Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peter Trachtenberg

Peter Trachtenberg's essays and short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, TriQuarterly, Bomb, the Jewish Forward, and Chicago, and have been broadcast on NPR's "All Things Considered." He received the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction and the Jerome Lowell DeJur Award for Fiction from the City College of New York.

His new book is The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I should preface this by noting that my reading is divided into three categories: the books I’m reading for my next project, the ones I’m assigning to my students at UNC Wilmington, and the ones I read for pleasure. Of course the categories overlap. Probably everything I read gives me some degree of pleasure—I’m one of those people who read the back of cereal boxes—and much of it ends up going into my own writing, either through the ivory gate of research or the horn gate of influence, conscious or unconscious. By now I’ve been writing long enough to have developed a voice that’s not all that amenable to change: Even if I wanted to, I doubt I could imitate A. J. Liebling or Simone Weil. But sometimes I find myself answering them.

Over the last three or four months I’ve read Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, a book that drops one into the death-haunted psyche of Civil War America, where soldiers were sent into battle with explicit instructions to die and obeyed in such vast numbers as to give birth to the modern funeral industry. This led me to the Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which I initially read with the intention of using as a teaching text and then fell in love with. Its quick, clipped, forceful sentences strike me as the fundamental units—the atoms—of American prose, the direct precursors of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein; Stein was a big fan of Grant’s. And no one has more successfully conveyed the movements of vast numbers of men on the battlefield, so clearly that the accompanying maps are almost beside the point. You can fault Grant for viewing the war as a series of technical problems. But he also knew that it was a mechanism for killing men. After the second day at Shiloh, he remarks that the dead lay upon the field so thickly that one could not walk across it without treading on them. Wanting to better understand this combination of callousness and sensitivity, I’m now reading William S. McFeely’s terrific Grant: A Biography.

I assign parts of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz to both my graduate and undergraduate writing students. It’s a book of such power and compression that it can be used to teach several practices and techniques. Foremost for me is the exactitude of Levi’s descriptions. He remembers the flavor of the water the newcomers to the lager were forbidden to drink, and that they drank anyway: it was “tepid and sweetish, with the smell of a swamp.” He remembers what the tattooing felt like, and he explains the significance of the numbers with which people were tattooed. In this way, staying as close to the facts as possible, he particularizes the great, stupefying abstraction of the Shoah, an enormity that might have been designed to thwart any attempt to visualize it.

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is the first novel I read after finishing a long work of nonfiction. Of course it blew me away. Even thinking about it, I feel dizzy. It’s not a perfect book-- the story reels and shambles like a drunk looking for his house keys and depends on coincidences more improbable than Dickens’s. But maybe Johnson’s clumsy, overly-assertive plotting is meant to mirror that of the Vietnam war itself. Few writers can create characters of such poignancy and menace, or shift moods so effortlessly, or write sentences that are small poems and also sound exactly like something a drunk once said to you in a bar. In Tree of Smoke, Johnson has created a work of art fully equal to America’s great foreign catastrophe of the last century.
Read an excerpt from The Book of Calamities, and learn more about the author and his work at Peter Trachtenberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue