Podcast • September 21, 2010

Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame: The Self in the Cyber Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniel Kehlmann (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3) Daniel Kehlmann is a very funny, very philosophical young fictionist from Germany who will make you want more like him — ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniel Kehlmann (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Daniel Kehlmann is a very funny, very philosophical young fictionist from Germany who will make you want more like him — and more playfully engaging books like his Fame, a novel in nine linked short stories, or “episodes.” A number of reviewers who seem not to have read the book suggest that Fame is all about celebrity, which it’s not at all. It’s an imaginative probe into the YouTube universe and the always-online feel of our emergent cyber-humanity — into cell-phone effects on our self-hood, or Facebook effects on our fantasies. It is also a storyteller’s bright-eyed rumination on what the digital range and speed of our lives have made possible, or impossible, in stories themselves. The new taken-for-granted info tech has realized the yearning in endless fairy tales, for example, for telepathy: if only I could whisper a word to the lost beloved… It has enabled double-lives and resurrections that used to happen only in dreams and miracles. At the same time, the ways we connect now have collapsed, among other things, the “big goodbye” scene in prose or on the movie screen. How could we summon a surge of tears nowadays hearing Ilsa tells Rick, “We’ll always have Paris…,” when we know that two minutes later, in today’s world, would come the first text message?

Flickering in the Kehlmann background are deeper, more delightful riddles. One of the central stories in Fame introduces Rosalie, an older woman with terminal cancer, making her way to an assisted-suicide clinic in Zurich. En route she rebukes the author of her story and pleads with him to save her: “Is there no chance, she asks me. It’s all in your hands. Let me live.” To which the author replies: “This isn’t a life-affirming story. If anything, it’s a theological one.”

Kehlmann’s theology, in our conversation, is richer than what we’ve often heard about authors playing God with their characters:

Any story puts me, as the writer of the story, into the godlike position of creating people to make their life difficult, to make them suffer because I have a plan for them. The plan is just to get the story as good as possible. There is a kind of teleology in getting the story right, because all the things happening to a character, causing pain to the character, ruining the life of this character, they are there for the greater good of getting a good story. And so this is exactly the same position in classical theology where the theologian tries to justify god: we are told that yes, you are suffering, but you are suffering because there is a plan. You might not understand this plan, maybe you never will, but you should trust that there is such a plan and that’s why you should accept your suffering.

When I made Rosalie protest against this, and tell the writer “don’t do this to me. I don’t care about your plan,” it wasn’t just a metafictional game. It was a very real point that in the face of basic human suffering the whole idea of a bigger plan justifying all that seems ridiculous. To me this was a very serious theologically, philosophically charged story which also had a very personal twist because Rosalie is also telling the writer “one day all this will happen to you, you will be in pain, you will be dying, you will hope that somebody, against the plan, will just save you and it will not happen.” It’s true, and she was not just talking to some abstract writer, at this moment she was talking about me and the fact that it will happen to me too.

… Even when I started the story, I had always intended the ending that the writer interferes and ruins the story and saves the character. Then the writer also says “I hope someday somebody will do the same for me.” I think, well, as you say in English, “fat chance!”

Daniel Kehlmann with Chris Lydon at the Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, September 20, 2010

Podcast • December 9, 2009

This "Year of India" (3): Suketu Mehta, Bombay’s Biographer

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Suketu Mehta. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Suketu Mehta, the master storyteller of modern Bombay, learned by listening — to the runaway poet from Bihar, for example, who ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Suketu Mehta. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Suketu Mehta, the master storyteller of modern Bombay, learned by listening — to the runaway poet from Bihar, for example, who wanted him to write a book titled “Untold Stories” or “Untellable Stories,” like his own.

