Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa at PEN World Voices

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 3, 2008 11:28 am

"You'll notice an empty chair has been placed next to the podium on stage. This is to symbolize those writers who could not be here today due to political oppression."

Thus intoned Leonard Lopate at New York City's uptown 92nd Street Y, introducing a major PEN World Voices event featuring Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco. Ironically, at just this moment I was caught in a chaotic crush in the back of the auditorium along with several other late arrivals and second-tier press-pass attendees who couldn't find a seat in the packed house. A particularly stern usher was hissing at us to leave, another was telling us to walk forward, and I was starting to wish I had the nerve to walk onstage and sit in the damn empty chair myself.

Yes, there was a big sellout crowd for the "Three Musketeers", and in fact it's encouraging to realize that New Yorkers will pack a room just to hear a postmodernist from Bombay and London, a postmodernist from Italy and a postmodernist from Peru read stories to us, and despite the clumsy start the Rushdie/Eco/Vargas Llosa reading delivered rare literary pleasures in a sophisticated, harmonious arrangement. It was a reading to remember.

Umberto Eco read a passage from Foucault's Pendulum in original Italian as the words scrolled on a screen behind him. While this may have made some attendees feel they were at the New York State Opera and others wish they had worn their contacts, I personally found it easy enough to follow and enjoy the text's cosmic psychological wanderings as Eco's gravelly voice rumbled in sympathy. I tried to follow along and transliterate (not that I know Italian, of course, but I can always try) and then gave up when it became clear that the text scrolling had lost track of the live reading. No matter, I loved hearing the piece.

Salman Rushdie was next, reading a passage (in English) about an Indian commoner in audience with the Mughal emperor Akbar from the new novel The Enchantress of Florence, just released in the UK and scheduled for release in the USA soon. I could not get a good sense of Rushdie's overall intention with this novel, though descriptions of the book suggest a scope similar to Orhan Pamuk's great My Name Is Red. Rushdie didn't "wow me" like he did last year, though I am intrigued by this new novel's historical setting.

Mario Vargas Llosa read from his latest novel The Bad Girl, again in the original language, though this time the text scrolled in perfect time with the author's reading, and the audience responded with much enthusiasm. 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. An after-event hangout with several bloggers and book critics and one photographer (Mary Reagan's photos of Eco, Rushdie and Vargas LLosa should be up soon) suitably capped the evening.

* * * * *

Earlier on Friday, I enjoyed a lunchtime reading with Peter Carey, Halfdan Freihow, Janet Malcolm and Francesc Seres, hosted by Rachel Donadio, and I'm looking forward to a conversation between Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker later today. I won't blog about that, though; there's a New York Times Book Review that needs attending to, and I'm on the case.

Congrats again to the energetic and hardworking folks who put together PEN World Voices, a literary festival worthy of the name.

A Glimpse of Burma

by Levi Asher on Thursday, May 1, 2008 05:30 pm

A lunchtime PEN World Voices panel with global journalist Ian Buruma, Burmese author Thant Myint-U and Words Without Borders editor Dedi Felman today offered a look at the modern history and current politics of Burma, the Southeast Asian nation that all three panelists agreed was little understood around the world. I arrived at this panel discussion knowing almost nothing of this nation's culture and society (and not for lack of interest), so I believe they're right.

I didn't know, for instance, that Burma has been suffering in a state of civil war since 1948 (the longest civil war in the world today), and I didn't know the nation's army is one of the 10 largest in the world (Wikipedia here lists them as 12th, but the difference is negligible while the fact remains quite surprising). Dedi Felman, moderating the panel, placed Burma's endless crisis in context with the more widely known Darfur crisis by pointing out that there are more child soldiers in Burma today than in Sudan.

One of the very few things I knew about Burma before arriving today is that a Burmese statesman named U Thant had been a well-liked Secretary-General of the United Nations during the dynamic years from 1961 to 1971, and I was pleased to discover that Thant Myint-U, author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma is his grandson. I'd like to read Thant's book, and as he spoke today I noted his sincere concern for a troubled nation caught since the 19th Century in the net of worldwide power struggles (between Britain and India during the colonial era, between Japan and the Allies in World War II, between China and Western democracy today) and gripped by internal power-hungry ideologies.

Thant advocates a careful approach to Western intervention (as he wrote in a London Review of Books article last year), though Ian Buruma warned that, in his observation, the USA war in Iraq has significantly harmed our ability to be accepted as credible do-gooders around the world.

