I received a wonderful gift this month. A dear friend (and literary comrade—here I just mean the word literary to mean having to do with literature without any yucky modern day connotations) not only sent me a new book but introduced me to a new author (and he is alive!). The book is A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. As soon as I read the first few pages I felt I was home, more precisely, I was transported. Here was a writer who understood cities were as important as characters and sunlight that carves shadows for memories.
“Rome was not meant to move, but to be beautiful. The wind was supposed to be the fastest thing here, and the trees, bending and swaying, to slow it down. Now it’s like Milan. Now the slimmest swiftest cats are killed because they aren’t agile enough to cross streets where once—and I remember it—a cow could nap all afternoon. It wasn’t like this, so frantic and tense…” (5-6)
Although the book begins in the year 1964, every time I have visited Rome I have seen that Rome.
I haven’t been able to do much writing lately. Writing for me is not a chore or something on the to-do list and yet it demands discipline as if taking one’s insulin shot. You have to do it every day. Even if it is 500 words. And I don’t have time for even 500 words lately. I write in my head, no doubt, but it is not the same. I lived like that for 10 years before I exploded to do nothing but write for 2 years. That time will come again.
Over the weekend I met a woman, probably in her mid-30s at most, who has a professional degree from an Ivy League school and yet she hasn’t been able to find work in her field since 2008. At one point she had two full time jobs and she worked 65 hours. She still has two jobs but maybe not that many hours. She is working on a young adult fiction novel that she hopes to finish by the end of the year.
We talked to her for a little while. We talked about how the government is making things worse. We talked about how despite doing everything you were supposed to do in order to get what you want, you can still be without a job. We talked about a different time.
The next day I woke up missing Paris. I took a hit of nostalgia thanks to a clip on Youtube. “A short bus ride in the streets of Paris in 1928. Another time, another world.” Then I found a clip from 1930’s making predictions about what the future will look like.
This morning I came across horrible news that “Black and North African railway workers were banned when the President of Israel visited France ‘because they might be Muslim'” and all of a sudden I didn’t desire Paris the same. Except I did. But not this Paris. Just like not this New York City. Just like not this California. Just like not this Rome.
I filed my thoughts under a new turning point for my writing. The entire time I have been sharing my writings here on this digital shelf (which, believe it or not, is under major construction along with the content!) I have openly stated, “I write to understand and be understood.”
Now I want to remember. Not to escape all that is happening everywhere—-from no jobs despite qualifications to corporations ruining education to the Congress failing its constituents to fearing other American cities ending up like Detroit to the disappearance of the American middle class where young kids are writing articles for The New Republic about how hard it is to live in San Francisco on a six figure salary—but just to remember how it can be. I want to be transported.
I share some excerpts from Mark Helprin’s interview in the Paris Review. His thoughts and words deeply resonated with me and I share them here for the woman I met over the weekend. I also share them because I want to keep these words near.
Why can’t writers be intellectuals?
It isn’t that they can’t be, but, rather, that being an intellectual is not sufficient, and too many “writers” these days think it is. This is because art has for so long been subsidiary to science, and the creative impulse for so long subsidiary to the critical facility. Why should a baseball player want to be a sports announcer and why would an actor want to write movie reviews? Far be it from me to criticize my contemporaries (isn’t that what Idi Amin said?), but this impulse makes no sense unless you consider that so many writers these days are not really writers at all but intellectuals doing what they think writers do.
You don’t like to give interviews or readings. You’re obsessed with privacy. What about your relations with other writers? Do you write blurbs and reviews?
I remember standing on a rock in the water at Woods Hole talking to my father-in-law, an eminent biochemist, who was expressing his gratitude at being part of the great community of science. Although I understand the benefits of community—for one thing, it enables you to take pride in the accomplishments of others, so you are relieved of the terrible burden of ambition—I don’t partake of them. I am excluded and I exclude myself for a number of reasons. One of them is the nature of the community in which I work. Before my first book was published, I gave it to John Cheever to read with the hope that he would review it for The New York Times Book Review. I still have the contract for the book, a slim volume of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf, who at the time was still paddling about the hallways of the institution after which he was named. Even though the first printing was only five thousand copies, I had appended to the document a table of royalties that accounted for sales of up to one hundred million. I managed to sell three thousand copies of the first edition, which was not as good a performance as I had anticipated. My hopes lived on, however, as I had not had the opportunity to market the work in India, China, South America, Africa, or Russia, not to mention Indonesia, Japan, and many other places where, all told, billions of people make their homes to this very day.
