Saturday, November 10, 2007

In Homage and Appreciation of Norman Mailer: A Re-Posting of an NYSWIblog: Norman Mailer Visits the Institute on May Day: A Note by William Kennedy

A Re-Posting of a blog item from May 3 07 [In Memoriam Norman Mailer]

A note by Donald Faulkner to precede a note by William Kennedy:

To re-state a phrase I have used elsewhere on this site, We had us a time.

I was intending to blog some reflections on Norman Mailer's Institute visit and asked Bill Kennedy to share some quick takes with me. His response captured the time brilliantly, so I offer a tip of my hat and post it as presented to me. And I offer due thanks to him for sharing more than random thoughts. Indeed, this more like the old fashioned Talk of the Town piece The New Yorker used to post. We welcome the the tone and spirit of the offering. We'll write some other stuff on the event and the day, but this gets it just right.

Norman Mailer in Albany.

In an Esquire magazine interview Norman gave a few months back he said that physically, he was failing. And he does walk with canes because of the punishment his knees give him (especially when he has to climb four flights to his apartment in Brooklyn). Also he developed asthma about a year or so ago, and he did have a heavy by-pass in recent years. So I asked him, What about this failing? And he said "it's only the extremities," and that was accurate. He flew up to Albany in the afternoon from New York, sat still for an hour's interview at the Hampton Inn -- on devils, god, incest in Hitler's family, the non-fiction novel, the novel as history, the novelist vs. the historian, his approach to Hitler being maybe the most challenging of all his historical undertakings. (Though Ancient Egypt consumed more years). Then he socialized at the Kennedy digs on Dove Street, tossed back a couple of rums with orange juice, headed straight for the Green Room at Page Hall where he sat in the gloom alone for maybe half an hour -- which he always does -- to sharpen his focus on the next word; and then he emerged onto Page's bright stage (after checking the size of the audience -- 600? at least, which he liked). And then he went full-tilt at the reading from his novel, 'The Castle in the Forest,' followed by forty minutes of questions, carrying it off with zest, wit, and the unveiling of his new persona (new for many in the audience). The new Norman Mailer (the old one was an atheist for 45 years) now believes in god, the devil, associate devils -- one of them narrates his novel -- and the new Norman also has less fear of death for he now accepts the concept of reincarnation; and also of God, who haunts so much of his work. He now sees God as an existentialist who fails in his creations maybe as much as he succeeds (dinosaurs were a disaster). He will do one more gig this month and then go back to Provincetown where he will focus on a new collection of essays -- on theology -- he's now reading William James and Niebuhr, among many others. Nine or so essays are already written. He will also return, most seriously, to the ongoing challenge that his research on Hitler created for him. He has a vision of following the Fuhrer through maybe 1932, but then there's the war, the holocaust, the bunker, and it could easily be a trilogy. What will he do with it all? He'll try to figure it out up on the Cape. He's very mindful of the shortening of time for him, but it hasn't stopped his imagination from moving forward as it always has -- with vitality and originality. Also, when leaving the restaurant after a late supper, he was asked would he come back to Albany. "Oh yes indeed," he said, and then with a bit of a wink, "god willing."

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Andrea Barrett Visits

Andrea Barrett visited the Institute last week. Langdon Brown, Institute Fellow, delivered a fine introduction for her, and she then went on to give a powerful reading from her new novel, "The Air We Breathe."

Here's Langdon Brown's introduction:

It’s a pleasure to welcome back to the Writers Institute tonight’s guest Andrea Barrett, a writer who involves us like no other in the joy of discovering the world around us. She is a remarkable weaver of tales that treat readers to imaginative journeys through our natural universe in the company of vivid characters whose thirst for understanding about that universe and the mysteries of their own emotional lives leaves us quite dazzled by the complex implications of each moment of every human life. Critics have long celebrated her special gift for connecting the passion for scientific discovery with the more familiar literary preoccupation of romantic passion, but this idea can only be the start of appreciating the craft and skill that defines a writer who celebrates humanity’s passions in so comprehensive a fashion as to approach exegesis. In reading her we become alert to possibilities we were unaware of, to connections between people and the natural processes of the world around them, to the mysteries of people’s connection to their families, to those they love and to those with whom they compete and toil. This is nowhere more evident, it seems to me, than in her elegant depiction of relationships carried on despite barriers of time and space and the mystifying threads that bind two beings separated as, for example, Max and Clara in Servants of the Map. The paradox of the quest for self and its relationship to the quest for love cannot be depicted with more transparency or more shattering honesty than it is in this writer’s hands.

Critics, in attempting to describe her work, repeat words like engrossing, stylish, detailed, uncanny, intelligent, devastating, provocative and stunning. I would return to words like affinity and wholeness though to attempt to touch the special nature of this work for me as a reader. Just as her stories and novels connect one to the other through shared characters and heritage, the writing allows us to sense affinities between separated eras, disparate ideas, natural phenomena, world political movements and brings us back always to the bond between individual humans, a bond indelibly etched by her writing in the unforgettable interactions and conversations between her characters. The reader’s experience of these characters and their lives is enriched by the skillful manipulation of point of view including in her latest work one of the most democratic narrative strategies I can think of. This technique gives the reader the gift of receiving information the way the characters do, or in a sense, the way we do in life, not simply or reliably or from a single source. I imagine that this reading experience must recall something like that enjoyed by the first readers of Ibsen, who accomplished something similar in dramatic writing. In fact, I find that when I recall an earlier work like Ship Fever, for instance, I find myself remembering it more in the shape and form of real events than I do those from literature.

In the obligatory preemptive eulogy required of introducers I note with admiration that critics and award dispensers have been generous and wise in recognizing Andrea Barrett’s work. She received the National Book Award for her 1992 collection of short stories titled Ship Fever. Her 2002 Servants of the Map was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and its title novella was anthologized in Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards volume. She received a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a 2003 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library.

In her new book, The Air We Breathe, we are transported to a richly imagined version of our very own Adirondacks, specifically Saranac Lake reborn and fictionalized as Tamarack Lake, where tuberculosis patients counter the boredom of their rest cures with gossip and a weekly discussion group promoting the intrigue and betrayal leading to the story’s central catastrophe. Hanging over the characters are the threatening events surrounding the First World War and the United States’ involvement in that conflict. When these events reawaken and encourage dangerous attitudes toward ethnicity and immigrants, the larger world crashes in on the small community and changes it and its inhabitants forever. In this as in other work Ms. Barrett stimulates thoughtful reflection on troubling and very current issues without moralizing or sentimentalizing. Her transparent prose and deft handling of character and incident permit an oddly serene contemplation of the most disturbing and turbulent events while permitting, or perhaps insisting, on our reflection on our own world and the cyclical catastrophes we visit upon ourselves without mercy. In this work as in earlier writing she engages and synthesizes lyric, epic and dramatic modes in a compelling story-telling form that allows us access to profound and private levels of mental experience. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in her shattering depiction of the human compulsion to gossip, the damage wreaked by such behavior and the strangely serene manner in which we move on from the havoc thus wreaked. One phenomenon among the many tonight’s guest subjects to her wise and thoughtful pen. Please welcome back to the Writers Institute Andrea Barrett.

Langdon Brown
November 1, 2007

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