Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
In October 1996, world-renowned photographer and author David Douglas Duncan donated his archive to the Harry Ransom Center. The Center has preserved, organized, cataloged, exhibited and made available a variety of images and artifacts that complete the archive, including many that document his years of friendship with Pablo Picasso. Recently, Duncan donated a plate painted by Picasso of his beloved dachshund named Lump.
The new exhibition Picasso at Work. Through the lens of David Douglas Duncan, runs through September 25 at the Museo Picasso, Malaga, and will then move to the Picasso Kuntsmuseum Munster from October 15 to January 15, 2012 and finally at La Piscine Musee d’Art in Roubaix, France, beginning in February 2012. Ransom Center photo archivist Mary Alice Harper’s essay “The Nomadic Lens of David Douglas Duncan,” featured in the exhibition catalog, has been published in English and Spanish by Museo Picasso Malaga, in German by Hirmer, and in French by Gallimard. Below is an excerpt from Harper’s essay.
In late January of 1956, Duncan set off to begin his next Life assignment. He was headed for Spain but with one detour in mind, stopping in Cannes to try and meet Picasso. Duncan was unsure whether or not he would find the artist at home, and, if so, be permitted to enter. In fact, he had intended to meet Picasso for years, ever since his friend and fellow photojournalist Robert Capa promised to introduce them. But Capa had died tragically in 1954, so Duncan decided to present Picasso with a gift when the time came. He had a ring made for the occasion: a solid but simple heavy gold band with “PICASSO—DUNCAN” incised inside and set with an ancient carnelian with a “Picassoesque” rooster carved on it. Picasso clearly appreciated the gesture as Duncan was permitted to enter. Three days later in a letter to a friend he described what had transpired:
Philip Christensen, College Associate Dean for Curriculum Development at Suffolk County Community College, maintained a seven-year correspondence with novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center. Christensen recently donated the letters from their correspondence to the Ransom Center, and in this essay, he shares some of the contents of those exchanges.
Email and social media appear virtually spontaneous, and yet, as Robert McCrum conceded in a recent blog on The Guardian’s website, “a physical correspondence, an exchange of missives, in envelopes, carries more freight than a high speed email.” In 1993, I mailed a letter to British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, care of her publisher, asking if she would read my paper on her uncle Ronald Knox, the once renowned Catholic apologist best remembered today for his “Detective Story Decalogue.” To my surprise, she wrote back, thus beginning a literary correspondence that came to a close, in April 2000, when I received an email, with the subject “Condolences” and a link to her obituary in The New York Times. (Terence Dooley, Fitzgerald’s literary executor and the editor of So I Have Thought of You: the Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, have kindly given permission to quote from these unpublished letters.)
Fitzgerald corresponded in aerogrammes, those blue papers that fold into their own airmail envelopes, and I recall opening each with surgical precision, for fear of excising her graceful marginalia, in italic hand, along the folds. Surely, Fitzgerald must have found my typescripts diffident and rehearsed, but she never hinted at any disparity, and, after an initial “Penelope Fitzgerald,” she signed her letters “Penelope.”
Penelope, a former tutor, regarded teaching as “some of the hardest work on earth.” Her lessons must have been memorably aphoristic. Of Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” she wrote: “it is a difficult subject, I think, as poor Hamlet must have felt that one traveller at least returned too often,” or, regarding the challenge of understanding the Duke in Measure for Measure: “he does break into octosyllabics at one point, & Shakespeare usually keeps them for actors with magic power.” She agreed that Let Dons Delight was Uncle Ronnie’s best book, and added that his invention of fictional disputations at an imaginary Oxford college, from 1588 to 1938, “carries imitation of the past to the point of second sights.” When I made a passing reference to Vladimir and Estragon as modern pilgrims, she chided: “Surely, there are no ‘pilgrims’ in Waiting for Godot. Productions over here usually show Vladimir & Estragon as tramps, but as a matter of fact they are clowns, whose relationship to society is quite different.”
Penelope was philosophical about her late celebrity, writing that her reputation “is up now, but it will go down” and, within the context of her short story “The Red Haired Girl,” encouraged me not to give up: “it’s certainly never too late to be a writer.” She was also open about discussing her own work. In one letter, she described laying the foundation, almost literally, of a fictitious college in The Gate of Angels: “I walked all round Cambridge to find a spare piece of ground where another ancient college—a small one—could have been built.” She also commended one of my students for her essay on the same novel: “The references to divine providence I thought were very good because I didn’t mention it in the book but left it to be understood by discerning readers.”