I assumed that Cheever would read the book, think it was magnificent, review it in awe, and that it would therefore be placed on the front page of the book review. This, needless to say, would help in boosting total sales toward the one-hundred-million mark—although, I must admit, I’ve been on the front page many times now (though I may never be again), and sales have not been quite that robust.
He did read the book; he had no choice, he needed our swimming pool. And he did like it and told me so, after which I spent several days raping my calculator. One of the things I was going to do with the money was to buy the New York City Police Department (don’t kid yourself about the feasibility of that) so as to be able to redirect their efforts toward fighting crime rather than living with it. I was also going to see if I could buy Grand Central Station, which I was going to make into the world’s most magnificent studio apartment. Can you imagine my shock when John, dripping wet with heavily chlorinated water, told me that he was not going to review or even offer a quote for the book?
Maybe he just didn’t like it, but what he told me was that he had a book coming out, and a friend of his had a book coming out, and they were going to assist one another. This, he said apologetically, precluded his efforts on behalf of anyone else’s work, so as to maximize the impact. I was struck by a double lightning bolt of anger and shame. Anger that things were like this and that I was excluded, shame that I had hoped to do exactly what it was that had suddenly been done to me. It was no less a stunning lesson in the falsity of the system that judges and promotes books than it was in my own vanity and weakness of character.
I vowed at that moment, spurred on, as is so often the case, by shame, never to review a work of fiction, never to quote for a book (once, I allowed a letter to be excerpted in which I described the author of a very fine book, but not the book itself), never to serve on a prize jury, never to participate, in short, in trading favors—and I never have. Most people who encounter one writer’s recommendation of another, whether in an advertisement in the press, on a book jacket, or in a review, assume that they are witnessing an act of altruism spurred by a disinterested love of literature. Undoubtedly that is sometimes the case, but my experience over thirty years has taught me that most of the time these things are simply exchanged—like wampum—and that in addition they serve as a tool for keeping one’s name in front of the public without actually paying for it. If you are presented as an arbiter of taste, it really can’t hurt you the next time around, can it? In this system, the ideal posture is one of noblesse oblige. The participants want to put their generosity on display as much as their fellows in politics want to make public every ounce of their compassion. It’s good business and it explains why Vinic Totmule says of Joshua X. Belasco, Joshua X. Belasco is perhaps the finest writer in English today, except, of course, for Vinic Totmule, and it then goes on to explain why Joshua X. Belasco is quoted all over the place as saying, Vinic Totmule writes in white-hot prose.
How are you received in academic circles?
As you might imagine—given that I am absolutely sure of the now heretical proposition that you cannot judge a book by the race or sex of its author. And you can imagine how well I and my work are received in academic circles, when I assert plainly and without apology that deconstructionism, like Nazism or Stalinism, is less a system of thought than a sign of mental illness. In 1975, I went to visit Roger Rosenblatt at The New Republic in Washington. He had been one of my teachers at Harvard and Marty Peretz had been a tutor in Kirkland House, where I had lived briefly a decade before. Roger reintroduced me to Marty by saying, You remember Helprin, don’t you? From the asylum?
He was making a joke that then came true. I had always wondered what would happen to people who spent six to ten years laboring on a five-hundred-page tome entitled “Vaginal Motifs in Etruscan Beekeeping,” and now I know. They go stark raving mad and then they get tenure. In an accident of history, the American university system mistakenly modeled itself after the German rather than the English and then distorted even that. The greatest sin in American academia is to make a generalization. That’s why Oxford and Cambridge seem so civilized in comparison; there, they recognize that life, history—even the deeper currents of science—are terms of art. Here, on the other hand, you spend the best years of your life grinding away at vaginal motifs in Etruscan beekeeping and when it comes time for independent thinking you’re about as ready as the lid of a garbage can.
