- The New York Times
Which classic novel did you recently read for the first time?
Since I’m a nonfiction writer, and always trying to remind people that nonfiction is literature, too, I’ll talk about a classic work of nonfiction, ok? I’d read large chunks of Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in graduate school, inevitably, but a few years ago a friend of mine told me he’d just finished listening to the whole thing on audiobook, and I thought, Yup, now’s the time to tackle the whole thing. So I started listening to the marvelous recording by Bernard Mayes and I’m about to finish it after three years of shortish sessions on the elliptical machine. Apart from the history that Gibbon narrates — one that should be of interest to Americans right now, I’d say — I’m just knocked over by the prose: those fabulous, architectural, Augustan sentences are dazzling. Among other things, it’s a lesson in how immaculate syntax is the best delivery vehicle for devastating irony.
Which fiction and nonfiction writers — playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — inspired you most early in your career? And which writers working today do you most admire?
During the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I avidly followed the critics who were then writing for The New Yorker. There was Andrew Porter on classical music and opera; Helen Vendler on poetry; Whitney Balliett on cabaret and jazz; Pauline Kael on movies; Penelope Gilliatt on books; Arlene Croce on ballet. I lived in the suburbs and had very little access to any of those art forms, but the sheer stylishness of their writing, the total (but lightly worn) authority married to utter accessibility, the confident idiosyncrasies, were very alluring to me purely as a reader, and suggested to me at that early stage that criticism was an interesting and important genre of writing in itself and not merely parasitic. The critics I admire today, unsurprisingly, have those qualities, whether it’s Vinson Cunningham raising an eyebrow about “Humans of New York” or the painter David Salle writing about Rei Kawakubo in The New York Review of Books, or Francine Prose being unimpressed by some overhyped new novel.
As for fiction, I fell early under the sway of the historical novelist Mary Renault, whose books set in ancient Greece were a major factor in pushing me toward the study of the classics.
What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?
Biographies, letters, journals — the records of people’s lives, and the traces they themselves leave behind. This may be a middle-aged thing: When you’re (somewhat) closer to the end of life than to the beginning, it’s hard to resist the impulse to start “taking stock” of yourself and what you’ve done, and so it’s interesting to see how the lives of talented or celebrated or important people looked to those people while they were still living those lives. And of course, what the letters and journals show is that most of our lives are mostly a jumble while we’re living them, because we’re caught up in the day-to-day for the most part; it’s for the biographers to perceive the contours, once it’s all over. I find that reassuring.
Which genres are you drawn to and which do you avoid?
I was long immune to the allure of fantasy literature. Even when I was a kid, I couldn’t get into “The Lord of the Rings” and all the rest of it. I’m not sure why, really. It may be that I got hooked on history and biography when I was still very young — ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman history, Plantagenet history, Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots — and I just couldn’t imagine why anyone would need to invent a whole world or civilization when the ones we already have are so fascinating. But I may be evolving: I hugely enjoyed reading, and very much admired, all of the “Game of Thrones” books, which I tackled a few years ago for a piece I wrote about the TV series.
Unsurprisingly, a genre I’ve always loved is historical fiction. There are a lot of terrible examples out there, but when it works — when a deep sense of history (not just the props, but the spirit) is married to an authentic novelistic sensibility, as they are in the novels of Renault or Patrick O’Brian or Hilary Mantel, to name a few of the best — it’s tremendously satisfying. I find it amusing that this genre is still denigrated by some critics as being a lesser form of the novel. I always want to remind them that “War and Peace” and “Les Misérables” are historical fiction.
What’s your favorite book to teach to students at Bard?
You’re fishing! “The Odyssey,” of course, is one — of the two Homeric epics it’s the one that students tend to enjoy more. But I also love teaching Greek tragedy — it’s at once so formally strange, so stiffly stylized and yet (of course) so eternally relevant in its themes. One of my favorite teaching experiences was when I participated in Bard’s Prison Initiative last autumn, teaching Sophocles and Euripides to the inmates at a maximum-security facility about an hour from campus. I was blown away by the men’s responses to the texts we read — by the way in which they brought what they knew about violence and shame and disgrace and guilt to dramas that are, of course, about those very things. As you can imagine, it was very different from what even the smartest 19-year-old undergraduates can bring to the seminar table.
Do you have a favorite book about writing or about literary criticism?
I have a favorite book of literary criticism, which is Edmund Wilson’s “Axel’s Castle.” I think most of us who are professional critics are shadowed by the secret fear that time will prove us wrong — the virtues of our enthusiasms will prove to be ephemeral, or the things we panned will turn out to be classics. What’s so remarkable to me about Wilson’s book, which he published in 1931 and which is contemporary with some of the authors he wrote about — Proust, Joyce, Pound, Stein — is that he got everything just right. And right away, too: Within 10 years of the publication of Proust’s “À la recherche du Temps Perdu” he’d completely grasped everything about it that was important and revolutionary.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’ve got piles of books about home décor and haute couture all around my house. I’m currently slavering over the catalog for the Dior exhibition at the Louvre.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
“A Titanic Hero,” the biography of Thomas Andrews, the shipbuilder who designed the Titanic (and went down with it). I was a Titanic groupie when I was a kid — I belonged to the Titanic Enthusiasts of America — and one day when I was around 12 an old family friend who was visiting presented it to me. It’s hardly a great work of biography but it’s always been the first book I pack up whenever I’ve moved.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”: Has there even been a more appealing protagonist? She’s every smart person’s secret self: clever on the outside, not so clever on the inside, and shocked to learn that the brain can’t rule the heart. And her relationship with her father is so, so great. It’s always surprising to me that more male writers don’t talk about Austen as crucial to their literary identities; she seems absolutely essential.
My favorite villain has to be Vautrin in Balzac’s “The Human Comedy.” Like all truly great writers, Balzac reserves some of his deepest sympathy — and his greatest artistry — for his most depraved characters.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Easy: Voltaire, Jane Austen, Gore Vidal. I’m not sure it would be the most successful dinner party I’ve ever had, but I’d enjoy it.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I have a Dantesque fantasy, in which he’d be forced to read “The Art of the Deal” over and over again, throughout eternity.
Who would you want to write your life story?
Well, I’m a memoirist. I think it’s fair to say the job is taken.
What do you plan to read next?
I’ve just finished a three-month-long book tour, so pretty much anything that isn’t my book would be a huge relief at this point … No, seriously: I’ve got an idea for a book about Erich Auerbach, the great (really great!) German literary scholar who fled Hitler and ended up writing his (really!) great study of Western literature, “Mimesis,” in … Istanbul, where he’d taken refuge. I ordered all his books, as well as a number of books about him, while I was on tour, and they’ve all arrived by now. There’s no better feeling than that: knowing that a pile of books connected to some new project is waiting for you.