Weekend Movie Picks: LBJ & Battle of the Sexes

Spanning the short period 1960 to 1973, these two movies are based on real events—political, in the largest sense, and human, with their subjects’ vulnerabilities and strengths on view on a very public stage.

LBJ

LBJ - HarrelsonWoody Harrelson as LBJ? Actually, the Texas actor does a fine job in this eponymous movie written by Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner (trailer). When it comes to the history depicted, this film gets it more right than most, partly because Reiner took the time to read and absorb the Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin histories.

In 1960, LBJ is a genius in the Senate, though he’s profane, even vulgar, the opposite of the Kennedy clan. Johnson won’t say whether he plans to run for president in 1960 because, his aides suggest, “he’s afraid he’ll lose.” Lady Bird (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) overhears and corrects them: “He’s afraid people won’t love him.”

When Jack Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) surprisingly asks the Texan to become his vice president, Johnson accepts. You think it may be as much to tweak Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who obviously loathes him, as anything else. One of the most uncomfortable scenes occurs when he corners Bobby in a door alcove and says, “Bobby, why don’t you like me?”

Johnson never expects this office will be a sure path to the presidency, especially not after a mere thousand days. Seeing how the public loves Jack, and the outpouring of grief after the assassination, he apparently decides the best way to make people love him is to pursue Kennedy’s policy relentlessly. And, thankfully, he did.

That decision brought us new Civil Rights laws, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start—and, tragically, the full-on Vietnam War. (The War just received the full Ken Burns treatment and isn’t touched on much here.) He achieves those programs by continuing his masterful managing of the Senate, personalized here by Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) and Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins).

Though the critics are cool to it, for the accurate history and some fine performances, it’s nevertheless worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 52%; audiences 64%.

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the SexesThis film is much lighter fare, though it certainly has moments of intensity (trailer). Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it shows the lead-up to the famous 1973 tennis match between world number one women’s tennis player Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). You even get a bit of Howard Cosell, though filmmaking magic.

In 1970, women tennis players received far less (about a tenth, I think) prize money than the men, because, as the head of the lawn tennis association explained (Bill Pullman again), women’s tennis is just less interesting. King led a walkout, and the women left the association to form a new league. With Virginia Slims cigarettes as a sponsor, they had their own competitive tour (ironically, none of them smoked), managed by highly entertaining Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) who does.

In that context, Riggs—a hustler and clown, playing tennis costumed as Little Bo Peep, complete with sheep, wearing swim fins, and the like—said he could easily beat the best woman player. “I love women,” he says, “in the kitchen and in the bedroom,” an attitude, unfortunately, newly topical. King takes up the challenge. While she trains, he cavorts.

Home life isn’t simple for either of them. Riggs’s wife has left him, tired of his gambling, and King, though married, has her first lesbian relationship. At the time, public knowledge of that might have destroyed her career.

Emma Stone does a fine job—likeable and focused—and Carell is a believably driven character, teetering on tragedy as comics convey so well.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 84%; audiences 76%.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

Meadow Brook Hall: SE Michigan Gem

Meadow Brook Hall

photo: Mark Goebel, creative commons license

If you’ve visit Southeastern Michigan, you probably know about charming Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum. You may have taken in  a Ford factory tour (conducted in the super-automated Ford F-150 plant, not the grimy industrial behemoth nearby. PS—if you are tempted to blame off-shoring for the loss of American manufacturing jobs, one look at the floor of this factory will give you second thoughts. The culprit isn’t just foreigners, it’s automation. Hardly an assembly-line worker in sight.)

You’ve enjoyed the fantastic murals cropping up in downtown Detroit. And the area’s stunning museums, the zoo, Belle Isle, Hitsville, USA. The trendy upscale restaurants. But if you sojourned in the Motor City without wheels of your own, you may have missed another compelling attraction, Meadow Brook Hall and gardens, 40 minutes north of downtown in a bucolic section of the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Personal Tragedies & Great Wealth

The 180-room Tudor revival mansion was the home of Alfred and Matilda Dodge Wilson. Her first husband, John Dodge, died in 1920, a victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and his younger brother Horace died less than a year later. She became one of the wealthiest women in American when she and her sister-in-law sold the brothers’ automotive business for the equivalent of more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars.