I don’t want to beat a dead horse to death and I do want to return to your line of inquiry, so let me say in summary that relativism and politicization have so smothered the universities and the world of publishing that to state, as I do, that it is possible to serve universal ideals and appeal, non-politically, to the fundamental needs of human nature by addressing its fundamental questions, is perceived as heresy. The end and the beginning of it is that I dissent from the dominant orthodoxies that cradle the profession I practice, that, despite what some assert, I have never been shy about it, and that, therefore, I find myself not only out of the mainstream, but playing the role, at times, of moving target. As I have an activist nature, I fire back.
Doesn’t this lead to overwhelming practical difficulties? A Soldier of the Great War was conspicuously overlooked for awards and for the Times list of notable books. Does that bother you?
Of course it did, but only briefly. First, you may recall that I have mentioned shame in answering one or more of your questions. I have a very high quotient of shame and I believe in the existence of honor. Even though the magazine piece that questioned my honesty was false in itself, I was ashamed to be taken for the kind of person it portrayed. If you had a reputation for writing bad checks, despite the fact that you had never written one in your life, you would feel very bad every time you took out your checkbook.
And yet, I feel myself responsible for everything that happens to me, even if I’m not. That’s just the way it is. So I feel that the reason A Soldier of the Great War didn’t get any prizes is that it just wasn’t good enough. True, the reviews were so extraordinary that they were suspect. How many times can one be likened to Tolstoy without questioning the standards of the age in which people write this about you? And Germans too, no less. On an intellectual level, I might wonder about this prize business, the crux of which is that I don’t grease anybody, but, emotionally, I feel that it was my fault. And therefore, subject to my control. This is what enables me to wade through these minor adversities. The difficulty that most leads to alienation and despair is powerlessness, and I do not feel powerless. Why? Well, it is within my power to write a better book than the last (not that I always will, but I can aim at it). It is within my power to understand the circumstances in which that book is received. It is within my power to put temporal glory in perspective and to order my priorities according to what is fundamentally, even eschatologically, important. Having done so, being left off a list of notable books becomes somewhat less than a mortal wound.
Second, what you mean by the practical basis, I assume, is the ability to make a living and find satisfaction in one’s work. I have always had another profession. Only of late, in the last hundred years or so, has the world economy become rich enough to support a specialized caste of writers. Most writers have always had other things to do and done them well. I noticed a long time ago that writers who did nothing but write were generally a sorry lot of self-pitying neurotics, and that by contrast, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Chekhov, Yeats, although they may have had their troubles, usually had another iron in the fire. I believe it was Flaubert who said something like “live like a bourgeois, so you can write like a wild man.” I see the opposite of that these days, and also that passion is reserved for politics and reason for literature, when it should be the reverse.
Anyway, I set out to follow an alternate profession. I went to graduate school to study political science and history. I experienced the full spectrum, starting at Harvard, where, despite a general atmosphere of petty insanity, I must admit to finding a very impressive synthesis of the German and English approach. I then lurched to Oxford (lurch, by the way, was the word), where they do beautifully in writing history as literature, and finally thudded down (perfect way to describe it) at Columbia, where the political science department is so quantitative that students who lacked math just sat there like Cabbage Patch dolls.
At present I’m a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute (where I work on military questions pertaining to the Middle East), a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, where I write for the editorial page. These are wonderful places staffed by brilliant people, and my association with them (the antecedent of them being mainly the people) more than makes up for anything I may forego by being of a different species than that of my literary brethren.
I may be ostracized, but there is no organization to it, so I do manage to keep busy. We’re moving to a farm and I go to bed at night thinking about alfalfa—not the character in Our Gang, but the vegetable. Helping to raise my two children is the best and most valuable thing I’ve ever done and I’m right in the midst of what have been increasingly wonderful years (don’t forget, I’m home all the time). Mix this all up with piano lessons, walking in the mountains, finishing my next novel, writing newspaper columns, making an occasional speech, managing a household, and being married to a lawyer who is a lot taller than I am and very beautiful, and you have a full life.
How important is financial security for the writer?
As with everything else, you’re ruined by either too much or too little. The question remains, how do you define what is too much or too little? One of the most beautiful phrases in the Hebrew liturgy is Daienu, which is pronounced die-ain-u. It means “enough (for us),” and in the song that is sung at Passover, the idea is that God has given much more than we require. Among other things, this allows us not to waste our lives in continual pursuit of more, and suggests that we should decide what it is that we truly need and then learn to stop wanting.
