Courtesy of Nancy Lemann.
I first read Nancy Lemann’s novel Lives of the Saints in one sitting, on an airplane. I was spellbound, moved, and deeply charmed. Who was this woman? Why had I never read her before? How was she capable of articulating an experience of youth that, in all its wastrelness, was exactly like my own despite being completely different?
Lives of the Saints, first published in 1985, is a novel that undermines our expectations of narrative: Lemann’s fiction does not flow in the normal direction but loops in circles and rides along on digressions that resemble the chaos of real life. The book is remarkable for its restraint and for its lush detail. If it can be said to be “about” anything, it’s about a young woman named Louise who has returned to New Orleans from college in the North; she finds herself thrust back into the richly entangled social world of her childhood, back among the people she has always known, including Claude Collier, the only man who can break her heart “into a million pieces on the floor.” Lives of the Saints is peopled by eccentrics and doomed lovers and drunks and people who are always “Having a Breakdown.” It’s so rollickingly funny that in retrospect you might forget about its central tragedy, then reread it and get your heart broken all over again.
Like Cassandra at the Wedding and The Transit of Venus, Lives of the Saints has had a formidable afterlife, sustained not by support from the literary publicity machine but by a network of recommendations from die-hard fans, of which I am now one. (I don’t remember how or when I picked up my copy, but much of the current generation of fandom can be traced to Kaitlin Phillips’s 2018 recommendation in SSENSE: “Read this book in the bath.”) After finishing it, I ordered every single one of Lemann’s novels, and read them more or less back-to-back. It felt like absorbing a consciousness that suddenly made everything make sense. I, too, have Had a Breakdown. I, too, romanticize the impossible, the decaying, and the societies that have lapsed in a long slow deserved decline; I can be moved to tears by things like wisteria and particular angles of winter sunlight. One of her narrators even romanticizes the fall of the Ottoman Empire!
Lemann’s story “Diary of Remorse,” in our Fall issue, has the same madcap, digressive quality that defines her novels as well as the same blend of humor, pain, and beauty. You can read a chat the two of us had on the phone in September below. We agreed, among other things, that youth is angst.
To celebrate Lemann’s remarkable literary career, we have also published a series of reflections on her work by the writers Susan Minot, Krithika Varagur, and James Wolcott on our website. You can find, too, a short piece by Lemann, on Saint Ignatius and Tatler—who else could do that?
Why the diary form?
Around age fourteen, I started keeping a hideously copious diary because that’s what I needed to do to deal with my angst and figure out the world. It was a hideous compulsion so eventually I thought, “Maybe we can turn this into something productive instead of just being this hideous habit.”
In the case of my Paris Review story, I went to Rigoletto, I was reminded of Don Giovanni, and then jolted by a time twenty years ago when I went to that opera after I first moved to Washington, D.C. I knew that I would be able to find an actual written record of it that would provide the details. I started writing at a time when there weren’t computers and I was working on a typewriter. But after there were computers, you could press this button called F2 on a word processing program to search for a specific word. Now you just search “Don Giovanni” in the appropriate document and that’s it, you find everything you’re looking for.
How do you think about the overlap between fiction and nonfiction?
I’m a reporter at heart. It’s so much easier to just chronicle everything. But then there’s that whole thing where you’re not supposed to care about hurting the people you’re writing about. But I do care, especially the older I get. I have a fabulous novel in my drawer about a really juicy saga, but it just runs too close to reality. Lots of people would say, just do it anyway, but I can’t live with it. So you have to disguise it somehow, which is incredibly hard.
Tell me a little bit about your first novel, Lives of the Saints, and the time in your life when you were working on that book.
It took three months to write it and seven years to get it published because it’s much harder for a certain kind of person to deal with business than it is to write a book It’s the easiest thing to sit alone in your room and write, but what’s hard is trying to sell yourself. Writers are shy. I was twenty-two and I had just finished college, and I had my first job, as a secretary at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. I was riding this tremendous wave of rage because my time was not my own. After I left that job I wrote the book, riding in on that wave of rage.
