Archive for May, 2008

The Definition of Irony

On Wednesday, we went to Salem, Massachusetts, for my birthday.  I have been living on the east coast for over 12 years, and I haven’t made the pilgrimage to many of the famous American literature shrines yet, so this was my chance to start.  I teach The Scarlet Letter every fall in my American lit class, and I love Hawthorne (Dorothy got me a complete set of Hawthorne’s works back in 2002 when I finished my dissertation), so I really wanted to see the House of Seven Gables and some of the other Salem sites.

The town of Salem provides a textbook definition of irony.  Over 300 years after 19 accused “witches” were executed (and a 20th was pressed to death for not submitting to a trial), witches are everywhere, and many of these witches are the real thing–pentacle-wearing, spell-casting, patchouli-scented witches.  Everywhere you turn you see the city emblem–the silhouette of a witch flying on a broomstick (she even appears, this time riding a time-trial bike, in the logo for Salem Cycles).  There are several occult/new age/craft bookstores, and if you are in need of healing crystals or an athame, you are in luck.  In short, it is a town I could really grow to love.  I like witches but don’t quite have the dedication to become one myself.

However, we were not there for witches, as appealing as they are.  We first stopped at the House of Seven Gables, where a compound of several old houses, including Hawthorne’s birthplace, stands.  The old houses are fascinating, and the tour of the house is great fun, especially for a Hawthorne fiend like me.  In the dining room is a secret door that leads to a hidden staircase winding its narrow way around the chimney to a tiny garret room.  Although this was not part of the original house, the woman who decided to save the house back around 1907 thought it needed more of a connection to Hawthorne’s novel, so she had the architects put in the secret stairs that Clifford uses in the novel.

After the house tour, we visited the Peabody Essex Museum.  As I was looking around the big atrium of the museum, I realized that one thing I really like about museums is their architecture.  The new Getty museum in Los Angeles is one of those museums for me–it is an extremely impressive building in its own right–and I would love to go to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim with all of its swirling twists of titanium.  The PEM has this amazingly complex curved truss system that supports the roof and huge skylights.  The building itself is worth the price of admission.

This is not to say that the exhibits are not worthwhile, for they definitely are.  We spent about two hours touring before the dreaded “museum back” hit me and we had to leave.  Much of our time was taken up in the maritime and American wing, where my favorite exhibits were incredibly intricate models of sailing ships, many of them crafted by the sailors on board the ships.  One model is of the 1797 Indiaman Friendship, a replica of which sits in Salem harbor.  The model itself is almost large enough to sail on at about 12 feet long.

Our last museum of the day was truly goofy and perhaps stands as another example of irony.  It was my 41st birthday, but my deep desire was to do something that a 7-year-old would really like, so, to that end, we went to the Pirate Museum.  And yes, it was about as dumb as it sounds, but was nevertheless appealing, with goofy dioramas of dramatic (or melodramatic) scenes from pirate legends.  After the tour, I couldn’t contain myself and I bought a Jolly Roger and a copy of Under the Black Flag, a history of pirates.

It was a bookish birthday.  Dorothy got me two Michael Chabon books:  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Gentlemen of the Road.  In Salem, I not only bought the pirate book, but The Peabody Sisters at the House of Seven Gables, and In the Devil’s Snare at the terrifying bookstore Dorothy mentions.

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I’m a … Sprinter?!

The Tuesday Night World Championships was tonight (because, you know, it’s Tuesday). Last week we raced in a freezing cold rain–I actually wore the same combination of base layer, knee warmers, and heavy gloves that I wore in the early spring races in March and April. This week we had some ominous thunderstorms roll through. Strangely, though, it is a lot easier to race in the rain when it is 70 degrees instead of 45 degrees.

As I was warming up, I felt like this would be a good race to write off. I felt sluggish and uninterested. I couldn’t force myself to get my heart rate up and all I really wanted to do was go home and take a nap. Correction: another nap. Nevertheless, I sucked it up and lined up at the start line for the race, 35 minutes plus 10 laps. (It actually ended up being something like 40 minutes plus 10 laps because the race promoter got distracted by something.) At least it was sunny and dry when we started.

The first couple of laps were mellow paced, but the attacks soon started. And I found myself not only chasing down some of those attacks but also initiating some of them. What happened to that sluggish feeling? That desire for a nice nap with Muttboy? That feeling was gone, and I found myself having … fun. I felt sort of invincible, as if my heart, lungs, and legs would do whatever I wanted them to do.

