Posts Tagged ‘Tobias Wolff’

Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff on “privacy, and whether it’s possible to have it anymore”

Sunday, November 9th, 2014
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An optimist against the odds: Dave Eggers talks to Tobias Wolff. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Imagine you send someone a letter. You are eager to know your recipient’s reaction to your correspondence. So you drive over to his house, park, crouch in the bushes so that you have a view of his living room window, so you can see the moment when he opens the envelope, and …

Wait a minute. It’s not so far from the truth. Author Dave Eggers, founder of McSweeney’s, recalled an incident a dozen years ago when he received an email. A few days later, his correspondent asked him what he thought about it. Eggers said he’d been buried in work, and hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. Not true, his correspondent said. He’d opened it at 4:27 p.m. a day earlier. The fellow had the ability to get a receipt when someone opened his email. For Eggers, it was a moment when “a friend crosses what would have once been a boundary” and “your right to know what happens to your letter exceeds my right to privacy.” While it’s commonplace today, Eggers felt the the friend had “stepped way outside the behavior I want in a friend.”

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“You can’t go back, you can only go further.” (Photo: Rod Searcey)

His newest novel, The Circle, studies our hunger for constant communication. The eponymous center of the book is a Bay Area high tech giant that feeds on our privacy as it creates a utopian culture for its employees. Sound familiar? “Some of the most idealistic people I know are working at these companies,” said Eggers.

He was in conversation with author Tobias Wolff last month, during a packed event at Encina Hall on “privacy, and whether it’s possible to have it anymore,” in Wolff’s words. The occasion, sponsored by the Stanford Creative Writing Program, the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Humanities Center, may have been a record-breaker for attendance, or at least among the Top 10. Staff hurriedly tried to put up an extra simulcast screen in the lobby to accommodate the hordes. I arrived late, having spent 40 minutes looking for parking, before finally abandoning my car across campus and sprinting to the event. I squatted in a corner in the simulcast room upstairs, and peered at the conversation on a big screen. The event had already started…

“An insatiable hunger to know drives everybody,” said Eggers, and it’s enabled by technological gimcracks and software that make information-gathering – or spying, in some cases – easy. For example, a father can track the movements of his daughter, whether she’s in another state or in her boyfriend’s car. “It’s cheap, it’s easy, you don’t have to get up or hire anybody.”

“Why trust when you can track? It gets scary.”

Wolff said his horror at the NSA revelations “will tell you where I am on the technological scale.” Although he was “shocked to learn all our emails and phone calls are vacuumed up by the government,” he got another jolt when, in a conversation, he learned that one of his bright young students “doesn’t see anything wrong.”

“How used to being under surveillance this generation is!” said Wolff. We’ve all heard the commonplace rejoinder – if you weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place, what’s the problem? Said Wolff: “Who decides what is ‘wrong’? It could be a political stand you have taken.”

“We’re so marinated in the custom of being surveilled that we have grown a thick skin to it.”

We live in a world where “your license plate is photographed sixty times a day,” said Eggers. Moreover, “if it can be collected and stored, it can be abused.”

“It’s hard to stop. All of these things have never been that easy. You can’t go back, you can only go further.”

Go further to what? Utter transparency, 24/7. A world where we swim in ever vaster oceans of information. A world where knowledge of everything, all the time, is an inherent good. Everything that everyone is doing is known to everyone all of the time. “Accumulated shared knowledge” is the new community, and it’s considered “selfish” to hold back anything, to have secrets, to want to be left alone. “That philosophy is expounded in a lot of places,” said Eggers.

In such a world, shame is futile, because inescapable. Besides, you can see what everyone else is doing, too, and it’s just as bad. Maybe worse. But, but, but … isn’t shame an aspect of conscience, and isn’t it part of being fully human?  “It’s considered suspicious if you do want to hide anything,” said Eggers, and “deleting anything is inherently sinful.”

But what about the right to be a nobody, an inconnu, a nonentity? What about the right to be forgotten, to be invisible?

index“By the time you ask to get the right to be forgotten, it’s already too late to be forgotten,” said Wolff. He recalled the case of a Columbia student accused of rape. The assailant’s name has been publicized, but the case has never been tried. Guilty or innocent, “that crime attaches to that person’s name forever.”

