Power of PEN

THE 1986 LITERARY year will get off to a rousing start when the American branch of PEN, the writers' organization, hosts the group's 48th International Congress in New York from January 12 through 18. It is the first meeting of International PEN in the United States since 1966 and is being billed as "the largest gathering of American and foreign authors ever assembled." Imagine the ego power that will be concentrated in the Big Apple during the meeting! If it could ever be harnessed, nuclear plants all over the country could take the week off.

PEN was founded in London in 1921 by John Galsworthy and a Cornish novelist and poet, Mrs. C.A. Dawson Scott. Among the original members were Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. It has done valuable work over the years in attempting to protect the rights of writers and has helped effect the release from imprisonment of writers such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Kim Chi Ha in South Korea.

The American chapter of PEN was founded in 1922 and has over 2,000 members. It is the largest of the chapters located in 55 nations. American PEN has programs that monitor censorship and book-banning, and provide financial assistance for writers. The organization also has a prison writing program and a translation committee and administers several literary awards

The current president of the organization is Norman Mailer. During his term of office, the level of activity in PEN has picked up noticeably, and hosting of the international congress is an example of that.

Mailer has attracted top-level writers to work for PEN. Gay Talese, for example, is chairman of the planning committee for the congress and Donald Barthelme heads the program committee. Among the writers expected to attend the congress are Kobo Abe of Japan, Jorge Amado of Brazil, Breyten Breytenbach, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, Robertson Davies of Canada, Umberto Eco of Italy, Guenter Grass of West Germany, Eugene Ionesco of France, Amos Oz of Israel, Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard of England and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. Secretary of State George Shultz has been invited to address the opening session.

The theme of the congress is "The Writer's Imagination and the Imagination of the State." It is the sort of pompous, orotund title that makes you want to run away and hide. To aid in understanding it, American PEN has issued a short statement on the theme, composed by Donald Barthelme and poet-translator Richard Howard -- two writers whom I much admire -- but their statement helps very little.

It is worth quoting the first paragraph to indicate what I mean. "The writer," it says, "possesses or is possessed by imagination, and life is generated by this imagination. In the final years of the Twentieth Century, the State possesses an imagination of its own; and something is generated thereby. It has been widely noted that governments are in important ways impervious to their citizens' control. We suggest that these two imaginations are in radical conflict all over the world, and that such conflict is the most important issue facing the writer in the 1980s."

While it is true that those in power in governments worldwide, even in places with free elections, often end up doing the opposite of what the people want, it is a ludicrous oversimplification to lump all the variety of political systems on earth under the single term "the state." And while Barthelme and Howard correctly link the fate of writers to the fate of the average citizen of a country, their statement also seems to make a case for writers as a kind of elite, deserving of special privileges. If writers are good at what they do, they should be honored for it, and if they have something sage to say about politics, they should be listened to. But the idea that "writers" should have the privilege of whispering into the ear of power is dangerous, particularly for literature itself.

Now that I have straightened these guys out on this little matter, I look forward to hearing a good deal of wisdom emanating from the congress. It would be nice to think, as Norman Mailer has speculated, that one of the congress participants "may even say something before the panels, assemblies, parties and festivities are done, that will ring the equator with the speed of thought." Illuminations

IF YOU THINK the price of books has gotten too high, listen to this. The second most expensive manuscript ever sold at auction was recently unloaded at Sotheby's in London -- for s1.3 million (about $1.8 million). The manuscript in question goes back to the late 9th century and is called the Gospels of St. Hubert. The buyer was rumored to be a German library. The crew at Sotheby's did a lot of homework to establish the history of the manuscript before the auction and it makes a fascinating tale.

St. Hubert was a monastery located near Lito which the vellum manuscript was donated between 860 and 880 by Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne. The manuscript contains an entry ascribing the donation to the father of Charles the Bald, Louis the Pious (I much prefer his other name, Louis the Debonair), but Sotheby's detectives established that this was a mistake on the part of later monks who made the entry.

The style of the Latin manuscript is what is known as Franco-Saxon. It has illuminated initials, with pretty pictures of dragons and birds. Since the subjects include North Atlantic birds such as cormorants, Sotheby's scholars see the possible influence of Viking seafarers, as well as a final flowering of the technique of Irish illuminators who brought their art to the Continent. The St. Hubert gospels are about 75 years older than the Book of Kells. The manuscript was apparently created at a monastery called St. Amand in south Flanders, which was famous for its illumination.

The manuscript fetched such a high price because of its rarity, its near-perfect condition and the fact that it is a mainstream example of the Franco-Saxon style. There is no catalogue of 9th-century gospel books, but there are just 140 known gospel books or fragments before that time. Only one, incidentally, is in the United States, an 18-leaf fragment at the Morgan Library in New York.

The price for the St. Hubert gospels is a mere pittance, however, compared to the 8 million quid ($11 million-plus) forked over at Sotheby's a few years ago by a consortium of German big shots for a kind of Maltese Falcon of the manuscript world, the gospels of Henry the Lion. Hank, a descendant of Charlemagne, was Duke of Saxony, among other titles, and ruled over a big slice of Central Europe. He married Mathilda, sister of Richard the Lion-Hearted and Robin Hood's wicked King John. Henry the Lion's 12th- century gospels were heavily illuminated in gold, and the pictures, which showed a Byzantine and Middle Eastern influence (he had been a Crusader), included portraits of Mathilda's folks, Mr. and Mrs. Henry II of England. The manuscript was enclosed in a magnificent jeweled cover. At the time, Sotheby's catalogue writer, who know how to turn a phrase, described the Gospels of Henry the Lion as the finest illuminated manuscript remaining in private hands. I can hear Sydney Greenstreet wheezing covetously right now.

Americans visiting London can always drop by at Sotheby's, 34/35 New Bond St., to see what's up for sale. And don't think you have to pawn the manse to buy something. A few days before their big hit with the Gospels of St. Hubert, Sotheby's auctioneers gaveled down Thomas Carlyle's copy of Tristram Shandy for s5. In the Margin

IT'S NEW YEAR's Resolution Time again. First, I want to shed a few pounds (about 30, if you must know). My method will be to go into mind merge with Jane Brody's Good Food Book (Norton), with occasional forays into Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking (Morrow). The latter book may set a whole new standard of seriousness for cookbooks. The first recipe does not appear until page 124, preceded by an exhaustively thorough discussion of the theory and practice of the cooking of India. While the kilos are flying off, I want to reread Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the new University of California Press paperback edition, with the original 1885 illustrations by Edward Windsor Kemble. Thus streamlined in body and revivified in spirit by Huck's sanity, I will be ready for my encounter session with 1986. I think.