Thursday, April 26, 2007


PEN World Voices: Writers on the Environment

Last year, PEN kicked off the World Voices festival with a high-profile address by Orhan Pamuk. At the time, the Turkish novelist had just narrowly avoided a prison sentence for having the temerity to mention the Armenian genocide of 1915. This year's opening event was rather less dramatic. The venue was the same--the elaborately vaulted interior of Cooper Union's Great Hall--and you certainly couldn't fault the literary star power on display. Perhaps the topic was the problem. When you ask eleven writers to talk about the environment, you do risk a certain conformity of opinion. So be it. There was still plenty to enjoy.

Salman Rushdie was the first to bound onstage. He reminded the audience (youthful, diverse, audibly polyglot) to shut off those damn cell phones. He defended the notion of the assembled company wrestling with public issues: "It seems that everybody else talks about politics, so why not writers?" To further buttress his case, Rushdie cited "the great Gore" (not Vidal, in case you're wondering): "It's our planet, and we'll cry if we want to." Then he hustled on the first speaker, Geert Mak of the Netherlands.

An agreeable man with a mop of white hair, Mak spoke briefly about the dilemma of living on reclaimed land. "We have left the problem to the specialists," he confided. "To a couple of engineers--the so-called dike doctors." But with both temperatures and sea levels on the rise, the dike doctors may be unable to save this particular patient. "Our landscapes and our cities are not eternal anymore," Mak said. This un-American sentiment--who expects an American city to look the same for more than twenty minutes?--merited some further exploration. But Mak was playing by the rules, meaning that he had to share some green thoughts by somebody else: personal recycling was forbidden. So he read a long, sad bucolic by Obe Postma (1868-1963), while some sort of pep rally in an adjacent room kept threatening to drown him out.

With his zippier delivery, Gary Shtenygart held his own against the ambient noise. "To be honest," he told the audience, "I never really thought about the environment until last year, when I saw President Gore's lovely film." (The second Gore joke of the night, this earned a chuckle of solidarity from the crowd.) The bearded, sweatered novelist read a piece of eco-satire that George Saunders had written for the Guardian. It Saunders in his Alan King mode, tossing off 3.2 jokes in every paragraph ("Take my melting polar ice cap--please!"). But it was funny, too, and laughter can be in dangerously short supply at these events.

Next up: Roxana Robinson. In a resplendent white suit, she read out a quote which suggested some contemporary tree-hugger: say, Edward Abbey or Bill McKibben. But no, it was Anton Chekhov, whom she quickly identified as a "proto-environmentalist." There's always a danger in enlisting prior generations in our present catastrophes. However, Robinson made an excellent, eye-opening case for her thesis. "The natural world Chekhov knew was one took that place before the invention of the internal combustion engine," she noted. "There was no mediation between our senses and the natural world." Several passages from Chekhov himself supplied further confirmation.

In the darkness to stage right, the other panelists seemed to be studying Robinson with a kind of hoot-owl raptness. From their midst, and with the pep rally still in full force outside, came Moses Isegawa, in a long leather coat and a bright red Yankees cap. With no preamble, he read a long passage from John Berger's Pig Earth. A pair of photographers were crouching at the foot of the stage or leaning against the columns, using lenses the size of a human thigh. Isegawa had a pleasantly lilting voice, and when he uttered the word heart, he touched his own. But for this audience member, a wee bit of auditory fatigue had begun to set in.

For that reason, Billy Collins seemed like an ominous follow-up. Tall, balding, bespectacled, Collins is a famously droll poet. Yet he wouldn't be reading his own poems, would he? Had Ogden Nash written anything with an environmental tilt? How about Don Marquis? Instead Collins pulled out the new Paris Review and cruised through Mary Kinzie's "The Water-brooks." The poem was a beauty, crammed with memorable phrases ("breathed out / as from a mouth half-open in sleep" or "over the aquifers / whose downward plumes trickle toward each other"). Collins read it in a lugubrious monotone. It was like hearing a pianist strike the same one or two keys over and over--it was like a mid-tempo performance of "Chopsticks." Luckily he was the first reader to break the rules. "I'm going to read a very short poem of my own," he told the audience. "Because the ego can be contained for only so long." And "The Golden Years" was amusing indeed--especially for a sonnet.

Janne Teller of Denmark was up next. Skinny, dressed in an elaborately ruffled black skirt, she suggested that the Danes weren't too preoccupied with the environment: "We have no nature." But since there was still an adequate supply of nature in nearby Norway, she elected to read from Knut Hamsun's Pan. "There was a rock in front of my hut," she began, "a tall gray rock." Clearly this wouldn't be the sublime version of nature we knew and loved; it would be a kind of stern, Lutheran diorama, in which not only the rocks but the flora and fauna would be gray. Teller kept reading. The protagonist, a hunter, gunned down a hare, a grouse, a ptarmigan.

What next? Colson Whitehead read from Cormac McCarthy's The Road. He prefaced this apocalyptic dad-and-son segment with a story about crying a single tear at Dallas BBQ, told so quickly that I couldn't keep track of it.

After Whitehead came Jonathan Franzen. Now, in his recent essay collection The Discomfort Zone, Franzen dwelled on his seesawing relationship with environmental politics. I wondered whether he would make a perverse stand against his peer group--whether he would say yes to pollution, then yes to cigarettes, Twinkies, transfats, SUVs, obesity. He did not. In fact, after mumbling how happy he was "to be here with this international crowd," he made an appealing plea on behalf of the "wild birds, amphibians, and reptiles. It's their planet too, and it's not quite dead yet." He read a long passage from the end of Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders, and I was reminded of exactly how good a performer he is: wry, dry, gently dramatic. There were a lot of finger gestures, horizon-sketching, pianistic flourishes.

No, it was Pico Iyer who initially seemed a tad disdainful of the environmental topic. He was more concerned, he noted, with "the imperiled waters and forests inside us." (Speak for yourself, buddy.) His high voice and large, sentient-looking nose did not suggest an outdoorsy guy. Yet his selection, which he read from the largest piece of paper on offer all night, was from Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard, an ecstatic work of natural observation--so much for cheap generalizations.

The evening wrapped up with a one-two punch. Marilynne Robinson insisted that she had been forced to break the rules: "The only book in this building that had a specifically environmental theme was my own book." (Had the authors truly been forced to pick their selections from whatever books happened to be on the premises? I liked that idea: a frantic scavenger hunt, with some poor soul reduced to reading from a manual for the HVAC system.) Robinson treated us to a lucid, lovely, frightening essay on the desecration of nature, especially in the vacant stretches of "the interior West." The author shifted from one high-heeled foot to the other as she read the damning sentences: "It stirs a sad suspicion in me that we are of the Devil's party without knowing it." The pep rally in the adjacent room had stopped. Robinson's prophetic paragraphs had sobered up the crowd--even the photographers at the base of the stage looked uneasy. It was up to Salman Rushdie to end the show on an upbeat note, which he did with a few of the funny bits from White Noise. Yes, it's a black comedy, but the ringmaster did what ringmasters are supposed to do: leave them laughing.

It looks great
Much to mull over (and enjoy) here after a lengthy absence...glad you're back, James! The aggregate IQ of the Internet dropped a few points in your absence, and the overall taste in music listed dangerously towards the obvious...
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