"basically, I make shit up"

Last night Australian expat novelist Peter Carey read from his newest book, A Long Way From Home, in the basement hall of the Elliott Bay Book Company. Carey was affable and interesting and funny, and although not the greatest reader (that prize goes to Neil Gaiman) he isn't bad, and we do like his novels. Mighty Reader is a bigger Carey fan than I am, but certainly Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelley Gang are great books. Carey's newest doesn't sound like it's in that league, and his publishers refer to it as "Carey's late-career masterpiece" or something like that, which makes it sound like poor Peter is already dead and they're sifting though his oeuvre while deciding which novels to reprint in new colorful paperback editions.

At almost every reading I've attended (for novelists, anyway), an audience member asks the writer to name some contemporary novelists he or she admires. The novelist's mind invariably goes blank for a moment. Eventually Carey managed to name a couple of Americans working now, and he mentioned Franzen, at which point Mighty Reader coughed with clear derision. More than once. After the reading, when Carey was signing her copy of A Long Way From Home, Mighty Reader apologized for having coughed derisively at Franzen's name. Carey looked up at me and said, "You're not fans, then?" My response was something about how if I ever meet Franzen, I'm going to hit him as hard as I can. This is not the conversation I'd imagined I'd be having with Peter Carey, two-time Booker Prize winning novelist. I'd intended to thank him for saying earlier that the impulse for a novel was an idea, an imaginative vision, and that he assembled his novels around the needs of the ideas, and I'd intended to ask him how that contrasts with current American fiction writing teaching that bases a novel upon the sentence, the prose itself rather than whatever the novel is "about." Alas, the Franzen-needs-to-be-whupped-good conversation did not turn into a discussion of craft. I should not be surprised by this.


  1. all my life i've thought it was really weird how difficult communication is... Mrs. M and i once went to hear James Lee Burke give a talk in Portland, when his career was just taking off... in spite of knowing what the first line of Moby Dick was(a question he posed to the audience) i was unable to say anything during the gathering afterword; no approach seemed right... so i just stole a chocolate chip cookie and left... socially inept, i guess the word would be... these little clues are what give a person a sense of who he really is... or isn't...

    1. I should just never speak to famous people or in public generally. I always fumble it somehow. But humility is good, it preserves us from the sin of pride.

  2. Carey would likely have answered that the young writers of America are just aspiring to the condition of music. If only they could sing!

    1. Yeah, good one. Someone should take all those youthful Americans' pens (laptops, whatever) and give them pianos. Or those plastic recorders. "Play one perfect note, Johnny! Now another! Exquisite. I could listen to your perfect notes all night."

      I have often wondered to what condition music aspires.

  3. I wouldn't mind reading what you have to say about Franzen. And about the business of sentence-worship versus "about."

    1. But you know we're all cautioned against saying anything critical about other living writers, especially successful ones! However, I will say that in my experience (which is admittedly limited), Franzen writes very old-fashioned simple and patronizing morality tales which he dresses up in clothes borrowed from Modernists, clothes that don't fit and keep slipping off. Franzen also drops the names of Deep Thoughts which don't actually appear in the narratives, as if by merely mentioning them he is engaging with these ideas intellectually. Constant Reader is not impressed. There, I've just violated some rule.

      Maybe later I'll write about the sentence worship of American writing. I'm reading Lawrence, whose sentences were not "immaculate", and whose ideas and artistic courage were often amazing. How to write about that without attacking specific individuals? Can I say publicly that, for example, Lydia Davis' stories in most cases don't actually exist beyond the sentence-level? That a pile of beautiful masonry does not a house make?

    2. True enough, we are cautioned! Not that staying silent has done either harm or good to most of us... I think that I may have mentioned on my blog somewhere that a number of people suggested to me that being on the same FSG list as "The Corrections" (remember the great Oprah flap! so consuming and long) might have been even more harmful than having my third novel come out just after 9-11. Which they meant as funny and consoling, though it's hard to be funny or consoling anywhere near 9-11.

      I think that an article about that problem would be quite interesting to many. And maybe even sell.

      Right now I'm rereading Godric because I've promised to do a talk on it...

