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 • October 3, 2017

Karl Ove Knausgaard on Art and Loneliness

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is a relief for him and us: It looks outward, in short pieces, letters to a new daughter before she was born, about Stubble Fields, Telephones, Wellington boots, chimneys, the painter Vincent Van Gogh. You name it, he’ll write it, a theme a day as in the college course we wish we’d taken.

In conversation it’s not one guy introspecting, it’s two guys groping for a connection, sitting in the back of my house in Boston for most of an hour in the storm season of 2017. What’s the difference, I’m asking, between his narcissism and President Trump’s?

We’re jumping from Russian novels to gene editing to the experience of loneliness, and I’m finding him wide open to engagement. He’s generous, transparent, in effect: innocent. Here’s an excerpt of the interview below:

Karl Ove Knausgaard: The books I’d been writing before were so introspective and so analytic and so self-analyzing. That’s very much about relations, very much about psychology, and it’s basically all about the interior life. And this book is the opposite. I’m looking at something outside of myself, and it is the things themselves that should be in the center, basically yes removed from myself. But from thing to me was to see what happens if you write, you know in your own style personally, about something objective that happens with an encyclopedia thought of the world, you know. Everything becomes, in the end, very personal anyway somehow. It’s impossible to remove yourself. You never think of quality of writing in an encyclopedic text, you know, in a dictionary. It’s just like it’s a matter of fact: this is the world. But what you discover when you write about it that’s just not true. The objective world just doesn’t exist. It’s all a relationship between me and the world and you and the world. There is nothing else.

Christopher Lydon: So why get out of yourself after so long inside? Was it for relief?

KOK: Yeah, very much a relief. It was joyful to write this book, and it wasn’t joyful to write My Struggle, as my previous book was called. But a joyful part is, you know, because I am writing about joyful things. I’m writing about being alive in this world, which is joyful. We do forget it all the time, but it is. And this book is mainly set in a garden and a house, and that’s it. That’s where the world is. I mean, even when there are hurricanes and, you know, climate change and all the wars and hunger and all of this, this is still true. It does exist.

Video: On Van Gogh and the Life of an Artist


Video by Zach Goldhammer. Illustrations by Susan Coyne.

This Week's Show •

Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words ...

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press.

Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, sees Baldwin as a mirror on American life:

He went really deep into what the society is, you know, and he was the only one who was able to formulate it in a way that a scholar of course would understand it but also the man in the streets would understand it in a way where he could be very critical to the white liberal but without pushing them away. But he found a way to put every one of us, whether black or white, in front of the reality. He put a mirror in front of us in a way that you can’t look away.

Teju Cole views the Baldwin of today as a master aphorist: a pithy prophet well-suited to the twitter age and “the go-to quote factory of those who are woke”. On a deeper level, Cole finds kinship in Baldwin’s transnational sense of self.  Cole guides us through his own pilgrimage to Leukerbad, Switzerland—the remote town where Baldwin composed his seminal essay “Stranger in the Village”:

The essay I ended up writing about this journey to Leukerbad became also a kind of exercise in Baldwinian form … I deeply love the essay that he wrote about being there, and in my essay, which I call “Black Body,” I wanted to think about what it meant to inhabit somebody else’s space. I was inhabiting his space and, in a sense in the essay, I was inhabiting his prose style. … it was conscious to allow that to happen, to allow the visceral effect of being there as he was there, walking the streets as he walked the streets, to let all of that come through and still have it be analytical.

Cornel West reminds us of Baldwin’s unpopularity, and his nagging truth-telling habit that alienated him, in later years, from the white liberal media professional who first popularized his work, as well as from the radical black nationalists. But for Brother West, this outsider truth-teller “was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart.”

“He was heartbroken.” Cornel says, “America broke his heart, day in and day out.”

And Ed Pavlic, author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, hears in Baldwin’s words echoes of the black musicians Baldwin dearly loved – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson et al. Above all else though, Pavlic reminds us of Baldwin’s deep love for Ray Charles, highlighting the concert Baldwin and Charles organized together at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1973 Newport Folk Festival.