Halfway through the race the rain started. It came pelting down in a real spring deluge but it was actually sort of pleasant, helping to keep me cool. I felt that the rain was sort of immaterial, not at all important, and certainly nothing to worry about. It was just part of the scenery.

As the race progressed, I decided that I wanted to be like Tornado Tom Boonen, the awesome Belgian sprinter. Tommy is a big guy, like me about 6’4″, but he has a lot more power than I do, although that really goes without saying. What I like, though, is the idea that all Tom has to do is stay near the front with the help of his stellar Quick Step team and then punch it hard at the end with his phenomenal sprint. I like thinking that I could have my team do that for me–keep me protected and ready to sprint hard and win. Since that’s not really going to happen because I have nothing near the talent Tom has, I can only dream of being a sprinter and trying my dirty little sprinter tricks.

I forgot my desire to be a sprinter like Tom, though, when a guy from Pawling took off with about 6 laps to go. A fairly disorganized and halfhearted chase started, and I tagged along, playing the sprinter bit by staying behind one of my teammates, hoping he would get me up to the front. I saw, though, that no one was going to make it–all five of the guys in the chase were falling apart, and if I wanted to bridge up to the breakaway, I would have to do it alone. So I did: I dropped my sprinter fantasies and sped off to chase the leader down.

As I chased the leader down, my sprinter fantasies changed to rouleur fantasies. I could be the big diesel like Jens Voigt, a big, tough motor who can roll all day long at impossible speeds. I settled into a rhythm and chased at 26-27 mph all alone for two laps, my heart rate high but in the sustainable-all-day range. I caught the guy, and we tried to work together, and did so for a while. At one point, we had about 30 seconds on the pack, but it didn’t last. We got caught by the hard charging pack at the start/finish line with one lap to go.

I was annoyed that my hard work for 5 laps was going to come to nothing, so I decided to use a little more of my remaining energy to push hard to stay at the front of the pack. As we rolled down the hill and the leadout trains started to set up, I again played sprinter and tucked in behind some strong guys. My heart rate did what it was supposed to do and dropped back almost instantly to an easier level (my recovery times have been awesome lately). The line snaked its way to the finish and the sprints started. I watched carefully and saw a line open up to the right. One of the leadout guys was there, but I knew I could easily jump past him, so I did and opened up the throttle. I passed nearly everyone and finished second. Maybe I really do want to be a sprinter.

The race, though, was marred by a crash. As Dorothy points out in her race report, she was one of the victims of an inexperienced rider. I have been watching this guy for the past four weeks and trying to avoid him since it seems he wouldn’t be able to hold a line if it had a handle on it, and his riding style is best described as “stay away from me!” I feel a little bad about the crash and think it is partly my fault. I knew he was a bad rider, so, as the veteran, maybe I should have taken the time to teach him a little about bike handling and safety in a pack. If I had done that, Dorothy might not have had to crash.

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Lazy Me(me)

I have three books to write about, and I will, but I have been having trouble motivating myself to write.  I have some things to say about The Mosquito Coast, Heart-Shaped Box, and The Big Sleep, and some of those things might even be mildly interesting.  But alas, I lack motivation.  So, to fill in the time until motivation knocks, I present you with a meme I’ve been saving for a lazy day.

By this point, you know the drill, since the meme has been making the rounds for months by now.  This is a list of books that people buy but don’t actually read.  You are to bold the ones you’ve read and italicize the ones you haven’t finished, and leave the unread ones alone.  Here is my list:

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina.  I have an irrational fear of the Russians.
Crime and Punishment.  See above.
Catch-22. Loved it and read it ten or more times/
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights.
The Silmarillion. I could never get more than ten pages into this one.
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose. Have I said that I love Umberto Eco?
Don Quixote. Hilarious, awesome, sad, perfect.
Moby Dick.  Genius.
Ulysses. I wrote my senior thesis on this one.
Madame Bovary.  Highly recommended.
The Odyssey.  I’ve read it nine or ten times and taught it five or six.
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway.  In answer to Albee’s question:  I am.
Great Expectations.  I’ve read almost all of Dickens.
American Gods. Gaiman is very cool.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  Weird, obnoxious, but ultimately quite good.
Atlas Shrugged.  I can’t even vear the thought of trying to read Rand.
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Middlesex.  Taught it–great book.
Quicksilver. Stephenson is amazing–the entire Baroque cycle is stunning.
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco!
Frankenstein.  The best monster novel ever.
The Count of Monte Cristo. My favorite.
Dracula.  The second best monster novel ever.
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King.  I became obsessed with this when I was 11.
The Grapes of Wrath.  Steinbeck’s best.
The Poisonwood Bible.  A little preachy, but heartfelt and awesomely written.
Angels & Demons
Inferno.  Taught it.
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Dune. Heresy alert: this bored me to tears.
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Beloved.  I’ve read it and like it a lot and I’ll be teaching it this fall, but I have to say, the evangelical piety of Morrison fans is enough to make me sick to my stomach.
The Scarlet Letter.  I am a Hawthorne geek–I’ve read it 20 times.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It’s on my list.
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield

Read: 66

Never Finished: 3

Not Read: 37

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I am not the cheeriest person around.  I take a sort of perverse joy in the unseemly, and I find many darkly hilarious things in Naturalist writers like Frank Norris.  I feel deeply uncomfortable when faced with the bright, the bouncy, the perky, and the peppy.  My favorite Christmas decoration is a huge spray-painted sign I usually see outside a house in western New York that reads “Bah Humbug!”  To top it off perfectly, the sign is festooned with Christmas lights.  My favorite New Yorker cartoon shows Edgar Allan Poe contemplating the raven sitting upon the bust of Pallas above his chamber door.  A thought bubble above his head shows a white dove perched happily there instead.  “Edgar Allan Prozac” reads the caption, implying that too much happiness would harm literature.

So, why does Eric Wilson’s book, Against Happiness, annoy me so much?  His point is certainly something I agree with, and something I have often thought about myself: we Americans tend to make an unhealthy fetish of happiness, and try far too hard, and to our detriment, to avoid anything that might possibly cause us to feel pain or unhappiness.  But I find so many things about this book to be squirmingly uncomfortable.  Perhaps he tries so hard to preach the gospel of melancholy that he becomes a cheerleader as annoyingly sure of the rightness of his position as the most blissfully saccharine proselytizer for eternal happiness.  Perhaps he takes a good idea for a deeply thoughtful essay and turns it into a bloated monster of 150 pages that is really neither a light nor a quick read.  Perhaps he makes too many broad, sweeping, and entirely unhelpful generalizations for me to swallow them whole.

The first thing that bothers me about this book is the constant conflation of happiness with material possessions.  While I agree that so much of American consumerism is built on the premise that true happiness is only one MasterCard charge away (“Finding bliss: priceless.”), there is significantly more to our reckless pursuit of happiness than simply buying the latest and greatest thing from Hammacher Schlemmer.  To be fair, Wilson does point out that we tend to think happiness is our natural default position, and it is not always tied directly to consumerism.  However, he spends so much time with this aspect of happiness, and he returns to it so frequently, that it does simply overshadow but absolutely crushes any nuance.

Another problem I have is his, in my opinion, drastic oversimplification of a couple of American authors.  He finds William Bradford (who, to be perfectly accurate, is not American but a British subject since America did not exist in his time) to be particularly guilty of putting happiness before all else.  He also profoundly dislikes Benjamin Franklin, or more correctly, his Poor Richard persona, finding him to be blissfully blinded by the desire to acquire more and more wealth.

He says of these two authors:

In this way the capitalist of Franklin is little different from the Puritan of Bradford.  Both overlook the real, the howling wilderness and the holy wood, in hopes of resting in security–in the eternal bosom of God, in the durable dirt of purchased land.

I find Wilson’s inexact and sloppy analysis here especially galling.  How is it possible that Bradford overlooked the “howling wilderness,” when this phrase comes directly from Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford’s account of the first English settlements in Massachusetts?  Bradford hardly “overlooked” this howling wilderness, but was instead nearly paralyzed by terror at the thought of it.  It is far too easy to dismiss him as a property-hoarding, commodity-loving Puritan if we do not take into consideration the serious deprivation the Puritans faced in North America (over half the settlers died in the first year, for example).  Far from turning a blind eye to suffering, the Puritans felt that their pain and unhappiness was a fitting test from their stern God, and they sought no reward on earth but believed in an eternal recompense in heaven (see Anne Bradstreet for more on this).

