This weekâ€™s story, â€œItâ€™s a Summer Day,â€ follows an American novelist, Arthur Less, as he travels to Italy to attend a prize ceremony, for which he is one of the finalists. How important is that opening journeyâ€”and the sense of dislocationâ€”to the story?
When I started this, I wanted to write something that was full of joy. I know that seems odd, but there it is. So I figured, the only way to do that was to Job-ify himâ€”take everything away and give it back better. And it has to be his own fault. He canâ€™t be a victim of a terrible worldâ€”he has to take the pill himself. I mean, thatâ€™s what humiliation really is, right? Not that it makes you seem ridiculous but that it reveals how ridiculous youÂ reallyÂ are.Â Travel is hard, and itâ€™s mostly not your fault. But I thought, Wouldnâ€™t it be funny if it wasÂ totally his fault?Â As is the rest.
â€œItâ€™s a Summer Dayâ€ is taken from your forthcoming novel, â€œLess,â€ which will be published in July. In the novel, as in the story, Arthur Less has decided to take any literary invitation sent his way, because he wants to be out of the country when Freddy, his former flame, marries. When did you first start thinking about this scenario as the basis for a novel? Did you always have Arthur Less in mind as the character who would try to escape his life in this way?
I always had Arthur Less, but the novel was differentâ€”it was a wistful, quiet, poignant book about a man walking around San Francisco. I wrote bits and pieces and couldnâ€™t seem to figure out what was wrong. Then I realized: Who could feel sad about this guy? Heâ€™s absurd! I threw it all out, waited about a month. Then I sat down and wrote this episode. Itâ€™s the third chapter in the book, but itâ€™s where I found what I really wanted to do with my character. Torture him, I guess? And reward him.
Less spent much of his twenties and thirties in a relationship with an older man, Robert Brownburn, a distinguished poet. How much did Robertâ€™s fame affect Lessâ€™s sense of himself as a writer, and how significant was that age difference in forming the man we see in these pages?
He thinks that heâ€™s a boy! And heâ€™s almost fifty! But he also thinks he canâ€™t possibly be any good as a writer, whenâ€”as I hope comes acrossâ€”heâ€™s in fact pretty talented. Iâ€™ve never been in a relationship like that, so of course it interested meâ€”the rewards of being with someone so much older and wiser and, of course, flawed, and the price both people pay. I do recognize, in myself, my memories of always being introduced as the â€œyoung man.â€ And I now live in a world where my friends are in their eighties and ninetiesâ€”I am still the â€œyoung man.â€ Itâ€™s disconcerting, and yet a familiar role to play.
In the story, Less is one of five international novelists vying for a prize. His short-listed book was largely ignored in America, but in Italy itâ€™s been fÃªted. Does Less welcome the attention, or fear the possibility that such attention might bring with it humiliation (at one stage, for example, the prom scene from â€œCarrieâ€ runs through his mind)?
For Less, everything holds the possibility of humiliation; everything is booby-trapped by his own reckless optimism. He loves it, but he feels that there is a trick. Thereâ€™s always a trick, and itâ€™s usually one that heâ€™s played, unwittingly, on himself. But he canâ€™t help himself; he simply cannot be as cynical as Robert. He is almost fifty and he has no armor against the world, and I think this was part of his charm, for me, in writing him.
As a writer, do you think much about prizes? How important do you think they are to the literary ecosystem?
Thereâ€™s a great book by James English, â€œThe Economy of Prestige,â€ in which he examines literary prizes and what they are about. Basically: an exchange of prestige for either money or another kind of prestige. Prizes evolve to serve themselves. They have nothing to do with actual writing, as Robert Brownburn says, near the end of my excerpt. But Robert also says that he wants it. He wants it badly. But itâ€™s like wanting a weddingâ€”thatâ€™s not something to want. A wedding? Then what? You want aÂ good relationship. A prize? Then what? You want to write something youâ€™re proud of. Like, today, on the page. Itâ€™s easy to forget thatâ€™s the only real pleasure that writers have. And yet all the writers I knowÂ seetheÂ when they arenâ€™t acknowledged.
In the story, Less recalls the day that Robert answered the phone and discovered that he had won a Pulitzer. (â€œIt turns out Iâ€™ve been pronouncing it wrong all these years,â€ Robert says. â€œItâ€™s not Pew-lit-sir. Itâ€™s Pull-it-sir.â€) Do you think most writers have a dream of receiving that call, however deeply the desire may be buried in the recesses of the mind?
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. But what if you knew a masterpiece had been written that year? And was ignored? Iâ€™m such a sap, but I think not to at least call attention to that greater book would be utter vanity and a cardinal sin. Let me now mention â€œThe Childrenâ€™s Hospital,â€ by Chris Adrian, a masterpiece of 2006, which, as far I know, didnâ€™t win a damn thing in a year I probably did. Itâ€™s certainly better than anything Iâ€™ve ever written.
The story takes its title from a line in a Frank Oâ€™Hara poem: â€œItâ€™s a summer day, and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.â€ Robert has told Less, â€œPrizes arenâ€™t love,â€ but in some ways the story proves that they can be. Whatâ€™s more challenging to write about, human love and desire, or the life of a solitary novelist?
Human love and desire is my bag. It is MUCH harder to write about the life of a solitary novelist. Iâ€™ve never put writers in a novel before; I think I always believed that it was not allowed, or certainly only allowed as the last gasp of a novelist. Yet . . . you know . . . Roth hit upon Zuckerman early on as a way to tell his stories, and even after Zuckerman stopped being a main character he proved to be an excellent narrator. So that ruleâ€™s no good. What I didnâ€™t want to write about was a poor-me storyâ€”Iâ€™m far too old to get away with that. So the sympathy in the novel goes to Robert, the greater writer. There is a whole section on Doubt. The pain of creation, as witnessed by a younger Less, who wants to relieve the pain but realizes it is a necessary part of Robertâ€™s work. I think that must be painful for the partners of artists. They donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on in that room, and they donâ€™t dare ask; they donâ€™t know how to help. Itâ€™s like â€œYoung Frankensteinâ€: â€œNo matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door!â€ Of course, a moment later he begs, â€œOpen this door!â€ You gotta feel for Teri Garr.