Mark Danner interviewed by Muriel “Aggie” Murch, “Living with Literature” radio program, KWMR 90.5 FM, Point Reyes, CA.
Muriel Murch: Welcome to Living with Literature. This is your host Muriel Murch. Mark Danner is my guest today. In 1958, Mark was born in Utica, upstate New York. He graduated from high school in 1976 having spend his senior year as coeditor of The Corridors, which that year was voted the best student newspaper in New York State. He entered Harvard in September of the same year, graduating magna cum laude in Modern Literature and Philosophy in 1981. Through the 80’s Mark traveled and wrote extensively about areas of conflict for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and the New York Times. In 1990 he joined the staff of The New Yorker, after they published his series on Haiti, “A Reporter at Large; Beyond the Mountains”. Mark continued to report and write articles and books about war. The mid -0s saw Danner in the Balkans. A series of articles for The New York Review of Booksculminated in a documentary for Peter Jennings reporting series, “While America Watched; The Bosnian Tragedy.” Danner is a frequent contributor toThe New York Review of Books. Over the last two decades it has been hard to pick up a series or journal without reading some insightful and disturbing journalism about war from the pen of Mark Danner. His collection of essays on the War on Terror were published in 2004 entitled Torture in Truth: America Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror. He joined the faculty of the University of California in Berkeley in 1998 as a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, where he is remains a full professor. The state of America’s foreign policy and engagement with countries around the world make Mark’s work more necessary than ever to our collective sanity and understanding of the world we live in. But today Mark has taken a moment to reflect back on his life and share some of the readings and literature that has inspired, comforted, and maybe given him hope in this war torn world that we all, and Mark in particular, live in.
Welcome to Living with Literature Mark.
Mark Danner: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
MM: This is a wonderful place to be. (The basement of American Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco) I want to see what you have to start with. You have brought us a bagful of books here.
MD: I am afraid so! Far too many.
MM: There never are, never are. What do you want to start with? Or where do you want to start in literature as it entered your life?
MD: Well this has been a fascinating journey trying to figure out exactly where literature did enter my life and where that river began as it were. And of course I found myself inevitably led back to my parents and hearing stories as a child. In particular when I grew up in northern New York. We had a little house my grandfather built in the mountains of northern New York State, in the Adirondack Mountains. And so we would drive there during the summer, sometimes during the fall, and it was about an hour away from our normal house. It seemed an immensely long drive for a child. I remember very vividly my father telling me stories in the car. In fact those stories made the drive not only endurable for a three or four year old child but eventually a great source of fun. You know I looked forward to the trips. I would, after awhile, ask him for these stories as if asking for the greatest hits. And one of those stories, the earliest one I think, my father favored bible stories, and the earliest one I remember, I actually remember two, Samson and Delilah and David and Goliath. And I think my father might have told David and Goliath because I was very small. And that of course is the story of a young, smaller, normal size boy triumphing over an enormous giant. And it’s a story of great vividness and great drama. And it’s of course the beginning of the kinship story. The kingships story of Israel. I looked just now in the King James Bible and saw the key passage in First Samuel. Its told here at rather great length but the critical, the climactic point, is when David stand there before the giant who is probably 15 or 20 feet tall. The champion of the Philistines and he is a shepherd with no armor of any kind and he reaches into, he has only a slingshot of course.
Samuel 1 Chapter 17
42 And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was [but] a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance. 43 And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field. 45 Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. 46 This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. 47 And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle [is] the LORD’S, and he will give you into our hands.”48 Â¶ And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. 49 And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang [it], and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth. 50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but [there was] no sword in the hand of David. 51 Therefore David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.
And I remember vividly my father describing this and talking about how the earth shook for miles around when Goliath fell. Because it was like the fall of a building. And the sound of it echoed over the land when he collapsed. And after awhile I would ask for this story along with the Samson story. And he would supply it. And for years and years later I would think that my father, my gosh, he knows all these stories isn’t this incredible. And not very long ago, my father, who is in his mid 80s, I mentioned this to him and he said to me,
“Oh boy I remember, you know, having to pull down the bible and all these books before those trips to make sure I remembered the stories.” I never dreamed that he was actually prepping! I though he knew them deeply.
MM: How wonderful! What a wonderful story to have chosen. In particular taking into account the kind of child you were.
MD: I think, well this is my supposition, that he was thinking in those terms. Samson, as well, of course, while David and Goliath is a story of a normal sized person conquering a giant against all expectations and doing with a slingshot for God’s sakes. So it’s a story about contingency, about bravery, about how strangely the world can evolve. What strange things can happen? Samson is also a story of, on the other hand, the giant strong man. Famous for being for being strong he is brought down by some weakness. Who seduces him and eventually cuts his hair, the secret of the strength.
MM: And that’s the end of that.
MD: Of course it is the end of that, but the end of the story is Samson now this terribly weak man being led into the banquet of the Philistines once again. And his hair has grown back. He has been blinded by the Philistines but his hair has grown back. He is led into the banquet and he is position himself under the great pillars in the banquet hall. And since his strength has returned he is able to push these pillars and strain and strain and finally push them and the entire hall falls down and kills all the Philistines and himself, of course. So there is a feeling of redemption. Redemption of the sin of weakness.
MM: And we forget that part of the story.
MD: We do, we do. We usually, when we say Samson and Delilah, think it’s about the fall. In the end he ends his own his own life out of the need to redeem himself and to redeem this legend he had let go because of his own weakness.
MM: The great sacrifice.
MD: Exactly. These two stories in particular were entrancing to me. And I grew up with three sisters and they would groan when I would ask for these stories. Bu he told them brilliantly and, you know, who knows where the interest comes from. My father was certainly given to telling stories about conflict. Because it affected his life greatly. Which I can talk about if you want.
MM: Go ahead.
MD: Well I was going to say that – you know its funny when I look back on reading and what I have read and what literature has meant to me, I do go back very often to my father in those early stories in the car. As I got older they became more complicated, more sophisticated, and he would often start telling stories of war. And then began I think, the post-biblical stories, the stories taken from what I realize much later in my life, was The Iliad. Stories about Troy, about, in particular, the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles. The great battle which is the climax of The Iliad. And also my father would always tell me, not only that story and of course the famous passages of the death of Hector, but also of Achilles driving his chariot around the great walls of Troy with Hector dragging behind the chariot.
MM: That’s right. You brought The Iliad with you.
MD: I did. I did. And I want to read it, but this is not my edition. I was trying to find it earlier when I was waiting upstairs. Where my father would begin this is the final drama between Achilles and Hector. And of course this battle is I think similar in some ways the Samson and David episodes I described. Because it’s not a fair fight. Achilles is a god. Or half god, with only weakness in his heel. Hector is a man, but a great champion. In a sense the battle is determined beforehand, which is a key part of the drama which my father would always bring out.