John left Matilda with three young children, and in 1925, she married wealthy lumber merchant Alfred Wilson. Tragedy continued to stalk her, however. John and Matilda’s young daughter Anna Margaret died the year before her remarriage. In 1938, her only son Daniel died on his honeymoon, when he drowned off Ontario’s Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.

By then, the Wilsons had built Meadow Brook Hall, now a National Historic Landmark, completed in 1929. Everywhere you look, inside the house and on the grounds, there are details to intrigue and delight the eye and loads of great stories. Once Matilda was surprised by a party, when the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra struck up “Happy Birthday” for her, and a young Frank Sinatra sang.

Meadowbrook Hall

Meadow Brook Hall offers a house tour several times a day—our guide was knowledgeable and talked more about the history than the minutia of decoration which so often bog down tour guides. You also hear about Mrs. Wilson’s significant charitable enterprises, including providing land and funding for the establishment of Oakland University, and her brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. The Hall offers a “behind-the-scenes tour,” which includes servant quarters and the attic (I wonder whether you can climb Alfred Wilson’s secret staircase!). Also a walking tour of the estate, woods, and playhouses. The garages hold classic Dodge vehicles from the early 1900s.

Top off your visit with an outdoor concert at the nearby Meadow Brook Amphitheatre.

Books to throw in Your Suitcase

  • Once in a Great City – by David Maraniss, highly readable history of the many facets of Detroit—cultural, racial, economic, political—in 1963
  • The Turner House – by Angela Flournoy, a novel about a large black family as the city of Detroit changes around them. My review.

Capitol Ideas

California capitol

The California Capitol; photo: Jeff Turner, creative commons license

Two years ago a visit to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield revealed such a feast of 19th c. stenciled decor, state capitols have been added to my must-see list. Let me guess: you haven’t seen the capitol in your state since junior high. (Visiting school groups is a good reason to plan your visit for the summer or off-hours.)

Capitol buildings generally offer tours, or you may be able to roam freely, helpful brochure in hand. The legislature may or may not be in session. Either way, those chambers and the building as a whole are likely rich with history, symbols of the state, statues, portraits, and murals, as well as sheer decoration and impressive domes. Tour guides are especially interested in telling you how much things weigh.

The California Capitol

The capitol building in Sacramento (completed 1874) was a little hard to get into in June, with construction on the grounds and some entrances closed for security reasons. The south entrance, facing N Street, is open. The building is set in a forty-acre park that contains a lovely rose garden and memorials. The Vietnam War memorial was especially moving, as were the tributes to fallen firefighters and peace officers. Inside is a small museum, with permanent historical exhibits and a feature gallery.

The House and Senate chambers were beautiful—perhaps the hope is that surrounding legislators with elegance will lead to lofty thoughts—the House mainly green (for California) and the Senate mainly red (patterned on London’s Houses of Parliament), or so the guide said. It was fun reviewing the portraits of California governors that line the hallways to see whether I could recognize any of them. I did identify Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the basement, where the tour starts, are murals painted in a particular dark style called “California decorative” that is repeated in some works at the nearby Crocker Art Museum.

The Pennsylvania Capitol

Harrisburg is such a down-at-heels city, this seems like a dubious destination, but the capitol is beautiful. When President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it “the handsomest building I ever saw.” White marble and gold leaf are everywhere in the lobby (lobbyists, too), and the floor comprises Pennsylvania-made Moravian tiles interspersed with mosaics symbolizing animals, industries, occupations, and historical features of the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome - Harvey Barrison

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome; photo: Harvey Barrison, creative commons license

Looking up, you can see the 272-foot, 52 million pound dome, reportedly inspired by the one in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, while the lobby’s grand staircase and three-tiered gallery were designed with the Paris Opera House in mind.

William Penn was a Quaker and a highly religious man, and biblical quotations abound in the capitol’s décor and in the rich symbolism of the many works of art (another attempt at fostering high-mindedness, perhaps). Many of the murals, including those in the Supreme Court, were painted by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley. Oakley was the first woman artist to receive such a commissions, which began when she was only 28 years old. Over a period of 25 years, she painted 43 murals for the capitol.

