Podcast • August 12, 2018

V. S. Naipaul’s ‘Gloomy Clarity’ about Africa, and Himself (rebroadcast)

This interview with V.S. Naipaul was released October 25, 2010. We are re-posting the podcast on the occasion of the author’s death Saturday. V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t ...

This interview with V.S. Naipaul was released October 25, 2010. We are re-posting the podcast on the occasion of the author’s death Saturday.

V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t disguise his melancholy or his frailty. Still, his inquisitorial eye and his magic with a prose sentence have not abandoned him, nor the organ tones of his mesmerizing voice. In conversation he relishes my suggestion of magic — his new book on Africa is full of it. But when I cite some favorite examples of his inspired sentence-making, he recalls only hard labor in the cause of “gloomy clarity,” his signature effect. “I wrote that very carefully,” he intones. Of his non-fiction process — combining reading, field observation and interviewing — he says: “I see what is to be done, and I do it.” At a public reading the night before we spoke, the question came: what was the happiest moment of your writing career? “I suppose it would have occurred when one was very young. Because, you know, there are no happy moments now. When you are young the future is a great big ball, and anything is possible. So if you do a good review for The New Statesman and you feel good, it can make you quite happy, although it is a petty business… I know the future is small and eternally shrinking around me.”

Naipaul’s new book is called The Masque of Africa: it’s an inquiry not into politics or progress but into religion broadly: the magical systems of belief in Old Africa. “The new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top,” says a classic Naipaul informant, a lawyer and former university dean in Gabon; his punchline is a perfect short Naipaulian thematic sentence: “Inside us is the forest.” Africa might well be better off today, Naipaul supposes, had its “forest beliefs” been spared foreign intrusions. Africa is a “wounded civilization,” he reflects, applying the phrase he used in one of several books on his ancestral India. But there is no going back, and perhaps no recovery from the loss of self and sovereignty. Naipaul was not at all impressed with my own “fantasy” that in both India and Africa it may be time, for some anyway, to rediscover the village possibilities, the chance that “Things Come Together.” Naipaul himself, of course, fled the colony (Trinidad) for the capital (London) long ago. His verdict is final: “the village is an awful place.”

On his best behavior, V. S. Naipaul knows how to be entertainingly grumpy. He does not forgive the English literary establishment for cold-shouldering him these many years, for snubbing even his Nobel Prize in 2001. He remembers one official personage sniffing: “It isn’t as though it’s the Booker Prize.” He is proud to have marked Tony Blair as a “pirate,” long before the Iraq War. “A calamity,” he judged. Wouldn’t he care, I asked, to offend somebody before we were done? “No, no, no, no,” insisted. “That is not part of my job.”

This Week's Show • 5/24/18

Remembering Philip Roth

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his ...

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his last big counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. My reward was the chance to record what stands up very nicely here. Meantime, he’d written the slim late novella, Everyman, about an old New Jersey athlete with a failing heart, pondering broken relationships, physical decay and coming extinction.

Philip Roth spoke – not to mention: wrote — the American language like nobody else. From Newark, New Jersey and then the University of Chicago, Philip Roth had emerged in the nineteen fifties full of scandalous humor and classical ambitions as well – part Henny Youngman, part Henry James, as he said of himself in his youth. By 2006, he was wrapping up a bounteous late burst of novels. He was also down at heart on the turn of events from 9.11 into the war in Iraq: “an orgy of national narcissism,” in his view. At the age of 73, with us, he sparkled through his grim notes on the dimming of his energy, the paring down of his own rich life, and what it would mean to die. Even then Philip Roth was rehearsing his death. And hard at work, writing every day.

If I can emerge from my studio with a page, I’m not downhearted. If I emerge with less, I’m pretty frustrated. If I emerge with nothing, then I want to slit my throat. I haven’t yet, but sometimes you can’t go any further. It’s not writer’s block, that’s not the right phrase to describe it — it’s that you are not penetrating the material in a way that will release whatever is strongest in you.

