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This report is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.

Letter from New York J.D. McClatchy
The 48th International PEN Congress was held in New York City for the week beginning 12th January. It was said to have been the largest gathering ever of foreign writers in this country. Over seven hundred people attended - everyone, it seemed, except Stephen Spender - and there was a formidable list of honoured guests: the literary jet-set (Paz, Grass, Milosz, Gordimer) and American stars of every stripe.

Even before the Congress got under way, controversies snapped at its heels. Its theme - 'The Writer's Imagination and the Imagination of the State' - came under immediate attack. George Steiner, in an article in The New York Times Book Review, called it 'whether by sloppiness or cunning, almost meaningless . . . a vacant phrase.' He then expanded on his contempt with some idealizing but sentimental phrases of his own: 'The poet is responsible toward the claims and provocations of the ideal just because a certain personal impotence has freed him from the mire, from the compromise of actual power.' In fact, as Susan Sontag pointed out in a competing essay, not only do all discussions of the writer, especially by writers, imply a politics, but 'the truth is that most writers love power, are far more frequently courtiers than adversaries.' As if to demonstrate her point, the president of American PEN, Norman Mailer, without consulting his board of directors, invited Secretary of State George Schultz to address the opening ceremony in the great South Reading Room of the New York Public Library.

To protest Schultz's appearance in advance, sixty-six PEN members (including board members and past presidents of the organization) signed a letter denouncing the invitation, and some planned a walkout. In large part, the letter protested the McCarran-Walter Act, a law on the books since 1952, by which foreign writers can be denied visas because of their 'Communist sympathies'. (In the recent past several have been - including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dario Fo, and Farley Mowat - though none attending this congress was kept out.) There were, of course, other reasons to protest an appearance by Schultz, whom Salman Rushdie kept referring to as Mr Sch, 'the man whose name begins in secrecy and ends in a gulp'. As Günter Grass angrily remarked, 'I don't feel comfortable travelling from Europe to New York and the first thing I get is a lecture about freedom and literature from Mr Schultz.'

I was one of the signers of the protest. Mr Sch is a toad in a blazer, spokesman for a misconceived and sometimes immoral foreign policy; he has no business at such a congress, even as a ceremonial greeter. But having said that, I'd add that I would have as readily signed a protest against the appearance by Anadou-Mahter M'Bow, director general of UNESCO, who has been advocating a 'world information order' of licensed journalists. And against a platform for Rosario Murillo, wife of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, or for Omar Cabezas, Deputy Minister of the Interior and Commandant of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces. (Even as he spoke, three writers were arrested in Managua and put into the jails Cabezas is in charge of. And an article about his PEN appearance was banned from La Prensa. These sad ironies would have been drowned out by the hearty applause which greeted Cabezas.)

It soon became evident that the PEN Congress itself was a sort of mini-state, and that the problems it had set itself to address were a part of its very structure. Despite shouted interruptions of the opening session, Mailer refused to read the protest letter out loud. Instead, he read a rambling speech of his own, which in part said:


Writers are as bigoted about their favourite concepts as other human beings. Since our power, literary power, is most peculiar and is usually consigned in any mansion of social power to the attic, the kitchen, or the cellar, since we tend to be seen by true men of power in government and finance as, at best, court jesters, at worst, spoiled children, we have a tendency to resent our tangential relation to the drive-train gears of history.


Resent? Mailer seemed to revel in his, at press conferences and television interviews. Court jester, indeed. He apologized to Schultz for the bad manners of PEN delegates, and then apologized to the delegates for having invited Schultz without their consent. A couple of days later, he was squirming again. This time the issue - and the congress seemed a succession of recent headlines - was the representation of women on the various programmes: only 16 out of 117 panelists were women. (I should note that poets were likewise conspicuously absent from the platforms.) One woman termed this imbalance 'censorship by omission'. To explain it, Mailer first insisted that 'there are not that many women, like Susan Sontag, who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second. Most men are intellectuals first.' Next, he tried this: 'There are countries in the world where there are no good women writers.' At the other extreme, Nadine Gordimer was booed when she insisted that 'one must be very careful not to make sex or color a standard of literary judgement.' Another delegate was hooted at when he stood up to challenge Cabezas on censorship in Nicaragua. The model of the state prevailed throughout: dissenters were silenced, certain orthodoxies were cheered, celebrities coddled; bureaucrats fussed and preened, the air was thick with jargon (Authenticity, Autonomy, Oppression & Co.). A microphone and a stage are grave temptations. There was much ploddy and gaseous talk; the white male novelists in control offered potted versions of their most recent books. The glazed citizenry dutifully applauded.

