I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In 1967, I saw The Ambushers , one of the (terrible) Matt Helm secret-agent movies that starred Dean Martin and many, many young women. The whole point of the movie, at least for a 13-year-old boy, was ogling the super-sexy girls. I like to think that the bit-part actress who particularly caught my eye was the 22-year-old Susanna Moore.
Twenty-four years later, I met her. The investor/photographer/collector Jean Pigozzi had (with Charles Saatchi) just bought Spy magazine, of which I was a cofounder and coeditor. One of the first things Pigozzi did was introduce me to Moore, whom he thought should contribute to Spy . I’m more grateful to Pigozzi for that matchmaking than anything else he did. I was charmed, fascinated, bedazzled. If she had never published a word, I would adore her. But she happens to be one of the American fiction writers whom I most admire. She is a gorgeous stylist and a remarkable chronicler of human desire and confusion and understanding. I think her fiction uniquely combines tart, unflinchingly clear-eyed social observation, a kind of dreamy second sight, and deep compassion and wisdom. And in her seven novels— My Old Sweetheart , The Whiteness of Bones , Sleeping Beauties , In the Cut , One Last Look , The Big Girls , and now The Life of Objects —she has demonstrated staggeringly virtuosic range.
She is also a generous nurturer of other people’s writing, from students at Princeton to young residents of homeless shelters to prison inmates. She is, in short, a very good writer and a very good person but, because she’s as funny as she is serious, and as outrageous as she is ladylike, the farthest thing possible from being a goody-goody.
— Kurt Andersen
Kurt Andersen I’m going to start with something a smart newspaper writer said to me the other day—she’d noticed that in my new novel, True Believers, I have a small thread involving the relatively little-known Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich (who helped devise the plan for the Final Solution), and she wondered why Heydrich is everywhere lately. His assassination is the subject of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, and there’s a new biography, Hitler’s Hangman. I told her Heydrich also figures in your book, The Life of Objects. In your novel set in Nazi Germany during the war, I think he’s the only high-ranking Nazi who’s more than merely mentioned.
Why have we all suddenly discovered Heydrich? And more generally, are we nearing the end of the era in which World War II fascinates writers and readers as much as it has for the last seven decades?
Susanna Moore I don’t think that we are nearing the end of an era in which readers find the war fascinating, but rather a new stage. Thanks to writers like W. G. Sebald, the recently reissued books of Hans Fallada, and the extraordinary A Woman in Berlin, published anonymously (due to its controversial subject), it is now permissible, even desirable to examine aspects of the Second World War that were for a long time forbidden for reasons of guilt, shame, horror, political correctness, and simple ignorance. There is now fiction on this topic from a younger generation, although until fairly recently not a great deal of it was seen in the West, particularly not books about the suffering of ordinary people, as opposed to soldiers or prisoners. I was very happy to see that the great Russian novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman was recently reissued. The ongoing release of new material, as well as the revelations of the Stasi files in 1992, are a stimulus to interest, of course, but really it is more a question of time passing. There was some question as to whether my new book would find a publisher in Germany, given its subject, and I’m fortunate that my old friend and publisher Niko Hansen is very keen to publish it at Arche Literatur Verlag.
Hannah Arendt wrote that “no one engaged in thought about history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs, and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has been singled out so seldom for special occasions.”
Czechs, Germans, and Russians, among other Europeans, have known about Heydrich for a long time—it is the Americans who were ignorant, or worse, uninterested.
Every writer has his own preoccupations, of course, but when my last book, The Big Girls, was published, I was asked when I was going to write about nice people. I was shocked, as I had fallen in love with Helen, a character in the book who has murdered her children. I was also reminded that most people haven’t the slightest idea of what makes good fiction. Like Beatrice, a character in the new book, I was as a girl (and even now) unable to resist those heroines who were rebellious, defiant, independent—and who, naturally, were in the end destroyed—like Eustacia Vye and Maggie Tulliver. Of course, this is a separate idea from that of Heydrich and evil.
Violence is useful in compelling a character to accept reality, and forcing him to face his moment of grace. Violence is never an end in itself, but an extreme situation is very effective in revealing just who we are. A character in danger, as in life, tends to exhibit those traits most necessary to his survival—and by survival, I don’t mean anything as simple as his physical existence.
KA Given the works of fiction written about World War II, were you daunted by the idea of making your story new and fresh (which it very much is)?