    3. Oh, are you a fan of Lawrence's poetry?

    4. You mean Buechner's novel, right? Hopefully rewarding as a re-read.

      I'm reading Lawrence's short stories. I'm aware that he wrote poetry but I have had no exposure to it except that once in a while one of his poems will show up in one of his novels. I have no idea where I'd begin with him and poetry. He wrote a lot of poems, I think. 700 pages in the authorized version or whatever it is.

  4. Yes, Buechner. His best book, I think, though I have not read all.

    Here's a little Lawrence:


    Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
    Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
    A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
    And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

    In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
    Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
    To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
    And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

    So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
    With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
    Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
    Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

    1. That's very nice, quite lovely indeed. Here's one of the poems in the story "Jimmy and the Desperate Woman," from the collection I just read:


      If at evening, when the twilight comes,
      You ask me what the day has been,
      I shall not know. The distant drums
      Of some new-comer intervene

      Between me and the day that’s been.
      Some strange man leading long columns
      Of unseen soldiers through the green
      Sad twilight of these smoky slums.

      And as the darkness slowly numbs
      My senses, everything I’ve seen
      Or heard the daylight through, becomes
      Rubbish behind an opaque screen.

      Instead, the sound of muffled drums
      Inside myself: I have to lean
      And listen as my strength succumbs,
      To hear what these oncomings mean.

      Perhaps the Death-God striking his thumbs
      On the drums in a deadly rat-ta-ta-plan.
      Or a strange man marching slow as he strums
      The tune of a new weird hope in Man.

      What does it matter! The day that began
      In coal-dust is ending the same, in crumbs
      Of darkness like coal. I live if I can;
      If I can’t, then I welcome whatever comes.

      The three Lawrence poems I have so far seen are so much more relaxed, but at the same time more formally controlled, than his prose. I know: three poems is far too small a sample for a generalization. But I like what I've seen so far. I should look for more.

      I'm re-reading The Foliate Head. That's a good book. I never know how one of your poems is going to swerve.

    2. Oh, thanks! I like that comment! And I'm on a poetry jag at the moment...

      This one might remind you more of the Lawrence you know:

      Not every man has gentians in his house
      in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

      Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
      darkening the daytime, torch-like, with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
      ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
      down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
      torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
      black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
      giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
      lead me then, lead the way.

      Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
      let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
      down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
      even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
      to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
      and Persephone herself is but a voice
      or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
      of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
      among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on
      the lost bride and her groom.

    3. I'm dimly remembering that in Fussell's "Poetic Meter, Poetic Form" there is a section on "Piano." Seems to me his students were completely confused about what it was and whether it was of merit (not having a convenient authorial name stuck on it.) I would go look except that is yet another book jettisoned for one of many moves.

      Thanks for adding in that poem, which I had forgotten if I ever knew it. Somewhere or other Auden praised Lawrence for having a good ear...

  5. nice poems. i start reading one with a sort of hohum attitude and am immediately swept into his world... maybe that's what i find uncomfortable about DHL...

    1. so, am i the kind of person who is uncomfortable getting too close to basic human stuff? i suppose i am; that would account for a lot...

    2. I was thinking of the kind of person who is open and persuaded by something of worth...

    3. Maybe they're one side, the same--openness to persuasion. Then what's the other?

  6. Saying critical things about Franzen is an industry now. He can be criticized freely. That is a useful service that he provides.

    With Lawrence's poems, please start with Birds, Beast, and Flowers (1923), which has the snake poems and bat poems. Oh, they are so good, and so, so Lawrence. Here's "Bat."

    1. The first half of "Bat" is pretty darned good. I'd like it better if it ended at "Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light, And falling back." Still, yes, thanks. I will look for that collection. I already think Lawrence did brilliant work with flowers in his novels.

      I have developed an almost automatic habit of criticizing Franzen, using him as a poster boy for all the sins of modern American fiction. That only shows my own smallness of character and I wish I'd knock it off. Though I also wish Franzen would knock it off. See, there I go again.

    2. Lawrence can become imaginative friends with a snake, but the bat somehow is too far, too weird even for him.

      My favorite Franzenism: he won some prize for promising young writers, after he was famous, so an obvious gaucherie by the prize committee. In an interview he said he wanted to use the money to establish his own prize for new writers, but instead he bought a painting, which is also supporting the arts, yes?

      And I thought to myself, now I can identify with Franzen. He is generous very much in the way that I am generous.