Books to throw in your suitcase

For Sacramento:

  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston – an award-winning memoir about Chinese immigrants in California (and so much more) – this one I’ve read and highly recommend, even though it takes place in Stockton, not Sacramento
  • Locke 1928 by Shawna Yang Ryan – if you are particular as to place, this is the story of the tiny town of Locke, a few miles outside Sacramento, which was a hotbed of vice
  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler – hey, you’re on vacation

And Harrisburg:

  • Visit The Midtown Scholar independent bookstore
  • Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley – classic reminder of life before women’s lib, set in Philadelphia
  • Plain Missing (An Amish Mystery) by Emma Miller – the writing of mystery and romance novels set in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country has become a cottage industry

Dunkirk

Dunkirk, Christopher NolanIt would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.

The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.

England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”

In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.

Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.

With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.

In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.

Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%;  Audiences: 83%.

Oak Park, Illinois, & Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laurel Highlands

Fallingwater (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

This year marks the 150th year anniversary of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth, and the design world is using the occasion to reexamine his ideas and precepts, as well as to celebrate his lasting legacy. My parents were big FLW fans in the 1950s, and my dad designed our little house with many of his principles in mind. Although Wright died almost 60 years ago, in 1969, he’s probably still the architect most Americans can name.

He’s of course known for his many heavily visited landmarks: Fallingwater and the nearby Kentuck Knob south of Pittsburgh, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, and if you go to the Guggenheim Museum, you’re in the Wright place. I’ve also visited the lesser-known, but beautiful Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Ill., but until this month, had never been to where it all started, in Oak Park, Ill.

If you go, the FLW Trust offers a guided tour of his studio and home, where he lived with his first wife and their children. There’s also an easy walking tour of nine Wright-designed houses in the immediate neighborhood. The Unity Temple, recently refurbished for millions of dollars, is nearby (not yet reopened for visitors as of early July).

After these experiences, you’ll recognize how Wright’s prairie-style designs, daring cantilevers, and use of simple materials for complex effects continue to influence architects today. You may be surprised at how many of his rooms are rather small. He emphasized the quality of the space people were to inhabit, not the quantity.

Wright was a larger-than-life personality—with a messy personal life—and maybe that’s what it took to break with the past and develop new approaches and methods to solve design problems. While he was a modern architect, he didn’t go in for the spare, unembellished approach we think of as “modern.” His work contains a surprising amount of beautiful decoration, in the form of leaded glass, wood carving, brickwork. He even designed the furniture and light fixtures for his buildings.

In a Wright structure, there is always something interesting to draw the eye, including nature—outdoor views he brought inside through thoughtful window placement. So in this 150th year, celebrate an American icon.

See:
Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA, New York City – an exhibit with much new material and insights
Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Ariz.
FLW Trust, Oak Park, Ill.
FLW Public Sites Directory

Special coverage:
Architectural Digest, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beautiful Houses, Structures & Buildings”
Metropolis, July/August, “Wright, Relevant as Ever”
Bloomberg, “Frank Lloyd Wright Is Not Who You Think He Is”

****The Incarnations

Chinese Dragon - Hong Kong

photo: Arthur Chapman, creative commons license

By Susan Barker — “A thousand years of obsession and betrayal,” says author Adam Johnson about this intricately plotted tale, a finalist for the 2015 Kirkus prize for fiction. Author Barker has managed to create a multitude of compelling plots, drawing inspiration from the convoluted and violent history of China, all within one overarching framework.

The premise is that present-day Beijing taxi driver Wang is being watched by a first-person observer, who refers to the two of them as “you” and “I.” The narrator writes him a series of letters that purport to recount the driver’s previous lives—thus, the book’s title.

“As biographer of our past lives, I recount the ways we have known each other. The times we were friends and the times we were enemies.” Sometimes they were men, sometimes women, sometimes related, sometimes not, first one was older, then the other. They circle each other through time like dragons.