SM I am interested in the way that we conduct our lives in times of unfathomable stress, in this instance, life in Berlin during the Second World War. Crises always present a moral dilemma—how are we to behave virtuously, and still manage to survive? And it is not only during international wars; it is happening all around us, in varying degrees of horror: a murderous disdain for the poor, the enduring enslavement of women, the calculated demonizing of Muslims—the list is always long.
I’ve suffered fantasies of rescue ever since childhood—not my own rescue, but my rescue of others—which explains a teenage fascination with such bloodbaths as the Spanish Civil War, as well as my reveries of many fearless and death-defying operations conducted in 1943 in Vichy France as a girlspy for the Maquis, usually in Nice wearing espadrilles and a gingham bikini. The truth, however, as we well know, is more complicated, and unfortunately rarely styled. I confess to the heroic undercover assignments of adolescent fantasy, but I still really do wonder about these things: How would I behave in an extreme crisis? Would I pick up the torturer’s tools in order to save a child? An acquaintance? An enemy? I like to think not, but it is impossible to know.
KA Your novels are often about a young or youngish woman coping with unfamiliar, exotic, or even frightening places, but The Life of Objects in particular reminded me of your early books—a smart young woman yearning to escape the provinces and a difficult family to find glamour and fulfillment. She’s from Ireland, not Hawaii, and she goes to Nazi Germany, not the American mainland. What is it about that notion that compels you?
SM The simplest answer is that it mirrors my own experience as a young woman. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I am drawn to that particular story, given that there were other experiences just as strong and equally formative—my mother’s death when I was a child, for example. But then I’ve written about that endlessly, too.
Naturally, I dislike the idea that I am writing the same story each time, but that is what some of us writers do. It is not that I am so intently interested in my own story, but more in the idea of what it is to be female. A mystery to me even now, if not an actual dilemma. I have always tried to fathom what that means—being a woman—and in each of the books, I’ve attempted to decipher the mystery, whether it is in the life of an English bluestocking in 19th-century Calcutta or that of a young teacher in downtown Manhattan in the 1990s. Who is that person? And how does she manage the endless complexities that are her birthright? Does she manage them at all? That I see her adventure as rather fraught, if not imperiled, is, of course, my own particular construct. I try to tell the story through the characters—often women—as they themselves make discoveries and decisions (unlike an omniscient narrator, who implies knowledge of everything from the beginning), as I watch quietly from the darkness. My efforts at disinterest, I admit, are not always successful.
A writer’s every word—even every conjunction, as well as each comma and semicolon—is chosen for a reason. Every description, every parenthetical aside, every expression. The sequence in which these details are revealed is also fastidiously chosen. It has always seemed to me that writing is really a maze of problems to be solved—nothing to do with inspiration or a beckoning of the muse in the hope that it will perch on the edge of your desk—nearly mathematical in its structure of precision and logic.
I am most interested by all that I don’t understand, rather than what I do. Don’t you think that is true of most writers? Interested in the possible as opposed to the probable? Flannery O’Connor wrote that we (writers and, one hopes, readers) are “interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves—whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.” (O’Connor also wrote: “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”)
KA You call novel-writing “nearly mathematical”—yes, this is the not-much-talked-about thing, isn’t it? There’s a lot of complicated engineering involved. And yes, as you say, as a writer I’m absolutely “compelled by all that I don’t understand, rather than what I do.” I write to find out what I think.
Your narrator and heroine Beatrice is a person of our mothers’ generation, giving an account of her life from 1938 to 1945, but I found nothing in her sensibility that seems especially old-fashioned. Maybe the past is not such a foreign country? Or maybe not as much for the young?
SM There are certain clues that Beatrice is a child born after the Great War—her inhibited ambition, her modesty, the genteel poverty of her family and of Ireland itself, her social limitations—girls like Beatrice are no longer destined to be sent out as servants; they are going to hairdressing school or fleeing to Dublin. Her innocence about sex. When I explain to my university students what it was like for men and women to indulge in sexual intercourse before the use of oral contraceptives—when I describe the terror of an illegitimate pregnancy, as well as the erotic thrill of the forbidden—I sometimes feel as if I might more easily describe the use of chastity belts on medieval queens.
Beatrice will not be unfamiliar to our generation because of our parents, but I suspect that the young may find her oddly quaint.
KA When you were growing up in Hawaii it wasn’t a state, and in a much deeper way it was an exotic place utterly apart. (Thus anti-Obama birtherism.) When you came to New York and Los Angeles as a young woman in the early 1960s—just in time for the introduction of birth control pills!—were you as quietly transfixed by all the interesting and fancy new things you encountered the way Beatrice/Maeve is in The Life of Objects when she arrives at her aristocratic employers’ mansion in Germany: the paintings, the objets, the furniture, the clothing, the food, all of it?
