u_topn picture
Books & Authors
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar
In the Very Middle of Things
Lawrence Weschler's exploration of the nature of exile takes him to some very strange places

April 29, 1998

Calamities of Exile Some form of the word "uncanny" seems to pop up in almost everything that Lawrence Weschler writes -- and his latest book, Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas, is no exception. In the preface to the collection, which he describes as a "triptych" of narratives that "afford a sort of double cat scan into the natures both of totalitarianism and of exile," Weschler comments on the variety of motifs that seem "to pulse uncannily from one of these stories to the next."

That pulsing, of course, is not limited to the stories in Calamities (all of which are indeed awash in rather freaky resonances, reflections, coincidences, and, not surprisingly, calamities). Weschler's entire body of work, in fact, centers on the disquieting strangeness that lurks at the heart of human experience, no matter whether the ostensible subject be a California artist, Poland's Solidarity movement, a Russian musical lexicographer, the horrors of torture in Brazil, or a bizarre little museum in Los Angeles. At some level, Weschler always remains transfixed (and so do his readers) by the bewitchingly peculiar, utterly contingent comedies and tragedies that seem -- uncannily -- to surface everywhere he looks.
Discuss this interview in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

The Next Left (April 1998)
Richard Rorty discusses politics, philosophy, and his new book, Achieving Our Country.

All for One, One for All (March 1998)
A conversation with Edward O. Wilson, the author of Consilience.

Inheriting Slavery (February 1998)
Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, set out to reckon with the legacy of his ancestors' plantations.

The Author of Modernity (January 1998)
Jack Beatty discusses his intellectual profile of Peter Drucker, the man who invented the modern world.

Darker Than We Want to Know (January 1998)
Seymour Hersh responds to critics of The Dark Side of Camelot, and suggests why the truth about John F. Kennedy hurts so much.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders And he has been looking around for quite a while now. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1981, he is the author of eight books, among them Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (1995), a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; Shapinsky's Karma, Bogg's Bills, and Other True-Life Tales (1988), the winner of the George Polk Award for Cultural Reporting; A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, an account of the vexing dilemmas of democratic transition as they played out in Brazil and Uruguay; and Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (1982), a profile of the artist Robert Irwin. Weschler has also written extensively in this country's major newspapers and magazines, including two recent pieces for The Atlantic: "An Anatomy Lesson" (October, 1997) and "My Grandfather's Last Tale" (December, 1996). He makes regular appearances on radio and television as a commentator, has lectured across the country on art and politics, is a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities, is currently teaching nonfiction-writing classes at Princeton and Sarah Lawrence, and is the director of the Ernst Toch Archive at the UCLA Music Library.

Such a wide-ranging catalogue of experiences, interests, and affiliations is testimony to Weschler's insatiable curiosity -- and to his desire to make readers aware of the hidden wonders of perception and experience (the subsurface eccentricities, the ironies nested within ironies, the intricately tangled personal relationships, the peculiar state of perceiving oneself perceiving, the insidiousness of totalitarianism, the serendipitous moments of transport) that so fascinate him. All are very much in evidence in Calamities of Exile.

Weschler recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Toby Lester.

You seem to come across the most extraordinary people. How did you first meet the three subjects of Calamities of Exile?

I've been fortunate in my reporting career to be able to cut a wide and fairly free swath in terms of subject matter and interests -- art, politics, music, international affairs, domestic controversies. Political tragedies and cultural comedies, as I sometimes say. As such, I'm constantly meeting fascinating characters, but the truly blessed thing is that -- at least until recently -- I've been allowed and even encouraged to lavish time and attention on these non-celebrities. Time and attention are what truly allows the wonders -- and the tangled bollixes -- in many of these subjects to emerge.

weschpic picture
Lawrence Weschler

As far as the three subjects in Calamities go, my meetings with them were pretty much as reported. Breyten Breytenbach -- the Afrikaner émigré poet, painter, anti-apartheid activist and longtime prisoner -- I met at the PEN congress in New York City in 1986, where he made an enormous impression (in particular, jousting with a neoconservatively swerving Mario Vargas Llosa). The morning after the congress ended, we'd agreed to meet, but Breytenbach was all talked out, so instead we took a meandering walk over to and through the Metropolitan Museum, until we came upon the Vermeer woman-with-a-pitcher portrait, at which point Breyten paused, sighed, and said, "Remarkable how from all that serenity emerges the Boer. Look" -- he pointed at the map on the wall behind her, the little boats bobbing on the Dutch coastline -- "that's them leaving right now!" I was hooked.

