When I saw that Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Mario Vargas Llosa were to appear together at the PEN World Voices festival, I bought tickets immediately, and I’m glad I did — the event was fabulous. Even before the event itself began, good things were happening; I ran into Anne Fernald from the blog Fernham and got to chat with her for a couple minutes. Then Hobgoblin pointed out that Richard Ford and Jeffrey Eugenides were sitting two rows in front of us. I also had a nice conversation with the elderly woman sitting next to me; she told me about her book that had been published years ago and her successful career and her great-grandchildren who are too busy to visit very often.
Then the event began; first there was a general introduction, and then Umberto Eco appeared. He explained that each writer would read from his work in his native language, and then he began to read a section from Foucault’s Pendulum in Italian, while the English translation was projected onto a screen. It was thrilling to hear Eco read in his native language; the Italian was beautiful to listen to, and I soon stopped following the words on the screen and in order to pay more attention to the way the language sounded. When he finished he left the stage and Rushdie came out to read from his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence. It was a funny passage (or maybe it’s just funny when you’re listening to it in a crowd) about the Emperor Akbar who has built a “house of worship” in honor of reason, which turns out to be a tent because rationality is an impermanent thing. Then Vargas Llosa read from his 2007 novel The Bad Girl, in Spanish. This time I followed the English words to see what I could understand from the Spanish; the passage was about the narrator falling in love with the flamboyant Lily, a girl newly arrived in his town of Miraflores. The passage had the same light and humorous tone that I saw in the one work of his I’ve read Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a book I read with enjoyment.
After the readings, all three writers came out on stage and were joined by Leonard Lopate (a WNYC talk show host), the moderator for their discussion, and things really got going. They began talking about the “Three Musketeers” theme — this was the title of the night’s event — and the story of how the three writers had met a decade earlier and had such a fabulous time they gave themselves the name from Dumas. Now they were here for a reunion. This story quickly turned into a discussion of Dumas himself, and how badly The Three Musketeers is written — Rushdie and Eco took great pleasure in describing just how sloppily Dumas could write and how wordy he could be, and one of them said, “The magic of The Count of Monte Cristo is due to the fact that it is badly written.” These two had the audience laughing uproariously; they both have fabulous senses of humor — Rushdie is dry and witty, and Eco exudes energy and expressiveness in that stereotypical Italian way, complete with hand gestures. He was utterly charming. Then Vargas Llosa, who is funny too but in a more dignified way, stepped in with a defense of “bad writing”; he argued that if the writing draws you in and moves you then it can’t be bad writing and that good writing isn’t merely a matter of good grammar and pretty words. This drew hearty applause from the audience.
Then Lopate stepped in started asking them serious questions about the clash of cultures in their novels — I would have preferred that he just let the writers keep up their debate and their jokes because the minute he asked a serious question the energy fell and the mood changed. But the conversation was good, of course; they talked about how writers in the U.S. don’t have any meaningful political role, which is often not the case in other countries, and why this might be so, and they debated whether writers flourish more in dictatorships rather than democracies (because they are the only ones speaking truths the country wants and needs to hear). They all seemed to agree that the U.S. is a special case because of the way its writers are seen as entertainers rather than as important political figures. In his deadpan way, Rushdie claimed that this problem is entirely due to movie stars, which then turned the conversation to Rushdie’s own experiences acting in movies, and he quipped, “I’m so glad you’re asking me about my best work.”
Then Lopate asked a couple questions solicited on index cards from the audience; the first question, asking the writers to describe their writing methods, got only boos from the audience because of its banality, and I was delighted to see Richard Ford yell out “Next question!” Before they moved on, though, Eco, looking inordinately pleased with himself, explained his writing method — he starts on the left side of the page and works his way over to the right. This got a laugh.
The next and last audience question got them talking about the virtues of the English language; Rushdie described it as “a bendy language,” and one of the others, I can’t remember who, argued that its flexibility is both a virtue and a risk — its openness and adaptability have led to some of the world’s greatest literature, but these same qualities can possibly lead to its dissolution, as people from all around the world make English their own.
And that was it — afterwards was a book signing, but we didn’t stick around, as we hadn’t brought any of our books and needed to run off to catch the train. I left vowing once again to take advantage of opportunities like this more often than I do; living within easy traveling distance of NYC can be a wonderful thing.