Of course, this idea flies in the face of materialism, for, in the practical application of materialism—as the current state of the United States illustrates—you can never have enough, and your goals are set not according to an understanding of what is needed but rather only in competition with others (yet another downside of relativism). I have enough. I have always thought that I have had enough, even when I lived in one room ten feet from the railroad tracks, in the Bat Galim quarter of Haifa, and my first wife and I had to share a bathroom with fifty Russians, Turks, and other refugees. And why was I content with what I had in that objectively somewhat difficult situation? Simply because, in light of the real suffering that sweeps continually over the world and always has, in light of the forces that, for me, find their most startling expression in the Holocaust, how could I not be content? How could I be affected by—you brought it up—being left off the list of someone’s favorite books?
It’s hard to imagine what you’ve described as being standard procedure for how to become a writer. Are your present-day habits as idiosyncratic?
I’m sorry if I always go on at length and then respond to your question summarily, but the essence of the answer is that I work with a great deal of discipline, although I usually take on more than I can handle and often have to extend due dates. I have always been appalled by bohemianism because of its laziness, disorder, and moral weakness. I understand that this way of living is a response to the fact of human frailty, but it leans too far in one direction. Being a little more buttoned up doesn’t mean that you’ll get so brittle that you’ll break. Nor does it mean that you don’t understand tragedy, loss, and, most of all, human limitation.
Is dealing with sex in a novel ever a problem? Why in the main is it done so badly by novelists?
Why would dealing with sex in a novel be a problem? The trick, I believe, as with almost everything else in the world, is to keep it in proportion, to be honest about it, and to be modest. When a man and a woman feel love or infatuation and the ethical codes by which they live permit it, they express it physically. Of course it can get quite intense—hyperventilating and wall banging and that sort of thing—but when it’s over it’s over and you go on to something else.
I think the failures to which you allude can be explained by various complementary theories. Quite simply, if one has no sexual outlet, one will think about sex a great deal. Writers work in isolation and are generally thoughtful people who do not live to satisfy their desires the way people do in, say, Brazil. In addition, the literary culture is also one of failed marriages, odd neuroses, and ill health. If you combine all these things you get less sex than biology might require and so you get musings driven by heat. I find, for example, that I tend to write about food when I’m hungry—it’s only natural.
Another reason may be that, without an intuitive sense of what art is, many people use sex as a—forgive me—prosthesis, just as they use politics, to fill the emptiness in their understanding. And, of course, it sells, doesn’t it, so it elicits a Pavlovian response in writers. It’s like a pigeon pressing the right button and causing food pellets to drop down a chute. Throw in a few tumescent penises and “breasts like upright cones” and you can put in that new swimming pool or make your annual contribution to The Cat Wilhelmina Guerilla Unit of the Animal Rights Liberation Army.
I can’t resist asking. Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Never happened. Probably because I never had the sense that I was obligated to meet anyone’s expectations other than my own (and I can forgive my own mistakes) or my father’s (which were so demanding that he could never be satisfied anyway). Assuming that you are a professional and that you know how to write, why would you be unable to do so? If an electrician said, I have electrician’s block. I just can’t bend conduit. I can’t! I can’t! I can’t run wires! Help me, please! he would be committed. One thing would be certain, and that is that his paralysis in the face of his work would have only to do with him, and not with his craft. I’m of the old school, I guess, and I would call writer’s block laziness, lack of imagination, inflated expectations, or having-spent-your-entire-advance-in-Rio-de-Janeiro-and-taking-taxis-and-going-to-restaurants-you-can’t-afford-before-you-have-written-a-single-word-of-the-book-you-pitched-to-a-cretin-with-an-out-of-control-cash-flow.
A banal but important question: why do you write?
I share Norman Maclean’s view of literature, although I did not discover him until about ten years ago, long after I had set myself to the task in which he succeeded so beautifully. The motto of my first book, intended to apply to everything that followed, is, “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” from the second canto of Inferno in Dante’s Commedia. I translate it, “Love moved me and makes me speak.” Beatrice is explaining to Virgil why she is asking him to help Dante after he has fallen. I have always taken this as Dante’s answer to the Paris Review question of why do you write. And it is certainly mine.
