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

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”

Noir at the Bar: Manhattan

microphone

photo: Adam Fredie, creative commons license

I had to see for myself. Noir at the Bar (N@B) is a thing, a cultural phenomenon I’d never heard of until Canadian writer-friend June Lorraine Roberts told me about it. It’s simple in concept: crime writers occasionally get together at a local watering hole and read about ten minutes’ worth of their work to each other. I suspect the interpersonal dynamics can be more complicated.

Last Sunday, my friend Nancy K. and I met up at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village for the Manhattan N@B and found a noisy group laughing and talking. I yelled in Nancy’s ear, “Well, they are word people.” Mostly under 40, mostly male, and a notable prevalence of tattoo sleeves. We heard nine of the 11 scheduled presenters, ducking out early so I could catch the train back to Princeton.

What an entertaining evening! The quality of the presentations never let up. The authors read from printouts, books in hand, cell phones, tablets. E.A. Aymer included music (a first, we were told); Nik Korpon had memorized a piece in the style of a tent-revival preacher.

Although I had a friend in the audience (short story writer Al Tucher), the readers were all new to me, and they weren’t all from New York, coming from Washington, Baltimore, and California too. For the flavor of these events, here’s E.A. Aymer reading one of his stories at the Washington, D.C., N@B—he was the lead-off reader Sunday.

While each reader was entertaining in his own way, the most compelling for me was Danny Gardner’s gritty story about how black people in Chicago get guns. Maybe that’s because my family lives in Chicago, and I care about that city. Maybe it’s because I was in Chicago for the four-day July 4 holiday when 101 people were shot. Or maybe it’s because the story’s characters were just damn good. All three, I think.

Other readers we heard were Joe Clifford, Angel Luis Colon (Nancy won one of his books!), Rory Costello, Lee Matthew Goldberg, Nick Kolakowski, and one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, Scott Adlerberg.

Peter Rozovsky started the N@B thing about a decade ago in Philadelphia, and it has spread across this country and internationally, including to Canada and the U.K. Over the next few months June and I are going to report on conversations with some of these N@B organizers and participants about the enduring appeal of crime fiction, story trends, and the local crime writing scene.

Meanwhile, if you discover a Noir at the Bar near you, go, enjoy!

Spy Fic: “Freshly Relevant”

Spy

photo: Joshua Rappeneker, creative commons license

The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.

Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:

The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.

Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:

  • The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
  • Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
  • The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.

If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.

Travel Tips: Central Ohio Destinations

A recent two-day visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (never heard of it? You’re not alone!) was the perfect jumping off place for several other lesser-known attractions in the Ohio Region.

Warren G. Harding Tomb & Home

Harding home - Marion Ohio

photo: uberdadofthree, creative commons license

Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran a “front-porch” campaign from his Marion, Ohio, home, giving speeches—newly enfranchised women, laborers, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other citizen groups—numbering as many as ten thousand individuals at a time. They arrived by train to undoubtedly overwhelm this small town. His neighbors rapidly saw the opportunity, however, and set up lemonade and baked-goods stands.

Years before, when he was 18 years old, he’d bought a struggling local newspaper with three friends. He made a success of it and was a prominent newspaperman before running for state and national office.

A handsome man, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Florence Kling, five years older than he. In recent years, DNA testing has proved that he fathered an illegitimate child and disproved the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was African-American.

The origin of the phrase “the smoke-filled room” as a place where political decisions are made refers to how he was selected to receive the Republican party’s 1920 presidential nomination. Many considered him a weak candidate, and his reputation has been further tarnished by numerous scandals in his administration (Teapot Dome scandal being the best known), the extent of which emerged only after his death.

Harding died in 1923, partway into his first term, and was buried in an elaborate tomb at the city’s cemetery, with Florence now alongside him. A sign says the tomb is maintained by a local technical college, but the grass inside was in need of cutting and weeding. It was shameful, really.

The Mazza Museum

University of Findlay, Ohio

photo: Alvin Trusty, creative commons license

About an hour north of Marion is Findlay, Ohio, home of the University of Findlay, a private liberal arts college with more than 4,000 students. Its best-known programs are in education and equestrian studies [!].

