Jonathan Franzen visited Amsterdam last week and we went to hear him speak at the John Adams Institute. The moderator for the evening was Pieter van den Blink, who introduced Franzen in a lengthy fashion. He stated that you can see death and depression on almost every page of the author’s work, which Franzen turned into a running joke for the evening.
Before this night, Jonathan Franzen had turned into a meme in my head. He was a somewhat scary, chauvinistic author who hates all things digital. The Franzen that took to the stage however, wasn’t anything like that. He was funny, charming and also shorter than I expected. Reading about Franzen in infuriating quotes on feminist websites makes it very easy to forget what a funny, thoughtful and interesting writer he actually is. Still laughing about the dramatic opinions of the moderator, he told the audience he had meant to write a comedy and not a drama and read part of his newest novel Purity to show this.
He read a couple of parts during the evening and every time I was engrossed in the story. Franzen is a great writer, but also a fantastic reader. He does different voices and accents for his characters and talks in this soothing and melodious tone that completely draws you in. I hadn’t been completely convinced that I had wanted to read Purity, but after hearing it from the author himself, I was sold.
The interview was a little odd. Van den Blink asked some very serious and intimate questions that made Franzen uncomfortable. He brought up the topic of mothers, asking the author what his obsession with mothers is about. Franzen tries to evade to answer for a while, jumping from one thought to the other, but the moderator kept poking. Franzen then finally relented and compared their relationship to that of an old bickering couple, admitting he was often embarrassed by her and that he had resented her criticism.
When Franzen made another remark of sometimes waking up in the middle of the night, thinking he’s a monster, the moderator lashed on again and kept digging until he got an explanation. A big part of the interview went on like this and you could see that the author didn’t know what to do with it. Although I wasn’t always comfortable with it myself, we did get some very interesting answers out of it. We learned that Franzen worries about not being grateful enough, about taking his friends and his success for granted and that he takes too much in general. The audience got to see a very personal and honest side of the author, making the event definitely one of a kind.
What stuck with me most about the evening, was just how funny and lighthearted Franzen can be, while still weighing every word he says in his head to make sure he’s saying the right thing. He joked with us about 560 pages being ‘totally his length‘ for his novels, even though Nell Zink tells him he should write a beautiful 170 page novel so it gets assigned at schools and he will have a never ending stream of income. Just like in his writing, he goes from self-deprecating to sincere answers and thoughtful observations in the span of minutes.
The audience got to ask some questions and the first question came from a lady who gave away the murder plot of the novel. She was met with a bunch of booing, but Franzen stood up for her, saying he never writes anything that is really worth spoiling and that this chapter had appeared in the New Yorker as well. When the same woman continued asking ‘what was the big deal with killing someone anyway?’, he did laugh and said that he thinks giving someone a good scolding would be better than to bash someone’s head in. He asked her to at least admit that it’s not a good look on your resume and then quickly moved on to other people. The rest of the questions were much tamer than anything the moderator had asked. I was surprised Franzen only had to deal with one ‘technology’ and one ‘feminist’ question, but he handled both with grace and nuance.
The final question was great as it was about Franzen’s favorite authors. Somehow that is something that most book lovers want to know about. One of his longstanding favorites turned out to be The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, because the author gave him courage and he called Elena Ferrante ‘the real deal’. Add that to your TBR-pile.
It was a great Monday night. I’m very happy I got to hear Franzen speak and that I could adjust the internet-induced image that got stuck in my mind somehow. The evening reminded me of how much I enjoyed The Corrections and that I am definitely ready to give the rest of his novels a try. Don’t let all the talk of doom and gloom scare you off and make sure you see Franzen next time he’s in town.
Special thanks to John Adams Institute for allowing us to visit and to write about it. Images courtesy of John Adams Institute.