NYPL: Nicholson Baker & Simon Winchester

On Thursday night, a crowd congregated into a subterranean hall of the New York Public Library to listen to Simon Winchester interview Nicholson Baker. Mr. Baker wore a green vest and a low-key suit. Mr. Winchester was dressed in a gaudy blue pinstriped suit and a yellow shirt, with a dark red handkerchief drifting out of his outer pocket like a haphazard eleventh-hour accessory.

nickbaker.jpgBaker was soft-spoken, effusive with his hands, and sometimes quietly gushed, particularly when talking about the “lush, colorful” nature of the New York World, one of the early 20th century newspapers that had been in his prodigious collection. Winchester was often sharp and crisp with his questioning, exuding the aura of a fussy countertenor waiting for a cadre choristers to marvel upon his ostensible magnificence, but he was good enough to point out that it was “Nick’s night.” At one point, Winchester poured water only into his glass. Baker, by contrast, filled both his own glass and Winchester’s. Winchester kept his gaze upon Baker throughout the conversation, rarely glancing to the audience. Baker, by contrast, regularly opened himself to the audience when expressing himself.

Shortly after sitting in his seat, Winchester announced to the crowd, “This is not going to be a lovefest.” But despite this pledge of pugilism, Winchester played it relatively safe. He had snide comments pertaining to Adam Kirsch’s review. Contra Kirsch, he pointed out that “stupid, but scary” seemed an appropriate line to discuss war.

Alluding to Checkpoint, Baker observed that his purpose in writing that novel was to ask a simple question: “If you think that your single action can solve the problem, is there a way that someone can talk you out of the problem?” But Baker pointed to Emily Dickinson’s maxim about telling all the truth but telling it slant. Fiction could only go so far. And thus, Human Smoke emerged from these meditations.

Baker pointed out that for every book he has written, he would generally get one third of the way into it before “something goes wrong.” Then, he sets it aside. But he had been working on a book-length history of the Library of Congress, dwelling in particular upon Archibald MacLeish, who was the Librarian of Congress in 1939. MacLeish would go onto become a key propaganda figure during the war. And thus Baker found himself immersed in “an interpretive problem.” He had to understand World War II. So he put aside this project and Human Smoke began to take shape.

In discussing the difference between his fiction and nonfiction, Baker noted, “Fear plays a large part in all this. You want to avoid exposing himself.” It was with this attitude that he tackled the more elaborate project of Human Smoke, of which he pointed out that he couldn’t do justice to the full experience of the war.

Winchester asked Baker about whether it was reasonable to rely almost exclusively on newspapers — the so-called first draft of history — for his book at the expense of historians who came later. Baker pointed out that the reporter who wrote about a major event he experienced “had the balance of things in his mind that brings you to the moment.” He cited the exploding soup cans during the bombing of Coventry — a detail that seemed particularly apposite to his framing of history. He pointed out that newspapers would reprint the entire text of a radio speech and noted that, within the letters to the editor section, one could find a great array of voices.

In dwelling upon Human Smoke‘s cast of characters, Baker expressed great curiosity about Herbert Hoover and pointed out that Victor Klemperer was “an interesting man, a sad man.” But he pointed out that just because he put a quote into the book, this did not mean that he necessarily believed in it. Of Gandhi, he observed, “Sometimes there’s a coldness that’s very disturbing.”

Baker appeared deeply troubled by World War II priorities. He said, “It was easier to fight a war against Germans than it was to allow Jewish refugees.” But he pointed out that he was not qualified. On the question of whether America knew about the Pearl Harbor invasion in advance, Baker opted to “defer to the experts.” Later in the evening, Baker said, “Who were the people who came out of the war with greatness and nobility? The Jews.” And there was an uncomfortable silence from the audience, who began to grow a bit restless.

When I interviewed Mr. Winchester in late 2006, he insisted to me that he was a historian, not a journalist, and expressed umbrage at my notion that he was “covering” the 1906 earthquake, pointing out that historians look back on events with “perspective.” This perspective, however, was not particularly evident last night.

Four of his questions pilfered very specific points that were presented during the Human Smoke roundtable discussion — all, of course, without reference. Not only did Winchester read aloud the exact same section from Checkpoint that was referenced on these pages, but he also brought up Jeanette Rankin, the controversy involving the Treaty of Versailles (raised by Colleen Mondor), and the efforts by Cardinal Clemens von Galen to suspend the T-4 program. I wondered if Winchester had spent that afternoon Googling to prepare for a book that had slipped his mind since he blurbed it many months ago.

There was a telling indicator of this propensity during the post-discussion Q&A. Asked about Human Smoke, Mr. Winchester pointed out that he had problems with Baker’s book, but that he would defend his right to write it. The delightful and quick-thinking Paul Holdengräber pointed out that Winchester’s line had originated from Voltaire.