In keeping with the campus’s emphasis on education, its Mazza Museum houses what at first may seem an unusual collection: artwork from children’s literature. The museum has some 11,000 illustrations, collages, paper sculptures—indeed, works in every medium—that have been used over the generations in children’s books. About 300 of these are on display at any one time.

Although weekends are crowded and during the school year, classroom groups frequent the museum, when we visited, we were the only visitors. It was really fun, with an enthusiastic staff member to show us around.

If you’ve shopped for a child’s book any time in the last five decades, you may have noticed how beautiful and effective the artwork is, but perhaps, like me, you haven’t thought much about it. A visit here is an astonishing visual treat!

Distances:

From Toledo, 47 miles to Findlay (45 minutes) and 97 miles to Marion (1.5 hours); from Cincinnati, 160 miles to Findlay (2.5 hours) and 145 miles to Marion (2.5 hours)

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Warren G. Harding by John Dean – a 170-page bio that tries to refute Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” president
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison – the legacy of an African-American slave’s flight to the free state of Ohio; winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – a novel set in small-town Ohio in which a terrible mistake changes a family forever
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a classic collection of interlocking short stories that de-romanticize small-town life; published in 1919 and now considered one of the last century’s best novels

****The Soul of an Octopus

photo: Matt Biddulph, creative commons license

By Sy Montgomery – The New York Times has called naturalist Sy Montgomery “equal parts poet and scientist” and the Boston Globe says she’s “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.” Maybe, with all those parts, it’s fitting that this 2015 book—National Book Award finalist The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness—is also about a creature with many parts.

If we really understood how wondrous octopuses are, we wouldn’t eat them. (Their remarkable nature, by the way, extends to the genetic level.)

The first thing that’s hard to grasp about octopusus is that almost two-thirds of their neurons are not in their brains, but in their arms. In one early encounter with the octopus Athena, Montgomery says, “Unconstrained by joints, her arms were constantly questing, coiling, stretching, reaching, unfurling, all in different directions at once. Each arm seemed like a separate creature, with a mind of its own. In fact, this is almost literally true.”

octopus

(photo: wikimedia/commons)

She speculates that this “distributed intelligence” enables the octopus to multitask. It reduces the burden on the brain to coordinate all those arms, which can change color and surface texture in an instant, camouflaging themselves from predators or potential prey and indicating mood, from calm to distress to happy red (as pictured). The arms, she says, “learn, think, decide, and remember—while at the same time processing the flood of taste and touch information pouring in from every inch of skin.”

That the information they receive by touch is remembered is evident from another powerful theme of Montgomery’s book. Octopuses are not just smart—as she demonstrates in describing their many tricks—they have something akin to an emotional life, evidenced by their relationships with the people around them. (No, they’re not just food-seeking.)

They can recognize individual people and other animals because of their extraordinary senses. An octopus’s chemoreceptors can detect another’s “scent” from at least thirty yards away, and research suggests their suckers are a hundred times more sensitive than the chemical receptors on your own tongue.

At Boston’s New England Aquarium where Montgomery interacted with several octopuses over a period of years, one—Octavia—was very friendly. As Octavia’s life was coming to a close, she  laid thousands of eggs, which she obsessively guarded night and day. For many months Montgomery and the caretakers had no physical contact with her. When she was weakening fast, they moved her to a simpler environment without her eggs. Freed from that duty, Octavia’s behavior made it clear she remembered her friends, embracing them as before.

Read this book and marvel!

****Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Doyle and WildeBy Gyles Brandreth – London’s 1888 Whitechapel Murders have provided seemingly endless inspiration for authors’ speculation. Latest in this parade of theorists exploring the grisly deaths of five prostitutes is a former Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, actor, and broadcaster who uses the real-life friendship between playwright Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as his premise.

Six years after the Jack the Ripper murders, these two luminaries are brought into the investigation by another real-life character, Metropolitan Police CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten. Why them? Most of Macnaghten’s chief suspects are known to Wilde and, the detective says, “you are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business at hand.”

The police are resurrecting their failed investigation for several reasons. Because Macnaughten is writing a definitive report and would like to provide a conclusion. Because he wants to end speculation about the identity of the killer, which, in the absence of a definitive alternative, even occasionally extends to the late Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. And, because a new murder has occurred that bears all the hallmarks of a Ripper case, except that the body was found not in Whitechapel but in Chelsea. More particularly, in the alley behind Tite Street, where Wilde and Macnaghten have their homes.

