Writing the Spark of Life into the Mud
September 21, 2011, by John Pluecker
One of the most exciting things about art is the unexpected synergies and conversations that emerge when various works are placed next to each other, often at random. Whether in the gallery or on a stage, suddenly links are established and connections are made visible.
On Monday night at the Wortham Center, the audience witnessed just such an auspicious pairing. As Francisco Goldman and then Nicole Krauss took to the stage, the intimate details from each of their novels created a shared discussion about love, grief, longing, death and hope. Rich Levy began the evening by saying that Goldman’s novel (Say Her Name), though it plumbs the depths of loss, actually emerges as a kind of celebration. Before reading from a surprisingly funny chapter of his novel, Goldman enjoined the audience to giggle whenever they found something humorous; he gave everyone permission to experience a complex range of emotions and not simply a somber melancholy. The chapter featured robotic rats in subway stations and litter twirling the night air like frozen bats, as he recounted several instances prior to the death of his wife Aura Estrada in which he experienced small moments of loss. These were often seemingly trivial stories, typical mix-ups like a forgotten phone call provoking worry or misunderstood directions resulting in both of them standing alone on different subway platforms with a few stops between them. These moments of temporary separation became tiny, absurd rehearsals of the larger absence haunting the narrative. As Goldman joked, “Death doesn’t let you stop for hot chocolate.” There was a sense of fun in the prose, but also a very palpable sense of ruin, of writing from the ruins of the day that was supposed to have been–“the ruins of the future,” as Goldman called them.
Both authors mentioned Bruno Schultz’s book The Street of Crocodiles as a text they kept close by during their writing process and a book that Aura Estrada also valued deeply. Nicole Krauss mentioned it as she began her reading as a way of pulling out a thread that united her work with Goldman’s. Unexpectedly, Krauss’s reading also meditated strongly on the aftermath left behind by death. In the section she read from Great House, she used the first-person voice of a father to think about his relationship with his own son after his wife and the son’s mother had passed.
Themes of death and longing and hope reemerged during the discussion section thoughtfully moderated by University of Houston Honors College professor and novelist, Robert Cremins. Cremins pointed out that all the characters in the book seem to be in a moment of crisis, brutally struggling within themselves. These crises motivate the characters of both novelists as they attempt to grapple with intensely fraught situations. Krauss talked about how, for her, empathy is the only reason to write, the opportunity to crawl inside the psyche of another person. She also spoke about the inheritances that come down to us and “reverberate through the generations.” Goldman spoke about his investigations into what Marcel Proust has referred to as “the mysteries of personality” (thanks to Lydia Davis’s recent translations). At the end, Goldman returned to the Kabbalah and the Jewish mystical tradition as he talked about his mission as a writer as “getting the spark of life into the mud.”
In their writing, it seems that both Krauss and Goldman are working towards a similar mystical goal.