So this young man and the greatest hero of his city realizes he is about to die. He has young children, he has a beautiful, famously gorgeous wife. He has a happy, happy, home, which is one of the things Homer could describe very well. He realizes he is about to die. And he makes the conscious decision to die a hero at the hands of this god he faces.
And the death scene which is from book 22 of The Iliad.
Shaft poised he hurled and his spear’s long shadow flew and it struck Achilles’ shield.
A dead center hit.
But off and away it glanced and Hector seethed.
His hurtling spear, his whole arm’s power poured in a wasted shot.
He stood there cast down, he had no spear in reserve,
so Hector shouted out to Deiphobus, burying in his white shield
with a ringing shout he called for a heavy lance but the man was nowhere near him.
Yes and Hector knew the truth in his heart.
And the fighter cried aloud.
My time has come.
At last the Gods have called me down to death.
I though he was at my side.
The hero Deiphobus, he is safe inside the walls.
Athenus tricked me blind.
And now death, grim death, is looming up beside me no longer far way.
No way to escape it now.
This, this was their pleasure after all.
Sealed long ago.
Zeus and the son of Zeus and the distant deadly archer,
though often before now they rushed to my defense, so now I meet my doom.
Well let me die, but not without struggle, not without glory.
In some great clash of arms that even men to come will hear of down the years.
And on that resolve he drew the whetted sword that hung at his side,
tempered massive and gathering all his force,
he swooped like a soaring eagle,
launching down like dark clouds to earth.
To snatch some helpless lamb or trembling hare.
So Hector swooped now, swinging his whetted sword and Achilles charged too, bursting with rage.
Guarding his chest with a well wrought blazon shield,
head tossing his gleaming helmet, four horns strong.
And the golden plume shook and the god of fire thick and bristling along its ridge.
Bright as that star, amid the starts in the night sky.
Star of the evening.
Brightest start that rides the heavens.
So fire flared from the sharp point of the spear Achilles brandished high in his right hand bend on Hector’s death,
scanning his splendid body. Where to pierce it best?
The rest of his flesh seemed all encased in armor.
Burnished. Brazen. Achilles amour that Hector stripped from strong Patroclus when he killed him.
True, but one spot lay exposed, where collarbones lift the neck bone off the shoulders.
The open throat, where the end of life come quickest.
There. As Hector charged in fury brilliant Achilles drove his spear and the point went stabbing clean through the tender neck but the heavy bronze weapon failed to slash the windpipe.
Hector could still gasp out some words, some last reply.
He crashed in the dust. God-like Achilles gloried over him.
And then they have their dialogue:
“Hector, you deemed that you should come off scatheless when you were spoiling Patroclus, and wrecked not of myself who was not with him.
Fool that you were: for I, his comrade, mightier far than he, was still left behind him at the ships, and now I have laid you low.
The Achaeans shall give him all due funeral rites, while dogs and vultures shall work their will upon yourself.”
Then Hector said, as the life ebbed out of him,
“I pray you by your life and on my knees, and by your parents, let not dogs devour me at the ships of the Achaeans, but accept the rich treasure of gold and bronze which my father and mother will offer you, and send my body home, that the Trojans and their wives may give me my dues of fire when I am dead.”
MM: And the importance of that.
MD: The importance of it, you know, to me is again recognizing here is this man in the full flower of life, this great champion. I mean Hector, the greatest of Trojans, realizing that his life is over. He realizes it even before he is wounded. Decides for glory to die in a glorious way first. And secondly when he knows he is about to die, he begs for essentially his parent’s love. That his body be returned to them. Not only for his own honor, but for his parents, and his family. He begs Achilles, and Achilles does not comply. So there is this, you know, assumption, as there was with Samson too I think. I don’t think my father had this in mind, that this strong feeling that there is something much beyond death, which is honor, and which is beyond murder, killing, or which is a notion of very strong honor. And the rights of the dead. And the rights due the dead.
MM: The rights due the dead.
MD: Which of course the Greeks were extremely fascinated with. I mean Antigone is about that for example. And you know this whole sequence goes on, and my father used to describe it. It only ends when Priam, Hector’s father comes and pays this ghostly visit. To Achilles’ tent. Achilles spends hours driving around the walls of Troy dragging Hector’s body to the enormous pain of his family and the Trojans. And Priam must come in as this ghostly figure in the middle of the night and beg for the body from Achilles. Achilles does indeed relent and this is the beginning of the healing of Achilles, who will soon die as well.
MM: So the gods get it too?
MD: Yeah the God’s get it too. Although he is not completely a god, he is only partly a god. So he has that Achilles’ tendon. His heel and his tendon
MM: Well you have got us off to a very warlike start, which is interesting statement in itself. But where do we go from the Greeks?
MD: Its funny, the natural place to go form the Greeks and I am slightly with my father although we will go by him in a minute, and I can’t miss at least mentioning this, is the Romans who in fact pulled together Virgil pulled very consciously took, The Iliad, The Odyssey, they come from this dark world. We aren’t sure Homer existed. There were obviously a number of different poets under the same name. Virgil, we know who he is. He is in the light. He is in our history; we know where he lived, we know what he wrote. And he very consciously pulled together these two epics to put together this beautiful poem that was also propaganda. It was about the Roman state emerging from Troy, among other things. It’s a very beautiful poem and the part I want to draw attention to is the death of Dido. Which is about not war but love. I read this first in college, but I first wept at the scene when I was driving through the mountains of New Mexico down from Colorado in Northern New Mexico, the most beautiful country on earth. Listening to this recording of it. And the death of Dido left me weeping, weeping, weeping. Because they, of course, have this enormous passion, which is consummated very vividly in the poem, in a cave amid stags running around outside and its very convincing. And it is a very passionate love. Very passionate. Overwhelming love. And the gods once again interfere and send Aeneas off on his journey and she indeed knows he is leaving, sees him leaving, sees the boat ready to sail away. And she spends an enormous amount of effort building a funeral pyre. Essentially as she watches the ship leave she impales herself on the sword. And it is her dying words, her death itself, that is just one of the most moving things I have ever read because it’s hopeless — he doesn’t know that part of the thing about the Aeneid is that he later meets her. So you have this incredible death scene. This overwhelming scene of death and then the funeral pyre in which she burns herself that she has built, the flames of the funeral pyre. Well a number of books later he meet her in the underworld. So you have in this moment after this incredible passion that they have enjoyed, which is as I say is described with great vividness in the poem. So he, Aeneis has gone into the underworld, so he has had this enormous passion with Dido, he knows now she killed herself, he’s wandering among the dead.