“The right of individuals to control their identity and narrative … should trump our right to know a person,” said Eggers. He called for a Center for Digital Ethics, perhaps at a place like Stanford, “to codify some do’s and don’t's.” He said much of what’s happening now “is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment – the unspecified collection of data on citizens without a warrant or a specific crime.”

“The original sin where we got to this is that everything had to be free.” Stewart Brand famously said, “Information wants to be free.” It came true: “It is free, but in a “non-transparent, creepy way,” said Eggers. It’s like all those “terms and conditions” you have to check online before agreeing to things – or the endless supply of mail for you to review with revisions to your terms and conditions. Who does all that? “Keeping up terms and conditions is a full-time job,” he said.

Not everyone is as unconcerned as the student Wolff described, as we slide towards a technological dystopia. Eggers was on hand when The Circle came out three weeks earlier in Germany. “Their memory of Stasi is very fresh,” he said – especially thanks to movies like The Lives of Others. In America, however, we are speaking of a generation that was in diapers when East Germany’s Stasi was dissolved.

Are you depressed yet? Apparently Eggers isn’t. “People will do the right thing when there are laws and when there are parameters which we have discussed,” he said. “I’m optimistic about the good of human nature.”

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Signing books afterwards. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Join us Monday night for the “Another Look” book club discussion of Calvino’s Cosmicomics!

Sunday, October 26th, 2014
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19It’s here! On Monday night, October 27, Stanford’s “Another Look” book club will take on Italo Calvino‘s twelve science-inspired fantasies, Cosmicomics, with moderator Robert Pogue Harrison, joined by panelists Tobias Wolff and Humble Moi. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus.

Award-winning author Tobias Wolff, who founded the group three years ago, said that the book club is Stanford’s “gift to the community.” Hence, the Another Look book club  is open to all members of the public, as well as Stanford’s students, staff, and faculty. Not only can everyone attend, but we positively want you to come to our first event in the third season. The event is free, but come early, because seats are available on a first-come basis.

We’ve written about the Calvino event already here and here and here. There’s even more at the Another Look website here.  The only missing piece right now is you. Join us!

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“Another Look” book club goes out of this world with Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014
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Helping matter talk

We’re rolling into fall, which means we’re launching into the third season of Stanford’s “Another Look” book club. No surprise to Book Haven readers that the book is Italo Calvino‘s Cosmicomics – given recent posts about Calvino here and here. My article in Stanford Report today:

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” So begins the improbable tale of a man in love with the moon, and the woman in love with him, at a time when the moon was so close to the earth you could …

Wait a minute. The moon, at the dawn of time when it was closest to the earth, was still at least 12,000 miles away. Too long for any ladder. Clearly, Italo Calvino (1923-1985) one of the greatest European writers of the last century, took a mountain of artistic license when he published his science-based fantasies, Cosmicomics, in 1965. But for the generations of readers swept away with the wit and magic of these loosely linked stories, that’s part of the fun.

Cosmicomics will be discussed at the popular “Another Look” book club, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, will moderate the panel, with award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor, and literary journalist and visiting scholar Cynthia Haven, who blogs at The Book Haven.

Harrison hosts the radio talk show “Entitled Opinions” and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. The event launches the third year of “Another Look,” founded by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English.  The event is free and open to the public.

Cosmicomics will be fêted on the eve of the launch of the Stanford Arts Institute’s year-long program of events, “Imagining the Universe.”  It’s entirely apropos; no author did a better job of imagining the universe than Calvino did. As Calvino wrote in a letter, “Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself” – and he took it upon himself to do so.

Consider dreamy passages such as this one from the same story, “The Distance of the Moon”: “When she was full – nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light – it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there.”

Each story begins with a passage from the science of the time, and follows with a tale told by a chatty, avuncular fellow named Qfwfq. We hear eyewitness accounts of the big bang, the first radiations of the sun, the advent of color. But we never know exactly what Qfwfq is – sometimes an atom, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes the last dinosaur, sometimes an undefined inhabitant of the nebulae.

cosmicomicsHarrison reminds us that the stories, fantasy notwithstanding, never stray far from the Italy of Calvino’s day.  In the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s, Italy’s largely agrarian society went through rapid industrialization and dramatic modernization, as people migrated to the swelling cities.  Consequently, the 12 stories are suffused with longing and loss, the pull of the past as well as aspiration for the future.  (A Q&A with Harrison is here.)