This event left me hungry for more, and this is the same hunger (and satisfaction) that many New Yorkers and visitors attending this exciting five-day gathering must be feeling as we float from one international meeting to another. This was my second event so far, and while I can't tell if this is a trend or just a coincidence, I have noticed that both today's Burma session and Wednesday's Darfur session presented stark political discussion with a minimum of purely "literary" sensibility. There was a symbolic empty chair at today's panel, as there had been at the Darfur event, and both times it was explained that this empty chair represented authors around the world who could not be present due to oppression in their home countries. I'm starting to wonder if these empty chairs should be filled by poets or fiction writers, just so we don't forget to keep the "literature" in PEN World Voices.

But I think there will be plenty of literary sensibility at the Three Musketeers event with Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco (Michael Orthofer calls it "The Three Tenors", which is much funnier) tomorrow night. On with the festival!

Mark Vonnegut in Tribeca

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 02:26 am

Mark Vonnegut's new edition of previously unpublished Kurt Vonnegut writings, Armageddon in Retrospect, is out today, and I caught Kurt's son at a reading/book signing at the Barnes and Noble in Tribeca, New York City a few hours ago tonight. Because I've read the book Mark Vonnegut had written himself in 1975, The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, I was as interested in hearing from him as I was in seeing this book of new material.

Eden Express described the turbulent mental landscape Kurt's son travelled during the hippie era, joining a commune, watching his father get famous, and ending up in a mental hospital. When Eden Express was published in 1975 it was billed as "a memoir of schizophrenia", but the current edition explains that the diagnosis of schizophrenia is more strictly defined today, and that Mark Vonnegut's illness would now be classified as manic-depressive (which is less severe).

He's now sixty-something, a medical doctor, with a bright and sincere speaking style that easily wins over the large Barnes and Noble crowd. He seems highly contented, proud of his family, and proud of his career as a medical doctor. He shares his father's thickly hooded eyes, though he is clean-shaven and his slicked-back hair bears no resemblance to Kurt's curly Aryan-fro.

The words he read tonight were heartfelt -- you can read them in the new book -- and there were a few moments when he suddenly maniacally laughed and we got a glimpse of the unhinged protaganist of Eden Express for a moment or two. And, certainly, a glimpse of the enigmatic son of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five as well.

I've said before that you may be able to judge a writer by his or her children. If so, then this modest literary son is yet another credit (as if more were needed) to the great career of Kurt Vonnegut.

(I'll be reviewing Armageddon in Retrospect soon for another publication. And, once again, I apologize for my continuing work as the worst cell-phone photographer in New York City.

Mysterious Strangers

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:12 am

1. When a friend pointed me to The Mysterious Stranger, I could make no sense of what appeared to be an odd piece of animated YouTube weirdness involving Mark Twain and Satan in a "Davey and Goliath" version of "The Devil Went Down To Hannibal" ... until a trip to Wikipedia cleared things up. The Mysterious Stranger is based on a unfinished story Mark Twain worked on for twenty years, and the story catches Twain in an uncharacteristically stark, allegorical (and perhaps even Kafkaesque) mode. Now that I understand the background to this animated short film, I'm rather impressed by it.

2. I just attended the New York City reading debut of Mark Sarvas's upcoming novel Harry, Revised at Jami Attenberg's Boxcar Reading with Michael Dahlie, Lynn Lurie and Ceridwen Dovey. Harry, Revised is about a young widower embarking on an apparent search for self, and I cannot help imagining that there must be a lot of Mark Sarvas in the character of Harry, who (in the chapter Mark read last night) attempts to anchor his self-image by purchasing a French literary classic.

One special thing about Harry, Revised is that readers of Mark's Elegant Variation blog have been able to watch and enjoy its process of creation, and this is certainly a unique and effective way to build up anticipation for an upcoming book release. Harry, Revised hits the stores in April.

3. Earlier in the evening, before the Boxcar reading, Ed Champion and I formed an electronic mob to crash Against the Machine author Lee Siegel's conversation with John Freeman at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho (though we were well-behaved and unfortunately had to leave after only 20 minutes to get to the Boxcar in time). Lee Siegel's new book aims to be a rabble-rousing cry of protest against the looming evils of internet culture, though many of us who dwell happily online won't let Lee forget that he only began to develop this hatred of the internet after getting caught in a buffoonish attempt at dominating it.

