Friday, September 7, 2007

Owning up to the Mess

Last July I cited a passage of text by the novelist Andrew O'Hagan because it had so skillfully captured a critical character attribute in a few words. I few weeks later I had the opportunity to see the video recording of O'Hagan interviewing both Günter Grass and Norman Mailer at what could fairly be called a "superstar event" at the New York Public Library. This was visibly not a pleasant experience for O'Hagan. Grass pretty much mopped the floor with his efforts to ask penetrating questions about the recent revelation of his SS service during the Second World War; and Mailer just played the grand old man to the hilt as an opportunity to ramble away in monologue, thwarting O'Hagan's every attempt to salvage a conversation out of the engagement.

Now O'Hagan has a piece in the Telegraph that is supposed to be a celebration of literary festivals but degenerates into an attempt to recover face from his embarrassment in New York. As is often the case where embarrassment is involved, what O'Hagan has written does not align very well with what got captured on video, at least as it was broadcast on Book TV. (Unless I am mistaken, O'Hagan has created a few characters in his novels who have a similar problem with what they write.) He does own up to a rather blatant ineptitude at his first encounter with Grass ("The hero of your youth murdered my grandfather"); but dismisses it as a gesture that "failed both as humour and as wind-up." (What did he think it would succeed at.) As he continues the account, he seems to assume that, because Grass did nor react to this remark he was therefore oblivious to it, rather than worrying that Grass might just be waiting for a time to get even (such as a time in front of a large audience). Thus, Mailer, as an expert in boxing, could pick up of Grass exposing weakness on O'Hagan and then proceed to exploit that weakness during his own time in the spotlight.

Aren't novelists supposed to be aware of such devices?

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