Calvino loved the genre he created so much that he went on to create several more volumes of Cosmicomics, which have recently been republished as The Complete Cosmicomics. “Another Look” considers only the original 153-page volume, which some consider Calvino’s finest work.

Harrison explained why he picked the stories for the Stanford-based community book club this way: “I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers’ expectations.”

He added that “in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that’s why I chose it.”

Wolff agreed. “Cosmicomics – like all of Calvino’s work – is brilliant and unconventional, permitting itself an almost reckless freedom of imagination,” he said. “It may puzzle some readers, refusing as it does to entice us with recognizable, ‘realistic’ situations and characters, but I trust that puzzlement will turn to delight as Calvino’s wit and sense of intelligent play begin to disarm us. This is a thoroughly original piece of work, and rightly esteemed a classic.”

Cosmicomics will be available at the Stanford Bookstore, at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

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The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers with limited free time. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

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Tobias Wolff: “Literature is a theater of choices, values”

Thursday, September 4th, 2014
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TobiasWolffOver at The Boston Review, Stanford student Quyen Nguyen has a fascinating interview with award-winning author Tobias Wolff on vocation and morality – I kept wanting to yell “right on!” as I was reading it, but as I was alone in my house, the impulse seemed rather silly. (We’ve written about Toby before, here and here and here and here, as well as a zillion other places.)  Read Quyen’s interview over here – meanwhile, a few excerpts below:

TW: There’s a certain kind of book that when I read it, I feel like I have company in the world. I wish I had had, when I was younger, a book like This Boy’s Life to read, to know that there were other kids living the kind of life I lived, this oddball existence. So there is a way in which writing can become a companion for people. It has been for me, and I hope that my work does that for others. There’s no doubt that if you parse out my motives, there’s probably a great deal of pure ambition, vanity, competitiveness, all that sort of thing, which does not mean the effects cannot be positive.

He didn't mean to do it.

He didn’t mean to do it.

You used an expression in your email, “conscience-laundering,” and I thought about that. I don’t want to award a kind of nobility to the decisions I’ve made because they’ve probably, in some way or other, been self-serving. But let’s take the case of somebody like Mozart. He probably didn’t intend to change the world, yet can you imagine the world without that music? Can you imagine the world without Chekhov‘s short stories? …

QN: The phrase “conscience laundering” was taken from Peter Buffet’s article, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” He defined “conscience laundering” as “feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” Do motives behind this sort of feel-good charity matter?

TW: If you are talking about a single human being rather than a corporation, I don’t think that it’s possible for a human being to be disinterested. But we have to try, obviously. Have you heard of Joyce Maynard? Joyce Maynard is a novelist. When she was seventeen or eighteen, a freshman at Yale, she wrote a brief memoir in the New York Times Magazine. Precocious, one might think, looking backwards so early. J. D. Salinger read it and wrote her a fan letter. He ended up moving her in with him, persuaded her to give up a scholarship at Yale, used her, discarded her, all with this great theater of purity. He considered himself a very “pure” soul who believed that if you do good, you’re really doing it just to flatter yourself. So he did no good, certainly safe from that sin. You might read a recent Times article by Joyce Maynard, “Was Salinger Too Pure For this World?” in which she writes about this continual exercise, this question of “Is this good thing you’re doing really for yourself?” “Can you escape self-flattery in doing what others would conventionally call a good thing?”

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“All manner of things shall be well.”

It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.

And I would suggest that if you give food to someone who’s hungry, they don’t give a shit whether you’re doing it for yourself or them. But if Carnegie is working kids at ten cents per hour and then building libraries, well, though the libraries are a good thing we still have to hold him accountable for the exploitation of children.

But it’s a complicated issue and I think we have to live with a little conscience-laundering if that’s what it takes to try to do something that benefits other people. If there’s a sense of self-congratulation for some good we do for others, then we have to live with that. This idea has obviously vexed people forever, this tension between the deed and the motive. In the Four Quartets, Eliot writes, “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” So he’s obviously grilling himself in this way too. I don’t know if it ever goes away.

