George Plimpton meets John Steinbeck, writes letter to Jean Seberg about Marianne Moore

Mark Sarvas sheds some light on an unusual and unfinished opus: "Steinbeck's incomplete attempt to render the Arthurian tales in 'plain present-day speech for my own young sons.'" A new edition of this book, which Steinbeck began in 1956, will be out from Viking in November.

The idea that he was writing the book for his "own young sons" reminded me of this story, told by George Plimpton in PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction:
Many years ago, I met John Steinbeck at a party in Sag Harbor, and told him that I had writer’s block. And he said something which I’ve always remembered, and which works. He said, “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” And at the time I was enamored of Jean Seberg, the actress, and I had to write an article about taking Marianne Moore to a baseball game, and I started it off, “Dear Jean...,” and wrote this piece with some ease, I must say. And to my astonishment that’s the way it appeared in Harper’s Magazine. “Dear Jean...” Which surprised her, I think, and me, and very likely Marianne Moore.
Jean Seberg is most famous today for her beguiling turn in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, from which the above picture is taken. That film came out in 1959, just as Steinbeck was abandoning his Arthurian project. Plimpton wrote the article for Harper's five years later, in the fall of 1964. Is it possible he had just seen Lilith-- also featuring Warren Beatty, Peter Fonda, and Gene Hackman-- and fallen for Seberg's portrayal of a "seductive, schizophrenic" woman staying at "an elite sanitarium in New England"? ("Before Eve there was Evil... and her name was Lilith!")

Plimpton wasn't kidding, by the way: You can check out the first page of his Harper's article on the right (click on the photo to enlarge). And you can read the rest of Plimpton's tribute to Steinbeck-- entitled "Lonesome Animals," a term Steinbeck applied to writers-- here.


Wednesday Miscellany: Proust, etc.

Edmund White lists five novels “reviewers should have in their libraries” for the “Critical Library" series over at the NBCC blog. Among them: In Search of Lost Time, which he has read thrice (!), the first time in high school (!, again). For more of White's thoughts on Proust, check out PEN America 2: Home & Away, and his piece, “The Consolations of Art”:
Of course Proust is also popular because he wrote about glamour, rich people, nobles, artists. And he wrote about love. It doesn’t seem to matter that he came to despise love, that he exploded it, reduced it to its shabbiest, most mechanical, even hydraulic terms. By which I mean he not only demystified love, he also dehumanized it, turning it into something merely Pavlovian. The love Swann feels for Odette is in no way a tribute to her charms or her soul.
Seems a bit less cheery than Alain de Botton's version. (Among the other writers who consider Proust in PEN America 2: Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, Nadine Gordimer... check it out. And for a lighter-- and very amusing-- take on reading Proust, try Barnaby Sandwich.)

That discussion of “the place of the political in poetry” that Ted Genoways called for last week-- and which is mentioned below-- elicited some interesting remarks, both at the VQR blog and at The Chronicle of Higher Education. As part of the discussion, Don Share, senior editor of Poetry, called attention to this piece by Nathaniel Fick about “recent war poetry.”

As others have noted, the 2007 MacArthur “Genius” Grants were announced this week, and three members of PEN were among the recipients: fiction writer Stuart Dybek, playwright Lynn Nottage, and editor Peter Cole.

The New York Times
ran a profile yesterday of “two leading Brazilian novelists of Amazon themes”: Márcio Souza and Milton Hatoum.

Mid-day update: PEN and The Campaign for Reader Privacy applaud "the introduction today of legislation to safeguard the privacy of ordinary Americans and curb the FBI’s abuse of the National Security Letter power granted under the USA Patriot Act." Read more.


Saadi Youssef on the freedom of Arabic

The September edition of Wild River Review is up, and it contains a long, illuminating interview with Saadi Youssef, the Iraqi poet who left his native country in 1978 and "lived in many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe before settling in the U.K. in 1999." The interview was conducted during the PEN World Voices festival by Wild River Review founder Joy E. Stocke, who asks Youssef about the Arabic language, and gets this reply:
Well it is a very free language. I mean you can create new words in Arabic. So, you can say that it is an open language, a language that a poet can always renew. If you know Arabic well with a classical formation, in a way you will be more free because you will see more things. You can work within the language to create a new word and it will be understood. It will not be considered strange.

For example, when you hear the church bell toll, or ring. In Arabic, if you take the past tense for the sound of a bell ringing — the bell rang — I can extend the sense of time that it takes for a bell to ring. Instead of saying rang, I can use the language to create a new word that shows the extended way a bell rings, how the sound moves through the air. I create a new word because I need to do so, and a reader of Arabic will understand. In fact a reader of Arabic will expect it.
We printed a selection from Youssef’s first major English collection, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, in PEN America 5: Silences. The collection was translated by Khaled Mattawa and published by Graywolf in 2002. It won the 2003 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.

More about Youssef, who was born near Basra in 1934, here.


