by Robert Fay
The great Mexican writer Sergio Pitol died in April. He was 85, a recipient of the Cervantes Award—the highest honor for works in the Spanish language—and in his The Art of Flight trilogy, he writes of his 20 years living and working in Europe, “the thread that ties those years together, I’ve always known, is literature…for many years, my experience traveling, reading, writing merged into a single experience.” The particular life he lead as “a man of letters,” is now unrepeatable, even by today’s best writers. And it’s not a lack of talent or courageousness, but of the inevitable consequence of cultural indifference. Literature must be respected or at least feared to have relevance, and the resulting electricity from this attention is the crucial spark for great lives, competitive coteries, great books, and perhaps most critical of all, a savvy reading public who awaits genius, demands it, and who lives for the spirit of the logos.
The Art of Flight, written in Pitol’s final years, demonstrates a freedom of form that many writes yearn to explore, but find they have neither the courage nor the savoire faire to take on. The trilogy is a pastiche of memoir, travel reportage, literary criticism, dream diaries and stolen glances from Pitol’s working notebooks. In 1960 after scattered work as a translator, Pitol joined the Mexican Foreign Service as a cultural attaché and served for over 20 years at a number of posts, including Moscow, Barcelona, Belgrade and Rome. His career afforded him the privilege to meet an enviable array of international writers, artists, academics and diplomats, an opportunity well beyond what Mexico City and its regional, Spanish-language literary milieu could have provided.
The three books that encompass the trilogy, The Art of Flight (1996), The Journey (2000) and The Magician of Vienna (2005) explore scattered thoughts and memories of growing up in provincial 1940s Veracruz, the travails of lecturing on Mexican literature in Tbilisi, the joys of being a flâneur in Prague, his passion for Henry James, Edith Wharton, Alejo Carpentier, Joseph Conrad, Gogol and many others. But these books are also an extant record of what a committed literary life once looked like. Pitol was living and writing in Europe and the Soviet Union in second half of the 20th Century when literature in Western Europe retained a healthy measure of respect, while in the communist countries, it was arguably even more vital because of official censorship (e.g., underground Soviet literature thrived in Xeroxed samizdat form).
I visited Prague in 1992 shortly after the end of communist party rule and was amazed how nearly everyone on the metro was reading a book. A new French or English novel in a Prague bookstore would generate lines around the block, and would sell out in a day. Scarcity and official persecution had taught Czechs the value of books. My host family’s son decided to school me right away in Czech culture, by taking me to the birthplace of Franz Kafka, and in the gift shop he bought me an English edition of Kafka’s great short novels and a CD of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. This was respect.
I have the good fortune to live near one of North America’s great bookstores, Powell’s Books, in downtown Portland, Oregon. Most new and mid-career American novelists on a book tour include Powell’s as a stop (regrettably, international authors rarely come to Portland). And when I can make it, I attend the reading, though invariably the experience is a disappointing one. It’s not the public turnout, which is usually impressive. Portland, much like Seattle to the north, is a city of devoted book lovers.
After the reading—which depending on the writing, is either mildly interesting or entirely forgettable—the author solicits questions, prompting a few moments of silence, where people fidget in their folding metal chairs, and the author anxiously slakes down more water. Invariably, a hand goes up, then another, and magically the audience’s previous timidity is overcome. Yet after the first question or two, I usually regret the silence didn’t go on a few minutes longer.
The questions generally fall into two broad categories, revolving around feelings (the author’s and the reader’s) and inquiries about the author’s personal life. They can be reduced to two emblematic questions:
- “How did you feel when you wrote the part about___?”
- “Was the part about ____based on something that happened to you in real life?”
These are the kinds of questions a cranky literature professor named Vladimir Nabokov cautioned his Cornell literature students about in the 1950s: “First there is the lowly kind (of reader) which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature…a situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or someone who we know or knew.”
Nobody in the audience ever tries to place the book—or even the author’s body of work—within the context of literature past or present. The work is treated as an isolated act of personal will—obviously derived from some traumatic experience in the author’s personal life—delivered to the marketplace to help us all reflect more deeply on our own emotions. No one asks the writer if his prose style or thematic focus is the result of a strong influence of Raymond Carver or Thomas Bernhard or Virginia Woolf, or whomever. There are also no questions about the structure of the book. Stories are just stories. To quote Professor Nabokov again, “a book is more enjoyable if one understands its machinery, if one can take it apart.”
I don’t expect Powell’s shoppers to channel critic Michiko Kakutani or make sublime James Wood-type observations (“Tolstoy is the great novelist of physical involuntariness.”), but if actual book-buying readers—sitting through a reading by a literary writer on a Wednesday night—in one of the most literate cities in the United States are incapable of asking reasonably sophisticated questions, we have to think that literary life in the U.S. is entirely on life support, and drastic measures might be needed. Perhaps it’s time to ban MFA writing programs, shutter independent books shops and reopen them as Apple stores, jail all unlicensed novelists, silence NPR book reviews and make Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal required reading in all U.S. schools.
The American writer Edmund White is a contemporary of Pitol’s, and thankfully, still alive and writing at the age of 78. He just published the memoir The Unpunished Vice (2018), subtitled, A life of Reading, a book that should be read as a companion piece to two previous books, Inside a Pearl (2014), about the 16 years he spent living in Paris, and City Boy (2009), his account of living in New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s when he was a young bohemian writer. White has lived an extraordinary intellectual and social life (no coincidence he loves Proust, who also expertly managed both spheres), seemingly meeting and/or befriending virtually every major 20th century artist and writer both in the U.S. and on the continent, including William Burroughs, Joyce Carol Oates, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alan Hollinghurst, Andy Warhol, John Ashbery, James Merrill, the list is endless.