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“It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.” (Photo: Sonia Lee)

TW: …Mozart, in what way is he useful? In measurable terms, he is not useful. You can’t even say music uplifts or purifies the soul. As we know, the officers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps liked to make the inmates play Beethoven to them and they would weep while the music was being performed. So you can’t even say that music is necessarily transformative, though it can be.

What I do think is that it’s hard for us to live with ourselves if we don’t feel useful in some way or another. Have you seen that movie The Hurt Locker? There’s a guy who disarms bombs, a highly dangerous job. When he comes home, there is a striking scene of him standing in an American super market, looking at this dazzling array of goods, and he just wants to go back to Iraq. He reads about a bomb going off in the newspaper and he thinks, “I could have saved those people.” He has experienced actually being useful. People like him have this rare experience of having their usefulness made dramatically apparent to them, so they keep going back to give support to others even in this violent, terrible context. We all have a hunger for that sensation of usefulness. It’s a little harder to experience that as a writer, maybe a little easier as a teacher. No doubt society and the cultures we grow up in all elicit this need to be useful, but it’s also something that’s hardwired in us. It’s not necessarily a divinely inspired thing, it may well be an evolutionary adaptation, but it’s there.

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QN: We are reading bell hooks’ chapter about “Engaged Pedagogy.” What is your pedagogy?

TW: I certainly wouldn’t keep teaching if it’s just recitation of what I know. It’s a cooperative process. When I’m lecturing in the Thinking Matters course, I don’t allow laptops in my class, so people have to look at me. They can write things down. But I’m not giving out information. It’s a conceptual exercise. I’m really trying to get people to challenge me and question me. And I do that sort of thing because I care. I don’t teach literature as a collection of movements, “okay, now we move to the Augustan age.” Literature is a theater of choices, values, and the way in which one’s character takes shape and in turn shapes one’s life. Those are the questions that literature brings to dramatic life, and, I hope, awakens something in my students. Again, I don’t want to award myself a merit badge. It seems natural enough to want to have a kind of communion with others, challenge other people and have them challenge you. It’s more fun to live that way.

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TW: If this makes any sense, we’re called to different things, in different ways. By saying that, I guess I’m implying a caller. Nature, if you will, calls us to different kinds of things.

Again, read the whole thing here.

Tobias Wolff on race: “None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any.”

Sunday, August 17th, 2014
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Toby explores race and illusion. (Photo: Sonia Lee)

With chaos and curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, race has been everywhere in the news this weekend. A few wise words are welcome, so please don’t miss award-winning author Tobias Wolffs “Heart of Whiteness,” his powerful piece on race in this week’s New Yorker. It opens with Toby going through stacks and stacks of old correspondence, including letters from writer Raymond Carver – “the tone so immediately and unmistakably his that I felt almost as if he were reading them to me.” Funny, that’s exactly what I felt about reading Toby’s own words. We work together on Stanford’s “Another Look” book club  (I’ve written about it tons – try here and here and here and here and here), and I could hear his voice behind every phrase.

He continues: “Then I put the file aside and began glancing through some of my own. And I was disheartened by what I found there. Clumsy, effortful wit. Vulgarity. A racist joke. Sitting there alone, reading my own words, I felt humiliatingly exposed, if only to myself; naked and ashamed.” He recalls his early gifts as a clown and satirist, with “plenty of company in this line of banter.”

None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any—and the atmosphere of right-mindedness could become so absolute, so cloying, that one was sometimes compelled to say the unsayable just to break the spell, make some different music. But this was always done with a dusting of irony. After a black family bought a house on Ray’s block, an unredeemed neighbor complained to him that “a certain element” was taking over, and the word “element” immediately entered our lexicon as an irresistibly sublime piece of swamp-think. So, too, the word “Negro,” as if delivered by an out-of-touch white alderman seeking votes from that highly esteemed, if underserved, corner of his ward.

Could I have played with these words if I had been a racist? No—I couldn’t be a racist. Even as a boy I had been shocked by what happened in Little Rock, the spectacle of pompadoured thugs and women in curlers yelling insults and curses at black kids trying to get to school. With my brother, I joined the March on Washington. We were there.