"The poem one simply did not expect"

Ted Genoways has an amusing take on the news that Paul Muldoon has succeeded Alice Quinn as poetry editor of The New Yorker:
"The Irish-born Muldoon (who also edited the Best American Poetry anthology in 2005) joins the ranks of English-born Glyn Maxwell at The New Republic and Yugoslav-born Charles Simic at Paris Review. And Simic is also now the Poet Laureate of the United States. Has anyone spoken to Lou Dobbs about this? Should we be concerned that Europeans are taking jobs away from American poets? Or is editing the kind of work that Americans are no longer willing to do?"
"All kidding aside," Genoways continues, "this seems another example of the healthy internationalization of American literature that has been going on recently." And he also hopes "that an Irish poet such as Muldoon will have an eye for harder-hitting, more topical poetry than we’re used to seeing in mainstream American magazines."

Certainly Muldoon has written poetry one might call "topical," but who knows what to expect from the poet who wrote "Hummingbird"?
At Nora's first post-divorce Labor Day bash
there's a fluster and a fuss and a fidget
in the fuchsia-bells. "Two fingers of sour mash,
a maraschino cherry." "So the digit's
still a unit of measurement?" "While midgets
continue to demand a slice of the cake."
"A vibrator, you know, that kind of widget."
Now a ruby-throated hummingbird remakes
itself as it rolls on through mid-forest brake.
"I'm guessing she's had a neck-lift and lipo."
"You know I still can't help but think of the Wake
as the apogee, you know, of the typo."
Like an engine rolling on after a crash,
long after whatever it was made a splash.
What should we expect from this poet as an editor? Probably the unexpected. That is, in fact, just what Muldoon told Motoko Rich he plans to look for: “One would want to be absolutely open to the poem that one simply did not expect to have made its way into the world and somehow suddenly falls on one’s desk.”

What fell on the desk of PEN America when we were putting together Issue 5: Silences was this:

Her grandfather’s job was to cut
the vocal chords of each pack-mule
with a single, swift excision,
a helper standing by to wrench
the mule’s head fiercely to one side and drench
it with hooch he’d kept since Prohibition.
Why, Carlotta wondered, that fearsome tool?
Was it for fear the mules might bray
and give their position away?
At which I see him thumb the shade
as if he were once more testing a blade
and hear the two-fold snapping shut
of his four-fold, brass-edged carpenter’s rule:
And give away their position.

Post-script: Do you think Paul Muldoon is honoring Leonard Cohen’s 73rd birthday today? In one of his “sleeve notes” from the collection Hay, Muldoon wrote, of Cohen, “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.” Fellow PEN-ster Sven Birkerts asked him about that line in the profile he wrote for Ploughshares. “It does seem a little excessive, I suppose,” Muldoon conceded, “but I’m going to stick to it."

Update: Jennifer Howard at The Chronicle of Higher Education questions Genoways's generalization about Irish poets, then asks, "Is Muldoon’s appointment (or Simic’s, or Maxwell’s) really an example of a new internationalism in American literature or something less dramatic?" Genoways responds, and calls for a discussion of "the place of the political in poetry."


Monday Miscellany

Many thanks to the scores of writers and readers who dropped by the PEN booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival. In addition to the wonderful writers listed below, we had unexpected visits from George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem. Mo Willems, left, enthusiastically hawked our wares and entertained the crowd; Mary Gaitskill and Jonathan Lethem, right, chatted with each other as well as our many visitors; and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, center, brought his beautiful family along. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

Garth Riske Hallberg nicely captures the general atmosphere.

Among the many other "vendors" at the festival were our friends at CLMP (the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses). Together with the Virginia Quarterly Review, they've recently made available this interesting discussion about the commercial challenges facing literary fiction, featuring Jonathan Burnham, Morgan Entrekin, Jonathan Galassi, and Sonny Mehta, and moderated by Sarah Nelson.

Speaking of VQR, their next issue looks terrific. It's a special issue, "dedicated to the topic of South America in the 21st century," and includes contributions from Daniel Alarcon and the late Roberto Bolaño among other luminaries.

If you're free on Wednesday evening, in New York, and interested in children's literature, don't miss "Dreadful Lies, Peculiar Truths," "a PEN Children’s Book panel discussion featuring Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Susan Kuklin, Robert Lipsyte, and Vera B. Williams."
This panel of prize-winning authors will explore the quandary in which many children’s book writers often find themselves: how do we respect the boundaries, and imaginations, of our young audiences when writing about harrowing topics? How do we portray difficult circumstances without foisting an adult point of view on our readers? Come to this free discussion of these issues and more.


Paul Auster, Samuel Beckett, and the Brooklyn Book Festival

The second annual Brooklyn Book Festival is this Sunday, September 16, with events to be held at Brooklyn Borough Hall (Court and Joralemon Streets), the adjacent Borough Hall Plaza and Columbus Park, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and St. Francis College. All events are free and open to the public.

PEN will have a booth there, space #35, in Borough Hall Plaza, where some amazing writers will stop by to answer questions and to talk about why they’re members of PEN:
9:45-10:45 Colin Channer & Ana Castillo
1:00-1:30 Mo Willems
1:30-2:30 Mary Gaitskill & Jonathan Safran Foer
:30 PEN President Francine Prose & A.M. Homes
3:30-4:30 George Packer & Tim McLoughlin
4:30-5:30 Mohammed Naseehu Ali
And, at 11:30, we’ll be giving away free copies of PEN America to the first 50 writers and readers who come by to say hello. We’ll answer questions about the mission of PEN America, how to subscribe and support the magazine, etc. So come see us.

