PEN World Voices: Rushdie, Eco, and Vargas Llosa

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.

22 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Life

22 responses to “PEN World Voices: Rushdie, Eco, and Vargas Llosa

  1. Eva

    That is the Coolest Thing Ever. Although, I would have brought a pile of books and stayed for the book signing, but that’s because Rushdie and Eco are two of my favourite authors!! Must try out some Llosa soon…

  2. Eva

    (and thanks for summarising the event so thoroughly-I can almost pretend I was there!)

  3. You’re so lucky — that sounds like a fabulous event! I’ve seen Eco before, but to hear these 3 together…

    I heartily recommend Rushdie’s new book — the passage you cite actually is funny, as is much of the rest of it. And I loved him in that Bridget Jones movie.

  4. Cam

    My husband was there and, as tired as I was when he called after the event (I was falling asleep), I was eager to hear his excited report about the event. I’m envious that other committments kept me in the midwest this weekend and that he gave away my ticket :(, although I’m glad that a friend was able to join him. They were both irritated that Lopate stymied the banter by sticking with his scripted questions.

    And I love Eco’s left to right comment!

    I miss NYC. whine…whine…whine….

  5. It sounds like a wonderful evening. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  6. Having read your and Hob’s reviews, I now feel as if I had been there. Sounds like a great evening, and well done for taking advantage of living nearby and going.

  7. I am envious. It must have been a really fun night. Thank you for posting about it. I would have loved to be there.

  8. Yes, I’m envious too – it sounds marvellous. I wish I could have been there. I loved the quote about the magic of the Count of Monte Cristo being due to the fact that it is badly written.

  9. Rob

    I’m sure I remember Rushdie trashing Eco in a review of Foucault’s Pendulum, many years ago. It was something about us all being in trouble if Eco was the face of the modern European novel. I wonder if that ever comes up at the Musketeers’ meetings?

  10. What a fabulous evening! Your review is the next best thing to being there. Lucky you!

  11. It *was* great to see you and your account is right on. I’ve yet to write mine up, but when I do, I quote you right back.

    At dinner w/bloggers after, some of the guys were upset that the conversation wasn’t more weighty. I found it delightful–especially on Dumas but also on the role of the writer in public life (something that all three of these men know intimately).

    I think, frankly, that some of my dining companions were a wee bit jealous… : )

    Take care!!

  12. toujoursjacques

    Dorothy—What a wonderful post! I am so thankful for your talent at relating the evening’s events so carefully. Do you take copious notes? or how on earth do you remember so much of the discussion in such detail. Almost as good as being there.
    I do love reading Rushdie. I’ve never heard him speak, but it doesn’t surprise me that he read a funny passage, or that it sounded funny. (And thanks for sharing his joke about “his best work”.) I think he has a fabulously understated sense of humor that is well-conveyed in his use of language. I can’t think of many writers whose language is so fully alive as Rushdie’s. I often read whole passages out loud.
    Thanks again for a little vicarious living. TJ

  13. verbivore

    These are the moments when I miss living in Boston. I would have been there too! But thanks so much for this wonderful post, like Eva, I can pretend :-)
    I love Eco and everything I’ve read of his, especially what he writes about translations. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read anything by Rushdie (except maybe essays in journals) but am hoping to correct that oversight this year.

  14. Oh, wow, great report, but I’m overwhelmed with jealousy!

  15. This sounds like great fun. You DO describe these cultural events so well–the next best thing to being there. And I’m so glad that Vargas Llosa stood up for Dumas. Sloppily written or not (and I guess I wasn’t reading for grammar–only for the thrill), The Count of Monte Cristo is one very entertaining read! :)

  16. Someone up there says they’re a teeny bit jealous – I’m not – I’m one great big bit jealous. What a wonderful evening. I’d have to disagree, however, with the notion that the US is a special case in respect of writers not being political, neither are UK writers, not in the way that those living under more rigid regimes are. We look for entertainment every bit as much as the average US citizen.

  17. I’ve just left a comment about this on the Hobgoblin’s site. Wow – it sounds like an amazing evening. I so wish I could have been there! And why don’t authors do this kind of evening more often?

  18. I do envy you and all the others I read about who have access to these types of literary events. I would love to attend an event like this, but we don’t get very many of these in my area. I guess I’ll have to keep living vicariously through the rest of you. :)

  19. Eva — I’m not sure why we didn’t think to bring books of our own, as we both admire all three writers — that was stupid of us!

    Isabella — oh, good to hear that Rushdie’s new book is so good; I’ve enjoyed some of Rushdie’s earlier work and would love to read more.

    Cam — oh, how interesting that your husband was there! I wish I’d known so I could have said hello (not that it was easy to find anybody in that packed crowd). Cool that he enjoyed it too.

    Kate — it was, and I wouldn’t miss the opportunity of raving about it! Blogging is so wonderful that way …

    Charlotte — I must take advantage of this sort of thing more!

    Dark Orpheus — I wish I could have attended with all my blogging friends — wouldn’t that be awesome!?!

    BooksPlease — I loved that quote too; I’m pretty sure it was Eco who said it — I noticed he kept saying “due to the fact that,” a phrase I normally find irritating, but I’ll allow Eco to get away with it without complaint!

    Rob — ha! I suspect that doesn’t come up terribly often … I can see Rushdie conveniently “forgetting” that earlier claim.

    Stefanie — yes, we were lucky to be able to go; I must appreciate NYC and take advantage of it more!

    Anne — thanks for the comment, and I look forward to reading your take on things (and I’ve appreciated reading your posts on the other events). Yes, serious dialogue is all well and good, but give me a little smart banter and I’m happy!

    TJ — so where is your blog?? You write such nice comments, I want to return the favor! :) Yes, I did take notes, although I usually don’t — but this time I was inspired to, largely because I knew I’d want to write a post on it. You make me want to read Rushdie again!

    Verbivore — oh, I hope you enjoy Rushdie when you get there. I’ve read The Name of the Rose and one book of Eco’s essays, but I’d love to read more. Perhaps I’ll have to tackle Foucault’s Pendulum one day.

    Thank you Bardiac! I’d be jealous too, if I weren’t the one able to go :)

    Danielle — well, I’ll have to give Dumas a try one day! I never have, but I’m sure I’d enjoy him if I picked up one of his books. Hobgoblin is a huge fan.

    Ann — your point about politics makes sense; I can’t remember if they addressed the UK or not — I don’t think so. It was certainly a conversation that contained some vast generalizations.

    Litlove — I think they should do them more often too! I would have loved to have your company at the event!

    Lisa — making the trip into NYC can certainly be a pain, but it’s so worth it when I do … I’ll have to make sure I keep appreciating it and taking advantage of it!

  20. TJ

    Dorothy—
    When I am logged in to wordpress my link doesn’t come through on my comments. I don’t understand why not, but then there’s much I don’t understand about blogging yet. Hopefully the link to my blog, Toujours Jacques, will show up now. Just in case, here it is: http://www.tjacques.wordpress.com
    It would be so lovely to have a visit from you! Best regards, TJ

  21. What an amazing event, I’m very jealous. Eco is one of my favourite writers and the only one who hasn’t been dead for a very long time, I would love to hear him read even if I couldn’t understand a word! It sounds like a wonderful day.

  22. MJ

    sounds like a great evening…salman rushdie and leonard lopate on the same stage together…how delicious. your account is so vivid. thank you.

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