 

Illustrations by Susan Coyne. This program was originally broadcast February 2017.

 

 

Podcast • February 28, 2017

George Saunders in the Afterlife

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about ...

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about his spooky transcendental first novel — about Abraham Lincoln in limbo with the son that died in the White House; immediately I was reminded of what Maxim Gorki noticed about Anton Chekhov, a Saunders idol: “In Anton Chekhov’s presence,” Gorki said, “every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self…”

And so it went for us with George Saunders. He’s famous for writing: “Stay open, forever, so open it hurts,” and he talks that way about everything – about his and his wife’s version of Tibetan Buddhism, for example; about his very complicated feelings inside Trump campaign rallies; about the notion he teaches that “if death is in the room,” as it is in throughout his new novel, the writing and the reading get pretty interesting. The book in question is titled Lincoln in the Bardo – using the Tibetan word for a mysterious space underground for lost souls after death, but not quite dead. He gave me a feeling it’s a zone we all might well get to know better.

This Week's Show •

Bob Dylan, The Poet

Bob Dylan, the poet, has been singing more than 50 years, but have you ever really stopped to listen to the words? Now that Dylan is a Nobel giant of literature, we asked Christopher Ricks, professor of English ...

Bob Dylan, the poet, has been singing more than 50 years, but have you ever really stopped to listen to the words? Now that Dylan is a Nobel giant of literature, we asked Christopher Ricks, professor of English at Boston University, for a line-by-line, close-reading of a few lyrical wonders.

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 First page of “Like A Rolling Stone” manuscript.

Listening to Dylan the poet, you hear many things: rural protest storyteller, Greenwich village freewheeler, king of rock surrealism. A people’s poet and songster (in the tradition of Robert Burns), a modernist beatnik (in the zone of Allen Ginsburg), a classic versifier (in the bardic tradition of Orpheus—that’s what Salman Rushdie says), and a prolific quoter and sampler (in the old, weird, American blues style, as Greil Marcus says). The novelist Francine Prose hears Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman; the journalist Charlie Pierce hears gonzo journalism. Only Ricks would dare to compare Dylan to literary jumbos like Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Eliot.

Of course, Dylan is in a category of his own (not just because, unlike most writers, Dylan is heard through records, radio, and on stage); in fact, Ricks contends that Dylan the “greatest living user of the English language.”

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Here are some of our favorite annotations from Ricks:

Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Christopher Ricks: Hanging is lynching… Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if “selling postcards of the hanging” was only a surrealist sickness. No, no. It was the American way of life. It was quite central. So then you move into these things that are surrealist, all right. “Painting the passports brown.” Oh, that’s “painting the town red.” And the town is going to turn up a moment later in the song. So you’ve got this strange feeling that you often have in a dream, that there’s a word just below the surface, there’s some sort of link, there are strange things floating one into the other. Is the “blind commissioner” a commissioner who is blind, or a commissioner for the blind? It’s blind partly because you’re visualizing things. Sound wonderfully visualizes.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen

She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage

And never sat once at the head of the table

And didn’t even talk to the people at the table

Who just cleaned up all the food from the table

And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level

Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane

That sailed through the air and came down through the room

Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle

And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger

And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears

Ricks: Cain, as the first killer, turns up in many of Dylan’s songs. So the question is, when you sing a word like “cane,” it’s identical in sound with C-A-I-N. And when you have “table,” “table,” “table”—are you near Abel? Maybe not. But it’s a little bit of a coincidence. You’ve got cane. “Slain by a cane” reminds you: That was the first killing ever. So that you’ve got the primal curse of mankind on it!

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,

And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,

Oh, do they think could bury you?