SM I left Hawaii when I was 17, without any money or guidance or even a plan, other than a compelling desire to be in the world. I hadn’t really even worn shoes. I went to New York, where I had been given introductions to people who could help me by a neighbor of my family in Honolulu, Mrs. Henry Kaiser, who had taken me up when my mother died. I was always very fortunate in having friends, usually much older than myself, who looked after me. Connie Wald in Beverly Hills was another extremely important teacher for me. Later, when I was in my thirties, I was taken farther into the world by my friend John Stefanidis, a Mediterranean gentleman who lives in London. Because he is as charming as he is clever, he claims that it is I who have taught him, but it is completely untrue.
Yes, I was transfixed by all that I encountered. Mesmerized, and aroused, and, I’m afraid, a bit greedy—not for material things, but for experience. I did not go to college, leaving for New York the day after I graduated from the Punahou School in Honolulu. In the process of devouring everything placed before me (and not placed), I slowly began to learn to discriminate, arranging a mostly favorable education for myself. This applied to music and books and even language, as well as more seemingly unimportant things like dress and food and decoration. Like Beatrice, I knew nothing at the start (still know very little)—my curiosity and my avidity were very useful forms of energy, especially as I had nothing other than my will to learn. I was taught by Stefanidis how to distinguish things—a person’s character, as well as a good picture. And I learned that it had nothing to do with money, or fashion, or rarity. Felix Metzenburg in The Life of Objects is a good example of someone who possesses this gift of discrimination, even if it takes him a little while to understand that aesthetics must be applied to morals as well as to the physical world—that they are, in truth, the same thing.
KA Your Beatrice is a skillful lace maker, and I kept thinking of the Vermeer painting as I read about her making lace. Then I remembered the 1977 French movie The Lacemaker in which Isabelle Huppert is a working-class girl called Beatrice who falls for a middle-class intellectual—coincidence?
SM I have never seen the movie, and clearly I should, lest I am asked this question again. Beatrice herself is a good example of the writer’s task of problem solving. I first had to determine who exactly Beatrice might be: I needed her to be English-speaking, but she couldn’t be American or British, given the war. Ireland declared itself neutral partly in the hope that England in its preoccupation would lose sight of the northern counties so long sought by the Irish Republic—which meant that Beatrice could reasonably be Irish. She couldn’t be a governess, as I didn’t want children complicating the plot—it was already fraught enough. I didn’t want her to be a housemaid (too Catholic), or a lady’s companion (too refined). I also had to give her a skill, or a gift, or a passion that would ease her escape from the dreary Mayo town in which she was imprisoned (as you can see, I think of my characters as if they were real persons and, to me, they are). I have been spending part of each summer in Ireland, particularly in Connemara and Mayo, and I’d noticed that despite the economic advantages, and the rise of education and decreasing influence of the church, the old prejudices die hard. I mentioned one day to a friend who owns the local pub that I was going with an acquaintance to see some old houses. “Ah,” he asked, knowing that the houses would not likely be those of tenant farmers, “and who might your friend be?” When I told him her name, he said with a sniff, “She’s on the other side, of course.” It took me a few hours to realize that he meant that she was Protestant.
As I said earlier, the writer proposes to himself different solutions—most of them impracticable—until, with more hard work than luck, the right one presents itself. It sometimes takes years to find it, of course.
Although we had few customers, my mother did not let me read in the shop, lest it appear that I gave myself airs. To ease the tedium, I studied my father’s ledgers as if they held the answers to all that I longed to know. They were narrow books with maroon board covers, and in them were kept the names of customers and their transactions. I conceived elaborate tales to match each entry. The notation Mrs. Dennis Gurney, doz. handkerchiefs, no monogram, one bolt pink tulle, three packets needles made me wonder what Mrs. Gurney possibly meant to do with so much tulle (as it was pink, it could not be for a bridal veil), and less interesting, why she had chosen plain handkerchiefs, as the monogramming was done to order by my mother and free of charge. That the Catholic priest, Father Timothy, fancied costly cashmere hose that had to be ordered from Dublin was, thanks to my youth, less compelling, although mildly titillating.