When I joined the Army, at eighteen, I was trained by black drill instructors, marched and pulled K.P. and showered and bunked and jumped out of airplanes with black troops. If it hadn’t been for a black sergeant I served with in Vietnam, I doubt that my sorry ass would’ve gotten shipped home in one piece.

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James Baldwin with Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte are also in the crowd.

I read Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes and, especially, James Baldwin—“Jimmy” to my brother, Geoffrey, who was his friend when they both lived in Istanbul. I even almost met Baldwin! He was supposed to drop by the apartment in New York where Geoffrey and I were staying, Christmas of 1963. We waited all night, drinking, talking nervously, but he never showed up; one of the great disappointments of my life. It turned out that he’d been stopped by the white doorman.

Yet there was that joke. And a couple of other cracks.

I didn’t like meeting the self I had been when writing these letters—still playing the rake, tiresomely refusing to toe the line and speak the approved words in the approved way. Mostly I didn’t like the sense of exertion I found here, the puppyish falling over myself to amuse and impress another man. The result was coarse and embarrassing. I wanted to think that this wasn’t really me, just some dumb, bumptious persona I’d adopted, which, to some extent, it was.

But I had, after all, chosen this persona rather than another. And I had to wonder why. When we speak with a satiric voice, in mimicry of the unredeemed neighbor, aren’t we having it both ways? Allowing ourselves to express ugly, disreputable feelings and thoughts, under cover of mocking them? I didn’t want to believe that there was anything of me, the real me, in this voice, but, given the facts of my past, looming in piles around me, how could there not be?

It’s a beautifully written piece. Please do read the whole thing here.

 

 

Happy birthday, Tobias Wolff! A few of his words on writing…

Thursday, June 19th, 2014
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Birthday boy.

birthday cakeHappy birthday to one of our favorite people, the award-winning novelist and short story writer Tobias Wolff:

“Writers are superstitious. I don’t mean knock on wood, throw salt over the shoulder—let me try to explain. I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life. But I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.”

From “Tobias Wolff: The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, no. 183. (See him on the Colbert Report here.)

Tobias Wolff on the Colbert Report

Thursday, September 12th, 2013
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TobiasWolffOkay, I’ll admit it’s a tiny little square below. But it’s worth watching. The backstory:  Stephen Colbert admits that J.D. Salingers Catcher in the Rye is his least favorite book, “the most important American novel I don’t get.” He prefers the Glass family stories. So he invited Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life, to convince him otherwise. “You will never convince me,” he warned on the Colbert Book Club.  Toby agreed it shouldn’t be taught to kids as mandatory high school reading:  ”Part of the experience of finding that book is that it felt really subversive reading it.” The adult world is unmasked as “a nest of hypocrisy and phoniness. That’s something you want to find on your own. You don’t want your English teacher to be introducing you to the hypocrisy of adults.” So why doesn’t he, too, prefer the Glass family stories? Toby relaxed back in his chair and presented a rhetorical question: “You like to read sermons all day?” Colbert responded in a beat: “I like to give them.”  Who can argue with that?

See it all for yourself:

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Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
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Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here

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“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved.

After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him.

“He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

(more…)

William Maxwell: “In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.”

Friday, October 19th, 2012
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Alberto Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.” (Photo: Antonio Villar Liñán)

Earlier this week, I announced “Another Look,” Stanford’s book club for the best books you’ve never read.  But I didn’t have a chance to give my pitch for William Maxwell‘s masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Let me make amends now.

I read the book on the strength of Tobias Wolff‘s powerful recommendation several months ago.  The graceful, elegant, and melancholic writing is infused with the Midwestern attitudes and turns of phrase still extant in my own Michigan childhood.  As I read, I wondered where those phrases, metaphors, and mindsets have gone since.  Maxwell’s excavation of memory has become more urgent with the passage of time. “I didn’t want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them,” he said in an interview.

Toby called the book “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic — which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed. It is a work of consummate literary artistry, and a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

When I read the book, I hadn’t yet seen the work Maxwell uses as a metaphor for his childhood, Alberto Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.,” in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Google found it for me, and when assembling materials for the Another Look website, I thought I would do new readers the favor of including an image of it.

I prefer some of Giocometti’s other work, which is reminiscent of the work of his mentor, the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle.  My own father was a sculptor;  Bourdelle and Sir Jacob Epstein were perhaps his favorite masters of the medium, and hence became my own. But for Maxwell, Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.” had a special poignance.

