Maugham on philosophy’s pleasures and limitations


It was my habit to start the day with a perusal of a few pages of a metaphysical work. It is a practice as healthy to the soul as the morning bath is healthy to the body. Though I have not the kind of intelligence that moves easily among abstractions and I often do not altogether understand what I read (this does not too greatly distract me since I find that professional dialecticians often complain that they cannot understand one another) I read on and sometimes come upon a passage that has a particular meaning for me. My way is lighted now and then by a happy phrase, for the philosophers of the past often wrote more than ordinarily well, and since in the long run a philosopher only describes himself, with his prejudices, his personal hopes, and his idiosyncrasies, and they were for the most part men of robust character, I have often the amusement of making acquaintance with a curious personality. In this desultory way I have read most of the great philosophers that the world has seen, trying to learn a little here and there or to get some enlightenment on matters that must puzzle everyone who makes his tentative way through the labyrinthine jungle of this life: nothing has interested me more than the way they treat the problem of evil. I cannot say that I have been greatly enlightened.

— Somerset Maugham, The Skeptical Romancer, Edited by Pico Iyer

My introduction to the conversation with Donna Tartt

October 29, 2013, at Congregation Beth Elohim for Brooklyn by the Book

By popular demand, by which I mean because I think Carrie Frye will enjoy it, here’s a lightly edited version of my introduction to the conversation Donna Tartt and I had after her reading last night. 

There are very few novelists writing today — or in any era, I suppose — of whom it can be said with certainty that they will be read in a hundred or two hundred years. Donna Tartt is an exception. In three gorgeous and propulsive novels, all winding and character-driving but also skillfully, satisfyingly, psychologically plotted, she has combined the immersive Victorian pleasures of someone like Dickens with an aloof, slightly antisocial, lightly barbed perspective not unlike that of Iris Murdoch or Nabokov. Perhaps because her prose is so lush, or maybe because she’s a southerner skilled at sliding the most deadly observations into view in a light, offhand way, critics don’t often remark on how eviscerating some of her characters’ insights are, or how funny. Even as the eras she’s writing about, and the eras in which she’s writing, recede into the past, her writing itself stays fresh and urgent.

A not-yet-twenty-year-old friend of mine who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona probably would have sold a kidney to be here tonight, and she’s not the only person much younger than me I know to be enraptured by Tartt’s novels.

In her latest book, The Goldfinch, Theo turns his gimlet eye on Park Avenue and on Las Vegas, exposing their shallow, unique horrors, but also getting at the weird appeal of each of them. Following his mother’s death and a series of other miscalculations and misfortunes, Theo is hobbled by a choice he makes in the opening pages, and by his inability to know how to set it right, but over time he increasingly lives by his own rules, on his own time, surrounded by friends of his own choosing, some of whom are very definitely not friends his mother would have chosen for him.

As Laura Miller wrote for Salon, “Donna Tartt’s characters have a habit of falling into bubbles of one kind or another, places where they are a bit cut off from the world and where they grow fiercely attached to the handful of other people with whom they share their half-dreamlike existence…. [Even Theo Decker] doesn’t quite seem to occupy the same jangly, information-bombarded dimension as the rest of us urbanites.”

Tartt’s books are set and meander all over, but the spirit of her writing — the gestalt of it — is southern. There are many different souths, of course, and I don’t intend a comparison to the religious steeliness of Flannery O’Connor or the in-your-face harshness of Harry Crews or even to the gentle send-ups of Eudora Welty so much as to call attention to a wry, baffled, deeply disassociated perspective that, despite the completely different lush beauty and stylistic flourishes of her writing, reminds me a lot of Charles Portis. You can see this kinship most of all in some of her essays, and these in turn cast an interesting light on her novels.

In 2005 she wrote an essay for Vogue about making Hunter S. Thompson the beneficiary of her high school life insurance policy. “During those years (when I was either trapped in my cinder-block bunker of a school down in Mississippi or — more entertainingly — roaming drunk around airports as the all-expenses-paid guest of political organizations whose valuses I didn’t share),” she wrote, “Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was my constant companion. I kept his books in my locker at school, and I smiled for group pictures on the Capitol steps with his gloomy voice (psychotic… delusional… how long can we maintain?) echoing in my ears. In my own view, I was a double agent: an outwardly cheerful and apparently harmless American child who had by some insane whim of the governing class been welcomed deep into the heart of Republican darkness. I believed that I was a member of Uncle Duke’s secret army, entrenched behind enemy lines; and furthermore, I believed that I was not alone. I believed that scores of other kids like me were keeping their eyes and ears open in hick towns all across America: a nest of hissing vipers, nursed deep in the bosom of Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority. And I believed that someday, when we grew up, we would take over the country. I was wrong.”

