L to R: Jay Parini, Salman Rushdie, Amanda Vaill, Christopher Mason, David Gilbert, Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)
Borgesian understatement, Nixonian analysis, Putinian philosophy, and a rediscovered Kodak disc camera. The ink, the wine, and the laughs were all flowing at Tuesday’s Seriously Entertaining show as another smashing line-up of writing talent mused aloud on the creative process and the terror that one day the ink might just dry up altogether.
Amanda Vaill (Photo: Carly Gaebe)
Amanda Vaill was first in the spotlight with a tale from her new book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). When war broke out, the writers who answered the call to arms were all generally afraid that “their ink was running dry”, not least Ernest Hemingway, one of the stars of Hotel Florida, whose writing career in the mid-1930s was far from soaring. “But those who were the new face, the new day,” said Vaill, “were the photographers, the film-makers.” Most famous amongst them were Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, whose philosophy was summed up by Capa’s maxim, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Capa and Taro are perhaps best known for the image of the “Falling Soldier”, which Vaill contends was a staged shoot gone fatally wrong. Whatever the circumstances, it made their name, and when Gerda was tragically killed later in the conflict, tens of thousands followed her coffin through the streets of Paris. Capa survived the Spanish Civil War only to be killed when he stepped on a landmine in 1954 while covering the First Indochina War. Is this how the intrepid war photographer would have chosen to go? wondered Vaill. Or would it have been better to let the ink run dry?
Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)
“In 1988, to my mother’s dismay, I launched a project to bring Nixon to Newsweek,” began Jonathan Alter, our second speaker. “Nixon was not a small-talk man,” he recalled; “he was a man who wore his black oxfords on the beach.” Still, what he lacked in social graces he more than made up for in the astuteness of his observations. When asked how he thought history would judge him, Thirty-Seven responded, “You have to distinguish between history and historians, because history is written by liberals.”
Nixon was a notorious user of tape recorders, a habit that contributed hugely to his downfall. But despite their destructive potential, the humble recording device has flourished in the White House ever since. After a tense conversation in 1999 with Bill Clinton during which Alter asked him if he would be seeking psychiatric help — this was following the infidelity-impeachment double-header — the writer discovered that his interview tape was totally blank. “So I called the White House and asked if the presidential limo has a recording device… fortunately it did…”
And a recording device played a key role in the 2012 election, too, as Alter reveals at length in The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (Simon & Schuster, 2013). He closed his great set with the story of Scott Prouty, the waiter whose secret recording of Mitt Romney’s “forty-seven percent” comment may well have been one of the most significant factors in Obama’s re-election.
Christopher Mason (Photo: Carly Gaebe)
Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who won the inaugural Tip of My Tongue competition at the House of SpeakEasy gala in January, returned as host of this month’s quiz, delighting the crowd with three mystery literary passages.
After the interval, satirical songwriter Christopher Mason launched into a new and brilliantly witty take on the crisis in Ukraine entitled “Putin On The Blitz”. “You say Ukraine / I say Mykraine,” says the Russian premier in Mason’s hurlyburly retelling of the currentest of affairs. “Haunting former Soviet republics”, the bare-chested leader goes “advancing in Ukraine” to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Watch this space for a video of Christopher’s performance, coming soon.
“I really have to follow the fucking piano player?” asked David Gilbert, author of & Sons (Random House, 2013) and the next writer to take the stage. “I was nearly in a taxi!”
David Gilbert (Photo: Carly Gaebe)
Fortunately for us, Gilbert stuck around, unspooling a brilliant story of writerly procrastination and recovered photographs. Writing’s hard at the best of times, but Gilbert would make it even harder for himself by attempting to contrive lines of prose that were exactly the same length. “This was before I discovered ‘Justify All’… But then I noticed the gaps between words, which annoyed me even more than the right-hand margins!”
One day while cleaning out his closet (to avoid writing, naturellement) he came across a roll of undeveloped film from one of the Kodak disc cameras from the early 1980s. “You just know these prints are gonna be terrible,” he said, but set out merrily nonetheless to find out what they contained — “maybe all those fun times, the secret adventures of your teenage years?”
Instead he finds a succession of selfies. “Me looking in a mirror. Me looking to the right. Me looking to the left… Then the first two buttons of my shirt are undone. Then my shirt is off. Then my pants are off… Here I am looking at my selfie self, and I can see this poor kid trying to figure things out.” He grinned. “Then the last picture is of my dog.”