And how can Benjamin Franklin, the exemplar of Baconian scientific rational thought be accused of overlooking the real?  What exactly does he mean by “the real”?  (His notes refer us to Jameson’s Postmodernism, but that seems a slippery sleight of hand to me.)  Franklin’s scientific discoveries relied almost solely on an appreciation of the physical universe and the natural laws that appear to govern that universe.  Is that not “the real”?

Another problem I have with the Franklin-bashing is that Wilson sets up a straw man that would be frowned upon in any undergraduate literature class: he conflates the author’s persona with the author himself.  Franklin is most definitely not Poor Richard, though the two share an address.  In focusing his reading of Franklin entirely on the Poor Richard persona, Wilson misses some crucial points to be found in the autobiography.  Wilson accuses Franklin of acquisitiveness, of searching for happiness in buying more and more material possessions.  Franklin, though, found frugality to be one of the highest virtues, and taught himself at an early age to eat little, and that little mostly vegetarian, to save money to buy more books for study.  One could argue that in buying books he is not being very frugal, but it is significant that he chose physical privation to promote his mental stimulation; though Franklin, especially in his later years, could be quite a hedonist, in his youth, he knew happiness was not a matter of mere property.

Wilson’s heroic figure in American literature is, of course, Herman Melville, whose masterpiece, Moby-Dick, is perhaps the American epitome of melancholy (Hamlet, of course, is the British epitome).  I agree with him here, though I still found his quick analysis of the novel to be just as annoying as his misrepresentations of Franklin and Bradford.

Wilson ends his second chapter this way:

The greatest tragedy is to live without tragedy. To hug happiness is to hate life.  To love peace is to loathe the self.  The blues are clues to the sublime.  The embrace of gloom stokes the heart.

I have a lot of trouble with this.  He is guilty of hyperbole, at the very least.  These statements seem to be the rantings of a cranky contrarian who will say the opposite of what everyone else says just to piss people off.  And then he will be happy–yes, happy–that he has succeeded in pissing everyone off.  How can we take seriously the idea that peace is somehow equivalent to self-loathing?  That happiness is hate?  These make great, interesting, and above all controversial soundbites, but they don’t really seem to have any meaning.  Yes, the self is a conflicted, tumultuous, difficult thing, but searching for and desiring peace does not lead to loathing of the self.  I would say instead that one who rejects peace loathes the self and prefers to wallow in misery.

Pain is good (I tend to seek it out frequently, myself), but to say that seeking an end to pain is self-loathing is foolish.  Pain may build character (a doubtful, Nietzschean position), but character can only solidify in the moments of peace between bouts of pain.  I see a similarity to the common misrepresentation of Romantic inspiration.  Many think of the Wordsworthian ideal that inspiration comes in a moment of divine frenzy, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” but they forget the second half: “recollected in tranquility.”  Unending pain is no more self-loving than an unending overflow of powerful feelings is endlessly creative.  At some point the stimulus must stop.

So, in conclusion (as my students insist on ending their papers despite my frequent injunctions), I tried desperately to like this book.  I am, as I said, sympathetic to the idea that happiness is not a commodity that everyone should have every single second of one’s life.  I also find melancholy appealing.  But I just couldn’t get into this book, I am sad to say.  I guess Wilson succeeded at least partly, then–I was certainly not happy reading his book.

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At Least I Finished

The Sterling Road Race was today, about two and a half hours away in Sterling, Massachusetts.   Although I had to get up at 4 to get up in time for my race, it was not a bad trip at all.  Making things even better was the great, efficient organization of the race.  They have been doing this for fourteen years, and it shows.

After a neutral start, the course climbs a steep but short hill to the finish line and then the real racing begins.  The first half of the eight mile loop is a rolling climb, with a few moderately steep pitches and a few typical New England rough road patches.  Then the course turns to the right and begins a series of fast descents with some fast rolling climbs.  The last third of the course it a gradual climb that does not really feel like a climb, or at least it didn’t today, with a decent tail wind keeping our pace almost 30 mph.  In the last mile, there is a short selection climb, where the pack will begin maneuvering for position, followed by a flat section and then a hard right turn and the finishing sprint hill.

On the first lap, I stayed at the front, but safely tucked in behind a guy who apparently felt like leading the entire lap–he never asked me to pull through or even looked back.  We hit the climb past the finish line fairly hard, and I decided that I would take it easy and watch for the best opportunity to attack later in the race.  For the next three laps, I sat in the middle of the pack, sometimes finding myself a bit further back than I really wanted to be, but I didn’t worry about it too much.  I knew that the course would open and I would have a chance to move up when I needed to.