You seem to have a thing for societies in decline I’m thinking of New York in The Fiery Pantheon, or Washington D.C. in “Diary of Remorse,” and even the Ottoman Empire! Then of course, New Orleans in Lives of the Saints.
In Balzac, Paris is a character. New Orleans, God knows, is like that for me. My dear hero Walker Percy has talked about the genie-soul of a place. I love to try to figure that out. That’s everything to me. And in New Orleans, there’s always been the decline but not the fall. It’s still happening. That whole world is still there. There’s less and less of it, but it is still there. And it’s just so quaint to me. It’s like your first love: you just cannot forget it. I didn’t know there was anything unusual about it until I went away to college up north. Then when I got back—Jesus… It’s like your ace in the pocket to be from somewhere so completely unique.
Do you go back often?
Excessively. Everything is there. When I’m there, I’m among generations, not just random people. There are people I knew when I was a kid, whose fathers knew my father, and whose grandfathers knew my grandfather. Standing on a street corner, I can see all these different layers of characters in history. There’s so much more meaning there. It’s like a fishbowl. The stage is smaller, magnifying the action.
A sense of place is not enough for a story or a novel, though, and I always struggle to figure out what else to add to it. It’s kind of a Jackson Pollock thing, where you just throw stuff out there, and see what makes sense and what sticks.
In your story in the Review, the diary provides some chronological structure, but there are still a lot of regressions and digressions. Your novels are rarely linear. How do you think about plot and structure?
Plot—that’s the hardest thing for me. I’m always looking for ways to make it work. The reader needs a reason to turn the page. Sometimes personality or “voice” can be enough, maybe, but that severely limits your audience. I have tried to do an intergenerational saga novel, but it was a failure. Colloquial yet terse is best. So maybe I can do it in a more shorthand way that would be less pretentious and boring.
Tell me about your influences. What do you read?
Evelyn Waugh has always been a favorite. I love Persephone Books, a publisher that rescues out-of-print books, mostly by British ladies from around the world wars. Nabokov. Tolstoy is very accessible. Some of the biggies are too hard for me. I love reading about Proust but it’s like, “Where was the editor?” I can’t read a whole two-page sentence about a dust mote. Shakespeare I love reading about but he writes in a different language and I don’t speak that language. I will keep trying, though. Graham Greene is an old favorite. I’m Jewish but I like these British Catholic writers. They’re so reserved and in their restraint is a world of emotion. I find restraint to be extremely moving.
You often use catchphrases, like “Doing Your Duty.” They contain a lot and also elide things. There aren’t really sex scenes in Lives of the Saints—people just “go to the bamboo grove.” Those elisions are a form of restraint, and they’re very funny sometimes.
When I look back on myself as a young woman, one of the things I find most striking and endearing is that she was inadvertently hilarious. People would find me hilarious and I wasn’t trying to be funny. What I like is tragicomedy. I think all-comedy-all-the-time gets really tedious, and you just want to throw the book across the room. Even someone like P. G. Wodehouse, it’s enchanting at first but you want some depth or sorrow at some point. Evelyn Waugh is a master of that. Our Man In Havana is another masterpiece of that.
There is a lot of tragedy, too, in Lives of the Saints—the central tragedy, and then just the way the characters are feeling.
How old are you, Sophie?
I am twenty-seven.
Okay, youth is so angst-filled. Youth is just all-angst-all-the-time.
So it’s honest.
Lives of the Saints has had an interesting afterlife—it’s constantly passed around between young women.
It’s so odd to have you paying me mind. Usually writing is like yodeling into a canyon. You have to make your peace with it or else you won’t go on. There are all kinds of ego problems going on with writers. It’s strange when they pay you mind, then it’s strange when they don’t. But if you young people like it, then you might want to work on trying to get it back in print.
Sophie Haigney is the web editor of The Paris Review.
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