about the Bardo. Is it a form of Purgatory?

"I was raised Catholic in Chicago", he preambled -- in other words he knows all about Purgatory -- and "Bardo is a little more. My version of the Bardo is that these people full of regret or sick with unrequited love, at the moment of death they balk at the door."

It was a thrilling image, but my true favourite line came when he was asked about Abraham Lincoln. "I'm in love with him," he said simply, for once without his usual loquaciousness. He talked about the arc of Lincoln's learning and growth. "By the time he died he was 100, 200 years ahead of his contemporaries". He calls it Lincoln's spiritual ascension. Another Bardo, I realise.

In a rare moment of personal, as compared to professional insight (the craft of writing), we got "I have a Pollyanna-ish tendency that gets edited out". He says he has a sardonic view of the world, but he is also sentimental. It took him a while to allow his sentimental side to come out in his writing, now he does, and then he corrects it with his sardonic side.

We didn't get questions or observations on some things I would have liked to hear the Semplica-Girl Diaries author on, things like fiction's subversive possibilities, or existential shackles, or fighting words. We didn't get any anecdotes like the one James T. Farrell, also a Chicago Catholic-raised writer, liked to tell about going to Ireland and hearing a local tell people that they'd lose their immortal souls if they read him.

But this wasn't bad, wryly told:

He grew up in Chicago, the South Side, where I didn't, but where I was born, and know enough to know that it was an area where neighborhoods were called things like "The backs of the yards" -- the stockyards.

"Every human being is full of sentiment but where I grew up there was a lot of crimping of the excess. So it was like 'Fuck off', but it meant 'I love you'."

In that sense, I think that the best way to know the passions of George Saunders is to read him. Here, I've found you The Semplica-Girl Diaries in The New Yorker online.

June 02, 2017

A.N. Wilson on "Resolution: a novel of the boy who sailed with Captain Cook" at AWF17

A.N. Wilson

Oh no! Not at the ASB Theatre! At the Heartland Festival Room! Run for it, Karen!

Scooting in as the Town Hall clock chimed, I felt as if I'd plunged into a revival meeting: a giant tent (later recognised as the erstwhile Spiegeltent) packed with faithful, all eyes turned to a man standing alone on a little stage, reaching up his arm, finger pointed.

Unlike the Texas tent show at the start of Blood meridian, however, these faithful were all regular bathers, so the air reeked only of the coffees being clutched at this morning session, and the man was not a reverend, although he had at one point been on his way to becoming one. I was at the Writers Festival and the man was A.N. Wilson, historian, biographer, and novelist, about whom I'd been curious for years, seeing his name come up time and time again in connection with waspish comments, contrary opinions, literary scraps.

And here he was in person, pointing to a large digital screen above him on which was written "George Forster, Librarian, World Circumnavigator and Revolutionary".

"You don't often think of librarians as revolutionaries", he was saying. And I, of course, "What?" He illustrated his point with a librarian in a Barbara Pym novel, whose most praiseworthy characteristic was being a wizard of something ineffably conservative, possibly cataloguing. I can't remember, I was too distracted by wondering if didn't he know that Audre Lorde was a librarian? that Mao was a librarian, well, not quite, but assistant to a librarian, the head librarian at the University of Beijing?

George Forster, on the other hand, was himself a head librarian, at the University of Mainz in Germany, where he was an important figure of the Enlightenment and then active in the Jacobin movement, travelling to Paris after the revolution. One of his friends there was a certain Adam Lux -- just as I was thinking, what a fine name for a revolutionary, Wilson commented "a nice name if you don't think of soap flakes" --  who unwisely wrote a poem about the death of Marat. Dryly, "We don't know what was in his head, because his head was chopped off." Forster, by now outlawed from returning to Germany, died penniless in Paris -- of pneumonia, not the Terror, aged only 40.

But the book A.N. Wilson was there to talk to us about, his new historical novel Resolution, picks up Forster at a much earlier time, a time it would be tempting to call a happier time if it weren't so hard to use the word 'happy' with George.

"One of the things you knew about George Forster if you knew him was that he was the boy who had sailed with Cook around the world" says Wilson. He was just 17 at the start of the voyage, Cook's second expedition to the Southern Hemisphere. He had been taken along as assistant to his father, Reinhold, who had landed the naturalist role on this expedition, which, Wilson was at pains to explain to us, was not about colonisation, but a hunt for knowledge.

Reinhold Forster! It was finding his journals of the voyage in a secondhand bookshop that attracted Wilson's interest. "I couldn't stop laughing!" he said. However, this infuriating and contentious man, despite his journals inspiring such laughter, seems to have had no sense of humour at all. On top of being dogmatic and pretentious.

His son revealed an immense talent for illustration (superb renderings of the flora and fauna encountered on the expedition stops), observation (of much more than just the flora and fauna), and recording: once back in England, George wrote a report of the journey, which he called A voyage round the world. It was a huge hit. Some people consider it the first work of travel literature.

Some also found some of George's descriptions somewhat erotic. Here's Wilson's comment, in full, worth every bit of space for how it captures his (to me extremely enjoyable) style:  "You probably remember if you're fond of reading Boswell's life of Johnson, as I am, that Johnson loathed George Forster. In the book there was a scene about Tahitian women swimming which Boswell read over and over again. He told Johnson he liked the style. Johnson said the book had no style."

George had little style as well, and little contentment in the rest of his life. He was ugly (and having had all his teeth fall out from scurvy on the expedition, for refusing to eat up his sauerkraut and roast penguin, didn't help), made a bad marriage, and ended his days in exile, as we have seen, and died pretty much alone.

Every step of the way, the A.N.Wilson wit was all that I had imagined, dry, unpredictable, as mischievous as needed without playing to the peanut gallery. On the occasion of the usual 'wait for the roving mike' line, we had "Roving Mike sounds like an Irish tinker".

But then, just before the end, he gave us another side of himself. One of the main reasons he decided to write the story as a novel, he said, was to explore George's relationship with his father, his shame at his father's idiotic ways.

"I was a much younger son of a father who was more than fifty when I was born, and I spent a lot of time with him. I saw that other people saw him differently than I -- I saw later that they thought he was a terrible bore, and I now see he was, among other lovable things."

And then, before anyone could descend into sentimentalism, he looked straight at us, put down the imaginary pointer he had seemed to be holding, and smiled at us. "I think we've reached the end of the Knickerbocker Glory" he said.

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