PEN World Voices: Saturday

Well, I didn’t make it to as many PEN events as I had hoped to on Saturday—there are so, so many, and with things starting right after one another it’s really kind of tricky—but the ones I attended were amazing.

It actually was an “all German” sort of day . . . First off was a conversation between Ingo Schulze and Eliot Weinberger. Eliot constantly amazes. He’s a fantastic writer and translator, overall brilliant person, and one of the best panelist/interviewers I’ve ever seen. He’s slightly contrarian on panels—which honestly helps foster the conversation—and in these conversations he walks through a writer’s life in the perfect way that keeps the audience interested and explores many of the facets of the author’s work.

Ingo Schulze is an interesting guy, and his new 800-page novel sounds really interesting. (And if Daniel Kehlmann’s statement is true that American reviewers thought his book was too short, this should do really well . . . And in case it’s not coming through, I’m joking. Americans love big books, but love short books even more.)

One of the best lines ever came out of that panel. Schulze said something about translation being impossible, and Eliot replied, “sure you can say translation is impossible, but so is love, and that doesn’t stop people from falling in love every day.”

The Robert Walser event that afternoon though was honestly the best PEN World Voices event I’ve ever been to. It was simple, intelligent, work-based, and populated with the perfect participants and audience. Started with Michel Kruger talking a bit about Walser’s life and work, his influence on Kafka, his micrographs. Then the wonderful Susan Bernofsky talked a little about the Walser translations she’s done, and read from both The Assistant and the forthcoming The Tanners. Deborah Eisenberg then read a few sections from the remarkable Jakob Von Gunten (which would make an awesome Lost book), and was followed by Jeffrey Eugenides brilliant reading of “Trousers.” (Which I wish I could link to via Google Books. . . It’s part of the Selected Stories that NYRB did a few years back, and it worth every penny.) Wayne Kostenbaum also read a few of the really funny short pieces. (I’ve mainly read the novels, but based on this event, it seems to me that Walser really excels in this short form. Sharp, constructively-destructive, incredibly hilarious.)

What was most interesting though was the fact that the Q&A section didn’t go awry. As Umberto Eco said the other day, it’s statistically proven that when there’s a crowd of more than 50, only the mad ask questions. . . . Somehow, at this particular event, the questions asked were appropriate and thoughtful, and generated interesting conversation among the participants. That’s really unusual. Extremely. (I remember suggesting once that there should be a “disconnect button” on stage so that the moderator could shut down the audience mic as soon as shit went haywire. . . . ) This was one of those events where something special happened and everyone in the audience walked away amazed. In fact, they sold out of Walser books at the stand outside the event . . .

That evening the Germans and Hungarians both represented with really fun parties. The one at the Deutchs Haus was a bit frat-esque, but incredibly loud and fun, and packed with all the major players in international lit. (It was great to finally meet Francine Prose in person, and Eugenides was incredibly nice to talk with.) The Hungarians had mediocre wine (a unfortunate staple of their events!) but a great crowd and compelling, abstract music. Overall, it was one of the best days of the festival’s four year history.

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