Critical Mass

PEN World Voices, New York Stories

By Jane Ciabattari

Thursday evening this week's PEN World Voices spread out all over New York.  As I sat in the front section of the Morgan Library auditorium, I knew there were whirlwinds of words circling over Manhattan and at least one other borough

Over in Brooklyn, former National Book Critics Circle  president and Granta Editor John Freeman, Rob Spillman of Tin House, and PEN America editor M Mark gathered to kick around the future of lit mags, with nudging from PEN American managing editor (and NBCC board member) David Haglund.

Up at the Metropolitan Museum, the New York Review of Books had called a summit on global warming, while Barry Gifford and Richard Price joined by Philippe Dijan and Jean-Phillippe Toussaint were down at NYU talking film adaptation, with former PEN president Francine Prose directing.

Joe’s Pub hosted 10 writers, including Anne Landsman and Siri Hustvedt, the Italian Cultural Institute brought in Daniel Mastrogiacomo, the Rome-based La Repubblica reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban, Michael Orthofer conversed with Eshkol Nevo at the Center for Jewish History, and that wasn’t all.

The folks conversing about New York Stories, with help from moderator Edwin Frank of New York Review of Books Classics, were well suited for the task at hand, three having edited and introduced a NYRB edition of a classic New  York writer—Henry James (Colm Toibin), Edith Wharton (Roxana Robinson) and Elizabeth Hardwick (Darryl Pinckney). Quim Monzo set his recently translated novel Gasoline in NY, circa 1980s. Mary Anne Newman, translator, was at his side just in case (and he needed her help a couple of times).

Frank set the program up chronologically, which mean Toibin was up first, discussing Henry James’s ambivalence toward New York, where he spent seven years, ages five through twelve, living at 58 West 14th Street in a house he  described as “an anchorage of the spirit.”  These were idyllic years for James; thereafter, Toibin said, “his life became more complicated, and New York was destroyed….and something in him was destroyed.&rdqurdquo; Tobin described a tiff James had with William Dean Howells over the provincialism of Americans versus other nationalities. James seems to have had the last word, insisting that certain national types are “intrinsically provincial.”

James regarded remembered childhood interiors like his grandmother’s house on Washington Square as sacred space. In his novel Washington Square, he devotes a lengthy aside to describing New York at its most delectable, claiming his lost world.  Later, in The American Scene, he heaped vitriol on the city where he had once felt at home.  More on Colm Toibin’s Henry James NYRB Classic here .

Roxana Robinson noted that Edith Wharton was born into the center of the New York social scene, with an entitled and privileged mother whose marriage didn’t bring her the wealth required to meet her ambitions. Her daughter, torn between the rules and her own emotions, lived a constricted life for many years, failing at every turn—she wasn’t a beauty, nor wealthy, and she didn’t marry until 23.  After a divorce, she settled in France. Robinson noted that House of Mirth and Age of Innocence were Wharton’s masterpieces, the latter a reconsideration of the rules she had felt restricting in her youth. In later life, she saw the rules as protecting community.

More on Robinson’s NYRB Classic on Edith Wharton here:

James was intensely jealous of Edith Wharton, Toibin noted. “She was a best seller,” Robinson said.  “And he knew how well she knew her world, and how little he knew it,” Tobin added.

Darryl Pinckney offered personal reminiscences of Elizabeth Hardwick, who came to New York to study at Columbia and lived in Times Square hotels and rooming houses, and, after her marriage fo Robert Lowell, in Eric Bentley’s apartment on Riverside Drive and then on West 67th Street near Central Park. “In the 1970s when I first knew her she was nostalgic for the great antiwar demonstrations in the Park, “ he said. He also recalled conversations in which Hardwick, Susan Sontag and Barbara Epstein were talking in the way they could without men around.

He brought up her delightful “Writing a Novel” in the NYRB in 1973, early noodlings on her novel, for which I thank him:

Hardwick was struggling with a new form, trying to write her novel Sleepless Nights. After Lowell died, he said, she freed up and was able to write it. The structure was all there.  He read excerpts:

“How to use cinematic technique. I hate making things up..

“What is wonderful about New York is that nothing is hidden.”

Pinckney concluded, “She thought about New York all the time. It saved her as a woman and a writer.”

More on Elizabeth Hardwick’s New York Stories, with Darryl Pinckney introduction, due in June from NYRB Classics, here:

Read Hardwick on Mrs. Wharton’s New York here.

“My idea of New York comes from the movies,” Quim Monzo noted.

In his commentary, supplemented only a few times by translator Mary Ann Newman, he said that upon his first visit to New York in 1975, “I felt I already knew the streets, the buildings, I had seen all of them since I was a kid, watching movies in black and white. The most powerful movies were set in New York.” In a visit in 1982, he visited a bar on White Street he’d already heard about in a Frank Zappa song.  He also drew upon the journalistic writings of Tom Wolfe (before he thought of himself as “the new Balzac”), J. P. Donleavy, among others.  

He took a moment to diss the “name-dropping writers,” among them Hemingway. “Hate Hemingway. In The Sun Also Rises he fills Pamplona with clichés.”  And why mention street names? He added. Who cares what street it was on?  

He loves the writing of Lydia Davis, Shirley Jackson….and a story by Charles Baxter in which a boy learns to fly. “It would be terrible if books were as flat as reality,” he said. “When you write, you can teach a man to fly.”

Monzo’s Gasoline, just out from Open Letters Press, translated by Newman, is set during the 1980s New York art scene. More on that here.

Today's National Book Critics Circle panel begins at 1 pm. Details here.