Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

John Irving in Zürich

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In my last post I mentioned a list of my Top 10 favourite books. It was more of a figurative thing than an actual list that I keep on paper, but I was prompted to spell it out in the comments. By the way, if you want to share your own Top 10, or Top 3 or whatever, in the comments on that post or this one, please do: I’m so interested in knowing what everyone’s favourites are (and reading them)!

I’m still not sure whether I’m entirely satisfied with my list, but I know that a few of the books I put down absolutely belong there. One of these is A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving. It’s a wonderful novel about friendship and fate, and I try to re-read it every few years.

Yesterday, thanks to a friend who told me about the event (and accompanied me to it), I got to see John Irving in a reading/Q&A session at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus. This was my second time seeing Irving in person. The first time was at the Vancouver Readers and Writers Festival on Granville Island in 2009, and I found it so exciting to be in the same room as someone whose work I so deeply admired.

Seeing him in Zürich yesterday was a different, but still inspiring, experience. The venue was not a simple room with hard chairs but a plush theatre with a balcony, velvet seats and an enormous chandelier. The interview or “conversation” portion of the event was in English, but after asking each question and receiving a response, the interviewer would briefly paraphrase in German — until some point, after a particularly long response, she threw up her hands and said “Ah, why should I translate? Everyone understands anyway.” Irving himself supplied a German phrase here and there, vestiges of the few years he spent in Vienna.

For the reading, Irving was joined by a German-speaking actor. Together they read adjacent passages in the English and German versions of his new novel In One Person, meaning that the bilingual Volk got to hear more of it. The German was too fast for me, so I just enjoyed Irving’s own reading, and during the German sections I watched as Irving listened to the actor and followed along, making little swooping hand gestures as though he were conducting the music of his book. Fascinating!

At one point Irving jokingly said of his method for plot design: “I find a character that I’m sympathetic to, and I try to think of the worst possible thing that can happen to him.” At first I was taken aback by this — it seems so blatantly manipulative. But how come his work doesn’t come across that way? I then stumbled over a yet more depressing idea: is it by being as cruel as possible that Art successfully imitates life?

I had to reject this idea, too. I don’t think life is unconditionally cruel. But I do think we read for a reason, and that is to find out how we should live. Literature — and other art forms, like film — have to condense joys and sorrows, amplify highs and lows, in order to be useful and forceful enough in this regard. And what Irving didn’t mention, of course, is that after miring his characters, he most always allows them to overcome the obstacles, to be redeemed.

Irving is of course also known for his humour, so here is another [paraphrased] quote from yesterday on sexuality, which is the key concern of In One Person: It’s good that we can imagine things and not act on them, because “if you had sex with everyone you imagined, your life would be an utter disaster. I know mine would be.”

Irving has put out a new book every 3-4 years since 1968, and even now, at the age of 70, he shows no sign of slowing down. He told us, the audience members, about the main character and concept of the novel he’s writing now. And while I don’t know where I’ll be living when he goes on promotional tour in 2015-2016, I can hope it’ll be a place he’ll visit.

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2 thoughts on “John Irving in Zürich

  1. I was also fascinated by Irving’s hand gestures during the German parts.

  2. Pingback: An evening without Alice Munro « Milchtoast

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