Archive for the ‘A Chat with Author’ Category


Posted: October 10, 2007 in A Chat with Author, Descartes

” It was at the same time of an adventurous and prompt nature to fold up itself ”

Discussion with Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, by François Ewald
Literary magazine n° 342
April 1996

” I thus doubt I exist ; or what is the same thing : I think, therefore I exist. “Descartes

Genevieve Rodis-Lewis devoted her life to Descartes. Its work on metaphysics, morals, anthropology, marked contemporary knowledge. In its biography, undoubtedly final (” Descartes “, éd.Calmann-Lévy), it only did not correct the errors of its precursors, but did not seek to include/understand the character of the Descartes man.

Q – Why a new biography of Descartes ? (more…)



Do you remember where you were when you heard Hemingway had killed himself?


I remember it very well. I was with Jeanne Campbell in Mexico and it was before we got married. I was truly aghast. A certain part of me has never really gotten over it. In a way, it was a huge warning. What he was saying is, Listen all you novelists out there. Get it straight: when you’re a novelist you’re entering on an extremely dangerous psychological journey, and it can blow up in your face.


Did it compromise your sense of his courage?


I hated to think that his death might do that. I came up with a thesis: Hemingway had learned early in life that the closer he came to daring death the healthier it was for him. He saw that as the great medicine, to dare to engage in a nearness to death. And so I had this notion that night after night when he was alone, after he said goodnight to Mary, Hemingway would go to his bedroom and he’d put his thumb on the shotgun trigger and put the barrel in his mouth and squeeze down on the trigger a little bit, and—trembling, shaking—he’d try to see how close he could come without having the thing go off. On the final night he went too far. That to me made more sense than him just deciding to blow it all to bits. However, it’s nothing but a theory. The fact of the matter is that Hemingway committed suicide.


Might it be said, in any event, that writing is a sort of self-annihilation?


It uses you profoundly. There’s simply less of you after you finish a book, which is why writers can be so absolutely enraged at cruel criticisms that they feel are unfair. We feel we have killed ourselves once writing the book, and now they are seeking to kill us again for too little. Gary Gilmore once remarked, “Padre, there’s nothing fair.” And I’ve used that over and over again. Yet if you’re writing a good novel then you’re being an explorer—you’re getting into something where you don’t know the end, where the end is not given. There’s a mixture of dread and excitement that keeps you going. To my mind, it’s not worth writing a novel unless you’re tackling something where your chances of success are open. You can fail. You’re gambling with your psychic reserves. It’s as if you were the general of an army of one, and this general can really drive that army into a cul-de-sac.


Let’s talk about age, growing old, and let’s be precise. How does the matter of growing old affect your vanity as a writer? There is perhaps nothing more damaging to one’s vanity than the idea that the best years are behind one.


Well, I think if you get old and you’re not full of objectivity you’re in trouble. The thing that makes old age powerful is objectivity. If you say to yourself, My karma is more balanced now that I have fewer things than I’ve ever had in my life, that can give you sustenance. You end up with a keen sense of what you still have as a writer, and also of what you don’t have any longer. As you grow older, there’s no reason why you can’t be wiser as a novelist than you ever were before. You should know more about human nature every year of your life. Do you write about it quite as well or as brilliantly as you once did? No, not quite. You’re down a peg or two there.




I think it’s a simple matter of brain damage and nothing else. The brain deteriorates. Why can’t an old car do certain things a new car can do? You have to take that for granted. You wouldn’t beat on an old car and say, You betrayed me! The good thing is you know every noise in that old car.


It was suggested to me that a certain senior American novelist went to see another senior American novelist at the twilight of the latter’s life and said to him, Enough now, no more writing.


He said to him don’t write anymore?


Yes. It’s one of those stories you hear in New York. If it happened, one might think of it as an act of love. One great and elegant swordsman disarming another.


No, I can’t believe it. I’ll tell you if anyone ever came to me with that, I’d say, kidding is kidding, but get your ass off my pillow.

To read the rest of the interview with Norman Mailer, visit

An Interview by Mike Lee

Sitting across from Norman Mailer, whom I’ve known for close to 30 years now, I’m struck by how regal he looks. This is despite the two distinctly different canes resting at his side and that he appears smaller, sitting in his favorite interview chair. The chair has a fanned headrest that gives him this sense of a white rattan halo. Over his shoulder, Provincetown harbor is choppy, the moored boats dancing and bobbing in the afternoon light. He looks older each time I see him, but then we begin talking and that extraordinary mind of his, that can be simultaneously combative, genial, humorous, and never without hypothesis or opinion, clicks in.

LEE: Are there some books that young writers shouldn’t write and some books older writers shouldn’t tackle either?

NM: The answer to that automatically is yes, but don’t ask me to name the books because it depends on the individual. Look, when a young writer tackles a book that is too big for their capacity at that point, it’s not necessarily a total loss. They can lose a lot of time, they can lose a lot of ego, they can really take a bath. But on the other hand, they learn a lot about themselves. So I would rarely discourage somebody from tackling some-thing that’s too big for him-unless I thought he was truly incompetent. But if I thought they had a fighting chance, I’d tend to encourage him. You learn more from defeats than victories, I’ve decided. Victories are wonderful for the ego, but they generally create the next fuckup. Unless you’re a real winner, but if you’re an in and out guy, like most of the people I know-including myself-then victories are dangerous. The ego gets swollen and it’s so hungry for victory and you tend to make mistakes. But in relation to that, books that old guys-I think for an old writer who’s been around and knows what he’s doing, there’s no book I would tell him not to try. Because you don’t know; you never know when you’re going to pop off. So you try.

LEE: Is it harder today to write the so-called “big book,” with all the com-petition for attention?

NM: Again, that question answers itself-absolutely. Much harder. I find that I’m drawn more to writing about the past for just that reason. In the past there weren’t the iPods and TV, and so there is a tendency for the figures to appear a little more clearly.

