The More Difficult Task: An Interview with Brad Leithauser

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Brad Leithauser
Brad Leithauser

Born and raised in Detroit, Brad Leithauser did his undergraduate work at Harvard before graduating Harvard Law in 1980. After working for three years at the Kyoto Comparative Law Center in Japan as a research fellow, he returned to the States and taught for two decades at Mount Holyoke College. He has taught at The Johns Hopkins University since 2008.

He is the author of six novels, all published by Knopf—Equal Distance (1985), Hence (1989), Seaward (1993), The Friends of Freeland (1998), A Few Corrections (2001), and The Art Student’s War (2009)—as well as a novel in verse, Darlington’s Fall (2002). He has also published six volumes of poetry, all with Knopf: Hundreds of Fireflies (1982), Cats of the Temple (1986), The Mail from Anywhere (1990), The Odd Last Thing She Did (1998), Curves and Angles (2006), and The Oldest Word for Dawn (2013). Additionally, he has published a book of essays, Penchants and Places (Knopf, 1995), and two collections of light verse, Lettered Creatures, 2004) and Toad to a Nightingale (2007), both featuring artwork by his brother, Mark Leithauser, and published by David R. Godine.

Among his many awards and honors are an Ingram Merrill Grant, an Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. In 2005, he was named a knight in Iceland’s Order of the Falcon.

For many years he has published his work in our nation’s leading periodicals, including The Atlantic, The New Criterion, The New Yorker, and Poetry. This October, he will be one of two featured readers at the ALSCW conference, held at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

RW: Even though you’ve lived all over the world—Japan, France, Iceland—a great many of the characters in your novels find themselves, however briefly, wending through the streets of your hometown, Detroit, and your most recent novel, The Art Student’s War, takes place in the Detroit of your parents’ generation. While so many writers—Blake, Baudelaire, Eliot, etc.—have felt a terror of the modern city, your writing about Detroit exudes a profound love for the place, not terror. What is it about Detroit that continually appeals to a writer so often praised for his writing about nature?

BL: Well, you’re right. The appeal—the pull—of the place is genuine. I think of it as the USA Today weather map test. For years and years I’d check Detroit first on the national weather map—before whatever city I happened to be in. And though I can’t say I ever pursued this as far as the wonderful Sylvia Townsend Warner did, who found herself inadvertently dressing not for conditions outdoors but for the skies in the novel she was working on, I think it’s fair to say Detroit’s weather seemed realer to me than what I was experiencing firsthand.

In the early Forties, when The Art Student’s War begins, Detroit was among the five largest cities in America. A number of Sunbelt cities that have now eclipsed it—I’m thinking of places like Phoenix—were steamy don’t-stay-long truck stops by comparison. I love Detroit, my parents’ hometown and my hometown, and I root for it as I root for no other city. It’s impossible to wander the streets today and not feel vestiges of an optimism and hopefulness and confidence that later went smash. For me, there’s a pain there, and a sense of loss, connected I suppose to the pain in the inevitable loss of one’s childhood.

I’ve always loved travel, and much of my energies as an adult has been devoted to contriving ways to spend extended stretches of time abroad. I suppose the four cities I love best are Rome, Paris, Kyoto, and Reykjavik, but none of them so stirs up my emotions as Detroit does. I arrive there and my heart’s in my throat; suddenly, I have trouble swallowing. It’s the sort of discomfort a novelist can hardly resist.

RW: Certainly, the love of travel comes through in the novels as well. In fact, we find most of your protagonists perpetually moving hither and yon, but their movements seem less erratic than errant, as if parts of some quixotic quest, or some nostos, frequently toward an idealized home. These days, I daresay a great many young writers go in fear of nostalgia because it seems irrevocably connected to sentimentality, but your novels, while sometimes steeped in nostalgia’s honeyed glow, don’t come across as sentimental at all. Would you discuss how you think about the relationship between nostalgia and sentimentality?

BL: Sentimentality interests me a good deal. I sometimes feel especially drawn to writers who are often at their best when being sentimental—however unlikely that may sound. Is the little diner scene in Grapes of Wrath (the one where the waitress lies about the price of the candy, in order to give the penniless children a treat) sentimental? I suppose so, but for me it’s much the most moving set of pages that Steinbeck ever wrote. I’m likewise drawn to a great deal of very sentimental Dickens, to the more purple passages of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In the case of hardboiled writers like Waugh and Hemingway, there’s something appealing to me in the notion that some of their most touching writing is quite soft-hearted and a little fuzzy-brained. (Of course both Waugh and Hemingway are often at their worst when being sentimental, as is true in some pages of Brideshead and The Old Man—but there’s nothing very surprising or interesting in that.)