Despite these quibbles, I actually liked Winchester. He was dry and mostly unsmiling, save through a few belabored grimaces that seemed more directed at the CSPAN cameras dutifully videotaping this conversation for Book TV than the audience who had shelled out $15 a head to see this. But he was quite entertaining as a Jeremy Paxman-style interviewer. At one point, he asked Baker point blank about the apparently unquestionable natural impulses that cause people and creatures to kill, citing a gorilla video that had been emailed to him, and some incident involving chickens on his cozy farm in Connecticut as evidence of these apparent impulses. He even managed to find a way to name drop Tom Brokaw — “who is a friend and who I like.” Winchester was an enjoyable blowhard, more Phineas Barnum than Phineas Finn. And juxtaposing his blustery presence with the more empathic Baker worked quite well.

Despite revealing himself later to be a dedicated Malthusian (and this charge seemed more a piece of contrarian theater than bona-fide ideology), Mr. Winchester partially acquitted himself when he bailed Baker out as he was responding to a question from the audience about whether America should now begin negotiating with Islamic fundamentalists. As Baker fumbled for an answer, Winchester quickly pointed out that the Northern Ireland crisis was resolved by talking the issue out through back doors.

As the crowd dissembled, Winchester ran up and down the signing line, balancing books like a juggler signed on for a circus at the last minute. I kept wondering whether he was carrying out some intriguing one-man dramatization of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, but this was not the case. He asked a few folks in the queue if anyone else wanted him to sign his book so that he could go home.

Baker appeared a bit worn out by all the publicity he’s been doing for Human Smoke. But despite his energies waning near the end, he maintained a great humility and offered some lively remarks for a book that is likely to keep fanning the flames of controversy for quite some time.

Night at the Boxcar

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This was roughly the view you received if you had the privilege of attending the Boxcar Lounge on Wednesday night. The venue was indeed shaped like a boxcar and it was SRO for those souls, like Levi and me, who had arrived from McNally Robinson. (Of that counterprogramming, while John Freeman made a valiant attempt to ask questions of Lee Siegel that would cause him to think instead of fulminate more on his puerile anti-Internet views, the two of us left after twenty minutes. Siegel, as a speaker, has the voice of a semi-squeaky plush toy that still has a bit of air left, but hasn’t yet figured out that the tots have moved on to newer baubles. I had seen this kind of arrogant and opinionated blather before when the speaker had referred to itself as Andrew Keen. So there was no need to subject myself to it again. To offer a small sample: According to Siegel, the Internet is apparently composed of 80% porn. And while it’s absolutely diabolical for people to leave anonymous and hateful comments (as they did for Siegel’s posts at the New Republic), apparently it’s perfectly peachy keen for Siegel to impersonate “sprezzatura” because there is nothing forbidding such a cheap impersonation under journalistic rules. Never mind that Siegel’s shenanigans were hardly transparent and had to be ferreted out by top brass at the New Republic. I took notes, but I felt like I was transcribing a kindergarter’s efforts to discuss Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason based on a one-sentence summary. As such, my notes are not worth reproducing or summarizing.)

You couldn’t get a seat at the Boxcar Lounge. Unless you were one of the smart ones, like Maud and her friend, who arrived early to get a seat. There were many bloggers in the crowd, including Jason, Levi, Marydell, Lauren, and Sarah. It was also a pleasure to talk with Michael Orbach, Jami Attenberg, and a number of other people who I will no doubt remember after I hit the “Publish” button. I’m sorry.

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Besides, who needed Siegel when there was another installment of Jami Attenberg’s Class of 2008 Reading Series going down? This one featured Michael Dahlie reading from A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Lynn Lurie reading from Corner of the Dead, and (pictured above) Ceridwen Dovey reading from Blood Kin. Dovey was one of the evening’s standouts. Her reading was quietly intense and suitably genteel, and I am now most curious about her novel.

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And then there was Mr. Sarvas himself, who read from a chapter of his forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised: the infamous incident in the bookstore. The chapter contains a disparaging reference to David Foster Wallace and I felt compelled to cry out a “Yea!” in DFW’s defense. Mark likewise felt compelled to point to me during this moment.

Is Harry, Revised any good? I was a bit hesitant to approach it, as my candor compels me to tell even my closest friends when their work is not up to snuff. But I have read the whole of Harry, Revised and I can recommend it. Mark has ventured down a somewhat unexpected path here, unafraid to have his protagonist enter into uncomfortable territory. The book’s style displays Mark’s clear love for Fitzgerald and there is something of a French farcical feel that permits material that should not work to be executed with a crazed grace.