In a 1994 Harper’s essay, “Team Spirit,” she recalled being a cheerleader and reading 1984 to and from football games during her freshman year of high school. Realizing that there was “a certain correspondence between this totalitarian nightmare and my own high school, she writes: “gave me at first a feeling of smug superiority but after a time I began to have an acute sense of the meaninglessness of my words and gestures. Did I really care if we won or lost? No matter how enthusiastically I jumped and shouted, the answer to this was unquestionably No. This epiphany both confused and depressed me. And yet I continued — outwardly at least — to display as much pep as ever. ‘I always look cheerful and I never shirt anything,’ says Winston Smith’s girlfriend, Julia. ‘Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.’”

This sense of not-belonging, of estrangement from the community while living and moving with apparent seamlessness within it, pervades all her fiction. Her characters are in a lot of different places, but they are very rarely of them.

In Fairy Tale Review, she remembered being read to by her grandmother, the way the two of them returned to some books “doggedly, like religious texts.”

Treasure Island and Kidnapped were the real bridge for me between the child’s world and the adult’s,” she wrote. “Essentially, they were the books that turned me into a novelist, and they did partly through the beauty of the language and partly through the sheer gallop of story but mostly because they made me preoccupied with the kinds of questions that novelists ask. Why do smart people make foolish decisions? Why are honest people so vulnerable to lies, and trusting ones so susceptible to flattery and manipulation? If all people are fallible — a mixture of good and bad — at what point does the equation tip and a good person become bad and vice versa?…. The word romance has been used to describe (and to dismiss) Stevenson’s work for the last hundred years. But I’ve always wondered more critics don’t see that Treasure Island, despite its fanciful stage trappings (spyglasses, cutlasses, pieces of eight), is despite its many enchantments a work of frightful psychological realism.”

Much of this praise could be lavished equally on Tartt’s own novels. It’s not at all hard to imagine readers finding and returning to them in just this way a century or two from now.

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First photo courtesy of Brooklyn by the Book. Second photo swiped from Alana Leigh at Instagram. Related: Tartt’s remarks on slow writing (transcribed by Elon Green and Iris Blasi from last night’s conversation); an essay I wrote earlier this year, “Some Company for Slow Writers,” about Tartt as my inspiration and touchstone in this regard; and the book inscription from last night that I couldn’t help but share.

Talking with Donna Tartt in Park Slope tonight

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I’m thrilled: Tonight Donna Tartt will read from her wonderful new novel, The Goldfinch, at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, and then she and I will have a conversation about it. 

We’re filling up, but you can still reserve a spot, if you’re interested. And if you’d like to join us but can’t make it for one reason or another, here are some highlights from her archives as consolation.

Nobody’s Stranger: My Miami noir love story

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Nobody’s Stranger,” a new (and also very old) twisted Miami-noirish short story of mine, goes up in two parts at Medium this week.

I say “old,” because I wrote the first version of it in Harry Crews’ class at the age of twenty. That early draft got lost, but my friend Andy and I reminisced about it (and about studying with Crews) on this site nine years ago, and afterward I wrote this version.

Since then I’ve tinkered with it here and there but it’s mostly been sitting around in a folder. Not long ago, Julie read and liked it, so when Lizzie asked if I had any fiction she could consider for Open Ticket, her great new Medium collection, I sent it along. She’s read big chunks of my novel-in-progress (excerpted at Narrative), which is very different, so I was nervous. To my surprise and delight, she asked to run it.

Here’s part one.

My teeny NYT Magazine columns, in one place

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I’ve been meaning to create a slideshow of my New York Times Magazine columnlets, for my own archival purposes more than anything, and I’ve finally done it. They appear in the “One-Page Magazine” every Sunday, in print and online. My ambit is loosely historical, so I don’t always focus on books and writers, but in one way or another I often do.

Sunday reading, a day early

My New York Times Magazine columnlet this week is about Chris Offutt’s attempts to bake a “Bible Cake” recipe (first published in a Kentucky P.T.A. cookbook in 1967) without cursing.

Just about every time I mention a piece of writing in one of these tiny columns, it’s because I hope everyone who sees it will seek the thing out and read it. This one is no exception. I hope I captured a fraction of the flavor (sorry) of Offutt’s full essay, which appears in The Oxford American.

Last week’s columnlet was on Joan Schenkar’s speculations about Patricia Highsmith and marriage equality for The Fertile Fact. Another recent one was devoted to Brett Fletcher Lauer’s faux Missed Connections, which he wrote about for A Public Space.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen about his forthcoming novel, The Sound of Things Falling, is only available in the galley, but it’s a fascinating prelude to an excellent book.

It got better


My father used to theorize, proudly, that Bowers v. Hardwick was based partly on reasoning from some law review note he wrote. The details are hazy in my memory, and the claim was always speculative, not to mention (characteristically and horrifically) grandiose, but whether or not my father actually helped preside over this era of hatred and bigotry, I’m thrilled it is finally coming to an end.

(Thanks, Ken, for the U.S. rainbow flag.)

Summertime salutations

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I sometimes miss writing here, on this website. It seems so old-fashioned to me now, a tiny Internet island disconnected from everything else. I remember first starting to type in this little box, or one very much like it, and the wonder and excitement and anxiety I felt when people responded from their own little boxes and linked to what I’d written. That was eleven years ago. Eleven years!

