mercredi 4 novembre 2009

The passage of time

Last night we went to see John Irving talk about the craft of writing and read a short passage from his just-published novel, Last Night in Twisted River. As the Seattle Times book reviewer set the stage for his entrance, from where we sat I could see him off to the side of the stage. It is remarkable how little he has changed with the passage of time. When I last saw John Irving, Monday through Friday for the length of a college quarter, we were both 34 years younger. He was, and still is, a small and compact man, who looks exactly like you would expect a wrestler to look.

In 1975, he and I began our respective careers at Mount Holyoke College. I was a wide-eyed, terrified sophomore transfer student from Occidental College; he was a published author (with 3 novels already under his belt but virtually no name recognition), hired at the assistant-professor level to teach English at Mount Holyoke, one of the Seven Sisters and one of the few that has held out as a women's only institution. I was struck last night by how much he hasn't changed: as a teacher, he was often funny, in a dry and sometimes withering way, but he seldom laughed or smiled. There was something almost grim about him, or so it seemed to me. In fact, he was just deadly serious about literature and about the writer's craft. I nearly laughed out loud last night when he evoked the names of his nineteenth century masters - Dickens, Hardy, Melville, Hawthorne - remembering how passionately and eloquently he spoke of them to a group of young women who were miles behind him and struggling to keep up. I also laughed when he mentioned being a stickler for punctuation; I believe he reinforced in me a tendency that was already well-developed; to anyone who claims - as many have - that I overuse the comma, the semi-colon or the colon (not to mention dashes and parentheses), I have only one comment: fuck you! Kierkegaard wrote about "punctuating" reality: how can you capture it if you fail to use these marks, whose appearance in print is both conditioned by and the condition of silent reading (along with spaces between words, which predates the invention of print)? But I digress.

John Irving the teacher was demanding but fair. He expected students to come to class prepared and ran an efficient classroom. He was not all that approachable, which I now understand to be related to his need to carve out and defend two hours a day for his writing. He was working on The World According to Garp, the novel that would make him a household name in America, a writer of international stature and independently wealthy. One night, he was scheduled to give a reading and made it clear we should be there. We went. To a packed house in the tiny Western Mass town of South Hadley, he read what would become the first chapter of that novel. What I remember from that reading was, first of all, how he peered out at the audience almost combatively, and second, how his reading of that chapter made the crowd laugh out loud. We read his first three novels, either as part of the coursework or just because he asked us to - I don't remember now. They were (and are) amusing and full of promise; Garp, however, was on a different level altogether, and I think John Irving knew it as well, way back in 1975, when the novel was in its early stages. It was published in 1978; I was back in Seattle by then. I bought a hardbound edition, and tremember the thrill of reading the first chapter silently, hearing his voice, seeing that room at MHC, imagining the lights, the podium, and the feisty yet calm man behind it, reading his own prose to the delight of his audience.

One of the things I most appreciated about John Irving the teacher was that he did not suffer fools. I don't think this has changed. Last night, he did not open up the floor to a question and answer session and did not make himself available to sign his book or any book. I usually leave when authors or experts allow the audience to ask questions. I am not there to hear what they think, and everyone knows what inevitably happens when a microphone is made available: fools rush in and bores step up to deliver windy, self-important and often rambling statements or personal manifestos, only casually ending with a question mark inflection to signal that they are paying lip service to the rules of the game. Instead of putting himself through this tedious exercise that everyone secretly despises except the foolish bores (or boorish fools, take your pick), he asked that the audience submit written questions. Most of them he looked at quickly and brushed aside. He let us know that they were lame questions; but he did so in a way that made each person in the audience feel as if he was mocking someone else -- not you, not me, but someone else.

Before Irving began to speak, I was tapped on the shoulder by a woman who was standing behind me. Her gesture suggested she had mistaken me for a waitress or bookstore staffer. She nudged me and thrust an index card and pencil in my hand when I turned around, telling me to give it to whoever was collecting questions. At first I was confused, since no one anywhere near me was collecting questions and I was not sitting anywhere near the aisle. My bulky coat was folded on my lap and I had a coffee cup in my hand. It would have been just as easy, if not easier, for her to submit her question. In terms of distance from the question collector, we were about even and she was already standing up. I looked at her in disbelief; she glared right back at me. So I looked at her question ("What are you reading now?") and then back at her. Her face was contorted in anger. How dare you not get up and submit my question she seemed to say. And I hope she read my look, which meant: You want me to get up and walk halfway up the aisle to submit this lame question? And no, John Irving neither answered nor even bothered to dismiss her lame question. I was tempted, as a joke, to write a question of my own. I would have written this question, beginning with a self-important utterance: "I was your student in 1975 at Mount Holyoke College. Do you remember me?" It would have been funny to submit it like that, unsigned. And then not say anything.