The pace slowed quite a bit on the fourth and fifth laps.  It was obvious that people were getting tired, and this started to show in their bike handling.  About a mile or two into the final lap, the pack slowed as it tends to do when the pitch got a little steeper, and three or four guys who were not paying enough attention banged into each other and went down.  I was right behind them, but my super-criterium handling skills helped me out as I dodged rolling bodies.  I tried to squeeze past to the right, but another super-criterium handler had taken that line, so I then played super-cyclocross handler and went way off road into deep sand and then hopped back onto the road.  As I did this, I mentally thanked Fender Nazi, who led all of those dirt road rides this past winter; they really helped.

On the long descent in the final lap, I started planning my move up.  I gained a couple of spaces, but knew that the real spot was shortly before the selection hill.  I patiently waited, keeping my heart rate low and my breathing easy.  Just as I expected, the pack moved slightly to the left about a mile or so from the finish, and I used the right side of the road to move up quickly into fifth position overall.  Just in time for the selection hill.

Again, just as I expected, the selection hill proved to be the pivotal part of the course, and the pack surged ahead here as racers knew that anyone not in a good place here would have no chance in the sprint.  I stood up to make my move and again cramped up in both legs.  It was not as bad as before, but it effectively ended my chance to do well.  I was able to pass a few people, but I was passed by even more.

It was a disappointing race, but I am glad I was able to finish with the pack this time.  I need to find out why I keep cramping even though I am doing absolutely everything you should do–lots of electrolytes, plenty of fluids, stretching, massage, and on and on.  I just don’t get it.  But again, I did finish, and that’s a plus.

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I’m Back

The first of the Tuesday Night World Championships was tonight, and I found myself getting nervous and uptight all day long as I thought about it. This is really a stupid thing to get nervous about, since the Worlds are training races, and don’t count for upgrade points or anything. Nevertheless, I look forward to the races and my competitive spirit comes out.

My race, the “killer B” race, went off at 7, which meant it was a points race, with snowball points for the last five laps. Before the race, the more experienced racers outlined the team strategy to the rest of the team. We could not let any break get away without one of our team in it, and we had to protect our closers. I, as team captain and a reasonably strong sprinter, am one of our closers.

Our team strategy, surprisingly, actually worked tonight. One of our strong novices rode at the front of the pack for almost half the race, chasing breaks and setting the pace, just like we said he should do. He rode so hard, in fact, that he had to pull over near the end of the race to throw up. Despite this, he was extremely happy in a sort of demented way that he had pushed himself that hard. All of the veteran racers kept praising his efforts after the race was over, and he could not seem to get the huge grin off his face.

I was a little worried about my performance after the disasters of the last two races. To combat my problems, I have embarked on Project Overkill, in which I use every remedy known to cycling to take care of my cramping and dying during races. I am now on a regimen of Optygen HP. I now drink EFS, some ridiculously high-tech electrolyte replacement drink. I am stretching every single day despite the nearly deadly boredom that stretching inspires in me.

Either one of those elements in Project Overkill worked, or they all worked in combination. I felt good during the race, almost ridiculously good. My heart rate stayed where it was supposed to stay, and my legs never once felt sore, tired, or in imminent danger of cramping. I also raced fairly smart, staying near the front, but never burning up energy unnecessarily. My team also came through, chasing breaks down for me and setting me up for sprints.

In the first sprint of the evening, my chief leadout guy gave me a perfect leadout, and I followed his wheel until launching a ridiculously hard sprint. I cleared the line with about 50 meters on everyone else, and I increased my lead on the downhill. I thought I could solo in for the second sprint, but I got caught less than 200 meters from the line. At this point, I decided to catch my breath and let my heart rate drop back down to a more reasonable level. I let the next couple of sprints go by, and I started setting myself up for the final.

Going into the last sprint, two guys were hanging off the front by about 10 meters, followed by a long string of other riders. I was too far back at the halfway point, but started moving up on the right side, using my new and improved handling skills to move through small gaps. My leadout guy started pushing, and I followed him for a short distance, but decided that I needed to launch a long sprint to make it work. So I attacked from 300 meters out and passed ten guys in front of me and then set my sights on the lead guys. The second place guy was fading fast, and I hammered past him 50 meters out and managed a very strong second place finish. My points for the evening put me in third overall.