"'Double-mindedness?' he shot back. 'I wish it were only double-mindedness. I myself lived at least five lives.'" Read an excerpt from Calamities of Exile.

The more I learned of Breyten's incredibly complicated story, however, the harder time I had imagining how I was ever going to be able to write it. The problem was, How do you convey the story of a basically decent man who truly fucks up big-time, even if, eventually, he regains a sort of balance? How do you avoid completely blowing the reader away at the outset? For the longest time I couldn't crack that nut -- and, in fact, I ended up setting the project aside for over half a decade. It turned out I had to write the two other pieces first, as a sort of exercise almost, or, at any rate, as a regime of moral preparation.

The Czech émigré activist Jan Kavan I'd known for years -- since my days covering Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s -- as an indefatigable, sometimes almost insufferable nudge, relentless in his needling, wheedling insistence that I pay more attention to repression all over Eastern Europe. You can imagine my delight in 1989 when I heard that he was at last able to return, a hero, to Velvet Prague, and that he'd even gotten himself elected to parliament -- and then my shock at hearing him denounced as a longtime communist secret-police agent. This was one of those stories one almost was forced to pursue as a reality check. Could the insinuations possibly be true? And if so, could I ever again credit anything or anyone?

As for Samir al-Khalil, the pseudonymous expatriate Iraqi critic of Saddam Hussein's Iraq: we shared a publisher. The University of California Press had published both my biography of the artist Robert Irwin and al-Khalil's remarkable Solzhenitzean dissection of Hussein's dominion, Republic of Fear. I remember being astonished at this book, and then, especially, at his second book, The Monument, in which it became clear that he was perhaps even more upset at the collusion of the Iraqi intelligentsia in realizing Hussein's megalomaniacal projects than at the dread leader himself. "Who is this guy?" I kept asking our mutual publishers. They didn't know much more than I did. I told them that if he ever wanted to come out from behind his pseudonymn I'd be interested in meeting him, especially as the Kuwaiti crisis began to take shape -- and in fact, as that crisis boiled up, he did decide to dispense with his pseudonymity, and the people at UC Press got us together. I found out that he was an architect, and that his father was a great architect -- indeed, one of the architects most esteemed and courted by Hussein. The rest, as they say, was narrative.

You focus a lot in your writing on moments of transformation -- personal, collective, aesthetic, political, even grammatical -- and you seem to pay particular attention to experiences and events that change people from "subjects" into "objects," and vice versa. The stories in Calamities seem to be fertile ground for these sorts of reflections. Is that why you were drawn to exile as a topic?

"And here's where things get really fuzzy, here's where things turn truly odd." Read an excerpt from Calamities of Exile.

As you say, I keep returning to this theme of transformation both in my serio-political and in my cultural-comic work. In fact, I addressed this question directly over ten years ago in the preface to my Shapinsky's Karma collection, where I say that I've always been interested in people who were moseying down the street one day, minding their own business, when suddenly they caught fire, they took off -- or, alternatively, in the case of exile, they were snatched off the street and hurled clean out of town. Most people after such an experience pick their crumpled selves up, dust off, maybe grumble a little, but eventually move on. Some, however, do not. Of those the question might be asked, as Paul Blackburn did in his "Matchbook Poem":

BUT WHY do you always go to the wall?
Why does he go to the wall?

You go to the wall
because that's where
the door is

In the preface to Calamities I quote another few lines of poetry, these from Seamus Heaney's Sophoclean rhapsody "The Cure at Troy," which limn similar terrain:

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And history and hope rhyme.
That hope -- that the door will be there maybe, that history and hope may yet be brought to rhyme in that tidal moment -- I suppose that's what keeps the flame of subjectivity alive in the face of all the objectifying forces (tyranny, exile) that would threaten to smother it.

You've dedicated Calamities to your four grandparents, the Tochs and the Weschlers, describing them as all having been "forced into complicated exile at about the same age I am now." Did you grow up under the influence of "the guilt-drenched nostalgia of exile," as you put it in the book?

