It was a perfect spring night for the PEN Literary Gala, held yesterday at the American Museum of Natural History. Tourists lingered on the portico as guests in evening gowns and tuxedos began to arrive and file inside. The honoree of the night was E. L. Doctorow, who is a former PEN board member.
“I’ve been an admirer of Doctorow of all my life, so of course I’m in favor of it,” Salman Rushdie told me during cocktail hour in the Rotunda, near the skeleton of an allosaurus. “He’s one of the greatest American writers.”
Philip Gourevitch added, “He’s a great speaker; it’s a pleasure to hear him.”
“He’s not going to be bad like Gore Vidal was last year,” Rushdie said. “Vidal was very naughty last year. He was rude to people. That’s his shtick.”
What was your favorite Doctorow novel?, I asked.
“I liked ‘Book of Daniel,’ ” said Rushdie. “From way, way back.”
“Fantastic,” Gourevitch concurred.
Rushdie paused, thinking. “I have to say, I really like ‘Ragtime.’ It’s O.K. to like ‘Ragtime.’ ”
Peter Matthiessen weighed in. “I like ‘Billy Bathgate.’ I love ‘Ragtime,’ too, but ‘Billy,’ was the one I liked the best. He’s a friend of mine, so I can say that. We’re playing tennis on Saturday.”
The evening became more sombre by dinner. Guests were seated in the cavernous Milstein Hall, beneath the big blue whale. The talk turned to PEN’s mission of defending freedom of speech and expression around the world. No light matter. The two other honorees of the evening were unable to attend, as both had been imprisoned by the Chinese government: Paljor Norbu, a Tibetan printer and publisher, and Liu Xiaobo, a renowned Chinese literary critic, writer, and political activist.
When Doctorow took the stage, he acknowledged the crucial mission of PEN:
“We can have global swine flu in one season and global economic slumps in another, but the global working network of writers and the strangulation of freedom of expression is all seasons. It is constant and unremitting for writers who are imprisoned and murdered, whether in countries of the right or countries of the left, and even sometimes here. The strangulation finds it form as school libraries have banned books that have offended someone’s sensibility, as textbook publishers eliminate from their texts scientific facts that are deeply incompatible with religious zealots, and as our federal government would assume the right to know from library records what we’re reading. So when we stand against the suppression of writers in China or Uzbekistan or Serbia or Egypt or Vietnam of Zimbabwe, we’re defending ourselves, because this is a disease that is catching. And just as torture as a government policy is catching, just as the secret reading of emails and the illegal tapping of telephones is catching, just as dismissing international treaties with contempt is catching, it is why I once said, ‘to write about the past is to write about the present.'”
Upon exiting the Museum, I saw Paljor Norbu’s daughter and granddaughter standing on Central Park West. They had accepted his award in his place that evening. “This must be a bittersweet moment for you,” I said. Norbu’s whereabouts are unknown to his family and friends. His granddaughter looked up at me shyly and said, “Yes, but I was really excited to come.”