I remember being quite struck many years ago in learning of the etymological home in the word nostalgia. By coincidence, on the very day when this question arrived about nostalgia, I’d revised the following sentence in my new novel: “It’s the best dream there is perhaps, or the best dream he himself is capable of: the fair-proportioned community, the packed, compromissary, collective genius of home.” But it’s no coincidence that the sentence arrives when my hero is thousands of miles away from home. He’s in Greenland, on a boat, contemplating a field of icebergs.

Though the new novel, whose title will be If This World, may have its warm sentimental moments, this is certainly not one. It’s literally cold, with all of its tons of ice, and I hope somewhat desolate and sad, in its distance between my hero’s longings and his objects of desire. I’d draw on the distinction you’re making to say that the writing here aspires to be unsentimentally nostalgic.

RW: I see what you mean about those moments in Steinbeck and others. However, I suppose that, for many readers, “sentimentality” suggests a disproportion in the sentiment being expressed, and I said that your novels don’t come across as sentimental precisely because, while they all have moments of great emotional power, those moments of emotional power never feel disproportionate. In fact, one of your great strengths as a novelist is your sense of fair play, of balance. For instance, in Seaward (1993), we generally see through the protagonist’s eyes for the bulk of the novel, but each of the four major sections is set up by a short vignette in which we get other characters’ perspectives on the action. There is a thrilling moment in the third of these vignettes, some 200 pages into the novel, when we leave Terry Seward, the protagonist, behind, and we find Kurly Kopp, Seward’s college roommate, talking to a therapist. Now, throughout the first half of the novel, Seward has often presented Kopp as a laughable, if not a pitiable, figure, but when we hear Kopp talk of Seward, he starts off by saying, “Well you know he’s actually not the dope you first take him for…” Suddenly, we see that Kopp actually finds Seward somewhat laughable and pitiable. This little section does so much to keep the reader from thinking of Kopp as a cartoonish figure, and it greatly deepens our understanding of Seward. Can you expound a bit on how notions of fair-play, or of proportion, affect how your fiction approaches character?

BL: I’d answer in roundabout fashion. Long ago, I spent three years at Harvard Law School. The chief legacy of my legal education is a sensation of amazement at the efficiency of the EXPUNGE button in my brain. I don’t remember ever pressing it, but at some point I clearly did press it, with the result that I remember almost nothing of what I learned. I don’t usually think of myself as a terribly efficient person, but my EXPUNGE button is a true marvel of efficiency.

One of the few things I do recall from law school is a sense of how foggy Justice is—clear when seen from a distance, misty when viewed up close. Even in simple cases that are essentially financial, with few emotions at play (I’m thinking of simple cases in Contracts and Torts—as opposed to things like murder or rape trials), it’s very difficult to say what a just settlement should look like. An owner of a valuable object sees his object destroyed. Is he entitled to what he paid for it? What the actual replacement cost would be? And—letting emotions into the calculations—what about its sentimental value? What if he values the object—which most people would deem worthless–more than anything else in the world?

I bring all this up because I think any serious novelist is always having to deal with questions of justice. And it’s inherently a complex business, raising all sorts of internal requirements, encompassing both fairness to one’s characters and fairness to one’s readers. The more you like and respect your characters, the stronger these requirements become; the more you like and respect your readers—well, you get the idea.

People are complicated, and the more satisfying characters are apt to reflect this complexity by exhibiting moments of unpredictability. Still, a reader is apt to feel that some unfairness is being perpetrated if characters are predictably unpredictable, if we’re forever being shown, almost reflexively, that no one is what they seem. One of my favorite novelists, Kingsley Amis, is sometimes guilty of this: the reverses of personality are almost too neat, too chartable. I’m a great admirer of Anne Tyler, partly because her surprises of character–the sudden revelations of the psyche—seem both genuinely unpredictable and retrospectively inevitable.

You could plausibly propose—I’m not being wholly facetious—that an author’s responsibility to his characters runs deeper than his responsibility to the people around him. If he treats those around him harshly, you might argue in mitigation that they brought this behavior on themselves by being annoying or outright evil. But when he treats his characters harshly, he is punishing them for behavior he himself has created.