LEE: All right, let’s get to The Castle in the Forest. At the risk of being called a sycophant, I thought it was one hell of a read.

NM: Well, I’m glad. I’m really glad, because it’s going to get the worst reviews.

LEE: You think so?

NM: Well, not completely. But I’m going to get some.

LEE: I’d like to ask first about the genesis of this novel. Have you been thinking about this for some time?

NM: Yeah, you know what, Mike? I said the other day that I’d been thinking about it since I was nine years old. I don’t mean I was thinking of writing it, but I’ve been immensely aware of Hitler since I was nine for one simple reason: I was born in 1923, so in 1932, before he came into power, my mother, who was not an intellectual, but an intelligent, sensitive woman, full of feeling, and Jewish, of course. And she saw Hitler as a disaster for the Jews from the word go. And she used to suffer over him and when he came into power it made her very upset. So I grew up with the idea of Hitler as someone who was going to kill the Jews-and he succeeded by half. So I think in the background in my mind, all along, I should write about him sooner or later. I was going to do the second volume of Harlot’s Ghost, that I’ve been promising for years, and as I sat down to write it, it was almost as if this whisper came into my brain and said, “No, no, that’s not the book you’re going to do next, it’s this one.” And it was the idea of having the devil tell the story that brought it into focus for me.

LEE: You were lucky to get that whisper early on.

NM: I was getting ready to write a long book called Harlot’s Grave. I had it all figured out, must have spent a half year thinking about it in depth, and it was so funny that about a month before I was ready to begin this other voice came in and said, “No, not here-there.” And of course the idea was to tell it in the voice of the devil that made it possible. It enabled me to write a biography that was a fiction. The book is very accurate so far as you can make it out.

LEE: I want to ask you about some of that too. One of the levels of reading that I found so fascinating, given the subject is the childhood and adolescence of Hitler, is that this book is also very much a family saga.

NM: Yeah, oh yeah. Even if it hadn’t been Hitler, you’d have a novel there.

LEE: Did you feel compelled to couch the metaphysical aspects of the novel with that familial approach?

NM: You know, I sort of work-to put it in its lowest version-I push a pea with my nose. I’m a great believer in organic novels, in that you don’t decide in advance where you’re going. You let the characters point the way. I remember once-this is a coincidence-but it may indicate what I’m trying to say. At one point I was directing a play at Actor’s Studio and Elia Kazan was there, we were sort of friendly, and I said to him, “I don’t know how to tell the actors how to move, that’s where I have the most trouble.” And he said, “You know, Norman, let them decide for you. Actors generally have a better sense of movement than we do.” Of course, he was a great director, and he was being very honest about it. He said, “They’ll often point out the way and if they don’t, then you can step in.” So I did that and it absolutely worked. The play was reasonably well staged as a result. The same way I think is true in a novel, only more so. Let the characters point the way for you. Now here there was something different, which is, of course, I did know the events. They were recorded summarily; there were very few books about the early childhood and they’re sketchy. So it wasn’t as though I was overloaded with facts, which would be true further down the road where there’d be a hundred books for every decade. So, given the fact the devil is telling the story, I could follow the events because the unforeseen would be the devil’s interpretation of what was going on and what he must do. He’s the devil’s assistant, of course, not the devil. And that made it absolutely organic for me because even though I knew where I was going in terms of the narrative, the interpretation now became the part I would not determine in advance. I would let the events and the devil’s interpretation of these events dictate where I’d head next. And it worked.

LEE: That’s interesting because I remember Nabokov used to say “All my characters are galley slaves.”

NM: Well, that was Nabokov and he had a different way of doing things. Don’t forget, he was a Russian autocrat, and Russian autocrats tend to like the idea of galley slaves.

LEE: Look, I know you’ve answered this question dozens of times, but for the benefit of those who don’t know, what are your beliefs in terms of God?

NM: Well, my beliefs are that God is not all good and all powerful. I believe in God. I believe in a creator. I find it philosophically impossible to conceive of having a world here without there having been a creative force present. But I’m totally opposed to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the major corporation of the devil, because in that corporation, God is all good and all powerful and that is resolute in its refusal to face any of the human facts. So that the result is, the people who are fundamentalists deprive themselves of the ability to think along unforeseen lines to a conclusion. They have to end up at a given station. No matter where they set out in the morning, they know where they have to be that night, and that tends to be stultifying. No, I believe in a God who’s not all good and not all powerful, a God who can make errors, a God who’s a creator, not a law-giver. And is doing His or Her best. Or, if it happens to be a marriage, Their best. But my notion of God is not precise, it’s general, but the general notion is as a creator, not a law-giver and, as a result, the end is not foreseen. We and God are all existential. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. That’s the fundamental meaning of existentialism- you’re engaged in a situation where the end is unknown.

LEE: And so you would also believe in a Satan?

NM: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s an evil principle and for me the two are at war. One place in the book there’s a statement to the effect that in the middle ages, humans saw themselves as peons and there’s this God and the Devil dictating what they did with their lives. But with the growth, first with the Enlightenment and now with technology, humans see themselves as a third force. Instinctively. Even if they believe in God and the Devil, they also seems themselves, in fact, paramount to the other two, in dominance over the other two. So it’s a three way war you might say.

LEE: When you write a novel that employs so much historical fact, how do you decide where to draw the line between reality and dramatic purpose?

NM: Well, you never violate a fact for too little. In other words, you’re a relatively law abiding citizen. Who make the best criminals? They’re those who obey the law until they don’t. Enough people break the law every day. So in the same sense, if you want to think of a novelist as being criminal in that they offer you a version of reality that may or may not exist, they do play a slight of hand with reality, then by all means, I don’t like a novel that cuts too many corners. It’s enough you’re writing that novel. If you can create something that gives people a sense of a universe, a world which they can inhabit for a little while, it helps a lot, for them and for you, if you stay close to the facts. Now, there are places in the book that become a little bit more fictional than others. For instance, there’s no doubt that Alois, the father, was interested in bees and kept bees while he was in Hafeld, which is the town the family lives in for a good part of the book. Now, there’s no record of who he did business with as far as the bees go. So I invented a bee keeper, Herr Alter, and he is a fictional character. I felt there had to be somebody there who was a bee keeper with whom he did business and there I felt I could indulge a fiction.