Here’s his ekphrastic turn in So Long, See You Tomorrow.  I liked the last line so much, I used it in our bookmark for the event – you can pick up one of the bookmarks at the Stanford Bookstore, or at the Stanford Libraries – or drop me a line and I’ll save one for you.

From Maxwell:

“When, wandering around through the Museum of Modern Art, I come upon the piece of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti with the title ‘Palace at 4 a.m.,’ I always stand back and look at it – partly because it reminds me of my father’s new house in its unfinished state and partly because it is so beautiful. It is about thirty inches high and sufficiently well known that I probably don’t need to describe it.  But anyway, it is made of wood, and there are no solid walls, only thin uprights and horizontal beams.  There is the suggestion of a classic pediment and of a tower.  Flying around in a room at the top of the palace there is a queer-looking creature with the head of a monkey wrench.  A bird?  a cross between a male ballet dancer and a pterodactyl?  Below it, in a kind of freestanding closet, the backbone of some animal.  To the left, backed by three off-white parallelograms, what could be an imposing female figure or one of the more important pieces of a chess set.  And, in about the position a basketball ring would occupy, a vertical, hollowed-out spatulate shape with a ball in front of it. …

“I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms.  It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience.  What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.  Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.  In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”

Best books you’ve never read: “Another Look” explores overlooked masterpieces

Monday, October 15th, 2012
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"I didn't want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them." (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

Finally, the news is out! For several months, I’ve been working with author Tobias Wolff on a new idea for a book club, “Another Look.” First book we’re going to feature on November 12 at Stanford:  William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Here’s the announcement:

Book clubs have proliferated across the United States, though most stick to middle-of-the-road bestsellers. Once in a while, however, you run across an off-the-beaten-track book you may not know about, praised by a leading literary figure. Where do you go to talk about this unfamiliar, top-notch fare?

Look no further. Stanford is allowing readers to get an insider’s look at literature via a seasonal book club, “Another Look,” which will be offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation.

“Another Look” is the brainchild of award-winning writer Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English, who will kick off the event with William Maxwells 144-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Interested readers are invited to a discussion of the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in the Levinthal Room of the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free. Wolff will talk about the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.

For Wolff, “Another Look” started in a conversation with colleagues: “We had occasionally held lunchtime discussions of a story or novel or poem for interested students and members of the department, and these had proved popular. Well, why not open our arms a little farther and invite the university community to participate; or, better yet, open our arms out wide to the community at large?”

Said Wolff, “Each of the faculty members are choosing books that really matter to them, and that they feel have not earned the readership they deserve.”

The books will be on the short side as well. “We recognize that the Bay Area is a busy place – and we recognize that people have limited resources of time. We don’t want to suggest books of discouraging length,” said Wolff.

So Long, See You Tomorrow was originally published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. The book, set in rural Illinois, describes the effects of a murder on the friendship of two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Wolff called it “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic – which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed.”

He called it “a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

“It’s been a project of mine since 1980 to make people read that book. Whenever I sit down with people to talk about books I love, I always make sure that I mention that one. I give it to people as a gift,” he said. “This is my attempt to give this novel to the whole Bay Area as a gift.”

Wolff hopes to encourage a rich community discussion of the book on Nov. 12. “The conversation will be much richer if people have read and thought about the book first,” he said.

“The book club offers a wonderful opportunity for the writers and scholars of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to introduce these neglected classics to a broader audience,” said Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department. “I’m excited at this opportunity to continue our literary conversations beyond the classroom.”

For the second event in February, poet Kenneth Fields will present Janet Lewis‘ 1941 The Wife of Martin Guerre, a 109-page novel. The name might ring a bell with some Bay Area readers: Poet Janet Lewis was also the wife of Stanford’s eminent poet-critic Yvor Winters.

On Lewis’ death in 1998, the New York Times wrote: “There are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written … in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.”

Although the Nov. 12 event is free, seating is limited. Reservations on the website anotherlook.stanford.edu. The website includes Wolff’s introductory remarks, as well as Cynthia Haven’s [dat's me – ED]  retrospective on Maxwell’s life, with interviews of his colleagues and daughter.