Philip Roth on Open Source

In Everyman, Roth paraphrases artist Chuck Close, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Part of the secret Roth offered, in an aside, may be his birth year 1933, the early depression. He’s conscious of entering the world at virtually the same moment with prolific writers he still admires: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Reynolds Price. We dropped many other names along the way: David Riesman, Sarah Vaughan, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, the several Henrys (Miller, James, Aaron, and Kissinger) and, yes, Tolstoy.

Podcast • August 31, 2017

Amiri Baraka: Ennobled by Coltrane

Amiri Baraka‘s death prompts me to repost a conversation we had about the music of John Coltrane, which inspired Baraka and ennobled the ambitions of his Black Arts movement. “Trane was our flag,” Baraka remembered ...

Amiri Baraka‘s death prompts me to repost a conversation we had about the music of John Coltrane, which inspired Baraka and ennobled the ambitions of his Black Arts movement. “Trane was our flag,” Baraka remembered back in 2007. “We could feel what he was doing. We heard our own search and travail in the opening of ‘Giant Steps.'”

In the summer of 1957 the poet then known as Leroi Jones chanced to live over the Five Spot in Manhattan when Coltrane and Thelonius Monk had a five-month learning-by-doing gig on the Bowery. Willem de Kooning and Jack Kerouac were also among the listeners and drinkers at the Five Spot. Baraka told me he missed barely a session of the music that culminated in the Monk-Coltrane Carnegie Hall concert in November, 1957 — a Blue Note best-seller only after the Library of Congress unearthed the tapes in 2005. This was early, lyrical Coltrane, at the dawn of the civil-rights era — “the rebellion” in Baraka’s phrasing, then and ever — for which Coltrane became a sort of soundtrack. For Baraka, Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” planted a bomb inside the sentimentality of Richard Rodgers and “The Sound of Music.” The hostility in Baraka’s listening had softened a lot by 2007, but Coltrane was still perhaps his highest representation of black art with social traction. Baraka follows Coltrane to the yowling last recordings — Coltrane’s ultimate showdown with self and life — with a shudder of shared pain. But if that is what Coltrane wanted us to hear, serious devotees have no choice. “You have to listen to it.”

“Ironic thing is,” Baraka said, “when I was locked up in 1967 in the rebellion in Newark, I found I was listening all the time to Coltrane’s tunes. And then late one afternoon, the jailer came by — it was July 17, 1967 — and said ‘your man Coltrane died today.’ When I was locked up. That amazed me!”

July 6, 2016

The Tragedy of Tony Blair

The scathing Chilcot verdict on Tony Blair’s contribution to the war on Iraq brings to mind a more awful tragedy: that more politicians – notably of the American variety – have not suffered the public, ...

The scathing Chilcot verdict on Tony Blair’s contribution to the war on Iraq brings to mind a more awful tragedy: that more politicians – notably of the American variety – have not suffered the public, private and utter disgrace now falling on Perfidious Albion.

It took Donald Trump – in a rare moment of clarity – to shout the news into Jeb Bush’s face: that his brother George had lied his way into a $5-trillion blunder and crime, still bleeding all over the place. How prissily evasive is the near-silence in our country, to this day! George W. Bush and his team of Vulcans – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz and Co, and all those career-driven Senators and camp followers in media – have escaped Sir John Chilcot’s overdue sentence: to fess up their individual guilt and abject sorrow, and please now get off the stage. How much of the defining rage of 2016 rises simply from the anomaly (absurdity, anyone?) that Hillary Clinton, who cast her Senate vote for George Bush’s war, is running on her ‘experience’?