This is Book 6, which subtitled, The Kingdom of the Dead. And the earlier passages are from book 4, The Tragic Queen of Carthage. Especially around line 200. But, so Aeneis has gone to the underworld and wandering among them, wounds still fresh, he sees among the shade Phoenician Dido.
Not far from these Phoenicians Dido stood,
Fresh from her wound, her bosom bathed in blood;
Whom when the Trojan hero hardly knew,
Obscure in shades, and with a doubtful view,
(Doubtful as he who sees, thro’ dusky night,
Or thinks he sees, the moon’s uncertain light,)
With tears he first approached the sullen shade;
And, as his love inspired him, thus he said:
“Unhappy queen! Then is the common breath
Of rumor true, in your reported death,
And I, alas! The cause? By Heav’n, I vow,
And all the powers that rule the realms below,
Unwilling I forsook your friendly state,
Commanded by the gods, and forced by fate-
Those gods, that fate, whose unresisted might
Have sent me to these regions void of light,
Thro’ the vast empire of eternal night.
Nor dared I to presume, that, pressed with grief,
My flight should urge you to this dire relief.
Stay, stay your steps, and listen to my vows:
It is the last interview that fate allows!”
In vain he thus attempts her mind to move
With tears, and prayers, and late-repenting love.
Disdainfully she looked; then turning round,
But fixed her eyes unmoved upon the ground,
And what he says and swears, regards no more
Than the deaf rocks, when the loud billows roar;
But whirled away, to shun his hateful sight,
Hid in the forest and the shades of night;
Then sought Sichaeus thro’ the shady grove,
Who answered all her cares, and equaled all her love.
Some pious tears the pitying hero paid,
And followed with his eyes the flitting shade,
And it will course down through the history of literature. A man having left a woman who he had betrayed by leaving. Pleading that it wasn’t up to him. He had to go. But this is the first measure of it in actually in hell. And she disappears from him of course.
MM: Where have we heard d this story?
MD: I think T.S. Eliot called it the most civilized moment in the history of literature. That she rises like a moon, he pleads for her, and she drifts away from him. There is no reconciliation. There can’t be. The deed was done. He did what he did.
MM: He did what he did. As men do.
MD: As men do. They will do that. This is true. So anyway, this is the Greeks and the Romans with whom, in whose midst, I dwelled during a lot of my childhood and adolescence too.
MM: You took them with you?
MD: Oh absolutely, and I think my father, you know because of these early stories I had an enduring interest in Homer and the Greeks and an enduring interesting the Bible the Old Testament. The stories in particular in Samuel and Kings. The great epical stories of Israel and Syria and Babylonia and the Ancient and Near East. And its amazing that when I went to Iraq in 2003, I had longed all my life to go to the Baghdad museum, which has a number of very famous statues and other things from the time of Gilgamesh, which is a book that I also love very deeply and almost brought here today. Proto- Bible in some ways. And I walked into this museum in 2003 and found only rubbish, of course, of statues whose had been chopped off by the looters. Display cases that had been shattered. Rooms full of file cabinets that had been looted and trashed. The museum itself had been – looters had taken up residence there. For ten days. Simply carried out methodically all of this amazing treasure from 5000 years ago. And just put them in pick-up trucks and driven away. Within site of the American tanks, which sat there guarding the traffic circle, in front to it, who didn’t interfere with the looters. I interviewed the head of the museum, Danny George who had been forced to sit there watching his museum being looted. I thought my God I have wanted to be here my whole life since I was a boy. And I arrive and it’s all, it’s all been trashed in this awful way.
MM: I wanted to ask you when you talk about the stories which I grew up with too, did you get a sense of the geography of the Middle East and the Far East when you were reading these stories? Did you have a place in your mind?
MD: I did, because you know, I think my father started reading these things to me when I was three or four. But probably by the time I was nine or ten I think I was actually reading versions of these, children’s somewhat adolescent versions and so on. And I was very interested in maps, I really was interested in the Assyrians and the Babylonians. This kind of sequence of very exotic people who had marched through and conquered this place.
MD: So I became fascinated with the region. When I was very, very young. And I think it did come from that.
MM: Yeah. Very much so. All right.
MD: Shall we leap ahead?
MM: Well I don’t know about leaping. I think we are plowing ahead.
MD: Well the next thing I, you know, this is so painful of course one realizes when you think about your life and the things that have affected them. There are so many things. I do want to stay with my dad for a minute. As I grew older I would accompany him on trips, very often just the two of us, up north as we called it. Which was this hour drive up into the mountains. And the stories he told me became more complicated and more adult as it were. In particular he started talking about modern history. In particular, the history of the 20th century. And his story was sort of by happenstance conveyed to me. Which was he had been a kid, a poor kid, grown up very poor during the depression. Got in a lot of trouble. I found out later he failed a year in high school. He had gone into the navy. Never intended to go on in school, he was a disaster as a student. He had gone to the navy and he described a moment when he was on aircraft carrier off Okinawa in the Pacific. There was a moment, he was 20 years old, and he was commanding a gun crew on the deck that was trying to shoot down these Zeros, these Japanese fighter planes. He described very vividly. He realized he was looking on the deck there was a plane coming directly at him, firing. And he had this amazing perception as a twenty year old. ‘He is trying to kill me!’ And he was knocked down and wounded, not killed. But he had this shocking realization. He always told me there is no accident that young kids are sent to fight in wars. Older people are much too smart. Young kids are stupid they don’t realize mortality. This was his glimpse of mortality as a 20 year old. And it changed his life completely
First of all he became fascinated with this notion that he was about to lose his life, but he had no idea what was going on in the war. He had no notion what was happening, where troops were deployed, what exactly his part was. He was astounded by his own bewilderment. And this bewilderment led him to start to read. He began reading. And he started reading about the history of the 20th century. About WWI in particular and later, increasingly about WWII. And this reading led him, when he got back from the navy, to go to college on the GI Bill and become a dentist. And to completely change his life.
I bring this up at such length because his stories of war strike me because there is a kind of literary trope there of the small cog in a large battle. And the bewilderment that follows there from. And you know he would talk about WWI which I eventually began reading about, and came up with a kind of series of accounts that followed this trope. Unbeknownst to my father completely. This is very common. The first example which I think is wonderful and very famous is The Charterhouse of Parma (Le Chartnevose de Parma) by Stendhal. The amazing thing is that this book was admired immensely by Tolstoy, among others. Who was highly influenced by it. And we see another version of this soldier in the midst of a great battle who has no idea what was going on in the figure of Prince Andre and the battle of Bordino. And then we have Stephen Crane who admired both of these books intensely. Basically doing a whole short novel on the same theme — The Red Badge of Courage. All of these are immensely cherished books of mine. And its hard to even, you know, decide which one to look at. But it seemed to me the well spring of this. Even though the theme goes back to Homer and beyond, the wellspring of it is Fabriztio’s experience at the Battle of Waterloo.
