August 13, 2014

WWI: The Shock of the New

Out of the wreckage of World War 1 come the incandescent modernists -- none burning brighter than James Joyce and his Ulysses. And don't forget Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso, too. It’s a rebel alliance of high-art anarchists. A century later, their lights are still on. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces?

crouching-Joyce

Guest List

• Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.

• Howard Eiland, modernist scholar, editor of the modernist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, and author of the biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

• Eve Sorunprofessor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, currently writing a book on empathy and elegy in British modernism.

Out of the mire and death of World War One, even before the shooting stops, comes the strangest thing: the novel of the century.  It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, transposing the wily warrior of Greek myth into the buried consciousness of a single day in Dublin in 1904. The global war was only part of the nightmare from which Joyce was trying to awake. From his teens, he’d set himself against every orthodoxy of provincial Ireland, against the pieties of family, church and Empire. Even before pre-publication, Ulysses became the fighting flag of Modernism: a sort of cracked “true realism,” an anti-violent anarchism in prose, poetry and painting, too. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces: Mrs. DallowayThe Waste-Land? Have you made it through Ulysses? Is history a nightmare we’re still sleeping through?

Reading List

Where do we look for a short course in the modernist sensibility? You could return to Ezra Pound’s young, verbless days as an Imagist in “In a Station of the Metro“: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Or we could quote his solicitation letter to H. L. Mencken, republished by The American Reader: “At any rate, if there is impractical stuff, I want it.”
Virginia Woolf proposed the look and feel of modernism in three classic essays, including a call to a higher realism in “Modern Fiction”: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall…”
Joyce wasn’t much of a theorist, but he talked (and sang, and jigged) with his dinner guests: “What goes on in an ordinary house like this house in an ordinary day or night - that is what should be written about… eating, sleeping, all that we take for granted, not leaving out the digestive processes.”
A story about modernist books is in particular a story about modernist lives: how fun, desperate, original they were – “What a lark! what a plunge!” For that reason, we recommend Kevin Birmingham’s terrific group biography, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, once more. (We tested it as a beach read, and it passed with flying colors.)

July 3, 2014

Updike in the Archives

  By Max Larkin As a companion to our show on John Updike — now gone five years and at the same time back with us thanks to our guest Adam Begley’s brilliant biography — we’re seeking the writer in the trail he left behind: the postcards he sent ...

Updike-header

 

By Max Larkin

As a companion to our show on John Updike — now gone five years and at the same time back with us thanks to our guest Adam Begley’s brilliant biography — we’re seeking the writer in the trail he left behind: the postcards he sent and his TV interviews, in the fan letters and the criticism.

He was a writer above all things, determined to generate three pages per workday. That adds up, over a fifty-year career, to a huge bibliography (see below).

Updike By the Numbers

67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography: 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction;

186 stories across 1,949 pages in the new Library of America edition;

2 Pulitzer Prizes, among many others;

an archive purchased for $3 million by Harvard University after his death;

and an 18 handicap at golf (his second-favorite pastime).

Updike was a writer and reader more prolific, maybe, than any ‘literary’ author now working — though we’re interested to hear where you see Updike’s habit, or his tone, today. But he was also a father and two times a husband. Adam Begley points out a moving moment from the 1982 documentary, What Makes Rabbit Run?, in which David Updike wrestles with being a writer’s son:

There are also the dozens of postcards and letters that Updike sent our host, Chris Lydon, as a longtime guest and friend of The Ten O’Clock News and The Connection. Best among the available meetings is a seven-minute interview Chris did with Updike on the beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, after Rabbit At Rest had won Updike his second Pulitzer in early 1991. Enjoy the hair, the feeling of the wind, and the good serious talk of death and what’s important:

The interview was seen from another angle, and recorded forever, in a watercolor painting done by a friend that hangs in our Beacon Hill office.

Updike watercolor

I didn’t know Updike, but I know that it was a term of art on The Connection to “pull an Uppy” — that is, to decline participation in a radio conversation more kindly and thoughtfully than most people accept. And the postcards testify to that genteelness in Updike, the kind of thing that made Nicholson Baker, himself a great New England transplant and the avidest fan, sent his hero a quote regarding Balzac from John Jay Chapman:

Your complete literary man writes all the time. It wakes him in the morning to write, it exercises him to write, it rests him to write. Writing is to him a visit from a friend, a cup of tea, a game of cards, a walk in the country, a warm bath, an after-dinner nap, a hot Scotch before bed, and the sleep that follows it. Your complete literary chap is a writing animal; and when he dies he leaves a cocoon as large as a haystack, in which every breath he has drawn is recorded in writing.