Lee Siegel has had an acclaimed career as a pugnacious cultural critic (though the above-mentioned "sprezzatura" incident didn't help his reputation), but my encounters with his writing in the New York Times Book Review have revealed an ambitious but intellectually careless writer. He reinforced this impression last night with wild statements like "the internet is 80% porn". Siegel seems to lack the restraint and sense of balance that any cultural critic ought to have. He'll probably sell a lot of copies of Against the Machine -- blunt rhetoric does sell -- but I feel sorry for anyone who wastes their time reading it.

4. "A New Cultural Revolution" may not be the best title for this encouraging survey of the state of popular literature in China, since the actual phrase "Cultural Revolution" was used as a guise for Mao Zedong's brutal crackdown on personal, social and artistic freedom in the 1960s and 70s. But this is an important article, and I'd love to learn more about China's vast book industry.

5. I don't love being greeted with a plea for my email address, but I like everything else about, a public repository of government documents relevant to current political issues. The new exhibit "Iraq: The War Card" offers a simple and effective search engine documenting the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.

6. Action Poets -- thanks for your patience with the new software, which is (obviously) still in beta. Coming soon: monthly archives, a better response system, other stuff. It's also a little slow, and I can fix that too (my MO as a software developer, as you may have noticed, has always been "launch first, fix later"). Hang in there, everybody ... and it's good to see old friends popping back in.

Joyce Carol Oates in Tribeca

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, January 16, 2008 12:52 am

It was a few minutes before 7 pm, and at least fifty people were waiting politely in folded chairs for novelist Joyce Carol Oates at the new Tribeca Barnes and Noble in Manhattan tonight. They should have been sitting at the Starbucks on the other side of the store, because that's where Joyce Carol Oates was, demurely sipping a grande coffee in a black dress with poet Lawrence Joseph, noticed by just a respectful few.

The crowd swelled by the time John Freeman introduced Ms. Oates and Mr. Joseph, who began a free-form conversation about her Journals: 1973-1982, which has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize.

Joseph began by asking about Oates's motivations in keeping a journal all these years, and he offered a good quote from Franz Kafka as a possible explanation for the practice:

If someone else is observing me, naturally I have to observe myself too; if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.

But Oates charmingly said that Kafka could think that because he had an interesting mind, whereas she wrote mainly about the external world and considered herself transparent, "like a glass of water". She also claimed "I have no personality", drawing some mumbled protests from the affectionate crowd.

In fact, Oates is too smart to believe that she has no personality. She's got a ton of it, and it shows in the elegant way she carries herself: tall and very willowy, evoking a Pre-Raphaelite or Virginia Woolf-esque otherworldiness. She makes the kind of impression that hushes a room, and in fact I really think some film director should hire her the next time a role for an elegant elderly woman comes up, instead of speed-dialing Vanessa Redgrave or Helen Mirren like they always do. If George Plimpton and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote can take up late-career acting, why the hell can't Joyce Carol Oates? She'd probably win an Oscar.

I'm not sure that poet Lawrence Joseph had full control of the interview process, as he asked rather long and abstract questions about the motivations behind journal keeping, after which Joyce Carol Oates would steer him right and say something else charming or poignant. She told a story about Anais Nin's diary-keeping; Nin's father abandoned the family when she was a young girl, but she never knew if he would come back or not, and she kept the diary so that she could show him, when he returned, what he had missed. He never came back. That story, Joyce Carol Oates said, is the best illustration of why a person keeps a diary.

She also cited Henry David Thoreau as an exemplar in the art of journal-keeping, which sounds right to me. I've never managed to keep up with Joyce Carol Oates's prolific output, and in fact the last book of hers I read in full was Black Water in 1993 (I liked it). But maybe I'll pick up another of her novels; does anybody have a title to suggest?


by Levi Asher on Saturday, September 22, 2007 06:17 pm

Me and Ed at the Bowery Poetry Club last Thursday night. Here's Richard Grayson's report, Caryn's pix. Thanks to George Wallace for arranging the event, and to everybody who came out to enjoy the show!

PEN World Voices: Saturday Night Spoken Word

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 29, 2007 09:46 am

Saturday night at the Bowery Ballroom brings another sell-out PEN World Voices crowd, this time in a party mood. Nadine is in the house. Salman is in the house. Anne Waldman is in the house too, and slam poet Gary Mex Glazner is whooping it up somewhere in the back. We're psyched for a rare appearance by playwright Sam Shepard, and we're wondering if Sam and Salman and Nadine are Saul Williams and who-knows-else are going to join headliner Patti Smith for a big "People Have The Power" singalong, which actually doesn't sound like a bad idea.