Sidney_blumenthal_2006In both sorrow and anger, I’m chewing over the Tony Blair story here with my friend of four decades, Sidney Blumenthal, who had a hand in writing it. We met a few weeks ago to talk through his acute personal take on Abraham Lincoln in A Self-Made Man – and the fixation Sidney shares with Abe on politics as vast and intimate theater. But on the Chilcot news blockbuster, it’s the digressions on Tony Blair that leap out of our conversation. Sidney had been ahead of the reporters’ pack in 1991 in marking Bill Clinton’s schmoozing route to the Democratic nomination. Writing for The New Republic and then The New Yorker, Sid Blumenthal in effect presided at the conversational table around the Clintons—contributing, not least, “a vast right-wing conspiracy” as the catch-phrase explaining Bill’s setbacks in office.

Meantime, Sidney and his wife Jackie, on their 20th wedding anniversary in 1996, turned their Washington reception into a party for Tony Blair—and Hillary came! It was the beginning of a political alliance and adventure that isn’t over yet. With George Bush in the White House after 9/11, Tony Blair was eager still to be a “strong ally,” as Sidney puts it. He wound up enabling the war in Iraq, being used, deceived and finally “destroyed” by it.

Hear more of our conversation below:

By the Way • June 4, 2016

The Greatest, After All

Turns out, he was right about almost everything, ahead of time, on Sonny Liston, the Vietnam War, black grandeur, his own singular majesty. Wrong only, it seems, about the humanity of Joe Frazier. Muhammad Ali ...

Turns out, he was right about almost everything, ahead of time, on Sonny Liston, the Vietnam War, black grandeur, his own singular majesty. Wrong only, it seems, about the humanity of Joe Frazier. Muhammad Ali was The Greatest of all time in Fistiana – maybe; but surely the greatest word-smart, street-smart public intellectual of our time. He was a wit at the level of Alexander Pope, an aphorist at or beyond the perfection of Emerson, Twain or Orwell. Only Donald Trump comes close in self-promotional genius, with the difference that Muhammad Ali’s collected wisdom is a full catalog of generosity, soul, courage and truth.

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I had a touching weekend in Muhammad Ali’s company in the summer of 1980, through our mutual friend, the one-off Tennessee politician John Jay Hooker Jr., who was turning 50. Hooker dressed his crackling mind and heroic ego in three-piece suits, a high-collar cartoon of the old white South. Ali and he made an odd pair, but they’d had discovered a profound kinship, real love for one another. In his corner after “the Thrilla in Manila,” Ali’s near-death win against Frazier in 1975, one of the champion’s first gasping notes for TV cameras was that he wanted to thank his friend John Jay Hooker in Nashville — in words to the effect that “he taught me how to hold on.” Hooker was a courtroom performer and fried-chicken entrepreneur who had a long string of political defeats and one unforgettable rally in black Memphis, where Ali had come to endorse him. In the middle of his uproarious speech, Ali turned to the candidate: “By the way, Hooker, what have you ever done for black people?” Hooker jumped up and feasted on the bait: “Muhammad,” he roared, “I’ve always been a big tippah!”

On Hooker’s birthday weekend in 1980 we hung with the retired champ when his Parkinson symptoms were clear but not obtrusive. My three little treasures: that picture, from Ali’s great photographer and best friend, Howard Bingham; then The Joke, and our visit to Meharry Medical School.

“Muhammad’s got a joke,” Ali said, getting back into the car as we toured Nashville on a Sunday afternoon in August.

“What’s the joke, Muhammad,” somebody said, probably Bingham.

“Here’s the joke,” Muhammad said. “What did Abe Lincoln say, coming off a three-day drunk?”

“What did he say, Muhammad?”

“He said: I freed the What?

Meharry was a main stop on our pilgrimage – second-oldest black medical school in the country, one of the holy places. Ali came to tour a hospital ward and specially to thank the nurses for being there. What sticks is the picture of the longest, most pure-hearted embraces I ever saw. Not just with those electrified nurses, one felt Ali’s mission was to download some of his confidence, some of his own divine spark in the rest of us.

 

Podcast • January 25, 2016

Timothy Snyder’s Holocaust Warning for Today

Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian who makes waves. Black Earth is his big new interpretation of “the Holocaust: as History and Warning.” He’s arguing, for starters, that the record of killing Jews – when, ...

Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian who makes waves. Black Earth is his big new interpretation of “the Holocaust: as History and Warning.” He’s arguing, for starters, that the record of killing Jews – when, where, why, how – is in many ways unlike the story we’ve absorbed about the 20th Century’s most awful catastrophe. If we Americans knew the basics about Hitler, he says here, we wouldn’t be repeating many of his blunders in the 21st Century. Specifically, we would not have initiated the decapitation and destruction of states as in Iraq and Libya; we would not have provoked the ‘zombification’ of helpless populations now at the mercy of ISIS. If we wanted to drive a stake in the heart of the Hitler vision, Tim Snyder is telling me, we might better be unleashing science on the climate crisis and the deep panic about food supplies in the long run, which he says Hitler anticipated in his own mad way in Mein Kampf.

By the Way • November 25, 2015

Colm Tóibín’s Working on his Sentences

This is provincial Ireland, a place of long winters but not freezing winters. There’s drizzle as much as there’s rain. You’re trying to find a style just to bring things down to size, maybe bring ...

This is provincial Ireland, a place of long winters but not freezing winters. There’s drizzle as much as there’s rain. You’re trying to find a style just to bring things down to size, maybe bring the melody down to a minor key, as though you’re making drawings instead of paintings. You’re attempting a sort of insistent rhythm which might make its way into the reader’s nervous system… You’re working really with a sort of muted music arising from pain, from things that are difficult, arising from loss. And in that world of small holdings, small houses, small hopes, people are good at leaving things out, not saying them.

Colm Tóibín in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November 2015.

Of course you want to put Colm Tóibín to music — his literary prose in novels like Brooklyn and Nora Webster. Also his gab, as here. Perhaps the hot / traditional Irish band The Gloaming is called for. That bewitching Irish volubility, including his own, Tóibín says, is rooted in a love of silence. It’s a point of his connection with the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, whom he’s reading aloud here, to stunning effect. Tóibín in the southeastern Wexford County, Ireland and Bishop in Nova Scotia seem both to have taken to language as a device to constrain or “restrain” experience. “I have a close relationship with silence,” he says. “With things withheld, with things known and not said. I think there is an impression abroad that Irish people are very garrulous — that there’s an awful lot of talking in Ireland. This may be the case but it’s often there to mask things that nobody wants to talk about.”

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Colm Tóibín’s great teachers are Henry James — of whom he’s written and spoken volumes; and James Joyce, especially in Dubliners (1914) — for the melancholy realism, the “scrupulous meanness,” as Joyce put it to a publisher; but also the lyrical pulse of poetic rhythm that has a force of its own.

Joyce charged defiantly into exile, self-consciously a breaker of convention, drawing a bead on “history” as the “nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Colm Tóibín casts himself differently — not a conservative exactly, but as the man who observes continuity under the easy impression of rupture in Ireland a century after the Easter Rising of 1916. Ireland is in broad and deep turmoil again — the Celtic Tiger economy still in shambles after the meltdown, its government discredited, church rule overthrown by the same-sex marriage rules enacted by an overwhelming referendum last Spring. But Tóibín is remarking on traditions being extended in Ireland — in the best-read young writers like Eimear McBride in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing; or Colin Barrett in the stories of Young Skins; also by Martin Hayes and other rock-star musicians in the fiddle tradition; and most specially in the gay-marriage vote:

“The great example was Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland. She was able to say: ‘I have twins, and one of them is gay. Who is to tell me that child of mine is to be discriminated against in this country.’ The campaign was studiously about presenting people as Irish and family members before being gay. It was not about a marginalized group looking for rights. It was about making Ireland seem a traditional place — with a tradition of including people.”

Podcast • October 12, 2015

Paul Theroux in Zimbabwe, USA

There was something there once. It was a plantation, and then factories set up. The agriculture is now mechanized. The factories are closed. So what have you got? You have something like the post-colonial world. ...