Actually, no: quite the opposite. As I suggested in the piece I wrote about my composer grandfather Toch for The Atlantic back in December of 1996, my own upbringing in Southern California in the fifties and sixties was resolutely "American." By definition, almost none of my neighbors in the new tract homes in the San Fernando Valley were any more settled or had any deeper roots there than did my own family. And my Viennese grandparents, while not exactly exotic -- I was hardly the only kid with foreign-accented grandparents -- seemed a bit odd: quaint, stiff, "European." Their concerns, at any rate, were hardly mine. I was a Dodger fan. (My sense of my own Jewishness, for that matter, was pretty much limited to participatory pride in Sandy Koufax's refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur -- not that I ever would have made such a gesture.)

I only came to an awareness of my inheritance -- and its deeper resonances -- later on, after all of those grandparents except my grandmother Toch had already passed away. I had amazing conversations with that grandmother in my late teenage years. And then I suppose I wended my way back deeper into that world in college via Freud, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and others.

No, for me the deeper import of the dedication of Calamities has to do with its latter half, in which I describe my uncanny realization (which, honestly, I only came to once I'd lined up all my grandparents' birth and death dates for the dedication) that I am now almost the same age and, more to the point, at the same point in my career -- relatively successful, with a wide and thriving range of professional contacts, in the very middle of things -- as they were when they were forced into exile. I can hardly imagine how I would go on with my writerly vocation were my own world suddenly ripped asunder, as theirs was. As were the worlds of the various protagonists in my book. And yet one does go on.

You write that exile forces a simultaneous "atomization and homogenization" on its victims. Can you elaborate a little on how this happened to the characters in Calamities?

"Broodryk made a personal project of this new prisoner -- and Broodryk himself was, as Breyten now says, 'really twisted.'" Read an excerpt from Calamities of Exile.

I'm talking about the way exiles are suddenly consigned to an amorphous mass -- "Oh, another Bosnian refugee, another pathetic Kurd, yet another of those Guatemalan losers" -- while at the same time often experiencing their own situation in terms of the starkest and most forlorn solitude. As I point out in the book, this is the same double-movement that totalitarian regimes enforce upon their own subject populations. In this sense exile is another sort of totalitarian subjugation. But the point about the three protagonists in my book is that -- owing to the different circumstances of their upbringings, perhaps -- they were very edgy characters going into their travails. Even their edges had edges, as I point out. As a result they were never likely to be homogenized or atomized. That edginess was intrinsic both to their rising up and to the extravagant botch they subsequently tended to make of things.

But at least they did something. Average people -- ordinary, decent, homogenized-atomized people -- tend to do nothing.

In a recent interview with the Boston Book Review, Eva Hoffman mentions an essay by A. B. Yehoshua called "Exile is a Neurotic Solution." What do you make of that title? Is exile somehow a neurotic solution?

As you may recall from my piece about my grandfather Toch, toward the end of his life he experienced an overwhelming symphonic efflorescence. Perhaps the greatest of these efforts, his Third Symphony (which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1955), he referred to as his "musical autobiography," and he appended to it a motto from Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther: "Of course I am a wanderer, a pilgrim on this earth/ But can you say that you are anything more?" It was a classic German-Jewish thing to be doing -- to be attempting, so soon after the Holocaust, to reclaim embers of the beloved Germanic tradition. Especially embers that seemed to manifest the forlorn theme of the Wandering Jew. But it also signaled an attempt, a desire, to transmute personal autobiography into universal history.

And maybe there's a similar movement in my own thinking on this theme. I have come to feel -- and I am hardly alone in this -- that we are all in exile, that to a certain extent it is of the essence of the human condition to experience our lives from the vantage of a broken, botched, and aching exile. This, of course, is why the thousands-year-old sacred text of a nomadic, wandering tribe from the Levant still somehow manages to speak so powerfully to us, either directly or through such transmutations as Christ's or Augustine's or Freud's or Marx's or Kafka's or Wittgenstein's.

So, is exile a neurotic solution? Yes, all right, I like that -- but again, only to the extent that we realize that we are all neurotics-as-exiles, especially today, when our pasts seem to be rushing away from us at such personal-computerized hyperspeeds.