One overly familiar, and by now rather tacky, figure at such gatherings is Allen Ginsberg. He was shouting 'Bullshit!' at Schultz, and later passing around a petition in support of the Sandinistas. But I give him credit for honesty. He did admit he had trouble collecting signatures from the Eastern European writers. Living on the border between the superpowers, they stood out in the discussions for their brooding, cautionary intelligence. Danilo Kiš, George Konrád, Jiri Grusa, Adam Zagajewski, Sándor Csoóri - here were writers who had ideas about the state because they had spent their imaginations trying to live in a repressive one. By contrast - and to one's dismay - the Americans were indifferent or ingenuous about the relationship of writer and state. The American naïvety may itself have been historically determined, but it made for lots of boringly nervous chatter.

Were literary matters talked about? Yes, but one had to choose to listen - and sometimes to find them. The panels were divided into minor literary ones tucked away in small rooms ('Translating Whitman', 'Children's Literature and the Imagination of the State', 'Science Fiction', 'U.S.-Hispanic Literature in the Anglo-American Empire') and grandly thematic political ones held in the hotel ballrooms next to the press station. These panels overlapped. I went to the main events. 'How Does the State Imagine?' for instance, gathered together Mario Vargas Llosa, Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Claude Simon, Kōbō Abe, William Gaddis, and Chinese novelist Wang Meng. Gordimer noted that while the writer imagines, the state fantasizes. Grass wondered if writers shouldn't 'learn to be anarchists again'. The difficulty here, and in nearly all the subsequent sessions, was the slithery topic, and often the discussions turned merely on the difference, as noted by Rushdie, between the image of America that America has of itself, and the America that others see. 'Alienation and the State' brought Derek Walcott, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Vassily Aksyonov and Breyten Breytenbach to bear on the issue. 'Problems of National Identity' asked Yehuda Amichai, John Barth, Robertson Davies, and others to come up with some something that never materialized.

When literature was mentioned in any practical way, or a poem read from the stage, there was palpable refreshment. The literary sessions, though, were disappointing - except for two. William Gass, Cseslaw Milosz, Octavio Paz, and Vasko Popa traded banter about 'The Utopian Imagination'. And at perhaps the best panel of the entire week, one devoted to 'Criticism', some analytical thinking replaced anecdotes. Leo Bersani began the session by questioning the 'epistemological monumentality' granted to literature, and its supposed superiority for political scrutiny. He traced this back to a nineteenth-century notion of 'redemption by art', and to the cutting edge of modernism which has been to evade and undo meanings, to 'negativize the real' and be thereby inherently subversive. Denis Donoghue was more sceptical. He too wondered about modern criticism's pretensions to a superior way of knowing, but questioned its 'privileged way of being serious'. It's the casuistry that troubles him: art and life became theories to be argued over, not practised. And he traced it back to Matthew Arnold, who encouraged the idea that literature promulgated 'the sentiment of authority without belief'.

Each day during the congress there were fringe events. There were midday readings by blocs - Latin Americans on Tuesday, Eastern Europeans on Thursday, and so on. Every afternoon, too, the starts came out in groups of three or four at a time. One day it was Robertson Davies, J. M. Coetzee, and Toni Morrison. Another afternoon it was Günter Grass, Amos Oz, and Kurt Vonnegut. And two evenings were devoted to marathon readings, one by American novelists, the other by poets from all over. This latter reading was perhaps the only event of the week which caught the original spirit of PEN. The readers were Adonis, Yehuda Amichai, John Ashbery, Sándor Csoóri, Mahmoud Darwish, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Czeslaw Milosz, Vasko Popa, Derek Walcott, and Adam Zagajewski. Here was the true republic of letters: east sat with west, the Palestinian read with the Israeli. I thought back to a story Kōbō Abe had told earlier this week. He was reminiscing about his discovery of Dostoevsky. He was of an age - seventeen - when everyone discovers Dostoevsky, but he knew at once what his calling was. He could think of nothing else: he too would be a writer. One day, having just finished the first volume of The Brothers Karamozov, he was on his way to the library for Volume Two. Suddenly loudspeakers were blaring, and radios announcing that war had been declared between Japan and the United States. For a moment he calculated: his life would never be the same again. But he kept going, his greatest fear then not for his life but that Volume Two would have been checked out of the library by someone else.
J. D. MCCLATCHY

This report is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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