Photo credit: Matt Mendelsohn
Describe your latest book.
My new book is a father-son story wrapped around a reading of Homer’s The Odyssey
. On one level, it’s about an amazing experience I had with my late father — how he decided, when he was in his early 80s, to sit in on the freshman Odyssey
seminar I was teaching in the spring of 2011 at Bard College. That in itself was pretty remarkable — having my father as a student, exploring this text that I know and love so well with a bunch of 18-year-olds and one cantankerous 81-year-old. But it got better: after the semester was over, my dad and I heard about a cruise around the Aegean and Mediterranean that recreated the voyages of Odysseus, and of course we went, and that
certainly took the cake. And then, not long after we got back, my dad fell ill. So it’s essentially about the last year of his life, which intersected so powerfully with the Odyssey,
and it’s about what I learned about Dad through reading and reliving the epic with him. After a brief preface, the book follows the course of the class, recreating key discussions that we had about the epic during the semester. This is how I “give” the poem to readers who aren’t familiar or intimate with it; and out of that seminar room narrative, spiral flashbacks to my childhood and adolescence, and flash-forwards to the cruise and my father’s illness. Here, as in my earlier memoirs, The Elusive Embrace
(1999) and The Lost
(2006), I’ve wrapped a personal story around readings and explications of an ancient text, but my new memoir goes a bit further. Because, in An Odyssey
, I’ve actually mapped the “plot” of our story onto the plot of the Odyssey
itself. After a “proem,” or introductory section, there’s a section on the son’s search for the father (this is how Homer’s epic begins), which of course is one way of describing my project; then, a section about our adventures at sea, which mirrors Books 9-12 of the Odyssey
, which feature Odysseus recounting his own adventures during the course of a long banquet at which a bard sings three important songs (song-singing crops up a lot during the cruise section of my book, as readers will see); and finally, the “homecoming.” All of these sections are punctuated with digressions that follow the rules of “ring composition,” Homer’s technique for expanding and enriching one narrative by looping in other material — memories, histories, and anecdotes.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I was bitten by the archaeology/ancient history bug when I was really young, although between, say, 9 and 13, I was largely indifferent to the Greeks and absolutely obsessed with the Ancient Egyptians. There were a number of books I would take out again and again from the public library and reread. Among these I remember the lovely tripartite titles of two, Gods, Graves, and Scholars
and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs
— as well as Howard Carter
’s book about the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and a marvelous YA title, The Golden Goblet
, which I had practically memorized after a while. I discovered the Greeks when I hit my teens, largely because of Mary Renault
’s trilogy about Alexander the Great, which had a huge impact on me, not least because of her depiction of Greek homosexuality, which was a lifesaver for me as a gay teenager; I wrote a long essay about this for The New Yorker
a few years ago.
When did you know you were a writer?
I don’t think I “knew" I was a writer — I was just writing all the time. I started keeping a journal when I was 11, when I was in my mad passion for Ancient Egypt. I wrote it in these sort of baby hieroglyphs, so that no one could pry. Not, of course, that I had much of interest to say or indeed to hide — I was looking at it the other day and virtually every other entry says “NOTHING IMPORTANT.” But it was good practice, feeling obliged to write every day, and of course as I got older there was much to say, and the habit of keeping a journal was, I now think, very important. You realize that the world, as well as you yourself, are available to you as objects of reflection, consideration, and writing. I wrote reams of fiction when I was a teenager, awful adolescent stuff always (unsurprisingly) about tragic friendships between two teenage boys. Some of them were historical fiction — I was very influenced by this genre, which I love — and I distinctly recall one in which a dark-haired Long Island boy loses his best friend in the sinking of the Titanic. Thank God it’s all been lost.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I write at a large desk in the study of my home near the Hudson River. The desk is actually a 1940s French dining table which I scooped up at the flea market in Manhattan in the early 1990s for $300. I like having a large surface to work on, especially when I’m writing a critical piece and need to have lots of open books in front of my eyes — texts, secondary sources, lexica, etc. I have a giant Mac desktop and that’s what I write on, although until about six or seven years ago I wrote just about everything, including my first three books, in bed on a laptop. I loved writing in bed; there was none of that now-I’m-sitting-in-front-of-a-blank-screen-at-my-desk anxiety. I was still connected to my dream-state and it was very cozy. I have a filmmaker brother who once worked for Woody Allen, and I remember him telling me that Woody writes in bed, and I was very struck by that and it worked for me for a long time. But I started to have neck and shoulder aches and my orthopedic surgeon absolutely forbade me from working anywhere but at a desk, so voilà, my big desk and the big Mac. My house is old and my study is fairly small. There’s only one bookcase with crucial reference works and lots of dictionaries; most of my books are in the library downstairs or in my office at Bard. I had wanted to have a huge study — every writer’s fantasy — until an architect friend of mine said, “What you actually do in your study requires no space at all: writing.” And he was right.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
One of the nicest experiences I've ever had with a reader began as one of those heated email exchanges — maybe 10 years ago, a reader had written about one of my New York Review of Books
pieces and I replied defensively, rather hotly, and boom, we were off and running. When I cooled off I realized he was right and I wrote back saying, “You know what? Let’s take this from the top.” He wrote back, and we became good friends after that!