After the race, as we were hanging out and recounting our awesome exploits on the course, one of my friends (he rides for another team, but we’re more or less teammates despite that) said to me, “You’re back.” I am. I’m ready to race again.

EDIT:  Dorothy’s race report is here.  She rode one of the best races I’ve seen her ride.  She’s awesomely strong, and I’m looking forward to seeing her get even stronger this summer.

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I Love Umberto Eco

Last night Dorothy and I went to Manhattan to see the Return of the Three Musketeers at the 92nd Street Y.  this was a reunion of Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who had appeared together at another literary gathering a few years ago and took to calling themselves the Three Musketeers, at Eco’s suggestion.  It was one of the most intellectually thrilling evenings I have ever seen, and I could listen to these three brilliant writers argue about literature, popular culture, and bad writing all night long.

We arrived in Manhattan early enough to grab dinner before the event.  We ate at Ecco La on 93rd and 3rd, and, as good as the food was, I cannot recommend it.  It has the worst service I have ever had at a Manhattan restaurant. which is truly unforgivable considering how good Italian restaurants are about as hard to find in the city as pigeons.

Once we arrived at the Y, we stood in line for thirty or forty minutes.  Shortly before we were allowed into the hall, a bustling entourage of lights and cameras noisily stormed through the lobby.  In the bustle, I only managed to see Salman Rushdie before the group whisked away to the backstage area.  After they opened to doors, we got great seats, only six or eight rows back.

Each author read a short excerpt of his work.  In an interesting innovation, Eco and Vargas Llosa read theirs in their own language, with a translated script flowing past on a large screen above them.  Eco read from Foucault’s Pendulum, Rushdie from a soon-to-be-released novel, and Vargas Llosa from a new novel.  After the readings the three sat down for a discussion led by Leonard Lopate, who, sadly, seemed to somewhat superfluous once the garrulous authors got going.

One of the most striking things about the evening was the widely divergent personae the three men exhibited.  Rushdie was all dry, witty confidence, recounting in a lightly ironic tone his experiences in several movies (including the current Then She Found Me, directed by Helen Hunt).  Vargas Llosa, with his dramatic shock of silver hair, appeared stately and calm, befitting a man who, in 1990, ran for president of Peru (but lost).  Eco was a ball of fierce energy, the stereotypical Italian with wildly gesticulating hands and words tumbling out of his mouth so quickly they formed a dancing musical tune.

They began discussing Dumas, and the reasons for calling themselves the Three Musketeers.  Clearly, each author was deeply familiar with Dumas’ novel, and they showed their erudition by making complicated jokes about the characters, the plot, and the parallels between the characters and themselves–who was Aramis?  Porthos?  Athos?  Then Eco, startlingly, asserted that The Count of Monte Cristo was a bad novel.  Although Rushdie and Varga Llosa seemed inclined to disagree, Eco carried his point with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and soon brought the other two to his way of thinking.  He was not saying that it was bad as in unreadable, but that it was not Literature.  Vargas Llosa finally agreed, saying that good grammar did not make a great story, and that a really great story with bad grammar could be a great thing.  Rushdie proposed a difference between great literature and great myth.  Hawkeye, he said, from Cooper’s novels, is a great mythic character, but the Leatherstocking novels are, in his opinion, virtually unreadable (as a Cooper scholar, I have to disagree, but I can certainly see his point).  Eco, bouncing with energy, agreed heartily.

Lopate then decided that he needed to do his job and started to direct the discussion with some questions about a novelist’s place in the social order, politics, and similar topics.  Although I enjoyed this part of the discussion, I wish he had simply faded into the background and let the three authors run with their ideas.  Their unstructured talk was a joy to behold.

Another joy was seeing the audience and their reactions.  The applauding, the laughter, the energy matched that on the stage, and I wished several times that I could have had my students there to watch real writers talking about books and movies and politics to show them how much boisterous fun real smart conversation could be.  It was also a thrill to see who else was in the audience with us.  Two rows ahead sat Richard Ford and Jeffrey Eugenides.  It was a thrilling moment of literary-celebrity sighting.  When it came to the point of the evening when Lopate would read some audience questions, the audience groaned and almost revolted when the first question was almost criminally banal, something along the lines of “how do you write?”  Eco did answer in a wonderfully smart ass fashion: “I start on the left and work my way to the right.”  He was starting to warm to his topic (“My Israeli friend starts from the right and works to the left…”) when Richard Ford shouted, “Next question!”

It was a brilliant evening.

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