|JONATHAN LETHEM PHOTO BY LARS EIDINGER|
Jonathan Lethem: By the Book
Published: August 29, 2013
As a child, the author of “Motherless Brooklyn” and the forthcoming “Dissident Gardens” read and reread Alan Watts’s “Wisdom of Insecurity”: “It’s still the help I need.”
What are you reading at the moment? Are you a one-book-at-a-time person?
I’m all over the place right now, happily. In my office I tend to be racing through short books — Russell Hoban’s “Turtle Diary” and Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose books and Lydia Millet’s “Magnificence” just now, while at the bedside table and on trains and airplanes I’m grinding away at monsters over a period of months, if not years: Robert Musil’s “Man Without Qualities” and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” I’ve been trending to these galactic structures lately — last summer I had my head broken open by Doris Lessing’s “Four-Gated City” and so now appear doomed to read the Martha Quest novels — backwards. I also recently noticed how many unfinished novels have been important to me: Musil’s, Kafka’s, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Christina Stead’s “I’m Dying Laughing.” Reading around in Ellison’s “Three Days Before the Shooting . . . ”; I bet I’d like that thing in Salinger’s safe.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
I just devoured in succession two spanking-new studies of great artists, both terrific reading experiences, brain-expanding but embracing, too: Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “Roth Unbound” and T. J. Clark’s “Picasso and Truth.” Both hit their very tricky targets. They’ll be with me for a good long time.
If you had to name a favorite novelist, who would it be?
I hate this question. My favorite letter is D, which gives me Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Dick, Delany and DeLillo. Unless it’s S, which gives me Stead, Spark, Salter, Saramago and others. I could go to a desert island with D or S, I think.
Care to call out your nominees for most overlooked or underappreciated writer?
Every writer I’m reading and loving seems underappreciated to me — then you mention the name and people say either, “Everyone reads them!” (Charles Portis, Dawn Powell) or, “You’re being willfully obscure!” (Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Anna Kavan). That said, this is a major sport for me — I bore my friends with this all the time — so let’s go: Laurie Colwin. Iain Sinclair. James Tiptree Jr., Stanley Elkin and Stanley Ellin. And. . . . But I’ll stop. I’d also champion the familiar-but-taken-for-granted: the greatness of Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, Brian Moore, Thomas Berger. The stories of Bruce Jay Friedman.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I notice other people are surprised to see so much of a certain kind of postwar British novelist: Anita Brookner, Penelope Fitzgerald, L. P. Hartley et al. They’re not surprising to me. I think people who haven’t read them imagine they’re cozy books, but they’re not — despite their relatively traditional form, they’re often unsettling.
Do you ever read self-help? Anything you recommend?
As a kid I used to compulsively reread Alan Watts’s “Wisdom of Insecurity.” I didn’t think of that as self-help at the time, but I think of it that way now. It’s still the help I need.
What are your favorite Brooklyn stories? And now that you’re at Pomona College, your favorite books about California?
Two merciless little novels — Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters” and L. J. Davis’s “A Meaningful Life” — bring to life the South Brooklyn I knew as a child in the early ’70s. Apart from that, however, I don’t much seek out books about Brooklyn; I’m more turned on by what Brooklyn grain I detect (or imagine I detect) in the voices of certain Brooklyn-born writers who leave the place largely unexplored as a subject: Robert Stone, Gilbert Sorrentino, Maurice Sendak.
As for California, I read Raymond Chandler long before I’d been here. I breathed in the atmosphere of those books before I even understood Chandler was writing about real places rather than conjuring a zone where his stories could be enacted. Now that I’m here, I see his books — and Ross Macdonald’s — as making a deep stratological survey of the place, in the manner of John McPhee.
Did you identify with any literary characters growing up? Who were your literary heroes?
Starting at about 11, with “Alice in Wonderland” and Lewis Carroll, I began identifying with the writer — or what I’ve learned now to call “the implicit author” — of a given fiction, rather than with the characters directly. Possibly some would say this explains a deficit of heroes in my stories.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
An invitation to air one’s limitations? Sure, I’ll bite. Based on other things I like, people keep insisting I read Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.” Each time I try, I discover an allegory of Russian politics, both labored and coy, starring Lucifer and a black cat — just about what I’d least wish to read in the world.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
I know I should use my time machine to go deep-canonical, but the prospect of trying to navigate a dinner party with Herman Melville, Charlotte Brontë and Honoré de Balzac — figuring out what I could say to them, or what they could say to each other — is beyond my capacities as a bon vivant. Instead, I think I’d want to hang out with three guys I just missed out on knowing, a group more ‘relatable’ to 20th-century me — Don Carpenter, Philip K. Dick and Malcolm Braly. They’re all, as it happens, semi-outlaw types with Marin County connections, so they’d probably have a good time if thrown together. And I could flatter myself and claim I’ve been implicated in the revival of each of their posthumous careers, so we’d have something to raise a glass or spark a joint to. I’d be thrilled to let them know they’re in print.
What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?
In the matter of putting things down unfinished, I’m too old now not to do it all the time, when something’s not working. No harm, no foul, just mutual détente. As for the classics unread, in that too I try to leave shame out of my game. The existence of vastly more great books than I can ever hope to read is a primary locus of joy in this life, and weight on the scale in favor of human civilization. What’s weird is that I’ve already doubled back on myself — rereading those classics to which I gave giddy short shrift in my teenage years, I find them as mysterious as if they were new. What good does it do a 50-year-old to go around feeling as if he’s read “The Red and the Black” or “Malone Dies” when he did it as a high school freshman? I often bear false confidence — I’ll reference these things in conversation, or with students — then open the book and wonder who it was that actually read it. Not me.
What do you plan to read next?
I’ve got a beautiful stack right here: Hilton Als’s “White Girls,” Tao Lin’s “Taipei,” Jamie Quatro’s “I Want to Show You More,” the new compendiums of William Gaddis’s and Italo Calvino’s letters. And “Daniel Deronda,” which, you know, I always meant to read and never got around to. I hear it’s good.