This is the same nightclub where Patti Smith does a raucous New Year's Eve show every year. But we're at a PEN reading now, so there's a two-hour time limit, and the audience is a little itchy after five days of festival cheer, so I'm not sure what to expect. A costumed comedian named Nona Appleby opens the show and bombs badly. We've already been told that this is New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts in disguise (which kind of ruins the whole joke), and Nona's "weird old lady" outfit makes her look like a Dame Edna impersonator. The material is not fresh enough for this crowd, though a few members of the audience attempt to chuckle in sympathy for a few minutes until poor Ms. Appleby has the good sense to run off stage and let the poetry begin.

It gets better fast. Free-jazz musician Oliver Lake and Chinese poet Huang Xiang deliver a captivating short set of untranslated poems accompanied with blurts of saxophone and flute noise. Huang has a distinct style: he shouts, pleads, contorts, screams, or emotes every word, twisting his face into exaggerated masks of expression. I don't know what he's talking about (translations of his poems are on every chair, but the room is so dark they're impossible to read). I don't need to read the translations anyway, because primal screams are pretty much a universal language. I like this Noh-theatre-inflected style of performance poetry very much, though I'm sure it's not to every one's taste.

Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga follows Lake and Huang with a straight reading, a scene from a novel, but I'm still tingling from Huang Xiang's set and don't find any traction here. Clearly, this night is going to be a fascinating mixed bag.

Spoken-word hero Saul Williams comes up next, decked out in a rock star jacket and sporting some odd sort of mullethawk hairstyle (Travis Bickle up top, Kim-Jong II in back). Saul proceeds to kill the crowd with a ferocious and totally on-spot performance. I've caught Williams at group events before, but this is the first time I see what all the fuss is about, and I am now a Saul Williams fan. He's angry at the government, he's angry at hiphop, he's angry at placid people everywhere. His rhymes are impeccable, his voice loud and strong. He goes on too long, but I really don't mind.

Sam Shepard doesn't do many live readings, and I'm more eager to see him than anybody else here (I've caught a couple of his plays, Curse of the Working Class and True West, and have always liked his sinewy, minimalist approach to drama). He comes up to the mic, tall and rangy and plain-spoken, and begins reading quietly from his Motel Chronicles, not attempting to compete with Saul Williams' previous theatrics. The crowd is with him, eagerly applauding prose selections that hint at social satire and political disaffection. His style is all masculine reserve (remember, this is the guy who played Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff) and zen cool. He doesn't wow anybody, but Sam Shepard has never been a "wow" kind of personality. It's simply good to hear his words in his own voice.

Patti Smith is the big closer this night needs, but she looks surprisingly subdued and reserved as she hits the stage. Now, let me make it clear that Patti Smith has done enough amazing things in her career that she can do any kind of show she wants and I'm not going to criticize her for it. I also know that she's not a performing monkey and can't reach the heights of exstatis every night. But, I am very disappointed that she chooses not to bless this audience with the kind of performance I've seen her deliver many times before. Where's the laughing warmth, the climaxes upon climaxes, the sense of risk and adventure? She starts with "Dylan's Dog" (dedicated to her former live-in lover Sam Shepard, who she says told her to write down the dream that became this poem), then follows with another great oldie, "Piss Factory". She complains that the mic stands aren't the kind she likes, offers a short intro to a long poem about the Iraq War, and then finally picks up her acoustic guitar and sings a song about William Blake. It's nice, it's poetry, but I was hoping for some major punk-rock tension and release (and, honestly, I was hoping to see Lenny Kaye join her on guitar). I leave disappointed, because this is the first time I've ever seen Patti Smith turn in only half a performance. Maybe she thought a PEN poetry crowd wouldn't want or couldn't handle the Full Patti, but if so she's wrong.

I head home, facing up to the fact that I am too exhausted to go to the PEN event I was hoping to attend on Sunday, featuring David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer (who never got to sing along with "People Have The Power"). Saturday night was a good show, but overall it was a GREAT festival. Let me sum up as simply as I can: major, major props for Caro LLewellyn, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie and all the other good people who organized this amazing series of events. PEN World Voices is absolutely *not* just another literary show-and-tell to fill up the readings calendar. It's one of the most comprehensive and progressive happenings I've ever witnessed, and I've witnessed a lot. I'm already looking forward to 2008.

