Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"One knows that one is fragile."

Last Saturday I was planning on going to a few different PEN events, and the first was a panel called, "NoPassport: Writing & Political Responsibility in Theater." And it sucked. All but one of the playwrights live and work in the US and they basically didn't talk about international differences at all. And while they did touch on politics and political writing, it would have been nice to have at least one playwright there who was interested in writing overtly political work. Nor did I think that the discussion wound up being that insightful. I was so frustrated that when it was over I decided that I'd spent more than enough time in the last couple days sitting in theaters and if I was going to get through the three talks I had tickets to on Sunday I needed to spend some time being outside moving around.

Fortunately the events the next day were at the NYPL and they generally put together good events. The first one of the day featured Péter Esterházy, of Hungary, who spoke through a translator, being interviewed by Wayne Koestenbaum. The introduction, given by someone else whose name I don't remember, was verging on obnoxious in this very particular young, quasi-hipster intellectual sort of way which did not seem to bode well. There were also official-seeming people taking pictures which would have been fine except they didn't seem to worried about getting in the way of other people. As it turned out though, Esterházy was fascinating and quite funny. One of the disappointing things one learns going to readings and panels is that more often than not writers don't talk about their work in a very interesting way. But happily that was not the case with Esterházy and it turned out to be the most interesting PEN event I attended. I took notes as precisely as possible--I like taking notes because I feel like it makes me a better listener when I'm using my hands and copying out information--but I'll only put things in quotes if I'm sure it's exactly what the translator said.

The major topics they discussed, the ones that I found most interesting, were the "formal playfulness" of his work--in the form of repetition, lists, and intertextuality--and his father. Esterházy explained that he uses the repetition to create "musical dialogues." If we repeat a word again and again its meaning disappears. It's something that is apparently a linguistic game but also true in real life.

Koestenbaum asked specifically about his use of "my father" which appears over 2000 times in Celestial Harmonies. Esterházy called it a family novel and said that he had researched it like a normal person. Writers, he said, basically know nothing, but they have to look up something and then make people believe that they know everything. He took all the stories that came to him and turned them into stories about his father. In this case it works because the word father is so powerful. When we put it into a text it, "explodes that text." If we turn everything into father it means there is no father.

Koestenbaum then asked about the pages of rhapsodical writing about the sexuality of the father in the book and asked where Esterházy's real father was in the book? The question, Esterházy said, is how can one transcend one's own limitations? Step past taboos? He said that he has to find a way to, "overcome [his] own cowardice." The greatest insulter of one's own country is Thomas Bernhard. Esterházy, on the other hand, "always finds an excuse for [his] country," and says, " on the one hand, on the other hand." So if he wants to make a strong statement he'll take Bernhard's text. This is how intertextuality works. The part of his book that Koestenbaum was asking about he took from a Swiss protocol. If he wrote based on his actual relationship with his father, he would write a four-page short story. Esterházy explained that he doesn't write because of personal problems he wants to work out. His relationship with his work is cooler and more technical. He uses his own life to inform his books, not his books to solve problems. Novels are not characters but words and the words create the characters.

They then discussed math--he trained as a mathematician but claims to have, "understood nothing in an intelligent way--and music. Esterházy said that he has a feeling that musicians are more radical than writers and that he likes to be reminded of radicalism. The problem is that words have meaning. It's very confusing. Above the words there is a different meaning and that is what we're interested in. Music doesn't have to play this double game so it's more direct.

Koestenbaum returned to the idea of emptying out words and asked if he was trying to empty out the word Esterházy. Yes, Esterházy said, and also that it was the best question he'd ever been asked. He is trying to empty out everything. "Words are like gardens and once you walk through them you can throw them away." (I'm not sure if I entirely understand that--it's not how I feel about gardens--but I think it's an interesting way to think about it.) He said that he is uninterested in his written books, "but does not ask [us] to share that sentiment."

Keeping with the theme of intertextuality, Koestenbaum asked about theft and borrowing. Esterházy said that Celestial Harmonies was published in 20 languages and the only place there was the problem with the intertextuality was the United States. There is a belief here that, "law describes the world," and this is not the case. Intertextuality is a natural process not a theoretical thing, although there are lots of theories behind it. The interesting thing is how to weave words from disparate sources into music.

They joked a bit about the scandalous potential of a book like his as an act of what Koestenbaum described as, "cheerful theft" and how that is one of the only ways writers make the news here. Esterházy then said that it was a mistake on their part to make light of it because as soon as we look at literature as someone's property--the idea that words or strings of words belong to someone--we, "come to something very horrible."

The conversation then moved on to Esterházy's latest novel, Revised Edition, and Koestenbaum asked if it purports to tell the truth. Esterházy said that skepticism is justified. In his books he puts on masks and plays with what is real and what is not. Pretends he can tell the difference, draws boundaries around reality. He then told the story about how he went to look at the dossier that the secret police had kept on him under communism and saw his father's handwriting. He had to accept that as real but couldn't find a single fact in his life that corresponded with the reality that, from 1957-1980, his father worked for the secret police. Many people said that it would have been better if he hadn't found out, but he doesn't think so. He saw how history is stronger than a human being. "One knows that one is fragile." Behind the story is the real person who was at once fantastic and fragile.

There was a very brief moment at the end in which the audience could ask questions and Esterházy was asked if he had found out anything more since writing Revised Edition. He said that he has not, but also hasn't looked for it. At the beginning of the documents it said that his father was compelled by blackmail and he would like to know what he was blackmailed with. He thinks it was probably them (he and his siblings).

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