Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pastoral delights for an urban night

Author photographs can be misleading. Some of them anyway. We have all seen the expensive professional photographs of famous popular writers such as Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark and John Grisham for example taking up the complete back panel of the dustwrapper, where clothes, makeup and backgrounds exude success and wealth. Promotion to the tenth degree. But it is the lesser known literary authors who pose in front of books, brickwalls or funky decor where one is often on a more personal level. Perhaps too personal in some examples.
Then there is the disinclination to be photographed like Thomas Pynchon or Henry Green. The latter case was more understandable. It was for professional reasons. Henry Green had left Oxford without finishing his degree, some say it was because he didn't like his tutor C. S. Lewis, and began working for his father's company in Birmingham. When his first book came out, he didn't want employees and customers to recognize him as the author. Therefore a pseudonym and no photograph, or only one from the back. As for Pynchon, well, perhaps we could call it entropic paranoia.

When I was setting up literary readings for the library where I worked many years ago, I chose the poet and classics professor at McGill University, Anne Carson to read from her latest book. I was rather in awe of her accomplished learning and poetic achievement and found her dustjacket photo to be a formidable portrait. I had also been told that I would never get her and she was not very approachable. I had begun to build up a sense of her character based on these few observations and hearsay. She phoned me back to confirm that she would read, and when I asked her if there was anyone she would like to introduce her, she said she would ask her good friend and author, Will Aitken. He agreed and when the evening came round they arrived early and my wife and I chatted with them, I have to admit rather nervously. When we discussed how difficult it was to get people out to literary readings, she suggested wine and cheese. Wine and cheese. From a classics professor it seemed absolutely perfect. Will Aitken introduced her with a witty and well-crafted paragraph and Anne Carson then had us laughing with her extraordinary charm and wit. She was seemingly nothing like the person I had developed in my mind based on the photograph and her academic achievements and what I heard through the grape vine. How foolish I felt. Her sense of humour was wonderfully quirky and her poetry a delight. We began to offer wine and cheese at our literary readings and the two other independent libraries that I was setting up readings for also followed suit with positive results. Goes to show that if you get beyond the representation, there can be a bit of wine and cheese awaiting. A bit of pastoral delight for an urban night.

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