Who else, but White, could casually write in City Boy, “Oddly enough, when I invited Susan (Sontag) to dinner in Paris in 1981 with Michel Foucault, he whispered, when she left the room for a moment, ‘Why did you invite her?’” White’s social life in New York was no less memorable: “(The poet Alfred Corn and I) witnessed the, to many, historic moment when John Ashbery was introduced to the critic Harold Bloom. John was John and was so drunk that when he stumbled out at the end of the evening, Bloom said in his best orphic manner, ‘I revere the poet but I deplore the man.’”
In addition to writing iconic books of gay fiction, including A Boy’s Own Story (1982), White was also present at the birth of gay liberation (he was a witness to the Stonewall Riots in 1969), as well as being a founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis at the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. White’s memoirs, however, do more than chronicle his activism, his celebrity friends or his sexual adventures (though they be legion), they are an account, like Pitol’s, of a life entirely immersed in literature at a time when it still mattered. White writes in City Boy, “To be sure, writers were far more important in the culture at large fifty years ago than they are now. Back then they were considered seers or the antennae of the race, in touch with the deep conflicts underlying our society.”
White notes how in the early 1960s, there were media and institutional outlets for literature, even for avant-garde works by the likes of Donald Barthelme, whose writing appeared in New American Review and who gave regular readings at the 92nd Street Y. He marvels how Esquire magazine in 1963 could generate robust sales by doing no more than profiling New York’s hot writers. And then there was also television coverage. “Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote,” White writes, “Like Hollywood stars, all appeared on National TV.”
White was a communist in the 1950s and ‘60s, was fully- and openly-committed to sexual promiscuity, and horrified by bourgeois America and its squareness, but even he can’t help but wonder if the revolutionary movements of the 1960s resulted in some collateral damage:
“Of the various institutions that aided these (literary) encounters, this sense of community, almost all of them have subsequently disappeared. Susan Sontag once remarked that maybe ‘we’ wouldn’t have staged such vigorous assaults on cultural institutions if we’d known who fragile they were, how easily they could be swept aside.”
The memoirs by Pitol and White mark the end of an era. We will not see books like these again. Is it likely that Jonathan Franzen will write a memoir when he reaches his seventies? What will he write about, birding? His concern for the environment? Certainly his friendship with the late David Foster Wallace was significant, but this professional friendship seems to have been a singular event for him. White had dozens of such writer friendships, loving and competitive relationships that had a undeniable development on 20th Century American literature.
I’ve seen Zadie Smith speak and she is interesting and brilliant, her novel White Teeth (2000) is an important novel, one that should be widely read. But like Franzen, Smith grew up in a post-1960s world, and is a product of a more fragmented, media-rich culture where the reverence for prose, whether in parliamentary speeches, Sunday sermons or fiction is undeniably diminished. Smith has an interesting, but increasingly common personal story in Britain, an immigrant family’s story: her mother is Jamaican and her father is English. Smith now teaches fiction at New York University, after being a fellow at Harvard University and a professor at Columbia University.
Perhaps Smith will write a memoir one day. Certainly writing about London in the late-1970s and being the daughter of a Caribbean immigrant would be interesting, but likely not a literary story. Perhaps the lives and works of Ivy League academics in this first years of the 21st Century is where the new Bohemia is—and one day we’ll get a book from Smith on what went down—but somehow I doubt it. Real estate in U.S. cities is too expensive, and secure university teaching jobs are too precious for anyone to color outside the lines.
In The Unpunished Vice White doesn’t concern himself directly with literature’s fallen stature, for he is too filled with warm nostalgia and lingering passions, both for good books and old lovers, to mourn what has passed. But in writing about the company of writers, both the broad-minded and the tedious, he gets close to diagnosing the problem literature faces today:
“The few dull writers I know teach on provincial American campuses. They’ve passed so many years each being the Big Man on Campus, universally respected by their humbler colleagues, that they’ve failed to pick up any social polish. Worse, they’ve learned that tedious suburban manly arts of talking about sports scores or the real estate market and imagining this is interesting. Because of an inferior milieu they don’t know how to talk fiction or poetry in a way that might interest an actress or an admiral; they can’t discuss their work in a general conversation.”
This is precisely where we find ourselves. More conversant on home equity loans than poetics, marooned among acquaintances who don’t share our passions. We’re afraid, or more likely, unable to convince anyone literature is more than just a humanities requirement at State U. We’re provincial, just like our nation’s politics and political leadership. We can fly anywhere in the world, but we still know nothing. We’ve thought small for so long that we’ve naturally become ossified and inconsequential. Right now someone in the world is undoubtedly writing this century’s Ulysses, and upon publication, it won’t matter. Not in the way that previous masterpieces have been often ignored upon publication—think Proust’s Swann’s Way—but in the sense that it will never matter, because we’ve all lost the critical spirit of evangelization required to influence the culture. We’ve retreated to the womb, where it’s cozy and uncomplicated, and where no one can hurt us or love us or even determine, though we’re strange and complicated, that there is something worthwhile here—something that cannot be ignored.
Robert Fay’s essays, reviews and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Chicago Quarterly Review, among others. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFay1.