John Irving in London, about 3m away from me, at last night’s Shaw Theatre talk in London. I know I go on about this, but he’s been my favourite living novelist for years, and it was amazing to be in his presence.
This is a typical expression - thoughtful, deep, somewhat intimidating. But when you least expect it, this stern mask breaks into an uproarious bear of a laugh, the laugh of a man who can see comedy in tragedy (and vice-versa).
well)here’s looking at ourselves
two solids in(all
solution(of course you must shake well)
indolently dreaming puzzling
over that one
oh just thinking it over
(at that just supposing
we had met and just
but you know
just had let it go at
that)that seems important doesn’t
doesn’t that seem
puzzling but we both might have found the solution
of that in
of the fact(in spite of the fact
that i and that
you had carefully
ourselves decided what this cathedral ought to
look like)it doesn’t look
all like what you
and what i(of course)
carefully had decided oh
Feste, Twelfth Night, Act II, scene iii (lyrics set to music by Thomas Morley in 1602)
It’s twelfth night, the end of the Christmas festivities, the day of Epiphany. We’ve just got back home from our travels to find two surprises: a few Christmas cards which had gone astray in the post have arrived, and the avocado plant we had presumed would be dead has grown in our absence to reach the ceiling.
Tomorrow I’m sitting down to finalise my thesis before printing and submitting it - in just under ten days. I’m scared. Better, I’m petrified, of the future. But I also can’t wait for the rest of my life to begin.
Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili - Irene
“Irene is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on, and in the limpid air, the pink of the settlement can be discerned spread out in the distance below: where the windows are more concentrated, where it thins out in dimly lighted alleys, where it collects the shadows of gardens, where it raises towers with signal fires; and if the evening is misty, a hazy glow swells like a milky sponge at the foot of the gulleys. Travelers on the plateau, shepherds shifting their flocks, bird-catchers watching their nets, hermits gathering greens: all look down and speak of Irene. At times the wind brings a music of bass drums and trumpets, the bang of firecrackers in the light display of a festival; at times the rattle of guns, the explosion of a powder magazine in the sky yellow with the fires of civil war. Those who look down from the heights conjecture about what is happening in the city; they wonder if it would be pleasant or unpleasant to be in Irene that evening. Not that they have any intention of going there (in any case the roads winding down to the valley are bad), but Irene is a magnet for the eyes and thoughts of those who stay up above.”
At this point Kublai Khan expects Marco to speak of Irene as it is seen from within. But Marco cannot do this: he has not succeeded in discovering which is the city that those of the plateau call Irene. For that matter, it is of slight importance: if you saw it, standing in its midst, it would be a different city; Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.
For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is a city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Irene under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Irene.”
Here’s an early look at the cover of my new novel, In One Person, to be published May 8, 2012. My thirteenth novel, In One Person is about sexual identity. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character, tells the story of his life as a “sexual suspect”—from his adolescence in the fifties, through the AIDS epidemic, into the present.A new John Irving novel, with a title straight from one of my favourite Shakespeare speeches - I can’t wait.
I first used the phrase “sexual suspect” in 1978, in my novel of “terminal cases,” The World According to Garp. I return to that theme in this novel; as a bisexual man, Billy is a “sexual suspect” in the eyes of both straight and gay people.
In One Person is my most political novel since The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, but it’s also a tribute to Billy’s friends and lovers. Not least, In One Person is a portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile.”
In addition to the cover image, I’ve included two quotes from my good friends and fellow writers Abraham Verghese and Edmund White. Their authority on the subject of this novel means a lot to me.
“This tender exploration of nascent desire, of love and loss, manages to be sweeping, brilliant, political, provocative, tragic and funny — it is precisely the kind of astonishing alchemy we associate with a John Irving novel. The unfolding of the AIDS epidemic in the USA in the ‘80s was the defining moment for me as a physician. With my patients’ deaths, almost always occurring in the prime of life, I would find myself cataloging the other losses — namely, what these people might have offered society, had they lived the full measure of their days: their art, their literature, the children they might have raised. In One Person is the novel that for me will define that era. A profound truth is arrived at in these pages. It is Irving at his most daring, at his most ambitious. It is America and American writing, both at their very best.”—Abraham Verghese
“In One Person is a novel that makes you proud to be human. It is a book that not only accepts but also loves our differences. From the beginning of his career Irving has always cherished our peculiarities – in a fierce, not a saccharine way. Now he has extended his sympathies – and ours – still further into areas that even the misfits eschew. Anthropologists say that the interstitial – whatever lies between two familiar opposites – is usually declared either taboo or sacred. John Irving in this magnificent novel – his best and most passionate since The World According to Garp – has sacralized what lies between polarizing genders and orientations. And have I mentioned it is also a gripping page-turner and a beautifully constructed work of art?”—Edmund White
Earlier this morning I finished reading Chard Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding. What a great book. I enjoyed its unpretentious, straightforward, classic structure: finally a novel, an old-fashioned novel! I loved its characters as if they were real people - my friends, my team-mates, my students.
I can’t remember where I read something to the effect of “The Art of Fielding is a book about baseball as much as Moby Dick is a book about whales” - more than any other baseball book I have ever read, TAoF spoke to me about life, friendship, love, literature, isolation, team work, growing up, fear of success and the real possibility of failure. In it I found solace from some of my current demons, and maybe the motivation I needed to finally nail my dissertation and take a plunge - and begin the rest of my life.