"Prose fiction was born Protestant."

Not long ago while leaving a restaurant in Brooklyn, I walked into a strange and holy ritual. A red-haired priest in black suit and white clerical collar was out on the sidewalk blessing an iguana. Scales iridescent in the sun, the reptile looked like a small dragon. People gathered around and the sacrament had the undeniable air of divinity. After the priest made the sign of the cross over the lizard, he moved into the restaurant surrounded by true believers urging him to bless their son, their baby, their little yappy dog.

So begins Darcy Steinke's excellent review of Mary Gordon's new memoir, Circling My Mother, in the most recent New York Times Book Review. Steinke is herself the author of a memoir about a religious upbringing-- though Lutheran rather than Catholic. Steinke does not dwell on (or even mention) that religious difference-- which perhaps would have been out of place in a book review. But it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on the matter. Gordon herself had some fascinating things to say about it in a tribute to Flannery O'Connor (the author rendered above) titled "Bad Behavior" and published in our second issue:
Whatever beliefs she professed as an orthodox Catholic, her fiction suggests that not only is human fate mysterious, human behavior is as well, and for this reason all notions of reward and punishment are entirely beside the point for her. This, I believe, separates her from Protestant Fundamentalists. Her characters may be deeply moved by the fear of hellfire but she is interested in hellfire only as it interests them. Even the terms of reward and punishment are difficult to discern in her fiction. Many of her characters have soul-expanding experiences that end in death. Are the characters, then, said to be rewarded or punished? Is Nelson, the fat dull child of the do-gooder social worker father, who is cloaked in a noble mourning invisible to his father, rewarded or punished in “The Lame Shall Enter First” by the death he achieves when he tries to join his dead mother among the stars, urged by the wily Satanic crippled boy who will not take Nelson’s father’s good intentions for what they are? Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” is gored by a bull: is this her comeuppance or a rapture of ecstasy? Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is smacked in the face by the pocketbook of a furious black woman wearing a hat identical to hers: she meets her end, but is it a punishment for racist condescension or the corridor to paradise?
Gordon goes on to say that the "very unanswerability of these questions, and the fact that the characters’ fates are random, disproportionate, and surprising, puts them smack in the corral of mystery and outside the territory of motivation"-- which, she says, is precisely how O'Connor wanted it.

Gordon's tribute begins with the provocative remark that serves as the title of this post, and contains several insights into a writer who has gotten so far into Gordon's psyche as to actually appear in her dreams:
I dreamed that Flannery O’Connor and I were speaking together on a panel. Her hair was perfectly coifed; she was wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and a perfectly crisp white blouse, and perfectly shined penny loafers. My hair was filthy, my slip was showing, my stockings were ripped. In the dream she said to me, “Your problem is that you don’t believe in perfection.” And I said to her, because it was my dream, “I do believe in perfection, but you think perfection is flawlessness, and I think it’s completeness.” Well, that just shows how she can scare a Catholic girl, because we do think of her as a Catholic writer.
Read the rest. And for more of Gordon's thoughts on her literary forebears, see her essay about Virginia Woolf in our first issue.


"The Open Destiny of Life"

Garth Risk Hallberg, in his tribute to Grace Paley, highlights a wonderful line from her story “A Conversation with My Father”: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” In the story, a writer is arguing with her father about fiction. He says, “You don't want to recognize it, Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy!” She says, speaking of a character she’s invented, “She could change.”

That remark about “the open destiny of life” stuck with Ann Charters as well—she mentioned it in a conversation with Grace Paley that we published in 2002, using that line for its title. (A longer version appears in The Story and Its Writer.) The conversation highlights Paley’s remarkable generosity and humility, even as regards her own work. Asked about her influences, Paley says she feels she was “influenced by everybody.” As for which of those influences really show up in her own work, she insists: “That’s for the reader to say.” Charters suggests that perhaps the narrator of “A Conversation with My Father” is refusing to face her father’s imminent death, and that may be a theme of the story. Paley doesn’t see it that way, she says—then adds: “Maybe the reader of a particular story knows better than the writer what it means.” (Perhaps it’s no surprise that she was even gracious to tongue-tied fans.)

Paley is especially eloquent when describing her different relationships to poetry and to short stories:
I can give you a definition that can be proven wrong in many ways, but for me it was that in writing poetry I wanted to talk to the world, I wanted to address the world, so to speak. But writing stories, I wanted to get the world to explain itself to me, to speak to me. And for me that was the essential difference between writing poetry and stories, and it still is, in many ways. So I had to get that world to talk to me. I had to reach out to it, a very different thing than writing poems. I had to reach out to the world and get it to tell me what it was all about, because I didn’t understand it. I just didn’t understand. Also, I’d always been very interested in people and told funny stories, and I didn’t have any room for doing that in poems, again because of my own self. My poems were too literary; that’s the real reason.
Paley was a member of PEN for more than forty years, served twenty-one years on the PEN board, and was also on the Advisory Board of PEN America. Francine Prose has written a tribute to her on the PEN website, and PEN's web editors have created an online forum for readers “to share thoughts, words, and memories in honor of Grace Paley.” Her devoted political activism is the subject of this interview, which contains a line almost as wonderful as her remark about the “open destiny of life”: “We always tried to say something illegal.”