MM: In which book are we here?
MD: This is in The Charterhouse of Parma. In the, I think, the second chapter, Chapter 3 I’m sorry. It’s a very prolonged, very prolonged theme, and I have been having great trouble trying to decide what part of it to read. He is a young. He is essentially a young man in love with fame and wanting it to see L’Emporer. He wants to see Napoleon. And he spends his time riding around the battlefield trying to figure out what the hell is going on. He eventually finds some soldiers and he brings them something to drink. They are in the middle of Waterloo, a battle that will end Napoleon’s career.
A very ugly sight awaited the new recruit; they were sawing off a cuirassier’s leg at the thigh, a handsome young fellow of five feet ten. Fabrizio shut his eyes and drank four glasses of brandy straight off.
“How you do go for it, you boozer!” cried the cantina. The
brandy gave him an idea: I must buy the goodwill of my comrades, the hussars of the escort.
“Give me the rest of the bottle,” he said to the vivndiére.”What do you mean,” was her answer, “what’s left there costs ten francs on a day like this.” And he rejoined the escort at a gallop :
“Ah! You’re bringing us a drop of drink,” cried the sergeant. “That was why you deserted, was it? Hand it over.” The bottle went round, the last man to take it flung it in the air after drinking.
“Thanks conrades!” he cried to Fabrizio. All eyes were fastened on him kindly. This friendly gaze lifted a hundredweight from Fabrizio’s heart; it was one of those hearts of too delicate tissue which require the friendship of those around it. So at last he had ceased to be looked at askance by his comrades; there was a bond between them! Fabrizio breathed a deep sigh of relief, then in a bold voice said to the sergeant:
“And if Captain Teulier has been killed, where shall I find my
sister?” He fancied himself a little Machiavelli to be saying Teulier
so naturally instead of Meunier.
“That’s what you’ll find out to-night,” was the sergeant’s reply.
The escort moved on again and made for some divisions of infantry.
Fabrizio felt quite drunk; he had taken too much brandy, he was
rolling slightly in his saddle: he remembered most opportunely a
favorite saying of his mother’s coachman: ‘When you’ve been lifting
your elbow, look straight between your horse’s ears, and do what the
man next you does.’ The Marshal stopped for some time beside a number of cavalry units which he ordered to charge; but for an hour or two
our hero was barely conscious of what was going on round about him. He was feeling extremely tired, and when his horse galloped he fell back on the saddle like a lump of lead. Suddenly the sergeant called out to his men:
“Don’t you see the Emperor, curse you!” Where upon the escort shouted:
“Vive l’Empereur!” at the top of their voices. It may be imagined that our hero stared till his eyes started out of his head, but all he saw was some generals galloping, also followed by an escort. The long floating plumes of horsehair which the dragoons of the bodyguard wore on their helmets prevented him from distinguishing their faces.
“So I have missed seeing the Emperor on a field of battle, all because of those cursed glasses of brandy!” This reflection brought him back to his senses.
So basically again, he misses what he has come to see, and he generally has no idea what was going on, and unfortunately it’s difficult to capture in a couple of paragraphs. But it goes on at some length about this general theme about not being able to see not being able to understand what it is all about.
MM: Not being able to understand the battle. That is something that I suspect that is so true still today in all our war situations.
MD: It is. This idea of confusion, you know, you are only a small part of it. You have no idea really what is going on. And that those who write about it afterwards will see a kind of rationality in this enormous cacophony of events that wasn’t there to anybody participating. And you know …
MM: That’s a terrifying thought Mark. That making order out of chaos after.
MD: And the artificiality of it. And the fact that, you know, you see this again and again. And as I say The Charter House of Parma does it most vividly at a very famous battle, Waterloo. But Tolstoy took this; he is an enormous admirer of The Charter House of Parma. And he made it one of the centerpieces of War and Peace. And Stephen Crane, an admirer of both books, did the same for Red Badge of Courage. And this is kind of a literary trope that follows through. Its funny because I tend to associate it with my father, for whom this feeling, the feeling of profound bewilderment, combined with mortality, the sudden rush of realizing that you are mortal, which happened when he was twenty years old on the aircraft carrier changed his life. Because those two things made him into a reader.
MM: That is quite young for that realization to come. I remember asking a ranger at Yosemite about how do people die at Yosemite. Is it old people from heart attacks or babies falling of the edge? She said, “No we lose the invincibles. They are the young people who think they can jump from rock to rock.” But that was a wonderful phrase. ‘It is the invincibles.’
MD: It is the invincibles that go to fight wars. And because as my father said, as a much older man, anyone older than 20 or 25 would be crazy to do it. So they send the young people. But it changed his life. As so many…
MM: All right. Lets move on. I think you have spoken of The Red Badge of Courage. We’ll let that one go because we have noted it.
MD: Well I couldn’t, you know let this session go by without talking about poetry a little bit, even though you know I tend to think stories. They compel me to talk about whether novels, short stories or so on. My father, again, would recite some poems. He liked Hiawatha, he like Horatio at the Bridge, not surprisingly. And I had my whole life, a very strong taste for poetry. And I thought, well I have to at least read something. And I decided late 18th century. I’m a great lover of Gerald Manly Hopkins, both for this recognition and crystallization that language can crystallize uncrystalizable things that you can capture. The world of the spiritual through language. If the language is shaped in a way that makes it almost break. That you can get beyond the denotation. The function of language to identify things and talk about things and get way beyond it. And so Gerald Manly Hopkins, who was a priest and who is famous for his experiments with language, particularly the Saxon, use of Saxon words, the idea of purging from language, the Latinate elements which he took very far indeed. He always really excited me, with his language. Out of many, many poems and poets I picked two poems, both fairly short. One is very famous called,
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not wreck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudged and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
MD: A poem about earthiness of earth, the spiritual reality of earth, that does it through the language itself in a way that to me is rather astonishing. The grandeur of God in comparison to saying it will flame out like shining from shook foil. You have foil and the shining that the sun brings to it. Another even more earthy but very similar shaped poem is called
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 5
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10
MM: Those are good choices.
MD: Well good. Well yes it’s such an unchooseable choice.
MM: It is. Its there is no choice there.
MD: There is no choice there.
MM: I saw on your list you have The Castle.
MD: Which I don’t have a copy of unfortunately. But I can talk about.
MM: Talk about that.
MD: Well let me talk about Camus just for a second because it leads into it. I was a very rowdy kid. I got in a lot of trouble. Got sent home, got in trouble a lot.
MM: You were your father’s son.