Jay Parini (Photo: Carly Gaebe)
Our final guest of the night was poet, biographer and critic Jay Parini. “In 1968 or so, I was being chased by this fucking government that wanted me to go to Vietnam. So I went to Scotland for seven years and enrolled at St. Andrews.”
There, Parini was given the task of chaperoning the visiting Jorge Luis Borges, a name unknown to him at that time. Unimpressed by this supposedly famous writer, Parini asked Borges why he’d never (even) written a novel. It turned out that Borges had in fact considered doing so for many years — a giant blockbuster epic of a novel, no less. Rather than that, though: “One day I went to my desk and wrote a two hundred-word review of this novel instead,” said Borges. That would do.
Parini later became friends with Gore Vidal, whose biography he is currently writing. When he first met Vidal’s partner, Howard Austen, Howard was introduced as secretary to the great man. “Howard, what does that entail?” asked Parini. “Put it this way, big boy,” responded Austen: “I don’t type.”
Parini closed the evening with some fine words of advice. When working on a novel about Walter Benjamin, he asked Vidal if he could really have two characters discussing Heidegger’s philosophy for thirty pages. Gore’s response was quick and invaluable: “Only if they’re sitting in a railway car and the reader knows there’s a bomb under their seat!”
What happens when The Ink Runs Dry? Fortunately, the House of SpeakEasy has a talking cure. We’re delighted to welcome Jonathan Alter, David Gilbert, Christopher Mason, Jay Parini and Amanda Vaill to City Winery for another Seriously Entertaining literary cabaret, taking in tortured geniuses, presidential candidates, messiahs and more. Read on, dear friends, to meet this month’s line-up.
Here Alter talks to the Washington Post about The Center Holds. “He’s very clear about needing to be president of all the people, and not the president of Black America. But he doesn’t like to talk about that too much in public… Because he’s African-American, the president can’t swing at every pitch that he wants to. Otherwise he plays into the hands of his enemies…”
David Gilbert is the author of two novels, The Normals (2004) and & Sons (2013). The latter, a witty and brilliantly observed examination of a reclusive novelist and his familial relations, was named a book of the year by The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Guardian. John Irving said of it, “the writing is gorgeous — not only the prose but the power of David Gilbert’s observation”. Read our review of & Sons here.
Here Gilbert talks about dyslexia, the myth of fathers, and what writing has taught him.
Christopher Mason is a journalist, author, photographer and composer and performer of satirical songs. He’s performed for, amongst others, President Clinton, the Prince of Wales, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. His journalistic and authorial career includes many pieces for the New York Times and the internationally acclaimed The Art of the Steal, which tells the inside story of the Sotheby’s-Christie’s price-fixing scandal.
Here’s Mason delivering one of his specialties, the occasion a fiftieth birthday party: “This bizarre allegation she’s fifty / Seems an odd cognitive disconnect / ‘Cause what makes her so thoroughly winning / Is her childhood’s not quite over yet…”
His most recent book, Jesus: The Human Face of God (2013), which we reviewed here, is a masterful synthesis of historical evidence and scriptural analysis. Here Parini talks to PBS NewsHour about “the gradually realizing kingdom of God”.
Here she talks about Ernest Hemingway and the genesis of her latest work: “He wrote, ‘You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could learn anywhere in the world’. And when I read this line, I thought, That’s a book! And it was… The hotel itself became a sort of metaphor for Spain in the years from 1936 to 1939 when a desperate war was going on for the fate of the country.” Read our review of Hotel Floridahere.
You can buy tickets for The Ink Runs Dry, which is at 8pm (doors from 6pm) at City Winery NYC on May 20, here.
Spain’s war had become an experimental exercise — which will prevail, fascism or socialism? Whose weapons are stronger, Germany’s or Russia’s? — that the rest of the world was watching with interest.
This is “a bleak and terrifying epiphany” for Arturo Barea, an aspiring writer working in Madrid as a press censor for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. When the conflict began, in 1936, Europe was shifting gears: those loyal to the Republican government found themselves ignored by a nervous Britain and France while the Nationalist insurgents, led by the ruthless General Franco, were being granted fabulous access to new innovations in warfare from Italy and a swiftly rearming Germany. Barea, realising that Spain was viewed internationally as little more than a test run for what was shaping up to be an even bigger conflict, was understandably put out.