There was something there once. It was a plantation, and then factories set up. The agriculture is now mechanized. The factories are closed. So what have you got? You have something like the post-colonial world. It’s like Zimbabwe, in that the farmers have been kicked out so the fields are dead. There’s no activity. There’s people sitting in the shade, drinking, like Africa — black men drinking beer in the shade. Many of them are war veterans – guys who’ve made major contributions are sitting there with no job, living on welfare. And the shopkeepers are all from India. They’re from Gujurat – the inevitable Mr. Patel. So the Indian shopkeeper, the unemployed man drinking, children running around, careworn women, trying to keep the family together, defunded schools — very hot, very dry, very dusty. You look on the horizon and it’s just dust in the air. And you think: where have I seen this before? Yeah, Zimbabwe, Mozambique. The Western part of Kenya. The Eastern part of Uganda…

Paul Theroux, in conversation on Deep South, a first travel venture into his native United States.

Paul Theroux is my age, my model of what we’ll call “the young old man.” He remembers the sense, growing up near Boston, that “books were banned, writers were outlaws, and writing was a forbidden profession – half crime, half magic – and it made me want to be a writer, and also to leave home.”

Fifty-plus years and fifty-plus books later – novels, stories, a whole genre of grumpy, curious travel books – Paul Theroux is a world-class original: a tart American stylist with an acquired half-English accent and wardrobe, but “no province, no clique, no church,” as Whitman said of Emerson. On the page and more so in person, he’s great fun not least because he’s ever testing your reflexes and surprising you with his breaking ball.

For example: On the writers to be remembered forever, Paul Theroux thinks less of Albert Camus than of Georges Simenon, best known for his detective sideline, who has 400 titles in his name and wrote four books while Camus worked on L’Etranger in the 1940s, and was annoyed not to win the Nobel Prize. Theroux still isn’t sold on The Stranger: “It’s set in Algeria, with all French characters, no Arabs and no women in it. That’s a book? So Camus doesn’t do it for me. Orwell does. In my time? Maybe Noam Chomsky – not a stylist, and not Orwell’s sense of humor; but he has a backbone of iron, and he knows his mind. If people listened to him it would be a better world.”

We’re putting personal frames around the half-century we saw – from JFK’s Peace Corps, in which Paul served, to ISIS and the popular clamor around Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. It’s the same 50-year span that Barney Frank put in a subtitle of his memoirs: “From the Great Society to Gay Marriage.” In Paul Theroux’s melancholy summing up, it’s the arc from colonialism in Africa (where he led several schools) up through freedom-fights, independence, five-year plans and post-colonialism then down to something like despair and a mass longing to emigrate. “Now,” he’s saying, “if you go to any country in the world – and that includes China, India, Brazil, successful countries – go to any classroom… and they’ll say: I want to go to America. I want to leave this country. They won’t say ‘hell-hole,’ but hell-hole is in the back of their mind.”

Of his own writing life, he cites the Chuck Close line (as Philip Roth used to): “ ‘I don’t believe in inspiration; I go to work every day.’ Writing every day – it’s a joy. I never believe people when they say writing is hard. I say: you’re lucky. You’re not a soldier. You’re not a fisherman. You’re not picking pineapples. It’s a wonderful profession.”

This Week's Show •

Can China Lead?

The People’s Republic has arrived and is applying for co-trusteeship of the globe. We got a good look at the co-trustee, China’s enigmatic president Xi Jinping, through the deep sourcing of The New Yorker’s Evan ...

The People’s Republic has arrived and is applying for co-trusteeship of the globe. We got a good look at the co-trustee, China’s enigmatic president Xi Jinping, through the deep sourcing of The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos and from Professor William Kirby, who says that China’s prosperity (and Mr. Xi’s headaches) are a hundred years in the making. We are looking at a “conquest regime,” in Kirby’s phrase, a government ruled by “princelings” of the Communist Party that won the civil war in 1950. Through thick and thin the party line and party practice have been chameleonic marvels of adaptation, but the clock is running on the old elite from which Xi Jinping springs. The Kirby picture is of a mighty state now strangely insecure; he gives no simple answer to the question posed by his new book: Can China Lead? He raises a new thought here: Maybe China cannot be ruled from horseback.

