Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tolstoy and Contemporary American Writers

Lately I've come across a couple interesting references to Tolstoy in interviews with contemporary writers.

For example, this Lee Randall interview with Allegra Goodman:

Which leads me to comparisons drawn by Gabriel Brownstein, writing for The Millions, between yourself and Jonathan Franzen. Brownstein argued that you both wrote similar, epic novels, but that only Franzen’s was hailed as contender for the “Great American Novel” -- because he’s a man.

First of all, it’s nice to be contrasted with Jonathan Franzen. There was Jonathan Franzen’s novel and everybody else’s novel. I’m happy to be the one contrasted, if they want to pick a novel. I think his aesthetic is pretty different from mine. The [critic] made some good points about the differences.

Saying, for instance, that his prose bursts through the door while yours enters quietly.

Yes, but that is not because I am shy or female, it’s because I am interested in disappearing. Franzen [also] admires Tolstoy very much and references Tolstoy constantly throughout
Freedom, but his aesthetic is very different from the disappearing negative capability of Tolstoy. His characters all sound like a very articulate Jonathan Franzen. He’s not really a disappearing sort of writer. He’s a bold brash writer. Honestly, I was very happy that a work of literary fiction was number one on the bestseller list and got that kind of attention. We’re on the same team. I applaud him.

I’ve started to think that this is one of the hardest and most important things a young writer can do: look at his/her heart-influences and ask, very respectfully: OK, given that this great master existed in the world, what else is there left for me to do? That is, you love (for example) Tolstoy, you give Tolstoy his due. But then you have to say: All right, given that Tolstoy has already existed, is there anything in his world-view that I might, slightly, disagree with? Is there anything that I have known and seen and felt in my life that, perhaps (sorry, maestro!) is not fully accounted for in his work? If not—well, there are other things to do in this life. If so, go for it.

For example, I remember reading Hemingway and loving his work so much—but then at some point, realizing that my then-current life (or parts of it) would not be representable via his prose style. Living in Amarillo, Texas, working as a groundsman at an apartment complex, with strippers for pals around the complex, goofball drunks recently laid off from the nuclear plant accosting me at night when I played in our comical country band, a certain quality of West Texas lunatic-speak I was hearing, full of way off-base dreams and aspirations—I just couldn’t hear that American in Hem-speak. And that kind of moment is gold for a young writer: the door starts to open, just a crack.

As a literary model and inspiration, Tolstoy, it seems, is alive and well in the imaginations of contemporary American writers. I particularly like Goodman's point about Tolstoy's negative capability—his talent, that is, for disappearing as a writer and seeming to let his characters speak for themselves and live independent of his authorial domination.

No comments:

Post a Comment