NBCC Reads: Lawrence Weschler and Blake Bailey

by Eric Banks | Dec-14-2010

Since 2009 the NBCC has sponsored NBCC Reads, a set of surveys drawing on the bookish expertise of our membership as well as former winners and finalists. This fall our subject was out-of-print books. We asked:

Which work of fiction or nonfiction would you most like to see republished?

Here are the responses from two former NBCC winners: Lawrence Weschler, whose book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences received the 2006 award in Criticism, and Blake Bailey, who received the 2009 award in Biography for his Cheever: A Life.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Had you asked me a few months back, I would have said Bruce Duffy's marvelous fictive evocation of the tormented Wittgenstein,The World as I Found It, but New York Review Classics, as is their splendid wont, has gone and reprinted it, so I guess I'd better come up with another one.  (A scene I remember from the Duffy, from years and years ago, so who knows if I've blended Duffy's own account with my memory of it.  But Ludwig is around the dinner table of his extremely domineering high powered father, the steel magnate and richest man in Imperial Austria--a crazy-making family drama if ever there were one, two of the sons will go on to commit suicide, another will lose an arm in the war, the scene plays like it was written by Pinter of Albee or O'Neill--and Ludwig, cowed and miserable, observes as someone moves the salt shaker and suddenly has a philosophical intuition about prepositionality.  I remember thinking, that's exactly how philosophy probably happens.)  (A few months after the book was published, I happened to attend an appearance by Duffy at Berkeley, the Wittgenstein Mafia was out in force, and no sooner had Duffy finished his reading than the first hand went up, angry, On page so-and-so, you have Wittgenstein doing such-and-such, What is your authority for that?  Whereupon another furious  interlocutor demanded, And on page such-and-such you have him doing so-and-so, what is your basis for that?!  Whereupon Duffy calmly responded, "You don't understand: I made all of this up.")

Anyway: okay, so not Duffy.

Instead, how about Salka Viertel's luminous memoir, The Kindness of Strangers. Viertel was a young actress, from out of the provinces, in Max Reinhardt's legendary stage companies in 1910s and 20s Vienna and Berlin, married the Weimar filmmaker Berthold Viertel, came with him to California and during the 1930s and 1940s became a screewriter (Greta Garbo's favorite) and the doyenne of the most remarkable salon in Hollywood, a place where Schoenberg or Thomas Mann would spend the afternoon communing with the likes of Johnny Weismuller.  Her account of all of this is both consistently fascinating and gorgeously rendered.  And in the end (as she and most of her friends come under brutal assault in the McCarthyite hysteria of the fifties) both sad and powerfully moving.  A friend of mine who knew Salka well and was in her orbit once told me that the truly wonderful thing about her book is what she left out: ie, the discretion and decency which radiate from every page, while in no way undercutting the vividness and revelatory quality that persists.  It's a complete scandal that the book is out of print, especially at a time when that world of the Emigres in Hollywood is drawing so much renewed interest.


BLAKE BAILEY: I generally choose a biographical subject in part because i think his work is unfairly neglected, or in danger of neglect, so this response may seem self-serving. Be that as it may. I'm currently working on a book about Charles Jackson, whose first novel, The Lost Weekend, a best-seller and a classic in its day, has been all but entirely forgotten--eclipsed by the more famous movie adaptation, and also diminished perhaps by the fact that its author never wrote anything remotely as good. A new generation of readers should discover this terrifying, eminently entertaining portrait of the inner life of an alcoholic (generally called "dipsomaniacs" c. 1944, when the book was published and made a momentous case for alcoholism as a medical condition).

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