Novelist Irving Brings Humor to Morris Gray Lecture

“To find a novelist with such nuance and precision, one would perhaps need to return to Dickens or James.” Such was the praise levied by Bret A. Johnston, author and director of Harvard’s creative writing department, while introducing the Morris Gray Lecturer for Fall 2010, novelist John Irving. Author of “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” National Book Award Winner “The World According to Garp,” and “The Cider House Rules,” (for whose screen adaptation he received an Academy Award), Irving responded to questions that fans had emailed him in advance, and then read extensively from his forthcoming novel, “In One Person," at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum on Wednesday.

Discussing his craft, Irving was careful to avoid giving strong directives to aspiring novelists. “Please don't think that I am one of those writers who, in speaking about his process, is actively recommending it,” he said. “There's no 'should' in what I'm about to tell you.”’

One fan questioned Irving about his tendency to begin a novel with its last sentence. “Yes, I always begin with the last sentence—sometimes, I write two or three of the final paragraphs, if I can. I'm a 'plotting' kind of person. I'm constantly thinking about the language, the language, the language. I need to know what the final voice of the novel is, so that I can begin in a slightly different voice, a few years earlier.”

Irving acknowledged that his particular writing process involves a great deal of planning and precision. “I know it's very controlling, but that is what I do. Will I be devastated if I write a final line, and then one day go back and change it? No, this isn't religion, there's no fear in changing the text.” However, the chances that Irving's final lines will ever undergo revision seem slim. “This is my thirteenth novel. First sentences change all the time. But the last sentences? Those never change for me,” he affirmed.

In particular, when Irving's closing lines take the form of dialogue they form something of a refrain for the rest of the work. “Whenever there's dialogue at the end of one of my novels, it's always dialogue you've heard earlier in the novel, but in a different context,” he explained.

Shifting from the subject of process to the specific content of his works, Irving responded to a fan’s highly convoluted and densely worded question about the meaning of his novel “The World According to Garp.” Playfully reacting to the question’s painful lack of clarity, Irving quipped, “I'm guessing this isn't the essay you wrote for your admission here.”

But despite his joke, Irving did proceed to meditate on the novel’s weighty sexual themes. “It's easy to see what it's about,” he maintained, “It was a novel I wrote in the late 1970s, when the so-called Sexual Revolution and the so-called Gay Revolution, the Stonewall Riots, were happening. This is a post-revolution novel, and yet it's about sexual hatred. There are still people who hate you for your sexual differences.”

Irving then turned to a preview of his current project: a novel written from the viewpoint of a bisexual boy who recalls his experiences growing up during the 1950s and 1960s. The selection he chose to read tells of the narrator's junior year spent studying abroad in Vienna, during which time he worked as a waiter and shared a relationship with an American girl trying to become a professional opera singer.

Reading in a soft, slightly gravelly and sporadically animated voice, Irving brought to life the thoughts and feelings of a sexually-charged adolescent enjoying his first voyage abroad. As is characteristic of his novels, the story introduced several highly sexual elements, which heightened in intensity until one scene's graphic detail and simultaneous humor drew a laugh from the entire audience.

The evening’s tone was, like one of Irving’s novels, strange if humorous. Unable to refrain from smiling during his brief mention of a fight Irving once had with a porcupine in snowy Vermont, Johnston's light-hearted introduction fit well with Irving's decidedly strange brand of humor. Indeed, when Irving took the podium to begin his lecture, he took evident delight in the occasionally bizarre queries of his fans, such as whether or not he owns his own bear costume—bears being a recurring theme in his work. Deadpanning, he replied, “No. I don't even have a rental costume.”

—Staff writer Clio C. Smurro can be reached at csmurro@fas.harvard.edu.

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