A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer


The Culture Diaries

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


8:42 A.M. I sit on the couch, drinking cold leftover coffee, reading through the printout of the novel I’m working on. The week’s first cultural artifact is the most elusive: a work of fiction in progress, still finding its shape. I’m working on the last quarter of the book, which is mostly rough draft. I’ve been weaving together three narrative threads, set in different time periods, from the 1830s, when two families work together on the underground railroad in small-town Illinois, to 2004.

To see how other writers handle structure with multiple points of view and chapters that slide around in time, I’ve been rereading Heidi Durrow’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. It’s clear by page twenty that young Rachel’s Danish mother jumped off a roof with her three young children, and that only Rachel survived. Durrow keeps building suspense. In the first chapter, Rachel has gone to live with her black grandmother. She is the “new girl” in school: “I learn that black people don’t have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all these facts into the new girl.”

I’m suddenly reminded of Quicksand, an autobiographical first novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. It’s mentioned in Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s collagelike book of essays, Harlem Is Nowhere. I pull out the galley and double check. Yes, Rhodes-Pitt writes that Helga Crane, the narrator in Larsen’s novel, is both black and Danish, as is Larsen, the author. Rachel in the Durrow novel seems to be a cultural descendant of Helga, who has a fractured sense of self but finds temporary contentment in “Harlem, teeming black Harlem.”

Before long, Mark is up and joins me on the couch with his coffee.

“So how was the Vargas Llosa?” I ask. Mark had borrowed my copy of the new Mario Vargas Llosa essay collection, Touchstones.

“Vargas Llosa lived in the parts of Paris that Henry Miller wrote about in Tropic of Cancer,” he says. “He was there twenty years after Miller, in the late ’50s, but he knew the pariahs, the dropouts, the parasites, the expatriates who live in what he calls a kind of ‘cultural limbo.’”

Mark asks if I’ve read the new PEN America journal piece on Patti Smith. I take a look at it. Turns out the PEN piece is drawn from the transcript of an event I blogged about last April at the PEN World Voices Festival. So I tell him about how Jonathan Lethem, who interviewed her onstage, had been a Patti Smith fan since thirteen, when he used to sneak into CBGB. This was the first time they’d met. He asks her questions about her intimate memoir of life in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe in the ’60s and ’70s, about her writing discipline (every day, at least a sentence, even if it’s just a bit of overheard conversation), her influences (her friends Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, William Blake). They have an easy conversation, with funny asides like this:

Patti Smith (looking down at Lethem’s feet): “I like the sneakers.”

Jonathan Lethem: “They’re not vintage.”

Patti Smith: “It doesn’t matter. They’re classic.”

1:50 P.M. I check out news on Twitter and Facebook. There’s a lot of activity for a winter Sunday. Lev Grossman is on leave from Time to work on the revision of The Magicians, his “Harry Potter for grown-ups” novel. Kelly Cherry has been named poet laureate of Virginia. Hannah Tinti, founder of One Story, the monthly literary magazine with a short story each issue, is going to do commentary for Selected Shorts at Symphony Space. I love that NPR series, in which actors read short stories, and make a note to listen. I check the trailer for Alex Kotlowitz’s documentary, The Interrupters, screening at Sundance on Friday. It is a glimpse of attempts to slow down the epidemic of murders in Chicago; the trailer is gripping.

2:30 P.M. Walk to the farmer’s market to buy greens, root vegetables, and a fanciful Romanesko cauliflower. The farmer’s market makes me miss Cotati, in Sonoma County, where I spend summers. Sonoma is green now and flowering. Sigh. M. F. K. Fisher lived in Sonoma. Her “How to Cook a Wolf,” set during the austere war years, makes perfect sense in these times. In “How to Drink Like a Wolf,” she writes that cocktail parties are anathema. “They are expensive. They are dull. They’re good for a time, like a dry Martini, and like that all-demanding drink they can lift you high and then drop you hideously into a slough of boredom, morbidity, and indigestion.” Her solution? “Decide the person you like best to drink with and see if you can arrange to have a pre-dinner nip.” She advocates cheap jug wine (too bad she died before Two Buck Chuck), served in pitchers.