MD: My father’s son. Exactly. Although frankly I didn’t know this about my father until quite recently. And I find it amazing that he rather kept it secret from us, you know, because he would talk about his life a lot. And yet he wouldn’t give us a basic necessary detail of his life. Which is that he was in enormous trouble when he was a kid. He got into fights. He was thrown out of school a couple of times. I didn’t know any of this. All I heard were the uplifting stories of how he forged forward. Anyway, early on, when I was, I believe, a junior in high school I used to get in trouble with the librarians a lot. Because I would flirt with a couple of girls in the library. And they would constantly shush me and throw me out. This was an almost daily occurrence. Someone had talked to me about The Stranger. I didn’t know if I saw it in a book. I can’t remember. But I do remember vividly going up to the desk of the library and this librarian who had thrown me out several times who I thought of as a foul old woman. Very nasty. And saying to her, do you haveThe Stranger by Albert Kay-Mouse? And she looked at me, paused, raised her eyebrow, I remember the sequence vividly, and said,
“Do you mean, Camus, Mark?” Ha ha ha! And I could never again face her. And I told this story to a friend of mine who would repeat it constantly, Albert Kay-Mouse He still says it to this day. So it was a cause of enormous embarrassment. But I did get the novel. Having shamed me to that degree, she came and brought it to me. And this was really I think, as a junior in high school, I was introduced to books I loved very much. All Quiet on the Western Front in particular. Which meant a lot to me. But reading Camus, and reading this book was really an introduction to a new world of literature. It brought me to Kafka. It brought me to Dostoevsky. It brought me to this whole modern world of so-called existentialist literature that I didn’t know anything about and literature that wasn’t historical, but that could effect in particular you perception and how you lived. I was going to read this scene, just the very famous scene from Camus’ book, where the killing happens at the heart of the book. Its page, in this edition, 58, 59. he is on the beach.
As soon as he saw me he sat up a little and put his hand in his pocket, naturally I gripped Raymond’s gun inside my jacket and he lay back again but without taking his hand out of his pocket. I was pretty far away from him, about ten meters or so. I could tell he was glancing at me now and again and then, through half closed eyes but most of the time he was just a form, shimmering before my eyes in the firey air.
The sound of the waves was even lazier, more drawn out than at noon. It was the same sun, the same lights still shining on the same sand as before. For two hours the day had stood still. For two hours it had been anchored to this sea of molten lead. On the horizon a tiny steamer went by and I made out the black dot from the corner of my eye. Because I hadn’t stopped watching the Arab. It occurred to me that all I had to do was turn around and that would be the end of it. But the whole beach throbbing in the sun was pressing on my back. I took a few steps toward the spring. The Arab didn’t move. Besides, he was still pretty far away. Maybe it was the shadows on his face, but it looked like he was laughing. I waited. The sun was starting to burn my cheeks and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The sun was the same as it had been the day I buried Mamant . And like then, my forehead especially was hurting me. All the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning that I couldn’t stand anymore that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid that I wouldn’t get the sun off of me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without getting up the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead. At the same instant the sweat in my eyebrows dripped down over my eyelids and all at once covered them with a warm thick film. My eyes were blinded behind the curtains of tears and salt. All I could feel were the symbols of sunlight crashing over my forehead and indistinctly a dazzling spear flying out from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed in my eyebrows and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave. I felt the smooth underside of the butt. And there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, was where it all started. I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day. The exceptional silence of a beach where I had been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body, where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.
MD: Astonishing passage! I vividly remember it. In Utica Free Academy I remember reading it in the library. And I think it affected me not only because of its demonstration of how you can be described, your life could be described. Not that I was killing anyone at the time. But this kind of powerful world seizing you. Anxiety. Seizing you. The world determining your actions in a way that seemed to let go of volition. But I think I also was very influence by the language. The so-called écrtiure blanc. The white writing of o ne sentence after another. In this kind of powerful cadence. The beauty of Camus’ style. Which I very much admired. And I from this read The Plagueand the Myth of Sisyphus. His essay, famous essay, on Why Not to Commit Suicide. And I think this particular book just led me in all sorts of places. I remember taking out Crime and Punishment from the library. I think I was a junior in high school. And umm, you know, when I went to college, to Harvard, I met all kinds of people who read these books as a matter of course in prep school. Because they had read these. They were assigned. They read philosophy. They read Plato. But I went to an inner city high school where this is. You didn’t read this stuff.
MM: I am very curious to think of the mind of your librarian. You know when you asked for this book and did your relationship with the librarian change after that moment?
MD: I think it deteriorated. I hate to say it. She had shamed me, you know its interesting, that I say I was a cut up, I guess is the phrase. She would have to shush me, yell at me and I get would get thrown out. And when you are like that you are proud of it. You know you are proud of your defiance and you look down on the people who are doing it. You look down at your teachers. She kind of got over on me, as the phrase went by saying you mean Camus. So I think I was red faced and could never quite look at her again because she had shown herself to be superior in that way. On the other hand it was fortuitous because I became deeply interested in international world literature. Which led me to Kafka as well. Which I read very shortly after. I read The Trial and loved it. And you know I think when you are young, you read these things as just kind of feasts of narrative. It’s a story telling. You don’t sit there and say oh Joseph K is it a psychological thing? Is it about psychoanalysis? We can give this a Marxist reading.
When you are 17, the great pull of it is, that the pull of the strange narrative, this thing that is absolutely strange, you know. What is this force? It’s enough to read the story itself. And you might reflect a little bit on it and have the nagging feeling that there is some secret being hidden here, but there is also a sense in which it is enough. The feast is there. I remember thinking that with The Trial, and The Metaphorses. Which I also loved. And the reason I include The Castle is because it is the first of Kafka’s books where I suddenly, I think, I suddenly realized that this stuff was funny. You know. That among other things it was funny. And because there is The Castle, it is the most unmistakably humorous of his books. That you really have a kind of Marx brother’s routine going on. And of course Kafka loved Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin. He loved the cinema. Could it have been Buster Keaton?
MM: I don’t know. I would be lost on that.
MD: I know he was loved comedy in film. He loved slapstick. And you can see it particularly in The Castle. In the people he meets in the situation of not knowing. Of authority not understood. And yet there is no appeal from authority. Which is the same as The Trial. But it’s much lighter and funnier.
MM: And I have a great reading of that. So I can slip that in and we’ll add it.
MD: I know, when he first arrives in the inn. I believe that is a very funny passage. But I couldn’t find the book.