With your pockets well protected at last,

And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,

And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,

Who could they get to carry you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,

Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,

Should I put them by your gate,

Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Ricks: This is like a huge, Petrarchan poem. It’s like four, six sonnets by Petrarch. Every one of which lists all the wonderful apparatus which surrounds a seductive woman. The seduction may be her very goodness, or it may be other things about her. The song overlaps terrifically with Swinburne’s poem “Dolores,” where Dolores is our lady of sorrows, “the sad-eyed lady of the lowlands.” … The refrain is a very great beauty with great dignity. It’s about “should I lead them by her gate? Or sad eyed lady, should I wait?” “Should I wait” is like Shakespeare’s sonnets, where the speaker in the sonnets is always saying “please, I’m perfectly happy to wait, happy to wait”—with a terrific edge of resentment—and this a song which understands resentment. That is, it’s not simply grateful to a woman who puts you through all of this with her this and her that, “with your, with your, with your…” Terrific song. Terrifying song, really.

dylan at the piano

If you want to learn more about Dylan’s time in Cambridge, read our own Zach Goldhammer’s piece on the ARTery.

Illustration: Susan Coyne; Photos: Ted Russell/Polaris, Hulton Archive/Getty Images. The audio above is a re-run, broadcast June 8, 2017. Listen to the original program at the Internet Archive here.

June 9, 2016

American Hearts and Minds

With the presidential primaries practically over, let’s take a moment on the psychiatrist’s couch, with an eye on the health of American hearts and minds. We spent months and months inside two overheated political races, ...

With the presidential primaries practically over, let’s take a moment on the psychiatrist’s couch, with an eye on the health of American hearts and minds.

We spent months and months inside two overheated political races, and nearly half of all Americans are displeased with our options.  We’re left without a feeling of confidence, let alone consensus.

But Marilynne Robinson—novelist, essayist, and friend of POTUS—declares that the political pandemonium is all to the good, if it can reintroduce us to ourselves, and to a country that many of us have ceased to understand.

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Robinson sees the world through her own Christian moral learning. So for her, America is an old and venerable civilization that has finally come to appreciate what we had in Barack Obama. We’re often saved by human ingenuity, we make a few simple requests, for solid public education and affordable healthcare, and yet we’re tempted by fear, greed and division.

Robinson recalls that we’ve been in worse scrapes before. In 1968, after the death of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Chicago convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey was marred by the protests of young antiwar voters.

After that, Humphrey was stranded, Richard Nixon ascended—and brought with him a period of democratic decay.

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What if we had a replay of that strange fractured moment in the 1960s and ’70s? And what if we asked the wisest Americans we know what to do in another moment of democratic uncertainty and disappointment?

With a very wise panel—of psychologist Andrew Solomon, philosopher Nancy Rosenblum, and historian Bruce Schulman—we’re talking through just what we’ve learned.

This Week's Show •

Ferrante Fever

This week: beach reading and classic literature intersect in one long literary shocker. The books are the four “Neapolitan Novels” of Elena Ferrante—from My Brilliant Friend to The Story of a Lost Child, published late ...

This week: beach reading and classic literature intersect in one long literary shocker.

The books are the four “Neapolitan Novels” of Elena Ferrante—from My Brilliant Friend to The Story of a Lost Child, published late last year.

Ferrante’s identity remains beguilingly unknown, but she has put so much of her life and world in this masterwork that we’re not going to dwell on that part of the mystery.

Instead we’ll count the many faces of her novels. From the outside, the books look innocuous enough: their covers are airbrushed photo collages of mothers, daughters, and girls in Mediterranean scenes.

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But deep down they are roiling, and white-hot: with male violence, women’s resistance, pleasure, trespass, and loss. Think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” rewritten into a feminist epic.

Ferrante pushes the story over a long roller-coaster arc, and it can be as gripping as soap operas, HBO, or Harry Potter and—at moments—as deep and humane as Proust.

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A few of the things these books are doing:

The psychology of a friendship.

The Proustian gene shows itself from the very beginning of the novels: when Elena Greco—an aging, successful writer from Naples—hears that her best friend Raffaella Cerullo, whom she calls “Lila,” has disappeared from her home.

Greco decides to set down their entire friendship on the page: every meaningful moment, from school competition through teenage cruelties, weddings, vacations, and shared pregnancies.

All the while Elena and Lila become closer than close—almost interdependent in a sometimes tense and jealous pairing. The joy of the book comes from standings inside the two friends’ field of influence: where does one friend end and the other begin? Who would they be without one another?

