Thursday, February 19, 2009

Baldwin's Freedom and McEwan's Hum

TNY Feb 9 & 16, 2009

from Claudia Roth Pierpont's article "Another Country" on James Baldwin:

Feeling more than usually restless, James Baldwin flew from New York to Paris in the late late summer of 1961, and from there to Israel. Then, rather than proceed as he had planned to Africa--a part of the world he was not ready to confront--he decided to visit a friend in Istanbul.

*

It is an incongruous image, the black American writer in Istanbul, but Baldwin returned to the city many time during the next ten years, making it a second or third not-quite-home.

. . . Istanbul was unlike any place Baldwin had been before and, more to the point, unlike the places that had defined both the color of his skin and his sexuality as shameful problems. Whatever Turkey's history of prejudice, divisions there did not have an automatic black/white racial cast. . . . In fact, during his first days in the city, he was nearly giddy at the sight of men in the street openly holding hands, and could not accept Cezzar's [his Turkish friend] explanation that this was a custom without sexual import. At the heart of the matter is the question of racial and sexual freedom--the city's, the writer's--and its effect on Baldwin's ability to reflect and to experiment in ways that he had not been able to do elsewhere.

***

TNY February 23, 2009

from Daniel Zalewski's profile of Ian McEwan "The Background Hum":

McEwan's empirical temperament distinguishes him from his friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. McEwan recalls a recent afternoon spent with Barnes. "Julian was reading an article in the Guardian about a ship that, in 1893, got frozen in the polar ice. The explorers had set up a primitive wind turbine for electricity, and the captain's log described how they'd got it running just before the final sunset that marked the beginning of the dark Arctic winter. Julian handed the story to me. I read it and said, 'That's amazing. A wind turbine in 1893!' He said, "No, no, I mean the captain's description of the final sunset. What a beautiful piece of prose.' And I said, 'Oh. Yeah, yeah.'"

*

His plots defy what he calls the "dead hand of modernism." 

. . . On our walk, McEwan twice cited Henry James's dictum that the only obligation of a novel "is that it be interesting."

*

He went on, "When I'm writing, I don't really think about themes." Instead, he keeps in mind a phrase of Nabokov's: "fondle details." McEwan explained, "Writing is a bottom-up process, to borrow a term from the cognitive world. One thing that's missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader, but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act."

*

In "Mother Tongue," McEwan explains that his surgical prose was, in part, a product of class anxiety. He composed words "without a pen in my hand, framing a sentence in my mind, often losing the beginning as I reached the end, and only when the thing was secure and complete would I set it down. I would stare at it suspiciously. Did it really say what I meant? Did it contain an error or an ambiguity that I could not see? Was it making a fool of me?

*

McEwan said that he never rushes from notebook to novel. "You've hot to feel that it's not just some conceit," he said. "It's got to be inside you . . . . "

*

He told me, "You spend the morning, and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They've got that twist, a little trip, that delights you. And you hope that they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row. They often come when you're fiddling around with something that's already there. You see that by reversing a word order or taking something out, suddenly it tightens into what it was always meant to be. 

For several days, McEwan played with the Heathrow image, and began conjuring his character. He imagined Michael Beard impatiently shifting under his seat belt in the darkening sky. He decided that his protagonist was flying into London from Berlin. But he didn't want to begin the novel with mere description. From the start, he wanted the "background hum" to catch in the reader's ear. So McEwan spent a few mornings, and suddenly the words tightened into a row: "He was running out of time. Everyone was, it was the general condition."


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