Penelope, who thought her novels too British for Americans, was impressed by their sheer energy. When I wrote about a possible move from New York to Jackson, Mississippi, she replied, “Americans think nothing of tremendous moves, they just pack everything in the car and drive away.” She was also stirred by their good will. In reminiscences years after her visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which had purchased selections of her papers, her memory of nagging financial worries is assuaged by the kindnesses of the university staff: “I went to consult something in the University library, and had to manage on 2 dollars a day, but it was quite possible, if you just had breakfast, and I’ll never forget the patience & courtesy with which I was treated at the Humanities Library.”
As her American readership began to grow, Penelope gave all the credit to Houghton Mifflin, her new American publisher. American publication of The Blue Flower in April 1997 resulted in its wider recognition, including the cover page of The New York Times Book Review and in 1998, the first year of eligibility for non-American writers, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In a letter written shortly thereafter, she so typically deflected the spotlight from herself and onto Christopher Carduff, her American editor: “It was a great encouragement for my wonderful book editor at Houghton Mifflin, who flew to New York with a ready-written speech in his pocket just in case it was necessary, and, lo and behold, it was.”
Twice, Penelope was selected as a judge for the Man Booker Prize, which her novel Offshore received in 1979. Shortly after her second Booker stint, in 1998, she wrote about the weariness following this task: “I have to admit that I’m glad the Booker is over—it’s bad enough having to judge it, but worse still, during the dinner an alternative panel of judges is broadcasting from a cellar beneath your feet and contradicting everything you say.”
Penelope often reflected on “time’s fell hand,” for instance in her memories of The Sole Bay Bookshop, in Southwold, and the inspiration of her second novel, which “has now alas closed its doors.” She was relieved that her father Edmund George Valpy (“Evoe”) Knox, editor of Punch for nearly two decades (1932 to 1949), “didn’t live to see the disappearance of Punch, which would once have seemed hardly believable” or that her Uncle Ronnie, whose unecumenism appeared hopelessly out of place after Vatican II, can be judged, “like the rest of us, only in terms of the time he lived in.” One Advent, she abruptly closed with wishes haunted by the recent death of her brother Rawle: “I’m lucky to be with my family this Christmas, although I was very sad to lose my brother this year. He was an old man & I’m getting to be an old woman,” and, elsewhere, her perfect balance of concession and grace is faultless in her observation of grandchildren at play: “I haven’t been so well lately, but hearing my grandchildren play football (handicapped by the kitten) in the garden just outside my window made me feel better.”
To this day, one of Penelope’s letters remains undelivered, “a catastrophe” she blamed on the “confused postal service.” I remain hopeful this letter, retrieved from some untidy corner at the Royal Mail, will one day miraculously appear, evidence of what the editors of her selected essays confidently call The Afterlife (2000). Penelope once wrote, regarding the Old Vic: “We can only hope it keeps going,” a sentiment she playfully applied to herself. This reminiscence is dedicated to her, with the hope that this conversation will “keep going” for a long time.
King James Bible exhibition opening at Folger Shakespeare Library will travel to the Ransom Center in the spring
In the four centuries since its printing, the King James Bible has influenced much of the English-speaking world in its history and culture. In a collaboration between the Harry Ransom Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Bodleian Library, an exhibition has been launched that tells the little-known story of this influential work. From today through January 15, the Folger will present Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. This exhibition will present the history leading up to the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, the process of translating the book, and finally, its influence on English-speaking cultures from the seventeenth century until today. View a video preview of the exhibition.
An online exhibition accompanies the physical exhibition and provides a series of multimedia presentations concerning the history of the King James Bible, as well as many interactive resources that can be accessed online that are meant to supplement the exhibition and to prepare guests prior to visiting the Folger.
After its time at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the exhibition will travel to the Ransom Center, where it will be presented as The King James Bible: Its History and Influence and include additional material from the Center’s collecions. The exhibition will be on display at the Ransom Center from February 28 through June 2, 2012.
The Manifold Greatness project is jointly produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library at University of Oxford, with assistance from the Ransom Center.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
The archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt (b. 1928), which includes more than 50,000 signed photographic prints, will be housed at the Ransom Center. Spanning more than six decades of Erwitt’s career, the archive covers not only his work for magazine, industrial, and advertising clients but also photographs that have emerged from personal interests.