[ … ]
It didn’t take long to exhaust the mysteries of the shop’s ledgers, and I began to teach myself to crochet, copying the patterns I found in the ladies’ magazines my father kept on behalf of his customers, studying them until the pages grew soft with use. I stole lengths of thread from the shop, rolling them into a ball until I’d accumulated enough to make my first lace cuff (I unraveled it eight times before it was to my liking, and even then I didn’t think it good enough). Copying Mr. Knox’s notes had given me patience and an appreciation of tidy handiwork, and the hours I spent sewing seemed to pass in a dream. Silence had become natural to me, and a tendency to secrecy, if not dissimulation.
— Susanna Moore, from The Life of Objects (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
KA Beatrice says that her employers, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg, “live a life devoted to achieving perfection.” Maybe like your friend John Stefanidis—and aren’t you devoted to that yourself? More than most people today?
SM I believe that has been said about me, by you as well as others. Beatrice also says that it is an exhausting way to live one’s life, both hard on yourself and obviously tedious for others, if not infuriating. I’m interested in the choice that some people, myself included, must make between aesthetics—the value, beauty, and cultural and anthropological importance of certain objects, artifacts, works of art, architecture and even the land itself—and the interests of human need. Of course, the destruction of forests profits timber corporations, in addition to shipping, construction, and paper companies, and provides thousands of jobs. Cleared land (which we now know also contributes to the spread of infectious disease) provides people with sustenance and income. In the West, at least, women rarely die in childbirth, and child labor and slavery are unlawful—but the world itself is less enchanting than before. I should add here that a friend who is a scholar of Victorian London disagrees with me intensely in regard to this last claim. As does another friend who is a social worker in Bombay.
KA That’s a very interesting question—for which people of which station and which country is the world less or more enchanting than it was 50 or 100 years ago? (And by the way: You are a bit of an enchantress, radiating glamour—glamour in the old-fashioned Scottish, quasi-magical sense. My friend Pico Iyer was overwhelmed by it when he met you in Japan.) Maybe the diminution of enchantment in the West is why so-called imaginative fiction, and in particular fantasy, is more read today than ever.
Two of your last three novels have been historical fiction—what does writing about another era require of you—or afford you—that contemporary stories do not, or cannot, give you as a writer?
SM Like you, also a writer of historical fiction (who would have taken you, Kurt, for an old Marxist?), I am interested in the way that the material world shapes and determines the destiny of individuals, just as it shapes and determines the rise and destruction of countries and epochs—not solely the actions of individuals, but famines and floods and the death of honey bees, as well as the discovery of rare minerals and fossil fuels. Individuals are part of it, too, of course—that we have any whales left in the world is thanks to Edison, among others.
I am particularly susceptible to the period of study that is necessary before undertaking a work of historical fiction—I find the long days of research very soothing as well as extremely stimulating, and often I am reluctant to stop reading in order to begin writing. I read blissfully for two years before writing a word of One Last Look, and with this new book, I read for 18 months before beginning to write.
In the beginning, fiction writers, like most people, are by necessity content—more than content, preoccupied and even enthralled—by their own stories. Some writers never outgrow this. After the third Hawaiian novel, Sleeping Beauties, I was alarmed to realize that I had no more stories to tell about myself. I suddenly found myself grateful if lost anecdotes, forgotten snippets of gossip, memories idly stored rose mysteriously to the surface—mysterious because I inevitably asked myself (to paraphrase Joseph Conrad), why this particular memory? Why this association of smell or taste? Somewhat forlornly and certainly with a sense of panic, I accepted that I’d used up all of my own life. In the end, it was a relief. It compelled me to leave my childhood. It forced me into the world. I actually had to make up things.
KA “Old Marxist”? Old, for sure, but not a Marxist for, oh, the last 35 years. But yes, researching a book is such pure pleasure—it’s worklike, but not actually hard.
SM All right, not a Marxist, but how about a materialist? Your own books are very much about historical determinism, and the ways in which peoples’ lives are shaped by events rather than personalities—Western expansion, the war in Vietnam, the utopian revival.
KA Individual lives are significantly shaped by the vicissitudes of history and by technology, as well as by the natural world: sure, I believe that.
SM And cultures are shaped, too. A quote from True Believers: “I watched a ten-minute video of a big battle in the Pakistani civil war, filmed from a high-rise in Islamabad. The video had been ‘tilt-shifted’ with a computer effect to make everything look miniature—the tanks firing and buildings exploding and soldiers and jihadists dying all looked like little toys.” We literally see the world differently now.
KA We do. And I think that really started with the invention of photography—we feel we “know” Abraham Lincoln, say, in a way that we don’t know the founders, because we have photographs of him.