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
That I’ve never read To Kill A Mockingbird
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Right now it’s the Irish writer Sebastian Barry, whose Days Without End
just blew me away recently, after which I read all of his other books — a marvelous writer who has not yet gotten the fully appreciative reviews that he deserves. My pal Bob Gottlieb is doing a big appreciation of him for The New York Review
and I hope that will change things. This is one of the great things about being a critic — you can promote work you feel needs to be heeded. Years ago I read an absolutely extraordinary novel by the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina, Sepharad
, which had not gotten the reviews it deserved — it hadn’t been smacked out of the ball park. And even though it had been out for a couple of years, I called Bob Silvers and said, “I have to write about this,” and he let me, and I was able to draw some attention to this amazing work. That’s a very satisfying thing indeed, especially in a world where so many unworthy works are hyped to death.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
Be careful what you ask! I am, in fact, a collector by nature and have many collections that I accumulated in the 1990s, when there was still an amazing flea market in New York, at the corner of 25th Street and 6th Avenue. I have both serious and silly collections, everything from 20th century Venetian glass, the Ancient Greek-inspired furniture of T. H. Robsjohn Gibbings, and 1940s electric clocks made by a company called Telechron to Dorothy Thorpe china and first editions of classic works of Greek and Latin scholarship. In the latter category, my greatest coup is a 1544 edition of the Greek Church Father, Eusebius, by the great French printer Robert Estienne — the first book in Greek ever printed in France, which I scammed for around $150 from a vendor who had no idea what it was. Then there is the category that Bob [Gottlieb] refers to as “classica” — wacky household items decorated, usually rather badly, with Classical Greek and Roman motifs. I can’t tell you how many cocktail sets with Roman charioteers I have.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
Straight out of college, when I had no idea what I would or could do, a family friend got me a job selling jewelry at Buccellati, the old, elite Italian jeweler, which was installed in an incredibly posh double-height showroom in the old St. Regis hotel on 5th Avenue. It was interesting — I’ve actually always been interested in design and couture, so it was pretty fun — and at 22 I met the most amazing cast of people, including Imelda Marcos. (My boss, the fabulously elegant and suave Luca Buccellati, kept referring to a “hat” Imelda had ordered, and I was puzzled until I realized it was a tiara.) It was a dizzying experience and filled with some comic moments that I have kept in the back of my mind to write about some day — not the least of which was an encounter with a disgruntled customer that ended, memorably, with her drawing herself up and saying, “I
am the countess — it was my mother
who was the princess!” As a footnote, the store moved into Trump Tower when the building first opened, so I suppose it afforded me some glancing contact with He Who Shall Not Be Named. After that I worked for four years for a brilliant, tiny opera impresario who had the foulest mouth of anyone I have ever known. I am definitely
going to write about that.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
No — I’m always a bit skeptical about that kind of thing; in fact, in my family Holocaust memoir, The Lost
, I wrote at length about the problematics of going to these sorts of historically-loaded places and how difficult it is to know how to react. I’d rather read an author’s work than see where his potty was. That said, I had one of the most moving experiences of my life when, during a research trip for that book, I found myself in Vilnius. It was a very depressing trip, needless to say, and one day as I was walking up a street after visiting a horrendous site called the Ponar Forest — a place outside of the city where a 100,000 Jews were massacred — I noticed a small plaque on a house. I peered at the plaque, which noted that during the Napoleonic Wars it had been inhabited by Stendhal
, who was in Napoleon’s army. I’m a great lover of Stendhal, about whom I’ve written, and somehow seeing the name of this writer and being reminded of his extraordinarily civilized mind after having the experience I’d just had acted on my emotions very powerfully. I remember standing in the street staring at the plaque and just bursting into tears. People must have thought I was crazy.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Since I’ve written three memoirs, why would anyone bother?