Collectors and philanthropists Caryl and Israel Englander have placed the archive at the Ransom Center for five years, making it accessible to researchers, scholars, and students.
Born in Paris to Russian émigré parents, Erwitt spent his formative years in Milan and then immigrated to the United States, living in Los Angeles and ultimately New York. In 1948, Erwitt actively began his career and met photographers Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and Roy Stryker, all who would become mentors.
In 1953, Erwitt was invited to join Magnum Photos by Capa, one of the founders of the photographic co-operative. Ten years later, Erwitt became president of the agency for three terms. A member of the Magnum organization for more than 50 years, Erwitt’s archive will be held alongside the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center.
In addition to providing access to the archive, the Ransom Center will promote interest in the collection through lectures, fellowships, and exhibitions. The Erwitt materials are currently being prepared for public access.
Please click on thumbnails for larger images.
Image: USA. Arlington, Virginia. November 25, 1963. Jacqueline KENNEDY at John F. KENNEDY’s funeral.
As part of the Harry Ransom Lectures, legendary Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt discusses his life and work tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. CST in Jessen Auditorium at The University of Texas at Austin. The program will be webcast live.
Steve Hoelscher, Chair of the Department of American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, shares his thoughts on the work and career of Erwitt:
Few photographers have had a greater impact on American visual culture than Elliott Erwitt. Even if you’ve never heard the name Elliott Erwitt, you’ve seen his pictures. Some are icons of photojournalism: Richard Nixon burying his finger in Nikita Khrushchev’s chest during their so-called Moscow “kitchen debate” in 1959; Jacqueline Kennedy, veiled and in distress at the funeral of her husband in 1963; the black man drinking out of a segregated water fountain, which became a symbol of racial injustices of the Jim Crow South. Likewise, his portraits of celebrities like Grace Kelley, Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Kerouac have achieved notoriety, but so too have his photographs of everyday life: a couple reflected in the side mirror of a car when they are cuddling; a young mother and her newborn daughter gazing affectionately at each other, much to the approval of a nearby cat. In these and in so many of his photographs, and with a keen sense of observation and finely honed wit, Elliott Erwitt illuminates the small moments of life, even when covering major news events. This is how he describes his craft: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Rappahannock County, a new musical theater piece about life during the Civil War, will be performed tonight and tomorrow night at McCullough Theater at The University of Texas at Austin. The Ricky Ian Gordon-Mark Campbell work was co-commissioned by Texas Performing Arts to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and draws from diaries, letters, and personal accounts to explore the war’s impact, from secession to defeat, on a community of Virginians.
In honor of the work’s Texas premiere, Civil War-era documents from the Ransom Center will be on display in the Center’s lobby through October 2.
On display is an early edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and scripts from the first stage-production of the play based on her novel. Both the book and the stage adaptions are credited with fueling the abolitionist cause of the 1850s.
Other artifacts on display include an original Timothy H. O’Sullivan photograph of Civil War Casualties, Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 1863; letters to the American poet Walt Whitman from grateful Union and Confederate soldiers whom Whitman visited and nursed in field hospitals; Abraham Lincoln campaign pins and memorial buttons; and documents relating to the production of the film Gone With The Wind (1939), including the “Burning of Atlanta” storyboard.
Commentary magazine has donated its archive to the Ransom Center. Founded in November 1945, just months after World War II, Commentary magazine was established to reconnect assimilated American Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and to bring the ideas of young Jewish intellectuals to a wider audience.
According to historian Richard Pells, Professor Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, “no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States.”
Throughout its history, Commentary has published significant articles on historical, political, cultural and theological issues in addition to fiction and memoirs. The magazine has a reputation for featuring many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of the time.
Spanning from 1945 to 1995, the archive consists mainly of editorial correspondence, galleys and other records. The collection contains correspondence with a number of writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center, including Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, in addition to correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Tom Wolfe, and A. B. Yehoshua.
Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.
While studying art history in graduate school, novelist Nicole Krauss spent hours in the library researching Rembrandt, only to find that she preferred imagining the details of his life instead.
“Beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might,” Krauss said.
Krauss’s vivid imagination has resulted in three critically acclaimed novels: Great House, The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room. Krauss was named a National Book Award Finalist for Great House, her most recent novel. In 2010, The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best writers under 40.
On Tuesday, September 20 at 7 p.m. CST, the Harry Ransom Center presents Krauss at Jessen Auditorium where she will read from Great House and speak with James Magnuson, Director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. A book signing follows. A live webcast of the event airs at approximately 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST.
