The Writing Life: Nicholas Delbanco

The Writing Life: Nicholas Delbanco

Marie Arana interviews Nicholas Delbanco, the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan, where he also directs the Hopwood Awards Program. He is the author of 24 books of fiction and non-fiction; his most recent novel is "The Count of Concord," his most recent collection of essays, "Anywhere Out of the World."
By Nicholas Delbanco
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My parents both were refugees from Hitler's Germany. Separately, they fled and met again in London and were married there; in the late 1940s, they came to America with two young sons. We settled in a suburb of New York. My early memories are of gatherings of exiles: chamber music, schnapps, cigars, the smell of roses and Chanel #5, the sound of heels or wooden canes on polished parquet floors. Visitors would share their stories: whose relatives were lost or had survived, who prospered or was failing and required help.

One such couple had a story more romantic, even, than that of my parents; they had escaped from Paris on a pair of home-made bicycles hours before the Nazis seized the city. The man -- like my father -- had been born in Hamburg, and he was good at drawing and had a childlike eye. His name was Hans, hers Margret, and they had written books about Pretzel the Dog and Rafi the Giraffe. Then they wrote a book about an inquisitive monkey and called it Curious George. By the time they came to visit, the Reys were famous and well-off; I remember the pastries my mother served were more than usually abundant, and that she used the good china and told me to wear a clean shirt.

Mr. Rey was plump, in a brown suit; he wore glasses and was balding and round-faced and kind. He knew about the stars; he took me into the back garden and pointed out the constellations in a way that made me see them; he had a manner with children that was easy and unforced. We joined the party in the living room, and he stood off to the side. Suddenly, I heard a high voice squeaking, saying "Nicky. Help! It's Curious George and I'm stuck in the chimney, just here inside the fireplace. Come help me get out won't you please?"

I looked around. Mrs. Rey, unconcerned, drank her tea. But Mr. Rey, upright by the piano, had a strained expression on his face, and his Adam's apple was bobbing up and down and his lips moved soundlessly. "Tommy!" -- now it was my brother's turn to be addressed -- "It's the Man in the Yellow Hat speaking, and I've come looking for my monkey and can't find him anywhere. Where do you think he might be?" This went on for some time. Turn by turn we were cajoled by creatures from a story book, and even then I knew enough to know I was supposed to act surprised. We jumped up and down; we looked up the chimney; we tried to pretend the man in our living room -- I had watched Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and knew about ventriloquists -- was not playing Curious George. He was very bad at it. He squeaked and perspired and moved his mouth, and only when we said goodnight did he put on his overcoat and wipe his face and become an adult again. I remember thinking, as I watched them drive away in their fine clothes and gleaming car, well, a person can get rich by pretending to be someone else and then by throwing his voice.

Voice. I have been trying to "throw" it all my life. Ventriloquists are few and far between, and good ones very rare indeed, and authors don't routinely work in distant vocal registers. The process of apprenticeship, or so we tell our students, consists in large part of discovering and refining one's private particular voice. It's important that a writer learns what is or isn't working in a given intonation and how to temper inflection so it's hers or his alone. One measure of achievement is just such language-patterning; when we say, "Nobody else could write this," we mean it mostly as praise.

But the gift of "other voices, other rooms" -- in Truman Capote's titular phrase -- is in its own way crucial to articulated art. Otherwise we would repeat ourselves, saying only "I, I, I," and could describe only what we witness or experience first-hand. All written discourse would be memoir or personal essay; the single character on stage would be a simulacrum of the playwright, and all we'd hear are monologues.

Consider William Shakespeare. Perhaps no one in history -- and certainly not in the English language -- has reported on a greater range of characters and social classes; from gardener to Bishop, from fool to King and "rude mechanical" to courtier, he moved with almost insouciant ease and a dramatist's all-seeing eye. Lawyers believe him a lawyer, scholars construe him a scholar; those whose expertise is philosophy or religion or soldiering believe he must once have been trained as philosopher, cleric or soldier. His "I" is multitudes.

What this means in theatrical terms is that he could shape-shift at "will." As John Keats observed, the dramatist was supremely possessed of the faculty of "Negative Capability" -- the ability to enter a consciousness other than his own. Always, Shakespeare was able to argue both sides of a single question, inhabit warring adversaries and phrase opposing views. This is a sine qua non of the theatre, where men and women up on stage aren't stand-ins for their author but motivated characters with conflicting needs.

The gift of the conflicted self is crucial for the novelist as well. Argument and counter-argument, two characters in opposition, plot-twists and inward-facing discourse -- all the fictive strategies that bring to life a world in words -- rely on our ability to modulate our voice. The empathetic alertness that caused George Eliot to enter the brown study of a clergyman or William Faulkner the unspoken language of an idiot makes of "Middlemarch" or "The Sound and the Fury" enduring works of art. We prize, and should, the distinctive rhetorics of Woolf and Joyce and Hemingway, but even these more-or-less instantly recognizable authors provided us with characters that were not self-portraits. When Flaubert said, "I am Madame Bovary," he wasn't describing a cross-dresser's gambit but imagination's reach. It's one of the great yields of art, and one to value greatly, that we can conjure up a cockroach or a general, a great white whale or those who pursue it by the simple arrangement of letters. What better way to travel ensconced in the one chair?

The last time I saw Margret Rey was in Cambridge, Mass.; she was a widow, nearly 90, and living in a house filled with memorabilia. There were little Curious Georges, large ones, enormous stuffed ones dangling over banisters or propped up on the floor. She had had an operation and was using crutches but remained the indomitable elder presence I had known when young. Few artists can have been so entirely surrounded by the product of their playful work or have found so wholly embodied their language and its lines. I pictured her with her husband on their home-built bicycles, pedaling away from Paris 60 years before. I have an idea, says Hans, and she says, Tell me, what does it sound like? and he says, I'm not sure, but I can see it. His Adam's apple is working; he imagines the Spanish border, then Portugal, Brazil, America, the achieved dream of escape. They look at each other almost shyly, hoping to continue. Why don't we write it down?

Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan, where he also directs the Hopwood Awards Program. He is the author of 24 books of fiction and non-fiction; his most recent novel is "The Count of Concord," his most recent collection of essays, "Anywhere Out of the World."

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