He’s one of a handful of characters at the centre of Amanda Vaill‘s superb close-up study of the conflict, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), and although of Vaill’s six protagonists he’s the only Spaniard, it’s his heart that the book’s beats in time with. His confreres on the frontline of this splendid work of biography are his girlfriend, the Austrian-born Ilse Kulcsar; the photographer couple Robert Capa and Gerda Taro; a swaggering Ernest Hemingway; and the young Martha Gellhorn, who later became Hemingway’s third wife and one of the greatest war journalists of the century.
Madrid’s opulent Hotel Florida is the surreal fulcrum for much of the book’s action. This “ten-story marble-clad jewel box” becomes, in wartime, a haven
for a polyglot collection of journalists, French and Russian pilots, and opportunistic ladies of the evening. The pilots and the tarts (and some of the journalists) spent their evenings getting roaring drunk in the little bar, and when shells weren’t whistling over the building the night was punctuated by shrieks and slamming doors and running feet.
Author Amanda Vaill
One of many nice touches: each time Vaill returns to the hotel, she checks in with the concierge, Don Cristóbal, and in glimpses we see him move the reception desk from the front of the hotel to the back to avoid the flying glass from the frequent shellings — but continue to tend to his stamp collection, even as his international guests are forced to move out by the onward creep of Franco’s troops. Moments like these capture the special melancholy of the interwar years, which saw the last hurrah of an Old Europe soon to be completely destroyed by the Second World War. (It’s hard, with all the louche activity going on behind closed doors and the peculiar nonchalance of the book’s actors in the face of danger, not to be reminded of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which captures a similarly bittersweet moment in time.) Vaill’s characters waltz in and out of the Hotel Florida, their paths crossing not only each other’s but those of George Orwell, John Dos Passos, André Malraux and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was a writer’s war, evidently. Indeed Hemingway, in the employ of the North American Newspaper Alliance, made up to $1,000 for each article he sent back. In a series of brilliant vignettes, Vaill records the many fights he had with Dos Passos, amongst others, over the relative veracity of his and others’ reports. But given that one of his motives for heading Spainwards was, in the first place, to find inspiration for “any number of novels”, it’s difficult not to share Barea’s concern that the expat journos flooding into the country didn’t understand “that this was Spain’s war, Spain’s agony.”
It was also a photographer’s war. “If your pictures aren’t good enough,” Robert Capa would say, “you’re not close enough.” He and Gerda Taro certainly got close enough. One of the most famous images of twentieth-century warfare was Capa’s snap of a falling soldier in the early months of the war, a photo which would later attract controversy over allegations that it was staged, but nevertheless became “the symbol… of Loyalist sacrifice”. (See also Vaill’s recent Foreign Policy article on the “Falling Soldier” photo.) Making a living from war reportage often comes at a price, of course; towards the end of the book, Capa confesses, “Slowly I am feeling more and more like a hyena”…
Like Capa and Taro, Vaill understands the power of the snapshot to bring home the horror and surrealism of warfare, and Hotel Florida is full of them: “children lying in neat rows, their eyes closed and their lips parted as if in sleep, numbers on their chests for identification”; a Nationalist air assault that kills only a single frog; Hemingway blasting Chopin to drown out the sound of aerial bombardment. Alongside these telling details, Vaill’s analysis of the interpersonal relationships of her subjects is novel-like in its depth, especially the fraught three-way between Hemingway, Gellhorn and Ernest’s second wife, Pauline. But it’s a portrait of war in deep focus. Vaill is equally skilled when it comes to the long shots, zooming out to take in the bloody territorial back-and-forths in Guadalajara, Guernica, Teruel, Brunete and Madrid — as well as the metastasising threat of wider warfare in response to the agitations of Hitler and Mussolini.
These are the storm clouds that are gathering as Vaill’s story ends. As the Brigades are disbanded, it’s left to Mikhail Koltsov, Pravda‘s Spanish correspondent, to suggest — with final-act abandon — “in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne”. The world would end a thousand times more before the storm was over.
You can read an excerpt from Hotel Florida on the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website here. Amanda Vaill will appear at the next House of SpeakEasy show, The Ink Runs Dry, on May 20. You can buy tickets here and follow Amanda on Twitter here.
