Thursday, November 9, 2006


Yesterday I attended a reading by British novelist Ian McEwan whose fiction, since Amsterdam and especially since Atonement, has had lots of visibility on these shores; this evening it was a reading by Jeffrey Harrison, a prize-winning poet whose most recent book Incomplete Knowledge is hot off the press. I enjoyed both these readings much more than I had any reason to expect I would -- in McEwan's case, I've only read Atonement and, though there were some wonderfully vivid passages and remarkably controlled and clear writing, the overall plotting and point of the book annoyed me a great deal; in Harrison's case, I knew nothing about his poetry at all and I went mainly to be supportive of a few grad students I know who read as the opening act.

What is it I like about literary readings and why do I generally go whenever I can? On the one hand, you get to see someone who has "made it" perform, to see how they come off in public. Generally a writer's presence is good PR for the writing -- I liked Michael Ondaatjee and Margaret Atwood much more after hearing them read (not that they turned me into dedicated readers of their works). McEwan too came off very well, the kind of writer I can admire -- i.e., more concerned about reading and what he was reading than to be a "personality." He read from a book due out in June, about a wedding night in 1962, in the days of, as he put it, considerable ignorance and terror about the "first time" of sex. The selection was excruciating in its extended focus on the couple's nervous efforts to understand the signals each is receiving from his or her spouse -- while extremely funny, it never went after cheap laughs or slapstick or farce. It was deeply comical in the sense of a humor derived from how horribly discomfiting life can be.

I'm still not sure that McEwan is a profound novelist. I don't know that he has anything to tell us that's going to give us a new or different view of human life and how its lived. Indeed, I heard him compared to Updike three times that night, twice as praise, once as disparagement, and I tend to side with the latter. Put another way: I'm prepared to like McEwan better than I like Updike if only because the milieu of McEwan is not so familiar to me. I may have to read more of him before he grates on me. Updike grates on me right off the bat. Then too McEwan, in the flesh, seemed in no way smug or self-serving -- qualities I associate with Updike in abundance, though I've never heard him read. Perhaps he could woo me too. I mean, I don't go to readings to resist seductive writing -- I'm quite willing to be blown away, it's just that it rarely happens. McEwan's reading was spellbinding and deft. Good storytelling.

Jeffrey Harrison's reading featured two poems that amused me greatly. One, "God's Penis," was a bit of slapstick set in a seminar on Jewish mysticism and, like all good comedy, depends very much on timing to achieve its best laughs. The other, "The Fork," about "the worst teacher I ever had" presents a satisfying example of academic satire -- in this case, the heartless, self-absorbed writing teacher (who, Harrison told me afterwards, was a composite creation). Harrison's poetry, on the page, strikes me as the kind of personal narrative poetry that I generally don't read -- there's a good deal of formal skill on view as well, but in general he's speaking in a prosaic manner about everyday things. And for some reason I'm always looking for poetry that does more than that. However, at a reading, such poems as he writes are never a chore to sit through; they gain considerably by having their everydayness enlarged by our own everydayness as we sit there. We're glad we can share a laugh with those around us. Even the painful poems he read about his brother's suicide were so careful and exact in what they would and wouldn't say, they nimbly skirted the bathetic pit that might have swallowed them up while making us long to exit.

As an act, sitting in an audience is open, democratic, generous. Which leads me to conclude that solitary, silent reading isn't. It's selective, exclusive, critical. In person, it's easy to be the accessible audience to accessible readers reading accessible works. In private, one wants to be lead alone to somewhere new, to ponder, to brood. This may be too what makes communal reading of books so attractive to me these days. Each week I meet with an ad hoc group of academics to read aloud from and discuss Finnegans Wake. For all my private, individual work with the book, it's a social "night out" to sit with a group of people willing to kick it around and make what sense of it we can.

As a reader, and certainly as a writer, I've too much pursued the private nature of the experience. The classroom, the public reading, the reading group, even the blog all strike me as efforts to be less obsessed with my personal investment with the written word -- the danger, though, is always the problem of personalities, of being swayed or seduced by a likeable presence, of being put-off by whoever is off-putting, or of simply losing, in the swirl of sociability, one's accustomed rigor.

The Soul's Superior instantsOccur to Her -- alone --When friend -- and Earth's occasion
Have infinite withdrawn
--Emily Dickinson, #306


Anonymous said...

At least with respect to Updike, you have not lost your rigor. The only Updike who does not grate on me is the art critic. I once tried to read Rabbit, Run, and was unable to get beyond a chapter or two. Ugh.

I wonder how you would respond to Koethe in person. :-)


Donald Brown said...

I was thinking about that poem you linked to when I was writing about Harrison. But the Koethe poem is just too flat, no real humor, no pathos, no particular verbal flare. But it's something I'd be less critical of, sitting through it.

I should say though that I have walked out on readings I found really lacking in any kind of interest. Being publically part of the audience seems to endorse something you don't want to be a part of.

Also, about Koethe, re: O'Hara, Koch, Ashbery. I've heard all but the first read and I've been greatly entertained by them. But of the three only Ashbery, for me, repays really close attention -- and I see nothing of what delights me in Ashbery in Koethe, but then he also mentions Duncan and there's none of that either, in that particular poem anyway. He seems like a not-very clever or interesting O'Hara wanna-be. And of them all O'Hara might be the hardest to emulate well. We can't all boast such urbane insouciance.

Anonymous said...

I like the phrase "urbane insouciance" so much that I Googled it to see what other people it might have been applied to. Cole Porter, Addison (as in "The Spectator"), and George Roy Hill (who directed "The Sting"). O'Hara's in good company there!

(Sometimes the word verification is very funny. Lebfup this time.)

Donald Brown said...

Dr. Lebfup writes...

I've never thought of searching phrases I'm proud of, that might be an interesting way to create allusions. That list of people maybe does say something about O'Hara (a songwriter, writer, and film director), but if I were to name another person I'd apply the phrase to, it's the movie actor George Saunders, though there the phrase might be "urbane, insouciant malevolence."