Cultural Compass spoke with Krauss about her thoughts on art, what she’s currently reading, a Rembrandt self-portrait that reappears in her novels, the burden of inheritance, her advice for writers, transplanted rooms, and more.
Alma Singer from The History of Love shares the same name as the wife of Isaac Bashevis Singer (whose archive resides at the Ransom Center). Your works have been compared to those of Singer. Did you deliberately name Alma after I. B. Singer’s wife?
No, that was a happy accident. I wondered later whether it was an unconscious decision, but I don’t remember ever learning that her name was Alma until after I finished the book. I cast around a lot for names in the beginning; it’s difficult to name a character because almost every name feels artificial. I had chosen Singer because it was the name of someone I knew when I was the character’s age, 14, so it seemed natural to me. Alma just rolled off the tongue in the right ways. And of course it has all these wonderful meanings. It was a beautiful name, and it sat well with me. So I put the two of them together, and that was that.
Strangely, Isaac Bashevis Singer was never a big writer in my life. I still haven’t read many of his works, though I mean to. It surprised me that that book was compared to him so frequently. When David Grossman wrote his first novel, everyone told him that he had been influenced by Bruno Schulz. But he’d never heard of Schulz. He sat down and read him and had to agree.
You mention the same Rembrandt self-portrait in both The History of Love and Great House. In The History of Love, Uncle Julian says “there’s a serenity in his face, a sense of something that’s survived its own ruin.” In Great House, Arthur says he associated the portrait with the phrase “a ruined man.”
That’s interesting. You’re the first person who’s noticed that. I didn’t even notice that, though I knew that I had mentioned it in the other book. Obviously, it’s an important painting to me. It will probably end up in other novels as well.
Rembrandt is an artist whose work I’ve thought a lot about. I did a Master’s in Dutch seventeenth-century art at the Courtauld Institute in London, and I wrote my thesis on Rembrandt. I’ve always been moved, especially, by the late self-portraits as they get more and more honest. In the early self-portraits, you have this painter who’s putting on airs and costumes, modeling himself as a wealthy burgher or a famous artist, but he’s really just a young, scrappy, ambitious guy. And then late in his life, once he’s bankrupt and alone, there come these amazing self-portraits that are quite brutal, frank, and unadorned. You feel a hurriedness in the brushstrokes. He’s scratching into them with the back of the brush. You feel the sense of someone facing his death. Obviously, that’s a position that I am drawn to in my work. A number of my characters have been older people who are confronting the end of their lives, the final calculation of who they were, how they lived, their mistakes and regrets. I lived near that particular painting I mention, which hangs in Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. I used to walk on the Heath daily, and you can visit Kenwood House without paying. You could go in everyday if you felt like it, which I often did just to see that painting. I guess you could say that I have a long history with it.
In your essay on writing Great House, you say that Weisz came out of your interest in transplanted rooms, specifically those of Freud and the painter Francis Bacon. This strikes a chord here at the Ransom Center, where there are two transplanted rooms: the study of Fleur Cowles and John Foster Dulles’s study and living room in D.C.
I realized at a certain point that there were some preserved rooms that I had always been drawn to in my life. I became fascinated with Bacon’s studio partly because it’s such an extreme example, such a complex room. He was infamously messy. He left everything wherever it dropped, so the studio was full of thirty years of stale sandwich crusts, half-drunk bottles of alcohol, old clothes, garbage. He kept this huge archive of photographs, but they were all crumpled up on the floor. There was a kind of violence to the mess, sometimes literally; he would slash a lot of his canvases. Over time, he wore paths through all of this material. For whatever reason, after he died his studio was moved from London to Dublin. You can imagine the archeological work involved with breaking it down into tens of thousands of pieces and then reconstructing it. I was drawn to the question of whether such a transplanted room retains its original power. Is it even the original, or is it a kind of simulacrum? It’s exactly the same, only it’s been taken apart and put back together, and now it’s in a new place: an uncanniness has been introduced.
That made me think about Freud’s room in London, which I lived near and also spent a lot of time in. It was a comforting place to me, as you can imagine Freud’s study might be for anyone [laughs]. I was thinking about how his wife and daughter tried to make upheaval easier for him by creating a replica of the study he had left behind in Vienna. When he died the following year, everything was left exactly where he last put it down, frozen in time, the glasses on the desk and all that, obsessively preserved until now.