I am sorry to report, however, that there remains one passage that will almost certainly be nominated for The Bad Sex Award. But you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show to find out precisely what it is.

Forgotten Statue, Forgotten Spirit

schurz.jpgLike many statues nestled along the rectangular trestles of Manhattan’s parks, Karl Bitter’s bronze depiction of Carl Schurz — situated at the corner of Morningside Drive and 116th Street — is regularly overlooked by many New Yorkers. They walk their dogs. They chat on their cell phones. They rush to important appointments or set out to beat a jogging record. But they rarely stop to observe this rather tall and intriguing figure who remains memorialized.

That’s saying something, considering that Schurz is quite vertical in design (he stands nine feet tall), his left foot juts a mite forward, and his portly girth, disguised by a thick and definitive bronze coat and cape, demands attention. To look over the promontory where Schurz is propped, you must walk up three stone steps to get an unoccluded view. But no matter what building your eyes settle upon, Schurz will remain in dogged peripheral vision. Maybe pedestrians are vexed by Schurz’s hatless and Germanic form — for what it’s worth, he does politely hold his hat in his right hand — invading Harlem’s horizontal vista, which, like every Manhattan neighborhood, is now undergoing terminal gentrification. Perhaps to live in New York, the New Yorker cannot look upon the past, but must continue contending with the swift-paced momentum of the present. And if that means accepting glass monstrosities in lieu of charming brick buildings without remonstrance, so be it. But this willful acceptance also extends to figures like Schurz, who reminds us that there was indeed a New York before the present one.

The Schurz statue is unsullied by the verdigris now eating away at another of Bitter’s sculptures — that of Franz Sigel residing on West 106th Street and Riverside, currently earmarked for renovation. Schurz and Sigel both have parks named after them. (Karl Bitter, alas, does not. New York reserves its laurels for its heros, not the artists who render the legacy.)

We know that Schurz was a military man, a political reformer, and a journalist. He spent the majority of his life outside of New York, served as Secretary of the Interior for President Rutherford Hayes, moving to the city in 1881, ostensibly to retire. But a man of his insurmountable energies could not settle down. He had twenty-five years left in his life to make a name. And he did. Starting with his immediate rise to editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post in 1883 and followed by becoming one of the Mugwumps supporting Grover Cleveland the following year. He spoke out against Tammany Hall, drawing enthusiasm for his remarks even as a fife and drum corps passed by.

The first fact that, in our efforts for good government, stares us in the face is the existence of an organization — Tammany Hall — whose very purpose it is to give the city the worst government it dares, to the end of making money out of it. And this organization has been for years, and is now, in full possession of the municipal power.

schurzreal.gifSchurz spoke these words as two friends of his were the top mayoral candidates. He would not let friendships get in the way of principle. Likewise, he did not think much of William Jennings Bryan and also campaigned against him.

As the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is proud to announce, he was an adopted New Yorker and was often unpredictable with his political choices. Schurz was gleefully antagonistic, and on September 22, 1900, he resigned his Presidencies of the National Civil Service Reform League and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York, observing, “I frankly confess that on account of my position of antagonism to other policies of the Administration, the performance of my part of that duty is especially unwelcome to me.” But he could not quite give this ghost up and was elected the following year as President of the Civil Service Reform Association.

When Schurz was buried in Sleepy Hollow in May 1906, he had an audience both rich and poor. Andrew Carnegie and Joseph H. Choate stood beneath one umbrella. The Times described Schurz as “a publicist and patriot.” The funeral was attended only by relatives and close friends, but policemen had to stop many who hoped to get a view of Schurz’s coffin. It was Choate who ensured that the statue now standing in Morningside Park was completed.

Schurz had a reformist ebullience scarcely seen in the present political age. We now seem to settle for charisma and monoglot messages about hope. Those who do stand out are censored or declared too lunatic for the political arena. This stands in sharp contrast to the words Choate unfurled during the statue’s unveiling, “As a leader he did what is so seldom seen and yet so necessary in the upholding of the best in public life. He put expediency above personal and party advantage. He never allowed party to lead him in the wrong direction, and for years he stood alone, an independent figure in party and public life.”

At the pedestal before Schurz’s form are the words: CARL SCHURZ Defender of Liberty and Friend of Human Right.

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Today, who knows Schurz’s name outside of hard-core history buffs, fans of The Who, and curiosity seekers? Not long ago, when I visited Schurz’s statue, I observed a broken bottle of Gilbey’s upon the faded ornamental brick. The bottle had apparently been thrown at Schurz, and the glass shards glistened more resolutely than the brick. While the bottle, in all likelihood, had been hurled by a cavalier youth, I couldn’t help but contemplate whether there was a rejection of Schurz’s spirit in the air. History was apparently the work of others. But it seemed to me that it was the other way around.