It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay under deep snow. There was no sign of the castle hill. Fog and darkness surrounded it. Not even the faintest gleam of light suggested the large castle. K stood a long time on the wooden bridge that leads from the main road to the village gazing upwards into the seeming emptiness. Then he went looking for a night’s lodging. At the inn they were still awake. The landlord had no room available but extremely surprised and confused by the late comer he was willing to let the latecomer sleep on his straw mattress in the tap room. K agreed to this. A few peasants were sitting over their beer but he did not want to talk with anyone. He got himself a straw mattress from the attic and lay down by the stove. It was warm. The peasants were quiet. He examined them for a moment with tired eyes, then fell asleep.
But before long he was awakened. A young man in city cloths, with an actors face, marrow eyes, thick eyebrows stood beside him with the landlord. The peasants too were still there. A few had turned their chairs around to see and hear better. The young man apologized very politely for having awakened K. introducing himself as the son of the castle steward and said,
“This village is caste property. Anyone residing or spending the night here is effectively residing or spending the night at the castle. Nobody may do so without permission from the count. But you have no such permission or at least you haven’t shown it. K who had half risen and smoothed his hair looked at the people from below and said,
“What village have I wandered into? So there is a castle here.”
“Why of course,” the young man said slowly while several peasants here and
there shook their heads at K. “The castle of Count Westward.”
“And one needs permission to spend the night here?”
“Permission is needed.” Was the reply. And this turned into crude mockery at K’s expense when the young man stretched out his arm to the landlord and guests,
“Or perhaps permission is not needed.”
“Then I must go and get myself permission.” Said K. yawning, pushing off the blanket as though he intended to get up.
“Yes. But from whom?” asked the young man.
“From the count,” said K, “There doesn’t seem to be any alternative.
“Get permission from the count now at midnight,” cried the young man stepping back a pace.
“Is that not possible?” K asked calmly. Then why did you wake me up?”
The young man now lost his composure.
“The manners of a tramp.” He cried. “I demand respect for the counts authorities. I awakened you to inform you that you must leave the counts domain at once.
“Enough of this comedy,” said K in a remarkably soft voice as he lay down and pulled up the blanket. “You are going a little too far young man and I shall deal with your conduct tomorrow.”
MM: Now here we are coming up for an hour and you are 17 years old!
MD: That’s true!
MM: What have we got here?
MD: Reading Kafka, from The Castle I began reading his stories, which really showed me an entirely new kind of writing. I mean this idea that the word symbolic is completely pale and has nothing to do really with Kafka, you have these stories that are creations out of the imagination that are not obviously realistic. On the other hand, they are descriptions of the most powerful kind of emotions. That can only be reached it seems through the avenues he’s chosen. So verisimilitude, which tends to be when you are a kid your judgment of art is tied to recognition. Is this something I know? Is this something I have heard? It goes away. When you are talking about Kafka, when you are talking about The Country Doctor and the images of the horse pushing their heads through the windows. The astonishing attention to horses in that story. Which is anything if realistic. But you are not sure what it is. Is it a dream? Well not really at all. It has clarity that is unmistakable. And then The Judgment which is about his relationship with his father. Which is an extraordinary thing, far from anything real. With no explanation. And climaxes with this conflict. You could call it. With his father. The end of the story is his father essentially yelling at him, challenging him. Basically it’s the end of the story.
MD: You know its the father, kind of. It’s about, among other things, your guilt about your parents and your guilt about your father. And his father accusing him and the final scene is well maybe I shouldn’t. It’s him throwing himself to his death. This entire piece is about the relationship of a character to his father.
In a pitying tone his father casually said,
“You probably wanted me to say this before but now its no longer suitable. So you know what else there was in the world besides you. Previously you only knew about yourself. You were truly an innocent child. But you were even more truly a diabolical man. And therefore know I hereby condemn you to death by drowning.” Gareth felt hounded from the room. His ears still rang from the crash of his father behind him falling on the bed. Hurrying down the steps as if they were a sloping plain, he ran into his housekeeper who was about to go upstairs to clean the apartment after tonight.
“Jesus.” she cried, covering her face with her apron, but he was already outside. He leaped front the front door and dashed across the road, driven toward the water. He was already clutching to the railing the way a hungry man clutches his food. He swung himself over like the astounding gymnast he had been in his youth, the pride of his parents. He was still clutching tight with his weakening hands when he spied a bus between the railing bars. It would easily drown out this sound of his fall. He softly cried
“Dear parents, I have always loved you.” And let himself drop. At that moment a simply endless stream of traffic was passing across the bridge.
MM: Thank you so much! My goodness! Where are we?
MD: But there is no, its about guilt, anyway. It’s The Judgment.
MM: OK. It’s interesting because you started off so clearly with these books, these stories of ancient war, ancient warriors and heroes. It seemed very direct. The path of those early, early seeds to be the genesis of what you have become. And then you had this wonderful literary education which you brought upon yourself and then went forward with and went further very much in the similar way to your father. You just got a little bit of a leg up from him it seems to me. And then went forward. But as you began your work you had to be looking at some more of the, I want to say the modern history. I don’t think that’s quite right, but you had to be looking at some of the work that came from the countries that you were exploring. It would seem to me that as you went to Haiti for instance, was it from the literature that you pulled out factual stuff or was it from talking with people? When you went into, you know, Bosnia and Iraq, and then some, when you are thinking about going to the museum and how heartbreaking and crushing that is, do you turn to the work there? Does a love affair take you into literature?
Those are other questions I am looking at. But I am looking at your work. One can get very caught up, the way physicians do often, with well I have got to read the work to keep myself current. And you stop reading, and stop really looking at literature. But I have a feeling that you have always been able to keep it beside you.
MD: Oh absolutely. I think that its absolutely true that I have always been a voracious reader and to me even if the beginning of my exploration in this you know session of ours, this discussion of ours really was about finding where stories began for me. Which tended to begin with war and conflict because that’s what my father liked. And so that path seems direct. I think it’s much less direct. And I think that what I am very often reading about is writing, is how people describe things, how you actually tell the story. How you do it. Which is one of the reasons I have loved Chekhov for example. How to tell the story about what it is what realism actually is. What the realism of Kafka actually is for example and which you can take a story likeThe Judgment and in some way identify guilt. Something that is so amorphous and so illogical. And similarly if you are writing about war or conflict or politics. There are a lot of emotions that are so difficult to nail down. We have words that we use customarily in writing about war and politics but they never quite get it right. Then of course if you had you wouldn’t need to cover it again and again. You wouldn’t need your own particular clash. The clash of your personality and your experience with what’s happening in the world. And with Iraq and with wherever else. So I have found, I think, that the things I have learned have been from the way people describe nature. And the way people describe the world and above all the ability to identify in some way the strangeness of the world. How odd the world is. How surprising. It’s a regular experience of mine that when I am far from a place I am going to cover I understand it completely. And when I get there I know that I have reached a point where a profitability in being there when I realize that I have no understanding at all.