Robert Stone, Jorge Luis Borges, and... Parade Magazine?

Robert Stone turns 70 today, as Dwight Garner has noted over at Paper Cuts. Seven years ago, Stone spoke at a PEN tribute to Jorge Luis Borges-- who, as it happens, was born 108 years ago this Friday-- and his words were published in the inaugural issue of PEN America. Borges does not immediately come to mind as an influence for the author of A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers, but Stone found him “tremendously liberating and inspiring.” In his tribute, he cites a passage from A Universal History of Iniquity that one can imagine Stone reading during his travels with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters:
The Mississippi is a broad-chested river, a dark and infinite brother of the Parani, the Uruguay, the Amazon, and the Orinoco. It is a river of mulatto-hued water; more than four hundred million tons of mud, carried by that water, insult the Gulf of Mexico each year. All that venerable and ancient waste has created a delta where gigantic swamp cypresses grow from the slough of a continent in perpetual dissolution and where labyrinths of clay, dead fish, and swamp reeds push out the borders and extend the peace of their fetid empire. Upstream, Arkansas and Ohio have their bottomlands, too, populated by a jaundiced and hungry-looking race, prone to fevers, whose eyes gleam at the sight of stone and iron, for they know only sand and driftwood and muddy water.
Stone later taught a fiction course that "included an examination of Borges's work." As the semester was approaching, he had a distinctly "Borgesian" experience:
Just before the course began, for unfathomable Borgesian reasons, an article appeared in Parade magazine, the popular Sunday supplement. It was a short history of the western outlaw Sam Bess by Jorge Luis Borges, and my students, who did not look to Parade for exemplars in contemporary prose, were puzzled.
Those students could have talked to Eliot Weinberger, who also spoke at the Borges tribute. He would have explained that "Borges was an immensely prolific writer" who wrote "something like twelve hundred pieces of nonfiction," on everything from "Hollywood movies to detective stories to sci-fi," not to mention "tango lyrics and the inscriptions painted on horse-drawn carts in Buenos Aires." Weinberger, who edited the Selected Non-Fictions of Borges in English (and "could easily," he says, "do a few more books of equal size"), also notes that "Borges worked, amazingly, for El Hogar, the Argentine equivalent of Ladies’ Home Journal." So perhaps an appearance in Parade is not so puzzling.

But back to Robert Stone: Did you know that he was first given On the Road by his mother? He recounted the experience ten years ago in The New York Times. With all the Kerouac celebrations going around, it's fascinating to see him throwing cold water on the plaudits: "People once said that Jack Kerouac's name would be remembered when those of his contemporaries are forgotten. They may well be right, and for filial and patriotic reasons I say let it be so. But, on the whole, I think On the Road was more Mom's kind of book than mine."

For those of us who failed to read Prime Green back in January, now seems like a good time to pick it up. Happy Birthday, Mr. Stone.


Robert Lowell, Flannery O'Connor, and the FBI

Robert Lowell's Day by Day was published thirty years ago this month, and shortly afterward won the National Book Critics Circle award-- hence this insightful essay by Adam Kirsch over at Critical Mass, the offical blog of the NBCC. Kirsch argues that, had Lowell lived more than a mere month beyond the book's publication, the volume might have come to seem a "modest, transitional work," and he laments that the rhetorical question near the end of the collection-- "Yet why not say what happened?"-- became "an ars poetica for a whole generation of poets," an "ethic of accuracy, based on pity for the transitory world."

Among his many grand accomplishments, Robert Lowell was responsible for introducing his publisher, Robert Giroux, to another Southern writer: Flannery O'Connor. Giroux recalled this at a tribute to O'Connor hosted by PEN American Center; his words were later published by PEN America. That introduction took place in 1949, the year that Lowell and O'Connor met at Yaddo. Both writers left the famous retreat after learning that it was under investigation by the FBI for ties to an alleged communist spy.

More details about that shady story are here; more tributes to Flannery O'Connor are here.


Inappropriate Appropriation

The new Believer has just appeared, providing us the opportunity to remember “Inappropriate Appropriation,” a “nighttime event” put together by the Believer in concert with PEN American Center for the first annual PEN World Voices Festival, held in New York in the spring of 2005. The event was recorded, and a carefully edited transcript appeared in PEN America 7, which was devoted to that festival.

The event convened several writers to consider “the rules of cross-cultural appropriation,” as moderator Rick Moody puts it, noting that these rules seemed lately to have “loosened up a bit.” But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests that, while literature should have no “rules,” great “sensitivity” is still required to write about others. She recalls “a little blurb on the cover” of a book by Ryszard Kapuscinski “that described it as the greatest intelligence to bear on Africa since Conrad. And I really was insulted by that,” she says, “because it isn’t the greatest intelligence to bear on Africa, and I didn’t think, by the way, that Conrad was particularly writing Africa as Africa was.”

Read the rest.