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
I love the opening of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between
: “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” I suppose that sums up the theme I’ve been obsessed with my whole career, as a memoirist, critic, and classicist.
Describe a recurring dream or nightmare.
I actually wrote about this here
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
As a classicist, of course, I’m alert to grammar in ways that I suppose many people aren’t: both Greek and Latin impose grammatical correctness in a way that spoken English doesn’t. It does drive me bonkers when people correct “me” to “I” even when “me” is actually correct — it’s rampant and I suppose hopeless at this point. And since I’m rather fond of “whom,” I like people to use it. Every time I log onto Twitter and see that “WHO TO FOLLOW” box I want to bang my head against the wall.
I’ll also fearlessly mention my addiction to semicolons. I remember getting a paper back from a classics professor at UVA in which she’d written, in the margin, “You have semicolonitis!” But it’s funny, because I picked it up from Mary Renault, who was very fond of semicolons — it’s odd how these little things can seep into one’s grammar, syntax, and structures.
Do you have any phobias?
I’m notoriously claustrophobic. In fact, the climactic moments in both The Lost
and my new book, An Odyssey
, are structured around moments in which I’m trapped in some confined space. I wonder if critics will notice this — or, for that matter, any psychoanalysts!
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I wrote about this
, too! See? That’s the danger of asking a memoirist to respond to questionnaires. There’s a high likelihood that the question's already been a subject!
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
From Bob Gottlieb, the week before my first book, The Elusive Embrace
, came out in 1999: “The only thing worse than a stupid bad review is a stupid good review.”
What’s a great passion of yours that your readers would be unlikely to guess?
Fashion. I’m obsessed with fashion and love reading about it, and happily go to any exhibition that’s within 50 miles. I was in Paris a few years ago at a literary event, and in the course of a conversation with an eminent intellectual I casually referred to Mme. Grès. I thought he was going to faint — whether from pleasure or shock, I cannot say.
Share a Top Five book list of your choice.
I’m actually not at all a fan of lists, which are just so flattening. But I’ll mention here a book that is not “great” in any way, but which I reread every summer and cracks me up every time: Noël Coward’s only novel, Pomp and Circumstance
. I’m a great fan of Coward, about whom I’ve written a number of times — I’m always full of admiration for those I call “worker bees,” professional writers who just keep writing, producing, and putting it out there, and Coward was one. Anyway, he only wrote this one novel, about how an impending visit from the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh makes life on a tiny tropical British possession in the South Seas absolutely hellish, and I really do literally weep with laughter. It’s constructed, unsurprisingly, along the lines of a stage farce, but the diction is so brilliantly witty, and at 57 years old — not, coincidentally, my own age — it savors of a kind of urbane, knowing, allusive humor that already seems hopelessly part of the past.
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was born on Long Island and studied classics at the University of Virginia and at Princeton. His reviews and essays on literary and cultural subjects appear frequently in The New Yorker
and The New York Review of Books
. His books include a memoir, The Elusive Embrace
, a New York Times
Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times
Best Book of the Year; the international best seller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
; and a collection of essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken
. He teaches at Bard College. An Odyssey
is his most recent memoir.