Sydney Writers’ Festival 2016: Jonathan Franzen on ‘My Reading Life’ from Dr Dolittle to Kafka, Pynchon and Paula Fox


Yesterday I was down at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on one of those wildly beautiful blue autumn days for a very bookish morning. First I was ‘in conversation’ with Batman-loving Heidegger-reading philosopher Damon Young about his new book The Art of Reading, a philosophical meditation on reading in six virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice). It’s also a portrait of the reader as a young man whose tastes range from Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek to Henry James, Virginia Woolf and Nikos Kazantzakis, from Aristotle to AJ Ayer. Young became ‘A Reader’ aged 11 thanks to Sherlock Holmes. He writes in The Art of Reading: ‘It was with the junky detective that I first became aware of myself as something powerful: a reader.’ I love the idea of a reader as something powerful: as that absolutely essential person required to bring words on a page to life. In one of my favourite passages in the book, Young quotes Virginia Woolf to convey the wonders of a reading life:

‘But just as important is the world this labour [reading] offers … This is why Virginia Woolf, in ‘How Should One Read a Book?‘, portrayed God as a little jealous of literary souls. “Look, these need no reward,” he proclaimed to Saint Peter in Paradise. “We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”‘

Damon Young in full flight

Damon Young in full flight

Then I went to hear Jonathan Franzen talking to Tegan Bennett Daylight about ‘My Reading Life’. I wasn’t planning to write about it (I’m trying to take a holiday), but I was so captivated by Franzen’s tales from his reading life that I started scribbling notes. Having had very little reading life in common with Damon Young (although we share a passion for Jane Austen’s Persuasion, whose heroine Anne Elliot sits with Batman at the zenith of Young’s literary pantheon), I was astonished to find how many bookish loves Franzen and I shared, starting with a weakness for talking animals that began with Dr Dolittle and continued with Peanuts. Interestingly, our tastes diverge when at the urging of his then-fiancee (Valerie Cornell) he gave up reading the Great American Novelists, notably Pynchon, in favour of novels written with more heart than head, mostly by women. More on that below.

Tegan Bennett Daylight + Jonathan Franzen in the velvet darkness

Tegan Bennett Daylight + Jonathan Franzen in the velvet darkness

Franzen said his much older siblings left home when he was still in primary school so he sought companionship in books, encouraged by his parents who weren’t readers but saw books as a means of worldly advancement. (He said this backfired on them when he decided to become a writer rather than the scientist they’d Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_coverexpected him to be.) He loved Peanuts and the Narnia books because they were about people doing bad things who suffered from ‘inescapable guilt’. In the Peanuts comics Lucy behaves badly and Charlie Brown and Linus feel guilty. (Guilt is big for Franzen.) He said children have a natural craving for violence in a meaningful moral context, as in the Grimm’s fairy tales, and the books that really endure are not sweet, but those that recognise that people are bad. Harriet the Spy was an important book for him. It made him want to become a writer and it made him want to move to New York City. He said there are a lot of writers in America who became writers because of Harriet the Spy.

At high school he loved science fiction, possibly because he’d been ‘shunted into science’ by his parents and sci fi reconciled the thing he was supposed to be doing (science) with what he loved (reading) and wanted to be (a writer). He read Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov – ‘white guy mid-20th century sci fi’. When asked what ‘shunted into science’ meant, he said he’d read biographies of Thomas Edison aged 10 and wanted a chemistry lab like Edison. So his parents gave him a chemistry set and his father built him a chemistry bench. He went to college to study physics but foundered on indeterminate calculus. So he decided to switch to literature.

His parents wouldn’t let him study English – he’d have to pay for himself if he wanted to – so he studied German, which they saw as a good, productive language [laughter]. He fell in love with Goethe and in his last year of college he ‘got religious’. That is, he read the moderns – Mann, Rilke, Kafka and others, and Nietzsche ‘who loomed over all of them’ – and realised there were so many more levels to writing than he’d ever guessed, there was a lot more to texts than he’d ever get. He struggled with an Emily Dickinson poem and after four days realised it was ironic. Before then he’d thought of writers as like Michael Crichton, with an office and flying around the world first class.

He said the modern German writers were ‘very funny’. There is comic relief even in Rilke. Humour is closely related to despair. Kafka read ‘The Trial’ out loud to his friends and they were all in stitches, laughing so much that he had to pause for them to calm down. Franzen called Kafka ‘a Jewish comedian’. He said:

‘This is not a game, guys. Kafka wasn’t writing this to be famous, he was writing this because his life was a mess. He was struggling with himself, his father, his Jewishness, modernity, technology, struggling with his shame and anxiety. It’s not religion, but it maps onto what religion does. Here was a religion that made sense to me: literature.’