Instant Poetry With Paul Muldoon And Brad Leithauser

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 17, 2007 08:35 pm

I attended an interesting display of speed poetry last night at the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York featuring two acclaimed practitioners of the verse form, Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser. An eager audience of literati, blogerati and peoplorati had gathered to watch, quietly munching on grapes and cheese or sipping wine, as the two poets nervously typed into laptops connected to The odd experiment made for a good evening of spoken word, and the finished poems aren't bad at all.

Ian McEwan Debuts Novel in New York City

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 6, 2006 09:26 pm

British novelist Ian McEwan appeared before a large and appreciative group of students and literary New Yorkers at Hunter College on the Upper East Side this evening. He read an amusing and touching selection from his upcoming novel, On Chesil Beach, which will be published in the U.K. in April 2007 and in the U.S.A. two months later.

I have been a McEwan fan since reading his Atonement, but I had no idea how popular he was until I found myself at the very back of a crowded room where at least 150 New Yorkers, mostly eclectically-dressed Hunter College students, sat and listened attentively to the author's every word.

He picked a great passage for this crowd: a sex scene in separate male and female voices featuring a British couple on their wedding night. It's 1962 and both Edward and Florence are nervous virgins. They struggle to get their clothes off, and then finally reach a small sensual epiphany together, even if it's not exactly sex. McEwan first presents her side of the story, then his. Their private metaphors cross and complement each other: as they caress each other she hears Mozart quartets, while he has a vision of farming equipment.

The audience loved the piece, and I enjoyed it too. McEwan answered a few questions after the reading, and mentioned that the nuclear crisis of October 1962 was an underlying theme in the sex scene with Florence and Edward. He also spoke of Atonement's upcoming film interpretation, which will star Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. He mentioned that filming was finished, and said that he'd found his participation difficult because the medium of film does not capture the interior worlds of its characters as easily as fiction.

This was the first time I'd seen McEwan in person, and he made a very good impression on me. His demeanor is polite, detached and rather coolly droll, as when he answered a student's long, convoluted question about the process of writing about sex in literary fiction with a single sentence: "Well, there are many positions to take". That was McEwan's whole answer, and a pretty clever one at that.

If Mickey Spillane Wrote Nancy

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, July 18, 2006 11:51 am

1. I've never read a book by Mickey Spillane, who died yesterday, but I spent a riveting couple of hours recently watching Kiss Me Deadly, an outrageously interesting 1955 noir classic based on a Spillane novel. A no-name cast (plus a young Cloris Leachman) plays a bunch of not-very-nice people racing against each other to unravel a mystery, which turns out (SPOILER ALERT) to involve a small stash of nuclear material stored in a box in a locker. The idea of storing uranium or plutonium in a box or locker (it glows when you open the box) is hilarious, but this is a great film, well worthy of the Lita Ford song the title inspired. Beyond Kiss Me Deadly, I learned everything I know about Mickey Spillane from Mad Magazine, which used to have a great time sending up his style (here's just one example: If Mickey Spillane Wrote Nancy):

2. I'm still learning the ropes at the Litblog Co-op, and I'm looking forward to participating in the next Read This! selection. The current selection is Michael Martone by Michael Martone, a metafictional tour de force that evokes M*A*S*H and many other things, and it was selected by Dan Green, who explains his choice.

3. I attended a Cynthia Ozick reading at Barnes and Noble on 86th Street last week. She is a charming speaker with a surprisingly sweet and musical voice, and her demeanor was much gentler in person than on the page. She chose an illuminating biographical piece about Helen Keller as a sample from her new book of essays, A Din in the Head. I was not aware that Helen Keller faced great public derision (as well as great acclaim) during her difficult life; some authorities considered her a fraud, and she suffered terribly when a story she allegedly claimed to have written turned out to have been previously published by another author. It's not at all clear that Keller was a plagiarist (it's much more likely that she never intended to represent herself as the story's author), and I'm guessing that Ozick selected this essay partly because it provides interesting historical perspective on the famous plagiarism scandals of 2006. But I believe Cynthia Ozick mainly chose this essay because it expresses a private connection she feels with the legendary deaf dumb and blind girl, who also had to struggle to establish her career as a writer. I enjoyed Cynthia Ozick's subtle and edifying presentation very much, and I recommend that you catch her if she comes to your town.

4. Let's see, what else? Via Rake's Progress, here's a description of an upcoming new Thomas Pynchon novel that leaked out briefly on Amazon. A few interesting obituaries of Indian author Raja Rao can be found here. Finally, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh has declared himself a political conservative. I don't know enough about the U.K. political scene to say anything intelligent at all about this, so I wish one of these guys would provide some context (Unless I've missed something, neither has mentioned it yet).


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