So there is a kind of growth of ignorance, a productive ignorance that comes about. When you are far from Iraq, you understand it. When you arrive you are overwhelmed with this blizzard of sense impressions. And suddenly you have to come up with a story for yourself that makes sense of them. Because of course our stories of Iraq and our distance are pre-masticated as it were. Someone has seen all these, has taken in all these sense perceptions and made a narrative out of them. When you are in the middle of the story there is no story. It’s just this blizzard that’s sort of buffeting your face with these cold bits of truth and fact. So I think really my reading is really about how to tell the story, how to talk, and you know I brought a couple of things that might speak to that a little bit.
One is the story of Robert Musil who is one of my favorite writers. Who is an engineer who writes. He is thought of as one of the least known great modernists of the century. If you name the great writers of the 20th century, certainly you would name Joyce and Proust probably and many people would add Musil as the third. He is the famous author of The Man Without Qualities. Which is his answer to Remembrance of Things Past or Ulysses. But I have chosen Five Women, which is a collection of his short stories which are highly erotic. And the writer is fascinated with how you identify, describe, perplexing emotions, like eroticism. Like the different-ness of worlds that you enter that can take you away from the everyday. And several of the stories, notably Grecian Tonka are about rationalist, engineers for example who leave the town, leave their accustomed life in the town and go into the countryside. Notably in Gresia, the mountains. And I should say by the way the preface is by Frank Kermode the wonderful British literary critic who was my tutor. I was lucky enough to have him in college. He came to Harvard to deliver the Norton lectures. Very Famous. Probably the greatest critic in the English language and he came to deliver the very prestigious Norton Lectures. I assaulted him after one of the lectures and asked, in this graduate seminar, I was just a sophomore, I asked a question that was actually a stupid question, but he, Professor Kermode, having a choice whether to think this is a stupid question or its a brilliant, subtle question decided it was a brilliant, subtle one. And answered it on that basis. And afterwards I walked up to him and asked him to be my tutor. And he, to the shock of everyone, agreed. So I was privileged to spend two hours a week sitting with this man in his office. For whatever it was. However many weeks that was. Each week we would got through various books including Musil.
MM: That’s wonderful. I think that the relationship one has with one individual tutor if you’ve been lucky with it, you never forget it.
MD: I mean he changed my life. I put him on the train with my father, because I have remained friends with him. I see him periodically in England. He is in his late eighties.
MM: Don’t read, because we are going to run out of time, but give us another piece that you really enjoy here.
MD: Well there are several, and the question is which one. There are several where they talk about The Hay. He falls in love with Grigia, a peasant girl.
Homo walked along the long row of Hay stooks, that the peasant women had set up on the level part of the hillside. They were resting. He could scarcely believe his eyes for they were lying on their hillocks of hay like Michael Angelo’s statues in the Vichy Chapel in Florence. One arm raised to support the head and the body reposing as if in flowing water. And when they spoke with him and had to spit, they did so with much art. With three fingers they would twitch out a handful of hay, spit into the hollow and then stop it up again. One might be tempted to laugh only if when one mixed with them as Homo did when in search of Grigia, one might just as easily start as if in sudden fright at this crude dignity.
But Gresia was seldom among them, and when at last he found her she would perhaps be crouching in a potato field laughing at him. He knew she had nothing on but two petticoats and that the dry earth that was running through her slim rough fingers was also touching her body. But the thought of it was no longer strange to him. By now his inner being had become curiously familiar with the touch of earth. And perhaps indeed it was not at the time of the hay harvest at all that he met her in that field. In this life he was leading and there was no longer any certainty about time and place.
So the story is about the displacement and interruption of rationality, rational time, rational place — by eroticism. By this extreme eroticism of this woman. This peasant woman. And it leads eventually to his being entombed in the earth. The remarkable thing about it is that the language of the earth, is evoked or is told or is spun out. With such mathematical precision. In a way that is utterly strange. The images are utterly strange. About a different time. When they make love he says Grigia trickled through him. And it’s about the transformation of a man in to the earth and he eventually is entombed in the earth. Alive. In a cave. It’s a very strange story. And Musil’s short stories are about the erotics of… they’re about women, I think they stand for him for the erotic of the world. Irrationality, the breaking of the breakers of time—space and a rational frame that we use to prevent life from rushing into us. So he is a lesson back to the idea of this blizzard of sense impressions.
MM: That’s interesting. You come back to the earth again, I’m interested that you do that. That’s another reference to that. But I am looking at this pile of books, here.
MD: This remaining pile.
MM: And I am looking at a book that I love also. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. An extraordinary piece.
MD: Yes. A wonderful one. One of my favorite books, also a writer’s book. A favorite of Graham Green. A favorite of William Gass, a favorite of Michael Ondaatje. Very well known and prized by writers. This book was introduced to me by my tutor Frank Kermode. Who you will see introduced this volume and did the notes. And in fact he handed this volume of it to me, when I was in Cambridge two years ago, as I was leaving his apartment he pressed, you know he’s in his mid-eighties. But he pressed on me seven or eight volumes he had recently edited of various things. And among them was The Good Soldier. He and I had long discussions about this book. In Widener Library in his office on the top floor in Cambridge MA in, lets see, 1977.
MM: Well that would have been a conversation to record!
MD: I wish! The thing I remember about it is, him, among other things reading the first paragraph. Because the first paragraph, the book as you know is a kind of jewel case. It’s a complicated jewel case. Or a complicated watch mechanism. You can shift the metaphor. Its full of traps. Its full of byways, its full of, there are even, as my professor pointed out to me, a number of mistakes in it where the author himself forgets the sequence. Because the time sequence is scrambled. Very severely. And it was Ford himself who said that he one day sat down in 1915 with the idea of putting everything he knew about writing into one book. And Ford of course published something on the order of 60 books. He had a Victorian productivity. But this is surely his greatest, his greatest book. And the beginning, as my professor always told me, is full of lies. Almost everything in it is full of lies. It begins. Well it’s a famous first sentence. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s a wonderful first sentence not least because Ford wanted to title the book The Saddest Story. That was his title when he wrote it. The publishers refused because it was published during WWI, and they thought it wouldn’t sell during this difficult time. WWI of course was key to Ford’s life. He changes his name because of the anti-German feeling.
This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the
Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an
Extreme intimacy–or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose
and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s fits you’re hand. My
wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was
possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew
nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only
possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down
to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing
whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and,
certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I
had known only the shallows.