The night before the festival, a “Book Festival Gala VIP event” will be held, where beloved Brooklyn author Paul Auster will be the guest of honor. Auster has received a number of accolades by now, of course. Nonetheless, as he explained in issue 5 of PEN America, “no writer” has “any idea” what his work is actually worth. It’s a lesson he learned from Samuel Beckett, with whom Auster spoke on a few occasions in Paris. This particular lesson he learned at their first meeting, in the early seventies, when Auster was about twenty-five years old.
...at some point during the conversation, Beckett told me that he had just finished translating Mercier et Camier, which was his first French novel; it had been written about twenty-five years earlier.

I had read the book in French and liked it very much, and I said, “A wonderful book.” I was just a kid, after all. I couldn’t suppress my enthusiasm.

Beckett shook his head and said, “Oh no, no, not very good. In fact, I’ve cut out about 25 percent of the original. The English version’s going to be a lot shorter than the French.

And I said (remember how young I was), “Why would you do such a thing? It’s a wonderful book. You shouldn’t have taken a word out.”

He shook his head and he said, “No, no, not very good, not very good.”

We went on to talk about other things, and then, out of the blue, ten or fifteen minutes later, apropos of nothing, he leaned forward across the table and he said to me, very earnestly, “You really liked it, huh? You really thought it was good?”

This was Samuel Beckett, remember. And not even he had any idea of what his work was worth. Good or bad, meaningful or not, no writer ever knows, not even the best ones. And I suppose especially not the best ones.


"The Most Famous Unknown Writer of the 20th Century"

That’s how writer and critic Luc Sante once described Georges Simenon, who died 18 years ago today. Sante affixed that label to the prolific Belgian author back in 2005, at the first PEN World Voices festival. Since then, NYRB Classics has published five more of Simenon’s novels in English translation, to go along with the three they published in 2003 and 2004. Those books have garnered reviews in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and elsewhere. It seems this "unknown writer" is becoming more famous-- in the US, that is-- each year.

Sante had much else to say of interest in his talk, which was published in our seventh issue. “Somewhere along the line,” Sante writes, Simenon “made a signal discovery”:
Much of what passes for literature merely consists of studies of people in their clothing—that is, people operating within the rigid confines of social codes. He, on the other hand, wanted to write about the naked human, who is forced by circumstances to confront life without the usual protections. Those same social codes made him an outsider and kept him one, even at the height of his fame. He had served his apprenticeship writing pulp fiction and had cemented his reputation with detective novels. Furthermore, he was Belgian. He also lacked a writing style detectable by the belletristic apparatus of the prewar era. Therefore, he was forever barred from being accepted as a man of letters by the people in Paris who decided such things.
In the wake of Flaubert and subsequent adherents to le mot juste, Simenon may also have hurt his case for a literary reputation-- among "the people in Paris who decided such things," that is-- with his prodigious productivity: He wrote over 400 books, some published under pseudonyms.

Given that enormous output, where should a newcomer to Simenon begin? Sante mentions Dirty Snow (“a supremely bleak evocation of the horrors of the Second World War… that can be usefully compared with the works that Sartre and Camus were issuing at the same time”) and Pedigree (“an autobiographical novel of his youth… which achieves an epic grandeur of thought and a beaverish accumulation of mundane details”).

This month, however, one could do worse than reading The Engagement along with the good folks at Words Without Borders, who are hosting an ongoing, online discussion of the 135-page mystery on their blog, as part of their “Reading the World” series. The discussion will be led by Chad Post, of Three Percent (“a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester”), and Mark Binelli, the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! They'll be joined by the book’s translator, Anna Moschovakis, and others.

For more, watch this site.

(And for more of Sante's thoughts on Simenon, check out his long Bookforum piece from January.)

A Swift Pure Cry

Last week, Ed Park called attention to a thoughtful obituary in the Guardian for Siobhan Dowd (which has since been posted on the membership page of PEN’s website). Dowd was born in London and worked as a researcher for the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN before coming to New York and spending seven years at PEN American Center.
Her first novel to appear in print was A Swift Pure Cry (2006), a troubling tale, based on events in Ireland in the early 1980s, in which a 15-year-old girl, Shell, struggles to survive in a world of poverty, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and moral hypocrisy. She wrote it in three months in the autumn of 2004.

Siobhan's fictional debut was met with immediate critical acclaim. It was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction prize and in May this year, Waterstone's identified her as one of the top 25 authors for the future. Though she maintained her campaigning zeal, as co-founder of English PEN's readers and writers programme, promoting writing in prisons and deprived communities, she was quickly becoming a full-time author with an ambitious programme of speaking tours and events, which was cut short by breast cancer.

Typically, while dying, Siobhan thought of other people, setting up a trust for promoting literature among youth offenders and other disadvantaged young people, into which her future royalties will be channelled.