Archive for July, 2011

Working on new novel in Prague, Czech Republic

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

An unexpected combination of events has me working on my new novel in a lovely room in the American ambassador’s residence in Prague. (The wife of the ambassador is a good friend of my partner, Valerie. Both are Renaissance scholars. The International Shakespeare Conference is in Prague this year, so here we are!) The residence, which is in gorgeous condition, with original hand-carved scrolled woodwork on the walls, and chandeliers and priceless tapestry chairs intact, was built in the 1920s-30s by a fabulously wealthy Jewish industrialist. He and his family walked out of the house with a few suitcases, pretending to be going away for the weekend, in 1938. The house was then occupied by the Nazi General Council in Prague, and after that, by the Red Army for a couple of weeks. It is a small miracle to have the house in the fine condition that it is, and there are several stories behind that miracle.

The presence of the current U.S. ambassador, Norman Eisen, in this house is itself a compelling story. It would have been from here that the transport order was signed by the Nazis that put Eisen’s mother, then a citizen of Slovakia, on a train to Auschwitz. She was there for nine months before the camp was liberated. People like to say that what goes around, comes around, but that isn’t always true. Still, it is quite moving to witness Ambassador Eisen’s wonder as he shares this history with guests.

I am lucky to be here, although it does seem very odd to be reading a history of William (“Wild Bill”) Langer, a colorful former governor of North Dakota, in these surroundings!

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Friday, July 1st, 2011

What are the books that you reread, reread, reread?
Here are some on my repeat list: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Gatsby speaks to me as a Midwesterner, more so as a North Dakotan. Housekeeping is smart, funny, unexpected, quiet and deep, not to mention written in language so gorgeous it practically scans. It also has a killer ending. And Lolita? I admit that this one hasn’t held up for me the way the others have, but it was absolutely central to my development as a reader. More on these another day.

It is Middlemarch, however, that I expect to continue to read and study and love. Virginia Woolf called it one of the few English novels written for grown-up people, and it makes its way onto all the lists of great English novels. I love its ambition, how it is about a society entire. I love its protagonist, the intelligent idealist, Dorothea Brooke, who must learn to temper her idealism with the disappointments and limitations of the real world. I love the 19th-century novel’s mixture of complex characters and caricatures. I love the breadth and scope of a book that insists that the reader really live within a universe contained within the covers. This is a book for reading, not grazing. But what really takes my breath away, what keeps me coming back, is that combination of intelligence and insight and moral bravery that results in language like this, a paragraph that I keep by my desk. This is why I write.

Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea’s was anything very exceptional: many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to ‘find their feet’ among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.