I think again of Sylvia Townsend Warner, writing a sequel to Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. She said she owed it to Mr. Fortune not to abandon him, to bring him back to life—and she seems to have felt this call of Justice very keenly. So what did she do? She brought him back in order to torture him unrelentingly, from first page to last. If you follow her logic, she seemed to be saying, Justice requires that I play the torturer. As I say, it’s a complicated business.

RW: To delve a bit deeper into the complications of this business, I’d like to bring up Conrad from your novel, A Few Corrections. In many ways, Conrad is not a terribly likeable character; he’s actually something of a curmudgeon. And yet, one comes away from that novel feeling not only that Conrad was real but also that he was an old friend, beloved for all his cantankerousness. He’s just so interesting! One could say similar things about Greg Blaising in Equal Distance, about the shambolic Hannibal Hannibalsson in The Friends of Freeland, and about several other characters. While I suppose the creator must have a certain fondness for all his creations, I wonder: is it more important to you that the reader find a character interesting, or that the reader find a character likeable?

BL: In a better universe than ours, the distinction wouldn’t exist. To be likable would be to be interesting. It’s one of many ways in which the world of fiction fails to correspond to the world we live in. Kindness, goodness—these things are so welcome in real life, where surliness and suspicion so often rule. But kindness, goodness—these things are often dull on the page. So even without thinking much about it, perhaps, the novelist learns to be wary about depicting virtues of this sort.

In addition, among critics there’s that pervasive axiom (again, perhaps insufficiently thought about) which says that kind characters are inevitably sentimental. Hence, the elderly retired nanny in Waugh’s Brideshead, who takes such a loving interest in her former charges, is seen as sentimental. Yet I find her utterly believable. I often wonder about some critics: Have they truly never encountered disinterested compassion, clemency, solicitude? I suspect they have, but have also trained their critical judgment to view its depiction as inherently untrue-to-life.

I see that we’re back to the subject of sentimentality, a subject of endless interest to me. With many critics (as with many novelists and poets), there’s a self-congratulation about being unsentimental—about being sufficiently hard-boiled and cynical—that strikes me as itself sentimental. I find this is true about two modern poets I absolutely revere—John Berryman and Philip Larkin. There’s a persona to Berryman—the one who keeps saying, effectively, “Here I am looking death in the face, Pal”—that emerges a little too glibly.

These things are hard to discuss without oneself sounding self-congratulatory or unsympathetic. But I remember as an undergraduate in Elizabeth Bishop’s class the day she brought in Larkin’s High Windows, and read some of the poems and we discussed them. Now that book strikes me as an absolute masterpiece. I think she thought so too—but she was trying to illuminate some aspect of the book that displeased her or unnerved her. And if I understood her aright, she was saying there was something a little too easy—sentimental—to the book’s darkness. The harder task was to see light within the darkness. Gentle Miss Bishop, it turned out, was taking up in her poems the more difficult task. There’s a good argument to be made, anyway, that her winsome and delicate Geography III, which came out a few years after High Windows, is the less sentimental, the much tougher, of the two books.

RW: That’s an astute observation. But your mentioning the ability “to see light within the darkness” leads me in a somewhat different direction. Darlington’s Fall—a novel in verse that, I should say, I think is a masterpiece—opens “The hand hungers: the jewel of the world, / And his for the taking. In all his long / Life of looking, never once beheld a thing so fine…” Amusingly, the young naturalist’s “jewel of the world” in this Berryman-esque opening is a frog, “conceived / In mud and muck.” This seems to be the kind of light in darkness to which you refer, and, while the reader may smile at the child’s adoration of the frog, the reader finds similar moments in all of your books, moments in which we see, often with the protagonist or the narrator, through someone else’s eyes, and see that individual’s “jewel of the world.” I’m thinking particularly of that moment in A Few Corrections, when the narrator meets his father’s final wife, a woman he’s not disposed to like, yet he has a boozy moment when he sees through her eyes, and it changes him. Forster famously writes, in Howard’s End, “Only connect.” Can you say a little about how these types of empathic connections inform your writing?

BL: Forster is one of my favorites. I find myself strongly disagreeing with him when he tells us that he is “quite sure” he’s not a great writer. But I find myself disagreeing still more with those critics who would use these words to disparage him. This seems unfair–and I suppose I’m back to the subject of Justice.

