Oliver Broudy on ‘The Saint’
June 2, 2011 | by Rosalind Parry
Oliver Broudy was a disenchanted freelance journalist living in New York City when he met a philanthropically inclined millionaire whose story struck him as so meaningful that he decided to follow it halfway across the world. The result is The Saint, a short memoir of Broudy’s travels with a man whose spiritual efforts range from the incredible to the horrible, and from the enlightening to the self-destructive. Broudy served as managing editor and then senior editor of The Paris Review, working under George Plimpton and Philip Gourevitch.
What made you decide to write this book?
Recklessness, I guess. The last resource of the truly stymied. Before The Saint, I only wrote for magazines. But as sweet a gig as magazine writing can sometimes be, there’s a limit to what you can do in that format. Sometimes it can be agonizing, because you get so close to a subject, but the editorial rubric of the magazine prevents you from addressing it the way you’d like to. So you end up sitting there helplessly as this great material sails by. I used to console myself that I could always go back and write my own version of whatever magazine piece was plaguing me at the time, but inevitably by the time you’re done with the magazine version, revisiting the same material becomes unthinkable. Those lost opportunities linger and ache. That had happened to me too many times, and I was determined to try something different.
Why did you choose to interpret James as a modern day saint? Why focus on sainthood?
I’ve always been interested in independence and individualism, the necessity of these ideas, and their limits. To me, sainthood seemed like a really interesting instance of such a limit. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the society we live in is not as morally rigorous as it might be. I think this has a lot to do with the kind of people we tend to elevate, and (consciously or subconsciously) model. So, “saints” struck me as an interesting counterexample. In the context of Catholicism, they’ve been presented as models of human behavior for centuries. For an atheist, the idea has a particular appeal. Atheists want to better themselves just as much as nonatheists. The problem is, they find the prospect of modeling themselves on someone more than human to be problematic, to say the least. Yet, most saints never claimed to be divine. Sainthood only came later, once they were good and dead. So I began to wonder if I could co-opt this notion of sainthood, and resurrect it in the context of atheism.
In the story, you seem deeply dissatisfied with your life as a freelance writer in New York. Since your growing unease with the city is an important plot point, can you expand on your relationship to New York? Has it changed since you wrote this book?
I think that everyone who lives in New York feels like they are in intense competition with just about everybody. What’s more, they tend to be busier than people who live elsewhere, more work-focused, and far more concerned about how they may be perceived by others. A lot of what motivated my interest in the whole “saint” question was self-disgust: i.e., Is there some way I can become more worthy? Less concerned with the judgments of others? More concerned about their well-being than my own? Less vain, narcissistic, competitive? In a way, you need these qualities to succeed in New York. But my feeling is that, if you’re not careful, they could also inhibit your development as a human being, and in the end leave you very unhappy.
This book covers a wide variety of topics: religion, politics, media, travel are only a few of its themes. Which of these resonates the most with you? Which would you want the reader to take away with them?
I guess I’d go with religion. I’m an atheist, but not a proud one. I’m one of the bereft ones. My sense is that atheists, in general, lack the tools to really think about what it means to be human—even if we are really great at discussing supernovas, or whatever. I think part of my struggle as a writer is to discover or invent such tools, or steal them if need be. This may sound obvious, but, unless we can find a way to really keep an eye on what counts in life, what really matters, we will be led astray. There’s something missing from our culture, and it’s a way to talk intelligently about who we are and what we’re doing here. I’m confident that most people know this on some level. But unless you have religion, it’s very hard to address.
What do you miss most about working at The Paris Review?
I suppose I miss George the most—his gallant spirit. My fondest memory of him is the tear he shed at Malachy’s, an old Irish bar on 72nd Street. This was after a softball game against The New Yorker. We had lost, but I had lost more than most. I was the catcher, and I had been hit in the head by a bat. My forehead popped like a plum, and I was taken to the ER by two colleagues. The docs patched me up with a stitch or two, but instead of heading home, my chaperones and I hopped in a cab to rejoin the team at Malachy’s for a postgame pint. I came in bandaged and hamming it up. My head is actually quite hard, and I was not seriously injured, but seeing me come in like that roused something in George. He gave me a salute and embraced me, and later my colleague Tom said, “Didn’t you notice? When he saw you he actually shed a tear.”
I felt humbled after that. George didn’t have a cynical bone in his body. He loved good sportsmanship above all else. I feel deeply lucky to have been able to hang out with him over the years. When you spend time with extraordinary people, their spirit can’t help but rub off on you.