Whether you fully buy into the plausibility of this notion, you cannot deny that it makes for an entertaining read, as Brandreth is able to draw on the wide and diverse acquaintanceships Wilde had among members of London society, high and low. He does a creditable job of eliminating Macnaghten’s weaker suspects—the suicide John Druitt, the spiritualist Walter Wellbeloved, and actor Richard Mansfield. He avails himself of opportunities to mention Wilde’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, briefly considered a suspect in real life. (As evidence of the long half-life of Jack the Ripper theories, American mystery author Patricia Cornwell produced her second book attempting a case against him last February.) Brandreth then constructs a scenario in which the more unsavory suspects and some new players can cavort.

Brandreth has written six other mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle, sometimes including Doyle, and he knows his principal character and their London milieu well. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s plays, you’ll recognize various lines in the witty epigrams he’s constantly spouting. Brandreth liberally butters the narrative with other literary allusions as well. There’s even a character named Bunbury, and you know what happened to him.

As to the clever resolution and identification of “the real Jack,” this may not be so satisfactory. The motivation is weak and the method (which I cannot reveal as it would be a spoiler) is now discredited, though it was thought effective in the Victorian era. These issues, which would be serious in a contemporary crime thriller, are almost beside the point in this book. It’s a case of the journey being more important—and entertaining—than the destination.

Salman Rushdie on The Role of the Writer

pregnant woman, reading, Kindle

photo: Ed Yourdan, creative commons license

In a Princeton talk last week, Sir Salman not only discussed the role of the novel in, as he said, “a world of lies,” but also how writers must work in the modern world.

The fast pace of today’s world suggests that literary writers cannot be too topical without risking irrelevance in the near future. Shakespeare’s plays have survived four hundred years because they were about universal human truths, even if his characters bore the names of actual historical figures.

Nor can writers choose too large a theme (“everything”) without risking violation of the human scale at which the novel form excels. Thus it may be difficult to take on large-scale issues, as noted author  Amitav Ghosh encourages literary authors to do, especially around the central challenge facing humanity today, climate change. Another way of saying this emerged in a recent Rebecca Mead profile of Margaret Atwood. “A novelist necessarily imagines the fate of individuals,” Mead says, in harmony with Rushdie. “The human condition is what the novel was made for exploring.”

Yet in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood put her characters in a story with a huge theme: radically changed power dynamics in an American society that has become a fundamentalist theocracy. Imagining such alternative realities should be the literary fiction-writer’s strength, Gawande believes. I’d love to hear the three of them discuss this issue together. I think they’d agree that, regardless of the novel’s scope, it’s the characters that make it resonate with readers.

Another feature of modern life affecting authors is the loss of space between public and private action. He said that Jane Austen’s books, though replete with soldiers, never referred to the Napoleonic wars. Nor did Dickens ever mention the British Empire. The characters in these books lived unimpeded and unaffected by world events. Such is no longer true. “The history of the United States is now the history of everywhere else,” he said. We live in a world where we are barraged by outside forces, many of which can change our lives. It is not only our character that shapes our destinies, or those elements of chance and randomness that have always entered in, but the world around us (another point of agreement with Ghosh).

Today, it seems people try to narrow their identities to one feature of themselves—Republican, feminist, Asian-American, computer nerd—which makes it harder to find common ground with others. The novel has always understood that we’re all a collection of selves, he said, and which comes to the fore depends on circumstances. I’m reminded of a conversation between Winston Churchill and portraitist Graham Sutherland in the TV series The Crown, when Churchill asks (paraphrasing here) “Are you going to paint me as a venerated statesman or as a sturdy English bulldog?” and the painter responds, “I imagine there are quite a few Churchills in there.”

Art tries to increase our awareness of what is possible for us to see and know. For that reason, artists must push the boundaries, despite inevitable opposition. Meanwhile, it’s the duty of everyone to work to protect our culture, the products of art. The power of art to outlast tyranny is great, but the power of artists, not so much, he said. They need to be defended too.

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