Windows to the Soulful

In a New Book as in Life, Toni Morrison's Probing Goes Well Below Surface

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008; Page C01


Toni Morrison has a little trick for judging character. She's tried it on Tiger Woods, on the Mona Lisa and -- why not? -- on Barack Obama, too.

"You know, he's got a very pleasant, even disarming smile," the novelist says of the incoming president, whose candidacy she endorsed in January, a few weeks after he politely called to ask. Then she holds up a hand, at mouth level, to show how she edits out that telegenic smile's effects.

"I do this all the time. Just look at his eyes."

What did she see? She'll get there in a moment. First, she wants to tell you what she saw in the eyes of the world's greatest golfer.

"Death," she says. There's a burst of laughter, abruptly cut off. "He wants to win. And he will destroy all."

How about the Mona Lisa, with whom Morrison got up close and personal in the Louvre?

"Everybody talks about her smile, that little mystery," Morrison says. "And I went over there and I did like that" -- she holds up her hand again -- "and I literally jumped back."

She lowers her voice.

"There's nothing but evil there. Pure, distilled."

The only living American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is sitting at the kitchen table in her Manhattan apartment, a skylight silvering her braided gray hair. She's mostly talking about her latest novel, "A Mercy," from which she will read tonight at a sold-out Washington appearance at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. But the name Obama keeps coming up.

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