I’m not the sort of person who wishes things had stayed as they were. I like Tumblr and Twitter, etc., etc., and I’m interested to see what comes next. But I do feel a little wistful from time to time for the newness of the experience of typing some stream-of-consciousness thing like this — which is not at all what I was expecting to write when I opened up WordPress — and setting it loose into the world.

Now I’m putting that energy into my book, which feels good and right, but I wanted to say hello to any longtime readers who might be passing through. So, hello out there! Isn’t this blogging thing crazy?

I originally popped in to link to some things I’ve done in the past couple of months and neglected to mention here: an essay for The New Republic,How Occupy Changed Contemporary Art: Molly Crabapple’s ‘altarpieces to the revolution’,” and an interview with Naomi Alderman about religion, Margaret Atwood, and The Liars’ Gospel, for Barnes & Noble Review. I’m still having a lot of fun doing my columnlet for the New York Times Magazine’s One Page Magazine every Sunday. The panda mask at the top of this post is Kyle Hilton’s illustration for the one based around Emily Witt’s fascinating “What Do You Desire?” Last Sunday’s subject was the great Sinead O’Connor.

Right now, apart from my novel, I’m working on a dream of an assignment for another of my favorite magazines. I’m so excited, I keep wondering if I made this up. But I have a contract, so if all goes well, you can read it there eventually.

Finally, I need to thank the illustrious Bud Parr of Sonnet Media, who quickly redid my site and got it back online the last time it went belly-up. If you’re looking for someone to design and maintain a website for you, you really can’t do better than Bud.

Happy summer, you guys! If you were here, I’d make you a salty dog. We could drink them on the terrace with all my herbs and flowers, and my lemon tree, which survived the winter indoors, but we’d have to do it really quickly. It’s getting ready to storm.

Stuff from me, in the mail

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Putting together packages for Quarterly Co. has been a lot of fun and a lot of work. I’m ironing out the details for for my very last one right now.

The most recent shipment included Colson Whitehead’s Colossus of New York, art from Molly Crabapple, a short story from Roxane Gay, (a link to) Patty Griffin’s “Florida,” and a letter. The subject was places. Muriel Spark, Roland Barthes, Denise Levertov, Bill Hickok, and Breaking Bad made appearances in previous packages, which were about work and grief, but not the combination thereof.

I’m also excited to be contributing to the Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail. My dispatch goes out in June. Subscriptions are $5 monthly, if you’d like something fun to keep the bills company in your mailbox.

On the rise of the “Christian bar mitzvah”

For the weekend’s New York Times Magazine, I wrote about the increasing popularity of traditional Jewish rituals among American evangelical Christians — including, in a small but growing sector, “bar mitzvahs” for their kids. The article, “Oy Vey, Christian Soldiers,” appeared in the March 22 issue, and you can see some photos and videos of these practices in a related post.

On Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers


For NPR, I review Rachel Kushner’s brilliant lightning bolt of a novel, The Flamethrowers, which straddles two revolutions: the squatter-artist colonization of Manhattan’s SoHo in the 1970s, and the rise of Italy’s radical left during the same period. An excerpt:

Its young artist narrator, Reno, is wistful and brutally candid at once, with a voice like a painting — lush and evocative — but also like a scythe. “Enchantment,” she says, describing her dashed hopes after a one-night stand, “means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.”

The rest is here. See also: Kushner’s Paris Review essay on the photos that inspired her while writing; praise from James Wood and Ron Charles.

Letter from Jerusalem


It’s impossible to choose a favorite thing in Jerusalem so far, but right now I believe it may be the Bulgarian feta with hyssop and sun-dried tomatoes that’s laid out every morning with the rest of our hotel’s immense breakfast spread.

I’m here for the Jerusalem International Book Fair, where Mark Sarvas, Boaz Cohen, Naomi Alderman and I spoke yesterday about books, the Internet, and writing and creating art from a place of passion and authenticity.

Mark and I don’t see each other nearly often enough these days, and it’s been great to roam the city and catch up. Boaz is smart and charming; it’s easy to see why his radio show and his blog are beloved here. And I adored Naomi, whose first novel, Disobedience, I praised on this site years ago and whose game-writing I’ve always wanted to know more about. She and I nerdily compared iPad apps and promised to meet up in New York to talk about being refugees from fundamentalism.

Max and I spent Monday in the Old City, and had drinks and dinner that night at Mona (yum) with the writer Menachem Kaiser, Israel Museum Director James Snyder, and some other fine people. Yesterday was all about the book fair, but after drinks at the National Library, Max, Mark, and I slipped off to dinner at Eucalyptus.

This morning Max and I head to Bethlehem for a few hours, and then we’ll meet up with Mark at Yad Vashem. Tonight we dine at Canele. Tomorrow morning we go to the Israel Museum for the new Herod exhibition, and in the afternoon to the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane. Early Friday morning — a little after midnight — we head home. So far, thanks to my body’s time zone confusion, I’m averaging three-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night. I’d really like to get a nap in; for now I have jetlag limericks from Facebook friends.

Max took this photo, looking east from the Tower of David Museum, on Monday afternoon.