He was a boy of seventeen who had run away from the poorest state of India, Bihar, to come to the big city, not to work in the movies, not to make a fortune but to write poetry. His father wanted him to be a scientist. So this kid slept on the sidewalks and he took me all around the city and showed me how he ate, what he had to pay to go to the bathroom, the small and great scams of the city. And he went all around the city writing poetry. And then I asked him if he had contacted his parents — he had run away from home — and he said he hadn’t, and so I said he might want to notify them. They must be worried. He wrote a postcard to his father, and his father took the next train over from Bihar. I got a phone call one morning from the kid saying his father had arrived in Bombay and was taking him back to Bihar, would I meet them for breakfast? And I did. The father was a lovely man, a science teacher from a small village, and he said he had come to collect his son. The parents had been worried sick about him. I said, “Well, now that you’re here, how long will you stay?” He said, “Oh, we are taking this afternoon’s train back.” Now, Bihar is at the other end of india. It’s a three day train journey. He’d just traveled for three days; he had come that morning and he was going back that afternoon. I said: “Why don’t you stay? This is a fabulous city, a great city. You can see the Gateway of India, you can see where the Bollywood stars walk around.” He said, “No, I have no interest in all of this. I want to get out of this city as fast as possible, because all these big buildings, they have been built by stealing somebody else’s money.” Essentially, he was paraphrasing Balzac without knowing it: “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” And his son kept saying to his father, “But this is my karma-bhoomi” — the proving-ground of my destiny.” And the father said, “No, this is paap-ki-bhoomi” — the land of sin…

Suketu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.3.09.

Suketu Mehta went home to India to track the migration — soul by soul, the reader feels — of a “nation of villages” into megacities on the scale of Bombay, now Mumbai, where people name the trickle of the open slum sewer after a river back home. His masterwork Maximum City, did for Bombay what the immortals Dickens and Balzac did for London and Paris; except that the sprouting of mushroom slums and high-rise spikes in India may be running 20 times faster and bigger. Suketu Mehta is the great expositor by now of a reckless, universal love affair with mostly miserable megacities. “Right about now, for the first time in history,” he remarks, “more people live in cities than in villages. We have become an urban species.” He is the expositor, moreover, of a method of listening for the unofficial narratives of the time: myths told in temples, migrants calling home, letter-writers composing messages from prostitutes to their parents, assuring the family that their daughter has a good office job and that money is on the way.

Suketu Mehta is telling me also that from the old India of starving cows and sadhus to the new one of Bollywood and billionaires, there’s a very old ping-pong game of ideas going back and and forth between India and the United States: from the Bhagavad Gita to Henry David Thoreau (“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial…”); from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to Gandhi’s satyagraha in South Africa and India; from Gandhi to Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr., and from Dr. King to Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The game, he’ll persuade you, isn’t over.

Podcast • October 2, 2008

What We’re Going Through: Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith: grace notes Anna Deavere Smith works barefoot on stage — the better to walk in the words of the people she’s impersonating; perhaps also to summon Walt Whitman, who said we’d feel ...

Anna Deavere Smith: grace notes

Anna Deavere Smith works barefoot on stage — the better to walk in the words of the people she’s impersonating; perhaps also to summon Walt Whitman, who said we’d feel his spirit “under your bootsoles.”

Actress and documentarian, Anna Deavere Smith is all feeling, no bootsoles.

Her new show is “a play in evolution,” and it’s all over the lot, all over the world… She “does” Jesse Norman on “Amazing Grace”; a Hutu prisoner in Rwanda; preacher Peter Gomes at Harvard; the late governor of Texas, Ann Richards, brave and brassy at the approach of death; and, among others, Gabriel Saez, the unlucky jockey on Eight Belles, the filly who succumbed after her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. People have found fault with this show, Let Me Down Easy, for its scattered focus, but I liked it better for threading the spooky uncertainty and disbelief of this moment through such an odd lot of anxious minds.

I asked this brilliant sponge what grown-ups are all asking each other: “what are we going through?” What is this work in progress going through? What is Anna Deavere Smith going through?

A theme of this show and our conversation is “grace.” Her subtitle is “Grace in the Dark.” We push and pull some on this subject, this word. Grace to me is divine magic, not a secular virtue; it’s a theological idea, inseparable from the formulations in St. Paul’s Letters. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves,” in Ephesians, for example. “It is the gift of God…” I think of grace as the catalyst of transformed vision. Anna Deavere Smith looks for grace and finds it in the suffering of this world.

I’m looking through the lens of: Is there any grace here? Is there any grace in a tough situation? And trying to define grace at the same time. And finding people who are the exemplars of grace even in places you’d least expect to find it. For example in Rwanda. Who would think that you could go to Rwanda, the site of a genocide, and find grace? And I did in the form of the way people are dealing with the idea of forgiveness. One of the characters talked about giving grace — actually differentiating that from forgiveness, because she said that forgiveness is something you give when someone asked for it; and her awful predicament is that the killers of her family have not come and asked. She says: I’m giving them grace. She’s saying: I’m not holding onto you in my heart anymore…

I think the definition of grace is broader than the religious definition of it. We find it in the world. I visit a garden to find it. We find it in other kindnesses. In a way I’m thinking about it almost like kindness. The other exemplar to me of grace — and I don’t know what her religious background is — is a woman in Johannesburg, South Africa who has an orphanage for children who are dying of AIDS. And she sits with every child who’s dying and talks to them about what’s happening.

Anna Deavere Smith of Let Me Down Easy in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2008

Anna delivers her most powerful points here in three generous performances from the show, in the voices of Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans; Trudy Howell, director of the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg; and Ann Richards, in a hospital in Houston. You are invited to listen over and over, and of course to comment on grace, on Anna, on what you and we are going through.

Podcast • May 5, 2008

Israel at 60: the Etgar Keret Version

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of ...

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of meeting him in the flesh on a campus visit to Brown.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Etgar Keret here (24 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

etgar keret

Etgar Keret: “a Jew in a diaspora of Israel”

Edgar Keret’s bizarre, violent, popular short stories (in a collection The Girl on the Fridge) are cited as a register of Israel’s consciousness, post-Intifada and post-peace process. Crowbar beatings, sledge-hammer murders and other grotesque happenings abound in these fictions. In one, a kids’ party magician reaches into the hat and pulls out, first, a rabbit’s bleeding severed head and, later, a dead baby. He concludes: “It’s as if someone was trying to tell me this is no time to be a rabbit, or a baby. Or a magician.”

Keret’s Israeli characters are caught in states of mind and spirit between love and suicide, between boredom and brutal anger. As in this story, “Asthma Attack,” reproduced here in full, the writer keeps fighting through the frenzy, for words:

When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asmatic says “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.

Etgar Keret, “Asthma Attack,” in The Girl on the Fridge, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008.

In our conversation, Etgar Keret and I were both trying (and failing!) to remember the source of the notion that art, including fiction, is the layer of the human record (unlike the monuments of warfare and politics) that does not lie.

CL: Imagine a hundred years from now people are reading this red-hot popular Israeli writer from 2008, Etgar Keret, for the truth about Israel. What would they learn?

Etgar Keret: Well, I think that they would learn that people in Israel know a little bit less than what they pretend to know; that they’re a little bit bit less confident than they want their neighbor to think; that there’s a very strong ambiguity and confusion among the Israeli people — the same ambiguity and confusion that all human beings tend to share.

CL: Can you explain how you became the rage among young Israelis in the last few years? Not the familiar image of the Israeli writer, you’re anti-epic and anti-macho, a cuddly, eccentric vegetarian who writes about people who are beset with perplexity and pain and fearful violence and, as you say, confusion.

EK: Well, I think that growing up In Israel, I think the one thing that’s not allowed is to be confused. Being surrounded by so many enemies who want to attack us, the last thing you want to do is to raise more questions, or to be more confused and uncertain. But at some stage you realize it’s actually the fact that you live in such an unsafe situation that makes all those questions that you are supposed to postpone more urgent. Because if you know you are going to die for something you want to know what you are going to die for. You don’t want to postpone it for later.

CL: Are these stories written from the perspective of a writer who’s worrying what he’s going to die for?

EK: Well, yeah… It’s not to die for, or live for. There is something about life, especially when you come from Israel, in a region where everything is so extreme, there’s something very overwhelming about life, you know. And it leaves you with your mouth open, with your jaw falling down, you know. And this is the situation I wanted to write about. Because there is something about Israelis that whenever you speak to people they give you this feeling that they are certain about all those answers. And they have all those answers, but those answers don’t seem to be working all around us.

So if there’s anything I want to say about this reality, it is maybe: take some sort of Socratic position and just say that we may know less about what’s right, and what we are feeling at a certain moment and what should be done. I’m saying I feel it’s important to admit our limitations and our confusion just so we can start finding the real answers, and it’s much better than kind of doing that than settling for some fake answers that seem to be going around in circulation for the last 60 years.

Etgar Keret, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 1, 2008.