31u5VgW7VkL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_Gravity’s Rainbow is also massively important to Franzen. He said he doesn’t have much regard for Harold Bloom’s theory of the world, which he divides into strong poets or weak poets – ‘people would go to Bloom to ask if they were a strong or weak poet’ – but he, Franzen, wanted to be a strong poet, hence Pynchon. He had a sense Pynchon would be a problem. He read it entirely alone in Berlin where he went after college on a Fulbright scholarship. He said it was not smart to be reading Pynchon then. He had a psychotic breakdown and Pynchon totally took over. He felt sick. He dreamt about Pynchon. Pynchon was in his head. His letters home to his fiancee became more and more like Pynchon, endless sentences, excessive, arrogant, aggressively sexual. She wrote back: you can be with me or you can go with him, I don’t want you to write to me like that. He was mortified ‘because I hated not pleasing anyone, still do’. So he stopped. He said he was lucky. He ‘stopped being a boy writer – like try to connect with people rather than show off to them’. He stopped reading Pynchon – although he ‘really likes’ The Crying of Lot 49, which was a book Pynchon disavowed. He said ‘Pynchon is funny – and the writer who’s funny can’t be all bad’.

He said he and his generation, like his friend David Foster Wallace, had to overthrow those Great American Writers like Pynchon, critique what was wrong with them, which was partly a feminist critique. It was also that they wrote books of the head not the heart. If books are about connections between human beings why would you be all head?

51i4CZJI-DL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bennett Daylight asked Franzen what he was reading when he was writing The Corrections. Paula Fox. He discovered short novels. After Kafka, Paula Fox was the writer who most changed his life. ‘She was writing about everything, but it happened in just one weekend.’ He also likes Christina Stead (‘but not so much formally’), Alice Munro, Jane Smiley’s short novels. The problem with American postmodernism was a terrible gigantism. If you were taking on the world you had to get bigger and bigger. He loves Elena Ferrante. Reading her tetralogy – the ‘Neapolitan novels‘ – was a complete, enveloping experience. He took them on a 2-month book tour, thinking they’d last the whole trip, and read them in two and a half weeks. He loves devouring book after book in a series like Ferrante’s. He reads little and slowly and is always looking for the next recommendation, ‘the books you read in those endless summers’.

Franzen reads some non-fiction. He was ‘blown away’ by Changes in the Land, an ecological history of New England by William Cronon. It gave him the idea for his second novel, the idea that the landscape was always altered, changed. He read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atom Bomb when he was writing Purity. He mostly reads non-fiction when he ‘desperately needs to get information so he can make things up better’.

independent-peopleAnother significant book for him is Independent People by Halldor Laxness, ‘one of the great novels of the 20th century, a life-changing book, an Icelandic novel’. He called Laxness – who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 – ‘the most famous Icelander between Eric the Red and Bjork’. He’s brilliant because he maps all of Iceland’s history onto the crisis of modernity. Franzen called it ‘a novel about sheep farming’. Bennett Daylight called it ‘a novel about a man who imposes his will on a family’. Franzen said they’d have to spend 15 minutes after the session arguing about that.

When asked what books he recommends Franzen said: The Man Who Loved Children. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Dostoyevsky. Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. When asked what his reading indulgence is he said: ‘TV. I like a great serial drama on TV. It’s a kind of novel.’

Tonight I’m off to see former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in conversation with George Megalogenis. If Varoufakis seizes my imagination in the way that Franzen on books did, then I’ll be blogging his session ‘And the Weak Suffer What They Must?‘ here, so stay tuned.


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6 Responses to Sydney Writers’ Festival 2016: Jonathan Franzen on ‘My Reading Life’ from Dr Dolittle to Kafka, Pynchon and Paula Fox

  1. Lucinda says:

    Thank you, Jane. A great report on a fascinating discussion. Like many in the audience I gasped when JF explained that he wasn’t allowed to study English at college. Now I am going to rush out and get Harriet the Spy and Paula Fox.
    Looking forward to your report on Yanis Varoufakis.

    • Thanks Lucinda. So you already got that Yanis Varoufakis was so brilliant that I have to blog his session?! Will be blogging tomorrow.:)

      • Lucinda says:

        Syd and I were there too, sitting about six rows behind you – we lost you in the exiting crowd. But we said to each other that we would love to know what you thought – so now we await your blog! Our view? Rock star, brilliant, and super-smart Keynesian widely misunderstood (and all too conveniently portrayed) as a destructive radical.

      • I wish I’d seen you, Lucinda! Yes, I completely agree, Yanis was brilliant – and a smart Keynesian. Having met him briefly days before he became finance minister I wasn’t expecting him to be so thrilling. Either he’s born for the stage or he went through a baptism of fire in the furnace of European politics. The limelight sure suits him.

  2. tegandaylight says:

    Jane. thank you so much for this narrative that you’ve composed out of my session with Jonathan Franzen. It’s better than hearing it played back – gives me a real feel for the (too-short) journey he took us on. Also fascinating to discover that all three of us share so many tastes. It was a struggle not to talk about myself too much – I wanted to describe my ten-year-old self with torch, notebook and pen at my belt, just like Harriet. Jonathan and I continued our argument about “Independent People” in the concrete hallways of the Roslyn Packer. I think we’re both right! And it is a magnificent book. Bless you Jane – you’re one of our greatest readers – and listeners.

    • Thanks Tegan, you are lovely! Of course what I had to leave out to keep it brief-ish is was fact that this talk was made possible by your fabulous conversational powers. Shame you didn’t have more time to tell your own stories including wonderful pen, notebook and torch story. I was intrigued by your comments on gendered reading. Seems I read like the boys you know. Now plan to read ‘Independent People’.

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