The Power of the Pen: Jonathan Franzen
JONATHAN FRANZEN: To the extent that the written word is a word of political utterance, it obviously can change something. Probably at least 50 percent of the time for the worse. For every Germinal there’s a Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for every Silent Spring there’s a tract by Rush Limbaugh, if not several. For every Communist Manifesto there’s the same Communist Manifesto put to a different use. For me, tonight’s question is interesting only as it pertains to really good books, to writers like Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, to writing that’s too multifaceted or ambivalent or delightful to be socially effective. The question then becomes, Can the kind of writing that can’t change anything change something? And here I think at best we’re talking about very personal and subtle interior changes. I definitely feel as if I’ve been changed by Austen and Tolstoy, and yet the more closely I look at the relationship between the self and the words on the page, the more mysterious and tricky things get. I’m going to read a pair of little stories on the subject of this trickiness by the American fiction writer Lydia Davis. The first one is called “Almost No Memory”:
A certain woman had a very sharp consciousness but almost no memory. She remembered enough to get by from day to day. She remembered enough to work, and she worked hard. She did good work, and was paid for it, and earned enough to get by, but she did not remember her work, so that she could not answer questions about it, when people asked, as they did ask, since the work she did was interesting.
She remembered enough to get by, and to do her work, but she did not learn from what she did, or heard, or read. For she did read, she loved to read, and she took good notes on what she read, on the ideas that came to her from what she read, since she did have some ideas of her own, and even on her ideas about these ideas. Some of her ideas were even very good ideas, since she had a very sharp consciousness. And so she kept good notebooks and added to them year by year, and because many years passed this way, she had a long shelf of these notebooks, in which her handwriting became smaller and smaller.
Sometimes, when she was tired of reading a book, or when she was moved by a sudden curiosity she did not altogether understand, she would take an earlier notebook from the shelf and read a little of it, and she would be interested in what she read. She would be interested in the notes she had once taken on a book she was reading or on her own ideas. It would seem all new to her, and indeed most of it would be new to her.
Sometimes she would only read and think, and sometimes she would make a note in her current notebook of what she was reading in a notebook from an earlier time, or she would make a note of an idea that came to her from what she was reading. Other times she would want to make a note but choose not to, since she did not think it quite right to make a note of what was already a note, though she did not fully understand what was not right about it. She wanted to make a note of a note she was reading, because this was her way of understanding what she read, though she was not assimilating what she read into her mind, or not for long, but only into another notebook. Or she wanted to make a note because to make a note was her way of thinking this thought.
Although most of what she read was new to her, sometimes she immediately recognized what she read and had no doubt that she herself had written it, and thought it. It seemed perfectly familiar to her, as though she had just thought it that very day, though in fact she had not thought it for some years, unless reading it again was the same as thinking it again, or the same as thinking it for the first time, and though she might never have thought it again, if she had not happened to read it in her notebook. And so she knew by this that these notebooks truly had a great deal to do with her, though it was hard for her to understand, and troubled her to try to understand, just how they had to do with her, how much they were of her and how much they were outside her and not of her, as they sat there on the shelf, being what she knew but did not know, being what she had read but did not remember reading, being what she had thought but did not now think, or remember thinking, or if she remembered, then did not know whether she was thinking it now or whether she had only once thought it, or understand why she had had a thought once and then years later the same thought, or a thought once and then never that same thought again.
A second story. Slightly sunnier, and as with Margaret, the sunnier thought is shorter. This story is called “Happiest Moment.”
If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: An English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said his wife had gone to Beijing and had eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.