I was fan of Charles Simic’s brilliant poems long before we become friends in the early 1990s. Sometimes it still surprises me that I actually know him. I’ve never stopped thinking that it is a privilege to be Charlie’s friend, to have the benefit of his humor, his intelligence, his enthusiasm for, among other things, poetry, books, film, jazz, food and wine, though not necessarily in that order.
I can’t remember when I didn’t know he was born in Serbia, nor can I recall when I first read the passage in which he wrote that Hitler and Stalin had been his travel agents. That alone—the wit, the sly surrealism, the depth and imagination—tells you any number of things you might want to know about his work. The beautiful early paragraphs of his memoir, A Fly in the Soup, describe not only his own history but, I would imagine, that of many recipients of the Vilcek prize.
“’Displaced persons’ (DP) is the name they had for us back in 1945, and that’s what we truly were. As you sit watching bombs falling in some old documentary or the armies advancing against each other, villages and towns going up in fire and smoke, you forget about the people huddled in the cellar. Mr. and Mrs. Innocent and their families paid dearly in this century for just being there…My family, like so many others, got to see the world for free, thanks to Hitler’s wars and Stalin’s takeover of east Europe. We were not German collaborators or members of the aristocracy, nor were we strictly speaking political exiles. Small fry, we made no decisions for ourselves. It was all arranged for us by the world leaders of the times. Like so many others who were displaced, we had no ambition to stray far beyond our neighborhood in Berlin. We liked it fine. Deals were made about spheres of influence, borders were redrawn, the so-called iron Curtain was lowered, and we were set adrift with our few possessions.”
Years ago Charlie called and said he was coming to Manhattan and wanted to go out to dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the German carpet bombing of Belgrade. It was his first conscious memory; he’d been knocked across the room. The plan was to eat at a German restaurant in the East 80s, but we couldn’t find one, cholesterol-conscious Americans having shunned the pigs knuckles and sausage, a dish about which Charlie has written sublimely. So as a logical alternative, we wound up at a Turkish restaurant in Gramercy.
Once I heard Charles Simic read with the Slovenian poet Tomas Salamun, and after the reading I thought, Maybe there is such a thing as an Eastern European poem. Yet when you extract from a Simic poem the images that seem Eastern European—grandmothers, black cats, snow, roast lamb, fortunetellers, the offhand or calculated wickedness of the powerful, Mr. and Mrs. Innocent huddled in their cellar–they begin to seem like American things, or French things, or things from anywhere, really. They come from the particular country that is a Simic poem and that we are allowed to inhabit for the length of time we read it, at which point we are returned to ourselves, changed by the visit.
Charlie has asked if I was planning to read his complete works tonight. I could go on for almost as long, telling you what I admire about his poems—their alchemical melding of the surprising, the illogical, the inevitable, the fantastic and the historical. The way you can never predict how one line will lead to the next, but every line reveals that it is the best and only one it could possibly have been.
As everyone knows, Charles Simic has written more celebratory, life-loving poems than any other serious and important modern poet. But something, some perversity, makes me want to read one of the dark ones, even or especially on this warm and festive occasion, perhaps as a reminder of why many, if not most, of us are in this country tonight and of what is out there beyond this bright and beautiful room.
Like Charles Simic, Dinaw Mengestu has the wisdom and perspective that comes from having been somewhere else. I loved his first novel. The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. I remember admiring how he made it look easy to create complex characters with complicated lives and to avoid, as a weaker writer could not, the surface and sentimental. His second novel, How to Read the Air, is even better. The clarity, the eloquence and the compression of the sentences is such you only have to read the first paragraph to be swept into the book.
“It was four hundred eight-four miles from my parents’ home in Peoria, Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee., a distance that in a seven-year-old Monte Carlo driven at roughly sixty miles an hour could be crossed in eight to twelve hours, depending on certain variables such as the number of road signs offering side excursions to historical landmarks, and how often my mother, Mariam, would have to go to the bathroom. They called the trip a vacation, but only because neither of them was comfortable with the word ‘honeymoon,’ which in its marrying of two completely separate words, each of which they understood on its own, seemed to imply a lavishness that neither was prepared to accept. They were not newlyweds, but their three years apart had made them strangers. They spoke to each other in whispers, half in Amharic, half in English, as if any one word uttered too loudly could reveal to both of them that, in fact, they had never understood each other; they had never all known who the other person was at all.”
Dinaw Mengestu’s novels take place here and there, Ethiopia, where he was born, the United States, and ultimately in a country that their author, that every author, creates with each comma he or she puts in and takes out. The work of Charles Simic and Dinaw Mengestu testify to literature’s power to describe and transcend at least three countries at once: the old country, the new country, the country of the writer.
Thank you again, to the Vilcek Foundation, for honoring their achievement.
Best known for her novels – the latest, My New American Life is due out in May 2011 – Francine Prose’s prodigious output also includes short story collections, essays and literary criticism, translations, children’s books, and nonfiction titles, including the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, and Anne Frank: The Book, the Life and Afterlife.
Ms. Prose’s list of her literary accolades is as long as her bibliography, among them: the 2010 Washington University International Humanities Medal, the Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fulbright Fellowship. Her novel Blue Angel was a National Book Award finalist. A former president of PEN American Center, Ms. Prose is currently a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard College. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the New York Institute for the Humanities.