In the better universe that I’ve been talking about, no critic would ever hold a novelist or poet’s modest self-assessment against him. Modesty of this sort is all too rare in this world of ours and critics ought to do everything possible to foster it. There’s something so unhandsome in a writer’s insisting on his work’s importance. (I much admired Harold Brodkey’s first book, First Love and Other Sorrows, but found myself squirming—squirming all the more because he himself clearly didn’t grasp how mortified he ought to feel—at his repeated assertions that he belonged among the immortals.)

But back to Forster. For better or worse, I’m a child of the Sixties, and have spent more hours than I’d care to know singing along to songs with lyrics like “All you need is love” or “All we are saying is, Give peace a chance” or “The creator has a master plan / Peace and happiness for every man.” Two of my friends from high school became Moonies, and had their spouses chosen for them. Unthinkably vast and probably still poorly understood social forces were converging in the Sixties to create an atmosphere that told you to shut off your brain. Meanwhile, Forster’s books were out there, both the novels and the essays, collectedly and clearheadedly telling you much the same thing: All you need is love, and give peace a chance. But hold on to your brain. Of course he’s acknowledging throughout that in doing so you may not be making things easier for yourself. There’s a great simpleness of soul to him that is anything but simpleminded.

RW: We would be remiss were we not, at least, to mention your poetry in this interview, and I’d like to bring up briefly the title of your 2006 book, Curves and Angles. Somehow this title seems to me to capture something about your work perfectly: the mind’s angular conception of reality, the curvature of a life lived in time. Your books—perhaps, most especially, Darlington’s Fall—manage wonderfully to synthesize the curves and the angles, the poetry and the prose, of lived experience. Another example would be the way in which, in a number of poems and novels, you’ve introduced aquariums as a motif and have had them stand in a kind of polar tension with the sea itself, reminding the reader of the vastness beyond the limited individual, the sea beyond our personal aquariums. How do humility and wonder factor into your work?

BL: Curves and Angles. Despite deep reservations, I did include an Author’s Note explaining my title: “My ‘curves’ are the body’s curves; my ‘angles,’ the less giving lines of an inanimate world.”

I had reservations largely because it has become de rigueur among visual artists to explain, exhaustively, the significance of their work; every time I step into a contemporary art museum, I’m inundated by self-explication. It’s a deplorable trend and I hated to do anything, however small, to further it.

Still, I was speaking of something of great interest to me: how poets have a choice whether or not to people their work. All sorts of wonderful poets have no significant people in their poems (other than the poets themselves). You don’t go to Keats or Hopkins or cummings or Bogan (I’m sticking here with poets I adore) for their portrayals of an external man or woman contending with the human predicament.

That’s largely the job of the novelist. Although some novelists have done marvelous things while depopulating their fiction (I’m thinking especially of Italo Calvino), the novelist’s natural domain remains those external men and women contending with—The Human Predicament? I think many, perhaps most, of the questions you’ve posed for me have implicitly raised the question of the moral vantage of the novelist. Somewhere, W. H. Auden makes the claim that great poets are much more common than great novelists because the latter must have, in addition to some sort of literary genius, an attractive or at least responsible view of the world; poets, he’s somewhat blithely asserting, can just open their mouths and sing, nightingale fashion.

I’m not sure I agree with him about poets outnumbering novelists, but I accept the main point that a truly satisfying novelist must engage the world with a completeness—by which I mean, among other things, a moral underpinning—that the poet can choose to avoid. It’s one of the reasons I’m more comfortable teaching poetry rather than fiction.

In my previous job, at Mount Holyoke College, I taught as many poetry classes, including workshops, as fiction classes. My poetry students may well have been bored or ill-instructed, but I could feel confident that by semester’s end they would be conversant with a family of forms (the sonnet, the heroic couplet, the ballad stanza, etc.) and a vocabulary (iamb, trochee, dactyl, etc.) that would serve them in good stead even if they never tried to write formally themselves. When dealing with fiction, though, there is no comparable family and nomenclature.

At the end of the day, I was saying to my poetry students, “Acquaint yourself with iambic tetrameter. Acquaint yourself with iambic pentameter. When you see and feel how different these two things are—the twin pillars of English-language verse—you’re well on your way to being a good reader of poetry, whether of formal or of free verse.” But I have no counterpart advice, and no nomenclature mirroring the language of prosody, to urge upon my fiction students. Any teacher of fiction is apt to be saying to his students, at the end of the day, “Go forth and develop a broader vision, a deeper soul.” It puts you in the role of guru—a role I’m quite uncomfortable with.

