“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”


carolineheadshotI hear there’s a juicy story behind Cruel Beautiful World?

Not juicy as much as tragic. When I was in high school, I sat behind a girl who was smart, funny, and engaged to a man in his late 20s, whom she said was a “little controlling.” I never understood it. When I was in college, I heard that her fiancé had stabbed her 43 times. Then I was haunted. I didn’t understand how you could stay with someone controlling until I had a two year relationship of my own with a guy who never raised his voice, and was so quietly, verbally abusive, that I thought I was losing my mind as well as my self. He didn’t want me to eat (I went down to 95 pounds). He didn’t want me to see my friends and he monitored my writing. When I finally was able to leave, I happened upon something online from the sister of my high school friend, who was still trying to process what had happened and why. And I sat down and started to write.

cbw-coverLucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat. She’s downstairs in the kitchen, and Iris has the TV on. The weather guy, his skin golden as a cashew, is smiling about power outages, urging the elderly and the sick to stay inside, his voice sliding like a trombone, and as soon as she hears the word “elderly,” Lucy glances uneasily at Iris.

“He doesn’t mean me, honey,” Iris says mildly, putting more bacon to snap in the pan. “I’m perfectly fine.”

red shirt garden smallCaroline Leavitt is silly and weird. I know this because I interviewed her here about her last novel, Pictures of You, but here I am again.  Is This Tomorrow is her second novel with Algonquin, the employees of which she refers to as “the gods and goddesses” of publishing. The novel centers on 1950s Jewish divorcée Ava Lark and her 12 year old son, Lewis, who move into an unwelcoming suburb, where Lewis quickly befriends the only two other fatherless kids on the block, Jimmy and Rose. But when Jimmy vanishes, Ava is targeted, Lewis grows up directionless, and Rose is convinced her brother is still alive. But what really happened that day, and should the truth of it really be told?

Thanks, Caroline for letting me pepper you with questions.

is-this-tomorrow1She came home to find him in her kitchen. She was in no mood, having spent the whole morning arguing with a lawyer, but there he was, her son’s best friend, Jimmy Rearson, a twelve- year-old kid home from school at three on a Wednesday afternoon with too-long hair and a crush on her, reading all the ingredients on the back of a Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix, tapping the box with a finger. “Adjust temperature for high altitudes,” he said, as if it really mattered. She felt a pang for him, a boy so lonely he feigned interest in how many eggs and how much sugar a cake might need. He leaned over unabashedly and turned on her radio, and there was Elvis crooning “Heartbreak Hotel,” the words splashing into the kitchen.

Attention, NYC-area peeps:

Jonathan Evison, executive editor of this fine literary magazine and New York Times best selling author, brings his book tour to the Big Apple next week.

Sunday evening, March 6, he joins the great Caroline Leavitt — both of Algonquin, the TNB Book Club, and the aforementioned Times best seller list — at KGB’s famed Sunday Night Reading Series.

And on Monday, March 7, Evison holds court with two of my favorite writers in all the land, James P. Othmer and Marcy Dermansky, at Book Court in Brooklyn.

After that, the tour goes, um, west of here (eventually).


[photo by Kerry McCombs]

*This is a transcript of the conversation we had with Caroline Leavitt, author of The TNB Book Club‘s January selection, Pictures of You.  It happened on Sunday, January 30, 2011.

 

 

BRAD LISTI (BL): Alright, everybody. We’re back. Welcome. Really pleased to have Caroline Leavitt here with us this month. Her latest novel, Pictures of You, is receiving all kinds of praise and good ink. Its story focuses on the aftermath of a car crash that leaves one woman dead — a survivor’s tale that hits on a variety of compelling themes, including grief, guilt, secrets, and the limits of human forgiveness. Please feel free to offer up questions for Caroline throughout. As always, I’ll be moderating as we go.

Welcome, Caroline!

CAROLINE LEAVITT (CL): Thanks for coming everyone, and thank you, Brad.  Remember: no question is too embarrassing to ask me.

Greetings! I’m Gloria Harrison, a contributing author here on The Nervous Breakdown and the new TNB Book Club facilitator. I’ll be helping out by providing updates about the goings on with our Book Club selections and authors, posting reminders and updates on Facebook, and opening Book Club discussions here in The Feed. To that end:

This month’s TNB Book Club selection is Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You.


There’s a hornet in the car. Isabelle hears a buzz and then feels a brush of wing against her cheek. A grape-size electric motor sings past her right ear. What’s it doing out in this weather? she wonders. It rumbles past her again, and she practically jumps. She tries to wave it outside, but instead it kamikazes to the back of 
the car, navigating among her cameras. Which is worse, she thinks, waiting for the sting, or the sting itself? She opens all the windows wider.

I’m happy to be here today interviewing the very strange, sometimes reclusive and sarcastically silly Caroline Leavitt about her new novel, Pictures of You. The novel swirls around a mysterious car crash in the fog, and the colliding lives of four people: Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband; April, a wife and mother with a terrible secret; Sam, a young asthmatic with a secret of his own; and Charlie, the husband and father who is desperate to know what his wife and son were doing in the car with a suitcase three hours away from home.  Leavitt insists the novel asks, how do we really know the ones we love and how do we forgive the unforgivable? I want to thank Caroline from taking time away from her renowned obsessive-compulsiveness to answer my thoughtful and probing queries.