[Xi’s] political toolbox–that of the Chinese Communist Party, it’s ideological toolbox–is so old and so weak… He lives in world in which the people, what they know to be true and what they are told to be true, the distance between these two things, gets larger every day. And so it is a heroic, but in my view ultimately hopeless, effort to think of how one convinces people to study again dialectical materialism again, to study Marxism and Leninism… and the glorious history of the Chinese Communist Party.

The challenge for Xi Jinping, Kirby told us, goes back to the under-credited founder of China’s revolutionary century, Sun Yat-Sen, who set in motion the deep and continuous drives to rebuild the country’s enterprise, infrastructure, and mass education. “Sun Yat-sen once said, ‘The mandate of heaven does not last forever.’ The question that must worry Mr. Xi is when and how there is a political transition in China, how and what his position will be when that challenge comes?”

The premise this week was simple. If the 19th century belonged to the Europeans and the 20th century was America’s, then the 21st century belongs to China. The question is: what will China — and the rest of us — do with this moment?

Professor William Kirby, the Harvard Sino-guru who just tossed a big online China course over the Great Firewall, is fond of ticking off the titles of nervous Western books: The Dragon Awakes, The Ascent of China, and (his favorite) The Rise of China: An Unwelcome If Inevitable Occurrence. Then he reveals that those titles, which seem at home in any airport bookshop, were all published at the turn of the twentieth century.

That’s the key perspective, says Kirby: this China moment was in the works decades before Deng, and it belongs just as much to the people and the culture as it does to the Party. So, we’ll take a hundred-year view in the hope of understanding 1.5 billion people building, working, and learning toward what President Xi Jinping has called “the Chinese Dream.”

On the Ground in China

By Max Larkin
Chris went to China last year, and we played three of our favorite clips on the show last night. You can hear much-extended versions of Chris’s conversations with Ai Weiwei and the internet hero and rockstar Kaiser Kuo below:

But there was a lot more to the tour than that — Chris spoke to authors, students, scholars, and street-vendors. So we’ve put them together in one big playlist and put in on iTunes, too. We hope you’ll tell us when your ears perk up, and take it as a whirlwind tour through a complex nation.

Podcast • April 13, 2015

Barney Frank over 50 Years: the Talker of the House

Barney Frank’s memoir reminds me that we’re almost exact contemporaries – two white guys who’ve been watching a lot of the same stuff, in Boston and Washington, politics and culture, for 50 years, 1965 to ...

Barney Frank’s memoir reminds me that we’re almost exact contemporaries – two white guys who’ve been watching a lot of the same stuff, in Boston and Washington, politics and culture, for 50 years, 1965 to 2015, a long, crazy and almost coherent season of American life. We’re putting a conversation here into a time capsule.

If we’d been born a century earlier, we’d be talking about the start of an awful war in Europe and remembering an awful Civil War here. Between us, we’d have spent up-close time with Lincoln, Mark Twain, R. W. Emerson and P. T. Barnum, Henry and William James, and probably Willy’s unruly student who became president, Teddy Roosevelt.

As it is, we’ve been face-to-face with M. L. King, LBJ and all the Kennedys, James Baldwin, David Halberstam, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Dorothy Day and Margaret Marshall, Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell, Bill Bulger and Kevin White, Howie Carr and Tom Winship, Frank Sinatra and Yo-Yo Ma, Tip O’Neill and Newt Gingrich, Anthony Lewis and George McGovern, Walter Reuther and Nelson Rockefeller, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot. But we’re trying to think about history, not celebrity. I asked Barney to begin with a list – with room for disagreement – of the most over-rated figures of our time, and the most under-sung heroes of our own experience, famous or obscure. Barney – as is his wont – accentuates the positive.

Barney Frank in conversation