Wednesday, August 23

Do you like to know your authors?

The question popped into my head this afternoon as I enjoyed a short story from Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes. I have read a handful of Murakami's novels over the past several years but it occurred to me while I was a reading a story titled, "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning", that I know absolutely nothing about the man. Then it occurred to me that I don't want to know anything about the man. I'm comfortable with the relationship I presently have with Murakami and his writing and I do not feel the need to push the boundary of my understanding.

It was only after I had read a fair amount of Saul Bellow's work that I began to make an effort to learn something about his life. Even then, my interest was prompted by a friend who had some less than glowing appraisals of Bellow the human being. My inquiry revealed that Bellow had a reputation as a misogynist, a bit of a racist and a part-time neoconservative with a distate for counter-culture. Disappointing revelations indeed, but with my fondness for Bellow's writing already well-established, I have been able to navigate around these unfortunate bits of information and separate the man from his fiction.

I remember distincly an incident when things did not work out quite so neatly. It was during my tenure at an educational software company in Boston. I was on my lunch break, eating lunch in the office break room. I was sitting there, munching on carrots, reading Spring Snow, when the rude and annoying project manager with outrageous halitosis joined me at the table. She noticed my book with some excitement and ventured into a lecture on Yukio Mishima's ritual suicide. When she was through I returned to my desk rather disturbed, and when the work day was done I returned Spring Snow to the library. I wasn't able to separate the man from his fiction because I was not given the opportunity to wander through his writing on my own. I was frustrated by the information I had attained--at least in part because of its source--and so I gave up on the book. I'll get back to it someday soon.

In many cases learning about the life of an artist can enhance one's appreciation for that artist. Unfortunately not all artists are admirable beings, and more than a few have some serious skeletons in their closets--one need not look any farther than the recent news of G√ľnter Grass's secret SS past. Distinguishing the artist from the person behind the art is often easier said than done. I am unsure about what the role of the reader should be in terms of investigating the life of the writer. In most cases I try to avoid the biographical details altogether, but part of me thinks that it is the obligation of the discerning reader to dig into the details and attempt to find out what it is that makes a writer tick.



Bryan said...

I was actually thinking about this with respect to Grass the other day. He has won a Nobel Peace Prize, and now he has the worst label humanity has to offer. I can certainly see how one could choose to forgive him - he was 19, his has contributed plenty to the cause of peace since then - but I don't know whether I could pick up one of his works when there are millions upon millions not written by former SS members.

I had no problem reading A Confederacy of Dunces despite knowledge of Toole's suicide, but that might have been because everything about the book is so up-front - as in, in the foreward, where it is all explained (it's also brilliant). I would love to view authors the same way I view athletes, which is that I do not care for anything but the work they produce in their profession, which gets back to a Bryan/Ben discussion on another blog. I don't care what type of dude Saul Bellow (or Sal Bando) is... up until a point. I think Grass is beyond that point, as is Jose Canseco, - as an author or baseball player.

Ben said...

I should clarify. Your normal suicide, say, bullet to the brain or heroine overdose, is not something I find impossible to overcome when I engage in an author's work. In the case of Mishima, I was reading Spring Snow, still in the early stages where it seems to be a nice little aristrocratic love tale, and then here came this girl telling me in gruesome detail about how Mishima tried to cut off his own head and failed and then had a friend try to decapitate him and the friend failed and then they finally succeeded at separating head from body. I just didn't need to know all that, ya know?

Bryan said...

I'm starting to get the sense the net result of our four blogs is that we merely have several different avenues for exchanging comments.

Ben said...

Yes, this seems to be the case. But just imagine the tremendous impact our vast array of knowledge has when it is on display for public viewing like this!

LTS said...

This has recently been a big issue for me, too, Ben, and I thank you heartily for raising it in such an eloquent post.

In my case, however, my response typically manifests itself in deeply skeptical and prejudiced readings of the writers' works, with no effort made whatsoever to 'navigate' the misgivings I harbor. (Bellow, in addition to Roth, in fact prompted my own ruminations--e.g., 'How can I believe that these men REALLY know about all the important things that they ostensibly write about when they turn around and live like this?') Anyway, I think I'm mostly unapologetic about this, if only because I have deemed this reaction to be a thoroughly honest one. I'm not sure I can help finding it hard to accept a person's thoughts as expressed on the page when I strongly suspect that I would not accept a person's unexpressed thoughts--especially as a person's past actions would seem to betray them. As I see it, in the best case, a piece of writing might (somehow) have nothing to do with its objectionable author--e.g., if one could imagine an instance of 'pure poetry'--but even in that case, there is the feeling of a permeating disingenuousness, no less revolting for its being vague, that spoils the whole experience.

Therefore, inevitably, I find every writer that I know even the littlest bit about that much more problematic, and yet, as a consolation of sorts, that much more interesting as well. Perhaps this also partly explain my preference for overtly 'ministerial' (some might say 'philosophical') works of literature and my comparative dislike of most of what passes for fiction, wherein any meaning is garbled, perverted or, worst of all, altogether absent. (As if what I've written has any 'meaning'--ha!) But perhaps this Book-Looper is revealing too much about himself by expressing what might have remained an 'unexpressed thought'...

(I don't know why, but I think that last remark was for your benefit, Ben. Thanks again for the post.)

LTS said...

(Wow, what a crappily written comment!)

Just wanted to add that, consistent with what I have written, Grass's work may in fact become more powerful as the reflections of a person who has done evil, seen evil, knows evil, only to reject evil. But I write this having read none of his books nor anything substantive about his affiliation with the Nazis.