Christopher Mason, who makes his House of SpeakEasy bow on May 20 (tickets on sale here), is an author, journalist, photographer, television presenter, wearer of excellent bow-ties, and singer-songwriter extraordinaire. It’s in this latter capacity that he’ll be entertaining the crowd at City Winery next week, much as he’s previously delighted mayors, senators, princes, duchesses, and Bob Weinstein’s three-year-old son. Literally. This week I spoke to Christopher about his fabulous career.
Charles Arrowsmith: You have been called “the premier journalist covering the nether world of high society”. What is it about this milieu that you find particularly fascinating?
Christopher Mason: My first job in New York as a transplanted Brit (thirty years ago) was working for George Trescher, a hilariously acerbic PR and fundraising genius, whose closest friends were Brooke Astor, Jacqueline Onassis, and Liz Smith. It was an eye-popping intro to the way power is wielded in New York, and a primer in the triumphs, tragedies, and atrocities of the literate glitterati.
I began lampooning them with satirical songs in the late ’80s, then switched to prose, taking some satirical swipes in my feature stories for the New York Times. That led to my investigative book The Art of the Steal (Berkley Trade, 2005), about the Sotheby’s-Christie’s price-fixing scandal — a story with elements ripe for satire. I’m also the host of Behind Mansion Walls, the Investigation Discovery TV series about murders in fabulous houses. Still relishing my life of crime.
CA: Having performed for royalty, world leaders and the one percent for many years, you must have some excellent stories. What can’t you tell us?
CM: I’m contractually obliged not to repeat the lyrics I was required to cut before performing for a gaggle of plutocrats during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
CA: We’re looking forward to hearing one of your great satirical songs next week. Who, for you, are the finest practitioners of the form?
CM: My all-time favourite is Tom Lehrer, whose satirical songs are as scathing and hilarious as they were when he recorded them in the ’50s and ’60s. When Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, Lehrer famously quipped that satire had become obsolete.
I’m also a big fan of Tim Minchin, the outrageously funny Australian whose song “Inflatable You” makes me roar with laughter every time I hear it.
CA: Aside from the wonderful guests at the House of SpeakEasy, who in the world, dead or alive, would you most like to perform for — and what would your subject be?
CM: President Hillary Clinton and the First Rake, Bill. “The Scalia Follies” and “The Rush-to-Judgement Limbaugh Rumba” with a cheery refrain from “The Ballad of Benghazi.”
CA: And finally, what are the last three books you read?
Alongside his musical career, Christopher has long written for the New York Times (see, par exemple, his pieces on Brooke Astor’s estate and former Warhol confrere Brigid Berlin). His book, The Art of the Steal, was hailed as “an excellent book” by the Sunday Times while the Economist called it “a genuine antitrust thriller, a gripping yarn of real-life collusion that is spiced up with Picassos, class warfare, art market bitchiness and the rather unsettling conclusion that some well-heeled villains got away with it.” Here’s Christopher talking about the case on CNBC’s American Greed:
Christopher appears at the next House of SpeakEasy literary cabaret, The Ink Runs Dry, on May 20. You can buy tickets here and follow Christopher on Twitter here.
“All told, or totaled, I would spend a week under A.N. Dyer’s roof, which is how I became a witness, the primary witness despite some feuding claims, to everything that happened.” So writes Philip Topping, the intrusive narrator of David Gilbert’s brilliant & Sons, near the start of the novel, which is due out in paperback from Random House on May 27.
A.N. (Andrew) Dyer is an elderly, reclusive, New York-based writer in the vein of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. When we first see him, at the funeral of his lifelong friend — and Philip’s father — Charlie Topping, our narrator describes it as “one of those I-was-there moments”, a chance sighting of a rare bird, especially when the famous author stumbles over his eulogy. The majority of the novel’s action takes place in the week that follows the funeral. Philip, recently estranged from his wife, moves in with the Dyers (Andrew and his son Andy) just as the ageing patriarch summons his older children, Jamie and Richard, home from their voluntary exiles in Vermont and California. To make amends or for some darker purpose? Echoes of some of the great-slash-terrible Shakespearean fathers — notably Lear — abound as the plot elegantly unfolds.
