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World Voices Festival # 1: Le Clėzio

The Pen World Voices Festival began last Friday night at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan with Jean-Marie Gustave Clėzio, the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Le Clėzio had agreed to appear after the schedule was printed and announcement of the bonus evening—to great excitement—went out electronically just days before the event. Nonetheless, the house was full.

I worked with other Pen volunteers at the ticket table where I exercised patience as well as my rusty French. The French Consulate was well represented as well as French media and linguistic purists from the Alliance Française. One diplomat said he had never read Le Clėzio which I thought strange since the laureate’s first book was published in France in 1963. I confessed I had never read his work either but for an American such an oversight, even ignorance, would not be unusual; so few books are translated into English and most of Le Clezio’s oeuvre can still only be found in every language but English. I had not noticed this fascinating man before and was embarrassed when he received the Nobel. Who was he? Now that Le Clėzio had won the prize, I was certain more of his work would be translated and planned to download as many of his books as possible onto my Kindle2 as soon as I got home. But when I went into the Kindle Store, I was disappointed that none of his translated books were available. (There’s a box on the Amazon book sites where one can ask the publisher to release the books for scan. I am clicking on it often these days.) Horace Engdahl, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, fears that translations into English are not seen as necessary in a dominant Anglo-Saxon market driven culture where thousands of English-language books are published every year. I am not satisfied with this explanation of American literary isolationism. We do not even hear about books from Canada, our nearest neighbor to the north. As Kindle2 readers such as myself are voracious, I urge Le Clézio’s publishers to make his books available pronto pronto. Meanwhile, I have ordered two paperbacks. Alas.

But to continue with the story of the evening: The diplomat grabbed his ticket, straightened his pink tie, and set off into the auditorium. He was petulant and had obviously arrived with a grievance. But what was it? I took a swig of my water bottle and vowed to expand my French vocabulary and get back to my French workbook. Then the line thinned, the rush was over, and all the volunteers were seated in neighborly proximity to other writers, avid readers, author autograph hounds—who arrived with bags of Le Clėzio’s books to sign—as the evening began.

Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer, had agreed to conduct the interview, the perfect choice. He is a perspicacious interviewer who has lived in France and speaks and writes French fluently. Le Clėzio grew up in Nice and the island of Mauritius (formerly a French colony, conquered by the British in 1810) speaking French and English. The Creole culture has also influenced his life and his work. In the late 1970’s, so disgruntled and bored was he by the autobiographical content of his early writing, that he went to live in a forest in Panama for three years with a group of Amerindian Indians where he absorbed ancient myths and became nearly fluent in their spoken language. He didn’t write at all during this time but when he surfaced from his self-imposed exile, he had decided to write about other people and other cultures. Eventually, he went to live in Mexico where he learned Spanish. He has also lived in Nigeria and the United States where he has taught at the University of New Mexico for the past ten years.

It became clear, almost at once, why the chauvinistic French diplomat was so upset. Le Clėzio is a transnational writer who challenges the concepts of sovereignty, borders, French and English linguistic purity, and colonialism. He writes in French sitting in a room in America where, he told Adam Gopnik, he feels at much at home as he does in Mauritius, Nice, Paris and Mexico. Though he is “domiciled,” in the French literary tradition and his favorite writers in English are the “New York Jewish” writers such as Bellow and Malamud, he is accustomed to shifting languages and making journeys, both literal and figurative.

“And now, in this era following decolonization, literature has become a way for the men and women in our time to express their identity, to claim their right to speak, and to be heard in all their diversity. Without their voices, their call, we would live in a world of silence,” the Nobel laureate said in his lecture to the Academy on December 7, 2008.

I look forward to reading his work and to reporting on it here. In the meantime, please enjoy an interview with M. Le Clézio at this site: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2008/clezio-interview.html

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The Doorknob Effect

I first heard about the doorknob effect from a student who worked in a state hospital as a forensic psychiatrist. All day long she listened to the accused tell stories about their afflicted childhoods or confess their crimes. She wrote up her findings for the court. Every detail was on the record including the psychiatrist's hypothesis about the alleged perpetrator's conscious and unconscious motivations and his or her sanity. She conducted interviews using a recording device and taking careful notes. Questions were prepared beforehand but often the most useful and/or incriminating evidence surfaced during unscripted answers to questions or when the interviewee/patient/suspect thought the session was over and started to head out the door. Experienced psychiatrists keep the recorder running, my student said, as the words "oh by the way..." often signal a revelation. This is known as the "doorknob effect." Sound familiar? If so, it's because reporters experience the same phenomena.

How many times have I put on my coat and said goodbye when my "subject" begins the most telling anecdote I've heard in more than two hours? There's something about the informality and gentle patter of leave-taking that puts a person at ease. I usually stop, take out my notebook again, and write down what the person has just said. Or I make a follow-up phone call.

But what I've been thinking about today (after reading my students last submissions of the term) is a variation on this theme: We often inflict the doorknob effect on ourselves. How does this happen? I'm not a forensic psychiatrist much less a psychologist, so my best guess, based on my own experience, is that our unconscious fears reign us in. This can be a serious obstacle to our writing and leaves an ellipsis in the story the reader can't forget. Or, as Arthur Miller, said in 1953 after seeing a play by James Merrill, "You know, this guy's got a secret, and he's gonna keep it."

Tenacious reporters don't give up until they've got the story. And writers who use the material of their own lives as a story or in a story shouldn't either.