I have no doubt, as well, that it was Norman Maclean’s. Just think of the last line of “A River Runs Through It”: “I am haunted by waters.” Of course, you have to have read it to understand why it is his way of saying, “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” but he more or less verified this interpretation in a letter I have that, during the eighties, before Maclean died, was circulated almost like a document of the samizdat. It is from him to a Hollywood producer, and it reads, in part, “The story [“A River Runs Through It”] is . . . my love poem to my family, and in the end reaches into the blind world where one cannot help—does not even know how to try to help someone he loves until it is too late to help . . . . I waited until after I was seventy before I was sure that my hand and feelings were steady enough not to make a mistake in telling this story. No ‘figures’ in the world would persuade me to permit someone else to tell the tragedy of my family without my ultimate approval of the way my family and the way I feel about them are portrayed.”
In 1977, the Pulitzer Prize jury chose to award the fiction prize to Maclean for A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, but it was overruled by the Advisory Board. That year, no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was given, and that year, to paraphrase Andre Maurois, it died (although the body sometimes stirs, such as when it embraced Bill Kennedy).
As for your question, I am asked it quite frequently, as you may imagine. In fact, it runs a close third to “do you write with a pencil or a pen?” and “can you make a living?” I always fail, out of politeness, to point out that the only people who are asked questions like these are prostitutes. No one asks professional water skiers, Why do you water ski? And I have never heard anyone inquire of a waitress or a park ranger if they are able to make a living.
When asked the why-do-you-write question, you are usually expected to present a fairly elaborate theoretical construct graced with ornaments of altruism that veer into politics. A lot of idiots will say that they want to “communicate.” Intellectuals will lust to guide you through their theoretical construct, and you can bet that they’ll have one. First, almost by definition, an intellectual must have a theoretical basis for those rare occasions when he takes action. Second, in a secular world, each artist is a mini-god, tasked with creating new universes between breakfast and dinner. It used to be that if one believed, like Dante or Shakespeare, one was content to imitate the beauties of life and the world, even to praise them. The artist’s task was one of illumination and memory. Now it is one of creation, and look at the difference between, let us say, Mozart and John Cage, or Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett.
This modern impulse, that arose when lack of faith abridged the common language of mankind, has been mainly destructive. My proof of this is simply to contrast the art of modernism with the art that came before it. But even if you look kindly, as I do not, upon what I consider the wrong turn taken at the beginning of this century, you still may admit that each artist now creates his own frame of reference. That is supposed to be one of the glories of modern art and it partially explains why the artist has been an intellectual; he has to spend most of his time explaining, in the new language he has invented, the new worlds he has created. The only problem is that compared to what we already have these newly created worlds are pretty thin.
If you don’t operate according to the conventions of modernism, they write you off as a simpleton, for who but a simpleton these days would not have a complex code, entirely of his own making, that he is ready to flog in a diversity of settings and promote as if it were the political program of a very tiny special interest group? And these days the artistes are so exhausted that they can hardly come up with their wimpy little private codes, so they politicize their work—not only because they’re weak minded but because they’re too debilitated to do anything except follow instantaneous social currents. They simply don’t know how, in the same way that it is unimportant whether or not Roy Lichtenstein chooses to paint like Raphael, because, whatever it is that he wants to do, he can’t paint like Raphael.
Then there is the notion of progressivity, the idea that art, like science, is moving on a linear track and must always go forward—this despite the fact that the overwhelming characteristic of the universe is that its physical laws cannot be abridged, its materials and cycles stay more or less the same, and human history and development are stable enough so that we are just as moved by poetry (such as, for example, the psalms) written at its beginning as by a song written yesterday. If you credit the idea of progressivity, you will always have a facile but careless answer to the question why do you write. You will say, even if you bathe it in modesty, that you are doing your part to advance civilization. Please.
My answer, then, as you may have guessed, is very simple. I write in service of illumination and memory. I write to reach into “the blind world where no one can help.” I write because it is a way of glimpsing the truth. And I write to create something of beauty.
One thing I can say is that I am quite certain that Mozart did not have a philosophical or theoretical justification and explanation for what he did. The music was obviously divine and he went after it as best he could, which, fortunately for everyone else, could not have been better. You don’t have to be Mozart or Shakespeare or Raphael to follow the same lead. But these days, to follow that lead you do have to be willing to go it alone.