The Life of Objects is on the one hand very naturalistic, but it also has a fairy-tale quality—a girl in a bizarre and mysterious new place, a castle with a prince and princess, a night wood, a fairy godmother, an American soldier who’s real, yet seems like an apparition, even to Beatrice. Was that intentional, or did it just work out that way?
SM Of course, intentional. The reading of fairy tales as a child gave me my first inkling of the unconscious—wildly confused, but an inkling. I still read fairy tales, and I teach a seminar at Princeton on myth, fairy tale, and legend in modern fiction. Clearly it is a preoccupation. There are many references in the novel to fairy tales (the Snow Queen; Red Riding Hood; the evil queen in Snow White; Beatrice’s fantasy of weaving flax into gold in an enchanted wood) lest the reader forget—or worse, be unaware—of what it is I am trying to say. (Now you are going to ask me what it is that I am trying to say, and I will have to pretend not to understand the question.)
Fairy tales allow us a sense of the presence of the unconscious—in truth, insist on an awareness—which is very helpful for a writer. In life, it is always thrilling (although sometimes dangerous) to act on a trust beyond ourselves, which is what we do when we begin a story—both writing it, and reading it.
I am also interested in evil not only in the form of ogres and stepmothers, but in its most contemporary disguise, with its temptations of heedless abundance and satiety. The Life of Objects is concerned with that, too, although in an Old World class-determined sense. It is a book, after all, about beautiful and rare objects (including human beings).
KA You had been thinking of writing a different novel set in World War II, about aristocratic British fascists. Did that turn into this? How and why? Were you careful to try to depict the details of upper-class German life and manners correctly?
SM I had at first intended to write a novel about Diana Mosley, the beautiful and glamorous Mitford sister (and grandmother of Daphne Guinness) who was married to the British fascist Oswald Mosley. The Mosleys were great supporters of Hitler—some of her relatives claim admiringly that she gave the Fascist salute until the day of her recent death—an apocryphal story, I hope, but unfortunately plausible. She was revered for her intelligence, heightened sense of chic (of course), and quick wit, which, in my old-fashioned way, I found impossible to countenance, given the evil of her politics. Friends chide me that I am naive to equate virtue and intelligence; it is an antiquated construct, no longer morally significant in our fast-moving, relativist world. Well, I loathe relativism, and I came to loathe Diana Mosley. I realized that it would be impossible to write about her with any semblance of understanding, given the depths to which I despised her. I was then living in Berlin as a fellow at the American Academy, and reading the many journals and diaries that had been written during the war. I was very moved by a memoir written by Lali Horstmann, a rich German Jew married to a worldly German diplomat. She inspired me, without much effort, to abandon Diana Mosley and to write about people whom I could, in the end, admire.
I was very intent on getting the details right—even so, I’m sure that I have made mistakes. When I am reading, I find that my confidence in a writer plummets if there is even an insignificant error (that would be an oxymoron for me), no matter how seemingly unimportant, and I am consequently very intent on accuracy. Reading social history helps, of course. Also, I was fortunate to have Miranda Robbins and Francoise von Roy in Berlin, and Sabine Russ in New York, who were astute in discerning any errors or misunderstandings in regard to Berlin or in the German phrases in the book, as well as in social customs and usage. It is always tricky to write about rich people. Hard to make them sympathetic, to say the least, unless they are Bill and Melinda Gates, or George Soros (and even then). And rich Germans during the Second World War, who refuse to leave their country and do not take a public stand against the Nazis—well, you can imagine.
This book was very difficult for me. While I was writing it, I often wondered if I’d be able to continue with it. Too much is known about the war; there are too many stories, opinions, quarrels, injuries, unsettled debts. You can’t leave out anything—not the big important things like D-day, or the Final Solution and the camps and murders, or Stalingrad and the breaking of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but the small things, too. What did people eat? How did they send letters? How did they keep themselves safe? Were they complicit or courageous? And all the while, they fell ill, conceived great passions, bore children, dreamed of a new suit of clothes, lost their keys, and burned their porridge. The Second World War is a subject that is familiar to us, and yet still shocking. Will always be shocking. I was overcome for much of the writing of it.
KA “I loathe relativism,” you say. During the last half century relativism has become pandemic. So does that mean you loathe much of modern life?
SM I don’t at all loathe modern life, although I am often overwhelmed by it, and not infrequently repelled. I am not very good at it. Don’t quite understand how it works. People have tried to bring me along, particularly my students, but I think it has grown clear, even to them, that I am beyond rehabilitation. And in my secret heart, I prefer it that way.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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