I wanted a room of my own like that to experiment with. I was curious about the urge to preserve or reconstruct such a talismanic room. Weisz’s room—his father’s study in Budapest which is dismantled by the Nazis and which the son spends fifty years reconstructing in Jerusalem—became a way of experimenting with that. I once listened to a graphic artist give a presentation about a book he was working on, all of which takes place in the living room of his childhood house, and the book stretches from prehistoric time into the future. He built a little model of it so he could figure out how the sun would move through it. I remember thinking that that was similar to what I did with Weisz’s room. Only I wasn’t interested in how the light moved through it. I was interested in something else: what does it mean to try to recreate what has been lost, and can one ever recreate it? There remains the question of what’s missing, the imperfection that can’t be gotten around or erased. And what about those who instead reinvent themselves in the face of loss? And is recreation always a form of reinvention? I wanted to experiment with that idea, and I wanted to see what was at the bottom of my fascination with it.
Did you find what was on the bottom?
I found lots of things. One of the things I love about writing novels is that you realize that you’re not all that interested in the bottom. You’re more interested in things that are bottomless. You become fascinated by the questions, and the answers to those questions are secondary, if they become important at all. It’s really about posing questions. Great House is a novel about uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt almost more than anything else, what it means to commit to a life regardless of those conditions.
The desk in Great House also strikes a chord at the Ransom Center because we have the desks of Edgar Allan Poe, Evelyn Waugh, John Fowles, and others. You’ve said that your desk is similar to the desk in Great House, but you didn’t realize it until later.
Yeah, you want it? I’m trying get rid of it [laughs]. It’s pretty big. It was a desk that was in the house I moved into. It was built by the house’s former owner to his esoteric specifications. It’s a bulky desk, overbearing in every way. It extends all the way up the wall. It has all of these shelves and drawers. But at least for a while I was completely unaware of its echo in the book I was writing it on.
At some point I realized, of course. Not only the physical resemblance, but that I was writing about inheritance. I didn’t realize until much later than I should have because the mind has a way of guarding itself from the origins of what it’s fictionalizing; otherwise it would be hard to have the balls to write about much of anything at all. The mind obscures, especially, the psychological origins of the work, I find. Later one discovers them.
My desk has always been almost comically burdensome to me because in order to get rid of it, which I always toy with the idea of doing, I’d have to have it destroyed (it’s on the top floor of the house and there’s no way to get the monster down the stairs). That always felt too wasteful to me. So there’s the absurd tension of not wanting it but feeling somehow bound to it. On top of all that, the former owner built it around this painted panel which he wrenched out when he moved out, so there’s this large, gaping hole in the desk right above my head, which has taken on obvious symbolic meaning to me [laughs] and which I still, daily, write under. All the same, it did me the good turn of giving me a means to approach a graver concern lurking below, having to do with the burden of the emotional furniture we inherit and pass on to our children. In other words, it gave me a novel, and so now I’m stuck with the thing, unless you want to come and relieve me of it.
In your essay, you described this phenomenon of not realizing until later the origins of what you’re writing about as a “blind spot.” Have you found examples of other blind spots?
I’m not drawn to writing autobiographically because it cramps me and comes at the cost of the freedom that writing otherwise allows–to go places that I haven’t gone, to invent, to experiment, to imagine, to push boundaries. But if I stray too far in that direction, then the work loses the urgency and necessity of the personal, and in the end it doesn’t work or come fully alive for me. So it’s a delicate balance, and there is very often that moment of revelation when I become aware of the ways in which my fiction reflects my own experience, or how it evolved from certain interior conditions or needs. It isn’t always a direct reflection, it’s rarely one-to-one, but there is always a moment where I become aware of the correspondence.
We’ve talked about your interest in transplanted rooms and writers’ desks. What’s your experience with archives?
I’m not a big researcher. When I was in graduate school in England, I found myself always bumping up against the same wall. I’d spend a lot of time in libraries, reading and aimlessly semi-researching, but then my mind would start to improvise. When I wrote about Rembrandt, for example, I found myself wanting to makes claims about interior life, or at least trying to imagine it. But beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might.
I’m often asked about the research I’ve done for my novels, but the truth is that I did very little. Most of the places I’ve written about I know intimately; in the case of Chile, which I don’t, I went through an intense period of reading about the nightmare of the Pinochet regime long before I ever thought about writing about it. You might say that in the end, writing about it was the only solution for me. A novel grows to fit the author’s concerns.