& Sons is a great novel about great novels and a fresh meditation on one of American literature’s enduring obsessions, the father-son dynamic. The characters are literary in an almost literal way, the punctuation-metaphor a major feature of Gilbert’s arsenal. Examining Andrew’s posture at the funeral, for instance, Philip is reminded of a comma, “its intent not yet determined”. Later, after a punch-up, Jamie’s nose is left with “a parenthetical bend to the left”. His old girlfriend Sylvia, meanwhile, had an “asterisk-like belly button”. It’s a fascinating tic — sufficiently unobtrusive as to be missable at first, but ultimately highly revealing. After all, Philip must construct what he cannot know — the thoughts and feelings of his subjects. He refers to his father and Andrew as “heavily redacted men”, a redaction felt in the novel’s curiously mutilated title. & Sons, with its absent Fathers, is Philip’s creative attempt, using Andrew’s letters and what he reads into the scenes he witnesses chez Dyer, to declassify Andrew and Charlie’s secret history. The fact that his subjects bear the mark of their invention, that they come to resemble typed “characters”, is like a corny joke writ sufficiently large that it takes on the aspect of a symptom.
For Philip and the Dyers are all prisoners of language. Their actions are shadowed and echoed by the written word, which acts on them like a genetic disease. Richard, Jamie and Andy — Andy most of all — cannot escape their father’s name nor the expectation it carries. Worse, they bear the scars of Andrew’s single-minded devotion to fiction. Writing has cannibalised the Dyers, as when Andrew used Richard’s boyhood journals as source material for one of his books (Percy, By Himself):
Author David Gilbert
The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award, which some considered a consolation prize. The judges praised the story of Percy Sr. and Jr. and their silent struggle for connection, citing in particular the journal entries of Percy the younger and their uncanny verisimilitude (a word Richard had to look up, thinking it had something to do with vivisection).
Perhaps worst of all, fiction can be a form of torture. As the plot unfolds through the distorting lens of Philip’s interpretation, we learn that the novel central to Dyer’s canon, a dark adolescent fable with echoes of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, is in fact a cruelly encoded version of an event that forever entwined the Dyers and the Toppings. In Philip’s reading, the novel’s title (Ampersand) and imagery are the proof. But he fails to note Andrew’s initials (A.N.D.), which, in punning on Ampersand, carry the faint suggestion that he is just as much a pawn in Gilbert’s grand scheme as Charlie was in Andrew’s.
Like Charles Kinbote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Philip is in many ways (covertly) the central character. He’s a shadowy figure intruding on his own invented scenes, as when, in conversation with his sons, Andrew asks,
“what do you call this area of the mouth again?” He touched the labial commissure, though neither of his sons knew the term.
or when he describes Andy and cousin Emmett catching snatches of “The Blue Danube” while wandering through Central Park, “though they had no idea of the name, only a familiarity from old cartoons”. His condescension is highly revealing. Most of the time, though, he is invisible, rendering Gilbert’s use of free indirect style fish-slippery. In retrospect, it’s clear that each character might be read as a reflection of Philip’s attitudes towards them. Richard and Jamie, who were never kind to him despite his obvious need to be liked, come across as bitter, narcissistic failures. Andrew, in a dark refraction of Philip’s imagined life for his own father, is tormented by guilt and regret.
It’s an extremely rich, often dark book, but funny, too. Andy, discovering that he is communicating by email not with his father but with the young woman who manages his website, flirts with her, “Dad, you are a very naughty girl.” Philip describes his sister’s family at the funeral, “jammed together” on the second row, as “sour yet insistent, like the richest people flying coach”. And at a book launch at the Frick, “these writers trailed glances of vast amusement — Is that Amadellia-something over there? — while also maintaining stock-in-trade seriousness, discussing new novels or retreats or conferences, yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen.” Not unfamiliar, perhaps.
A novel about the art of fiction is an inevitably “meta” proposition. Through its careful construction, weaving A.N. Dyer’s (fictional) fiction into the fabric of the novel, & Sons examines our desire to find meaning in narrative, to spot mythical patterns in the entropic sprawl of life. But it’s far from a chilly exercise in metafiction. Gilbert’s warmth shines through, particularly in his younger characters and in the revealing correspondence between Andrew and Charlie, which prefaces each part of the book. And there’s at least the suggestion, in the final chapters, that writing might also offer a chance for redemption.
David Gilbert will appear at The Ink Runs Dry on May 20 at City Winery. You can buy tickets here.