Speaking of Aleksandar Hemon, I happened to see him, and Antonya Nelson, in a New Yorker College Tour event on Wednesday of this week. (Maud posted about related events on Thursday, which prompted me to gather these notes and share them with you.)
The event took place at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater at the University of Michigan in bucolic Ann Arbor, on which canopied campus, in another age, I shed my youthful ignorance and acquired a slightly more grown-up variety. But enough about me.
It was a beautiful, sunny fall afternoon, and about 100 people chose to spend it indoors at the Mendelssohn. They were mostly students, with a sprinkling of faculty members plus a couple of old duffers who added a Cageian element of chance to the performance by wandering in and out of the auditorium whenever they felt like it. Everyone else was well behaved.
The session was moderated by New Yorker deputy fiction editor Cressida Leyshon, who set a nice, friendly, informed tone for the proceedings. Both authors read for about 30 minutes, followed by a Q&A session that lasted about 20. Then Leyshon thanked speakers and audience, and we all repaired to the lobby for book-buying and book-signing.
Nelson read first, a story called “Stitches” from her collection Female Trouble. It’s essentially an account of a telephone conversation between a mother and her daughter who’s away at college. Unfortunately, the conversation is abundantly and repeatedly interrupted by the mother’s (and, so it seemed to me, the narrator’s) reflections on life and love, etc., which tried my patience mightily. In fairness, Nelson “got me” several times with a few really beautiful apercus, but on balance I found the narrator a little too knowing.
Alas, I couldn’t help but wonder: isn’t Nelson’s work the kind of stuff Hemon supposedly hates, given his frequent denunciations of “bourgeois” and “suburban” fiction? If so, there was no sign of that here.
I did enjoy Nelson in the Q&A session, where she was self-effacing and charmingly un-knowing in her comments about the writing process. So I promised myself a closer look at her stuff later. (I’m aware she’s quite established and well known, but for some reason I haven’t been paying attention til now.)
Anyhow, next up was Hemon. When he reads from his work, he does it with little modulation and at a fairly rapid pace; sort of the opposite of the kind of reader who tries to “act it out.” Together with his accented English and relatively soft voice, this means it takes a little extra attention to follow him.
(Nelson’s delivery was somewhere in between, not acted-out but clearly conscious that this was a performance, which is how most literary authors do it. I prefer readings to be a little off-hand Ã¡ la Hemon, since it gives me more to do as a listener. But more than enough about me.)
Hemon’s text consisted of a few scenes from his novel, Nowhere Man. The reading ended with the scene in which one of the novel’s main characters, Victor, tells the story of seeing George H. W. Bush give a speech in Kiev. After the speech, Bush has a brief and comical exchange with Victor’s friend Pronek. Watching this scene from afar, Victor suddenly realizes that he’s in love with Pronek — a Nabokov-like moment made even more Nabokovian by Hemon’s sensitive delivery.
An added bonus was hearing Hemon’s imitation of Bush the First, which he warned us about beforehand. Of course, it sounded nothing like Bush, but that merely added to the fun. As did the fact that he didn’t really attempt to dramatize anything else in his reading.
Here, in abbreviated and occasionally paraphrased form owing to my faulty note-taking, is how the Q&A session went.
LEYSHON: Did you think much about structure when writing Nowhere Man?
HEMON: Pronek’s life was a continuum up until war then it broke apart. So a linear narrative wouldn’t do. This is a risky proposition, because people are used to linear narratives in which a trauma takes place, but linearity [resumes]. For Pronek the damage is never repaired.
NELSON: I’m interested in shapeliness, because in grad school I was often accused of plotlessness. But I realized it wasn’t so much plotlessness as a lack of shape. In this case, I thought a phone conversation would be a way of shaping the story.
LEYSHON: Sasha, you began to write in English after war marooned you in the U.S. Could you imagine if you had ended up in France or Germany, would you have written in French or German?
HEMON: I don’t know. When I arrived in America I knew enough English to communicate, whereas I didn’t know German or French. So I’m not sure. The xenophobia in Europe is more pronounced. Bosnians in Germany were kept in — I won’t say “concentration camps” because that has connotations in Germany — but they were kept in “collection camps” and were not assimilated. I have two good friends living in Berlin. I have cousins in France, but it’s harder, because crossing the cultural borders is harder over there. This country has a tradition of people coming over.
LEYSHON: I still think that four years in France and you’d be turning out a great novel in French.
HEMON: [Laughs.] Sure, I’ll say that.
LEYSHON: I get the sense that when you are writing, location is important.
HEMON: Intimate insiders, or outsiders who’ve arrived: Those are two stances I think are the most interesting.
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: Readers can’t help contextualizing a work by wondering what a novel says about the author. Does it annoy you or please you when readers approach works in that way?
NELSON: Interesting or uninteresting is key. Writers reflect themselves through sensibility. Writers I read, I’m interested in sensibility as the autobiographical element. If I like a writer’s sensibility, I feel like I know them. The facts are less interesting, or interesting only in the gossip sense. For example, E. M. Forster I like, I feel I know him, but I feel I know what he thought and what he felt through what he wrote.
HEMON: For the biographical element to be interesting, the writer has to be a celebrity. I do not read biographies — it doesn’t interest me what Chekhov was like. I don’t need to know, because the Chekhov I know is my Chekhov. As far as writing, it seems impossible not to start from some place, for instance language, which necessarily is part of yourself. And, if you are short on imagination, as I am, you embroider on stories you’ve heard or seen. So in that sense everything is autobiographical. But I have no interest in concealed confession. I’m a big boy, I can say things about myself plainly and directly. I hate Bush — I don’t have to say it in a story. [Laughter, applause.] The whole damn family. [More laughter.] I’ve never stood in front of him, which is good for him. But I was in the same city he was, and maybe that was enough.
AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: When you write a story, how do voices come to you? Do they come from you, or do you hear them, and how long does it take, etc.?
NELSON: I don’t write in the first person very often. Writing doesn’t seem like an oral activity to me … though there is some sense of rhythm. I guess I’m hearing it, but I’m also creating it. A real conversation often doesn’t sound real on the page. And that’s curious to me. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. I’m not explaining it very well.
HEMON: I hear voices. [Laughter.] My wife is always hearing me talk to myself in the kitchen, talking to a pot or a cup. I’m constantly trying out language. If you see it on the page, it’s not the same. Literature transforms things we know so well into something else. I often count the beats in a sentence, and then cut some out to make it work.
NELSON: I hear the narrating authority. I remember narrating to myself as a child. I fantasized a being a narrator. [I found this very interesting, especially since the narrator in her story was overly intrusive to my tastes. Though I admit I was intrigued by the ambiguity in perspective, in places where one couldn't tell whether we were hearing the mother's own reflections or the narrator's reflections on the mother. At least it seemed ambiguous as I heard it read aloud.]
AUDIENCE MEMBER #3: What is being published in The New Yorker like? What role has The New Yorker played in your career?
NELSON: When I have a story in the The New Yorker, I hear from people. I can’t think of a place I publish where I hear more. Having an audience is a real gift.
HEMON: Before I got to the US, I was aware of people who had published in The New Yorker — Salinger, Nabokov. And the Barth and Barthelme generation. In some ways [my being published there] was like the impossible coming true. I like being published in magazines. I like the fact that people read it everywhere simultaneously. A book is a more intimate thing. A book is its own context, but a magazine has poetry, reviews, etc. I like that.