International Literature Festival, Utrecht

23rd September 2018 – JOHN IRVING on the 40th anniversary of The World According to Garp and why you should never take an ocean voyage without a tattooed cannibal.

At seventy-six, ex-wrestler and world renowned American writer, John Irving  is still full of passion for both politics and literature. Perhaps it is the combination of both that makes his work so powerful.  Irving’s self-deprecating sense of humour belies an enduring  concern in the welfare of his fellow man. The author refers frequently to the powerful influence of his mother, a nurse who worked at a New Hampshire clinic for unwed, pregnant women. A tireless campaigner for women’s rights, especially with regards to abortion, Irving’s biological father divorced her when she was pregnant with John. She remarried Colin Irving six years later, and it is his name that John Irving took. The author’s archetypal hero, Garp, is dominated by his mother and yet this does not detract from the strength of the book’s eponymous hero.

On the 40th anniversary of the book that brought him to fame and allowed him to devote himself exclusively to writing, Irving laments the fact that what he considered at the time to be ‘a period piece’ is in fact just as relevant forty years later. Describing it as a protest novel about sexual hatred and intolerance, written in response to the sexual revolution at the time, Irving believes that women and other sexual minorities continue to suffer discrimination, particularly with Trump’s Republican party in power. Admitting that he gets his sexual politics from his mother, Irving maintains that, ‘the way people are mistreated for their gender identities changes, but it never really goes away.’

‘I’m a worst case scenario writer.’

Irving admits that in all of his work, there is a ‘nightmare issue’ that provides the reason for him to write the novel. Describing them as ‘the things you would like to make go away, the things you wish you were done with but you’re not done with’, Irving claims that these things find him, not the other way around, and, that without such a horror, the novel is not worth writing. Perhaps this is why he typically begins each work with the ending. Claiming that he was unaware of this tendency until the publication of his sixth novel, Irving explains that it’s as if the events of a novel he is interested in have already happened, it’s his job to figure out and record how they all got there. Indeed he tells us that the last sentence of Moby Dick, is tattooed on his arm, and taught him how to end a novel.

John Irving needs little encouragement to talk about some of his favourite writers. Describing the works of Dickens, Hardy and Melville as ‘old fashioned, nineteenth century plot-driven narratives’, the great detail of which he ‘couldn’t get enough of at school’, he admits that he ‘was never a Hemingway person’. At age fifteen, Irving read Dickens’s Great Expectations and it was this book in particular that made him want to become a writer. Describing Miss Havisham as ‘a demonic creation’ and Pip as ‘a disappointing little snob’, he admits that Pip’s discovery that his benefactor is in fact a convict was the ‘devastating ending’ that really got him. In spite of his love of Dickens, he describes his endings as ‘generally not great’.  For this he turns to Moby Dick, a novel which his grandmother first introduced him to, when he was ‘far too young’ and later read properly when he was eighteen.

Likening  the character of Captain Ahab to Donald  Trump, ‘ a crazy, powerful white man’ who fails to listen to the advice of those around him, Irving focuses instead on the character of Queequeg. A tattooed cannibal, who for both thematic and structural reasons is the key to novel and was also the favourite of both he and his grandmother. Perhaps what is most striking about the author’s lengthy discussion of these classics, is the passion he still so clearly has for them and the enthusiasm with which he tells us that he re-reads all of his favourites once every five years or so.  He appears refreshingly unconcerned with his own works of fiction by comparison. Indeed, it is only after repeated questioning, that he admits to having written the script for a TV series of The world according to Garp and that he has begun work on another novel, Darkness as a Bride. He will say no more about it except that it is a ghost story, the title of which is inspired by the lines from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, ‘If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride, and hug it in mine arms.’

Souwie Buis  24th September 2018


19th September 2018 – SALMAN RUSHDIE on New York, Nero and Naipaul

A one and a half hour security delay did not deter a full concert hall of Salman Rushdie fans at  last night’s Humanities Night, part of Utrecht’s International Literary Festival.  At seventy-one, Rushdie confesses that he loves living in New York in spite of its links with Donald Trump. This brings him to his latest novel, The Golden House, (2017) and one of its central characters, Nero. A larger-than-life Indian businessman of extensive wealth with a beautiful Russian gold-digger wife and a penchant for power. It goes without saying that it ends badly for both Nero and his three illustriously named sons, Petronius, Lucius and Dionysus. In spite of obvious parallels with the 45th president of the United States, as Rushdie likes to refer to him, the author insists that 95% of the book was already written well before Trump ran for presidency. Nevertheless, he admits that Trump’s election might have been bad for politics, but it was good for literature.

‘I wanted the book to have that echo of Greek tragedy’

The Golden men’s names link them with antiquity, specifically, Rushdie is at pains to point out, the tradition of Greek tragedy. The author admits that it is the inevitability of the fate of the Greek hero or heroine that appeals to him. The fact that the reader or audience is well aware of this fate, right from the start, but the individual himself is oblivious until it is too late. Continuing in this vein, Rushdie explains that his choice of setting, specifically the garden of the Golden’s house in the heart of Greenwhich Village, represents a sort of stage on which his characters play out their lives watched by their neighbours. In this sense, the book also draws on the claustrophobic setting of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, filmed in the same neighbour Rushdie later discovered.

Indeed, the writer admits that the construction of the book is ‘somewhat cinematic’, in its use of short scene-like chapters and the narrator’s own obsession with film. A wannabe movie maker, Rene Unterlinden is the only native New Yorker in the book. Although Rushdie initially imagined his narrator as a young writer, he acknowledges, that the minute he began to think of him as a filmmaker, ‘the whole book opened up’.  The seventy-one year old writer also admits that part of his decision to use a young, twenty-something narrator was inspired by a desire to write ‘a young man’s book’. One influenced by the younger generation of writers, many of whom are immigrants but who see themselves as American writers.

‘I have always been interested in the idea of metamorphosis.’

The issue of immigration and the opportunities it provides for re-invention are of course closely tied to the notion of the American dream. Rushdie agrees that he has always been interested in the idea of metamorphosis, the notion that people can and do dramatically reinvent themselves, of their own free will. ‘The radical change in the self is something that crops up quite often in my work’. The writer places himself firmly in this category and indeed when asked why he chose to make the move to New York, he describes it simply as ‘an experiment that worked.’ Rushdie himself strikes one as a man who is comfortable both with himself and his life in America. During the course of the evening, he mentioned the names of a number of famous filmmakers and writers with whom he is on friendly terms and one senses that this writer of New York best sellers is himself something of an advertisement for the American dream. Proof that even someone with a death sentence (fatwa) issued by none other than the Ayatollah Khomeini himself, can successfully reinvent himself and produce a New York Times best seller in his adopted country while declining the offer of a box at the US Open from Trump himself / negotiating a deal for a Netflix version of Midnight’s Children.

‘Naipaul was a hard man to love’.

Speaking finally about the recent death of Nobel Laureate and long-time rival, V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie admits that, on many counts, their differences outweighed their points of convergence, but one can not ignore the greatness of his talent. ‘When he died, it was like a very big tree falling in the forest’.  This may well be true, but Rushdie’s relaxed, disarming manner belies an obvious affinity with people which many great writers lack. It is perhaps this more than anything else that strikes you about the world-renowned author when meeting him in person. He is easy to like and in spite of his success, appears not to take  himself too seriously. Most people find such a quality very attractive, especially in the rich and famous.

Souwie Buis  20th September 2018


ILFU continues until 29th September. Click here for full programme of events