“The Birth of Feeling” section of The History of Love reads: “Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art was born.” How does this reflect your views of art?
There are moments in one’s reading when one encounters a passage that so precisely captures some aspect of existence, great or small, never previously articulated to you, but which you instantly understand and recognize nonetheless. It’s a little shocking, and it’s joyful, and one feels, suddenly, access to the underpinnings of everything. I think art is that–an enhancement, often a spiritual one.
Tell me about your visit to Israel in 2010 for the Jerusalem Cultural Fellowship. I understand you met with Yoram Kaniuk.
This was a pilot program, an academy at a wonderful place, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where a small part of Great House takes place. It was the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem; nobody wanted to live outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time, in 1860, because it was so dangerous, gangs of marauding bandits and so on. In 1973 it became a place where artists were invited to stay and work, and now it’s one of the most beautiful places in the city. All kinds of writers, artists, and musicians have stayed there. [Saul] Bellow had a residency there. It’s likely that Singer stayed there at one point or another. Basically the director had the idea of reviving those residencies. It was a wonderful place to be, especially since I spent so much time in Jerusalem growing up.
Unlike Israeli writers like [David] Grossman, Amos Oz, Yoel Hoffmann, or others I’ve been reading for a long time, I hadn’t been familiar with Kaniuk. I stumbled onto one of his books in a bookstore, as one used to do [laughs]. It was called The Last Jew, and I couldn’t resist the title. I picked it up, and there was this incredible endorsement on it from Susan Sontag who said of all the books in translation she’d read, Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Kaniuk were the greatest, or something along those lines. So then I had to read it. It’s an incredibly complex book, demanding in all kinds of ways, but absolutely remarkable; it’s like nothing else I’ve read. After I read everything of his that I could find, I got to know him in Israel. He’s a warm, old, cantankerous, stubborn, complicated soul and an incomparably great writer.
What advice do you have for writers?
It depends on who the writer is. Writing is incredibly hard work. Thinking itself is hard, and growing harder and harder under the tyranny of technologies of distraction. Writing, which is an elevated form of thinking, is even harder, and doing it in a sustained way over the course of a few years isn’t exactly a walk in the park. People often ask about the physical details of how a writer works–where, when, with what mechanism–as if it will reveal some hidden mystery as to how it’s done. But all of that is, of course, largely irrelevant. So, to begin with, writing requires time and tremendous will. Just to do it regularly, to persevere and not give up. The other necessary element, for me, is freedom, a spirited conviction that you are going to allow yourself to do whatever you want to do in the work, however unpromising or ill-advised it may seem.
I sometimes wonder whether the atmosphere in which so many young writers start off, in writing and MFA classes, isn’t problematic for that reason. Before their work is even finished it’s put before a jury of their peers. If I had to submit my work to such a jury once a week, to any jury, I’d have to spend the rest of the week resuscitating the stubbornness that keeps me writing. It takes a certain courage, or perhaps just obliviousness, to pursue things that feel risky or poised to fail. But in my experience, it’s those efforts that lead to the most interesting things, the things that I end up sticking with and which take me places that feel most worth going to.
What are you reading now?
The Sermon and Other Stories by Haim Hazaz, who was the first writer to win the Israel Prize. This summer, I read a lot of Tove Jansson, a Finnish writer most famous for her books for children, the Moomintroll series. But later in her life she started writing books for adults, and The New York Review of Books has recently been publishing them in English. The Summer Book is wonderful. It’s about a grandmother and her granddaughter on a remote Finnish island. This girl’s mother has died, but that’s never spoken of. It’s only reflected through the very unique relationship between this stubborn, unconventional older woman and the young girl, equally stubborn, and the unusual things that absorb their attention. Jansson is also one of the best nature writers I’ve ever encountered.
Who are some of the writers you admire?
Bruno Schulz, [Franz] Kafka, [Samuel] Beckett, [Saul] Bellow, [Georges] Perec. In the last few years, I read all of Thomas Bernhard and became consumed by him for awhile, fascinated, in particular, by his penchant for upsetting or offending people; it runs so contrary to the contemporary American climate of appealingness, charm, lightness, of all that goes down easily.
There are also poets who matter very much to me. Yehuda Amichai and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert both impacted me deeply when I was younger and taught me something about the kind of writer I wanted to be. To remind myself, I still return to them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.