LEE: You’re also careful to have the devil point out not to make too much of the metaphor of bee keeping with what would happen later with Adolf.

NM: You mean where the bees are all burned?

LEE: Yes, but was that just a red herring?

NM: No, I wanted to get across how much these devils worry. In other words, the normal idea of the devil is that I don’t want to think of the devil, one. Two, oh, the devil can come in and change you overnight. And quite the contrary was my notion. Humans are most stubborn material. And so when the devil has a client, as I call them, someone they’re working with and looking to use more and more as time goes on, they have a lot of worries. Because there are angels around also who are fighting them and called Cudgels by the devil because the angels have often beaten up the devils. So what I’m getting at is they’re concerned all the time with the development of their clients. They’re very much like an overworked bureaucrat and that appealed to me as a notion of the hereafter-that the hereafter is just as tough as our world, with just as many worries, probably on a higher level. But the idea that it was all cut and dried, and the devil came in and cast a spell on you and you were a goner, no, get rid of that. I wasn’t trying to make this a railroad track as to how Hitler became a monster. The feeling I have is that there is a certain point in our lives as an adolescent or when we’re entering adolescence, where we can go any number of directions. And even if we become a client of the devil, wittingly, or in his case, unwittingly, that doesn’t matter. Nothing’s automatic; it’s existential.

LEE: What surprised you the most in your research about the Hitler family?

NM: I don’t know that I ever had a huge surprise because I came upon it slowly, bit by bit. It was nice to find out the mother [Klara] was probably a pretty good woman. I think that we can’t begin to understand human history until we recognize the depth and very often the ugliness of certain ironies in our lives. Because, after all, what is this book about finally? It’s an attempt to seek what we are as humans and the thought that a fine woman ended up producing a monster seemed to me in the nature of things. And rather than say, oh, he must have had a hideous mother and so forth-he had a father that used to whip him, but not everybody who was whipped by their father became Adolf Hitler.

LEE: Is it your belief that incest played more of a role in 19th-century family life than we commonly think?

NM: No, that’s just a supposition. I gave it to Heinrich Himmler, whom I thought was pretty eloquent.

LEE: The “Blood Drama.”

NM: Yes.

LEE: You had to learn about beekeeping as well, but I don’t see any hives . . .

NM: (laughing) No.

LEE: Assuming Hitler can only be the product of evil, George Bush’s notion of “the Axis of Evil,” and his continual use of that word, somehow trickles down to dilute even Hitler’s heinous acts. It’s like so many words that we overuse and they lose their meaning.

NM: Oh, I mean it’s one of the things I can’t stand about George Bush. He uses the word “evil” twelve times in a paragraph. You know what it is, Mike, he never got past eighth grade civics. Look at him that way when he starts to give a speech. The phrases he uses are the kind of phrases that an elementary school teacher uses. Somehow there’s never been a political leader, in my living memory, or historical notion as far as I know about it, who is as empty of nuance as George Bush. And so, yes, compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler as an example of the limp mediocrity of George Bush’s mind. You know there are certain kinds of weak men who come to recognize they are essentially weak. In other words, they’re not stand up-they wouldn’t be stand up in an alley, put it that way. They wouldn’t have a feeling that, all right, if this is my last moment, I’m going down fighting. I think, in that sense, whether he’s weak or not, he may see himself as weak. Those kind of guys almost always have an option of great stubborn-ness. Huge stubbornness. Because a stubborn man never looks weak until they give up their stubbornness. So it’s almost impossible for them to give up their stubbornness at a certain point. In that sense, he’s immensely stubborn. When you’re empty, get stubborn-it’s your best defense.

LEE: I’ve always wondered if you’ve felt fear as a writer?

NM: Fear? Oh, when I was younger a lot. A lot. I think it comes with the profession. Most professions have fear in them.

LEE: The fear I’m talking about is getting up in the morning and nothing comes.

NM: Well, I’m used to getting up in the morning with nothing in my head. After a few years, I came to learn that the best thing, in a way, was to have nothing in my head until I hit my studio or the room in which I work. And then, very often, it would be an empty hour before the writing would start. It’s almost as if the unconscious-see, I have this theory that the unconscious is not entirely our own. We have an unconscious, but it’s almost like it’s lent to us, almost like a Jungian notion, if you will, and I didn’t read Carl Jung to decide this, I decided it on my own. But it’s as if the unconscious taps into a deeper realm of knowledge that we possess. And it’s immensely reluctant to give up that unconscious strength for too little. So the unconscious has to trust you and if you have bad habits, as I did when I was younger-when I was younger, after The Naked and the Dead, and I had a good day of writing, I’d often go out and get drunk to celebrate it. I’d get so drunk I couldn’t work the next day. And what had happened, if I was writing a novel, the unconscious prepared some of it, but I wasn’t there to use it. So it festered in the unconscious source. That’s like if you’re a general and you leave your troops out in the rain because you want to get laid on a given night, so the troops are still standing out in the rain and you’re a dreadful general. Well, I was a dreadful novelist in that sense, I didn’t take care of my own unconscious. So I really have this belief that you almost have to make a compact with your own unconscious, where you state you’re going to be there the next day and working, you’ll be there-whether you feel like writing or not. I’ve often said, sourly, that poets just have to be good once every two weeks. They can wake up in the morning and write a beautiful poem, then that gives them honor for the next two weeks at least. But a novelist has to go every day like a working man with his lunch pail.

LEE: Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what Hemingway used to do, where he would stop in the middle of where he wanted to go next.

