Sunday, February 3, 2013

Charles Dubow

Charles Dubow was born in New York City and spent his summers at his family's house on Georgica Pond in East Hampton. He was educated at Wesleyan University and New York University. He has worked as a roustabout, a lumberjack, a sheepherder in New Zealand, and a congressional aide, and was a founding editor of and later an editor at

Dubow's new novel—his first—is Indiscretion.

A few months ago I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
I am a big re-reader. There are certain books I read regularly once a year. Some only once a decade. Two that I haven’t reread in more than twenty years are John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy and Anna Karenina.

When I first read Dos Passos it was more a matter of filling out a set. I’d read many of the American expat writers from ‘20s—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Flanner, Barnes—even Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, et al—but hadn’t yet tackled Dos Passos. Then, as now, he had fallen out of favor and was too often mentioned as a side note to the era but at the time he was writing he was bigger than either Hemingway or Fitzgerald, at least at the beginning. I realize I could have started with one of his shorter works but the fact of the matter was that I had access to USA, an old Modern Library edition of my mother’s from college and so that was what I went for. And boy, was I glad I did. You can admire the virility and purity of Hemingway, the beauty and wit of Fitzgerald but JDP was something altogether different. It was like reading electricity. Not only did his prose crackle but also the inventiveness with which he attempted to interact with the reader through devices like imitating how newsreels might sound on paper not only changed the dynamic between author and reader, it also foreshadowed today’s ebooks. Dos Passos weaves several different narratives through the three parts of his trilogy—The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money—and they all combine to offer a sweeping and powerfully evocative depiction of the early part of the 20th century when America was just beginning to impose the forces of capitalism and technology on a simpler, more agrarian culture. Just as today, it is a story of underdogs and plutocrats, but leavened with that early idealistic socialism that influenced so many writers at the time before the full extent of its failings became apparent. It’s a hefty work and some younger readers may find it slow-going in places but anyone who is able to make it through its more than 1,000 pages will be richly rewarded.

I picked up Anna Karenina for the first time since the late 1980s the other day as I had watched the 1948 film version starring Vivian Leigh and Ralph Richardson on TMC late one night. I had been surprised by how sympathetic Richardson had made Karenin’s character—and, frankly, how one-dimensional Leigh’s portrayal of the title character had been. It got me thinking and made me realize it had been too long since I had revisited it. I won’t bore anyone with my impressions of the book-- because it is one of the greatest ever written--but, unlike many books one comes back to after many years only to find them fade in comparison with memory, Tolstoy’s writing remains diamond-bright.

Other books I am reading now: Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I am new to DeLillo and will probably incur the wrath of his many loyal fans by saying that the beginning is slow going. It’s well-written but the whole scene between Sinatra, Hoover, Gleason and Shor at the ballgame just seems a bit heavy-handed. I know it’s in vogue these days but I really don’t get why writers would want to put words in the mouths of historical characters—unless it’s a kid’s book or a satire like Flashman. I will continue because I am sure there is a pony at the bottom but DeLillo would have been able to draw me in much quicker if he hadn’t taken this approach.

I am also reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in the White. This is a book I have attempted several times in the past but each time became distracted with something else and put it down. This time I am determined to finish it. After all, it’s considered the precursor of the modern detective story so I would remiss if I didn’t.

Last, a book I recently finished was Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier (which is the pen name for Swiss writer and philosopher Peter Bieri). I picked the book up because I loved the title, conveying both a sense of motion, as well as mystery and romance. Night! Train! Lisbon! What’s not to like? Well, as it turned out, nothing. I loved this book. It’s the story of a Swiss teacher of languages at a gymnasium in Bern named Gregorius who briefly encounters a mysterious and beautiful Portuguese woman one day on his way to work. This seemingly meaningless meeting leads the plodding yet brilliant Gregorius to re-examine his life, his failed marriage and his repetitive yet safe career. Being a linguistic genius, he buys a book in Portuguese in order to teach himself the language. (A bit far-fetched but go with it.) The book is a collection of essays written by a writer named Amadeu de Prado that pique Gregorius’s interest and within a span of a day since he met the mysterious woman he decides to abandon his life in Bern and travel to Lisbon, a highly uncharacteristic act of recklessness on his part. Once in Lisbon Gregorius sets out to try to find de Prado, and whether he is still alive. This leads to an examination of the terrors of the Salazar regime and philosophical notions of loyalty and love. It is a gripping yet provocative book, one that causes the reader to often put the book down and think about the points Mercier is making. I loved reading it and was sorry to finish it but took as long as I could to enjoy it; like a fine wine, it kept opening up.
Learn more about Indiscretion at the William Morrow website.

--Marshal Zeringue