After each foray into the past, the narration returns briefly to the present and the insightful, often humorous portrayals of the puzzled driver, his wife and young daughter Echo, his stubborn father and seductive stepmother, and an old flame he’s reluctantly rekindled. The letters are too bizarre and at times too shameful to share, and they contribute in some part to deteriorating relations between Wang and his current contemporaries. So consumed by the past, he’s unable to see the present clearly.

Some of these past lives were plenty brutal too, especially the one where “you” were a beautiful young concubine in the court of a cruel and debauched emperor, and “I” an older concubine who thought she’d earned a place of respect. Perhaps because it was closest to our own time and can be viewed through a modern lens, the section that takes place during the Cultural Revolution was especially poignant.

Fascinated by historical China as I am, I enjoyed the novel’s subject and setting, as well as the high quality of its writing and its clever plot and subject matter. Even at the end, it had surprises in store.

Road Trip: Paterson, New Jersey

Paterson NJ

photo: Tony Fischer, creative commons license

Inspired by the recent charming Jim Jarmusch film Paterson about a city bus driver/poet played by Adam Driver, we drove up there one recent Sunday to take in the sights and cultural offerings.

Paterson’s Great Falls, which drop some two million gallons of Passaic River water a day are about a tenth the height of our sentimental favorite Niagara, but nonetheless quite lovely. If all goes as planned, the area around the falls, now a National Historical Park, will become a full-fledged national park with expanding historical attractions over the next few years.

Alexander Hamilton founded the city. When shown the falls the first time, he was asked what he thought of them. He didn’t say, “lovely,” or “nice view,” he said “power.” (In recognition of the city’s founder, the score to the musical Hamilton plays in the visitor center.) And he was so right.

As in Niagara, a portion of the river’s flow is diverted to power a hydroelectric plant. The power generated by  the falls brought Paterson to prominence as the first planned industrial settlement in the nation and enabled development of its textile, locomotive production, paper, machine tool, and other industries. Many of those brick factories still stand, prime loft-conversion properties. The National Park Service offers guided tours of the falls area, and our good-humored, lively guide (who coincidentally grew up in Paterson) was a gem.

Eventually I hope the Park Service offers tours of Hinchliffe Stadium, home of the Negro Baseball League’s New York Black Yankees, among other teams. The stadium has been preserved as part of the park.

Lambert Castle - Ken Lund

photo (cropped): Ken Lund, creative commons license

The local museums were of considerably less interest, though we enjoyed a trip to Lambert Castle in the Garret Mountain Reservation, home of the Passaic County Historical Society. This little castle was built in the late 1800s by a prominent Paterson silk mill owner and once displayed the owner’s extensive art collection. The house itself was interesting, and has fantastic views of the New York City skyline, but we’d timed our visit to hear a concert by an extraordinary Ukranian pianist, Sophia Agranovich. Hearing her challenging selections played in the castle’s music room, while seated in the three-story atrium where the sound could swell, was a memorable experience.

Finally, we partook of Paterson’s well known multicultural scene, with dinner at a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant (reportedly the best in the state), Al-Basha, 1076 Main Street. Order the Mazzah appetizer platter!

To Read While Strolling:

Two Good Movies: Their Finest & The Zookeeper’s Wife

It turned out that these two weekend movies had more in common than their World War II settings, strong female protagonists, and top-notch acting. Both were marred by trailers that told too much, so no trailers today. Avoid the previews if you can, but not the movies. (Or, order the books these films were based on. Affiliate links below.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Their Finest

While this drama, adapted by Gabby Chiappe Directed by Lone Scherfig, is too serious to be a comedy, it offers many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few tears along the way. The conceit is that the British government has commissioned a feature film that will inspire Britons and, with luck, the Americans too, to support the war effort. The subject: the inspiring evacuation of Dunkirk.

The filmmakers realize they need to appeal to women in the audience, so they hire a young woman (Gemma Arterton) for the writing team to create “the slop”—that is, the female dialog. She turns out to more than fill the bill and has the chance to find her own voice along the way.