Well, as Frank Kermode pointed out to me almost every word here is a lie. He didn’t hear the story. He took part in it. The various people who have hearts, the way he knew this couple who of course were an adulterous couple, all of it is much more complex than this first paragraph suggests and the book itself is a massive deception. It’s like a complicated game. And yet it’s extremely powerful. It’s a book about love, about adultery and about a person who is either so simple as to be an idiot or as another professor argued, is a liar. So it’s a book told by a liar or a fool. And yet it’s about the deepest human relationships. And also it’s an attempt to understand the modern world. What went wrong, why did WWI, which for Ford and for all of his contemporaries, not least Henry James, seem to them a complete catastrophe. How could the world as James wrote, that seemed to be gradually bettering, had been headed in fact to this kind of barbarity. And this is partly an attempt to answer that question. To see where things went wrong. So I greatly love this book, not only for the beauty of its prose, but it’s a very funny book, its full of grotesque images, beautiful writing.
And it’s also written by a man who’s enormously fascinating, who knew Hemingway well. There is this scene of him in Moveable Feast, a quite wonderful scene by Hemingway. In which Ford tells about 20 lies in the space of five minutes. He orders a drink. They are in a cafe. The waiter goes of to get him a drink and he yells, “No no I didn’t order that drink are you insane? I ordered something different.” You see in him this very dramatic portrait of a man who couldn’t help but lie. And this is a book of a man who is a liar but also a very great artist. So a wonderful a wonderful book.
MM: Well I love it too. Mark, I’m looking at our time. Choose me one more.
MD: Choose you one more. Goodness.
MM: I hate to do that to you.
MD: Oh my God this is very hard. How about two more?
MM: Well all right.
MD: Well I think that an artist who has meant an enormous amount to me in my life is Chekhov. On whom I am teaching a seminar now with Bob Hass at Berkeley. So I am reading his stories and his plays once more from beginning to end. Which has been extraordinary experience because I think there is no greater realist in the history of writing. He is an extraordinary creator of descriptive prose an extraordinary comprehender or of human beings. Of what makes them act the way they do. And in particular the delusions they entertain that allow them to live the way they live.
I have chose here his most famous story. The Lady With the Little Dog. Simply because there is a passage in it that I love intensely. The story describes of course, a love affair, between a man, a married man and a married woman who meet at Yalta who have what the man thinks is going to be a very brief passionate affair. He returns to Moscow, where he lives and discovers that he is in love with her. And the description is, or the story is about this affair and what will happen. Although the what will happen is left outside the frame. And the scene I want to read comes late to the story, to the final part of the story. Part IV, when she has arrived in town for one of their assignations. She lives in a provincial town. He is going off to see her but on the way takes has daughter to school.
Once he was going to see her in this way on a winter morning (the messenger had come the evening before when he was out). With him walked his daughter, whom he wanted to take to school: it was on the way. Snow was falling in big wet flakes.
“It’s three degrees above freezing-point, and yet it is snowing,” said Gurov to his daughter. “The thaw is only on the surface of the earth; there is quite a different temperature at a greater height in the atmosphere.”
“And why are there no thunderstorms in the winter, father?”
He explained that, too. He talked, thinking all the while that he was going to see her, and no living soul knew of it, and probably never would know. He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth — such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities — all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilized man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
MD: The reason I love this obviously is because of its humanism. That it’s recognizing that there is no moral judgment here. There is the simple reality that he recognizes that he is living this double life and the real life is the secret one. It’s where the emotions are real where the love is real and the surface life is the lie. And Chekhov doesn’t rail against this. There is no, as Uncle Vany does in the play of the same name, he rails against this deception. In this story Chekhov doesn’t rail against it, he simply recognizes the truth. I love that particular line, By Some strange coincidence this is what is happening.
MM: Well I am looking at a strange coincidence because I have a book of Chekhov by my bedsides, his book of medical stories.
MD: Oh yes, I just read a medical case. Which is wonderful
MM: Yeah I have those. All right, that’s great. I am glad we have some Chekhov.
MD: All right this is the last one. I’ve one of my favorite writers is Nabokov. And I, it’s very hard to choose, as with a lot of this, to choose from his work. But I chose a wonderful story call Spring in Fyalta, which he translated himself from the Russian. Which has a spectacular beginning and I will explain in a second why I love the beginning so much. It begins as many of his stories do, with a description.
Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull. Everything is damp: the piebald trunks of the plane trees, the juniper shrubs, the railings, the gravel. Far away, in a watery vista between the jagged edges of pale bluish houses, which have tottered up from their knees to climb the slope, a cypress indicating the way, the blurred Mount St George is more than ever remote from its likeness on the picture postcards which since 1910, say (those straw hats, those youthful cabmen), have been courting the tourist from the sorry-go-round of their prop, among amaythist toothed lumps of rock and the mantelpiece screens of seashells. The air is windless and warm with a faint tang of burning. The sea, its salt drowned in the solution of rain is lest locust than grey with waves too sluggish to break into foam.
It’s the first paragraph.
MM: It’s the first paragraph.
MD: You know when I cam back and this is perhaps where I will end, because it talks about writing and literature. I always have enormous trouble beginning pieces. And I am not the only one, a lot of people do. To hear, as Nabokav says, that opening throb. That its somehow like hearing something and the piece or the book or whatever it is I am working on, the essay, won’t come until I have that sentence right. The first few sentences or the first sentence of the piece. Because in a sense the whole piece is contained in that sentence in a way. If it’s right, if it sounds right. There is a sound of the writing works. And I came home from Iraq in 2003 and I’d had an awful experience, 2004 actually. Seeing a lot of killing and it was grim and cold there and it suddenly to me, a sentence ” Winter in Baghdad was cloudy and grey.” And of course this sentence, I kept thinking it was an echo from somewhere, an echo from somewhere, and I couldn’t understand where it was from. And I wrote it, and in fact I used that phrase to begin several parts of this piece. It appears three times in the story. And I had a very close friend, Cristina Garcia, a novelist, a wonderful novelist, author of Dreaming in Cuba. A long time close friend of mind. She said Papi, as she calls me, you echoes the first sentence in Spring in Fialta, which is of course, Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull. It has that same, Winter in Baghdad is cloudy and grey. Somehow out of that sentence came this long piece about Baghdad, and about the death in and of Baghdad. So you know we have echoes. We have echoes in our soul. And I don’t think Mr. Nabakov, were he here would particularly love this because this is a story about love and about the way that people we love can’t quite be captured, they are elusive forces. They are elusive figures. Nina the beautiful heroine of this story is elusive, he never catches her. But Nabokov would like the fact that, I think, the echoes, that I read it and it echoes through my work.
MM: I’m sure he would. I think that is one of the great gifts that one artist gives another.
MD: Absolutely. He has given many gifts.
MM: Many Gifts. Mark Danner you have given us a wonderful gift of this conversation about Living with Literature. Thank you so very much.
MD: My pleasure. Thank you.