Of course, this is in no way to minimize the hugely greater burden placed on those who are, in addition, literal exiles. No doubt part of the genius of the ages-old political punishment of exile is the way it redoubles the innate existential anguish of those condemned to it. In my three stories I try to navigate between the two themes -- exile as a universal condition, and exile as an individual political fate. I want to allow them to echo off of and illuminate each other.

Any particular reason you (or your publisher, or somebody) decided to call the three sections of Calamities "nonfiction novellas"?

I'll take the rap for the subtitle. Essentially I'm trying to insist on the primacy of narrative in these accounts -- the focus on individual, idiosyncratic lives edgily lived as opposed to a generalized sociological survey of conditions in the various countries involved, or the condition of exile or totalitarianism as such.

Beyond that, it might interest you to know that I occasionally teach a writing course -- currently at Princeton and Sarah Lawrence -- that I call "The Fiction of Nonfiction." My prospectus begins, "Every narrative voice -- but especially every nonfiction voice -- is itself a fiction, and the world of writing and reading is divided between those who know this and those who either don't or else deny it, which is roughly contiguous with the division between writing that is worth reading and writing that's not." The point is that I want to insist on the storytelling core of what I do, and why the reader might in turn be drawn to it. It is in stories, in the flow of narrative, somehow, that we are, as Auden puts it, "entired," that we overcome our sense of exile, don't you think?

And there's a more practical, if relatively forlorn, reason for the subtitle. Bookstores never seem to know where to put my books. They get scattered all over the place -- Art, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Current Events, Belles Lettres, Biography -- such that the unities I alluded to earlier, in that Shapinsky preface, tend to get dashed all to hell. I really do see my production as one continuous whole, the various efforts ramifying off of and elucidating one another. And in certain instances, such as my most immediately prior book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder -- a work, as someone phrased it, of magic-realist nonfiction -- the bookstores haven't a clue where to place the damn thing. For a while Barnes & Noble had it under Sociology!

Calamities is going to be particularly problematic. Is it biography? Whose? Is it about Eastern Europe? The Mideast? Africa? So I was trying to give stores a hint. In the same way that Mr. Wilson was the same sort of book -- setting questions of quality aside -- as ones penned by Borges, Eco, Calvino, and so on, Calamities bears a family resemblance to the works of Ivan Klima, Andre Brink, J. M. Coetzee, and others. And it would be nice if it found a slot along that shelf -- hence "novellas." I'm not holding my breath.

How are you spending your time these days?

In the short term, as I say, I'm teaching, which takes a great deal of energy. I'm also preparing new editions of two books. Meanwhile, I continue to muck about in another ongoing theme -- the problem of the relationship between culture and terror -- as I work toward a yet-to-be-completed volume entitled Vermeer in Bosnia.

You didn't mention The New Yorker at all in answering that last question, and at the outset of the interview you let slip a cryptic "until recently" when describing what you've been "allowed" to do in your writing. Does The New Yorker -- and do magazines in general -- still play a significant role in your writing life? Or are you a book man now?

I'd much rather continue to focus my writerly life on general-interest magazines. I'm not so much interested in having, say, 10,000 people buy a book of mine as I am in exposing 500,000 people to something -- long, ambitious, thoughtful, quirky, perhaps, but formful -- they might otherwise never have known about. Something they might have had no idea they were going to be encountering as they set out that fine morning, no idea they'd ever even find of the remotest interest, and yet something that suddenly catches fire in them, consuming their imaginations and vivifying their concerns -- something that (and this is an important part) they then find themselves sharing, and capable of sharing, with other equally surprised and gripped fellow-readers. The trouble, of course, is that in this era of peg and niche and relentless compression, with most magazines terminally caught up in the frenzy of rebound, the gyre of celebrityhood, there are fewer and fewer places in which to encounter, or to publish, that kind of writing.

In describing this situation I'm speaking as a writer, of course, but even more so as a reader, and perhaps more to the point, as a common reader, which is to say a citizen. I just know that something -- and I'm not even sure how to characterize it exactly (the tang of surprise? the luxury of immersion? the savor of things suddenly mattering?) -- something these days is in the process of being lost.

  • See a series of excerpts from Calamities of Exile, by Lawrence Weschler.

  • More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

  • Discuss this interview in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.