Lydon-+-Updike

Podcast • July 3, 2014

The John Updike Radio Files

We've discovered some old gems in our radio archives and sprinkled them through a conversation with John Updike's biographer, Adam Begley, for our show this week. Begley talks about Updike's Pennsylvania boyhood, his wives and lovers north of Boston, his children, his spiritual life, his voracious reading, his travels  — and how he created the most graceful prose of our time by cannibalizing all of it for his art.
Updike in the Archives

updike1950
We’ve discovered some old gems in our radio archives and sprinkled them through a conversation with John Updike’s biographer, Adam Begley, for our show this week.

Begley talks about Updike’s Pennsylvania boyhood, his wives and lovers north of Boston, his children, his spiritual life, his voracious reading, his travels  — and how he created the most graceful prose of our time by cannibalizing all of it for his art. Between lived experience and the pages of the New Yorker magazine, John Updike had the shortest digestive tract in the modern practice of serious literature, Begley says. How we miss him and wonder: what’s Updike thinking — as we did back in the day about the expanding universe, or Barack Obama on the rise, or the Red Sox in a pennant race? What would he say today about our obsession with our phones, or about the the jobless generation, or Google Glass?

Watch one of our favorite interviews with Updike, on the occasion of his second Pulitzer win in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest, from The Ten O’Clock News. What do you hear in that voice, and who has filled Updike’s shoes today?

Adam Begley sent us a Guardian list of his ten favorite Updike short stories. What are yours?

Five years ago, when HarperCollins approached me about writing a biography of John Updike, I would have classified myself as a moderate fan, thrilled by his supple, precise prose and respectful of his wide-ranging talent and effortless industry: every year a new Updike book! I admired many of his novels and most of his criticism; though aware of his poetry, I hadn’t read very much of it. It was apparent to me even then that Updike had earned himself an exalted place in the pantheon of 20th-century short story writers.

Now, after a thorough immersion in all things Updike, my admiration has spread and deepened. I’ve come to cherish many of his poems, and the large majority of his 23 novels. After countless hours in the archives, I’ve discovered Updike the helplessly prolific letter-writer, scattering literary jewels throughout a vast correspondence. But Updike’s stories – there are 186 of them in the two-volume Library of America edition – remain for me the chief glory of his collected works. His stated aim in his short fiction was “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and it’s an aim he achieved beautifully.

1. The Happiest I’ve Been (1958)

An Updike alter ego, John Nordholm, looks back in tender reminiscence to a time when he was a second-year student at university. He has been home for Christmas at his parents’ farm, and is leaving again. He’s eager to put his childhood behind him and at the same time desperate to preserve the past intact, to protect and cherish it. The tension between these two impulses supplies the emotional power here, as it does in many of the stories Updike wrote about Olinger, a lightly fictionalised version of his Pennsylvania hometown, Shillington. While writing this story, Updike later explained, he had “a sensation of breaking through, as if through a thin sheet of restraining glass, to material, to truth, previously locked up”.

2. Separating (1974)

A devastating story about the break-up of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, stand-ins for Updike and his first wife. It features a tragicomic last supper at which Richard, an unfaithful husband and flawed father, is supposed to inform his children that he and their mother are splitting up. At the end of the story, his eldest son asks him “why?” – which prompts an indelible final paragraph: “Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness … Richard had forgotten why.” Minutely autobiographical and gorgeously shaped, Separating is perhaps the world’s best (and worst) argument for writing about what you know.

3. A&P (1960)

Updike’s most widely anthologised story, about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. As Updike’s first wife pointed out, the teenage narrator’s voice (“In walks these three girls … “) is very Salinger – but the dazzlingly vivid detail and the quixotic romanticism are pure Updike.

4. A Sandstone Farmhouse (1990)

A sequel of sorts to his brilliant early novel Of the Farm (1965), as well as a memorial to his widowed mother who died in 1989 and is here is resurrected with unsentimental candour and evident affection. Updike filled the story with incidents snatched directly from her last six months, quoting her verbatim and giving the precise circumstances of her death by heart attack. An attempt to immortalise the most important person in his life, it was also, for him, a kind of therapy.

