New York Times By the Book Interview With Lynne Tillman

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Lynne Tillman May Have Her Book Collection Cremated With Her”:

As a kid-reader, I thought a library was the great thing to build in life,” says the novelist, whose new book is the nonfiction “Mothercare.” “Now, unless you have a huge house with enormous rooms, this desire leads to mayhem and depression.”

“Woman at Point Zero,” by Nawal el Saadawi. Profound and devastating.

Virginia Woolf’s “The Years.” Sometimes I feel I’m not ready. Sometimes I hold off reading a work until I imagine I need it. Virginia Woolf, whose mind and writing overwhelm everything else, comes to help me.

We’d have to agree on what bad or good writing is. Standards shift, books drop out of the canon, out of sight, consensus changes, because that’s negotiated in the present. People read in a specific time, but you’re asking about “quality.” Who judges it, whose values, that is determinative. Subjectivity, bias or “taste,” inculcated by class, race, education, etc., is the judge, elusive objectivity the gold standard. I like D.H. Lawrence’s excesses because, to my writer’s mind, he bent the stiff English language toward desire. I’d say, a book wouldn’t be great, even if the subject were important, to which the word “great” may be applied, when the writing was awful or deadly dull. A B-movie and a B-novel can be great camp, because they make no attempt to be “art,” but wallow in the bizarre, in their awkwardness, and magnify those flaws.

Serve? No. I believe, in narratives, that an ethical issue is being debated, not systematically, not necessarily announced, but there is an argument. That argument underlies or undergirds narratives. Something is at issue between characters, some event, a lie, a betrayal, a secret that affects others and more. These works are not morality plays, don’t have a moral at the end. There is usually, in what I consider good novels, something at stake that may not be obvious. In Henry James, it is usually not. But if a novel represents, say, how people live, ethics will be engaged.

Pretty common. Writers and readers aren’t so different. Me, I want to read whenever I want. I want to read what I want. In relative quiet, but if I’m absorbed it doesn’t matter, because I don’t hear anything. I could read inside an MRI machine if the book held me tight. Reading needs privacy, which is too rare. I feel a relationship develops, and usually I don’t want to talk about it while I’m reading, and often after. It’s an intimate experience. My thoughts aren’t commensurate with the experience of living with and in it, certainly not immediately.

Working on a novel, typically I don’t read novels. Short stories, OK. I was in the middle of writing “American Genius, A Comedy,” halfway done, when I told a friend a little about it. He said it reminds me of “The Magic Mountain.” I’d read some Mann, not that. So I read 75 pages, and, boom, there was something going on, so I stopped dead. After “AGAC” came out, that same friend read it. In mine, toward the end, there’s a séance; he told me toward the end there’s also a séance in “The Magic Mountain.” So weird, although my sister has attested for years there’s a little German man living inside me. I haven’t forgotten Hans Castorp, I want to return to him. Fortunately, my protagonist is nothing like him.

It’s called a memoir, it’s really not. It’s a book-length autobiographical essay, and it’s not a personal essay; the use of personal is wrong. If it were a memoir, I wouldn’t have written about my mother’s meds and hospitalizations. The only writing specific to an aging parent I know –– Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death.” I read it many years ago; it must have unconsciously influenced “Mothercare.” Her writing is unadorned, straightforward, almost brutal in its honesty. An Atul Gawande essay on aging alerted me to issues I knew nothing about, and probably encouraged me, subliminally, to write “Mothercare.” Gawande made me aware of the rigors of aging, how it affects bodies, how differently the elderly need to be treated, and how shabbily they often are. I had a need to tell what I learned.

From Colm Toibin’s “The Magician,” about Thomas Mann’s complicated relationship to his six unusual children, and his behavior when the Nazis took over, his initial reluctance to take a stand against them: In his mind, he represented, along with his writing, the true and good Germany. Natalia Ginzburg’s novels perform what great novels do uniquely: make vital the complexities of human beings, their acts, in history and in the present, in her case, how Italian leftists and Jews survived, or didn’t, the occupation. Survival is always of interest to me.

Jean Rhys’s style, her unique use of language; her use of adjective to noun is singular. She understands and can articulate despondency. The breadth of thought, great style and an author’s capacity to impart knowledge move me — historical, political, psychological, a comprehension of life. Joseph Roth’s “The Radetzky March” and “The Emperor’s Tomb,” pre-World War I and post-World War I novels. In the former, Roth presents three generations, grandfather, father, son, in the Austrian Army, and through them narrates the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. “The Emperor’s Tomb” is the aftermath. Great translators, such as Michael Hofmann, Rachel Careau and Susan Bernofsky, make it possible to see their brilliance. The poet and artist Etel Adnan’s work, such as “The Arab Apocalypse,” a book-length poem, and “Sitt Marie Rose,” her novel about the Lebanese civil war, these are passionate, moving, philosophical works. I recently read Richard L. Jackson’s memoir, “The Incidental Oriental Secretary and Other Tales of Foreign Service.” He’s my friend’s father, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about the book. He writes elegantly; his book reminds me of Paul Bowles’s travel writing. A very dry humor when detailing his assignments, and behind the scenes events in international affairs.

Elevate Jane Bowles’s “Two Serious Ladies”! I don’t know what is or isn’t in the canon. So I can’t eliminate any. I’d add more Edith Wharton — “The Mother’s Recompense.” Wharton was a beautiful writer, tough, daring: A woman leaves her husband and little daughter for her lover, leaves America, doesn’t ever see her child again until she learns her daughter is set to marry her former lover. “Two Serious Ladies” came out in 1943. Bowles was a born postmodernist. It was her only novel, and for that she’s not taught. Her stories are brilliant also. I’m glad I don’t know exactly what’s in, or not in, the canon. I’d fume, and there’s way too much to fume about in this country.

With trepidation, I’d invite three dead writers. Jonathan Swift, Jane Bowles and Franz Kafka. They’re all great wits. Kafka, if translated well, as Michael Hofmann does, is so funny, and suits my mordant humor. I’d been laughing for years, to some inappropriately, then read that Kafka laughed aloud when he read his work to his friends. Jane Bowles’s humor comes from her unrelenting anxiety, and it stuns, stings; if you are an anxious person, it’s consoling. Jonathan Swift is a wild card, 18th-century satirist. If he talked at all, whatever he said would be revelatory. I never throw dinner parties, and can only cook two reasonable dishes. Kafka was a vegetarian, so it would probably be the pasta dish, which would bore them all. Maybe not Swift.

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