NM: Yes. Yes. Well, he had a certain kind of life and then he would go out and do things and be very active. Physically, I think he had tons of energy, more than I possess. When I finish writing for the day, I don’t want to do a damn thing. I’m very happy to play a little solitaire. But I want to finish, I don’t want to have it nagging at me because if I quit in the middle, I’ll be thinking and thinking afterwards. And so what he did was the exact thing for me not to do. I think every writer has his own route.

LEE: Yet you still have such muscle in your prose, a certain energy in there.

NM: Well a part of it is that I think we’re given gifts and we damn well better use them as best we can because if we don’t use them we’ll pay for it on the other side. I really think there’s an accounting on the other side. But the other thing in it is that I think my style developed as such after I stopped smoking. I spent ten years cutting out smoking. I used to smoke two, two and a half packs a day for many years. I haven’t had a cigarette now in about forty years. But what happens is the extra energy I got from cutting out cigarettes got into the style and my ear became much more sensitive to the sound of words. With cigarettes, I used to work with the meaning of words and so my early writings tend to be more intellectual and the later writing tend to have more of a sense of the rhythm of the sentence and letting the sentence lead me to where I’m going to end up. In other words, with cigarettes, I always knew what I wanted to say, without them I found it was more interesting to discover what I had to say. So that’s an element in it. But the key thing, to get back to it all, is you can’t betray the unconscious. Since my unconscious doesn’t trust me altogether, I literally had to go through this routine of getting up in the morning with an empty mind, waste an hour in the office once I got there, and then it would begin to come. It was almost like the unconscious said, “All right, you’re here. I can trust you; you’re not going to leave now, I can tell.” And then the stuff would start to come. It’s almost as if we’re assigned to our own unconscious, that it has a separate existence to a degree. And I found that’s true with the books I do. Sometimes I wonder, why am I writing this book? It doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with me and yet I’m doing it. It’s almost as if I’ve been assigned to do this book. I once even had a fantasy that the gods look down on us and say, “Well, here’s a tasty one for Saul Bellow, and that one might be just right for Updike, and, oh, here’s a good one for Mailer-he’s such a dogged little worker, let’s give him this one.” (laughs).

LEE: Whether it was fair or accurate, you were, at one time in your life, considered by many women to be a misogynist.

NM: Yeah.

LEE: Do you think you’ve changed much in your thinking about our gender differences?

NM: I thought it was an outrageous attack. There’s no attack I’ve resent-ed more in my life, I think. I mean, take the stupidest reviewer whose said the stupidest thing ever about me, I don’t think they irked me as much as these reasonably intelligent women deciding I was a sexist. They didn’t use the word misogynist, they said sexist. It just wasn’t true. If I had an error, I’ve said some stupid things about women because I adore them, I love them. I grew up with a lot of very good women around me. Not only my mother was terrific, but she had four sisters who were very nice indeed. And I had an aunt on my father’s side who was lovely. So it wasn’t as if I saw women as hateful or unworthy of anything, on the contrary, I saw them as a source of love and energy for me. I adored women and I was spoiled by them to the degree where I would make ridiculous remarks about women once in a while for the fun of it. But the idea that I hated women-a man who hates women does not get married six times.

LEE: Let’s just talk a little about ageing. Do you feel more captive by it now and what its day to day realities are as opposed to, say, when we sat down for our first interview five years ago?

NM: Oh yeah. Well, your physical limitations move in. It’s like a tide that comes in. And your incapacities move in. In other words, I take it for granted that I’m never going to be traveling through a wonderful foreign city in Italy, let’s say, exploring it. That’s gone forever. Walking is difficult. I don’t enjoy walking. I force myself to walk a couple hundred yards a day. So in that sense-of course the cartilage is gone in my knees.

LEE: Is it just because you didn’t want to undergo the recuperative process to have your knees replaced?

NM: I’m too old for it. The knees went bad about five years ago and at that point, the doctor said, well we can certainly do it, but I’m not going to do them both at once. I’ll do them one at a time.

LEE: That’s a year.

NM: That’s a year. And I thought I’m too old for that. If I knew I had ten years, okay, I’d do it. But what if I pop off in two years and I’ve lost one of them to this? And I can live with it, it’s not that bad. It isn’t like I live in pain and can’t sleep at night. It’s just tough to walk. So that’s one thing. My hearing is going and my teeth. By the way, make sure you don’t have any infected teeth if you go through a heart operation or they’ll take out your teeth.

LEE: Really?

NM: Well, what’s the definition of a doctor? He’s a human biped who covers his buttocks.

LEE: Has ageing impacted your writing process?

NM: No, I don’t think so.

LEE: Do you have more big novels in you?

NM: I don’t know, I hope so. The point is, one of the things that happens when you get older is your command of your vocabulary begins to diminish. Very slowly, but it does. And you never know when your brain is going to give out on you. My knees have given out on me, my ears have given out, my teeth now. So, I don’t feel any certainty at all that I’ve got another big novel in me. I’m going to write it. I have it in my mind and in my sentiments, but whether I’ll be physically able to do it, to go through the grind of two or three very tough years is something I just can’t predict.

LEE: Do you think much about death?

NM: No. Surprisingly, not that much. I’ve thought about it all my life, so-I really feel death is the beginning of another existence. I believe in karma, I believe we’re reborn.

LEE: So you do believe in reincarnation?

NM: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

LEE: In a human form?

NM: Well, that’s not knowable. Listen, I’ve seen so many dogs that are more human than humans, that I’m not so sure-it may be the nearest we come to heaven is to be reborn as dogs. I mean the love a dog feels. How often do we feel that much love for anything?