5. The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island (1960)

As the story’s comically long-winded title suggests, Updike here stitches together disparate elements, a daring collage construction. Among the many marvels, this striking description of how fiction writers condense and transform experience: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”

6. The Bulgarian Poetess (1964)

The first (and sweetest) of 20 stories featuring Henry Bech, another – this time rather unlikely – Updike alter ego. A New York Jewish writer, Bech is in some ways everything Updike was not: an anguished urban bachelor beset by writer’s block. But thanks to Bech, Updike was able to record in fiction an important part of his experience: the life of a professional author. In this story, Bech is travelling behind the Iron Curtain, as an ambassador of the arts, sponsored by the US government. (Updike did the same, the same year.)

7. Bech in Czech (1986)

Returning to eastern Europe decades later, our hero visits Kafka’s grave, meets a handful of dissidents, broods about the Holocaust, and suffers an attack of anxiety that is at once existential and postmodern: “More fervently than he was a Jew, Bech was a writer, a literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt a cause for unease. He was a creature of the third person, a character. A character suffers from the fear that he will become boring to the author, who will simply let him drop.”

8. Problems (1975)

The problems in this very short and ostentatiously clever story are presented as questions on a maths test: “During the night, A, though sleeping with B, dreams of C … Problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?” The story, from a collection of the same title, is emblematic of the brief moment of guilty limbo between Updike’s first and second marriages, a period during which divorce and its discontents replaced adultery as his simplex theme.

9. Here Come the Maples (1976)

A bittersweet record of the court hearing that put an end to the Maples’ marriage. The 17th of 18 stories chronicling more than two decades of the couple’s quarrels and reconciliations, it’s a barely fictionalised yet artful retelling of Updike’s own experience in the divorce court. The concluding kiss is priceless.

10. My Father’s Tears (2005)

Like The Happiest I’ve Been, this is a story about a university student who’s come home for the holiday and is now leaving again. Updike was 26 when he wrote the first story, 73 when he wrote the second. There are fewer bravura moments in My Father’s Tears, less writerly zeal, and yet it achieves a quiet, sober intensity. The reason for the father’s tears? “I was going somewhere,” the son tells us, “and he was seeing me go.” Updike’s talent had mellowed and deepened; it certainly hadn’t diminished.

Also explore a little-read essay from last week’s subject David Foster Wallace on the late writings of the ‘phallocrat’ novelists (or Great Male Narcissists), with John Updike ranking first among them. Quoting feminist friends who read “a penis with a thesaurus,” Wallace wrote for a generation that received Updike more skeptically, and with less rapture. Which is the Updike you know? Where’s his place in 21st-century literature?

Podcast • June 26, 2014

Revisiting David Foster Wallace’s Boston

The novelist David Foster Wallace has resurfaced on film and in our radio archive, so we’re revisiting one of our favorite shows of the year this week: “Infinite Boston,” a tribute to Wallace's magnum opus "Infinite Jest" and its roots in Cambridge and Brighton. We dug up the famous Connection interview with Wallace from the spring of 1996, in which Wallace spoke about the book, Boston AA meetings, the lonely and lost Generation X, and his place in U.S. literature.

DFW-2007_RS

The novelist David Foster Wallace has resurfaced on film and in our radio archive, so we’re revisiting one of our favorite shows of the year this week: “Infinite Boston,” a tribute to Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest and its real-life roots in Cambridge and Brighton.

The actor Jason Segel will don the famous bandanna on the big screen later this year for The End of the Tour. A few weeks ago Sotheby’s sold off a small lot of personal and private letters Wallace wrote to his friend J.T. Jackson during the worst years of his life. And, burying the lead, we dug up the famous Connection interview with Wallace from the spring of 1996, when he was back in town on a book tour for Infinite Jest. Wallace talked with Chris about the book, Boston AA meetings, the lonely and lost Generation X, and his place in U.S. literature.

Our show this winter featured an audio tour of Wallace’s Boston with the local raconteur and Wallace expert Bill Lattanzi, interviews with his biographer D. T. Max, the editor and writer Sven Birkerts, and a conversation with Lattanzi and Deb Larson, Wallace’s friend and mentor at the halfway house where Wallace lived during those heartbreaking Boston years.

