How do you organize your books?
Pause for an embarrassed silence … All my adult life I’ve kept vowing to alphabetize my library, but I never had the time — I was far too busy searching for books I couldn’t find. Then I bribed my youngest daughter and a friend of hers to put the fiction, at least, in reasonable order. My wife spontaneously did the same for the poetry shelves. As for all the others: I used to regard “nonfiction” as a genre, and a minor one, like children’s books; now of course it consumes every spare moment, and my acres of historiography, psychology, political science, etc., are still unalphabetized and still all over the place.
Your new novel, “Inside Story,” centers on friendships with Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, among others. What writers are especially good on literary friendship and rivalry?
Fiction almost always concerns itself with conflict. A cloudless friendship is something entirely positive, like happiness, and “happiness writes in white ink on a white page,” as Henry de Montherlant accurately observed; it is hard to make the entirely positive vivid or even visible on the page (compare Dickens’s villains and grotesques to his saintly — and interchangeable — heroes and heroines). Literary rivalry, on the other hand, and in particular literary envy, is in my view hugely promising: nuanced, sordid and inherently comical. Nevertheless, writing about writing is automatically introspective and parochial, and for that reason underexplored. Meanwhile there is Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and (more obliquely) the earlier masterpiece “Despair.” Jorge Luis Borges, as is his way, says most of what needs to be said in a dazzling and very witty 10-pager — “The Aleph.”
What was the last great book you read?
Anthony Trollope’s magnum opus “The Way We Live Now.” It’s curious: Trollope seemed to specialize in drab and unalluring titles — “Framley Parsonage,” “Dr. Wortle’s School,” “The Vicar of Bullhampton” — but “The Way We Live Now” could adorn the cover of any social-realist novel of the last three centuries. Like the magnum opus, it is universally inclusive.
You are organizing a dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Well, dead, please, because they’re much harder to pin down. But it’s still tricky, and I’d make a rule: no accredited drunks or nutters (which starkly narrows the field). So I’ll ask Trollope and Jane Austen, two hawk-eyed comedians of manners who’d be sure to hit it off. As for the third, I can’t resist a poet, and a combination of awe and pity would oblige me to choose between John Keats and Wilfred Owen — two men of Shakespearean caliber who died at the age of 25, one in sickness, one in war.