LEE: I also understand you’re no one to mess with in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

NM: I’m not that good. I’m fair, I’m fair. I mean I can hold my own-put it this way, if I’m with a bunch of dolts who are a dolt like me, I’m okay. You know what it is? The serious people who play in Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments have something I simply don’t have. I don’t think they play all that much better than I do, but I can play Texas Hold ‘Em for an hour and a half. Two hours is really getting a little tough on my system. These guys play it for twelve hours a day, for three or four days to get to the final. So what I’m seeing at the end of it all is guys who’ve been playing it for forty-eight to sixty hours. So probably, they’re fifty per cent of what they were when they started. So at that point, I’m saying, well they’re all right, but they’re not that great. I’ve played with people who are much better than I am who’ve played in those tournaments and they wipe you out. If you play five nights with them, they’ll win big three nights. They’ll draw even one night maybe.

LEE: I want to wind up, Norman, with something I remember from at least 25 years ago, sitting on your deck in the afternoon with Eddie Bonetti, and we were having a few cocktails. You and Eddie started to spar for a few minutes-Eddie had very fast hands.

NM: Oh yeah. Well, he used to box with Willie Pep.

LEE: Right. But you also seemed to remember Jose Torres telling you to keep your left up because you did a pretty good job of blocking Eddie. And then afterward the subject of Hemingway came up. And though I was probably too intimidated at the time to bring it up, but I always felt I understood Hemingway’s suicide. Forget that he had it in his family, but the one thing that mattered to him-his writing-had been taken away by what might have been Alzheimer’s or whatever.

NM: He would have been awfully young for that.

LEE: And I’m not talking about suicide concerning you either. But I do notice a contentment about you now that I don’t think Hemingway ever had.

NM: No. Well, you know he overextended himself. He had a lot of balls, there’s just no getting around it. And the balls were to take real chances with his life. I’m not just talking about the things he did in terms of physical feats. Physically speaking, I think he was a braver man than I am, but I don’t think he was, like, five times braver than me-I think he was twenty-five or thirty per cent braver. Because to me, bravery has also been very important over the years when I’ve tried things. But I think he was truly overextended because he came from a mid-western family that was only partially cultured. And now here he was, one of the intellectual leaders of the world, willy nilly. He didn’t ask to be an intellectual leader, but he was seen that way. Every one of his pronouncements had a papal ring to them, especially for young writers where he had enormous influence. And I think for him, he was immensely obsessed with death all the time. And I do think his father’s suicide was a prodigious part of that. I remember there was a young talented writer here, whose name I don’t recall, who died in a motorcycle accident. But he had said in an interview that he was thinking of committing suicide, but he knew he couldn’t do it because if you commit suicide, you condemn your sons to suicide.

LEE: Was that John Gardner maybe?

NM: Exactly. Yeah. And I thought that was an amazing remark and quite true and I thought he was thinking of Hemingway. But anyway, what I’m getting at, I’m not so sure Hemingway committed suicide. I have this theory that every night, whenever he was feeling truly sick and bad, he would take a shotgun, load it, and put the muzzle in his mouth, reach down with his thumb and play with the trigger. He certainly knew where to cross the barrier.

Editor’s note: Another version of this interview appeared in The Cape Cod Voice.


“Joyce built a whole universe out of a grain of sand”

Salman Rushdie, the author of the “Week of the Book” present, was carried along by James Joyce’s Ulysses as though the book was rocket fuel.

The wing of the Rijksmuseum looks like a fort. His bodyguards (beside his own there are three other of the city of Amsterdam) have left for a cup of coffee, and the one walking along Salman Rushdie watches me with a slightly disturbed and slightly concerned expression. Many images must haunt the head of the man who wrote this year’s “Week of the Book” present: frightening images, images of the future, images of old myths and modern internet legends. Somewhere in that hyperactive brain also roams the spirit of the Irish-born writer James Joyce (1882-1941). Rushdie: “Joyce is always in my mind, I carry him everywhere with me”.

Who it was who called his attention to Ulysses (published in Paris in 1922) Rushdie does not remember, but he knows that it was in the first year of his study of history.. “Everyone said that it was such a sealed book, hard to penetrate, but I did not think so at all. You never hear people say that there is so much humor in the book, that the characters are so lively or that the theme – Stephen Daedalus in search of his lost father and Bloom looking for his lost child – is so moving. People talk about the cleverness of Ulysses and about the literary innovation. To me it was moving, in the first place”

Stephen and Bloom, those were the characters which touched him immediately. He quotes from memory: “Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls”. Those were the first lines of the second chapter. “I am myself disgusted by that kind of organs”, he grinned. “There are still so many little things I always have to smile about when I think of them. That commercial, for example: “What is home/without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?/ Incomplete”. That is still funny. Joyce used many stylistic means which were novel in his time, newspaper headlines for instance. Is it not moving that he makes Ulysses happen on the day that he met his wife! He kept that newspaper, carried it always with him and used all of its details, including the names of the horses in the races. In short, he built a universe out of a grain of sand. That was a revelation to me: so that is the way one could also write! To somebody who wanted to be a writer, like me, it was so perfect, so inspiring, that it made one need to recover. I have thought for some time: I quit writing, I become a lawyer. Later I thought that there may be some little things still worth doing.”

Such as in the field of linguistic innovation? “Joyce spoke against the politisizing of literature, but his language is a purposeful attempt to create an English which was just not a property of the English. He employs a lot of borrowed words from other European languages and creates an un-English kind of English”. Was that not also the goal of Rushdie himself? “Certainly. The Irish did it, so did the American and the Caribian writers. While English traveled around like that, the people felt the need to innovate it. So I did. But the Joycean innovation was the greatest of all. It is an example that deserves to be followed”.

And what about Joyce’s famous monologue intérieur ? “That stream of consciousness was not an invention of Joyce, but he used it more subtly than anyone else. Bloom’s inner voices were about very common things, about a hungry feeling or so. Joyce demonstrates that the material of daily life can be as majestic as any great epic. The lives of ordinary people are also worthy of great art. One can create grandeur out of banality. That was precisely the criticism Virgina Woolf had on Joyce. Woolf was a bit too snobbish for it”.