9157-lot-150-David-Foster-Wallace_2

A sad, sweet postcard from Wallace to J.T. Jackson from 1990. The front showed “A Foggy Day In Boston, Massachusetts”.

Reading List

  • An Interval,” an excerpt from Infinite Jest that was published in The New Yorker in January 1995, including a description of Ennet House director Pat Montesian, the character based on our guest, Deb Larson-Venable,
  • Deb’s Story,” a partial autobiography by Deb Larson-Venable herself, on the Granada House website, and “An Ex-Resident’s Story“, an anonymous article (credited to Wallace) about Granada House, the Brighton halfway house that became Ennet House in Infinite Jest,
  • The Unfinished,” the article by D.T. Max about Wallace’s biography and career that spawned his book,  Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,
  • The Map and the Territory,” an excellent article by Adam Kelly on Bill Lattanzi’s Infinite Jest tour,
  • Infinite Boston, designer William Beutler’s amazing record of his own whirlwind tour of Wallace’s Boston,

Thanks again to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.

Image credit: Richard Burrbridge/Rolling Stone.

Podcast • June 25, 2014

David Foster Wallace on The Connection with Chris Lydon, February 1996

In February 1996, David Foster Wallace came to Boston. He was the not-quite recognized writer of the massive book, Infinite Jest, which was just beginning to capture the attention of reviewers, readers and a generation of writers. Chris interviewed David Foster Wallace on The Connection on WBUR in Boston, and told him he seemed to be living in between a moment of cultish obscurity and international artistic celebrity, perhaps even immortality.

DFW 2

By Kunal Jasty and Max Larkin

In February 1996, David Foster Wallace came to Boston. He was the not-quite recognized writer of the massive book, Infinite Jest, which was just beginning to capture the attention of reviewers, readers and a generation of writers. Chris interviewed David Foster Wallace on The Connection on WBUR in Boston, and told him he seemed to be living in between a moment of cultish obscurity and international artistic celebrity, perhaps even immortality.

We went to the WBUR archives yesterday to see if we could find the tape. We found it in the dusty basement, nestled between shows about the 1996 presidential primaries and escalating violence in the Middle East. The conversation is almost heartbreaking to hear now in light of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. Back then he was attempting to explain the sadness he saw among the twenty- and thirty-somethings around him; he admitted to feeling lost and lonely himself. But he also spoke of his hope to have children and the prospect of a long career.

“I was raised in an academic environment and in a pretty middle-class one. I’d never really seen how a lot of other people live. My chance to see that was here in Boston, and a lot of it was in the halfway houses for this book. I didn’t really understand emotionally that there are people around who didn’t have enough to eat, who weren’t warm enough, who didn’t have a place to live, whose parents beat the hell out of them regularly. The sadness isn’t in seeing it, the sadness is in realizing how phenomenally lucky I am, not only to have never been hungry or cold, but to be educated, to have access to books. Never before in history has a country been so blessed, materially and intellectually, and yet we’re miserable.”
David Foster Wallace in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 1996.

All the same, Wallace was skirting the subject of his own alcoholism and marijuana addiction. Now we know that Wallace came to Alcoholics Anonymous and Granada House, a halfway house in Brighton, not as a researcher but as a patient. In our show “Infinite Boston,” we spoke to Deb Larson-Venable, Granada House’s den mother and executive director. Wallace based his character Pat Montesian, one of the novel’s rare angels, on Larson. She knew Wallace as a man who fought for his life in Boston, and won.

You can listen to the full interview at the top of the page, but here’s our favorite part, when Wallace talks about why his generation seems so “lost and lonely”:

“When I started the book the only idea I had is I wanted to do something about America that was sad but wasn’t just making fun of America. Most of my friends are extremely bright, privileged, well-educated Americans who are sad on some level, and it has something, I think, to do with loneliness. I’m talking out of my ear a little bit, this is just my opinion, but I think somehow the culture has taught us or we’ve allowed the culture to teach us that the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can, and that the implicit promise is that will make you happy. I know that’s almost offensively simplistic, but the effects of it aren’t simplistic at all. I don’t have children but I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of what my children will think of me, of what we’ve done with what we’ve been given, and why we are so sad.”
David Foster Wallace in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 1996.

