I've Learned Not to Believe in Things [PEN World Voices]

Yesterday was one of the busiest days I’ve had in a long time. I interviewed three authors—Sofi Oksanen, Rodrigo Fresan, and Quim Monzo—I had a brunch with some people from the Villa Gillet in Lyon, France, I attended three panels, wrote one blog post, went to the Grove dinner party, headed to Brooklyn for the N+1 party, and ended the night on the roof of the Hungarian Consulate.

That’s the thing about PEN World Voices—cool stuff just keeps coming. And even if you’re attending one interesting panel, you can be assured that an equally interesting panel is going on halfway across the island. The festival is a surplus of intellectual, international activity.

The first afternoon panel I went to was a conversation between Javier Cercas and Amanda Vaill. Cercas’s books sound really interesting, but Vaill didn’t do a great job of setting these up, so for someone who hasn’t read The Speed of Light or Soldiers of Salamis it wasn’t all that meaningful. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that I need to read more Cercas. These books sound fascinating, especially the way he plays a bit of a game with truth and fiction, incorporating a lot of facts into his novels while making some shit up out of whole cloth, using a narrator named Javier who’s remarkably similar to Cercas himself, etc.

My favorite bit was when Vaill asked him how he became a writer. Paraphrasing here: “You know how you sometimes imitate people? Well, I was never good with the ladies, but I thought writers always got lots of women. So I wanted to be a writer. And by the time I found out that writers don’t actually get any women it was too late.” (This is true about publishing as well. Damn you, role models who made me believe that this would be a profession filled with hot dates. Damn you!)

I lest that event early though to catch the end of “The Essay,” a really wonderful discussion moderated by Susan Harris from Words Without Borders and featuring Quim Monzo, Peter Schneider, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. The part of the discussion I saw revolved around truth and fiction (a la the Cercas event), especially in relation to essay writing and writing for newspapers.

Monzo is so naturally funny . . . I wish I could capture his style and share it with everyone. It’s weird, cause it’s not like he “tells jokes,” but every time he says something, everyone in the audience bursts out laughing. Anyway, he kept going on about how he “just writes” without concern for fact or fiction, genre or where the piece is being published. For example, in one of his more factual newspaper columns he talked about his two granddaughters who have Argentine names, etc. After the piece ran, a bunch of his friends said they were surprised to find out that he’s a grandfather. “Oh, I’m not a grandfather. But what about this piece? I just needed to invent them to make a point.”

This sort of fun and games didn’t seem to appeal much to Peter Schneider although his writing sort of falls into this space between fact and fiction . . . According to Sasa Stanisic, this is probably due to the fact that “creative nonfiction” really doesn’t exist in Germany. Which is unfortunate, but you know, sort of makes sense . . .

I saw Jean-Philippe Toussaint speak on two panels yesterday, and although I really like his earlier books—especially The Bathroom and Television—I’ve been sort of underwhelmed by his more recent stuff and by his presentations. That guy is so French. It’s odd—he makes these statements that are kind of over-the-top (“the opening sentence of my piece is just like Flaubert and my 16-page novel invokes four different literary genres: fiction, psychoanalysis, poetry, and literary criticism”) and coming from anyone else would seem ironic or self-aware. But I don’t think he means them in this way. Ah well, to each their own Frenchness.

And shit, to bring this full circle, I did see a few cute girls hanging around Jean-Philippe at the Hungarian party . . . Maybe there is something to this writer thing? But only if you’re French?


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