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Not A Love Story

My mother went to see “The Reader,” a David Hare adaptation of Bernard Schlink’s best-selling novel. She had loved the book but was disturbed by the film. She didn’t know what was different so I offered to see the film, read the screenplay, and then reread the book to find out how David Hare had changed the story either by omitting scenes, adding them, or changing what the characters say or don’t say. My mother was certain there had been changes but couldn’t articulate them. From her point of view—that of a Jewish Holocaust refugee—she didn’t feel the changes were for the better. The author’s quest for understanding in the book through an intelligent, humble narrative persona, had been distorted in the film, she thought.

”The Reader” reads well in English probably because its author, a constitutional judge and author of several crime novels, had studied in England and the United States and speaks English well. A translator will often work in collaboration with an author, more so if the author speaks, reads and writes the language. But I have read nothing to suggest that Bernard Schlink was invited to work with David Hare—a well known, knighted British playwright—during the process of adaptation. Typically, film companies buy the rights to a novel and send the novelist back into his cave. Usually, they hope he’ll stay there.

The adaptation of “The Reader” from book to film took a long time. Anthony Minghella had originally optioned the book with his co-producer, Sydney Pollack, soon after the book was published in English. Bernard Schlink must have been pleased; Anthony Minghella had a reputation for collaboration with authors. Michael Ondatjee had worked closely with him during the script development of “The English Patient.”

Time passed, the project remained dormant and then, finally, Minghella and Pollack –who felt they were letting Schlinck down with all the delays—granted the rights to David Hare and the director, Stephen Daldry. The two original producers returned to help out and then both died within weeks of each other, leaving the screenwriter without the mentors he badly needed. “Time and again, Sydney would draw us back to the question: What exactly is the metaphor of reading in the film? What is the function of literature?” Hare writes in the introduction to the screenplay. Sadly, it seems as though he could not answer these seminal questions without Sydney Pollack’s guidance.

Where does the film adaptation fail? Most obviously, in the choice of Kate Winslet as leading lady. Her husband, Sam Mendes, became the producer of the film, so obviously this led to her casting after another actress backed out because of pregnancy. It’s intriguing to wonder who this woman might have been. Someone a bit rougher? A bit less sweet? Kate Winslet is beautiful and her luminous presence on the screen—her innocence—is never shattered. We believe in the love affair because she is so attractive. Where is the scene from the book where Hanna strikes Michael with a belt? Where is Hanna’s dark cruelty? Absent. The leading lady has become a sympathetic Romantic Heroine.

Returning to the book after seeing the movie, I was struck by Schlink’s ability to work on several levels, beyond the love story and Hanna’s “illiteracy,” a complexity the film does not achieve. If Hanna is the old Germany and Michael the new Germany, the story becomes more interesting, deeper. And if her illiteracy is a metaphor for “not knowing,” the primary rationale the ordinary citizens of Germany have always voiced for their complicity and silence, then Schlink has succeeded where the film has not in condemning, not forgiving, his father’s generation. As the metaphors in the book are consistent, I am certain this was the author’s intent. Michael’s voice as a questioning narrator and interlocutor is obliterated in the film. The narration becomes casual, matter-of-fact. What remains is a story about a young man’s sexual initiation at a certain time in history. But that certain time in history is never fully examined.

Should a subject such as genocide ever be presented casually, as entertainment? Yes and no, or it depends on how well it’s done. Sometimes a new approach pierces the iconic imagery of the event and illuminates unexpectedly. Roberto Benigni ‘s “Life is Beautiful” is one such cinematic example. Although most of my family was murdered in the camps, that particular film made me laugh and cry at the same time. It was the first time in years I’d felt anything beyond numbness and resignation about “life” in the death camps.

When I finished the arduous task I’d set myself of comparing and contrasting the book, the screenplay and the film, I returned to my mother’s kitchen for a long conversation. My disappointment in the film was profound, my mother’s intuition correct, I had decided. The filmmakers had not honored the book’s message. During the Oscar night hoopla, Bernard Schlink, “The Reader’s” brave author, and the work he had created, was nearly forgotten.
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By the time I returned to the United States from a ten-year expatriate sojourn in England, I was in love with the English language, its provenance in the Old World and evolution in the New World along a different path, all the extant words, all the extinct words, the Latin and Greek roots, dialects and colloquialisms. As an American living in England, my New York accent was considered “quaint.” At parties I was often asked to do “Brooklyn” or “Bronx,” though I had grown up in Manhattan and spoke a more neutral New Yorkese. Eventually, I learned to speak British English so well that late in my stay few people appreciated that I had learned another language and was now bi-lingual.

Anyone with a good ear for language will pick up the cadences, stresses and expressions of the region where they live. I forgot to switch back into American English when my American friends called. They would comment on my strange way of speaking and not always in a complimentary way. I was leaving America behind and had become European, they said. This was a betrayal. Their comments echoed the chauvinism I experienced in Britain, in reverse.

I returned to America with a devotion to English though I was also weighed down by the cruelties of colonial history, the insistence that the English language was an Imperial Tool. Now that English has become a global language by force of internet rather than by arms, and the days of Empire are—hopefully—over, these worries have become moot. But the etymologies of the language, its history, is still of great interest to me.

I returned to America with several old dictionaries I’d picked up at flea markets and soon landed a job writing etymologies for a language arts textbook company. It was the perfect transition back to New York and the language of my childhood and young adulthood, which had already mutated into something else, as it does constantly. My dispatches to the Times Educational Supplement of London began to sound more and more American by the day. My editors weren’t happy and I eventually gave up writing for British publications. But I still am an Anglophile and read Trollope for relaxation. On my new Kindle2 I can look up quaint Victorian words such as quod and bespoke. One is extinct, the other is extant.

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