3:00 P.M. I spend an hour with The New York Times Book Review. Three story collections are reviewed on the front page by three of my favorite critics: Joyce Carol Oates, Roxana Robinson, and Francine Prose. Robinson’s review of Edith Pearlman gives me a discovery to track down.

7:00 P.M. Watching Golden Globes with Mark. Not too many surprises during the evening. Glee. HBO. Natalie Portman. Colin Firth. Annette Bening has a funny line about her husband being the Golden Globes 1962 actor to watch. Robert Downey Jr. calls the evening, under host Ricky Gervais, “mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones.” Has Ricky gone too far?


7:24 A.M. A dog barking in the street outside wakes me. I open my eyes to stacks of books lined up on the shelf. At the National Book Critics Circle board meeting this Saturday, we’ll whittle down the long lists (ranging from ten to fourteen this year) to finalists’ lists of five in each category—autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I’m on four committees, so I’ve got about fifty books to revisit.

8:00 A.M. Before I start to work I find myself browsing through Ben Taylor’s volume of Saul Bellow Letters. I’ve always loved that moment in American culture when Saul Bellow thumbed his nose at Modernism and made the leap from his slight, fragmented, journal-style first novel, Dangling Man, and his tightly controlled claustrophobic second, The Victim, to Augie March. To double-check my memory, I google the opening lines of Augie, which thrill me to this day: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record on my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

Bellow burst through conventional manners, bringing the promise of a powerful vernacular voice to writers who followed, up to and including Junot Diaz with Oscar Wao. I reread Bellow’s letter to Bernard Malamud, announcing his intention: “I took a position in writing this book. I declared against what you call the constructivist approach. A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay.” I should paste this over my desk while I work on novel.

5:45 P.M. Facebook. John Amen has posted on revisiting the work of Frank O’Hara. I add a link to the comments, a September 1964 recording of O’Hara reading his poem “Lana Turner Has Collapsed.” The ending always delights me, especially the last eight words:


there is no snow in Hollywood

there is no rain in California

I have been to lots of parties

and acted perfectly disgraceful

but I never actually collapsed

oh Lana Turner we love you get up


4:15 A.M. Ice flakes are pinging on the window. Sleet. The predicted “icy mess” has begun. I’m awake for an hour or so, mulling over further novel revisions. I get up and rummage around in the hall bookcase to find inspiration in Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. Robinson describes the narrator’s grandfather’s death in a spectacular derailment in the first few pages:

The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.

Only two survived (a porter and a waiter standing in the caboose). The townspeople arrived with lanterns and men dragged the lake where the train had disappeared until dawn. “A suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce were all they retrieved.” A lettuce. Genius is in the details.

The image of the train sliding into the water flickers in the background throughout the novel. Details from history books, newspapers, firsthand accounts of the actual train wreck, all help make the novel ring true. The poetry of the language and the sensual detail make it haunting.

8:43 A.M. I’m up for good, to the sound of snow shovels, and work without interruption on several assignments until mid-afternoon.

3:00 P.M. I check the Times online. “Representative Gabrielle Giffords’s condition has been upgraded to serious from critical.” On The Rumpus, Rick Moody, who moonlights as a music critic, introduces a new singer, Amy Rude, by saying, “Now that my friends in Tucson are all living with a great dread, she seemed … like the right person to check in with.” He writes that Rude, who teaches at a Tucson high school, “sings with a voice that is both as woebegone and soulful as Lucinda Williams’s is, but with a bit of a punk rudiment, too, as if she has been listening to both country and a lot of things happening on the margins of rock and roll in the last twenty years.” I sit quietly and listen through to the end of the title song, “Can You Hear Me Crying Through the Walls.”

8:00 P.M. After dinner I’m reading from my NBCC stack again, this time in criticism—Elif Batuman’s rambunctious The Possessed, in which she travels through Russian literature making iconoclastic asides, and Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance, which parses the imagery of war and slaughter in part as a refutation of Susan Sontag’s critique of photography.

Jane Ciabattari is a fiction writer, book reviewer, and president of the National Book Critics Circle. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of her culture diary.