PEN World Voices Fest: Public Lives/Private Lives


Jane Austen wrote about private lives, nary a hint of the Napoleonic Wars. Not an option for writers today; the public world intrudes, Salman Rushdie reminded us in his welcome at Wednesday night’s “Public Lives/Private Lives” reading at Town Hall. (Rushdie began with a warm “You’re back!” The PEN World Voice Fest he launched four years ago has legs.)  Rushdie, who later described himself as “the punctuation,” knows how to get on and off stage with dispatch. A noble gift.

Some highlights of the evening:

Before launching into a poem and an excerpt from his latest novel, “Divisadero,” Michael Ondaatje quoted Kinky Friedman: “There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe … I snorted it in 1976,” drawing a few snorts from the crowd.

Rushing onstage, Annie Proulx announced she was not reading from her own work.. She read a chunk from Irish author Aidan Higgins’s novel “Langrishe, Go Down.” It was riveting.

Peter Esterhazy read from the first section of his novel, “Celestial Harmonies,” “Numbered Sentences from the Lives of the Esterhazy Family,” which begins, “It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth.” Esterhazy, his halo of white hair shining on the dark stage, won over the crowd with his comic style. He read in Hungarian, the English text scrolling on the screen behind him, to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  Number 15 in his list, for instance: “For five fillers my father would eat a fly, for one forint you could take a picture of the cadaver on his tongue, for five forints and an apple (Starking), he’d bite a mouse in two. He never worked with outsourced mice, he liked to catch his own.”

PEN president Francine Prose donning her author’s mantle, read the opening pages of her forthcoming novel, “Golden Girl,” slowly, in a smoky voice,  first noting wryly that one of the chain stores had an advance order, having been promised it was not “a Francine Prose novel.”  Every other line got a laugh. (There’s a theme here…)

And finally, Ian McEwan, whose last book, the brief and lyrical “On Chesil Beach,” was launched with a documentary, not an author reading tour, brought down the house by reading what he called the advance work on a novel he was writing about global warming. He and a group of scientists, artists, and writers are stationed aboard a ship on a fjord near the North Pole, venturing out in waves. Within days, the boot room, where these instant colleagues donned and shed the multiple layers, the balaclavas and protective gear, has become a warren of suspicion, as various important bits of apparel disappear. “Where was God? Where was Matron?” he implored. How in the world would this world of ours, which was much larger than the boot room, make it thought the coming crisis?  Seriousness is a given; wit makes it work. 

PEN World Voices blogs here.