Friday, May 2, 2008

PEN World Voices: Reading the World

As the title should have alerted me, this session was a collection of short readings rather than a discussion of some literary or political topic. My attention span for being read to is limited – I go to readings more to see what the author looks and sounds like, and for the Q&A, rather than for any particular nuance in the reading itself – but this group was varied enough (and each one brief enough) to keep me focused. Peter Carey read from the beginning of his new novel His Illegal Self, after calling the modernistic podium “terrifying” because it wouldn’t hide his restless legs. (“I’m a fidgety fellow,” he said.) The Norwegian writer Halfdan Freihow read from a book called Dear Gabriel. Written in the form of a letter to an autistic son, the book is referred to as a novel in the PEN program, but in its details and the way Freihow spoke about it, it seemed at least strongly rooted in reality. Francesc SerĂ©s, an author who lives in a Catalonian village with sixteen inhabitants, read from a story that begins with a man standing on pool table and hurling the balls at a mirror behind the bar: a few lines in Catalan, then at greater length in a flowing and heavily accented English My favorite segment, though, was Janet Malcolm’s reading from her new book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. I’ve always found remarks about Stein much more interesting than reading Stein herself (though wasn’t it Stein who said “remarks are not literature”?), and Two Lives contains some juicy remarks, some of them about the difficulty of reading her. Malcolm’s subject, at least for this part of the book, was a Stein scholar named Ulla Dydo, the author of a 659-page work over which, Malcolm says, hovers the question “Is Stein worth the effort to read her?” Dydo had studied a Stein work called “Stanzas in Meditation,” of whom someone wrote that it was perhaps the dreariest long poem in the world. Dydo noticed that throughout the manuscript of the poem the word “may” had been crossed out, often violently, and replaced with “can,” or in different contexts with “today” or “day” – often to the detriment of the sound and sense. The reason came to Dydo in a dream while she was staying in a spartan hostel near the Beinecke Library. “May” was the name of Stein’s lover in an early and forgotten autobiographical novel called QED, and a vindictive Alice B. Toklas had forced her to take out every “may” in the long poem. Startling as it is in itself, Malcolm noted that it lends credibility to the passage in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast when he recounts a visit to Stein’s home in which he hears Toklas speaking to her in a way he had never heard a human being speak to another. Some have assumed that this was Hemingway’s revenge for snide comments by Stein, but in fact may have been (whatever Hemingway’s hangups about gay people) evidence that lesbians can be just as sadomasochistic as anybody.

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