As the best example of the stream of consciousness Rushdie “of course” considers Molly Blooms monologue at the end of the book. “In the past I could recite whole parts of it: “and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” That conclusion is absolutely rocket fuel at the end. You have a book behind you in which the behavior of people is not strictly transparent and then suddenly you feel not only the skin of that woman, but her whole body, all her flesh and blood, that is a baffling climax. Of course also very erotic, although as yet the novel was not erotic at all. At that time literature did not extend to erotics, to the sexual fantasies of women. Impossible to imagine Virginia Woolf doing something like that”.

Ulysses is in fact a national epic about Ireland. “It is a grand homage to the country that has never understood him” says Rushdie. “He was regarded there as a pornographer and blasphemer. Now he is viewed as Ireland’s national monument. Well, that’s easy. I do understand how Joyce felt. I am close to him. I feel a kinship, not so much between our types of authorship, but rather between his eye and ear, his mind and mine. The way one looks at things”.

Nevertheless, they would not have become friends, he believes. “Joyce was not very good at friendship. There is a story about his put-down of Samuel Beckett, who adored him and often came along his place. He plainly told him that he only loved two people in the world: the first being his wife, the second his daughter. His only encounter with Proust was also very comical. Joyce and Proust met each other when leaving a party. Proust had his coach standing at the door and was wrapped up fom head to foot, afraid as he was to catch a cold. Joyce jumps into the coach uninvitedly, lights a cigar and opens the window widely. Proust says nothing, neither does Joyce. It is like a silent movie. Two masters of the word, who say nothing to each other and yet disclose themselves. Fantastic!”

In Portrait of the artist as a young man Joyce mentions the weapons with which a writer can defend himself against the outer world: silence, exile, and cunning. Are those the weapons Rushdie recognizes? “Well, that was a very good stratagem in the time of Joyce. Like Voltaire, Joyce believed that a writer should live near a border, so that he could leave immediately if problems arose. At present that does not work anymore: I have experienced it personally. And silence is an overrated artform, which people now too often impose upon you”.

But are writers not regarded more and more as intellectuals and are they not continually asked for an opinion? “I believe that worldwide there are more and more efforts to impose silence upon writers – and that not only applies to me. It is easy to point to the Arab world, or to China, but even in the United States there are people who want to ban Harry Potter books from schools, because they contain something about witchcraft. Even something harmless like that provokes an attack. We live in a time with an increasing urge to censorship. Various interest groups–including antiracist or feminist movements– demand it. When Kurt Vonnegut is banned from public libraries and not everywhere it is allowed to teach about Huckleberry Finn, then you just cannot assume straight-away that there is something like freedom. Against silence it is that now we have to fight. And exile does not work. Therefore, cunning is the only thing that remains”.

Every year there is in the Netherlands a special week, called the Week of the Book, in which– to promote the new titles– anyone spending more than $10 in a book store receives an extra book, which is specially written for the occasion. In 2001 it was Salman Rushdie who was invited to write the book, and his Woede (i.e. Fury in English) became the year’s present. He was also invited to the Gala of authors with which the Week of the Book started. This year the party was held in a wing of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.) It was here that Margot Dijkgraaf, literary critic of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, interviewed Salman Rushdie for the series The Crucial Book, in which writers expound their views on the book that has most influenced their ideas. [K.G.]
Translated by K. Gwan Go, reproduced by permission of Margot Dijkgraaf.

“The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all its beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful, is Truth.”
– Leo Tolstoy, “Sevastopol in May”, 1855.

What makes Leo Tolstoy relevant even today, even to the most contemporary audience, is that Tolstoy was not just a great writer. He was also a great and inspirational teacher of life. Leo Tolstoy wanted his books to be read by everybody, not just by a select few. Tolstoy’s writing is remarkably unstuffy. He wrote fiction to share his insatiable love of life and to tackle the eternal questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What will make me happy? Tolstoy doesn’t give readers the answers to life’s vexing problems, but he gives you something even more valuable. He gives readers such an appreciation of the truth and totality of life that you feel enlarged as a human being. After you read Tolstoy, you feel spiritually uplifted and intellectually empowered to seek out the answers to life’s vexing questions on your own.

Professor Andy takes you on a journey through the mind, soul, and art Russia’s greatest novelist. In his writing and speaking about Tolstoy, Andy combines both scholarly expertise and strong passion, and he talks about Tolstoy in the same way that Tolstoy himself wrote about life: with honesty, clarity, and deep sensitivity.


What you are about to hear is not a fabrication. It is not an imitation. It is the ACTUAL LIVING VOICE of Leo Tolstoy, recorded in 1909 on one the very first gramophones ever to exist in Russia.
Witness World History in the Making!

In this audio selection Tolstoy reads from his famous religious-spiritual essay, “Thoughts for Everyday.” Tolstoy, who knew English, French, and German, translated the passage himself, and he speaks in English with a Russian accent. Listen and follow along in the text below:

“That the object of life is self-perfection, the perfection of all immortal souls, that this is the only object of my life, is seen to be correct by the fact alone that every other object is essentially a new object. Therefore, the question whether thou hast done what thou should’st have done is of immense importance, for the only meaning of thy life is in doing in this short term allowed thee, that which is desired of thee by He or That which has sent thee into life. Art thou doing the right thing?”


Tolstoy Reads His Fairy Tale, “The Wolf”

Tolstoy loved to entertain children with fairy tales about exotic people, animals, and even vegetables. The picture to the left shows Tolstoy making his grandchildren laugh with a story about a cucumber — yes a cucumber! Click PLAY to listen in as Tolstoy reads from another one of his famous fairy tales, “The Wolf.”

Tolstoy Teaches the Peasant Children on His Estate

Tolstoy believed that quality education should be available to everybody, not just to the priviledged few. That’s why he created a school for peasant children on his Yasnaya Polyana estate and helped to create libraries in his local community. The picture to the left shows Tolstoy at the inauguration of “The Library for the People” he helped to found at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy died only a few months after this picture was taken.