As a novelist, I’m uneasy taking on the voice of the old-fashioned omniscient narrator. (A little voice in the back of my head is always saying, “But what do you know?”) Likewise, as a teacher of fiction, I’m uneasy offering advice on how to develop and evolve, even to those who are eager for such advice. As a result, classroom encounters are occasionally humorous, and often touching.

RW: The distinction that you—and Auden—make interests me, especially what you say about the poet’s choice of whether or not to “people” the work. Often enough, in your novels, we see characters wandering alone through natural landscapes, “depopulating” their own worlds. I’m thinking here particularly of Eggert Oddasson wandering through the barrens of Freeland at the end of The Friends of Freeland. In that passage, he spots a “white tern by a green tarn,” I think it is. Since you brought up poetic technique, I’ll say that the rim rhyme there seems exactly right, suggesting the imperfect reflection of the bird in the water, and I’ve wanted to ask you about your fondness for that technique, which you use so deftly and so frequently in both poetry and prose. What is it about the rim rhyme that gives it such a lasting appeal to you?

BL: You’re absolutely right that rim rhyme is a great favorite of mine. Four reasons immediately come to mind. First, I’m drawn to it because it has been so underutilized. Although it plays a central role in some of the most familiar poems in the English language (Come live with me and be my love!), it wasn’t until the twentieth century, when Wilfred Owen was looking to create a clangorous but subtle music out of the thudding and hammering of the First World War, that it was employed systematically.

Second, as Owen understood, it brings something new to that beloved, hoary, grandmotherly figure, Exact Rhyme. In comparison to her, Rim Rhyme sometimes seems a racy and cosmopolitan aunt, her speech mysteriously inflected with the cadences of her far-flung travels.

Third, it rings with the pleasure of being difficult, of (choose your sports metaphor) raising the hurdles or lengthening the court or inventing a speedier ball. I’ve written a couple of sonnets in which all rhymes are rim rhymes, and found the simple task of rhyming much harder than expected.

Fourth, to a class of important, indeed essential words in English that happen to be rhyme poor (e.g. God, self, truth) it brings a new mix of possible partners (e.g. guide, sylph, troth).

James Merrill pursued rim rhyme with more ardor and ingenuity than any other English-language poet. Indeed, I think he could sometimes fairly be accused of forced rhyme–of letting the rhyme direct the thought or the syntax of the stanza. But in such cases the fault (if it is one) is much less noticeable than if he were following the compulsions of exact rhyme, for we readers have much less experience at calling out such things.

In Darlington’s Fall I almost never allowed myself an off-rhyme. (Though I began the book with one–partly as reminder to myself that all such guidelines must admit of exception.) But I allowed myself rim rhyme and rime riche with absolute abandon–feeling, I suppose, that these rarer forms were self-justifying.

RW: Thinking of form more broadly, I suppose no reader of your work could help noticing that you’ve written novels in a number of forms: an expatriate novel (Equal Distance), a novel that’s a ghost story (Seaward), a u/dystopian political satire (The Friends of Freeland), a revisionist Post-Modern novel (A Few Corrections), a novel about a hypothetical future (Hence), and a novel about a vanished past (The Art Student’s War), to say nothing of the novel in verse. What is it that motivates you to continue exploring new forms? Perhaps another way to ask this is: do you see more of yourself in Homer’s Odysseus or in Tennyson’s Ulysses?

BL: A contemporary English novelist I admire, Alan Hollinghurst, recently visited Johns Hopkins and said something I disagreed with. Or—more accurately—something that didn’t coincide with my own experience. He said that the writing of novels gets harder as you go along. I haven’t found this to be true. What I have found puzzling, and frustrating, is that it doesn’t seem to get any easier. Shouldn’t greater experience lead to greater facility?

If I were a woodworker and made cabinets, presumably I’d become a better and more confident cabinetmaker over time—quicker, and surer of hand. But each time I’ve started a new novel, it’s as though I’ve never written one before.

Your question makes me rethink this a little bit. Is it possible I continually feel like a novice because I keep fiddling around with different forms or genres? That may be the case.

Or maybe not. It occurs to me that if I were to live to the age of two hundred, steadily writing novels the whole time, I might recurrently feel that I was jumping into a fresh and foreign body of water, each time, somewhat panicked in the abrupt splash and thrash, asking myself, “But do I know how to swim?”