PEN World Voices is a series of more than sixty encounters with writers from around the world, most of them taking place in small rooms before small audiences. But Wednesday night at Town Hall in Manhattan’s theater district is “the big show”, star-studded and sold-out, and host Salman Rushdie seems almost apologetic about this in his introductory remarks from the Town Hall stage.
Salman Rushdie played the host of last year’s event as well, and once again I find his MC’ing skills underwhelming. He speaks with grandiose elocution as he delivers mild chuckle lines about turning off cell phones and feeling old among all the young faces in the room. (To my surprise, Rushdie will go on to deliver the best reading of the night, but more about that later).
The presence of Steve Martin on the bill must have presented a conundrum to the event organizers, since the seasoned humorist can obviously blow any mumbling poet or novelist off the stage. The only solution is to put him on first or last, and the organizers wisely place him in the leadoff spot. The event’s theme is “Writing Home”, so Martin chooses a chapter from his upcoming memoir Born Standing Up that describes his arrival as an unknown comedian in 1965 San Francisco. His performance is great, of course, especially when he acts out some of the material he originally performed in these North Beach nightclubs. The audience loves him, I do too, and I’m looking forward to the publication of Born Standing Up in December.
Pia Tafdrup, a Danish poet, follows Steve Martin with a few gentle poems about her mother and father. Next is a rare appearance by Don Delillo, who reads a scene from his new Falling Man in which the novel’s taciturn hero visits his apartment near the wreckage of the World Trade Center. I’m not surprised to discover that Delillo reads with an unsmiling demeanor and a gravelly voice that complements his written work well.
Delillo is followed by Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstoya (yes, there is some relation, though she is not a direct descendant of Count Leo), who reads a moving narrative, complete with “suffocating stars”. Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef makes a strong impression on the crowd, especially when he seems to become lost in reflection while reading about being lost in Paris.
I’m excited to see Kiran Desai, who acts out the charming Chinese-restaurant delivery scene from The Inheritance of Loss. Desai turns out to be a terrific reader, emoting delightfully along with her characters as she reads their words. She’s the first performer of the night to actually “project”, which makes a big difference in a theater this large.
The best-dressed writer of the night is Alain Mabanckou, a novelist born in Congo-Brazzaville, who looks great in a long white coat and cloth cap. I’ve been reading a translation of his African Psycho that’s just been published by Soft Skull. African Psycho is a bitter and clever tour de force about a devious murderer, with a strong and quirky narrative voice that loudly recalls Albert Camus. I’m therefore surprised when Mabanckou’s English translator delivers a gentle, scenic poem that seems completely removed from the violent satire of his novel. But even his smirk belies his scenic words as the translator reads, and I have a feeling this novelist knows exactly what impression he wants to deliver to this crowd.
Neil Gaiman saunters to the mic to much applause, and reads first a dull piece about travelling abroad on July 4th, then a good second-person piece about what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale (“If a creature tells you it’s hungry, feed it”).
Nadine Gordimer is impressive in the penultimate slot, speaking first about the crisis of political and economic refugess in the world right now, then reading a story narrated by an 11-year-old from Mozambique seeking refuge in South Africa. Gordimer is followed by Salman Rushdie, who finally unleashes his considerable talent. His “The Ground Beneath Our Feet” points out that humans have always located themselves on earth by looking to the east, and that words like “orientation” and “disoriented” are rooted in the concept of “the orient”. He then asks what it would feel like to allow ourselves to become completely disoriented, to “let go”, to exist without moorings, and then as we ponder this he lets us know that we will never find out, because we are afraid. It’s a beguiling, melodic performance, a crowd-husher, and I am thrilled to finally discover what Salman Rushdie can do with an audience.
Wednesday night’s “big show” ends on a satisfying note, but there is much more PEN World Voices to come.