Thursday, May 01, 2008


PEN World Voices: Public Lives/Private Lives

Although PEN World Voices had already gotten rolling with ten previous events--akin, perhaps, to spring training--"Public Lives/Private Lives" marked the official opening of the festival. Town Hall was packed, and as usual, a jolly Salman Rushdie emerged from the wings to welcome the crowd, meanwhile admonishing them to power down their electronic devices: "Please, turn your goddamn phones off!" He proceeded to sketch out the theme of this year's festival--namely, the intermingling of private and public life in the writer's imagination. In some eras, he suggested, it was easier for a writer to zoom in on the quotidian details. Rushdie cited Jane Austen as one of the most celebrated navel-gazers--while the Napoleonic wars raged on, she pretty much stuck to dating and mating in the English countryside. But these days, he argued, it was harder for writers to confine themselves to what Grace Paley described as the little disturbances of man. We are in an age, said Rushdie, "when great disturbances will intrude as well--when the subject is both war and peace." And with that, he yielded the stage to a truly impressive roster: Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, A.B. Yehoshua, Peter Esterhazy, Coral Bracho, Rian Malan, Evelyn Schlag, Ian McEwan, and Francine Prose.

Not surprisingly, this motley crew was all over the map when it came to balancing public and private life. Ondaatje, with his white hair and elided consonants, shared a poem and an excerpt from Divisadero, whose tone of hushed intimacy would seem to preclude, say, the Battle of Waterloo. In a similar vein, the Austrian poet Evelyn Schlag treated the crowd to a series of short lyrics. Like several of the other participants, she stuck to her native language (i.e., German), while an English translation scrolled down the screen behind her. And generally she favored the mundane, the notational, although she did get at least one big laugh: "[I] had two friendly sheep / Named Susan and Sontag." (If there was ever an ideal audience for such a line, this was it.) Even Francine Prose, who wrapped up the program, kept her eye firmly fixed on the little disturbances of man--and woman. She read an excerpt from a new work of fiction, Goldengrove, which the Wal-Mart buyer had evidently bet big on "because it's not really like a Francine Prose novel." What we heard was a witty slice of bucolic life, with two sisters out on the water and the premonition of some familial disaster hanging in the air. The parents sounded like reconstructed hippies, though, so perhaps the novel is more of a wrestling match with the Sixties than we might suspect.

That leaves the more engagé members of the crew. Rian Malan read "a story about white Africans"--the specific white African being himself, speeding through Soweto in "the exoskeleton of a fast car." If this wasn't a snippet from My Traitor's Heart, it certainly sounded like one. There was the same speedy syntax, the same gift for self-flagellation: "I loved black people and yet I was scared of them." Yehoshua, a compact man in a dark suit, seemed equally unable (or unwilling) to separate himself from his homeland's agonies. He had selected an excerpt from A Woman in Jerusalem. First, however, he prefaced it with a few words about the historic situation (i.e., the first intifada) that had given birth to the novel. Israelis were used to mourning the casualties of war, Yehoshua explained, but the victims of terrorist bombings, blown to pieces while drinking their morning coffee, demanded a different sort of grief: "For the first time, we did not know how to cope with this kind of murder." Ian McEwan, meanwhile, read some sort of exploratory draft for his new novel about global warming. It was, he confessed, a sticky subject for a novelist: he could conceive of nobody being for global warming, and being against it was laudable but dull. No doubt McEwan will be able to sex up the material before he's through. Yet he did get in one Audenesque jab at the ineffectuality of political fiction, insisting that the best art is "splendidly useless."

Perhaps Peter Esterhazy, who read (I think) from Celestial Harmonies, would agree. His family occupied an exalted spot in Hungarian society for centuries, until the Communists reshuffled the deck in their typically brutal manner--and while this reversal of fortune has fueled some of the author's finest, most mordant prose, it will take more than a mot juste (or several hundred thousand of them) to repair the situation. In the meantime, Esterhazy has more elemental problems to deal with. As he told the audience, before launching into his rapid, incomprehensible speech: "I don't speak English, I speak Hungarian. You don't speak Hungarian, you speak English. This is the problem."

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