In this clip, Wallace reads one of our favorite sections of the book, about why the seemingly trivial lessons of Boston AA simply work:

“You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story. The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter. And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clich\aed AA thing–so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they’d come too much to love– might really be able to keep the lover’s toothy maw at bay. The process is the neat reverse of what brought you down and In here: Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons . . . and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In. And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand-burned-on-hot-stove terror you heed the improbable-sounding warnings not to stop pounding out the nightly meetings even after the Substance-cravings have left and you feel like you’ve got a grip on the thing at last and can now go it alone, you still don’t try to go it alone, you heed the improbable warnings because by now you have no faith in your own sense of what’s really improbable and what isn’t, since AA seems, improbably enough, to be working, and with no faith in your own senses you’re confused, flummoxed, and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it–how can you pray to a `God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?–but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told, you keep coming and coming, nightly”

And here’s Deb Larson from our recent show on David Foster Wallace, describing Wallace at the Granada House in 1989. She describes his interactions with Don Gately and other residents of Granada House, bringing them to poetry readings at Harvard:

 

By the Way • May 29, 2014

From Andre to Anton: The Writer’s Writer

Our Twitter experiment this week came from Sonia Chung’s wonderful essay, “I Heart Chekhov“, from The Millions. We wanted to design some postcards. We used what Nabokov considered to be Chekhov’s chosen color register, “a tint between the color of an old fence and that ...

Our Twitter experiment this week came from Sonia Chung’s wonderful essay, “I Heart Chekhov“, from The Millions. We wanted to design some postcards. We used what Nabokov considered to be Chekhov’s chosen color register, “a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud.” Here are testimonials — all loving, we left Hemingway out — dug up from around the literary archive.

  • CWT_Cornel-West
  • CWT_Andre-Dubus-01
  • CWT_Sonya-Chung-01
  • CWT_Tennessee-Williams
  • CWT_Flannery-OConnor
  • CWT_Virginia-Woolf
  • CWT_Thanks

May 29, 2014

Reading Chekhov

Our “Reading Chekhov” series culminates in a full hour on the Russian physician who spun the small happenings of old Russia into some of the most popular plays in the world and into stories that stay with us and feel new. We're talking through the dreams, the heartbreak, and the truth of the writers’ writer.
Reading Chekhov IV: "The Student"
Reading Chekhov V: "The Teacher of Literature"
From Andre to Anton: The Writer's Writer
Chekhov's World, In Pictures

chekhov

Our “Reading Chekhov” series culminates in a full hour on the Russian physician who spun the small happenings of old Russia into some of the most popular plays in the world and into stories that stay with us and feel new. Andre Dubus III, Maxim D. Shrayer and Rosamund Bartlett are taking us through the dreams, the heartbreak, and the truth of the writers’ writer.

Chekhov’s phrases, scenes and lines keep expanding when they’re spoken aloud. He has the further peculiar effect of inviting digressions as we go – conversations and asides about all manner of things, philosophical and emotional, and not at all specially Russian. For our podcast project “Reading Chekhov,” we’ve assembled actors and storytellers to bring these Russian classics to life.

Guest List

"The Cherry Orchard" performed for the first time at the Moscow Art Theatre, January 17, 1904

“The Cherry Orchard” performed first at the Moscow Art Theatre, January 17, 1904

More Reading

  • Ben Greenman’s provocative, funny ‘translation’ of Chekhov’s stories into the language and world of contemporary celebrity, called Celebrity Chekhov;
  • An interview with Rosamund Bartlett in Passport magazine on her biography of the man himself — she calls Chekhov “one of the few people you end up admiring more rather than less having probed the details of his life”;
  • Maxim Shrayer discusses Nabokov and Chekhov with Five Books:

Nabokov’s stories go back to Chekhov and Bunin and the great Russian love story, in which desire and memories interact, mostly in unhappy ways for the characters, but happily for the reader.

I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self…

Podcast • May 8, 2014

Reading Chekhov VI: “About Love”

Welcome back to my living room. We're reading the story, "About Love," from 1898. Chekhov tells it as a conversation among three men on a hunting weekend -- a veterinarian, a school teacher and a small landowner-farmer Alekhin. On the surface, at least, this is Chekhov's case for the irrational but unconditional demands of the heart.
Anton Chekhov with the actress Olga Knipper.  They met in rehearsals of "The Seagull" in 1898, the year he published "About Love."  They married in 1901, when he had three years to live.

