“In plainer terms,” says the author of the new novel “Inside Story” and many other books, “we read literature to have a good time.”
What books are on your night stand?
Nothing of any great note, because I never read in bed (unless I’m gravely ill). If I were nocturnal in this sense, my sleep would currently be shadowed by Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped From the Beginning” (racist ideologies), Philip Dray’s “At the Hands of Persons Unknown” (lynching), Andrew Delbanco’s “The War Before the War” (the Fugitive Slave Act) and Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction” (1863-77). You may have detected a common theme. All this year — 2020, this year of Sundays — I’ve been trying to write about the legacy of 1619, which as we see is still with us after four centuries. Black identity in America, internally and moment by moment, is a perpetually turbulent state of being, death-haunted, and full of fear and rage; anyone who doubts this has only to glance through Richard Wright’s memoir, “Black Boy,” and his debut novel, “Native Son.”
How have your reading tastes changed over the years?
I find myself increasingly committed to the pleasure principle — first formulated by John Dryden in 1668. We read for “delight and instruction,” while bearing in mind that literature “only instructs as it delights.” In plainer terms, we read literature to have a good time. Not an easy time, necessarily, but not a hard time and not a bad time. So I like fiction that makes me welcome, and I’m quickly exasperated by the freakish, the introverted and above all the compulsively obscure. For months now I’ve been trying to penetrate the bristling bastion of William Faulkner. He is like Joyce — all genius and no talent; he just isn’t interested in pushing the narrative forward. Well, I suppose his readers have enough to do anyway, trying to establish who is who and what (if anything) is going on.
Which genres do you enjoy, and which do you avoid?
I confess I have never read an Aga saga or a bodice ripper — or indeed a western (though Hitler, incidentally, read nothing else). In my 20s I got through a great deal of science fiction; this enthusiasm developed into an abiding interest in cosmology, which still satisfies some vague spiritual itch. Late in life, Chekhov said that everything he read seemed to him “not short enough”; and as I age I still like them long (Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad”) but also notice a growing fondness for short stories (not a genre, quite, but a distinct literary form): solid favorites like Alice Munro, Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore, plus enjoyable infusions from Lionel Shriver (“Property”), Jeffrey Eugenides (“Fresh Complaint”) and Susan Minot (“Why I Don’t Write”).
How do you organize your books?
Pause for an embarrassed silence … All my adult life I’ve kept vowing to alphabetize my library, but I never had the time — I was far too busy searching for books I couldn’t find. Then I bribed my youngest daughter and a friend of hers to put the fiction, at least, in reasonable order. My wife spontaneously did the same for the poetry shelves. As for all the others: I used to regard “nonfiction” as a genre, and a minor one, like children’s books; now of course it consumes every spare moment, and my acres of historiography, psychology, political science, etc., are still unalphabetized and still all over the place.
Your new novel, “Inside Story,” centers on friendships with Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, among others. What writers are especially good on literary friendship and rivalry?
Fiction almost always concerns itself with conflict. A cloudless friendship is something entirely positive, like happiness, and “happiness writes in white ink on a white page,” as Henry de Montherlant accurately observed; it is hard to make the entirely positive vivid or even visible on the page (compare Dickens’s villains and grotesques to his saintly — and interchangeable — heroes and heroines). Literary rivalry, on the other hand, and in particular literary envy, is in my view hugely promising: nuanced, sordid and inherently comical. Nevertheless, writing about writing is automatically introspective and parochial, and for that reason underexplored. Meanwhile there is Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and (more obliquely) the earlier masterpiece “Despair.” Jorge Luis Borges, as is his way, says most of what needs to be said in a dazzling and very witty 10-pager — “The Aleph.”
What was the last great book you read?
Anthony Trollope’s magnum opus “The Way We Live Now.” It’s curious: Trollope seemed to specialize in drab and unalluring titles — “Framley Parsonage,” “Dr. Wortle’s School,” “The Vicar of Bullhampton” — but “The Way We Live Now” could adorn the cover of any social-realist novel of the last three centuries. Like the magnum opus, it is universally inclusive.
You are organizing a dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Well, dead, please, because they’re much harder to pin down. But it’s still tricky, and I’d make a rule: no accredited drunks or nutters (which starkly narrows the field). So I’ll ask Trollope and Jane Austen, two hawk-eyed comedians of manners who’d be sure to hit it off. As for the third, I can’t resist a poet, and a combination of awe and pity would oblige me to choose between John Keats and Wilfred Owen — two men of Shakespearean caliber who died at the age of 25, one in sickness, one in war.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
As it turned out, David Simon’s debut, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” (1991). Like everything else he went on to write, it combines a novelistic level of perception with a phenomenal journalistic stamina, and I wrote a piece about “Homicide” in a series called “Books I Wish I’d Written.” More personally, the experience put me on the foothills of a friendship with David Simon, and formed the basis, some years later, of a (fictional) policier of my own.
Do you prefer books that reach you intellectually or emotionally?
The British “Metaphysical” poets of the early 17th century (pre-eminently John Donne and Andrew Marvell) are said to be the last generation of writers who could think and feel at the same time; thereafter, supposedly, a “dissociation of sensibility” took place, and the simultaneity was lost. There may be something in the idea; but it is hard to think of any great work, or any work at all, that is exclusively emotional or exclusively intellectual. Creative feeling and creative thought are always in equipoise — and I’ll give you a fine exemplar in my answer to the next question.
Are there any classics you have read only recently?
I came late to Herman Melville — late, therefore, to “Moby-Dick” (wantonly dismissed in its day) and also to the equally extraordinary if less celebrated “Billy Budd,” the swan song maritime novella published decades after the author’s death. A conscious re-examination of the motiveless malice that leads Iago to destroy Othello and Desdemona, “Billy Budd” will probably stand as the last tragedy in English. In its final pages, when the Handsome Sailor is executed by the rope on the Royal Navy warship, Melville defies human physiology by sparing his hero the pathetically reflexive “dead man’s dance”; instead, Billy breathes his last in noble composure, while the dawn beautifully breaks. This implausible epiphany was forced on Melville by emotional necessity; and he earns and achieves it with many long paragraphs of sublimely fearless prose.