There was a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere in the room this past Sunday when John Irving made his sixth appearance at the John Adams Institute. The discomfort manifested early on when John Irving was asked to read a bit from his new novel Avenue of Mysteries and seemed to have an awkward disagreement with the moderator about where to do the reading. John Irving wanted to remain seated while Pieter van den Blink, the moderator, wanted Irving to get behind the lectern. Irving got up grudgingly and caustically informed the audience that they shouldn’t worry he would be done within five minutes and would be reading from an early part of the book to avoid spoiling it.
I was kind of nervous to see John Irving. He was my first favorite author. Around age 13 I remember deciding to read a real adult novel in English. I was in England at the time, so the English part was easy enough. I remember scouring the shelves for something that caught my attention and not finding quite the right thing. Waiting in line my eye fell upon A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was on sale, it was long (which felt more adult and serious) and it had a big picture of an armadillo on the cover. I bought it, read it and loved it. I then spent a few years reading almost exclusively John Irving novels. The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp, The Fourth Hand. I haven’t read a John Irving novel in ten years probably, but he still remains important to me. He’s some sort of ur-author for me. His novels undoubtedly formed my concept of what a novel is. And even now, having read many other authors, I think he’s a solid fit for that role. Irving isn’t subtle. His comedy is big, his tragedy is big, his themes are out in the open. Every novel of his I read was him serving up this complete experience. He’ll follow a character from complicated birth to tragic death.
The conversation opened by focusing on the new novel. John Irving shared the long history of its creation. It started off in the nineties as a movie set in India and ended up twenty years later as novel set in southern Mexico. In his questions Van den Blink announced he would be mostly ask questions about the different characters in the novel to avoid giving away too much of the plot. A nice idea in theory, although Avenue of Mysteries seems to span both decades and many places so in practice I ended up confused a few times as to how all these characters fit together into one novel. Not until the end of the evening would I have been able to give any meaningful sort of description of what Avenue of Mysteries was really about.
The evening really hit its stride when John Irving started taking questions from the audience. John Irving’s very expansive way of answering questions felt more fitting to an audience member asking a question and walking away, rather than conversing back and forth with a moderator (and not letting the moderator interrupt by any means necessary). If I had to impose a theme on Irving’s answers that evening it would be that he seems to be very down on the modern state of literature. Nothing seemed to spark him to life quite like a question about the use of autobiography in fiction. Very passionately he said: “I think the collective imagination is dying. I think there are fewer and fewer novels today that aren’t autobiographical. I think autobiography is a grave for fiction, not a source. I think it’s a terrible limitation for what could happen, might, should best happen, or, for my instincts, what’s the worst thing that might happen. I don’t want to be stuck with real life.”
In this answer he also touched on his father issues. Many critics, he noted, think Irving’s lack of a father is the cause of his protagonists being fatherless. It wasn’t so much the real situation that served as inspiration for his novels, he claims, but the fantasies he had as a child about who his father could be. On the possibility of writing about his real father: “I’m not interested in a nice guy who was a good father who just kind of went along with what he was told. Sounds like a nice guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him, but… please…”
Throughout the evening he evoked Dickens, Shakespeare, Melville to both defend his own style and reject his critics and the new style of writing. These answers gave him an unavoidable old-cranky-man vibe, but he may well have earned this vibe by being an old cranky man.
I’ll end by quoting my favorite moment of the evening, even though I couldn’t really fit it in anywhere:
John Irving: I get a lot of people like this: poor people write me letters and say “My life has been a John Irving novel.”
Pieter van den Blink: You write back: “No, it hasn’t.”?
John Irving: No, I’m nicer than that. I don’t write back.
A special thank you to the John Adams Institute for organizing another great event. Make sure you check out their upcoming events, so you don’t miss out!
Photo’s by Gerrit Serné.