Tolstoy Reads from His Famous Essay, “I Cannot Be Silent”

Tolstoy was a passionate social activist, who used the power of his pen to fight social injustices and human rights violations in Russia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One powerful essay, which became known internationally, was called “I Cannot Be Silent.” In this essay Tolstoy expressed his moral outrage over the government’s policy of executing criminals and political dissidents. The event that finally compelled Tolstoy to write the essay was the court’s decision in 1908 to execute twenty peasants who assaulted their landowner. Tolstoy was 80 years old at the time.

Authentic Film Footage of Leo Tolstoy!
History comes alive in this authentic film footage of Leo Tolstoy celebrating his eightieth birthday party in 1908. Tolstoy is depicted here with his wife, Sofya Andreevna Tolstaya (picking flowers in the garden), his daughter, Aleksandra L’vovna (sitting in the carriage in the white blouse), his aide and confidante, V. Chertkov (the bald man with the beard and mustache), his dog (a spaniel-poodle), and his peasant students who have come to celebrate Tolstoy’s birthday with him. Shot on one of the first film cameras in Russia, this rare glimpse into world history is certain to excite and inspire.

The short film presented here was shot on L. N. Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday (August 28, 1908) by one of the early pioneers of Russian cinema, Aleksandr Osipovich Drankov, and his two assistants, I. S. Frolov and V. Vasil’ev. It was the first film taken of Tolstoy.

It was obtained from the Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive and digitized by Eric W. Hoffman at the Media Center of Stetson University. The Tolstoy Studies Journal holds non-exclusive copyright over its use.

The film opens with Tolstoy’s relatives and friends riding through the territory of Yasnaya Polyana on a light carriage, delivering a box of presents for peasant children. I believe the woman riding in the middle of the carriage (in the white blouse) is Aleksandra L’vovna, Tolstoy’s third daughter. The following scene finds Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya, collecting flowers from the flower garden. The Tolstoys’ beloved dog (a spaniel-poodle mix) makes a brief appearance. Next, V. Chertkov, Tolstoy’s aide and close friend, distributes alms at the “tree of the poor”. Chertkov appears in several of the scenes: he is the bald man with a beard and mustache, sometimes wearing an English bowler. Among the men leaving the main house with Chertkov are the Tolstoys’ sons. You can also spy another of Drankov’s cameras set up near the house. The last scenes are of Tolstoy: In the penultimate scene, Tolstoy, who was suffering from leg pain at the time, is seated on the second-floor balcony, in a low wicker chair, barely visible over the railing. The men to the left are students who have come to congratulate Tolstoy on his birthday. Chertkov stands immediately behind Tolstoy, and Sofia Andreevna stands to the right. The final scene is taken from the balcony. Tolstoy smiles at the camera, his ailing leg propped on an ottoman. Sofia Andreevna stands to his right, Chertkov behind him, and Aleksandra L’vovna can be seen to Tolstoy’s left.

Watch the film:

For slow connections: Small picture, low quality image
Window’s Media Player version
Quicktime Version

For fast connections: Large picture, high quality image
Window’s Media Player version
Quicktime Version

You will need the Window’s Media Player or Quicktime Player to watch this short film. If the file does not properly launch, you might try to right-click on the link with your mouse and choose the “save link target as” option. Once the file is finished downloading, you can double-click the icon.

There are several accounts of the shooting of this film: The most detailed is in Lev Anninsky’s «Oxota na Lva» (Tula: Shar, 1998), p. 14-20. Another can be found in Jay Leyda’s Kino: A History of Russian and Soviet Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 33. You can read another account, published in the New York Times, of the day’s events and Tolstoy’s reaction to cinema here, on the Tolstoy Studies website.

Michael A. Denner,
Tolstoy Studies Website Editor

This article is taken from Visit the link to see the film and hear the voice.

What if the British had maintained a steadily oppressive rule over a liberty-minded North American population from the 1600s to after WW II? How would the colonists, living on plantations or forced to work at subsistence wages in factories, go about building an independence movement over those centuries, with the levers of power–economic, political, military, legal, cultural–in the hands of the British government?

photo of PramoedyaIn his exciting series of novels known as the Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass), the Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer dramatizes the development of intellect, will and courage required to organize a freedom movement under such conditions. For his power as a story teller, Pramoedya, as he’s known (pronounced Prah-MOU-dia), has suffered tremendously. He has seen his writings banned and notes and drafts of novels destroyed, He’s spent 14 years in prison, most of them in a forced labor camp on the island of Buru [see map], forced to eat grubs, lizards and mice or starve, and all the while watching fellow uncharged prisoners die by the hundreds. He lost much of his hearing in a beating by soldiers. And he was separated from and denied contact even by mail with his wife and young children during most of his years on Butu.

photo of Pramoedya and Prof. Florida, who led efforts to honor Pramoedya at CommencementPramoedya was on campus in May to receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters at Spring Commencement. Despite his ill treatment, the wiry 74-year-old has the cheerful and self-composed aura of the similarly fated and minded Nelson Mandela. Pramoedya delivered lectures and readings, signed books (including his recently published prison memoir A Mute’s Silent Song, titled The Mute’s Soliloquy in the English edition) and granted an interview to Michigan Today with a trio of questioners, Southeast Asian specialists Profs. Nancy K. Florida (Indonesian Languages and Literature, who translated) and Ann L. Stoler (anthropology and history), and MT‘s John Woodford. Also present were Pramoedya’s wife, Maimoenah Thamrin, and his friend and editor Joesoef Isak of Hasta Mitra publishing company in Jakarta.

MT: Did you get the background for Minke, your hero who helps lead the Indonesian awakening beginning In 1898, from your father, who was a nationalist leader and educator?
Pramoedya A. Toer: When I was creating Minke’s adventures, I had students pore over newspaper stories from the period and wove episodes into the plot. But to learn about the internal politics of the Indonesian nationalist groups from our many islands and regions, I didn’t rely on my father but on the Dutch scholar Willem Wertheim. He brought out the characters who had been erased from our history.

