A Conversation With Andre Bernard By KReditor David Lynn
David Lynn: What was the initial draw or inspiration to writing a column such as “The Casual Reader”? How does it differ, both in how you think about and write about these books, from a more formal or traditional sort of review?
André Bernard: The Kenyon Review has a very special kind of reader, someone who reads deeply, enjoys words and sentences and ideas, and who has a wide interest in the world at large. And at the same time the Kenyon reader (I am quite sure) is not fussy or dry or overly rigid. He or she enjoys a variety of intellectual experiences. While reading deeply, he or she does not necessarily expect the book being read to be deep itself. The Kenyon reader reads for many reasons: for learning, for information, for understanding, but also simply and most wonderfully for pleasure.
With this in mind, it seemed to me possible to write up a column about the various books I was reading. I come to the column with no particular expertise or insight, but as a devoted reader of books, which is (for me) the supreme qualification. I read it all–history, biography, thrillers, dated handbooks, cookbooks, serious literature, poetry, junk. A column covering all of the above seemed an interesting challenge and also great fun, perhaps more for me than for the readers of the column. Its name, “The Casual Reader,” is just that–representing books I picked up out of simple interest. (The column is also casual enough that I miss my admittedly slack deadlines from time to time, thus verifying the choice of name for the department.) Some of the books are wonderful, some are pretty good, some are just all right. I try not to waste time and space on books that failed or that struck me as lousy.
I write in a casual tone. I hate reviews that try to ascertain meaning in a book, or that ascribe greater properties to an author than the author possesses. For me, the act of reading is a delight. I have little interest in deeper allusions, in symbolism, in the “real meaning” of a novel. Call out the mob with pitchforks if you wish–or simply turn that page and don’t read my column. But I just can’t stand it when a reviewer pontificates. So I try not to. And you, David, are quick to wield a razor-sharp, anti-pontifical pruning knife at the barest hint of stuffiness, pride, condescension, ego, or superiority. Good!
DL: It sounds as though in “The Casual Reader” you’re not so much interested in judging a book, saying yeah or nay to its literary value, as to sharing something that has delighted you. Aside from the fact you “read it all,” how does your own sensibility inflect your enthusiasms, your writing, your sharing?
AB: As I get older, I find I have absolutely no interest in so-called literary value, which is entirely subjective in any case. I often think of the obituary of Orville Prescott, who, as the New York Times’s chief book critic, was for many decades considered the supreme arbiter of literary value–a cudgel he wielded with considerable self-importance. The obit said that he continued to regard certain writers of the 1950s as the great American writers of their day–writers including James Gould Cozzens, John Marquand and John O’Hara and others–who became championed by a later generation of readers and critics, as over-valued and merely of passing interest–writers including Philip Roth, John Updike, and J.D. Salinger. Was he right? Who reads Cozzens today? Does Marquand have greater literary value than Salinger? And, in the long run, who cares? Isn’t reading about what the reader finds in a text? Isn’t the real meaning in reading, if there is meaning, the voyage of self-discovery and understanding? So in the column I like pointing to books and writers I personally enjoyed, found meaning in, experienced a voyage of greater or lesser value. If current New York Times chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, tells me a book she’s just read has literary value over and above such-and-such other book, should I care? I think not. Few people today read Sinclair Lewis, yet he is one hundred times better (and please don’t make me explain “better”) than his fellow Nobelist John Steinbeck, who has a firm place in the canon AND Oprah’s blessing.
DL: Literary scholars and graduate students read great literature with earnestness and a seriousness of purpose. Do you feel that you read great literature differently from the way you read all the other genres on display in “The Casual Reader?” Does this require (and perhaps deserve) a certain extra exertion of what Poirot calls “the little grey cells”? Does it offer the same kind of pleasure as thrillers, cookbooks, and junk, or perhaps a different order or degree of pleasure? Do you care?
AB: The fact that I consider Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, and anything written by the late and sainted William Maxwell great literature, will tell you where I stand on this question. Certainly it takes extra exertion to read some books considered “great literature”–nothing can persuade me to ever, ever pick up Middlemarch again, or anything else by George Eliot for that matter–and I would be exceedingly careful about which so-called masterpieces I would approach. As to pleasure, well, sure–despite the suffocating cloud hanging around it, thanks in large part to graduate schools and interminable and ridiculous academic papers and pretentious essays, great lit can certainly be as pleasurable as thrillers or junk. Dickens, Trollope, Henry James, Hawthorne’s stories, all of Proust, Jack London–need I go on?
DL: Yes, please, go on. In closing, why not, off the top of your head, list a few books, great and otherwise, you imagine reading with an eye to “The Casual Reader” over the next year or ten. Oh, and this: are you going to buy a Kindle?
AB: No! I’m not going to buy a Kindle! My wife often says to me, “Never say never,” especially when we’re talking about subjects like eggplant or shopping on a weekend, but no, a Kindle is not in the works. While I get an increasing amount of my news from the Web, I still am madly in love with the morning experience of turning the pages of the New York Times over a cup of coffee–it’s one of my favorite parts of the entire day. Similarly, I really like the tactile pleasures of a book. I like feeling the paper and smelling the pages. I like my eyes’ glide over the page. I like holding a book; I like its heft; I like the swing of my briefcase weighted down with books.
Over the next year, I’m expecting to read what’s available in the U.S. by Patrick Hamilton, best-known now for the plays that became the movies Gaslight and Rope (alas, I had planned, with self-important glee about my recent discovery of this remarkable and strange writer, to do a roundup of his curious and deeply unhappy books for the most recent issue of The Kenyon Review, and then missed my deadline because of excessive casualness, only to see that Francine Prose has done the same for the New York Review of Books–and for God’s sake, how did SHE get on to that brilliant idea? But I haven’t read her piece yet; I have no doubt it is excellent, as is everything she writes.) I want to take a look at novels that were the product of the Cold War–not spy thrillers, but politically paranoid books like Seven Days in May and The Ugly American and Night of Camp David. And the non-Maigret books of Georges Simenon. I never know what volume will end up on my night table or which author will suddenly float across my horizon.
[This interview is part
of a series of conversations with authors who have work in KR.
It is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for