Anton Chekhov with the actress Olga Knipper. They met in rehearsals of “The Seagull” in 1898, the year he published “About Love.” He had three years to live when they married in 1901.

Welcome back to my living room. We’re sitting around with actors and friends reading Chekhov stories. Chekhov (1860 – 1904) was the model doctor-writer, the “Uncle Vanya” and “Cherry Orchard” playwright and a man, it turns out, with a very active love life, a long and not particularly happy marriage, and a too-short career universally admired for its searching truthfulness in art and love, too.

We’re reading the story, “About Love,” from 1898. Chekhov tells it as a conversation among three men on a hunting weekend — a veterinarian, a school teacher and a small landowner-farmer Alekhin, who starts the ball rolling:

“So far only one incontestable truth has been uttered about love: ‘This is a great mystery.’ Everything else that has been written or said about love is not a conclusion, but only a statement of questions which have remained unanswered. The explanation which would seem to fit one case does not apply in a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case individually without attempting to generalize. We ought, as the doctors say, to individualize each case.”

The story becomes Alekhin’s anguished memoir of the secret and unspoken love he lost — of the married woman who left their town in agony for want of his intervention. On the surface, at least, this is Chekhov’s case for the irrational but unconditional demands of the heart. Not the least mystery to me is that Mikhail Baryshnikov’s stage production of “About Love,” which came to Boston this past winter, left out what are for me the key lines:

“We were a great crowd to see Anna Alexyevna off. When she had said good-bye to her husband and her children and there was only a minute left before the third bell, I ran into her compartment to put a basket, which she had almost forgotten, on the rack, and I had to say good-bye. When our eyes met in the compartment our spiritual fortitude deserted us both; I took her in my arms, she pressed her face to my breast, and tears flowed from her eyes. Kissing her face, her shoulders, her hands wet with tears — oh, how unhappy were! — I confessed my love for her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceptive all that had hindered us from loving was. I understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.”

From “About Love” in Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories, Norton edition, 1979. Constance Garnett’s translation. Pages 194 to 201.

Podcast • April 23, 2014

Akhil Sharma on “Family Life”

The writer that so many other writers are talking about is the Indian-born New Yorker, Akhil Sharma. His novel is Family Life, a faithful recounting in fiction of a horrific swimming-pool accident that did catastrophic brain damage to his gifted older brother and smashed his family’s immigrant adventure. But our conversation, like the book itself, is also about how writers are made, how agony becomes art, how memory wants be nudged forward.

maxresdefault

We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” 1838

We’re in conversation with the writer that so many other writers are talking about, the Indian-born New Yorker, Akhil Sharma. His novel is Family Life, a faithful recounting in fiction of a horrific swimming-pool accident that did catastrophic brain damage to his gifted older brother and smashed his family’s immigrant adventure.  But our conversation, like the book itself, is also about how writers are made, how agony becomes art, how memory wants be nudged forward.

Akhil Sharma is telling us he chiseled 7,000 pages in draft to barely 200 pages in hardcover.  It was a project, he says, that was full of love more than sadness, that was designed to be useful to his parents and others, and to move like a rocket. The conversation jumped from writing to life and back again, from Hemingway to Chekhov and Proust and the devices of storytelling and fiction. And we found that we were high on each other almost before we began.

The Open Source Questionnaire

As a writer, who is in the conversation with you?Family Life ARC mech 3p_r1.REV spine.indd Who are the writers in your club? Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, and Leo Tolstoy.

What’s the state of the art in writing these days? It’s the same as always: mostly very bad writers and some extraordinary writers.

Who’s doing your kind of work, the work of your spirit, in an entirely different medium? Gerhard Richter, the German painter.

What’s the key note of your personality as a writer? Tenderness.

Who’s your favorite character in fiction? Father Karamazov. I can relate to him, that sort of crazy behavior. That’s my family.

What’s your idea of perfect happiness? Talking to someone smart and interesting who likes me.

What would you call the most overrated virtue? Honor. I believe the first commitment should always be to happiness. That necessarily means being truthful and honorable, but nothing should get in the way of choosing to be happy.

When you walk down the street, what do people see? That guy walking down the street, looking at his coupons. I love to collect coupons and I love to cash them in.

What do you like most about your appearance, and what do you dislike most? I dislike most things about my appearance, but I like that largely I can blend in.

On what occasions do you lie? When it avoids pain for others.

If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? A child in an ideal family.

 

More Reading