Q: Is Minke’s nemesis, the sinister Robert Surhoff, based on a real person?
A: I got him from a newspaper article about a Eurasian gang the Dutch had organized to terrorize the people of Jakarta. The Dutch devised a racial classification system similar to the American and South African apartheid scheme. “Indo” was the name for offspring of Dutch and Javanese. The Indos were born into a complex psychological problem, and Surhoff symbolizes the psychological and social confusion felt by many of this ancestry. He felt he was a true Dutchman, but the Dutch did not see him as such, and he thinks of the natives as dirty and low. This causes him to take extreme measures in expressing his racism.

Q: Who are your favorite American authors?
A: John Steinbeck and William Saroyan. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the primer I used to teach myself to read Enghsh. I was so touched and impressed by those two writers that I’m afraid I have not been as open as I’d like to be to others.

Q: Who are other favorites?
photo of PramoedyaA: I read a lot of Zola as a youth, and before my prison exile I translated Tolstoy into Indonesian. I was impressed by his liberation of his serfs but he didn’t serve as a model for my writing. Gorky influenced me much more. He was a writer who portrayed the social fabric of his country and gives readers an insight into the distinctive character of the Russian people. The Philippine novelist Jose Rizal [executed by the Spanish in 1896 after three years of imprisonment and torture for championing freedom from colonial rule–Ed.] was also an inspiration for me.

Q: Are you working on a book now?
A: Yes, on one called The Originator, a nonfiction work on the crusading journalist on whom Minke was modeled, Tirto Adhisurjo. The Dutch exiled him to the island of Molucca. His widow’s family sent me many important documents that shed light on his life, but government security forces stole them from me and I’ve never seen them again.

Q: General Suharto’s predecessor Sukarno, lndonesia’s first leader, also imprisoned you, though briefly. Why was that?
A: That government didn’t like the way I championed the rights of our Chinese minority. I admired and studied the awakening of the Chinese nationalist movement in the early 1900s. Indonesians were inspired by the Chinese movement’s principles of social justice and internationalism as expressed in the writings of Sun Yat-sen. The Chinese characters who arise in my stories are symbolic of that influence. I try to show history being played out by what my characters say and do. I first learned of what the young Chinese who came to Indonesia were like from my mother.

Q: Now that Suharto Is out of office–what are your hopes for Indonesian-US relations?
photo of PramoedyaA: I have expressed my opinion everywhere that the United States should stop sending arms to Indonesia, that the armed forces are not a stabilizing factor. Your country–the West as a whole–is very influential throughout the world today. It was thanks to some pressure from the Carter administration that I was released in 1979. I ask everyone to help the youth of Indonesia complete the reformation of the nation. If we don’t reform our society there will be social revolution, with people attacking, looting, killing. Only effective national leadership can prevent this hopeless outcome. A social revolution without national leadership would result in Indonesia’s vanishing from the face of the Earth. Each faction would establish its own autonomous unit, and since, as Sukarno taught us, this century is the century of intervention, our resources would be up for grabs.

Q: How do you explain the deadly violence going on between ethnic groups and military and police elements in Indonesia now?
A: The so-called ethnic and communal problems you read about-it’s clear someone is behind it. Someone is doing it for the purpose of postponing the return of our natural resources to the people, the riches stolen by the New Order [Suharto’s name for his system of military rule–Ed.]

Q: [To Maimoena Thamrin, Pramoedya’s wife.] How did you and your five children make do while Pramoedya was imprisoned?
A: I sold pastries, popsicles and knickknacks from my house and fabrics at street booths. It was very difficult for the children of all of the political prisoners. They were taunted and officials deprived them of educational and job opportunities.

Q: [Back to Pramoedya.] The Buru Quartet has all of the elements for a great film. Any plans for one?
A: An American filmmaker told my editor that in this country the movie would have to be based on Minke’s fair-skinned first wife Annelise rather than Minke. Otherwise, he said, there would be too many little brown people running around for an American audience!

Q: Why did the Indonesian government ban your Quartet when its target is Dutch colonialism?
A: Well, apparently Suharto identified with the target! But it was the youth and students who were able to bring down Suharto. His fall was only formal, though; his power is still running. The root of our problems is colonialism. What is going on now is a repetition of what we experienced fighting colonialism. Indonesia is the world’s largest maritime nation [more than 200 million people living on 3,000 islands and speaking more than 200 languages–Ed.], yet an army runs it. That is an inheritance from the colonial system and a fatal mistake. It causes many problems.

Q: The hero’s guardian angel In the Quartet is Nyal Ontosoroh. the former concubine who wins her freedom and amasses a fortune. How did you happen to invent such a strong female character?

“My mother was a person of inestimable value, the flame that burns so bright it leaves no ash. Do not be surprised, therefore, that when I look back at the past I see the Indonesian revolution embodied in the form of a woman–my mother.” From The Mute’s Soliloquy, Hyperion Press, 1999.

A: When I would tell my fellow prisoners the stories that became the novels, I would say to them, “Look at her. Look at what she is doing–and she is only a woman! Certainly we men should be able to do more.” I wanted her to inspire them. photo of PramoedyaIn real life, my mother was an incredibly strong character, although physically she was weakened by tuberculosis and died at 34 when I was 17. When people ask me to say how my mother influenced me, I say that what is in my books–everything–is what I got from my mother. She used to urge me to continue my schooling after I dropped out in junior high. “You must master Dutch,” she’d say, “so you can widen your knowledge. Then you must go to Europe and other countries to learn even more. Do not stop until you have a doctoral degree.” And now, thanks to my honor from the University of Michigan, I have finally fulfilled everything she wanted.

Pramoedya’s series of four historical novels known as the Buru Quartet began as tales he made up to entertain his fellow prisoners. They liked them so much that they took over his grueling prison labor chores for six years so he could concentrate on inventing the stories he told them on work details and at night.