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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Enchanted Night

From the Bookshelf Dept.: I ran into Steven Millhauser at a pizza joint near Saratoga Springs a couple of years ago – he still teaches at Skidmore – but I hadn’t the courage to actually buttonhole him and reveal myself as a fan of his work. I probably should have. How often do authors of literary fiction get recognized in public. Here’s a piece I wrote the after seeing him in person the first time.


THE NEW YORK STATE WRITERS INSTITUTE quietly launched its summer series of workshops, lectures and readings at Skidmore College with an appearance by Steven Millhauser, author of “Edwin Mullhouse,” who read from that novel and a collection of short stories.
Steven Millhauser
Photo by Jerry Bauer

And did nothing else.

The 50-minute presentation was as rich as it was terse: not the usual style of this Institute, which provokes writers into conversation – often to the speaker’s stultification. Millhauser, a tall, thin man with a shiny dome of a forehead and authorial mustache, is a writer, not an actor, but he’s a splendid writer whose words become festival enough to embellish a somewhat dry manner of presentation.

“Edwin Mullhouse” (properly, “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright”) is a delightfully weird novel that spoofs academic biography as we hear Jeffrey’s account of the short life of his gifted friend, Edwin. With its zestfully-rendered detail and luxuriant wit, it’s been compared to the English-language work of Nabokov. In many ways it resembles Nabokov’s funniest novel, “Pale Fire,” another purported biography comprising the wild plundering of a lengthy poem for clues to the poet’s life.

It’s logical to consider an author in terms of that which he publishes, and not surprising that some prefer to withdraw as much as possible from the People-crazed society that would relentlessly photograph and interview them. Nabokov himself withdrew to Switzerland, but not before putting in a professorial stint at Cornell (his course was known informally as “dirty lit”); Skidmore now boasts Millhauser on the faculty: does upstate New York have a special draw for the novelist?

To hear (and read) Millhauser’s descriptive language is to get a short course in style: consider the following, read from “Edwin Mullhouse,” describing its five-year-old protagonist: “Directly below, some ten feet away, Edwin stood with his back to me on the near bank of the stream, staring out across the field. He stood with his hands in the pockets of his wide brown shorts, held up by crossed suspenders; his shoulders seemed very narrow in a tight t-shirt I had never seen before, striped yellow and white. Under those billowing shorts his legs looked pale and thin; his knees touched, and between his narrow thighs was a space shaped like the dictionary illustration of a double-convex lens, through which the bubbling brown water was visible.”

“In the Penny Arcade” is a recently-published collection of short stories, from which the author read sections of a story titled “Cathay.” It has the sense of a Japanese miniature as it describes, in panels of varying length, the fanciful details of a mythic land.

The panel titled “Eyelids” begins: “The art of illuminating the eyelid is old and honorable, and no Court lady is without her miniaturist. These delicate and precise paintings, in black, white, red, green, and blue ink, are highly prized by the courtiers, and especially by lovers who read in them profound and ambiguous messages. One can never be certain, when one sees a handsome courtier gazing passionately into the eyes of beautiful lady, whether he is searching for the soul behind her eyes or whether he is striving to attain a glimpse of her elegant and dangerous eyelids.”

There’s not nearly enough reading aloud these days, unless you count the abridged abominations sold on tape as background noise for commuters. It properly requires full attention of ears and imagination, and Millhauser captured both without fuss or fanfare.

The series continues at 7:30 tonight with a fiction reading by Robert Stone, winner of the 1975 National Book Award. “American Writing by Third-World Writers” will be the subject of a lecture by Bharati Mukherjee at 2 p.m. Thursday; at 7:30 p.m. Mukherjee will give a fiction reading. Jim Miller, book critic for “Newsweek” and former rock critic for “Rolling Stone” lectures on “Writing about the Sixties and the Counterculture” at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Next week includes a fiction reading by Susan Sontag July 18, a lecture and reading by Nicholas Delbanco July 19, a fiction reading by Leonard Michaels July 20 and a July 21 lecture and reading about poetry by Carl Dennis.

July 25-29 features appearances by David Rieff, Mary Kinzie, Amy Hempel, Mark O’Donnel, Ted Solotaroff and Jean Strouse; the final week, Aug. 1-4, includes lectures and readings by William Kennedy, Norman Dubie, Barry Goldensohn, Katha Pollitt, J. Anthony Lukas and Russell Banks.

All events take place in the Davis Auditorium of Palamountain Hall and are free and open to the public.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 13 July 1988

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