Monday, May 05, 2008

PEN World Voices: 3 Musketeers, Again

Others have posted their reports, so I’m indulging myself with impressions. There was a time when I might have scoffed at the false glamour of going to hear three literary giants read and talk. This year, I jumped at the chance.

After all, when Mario Vargas Llosa came to Yale when he was running for President of Peru, my Peruvian ESL students (dishwashers, new immigrants) went, but I stayed home and read.

And what do I remember of Umberto Eco’s visit? Only that his accent was hard to understand and, more vividly, that a fellow graduate student with a flamboyant style of dress and a Cantonese accent thicker than Eco’s Italian one, pushed herself to the head of the line of admirers, chatted with Eco, and returned, triumphant, to announce that she had secured the right to publish his talk in The Yale Journal of Law & Humanities. We--the other student editors and I--were amazed and impressed.

But in the spring of 1989, my professor for Anglo-Indian Narrative announced that, when we got to Shame, Salman Rushdie himself would be joining us to talk about his book.

The fatwa was declared a week later and I had never been in the same room with him until Friday. So, while Rushdie-spotting has become old hat to many, it was a really big deal to me.

His best work may be behind him, but I must say that I was really excited by what he read: not the rock stars and modernity of recent books but a turn back to the court of the great Mughal Emperor, Akbar. This is the kind of mythography that Rushdie excels at, and this fairy tale of the glory days of Muslim India seems really promising. He read a passage in which Akbar discourses with a young princeling who poses some interesting philosophical questions on kingship and what it means to rule--the kind of questions one’s philosophy professor might ask in a class on Plato. Akbar beheads him for his impertinence but then strokes his chin and wonders, hmm…, what if we did permit free speech?

I thought this was poltically pertinent and hilarious, moving and exciting. What more do you want in a novel?

And I thought the event overall was great: lots of fun to watch those giant egos on display, to hear the readings, to see them talk with each other. Like Dorothea, over at Books and Bicycles, I felt like the vibe was good from the get-go. My press pass worked magic and I got into the hall, the second attendee! I had a great seat on the aisle, Dorothea spotted me, we chatted, and I got to watch the anxious literary ladies of the 92nd St.. Y power-walk down to the front rows only to discover the seats were reserved. Eventually, a really handsome woman sat next to me and we fell into conversation: she is a high school English teacher in Madrid, visiting the city for a few months and drinking in the culture. We had a great chat about being a working mom and working to balance doing stuff for yourself and caring for your kids. (At 16, her daughter’s cool with her being away for two months; my daughters accept one late night a week, two max.)

Then, the reading began, and unlike almost every other event, the introductions were blessedly minimal. As in, the interim director of the Poetry Series thanked us, made some announcements, and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Umberto Eco.”

He read, walked off stage. Rushdie walked on. When Rushdie finished, out came Vargas Llosa. No baloney. Just great, professional, funny, and beautiful readings.

At dinner with other bloggers afterwards, some expressed disappointment in the degree of narcissism on display. They were shocked--shocked!--to find that three male literary lions, coasting on the crest of their careers, still virile but no longer striving, had big egos.

Indeed.

I noted that not one woman writer was mentioned all night long, but Mary Reagan rightly corrected me: one was: J. K. Rowling (!), whom Rushdie mentioned with humorous, ironic approval as a good-bad writer who seems to have learned from Dumas how to fill up pages with delightful nothings. So we learned something else: Rushdie is a Harry Potter fan.

So is Keith Olbermann. So am I.

In any case, I think my point still stands: these are great big male egos. Woolf, Stein, Sarraute, Arendt, Morrison, Sor Juana, de Pisan, etc., do not loom--large or small--in their imaginations. Still, they are unabashedly liberal, cosmpolitan, educated, historicist and forward-looking. I admire them.

As Levi notes,
The three eminences then gathered for a loose and lively chat about why they liked to call themselves the “Three Musketeers” (Rushdie even mulled over “The Three Tenors”, which I had suggested in a blog post on Thursday, and I was also starting to think up other alternatives including “The Traveling Wilburys” and “Velvet Revolver”). With Alexandre Dumas pere now in play, Rushdie, Eco and Vargas Llosa now began batting The Count of Monte Cristo back and forth, debating whether or not such “bad writing” as this can also be great writing. All three seemed to agree that bad writing could be great writing and that this often happens (it’s not hard to guess that all three authors were thinking of their own excesses here, as well as those of Dumas pere).

The panel was great fun to listen to because the writers were loose and rambunctious, eagerly speaking over each other at times, fully devoid of the stiff politeness that too often mars these gatherings.
The only downside, alas, was the usually intellectually agile Leonard Lopate kept trying to get a word in edgewise. I’m with Dorothea:
I would have preferred that he just let the writers keep up their debate and their jokes because the minute he asked a serious question the energy fell and the mood changed.
The Dumas conversation was a highlight: if you’re going to watch anything online, I’d watch the first fifteen minutes of the roundtable. But later, when they talked about the role of the writer in public life, many interesting things were said, too. That was where a lot of my dining companions heard too much ego, but I’m inclined to be forgiving towards great novelists who are also political commentators or presidential candidates or objects of a global fatwa. They have achieved greatness in more than one arena and it would be strange if they didn’t know it. Looking past that, and past the fact that in their world women still mainly exist as muses, gorgeous fleeting visions of Selma Hayek or Scarlett Johansson or…, I heard some interesting things: most interesting to me was Eco’s point that the US lacks public intellectuals in part because our universities tend to be cordoned off from the city itself. I certainly have found that the change in my life from teaching in rural Indiana to teaching in midtown on a campus that is really just a single building has made me a more engaged citizen.

You can see Mary’s gorgeous photos here.

And see the whole event at the PEN site.

2 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

I enjoyed this write-up, Anne -- both the praise and the critique. While I enjoyed Vargas Llosas novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter a couple years ago, I was pretty overwhelmed by the maleness of it and probably won't read him again, especially since the excerpt he read on Friday was similar. I like to think I'm too cool to get excited about celebrities, even literary celebrities, but I'm really not ... that large egos were on display didn't even occur to me as I was listening and if it had I probably would have concluded something similar to what you did -- that it's no surprise really.

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