Italian-donne

20th-century feminism, a life story.

Our guest Dayna Tortorici, co-editor of n+1, reads Ferrante’s whole body of work—she wrote shorter novels before the “Neapolitan” series—as a sensitive portrayal of women’s power in practice and across history.

Not as high-falutin theory, but almost as gossip:

Ferrante’s novels animate these ideas with a generous clarity. In her work, you can see how the mother-daughter paradigm operates in all relationships between women without reducing them to cardboard… Ferrante has given intellectual and literary women an invaluable gift: books that speak to them in a language their mothers can understand.

By the end, Ferrante’s two brilliant heroines have clearly come a long way from the fates of their mothers, eaten up by abusive husbands and the fatigue of motherhood. But also not as far as we might have hoped.

A dark theory of history.

That leads to the most shocking thing the novels do: they become political and philosophical; right when you think Ferrante will spill all her gossip or tie up her threads, she stops short.

It begins in postwar Naples, a world of poverty and danger:

Our world was like full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.

It ends in a Naples that has been “developed,” put through the wringer of fifty years: Communist-Fascist street wars, organized crime, heroin, disaster,  and financial crash.

The narrator Elena Greco sounds like a radical philosopher when she holds forth on the lessons of her hometown in the final volume:

Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy, was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation.

To be born in that city— I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism— is useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.

The radical politics failed; the violence rattled on. What remained constant was the interpersonal enchantment of two women, two wills, in a hostile place.

Sabine Weiss, A Street in Naples

Sabine Weiss, “A Street in Naples”

By the way, Michael Reynolds, the (English) publisher of Ferrante’s novels, spoke to us about the Ferrante phenomenon this week in prep for our show. You can listen to an excerpt of our conversation here:

Have you read Elena Ferrante? Leave a comment below, and please tune into the show.

May 5, 2016

Ireland Rises Again!

It has been 100 years since Ireland’s Easter Rising, a fascinating, tragic episode that blended literature and liberation, defeat and victory, national reverence and remorse, and, in William Butler Yeats‘s high poetic oxymoron of “Easter, 1916“, ...

It has been 100 years since Ireland’s Easter Rising, a fascinating, tragic episode that blended literature and liberation, defeat and victory, national reverence and remorse, and, in William Butler Yeats‘s high poetic oxymoron of “Easter, 1916“, beauty and terror.

The Rising was led by a schoolteacher obsessed with death (Patrick Pearse), a veteran Fenian dynamiter (Tom Clarke), and a committed Marxist (James Connolly)—though women, volunteers, and farmers shared in the planning.

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The rebels seized Dublin’s General Post Office, held it for six days, and proclaimed an independent Irish republic, optimistically, “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”—that meant women and men, Catholics, Protestants, and others.

It was a brief period of insurrection: for example, Enniscorthy—hometown of our guest Colm Toíbín—was seized for a period of days; hundreds of British soldiers and Irish civilians were injured and killed. But after just a week, the rebels had been routed; Dublin had been shelled. When the leaders were captured, fifteen were executed and buried in quicklime without a funeral, setting off a permanent alienation of the Irish people from British occupiers.

A hundred years on, the history of the Easter Rising—and of the Irish republic that rose from it—is, like all histories, a mixed bag. Along the way: civil war, partition of the island (north and south), and emigration. In the 1990s the “Celtic Tiger” of tech and speculation romped through Ireland, but in the ‘08 melt-down the Tiger emigrated, too.

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But suddenly another uprising—an emphatic vote for gay marriage, a pushback to the domination of Irish culture by the Catholic Church, and an emotional attack on structures of injustice—all expressed at the level of sentences, Tweets, performances, and songs.

We rely on a handful of charming and incisive writers to dissect the global dynamics of this exciting Irish moment, from Toíbín to Belinda McKeon and Mary O’Donoghue and the dark-minded Westerners, Colin Barrett and Lisa McInerney.  

You can hear the full version of Tom French’s poem, “1916,” below:

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.”