In addition to Arterton, fine performances from Sam Claflin as the cynical head writer, Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill actor who’s never fully convinced he shouldn’t be the romantic lead, Rachael Stirling as a spy for the foreign office with a soft heart, and Helen McCrory as Nighy’s no-nonsense agent. You’ll love the Jeremy Irons cameo, in which he gets carried away delivering Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 87%; audiences 77%.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

On the very positive side, this drama about Jews hidden in the wreckage of the Warsaw Zoo is based on a true story. Right now, when meanness seems to trump acts of charity and compassion, that’s an important message.

At the same time, there’s quite a bit of déjà vu here, as director Niki Caro fails to plow new ground or to “capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors,” said Sheila O’Malley on Rogerebert.com, and a contrived and unpersuasive relationship between the main character and “Hitler’s zookeeper.”

Antonina and Jan Zabiński really did save more than three hundred Jews after German bombs and stormtroopers destroyed their zoo. They hid the refugees in their own home, changed their appearance, gave them false papers, and spirited them away, under the enemy’s noses.

See it for the animals, the fine performance by Jessica Chastain as Antonina, and for the reminder that even in extreme circumstances there are people who believe, as Jan Zabiński said many years later, “If you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Supporting performances are strong as well. Written by Angela Workman.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 60%; audiences, 81%.

The Role of the Novel in a World of Lies

reading, apple

photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

Last week Sir Salman Rushdie gave a humor-laced talk to a packed house at Princeton University, on a topic of profound interest to every writer and reader. In the old days, say two hundred years ago, one purpose of the novel was to “bring people the news,” he said. People who read novels learned about issues they had no direct experience or knowledge of: Charles Dickens and the exploitation of children, the impact of indifferent schooling, and the depredations of the poor-house; Harriet Beecher Stowe and slavery. (Rushdie repeated the apocryphal comment of Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war!”)

Today, with so many media outlets providing so many opportunities for people to get news, that purpose for novels has been supplanted. At the same time, “we,” he said—possibly meaning Princetonians, Americans, or citizens of the world—are more suspicious of the news we get. The attack on truth has gained traction because people are disillusioned with the news media; accusations of “fake news” fall on receptive ears. This, he agrees, is a dangerous development for the republic.

So what can literature do? “Should we be writing fiction when the world is full of lies?” he asked. While you can anticipate his answer, he gets there in an interesting way. He points to the Pakistani genocide of the educated class in Bangladesh shortly before the latter country’s independence, a well documented episode routinely denied by Pakistan. You may be reminded of the Armenian genocide, and the persistent Holocaust deniers. In writing about events such as that which occurred in Bangladesh, which is in Rushdie’s living memory, even “the act of remembering is politicized.” The difference between this world of lies and the novel, is that “fiction tells you it’s a lie.”

I’m watching the superb televersion of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and I find it so disturbing, so seemingly possible. Even though its underlying truth resonates, I know it flows from a work of fiction—something made up—and that it is not a reflection of objective reality as the purveyors of alt.right dogma contend with their false fictions.

Over many generations, artists (and scientists) find themselves in frequent conflict with politicians because “politicians want to control the narrative.” The more authoritarian they are, the more control they want.

Here he did not explicitly describe Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for his death, issued after publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, but that dramatic episode was clearly on the minds of his audience. (In case you’ve forgotten, Rushdie went into hiding for a few years, and a further fatwa against anyone involved in the novel’s publication apparently resulted in the murder of his translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, and assassination attempts against the book’s Italian translator and its Norwegian publisher, while its Turkish translator was a likely target in an arson attack that resulted in 37 deaths.)

The current crisis in America, he said, arises out of the desire not just to control the narrative, but to totally rewrite it. The recent threats to defund the arts and public broadcasting were transparently not based on the politicians’ stated aim—cost-cutting, which was dubious on its face, since in the federal budget context, these programs are miniscule—but on a much more fundamental hostility to the arts and artistic expression.

In the end, Rushdie said, it is the arts that help us understand the culture of the past: how do we know what went on generations and millennia ago absent the writing, paintings, sculpture, architecture, and other artistic expressions of those former times? While the authorities may control the present, artists’ legacy controls what future generations will think of us.

WEDNESDAY: Rushdie and the Role of the Novelist