But John Irving has a complicated relationship with his readers, in part because he has attracted the kind of fan base that he so aptly described for one of his fictional characters in Garp. He understands the creepy side of this kind of obsession, and I bet this is the subject of one of his fear zones. He talked about the relationship between his deepest fears and writing last night. It was actually a very intimate moment of self-disclosure, delivered from behind the mask of the writer. So I'm glad I decided not to write that smart-ass comment/question on an index card. I also felt it was quite brave of him - in America, no less - to simply state that he is not religious, in reply to the moderator's question about fate and whether he believes in it.

Many readers have noted the recurrence of certain themes in Irving's fiction, and the wikipedia article about him even presents a table of overlapping themes. Incest, sex between a younger boy and an older woman, absent father, the writer's life, etc.

When Irving's previous and most straightforwardly autobiographical novel to date was published, the reading public learned more about his most private past. Irving's biological father divorced his mother and signed away all visitation rights when John was 2 years old. His mother remarried four years later, and Irving was quite enamored of his step-dad. "My life got better from the moment he came into it," he has said. He never really forgot about his father, though, and hoped that he was watching him. The plot of Until I Find You is partly driven by this fantasy.

When John Irving divorced his first wife (in 1981), his mother apparently gave him a bunch of letters that his father had sent her during World War II. In those letters, he explained why he had decided to end the marriage but also expressed the hope and expectation that his soon-to-be ex-wife would allow him to maintain contact with his son. Apparently, this request was denied. Irving was perplexed by both his mother's refusal and his father's acceptance of it.

What is most amazing to me is how he manages to weave these biographical facts into his fiction like variations on a theme (or set of themes) that never gets old. The best writers repeat themselves, he noted last night, citing another writer. They can't help it. I remember him telling us, his students at Mount Holyoke, that getting at the truth required exaggeration. I remember writing that down in my notebook and putting a big dreamy circle around it.

Not everyone who took his class that term liked him. In fact, my roommate loathed him and his books. Why is he making us read this crap?, she would say, puffing on a Virginia Slim. She was from a veh-ry wealthy San Francisco family -- indeed, I cannot reveal the name without violating her privacy -- and spent most of her time lost in the binge/purge cycle or on the phone with her therapist. She had the SF Chronicle delivered daily to our room. She would read the society pages and comment on the antics of the people in them -- her friends, or so she said. Débutante balls and so on. One day, she said of Patty Hearst, who had been kidnapped a year earier and who had apparently joined forces with her aggressors, that she had never really liked Patty anyway. She wanted to be an actress, but lied to her theater professor to avoid taking a mid-term by saying that her beloved grandfather (whose family has tons of stuff named after them in SF) was on his death bed. This was pure invention. I wonder how she felt two days later when he suddenly died of a heart attack. Unbelievable but true. Actually, I remember how she felt. She announced the news to me one evening when I returned to our shared room, falling back onto her bed and moaning But what will become of the estate at Woodside? In case you don't know, Woodside is south of San Francisco and one of the wealthiest communities in the world. Yes, the world. I often thought she must be joking, but in truth I fear that she never was. In addition to drama, she was addicted to valium, and this turned her into two of the seven dwarves for the first six hours after waking: Grumpy and Sleepy. That's why she never went to class and why she had to invent death agony for her beloved grandfather to avoid an exam.

Before heading home to SF for the holidays, she decided that she needed to lose 20 pounds in a hurry and that she needed my help to stay on this diet she had tried before with success (or so she said). It was simple. It involved drinking a bitter mixture of molasses and lemon juice and hot water three times a day. That's all. No food. I agreed to do it with her. Within a week, I felt and looked like a ghost. But she was struggling to lose a few pounds. That's because, though I didn't know it at the time, she was hoarding food and eating it in the dead of night, then throwing up.

After I moved back to Seattle, I lost touch with her. She drifted back to San Francisco. One day, out of the blue, I got a call from XXXXX. She chatted me up for a few minutes and then asked if I remembered the exact proportions of the lemon juice and molasses in that old diet. I said you're not going to try that again are you? And she said, yes, because I might have a small role on a Norman Lear sitcom and I need to lose 20 pounds in a hurry. I rolled my eyes, wished her well and hung up. The next day at work I was telling my fellow cocktail waitress Carol about the strange phone call I had gotten from my old Mount Holyoke roommate. At some point, reminiscing about how weird she was, I mentioned her first name. Carol, who was from San Francisco and about ten years older than me, gasped and said: "Did you say XXXXX? Not XXXXX YYYYYYYYYYY?!"
When I replied in the affirmative, Carol nearly lost it. I used to be her governess, she said. John Irving could not have invented a more implausible plot twist.