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It’s hard to believe that the Festival America in Vincennes can pack so much into three days. The festival is dedicated to writing in the Americas, South as well as North. This year the theme nation was Canada, but the U.S. always tends to figure prominently and draws the crowds. There was an evening with John Irving, homage to Philip Roth, a series of breakfasts with authors (I attended one with Lauren Groff), master classes, film screenings, book signings, and activities for young readers. The highlight of the Festival (all due apologies to Irving fans) was the Night of the Pulitzers (La Nuit des Pulitzers) held Saturday evening at the Centre Culturel Georges Pompidou.
No less than four Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists appeared before a packed house: Jeffrey Eugenides, who won for the inter-gender epic Middlesex (and also wrote the Virgin Suicides, adapted by Sophia Coppola for her first movie). Michael Chabon, winner for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel about a pair of comic-strip creators. Richard Russo won for his small-town saga Empire Falls (which was adapted into a TV mini-series). Colson Whitehead was the most recent prize-winner of the group, winning for Underground Railroad, a magic-historical version of the eponymous slave escape route (transformed into a literal train).
The evening was moderated by Bruno Corty, director of the Figaro Litteraire, Le Figaro newspaper’s literary review. He cut a cheeky as well as bookish figure, in the style of Bernard Pivot. He clearly knew his stuff about American literature in general, in addition to the four guests. One of the organizers of the Festival made an appearance to introduce the evening, and the mayor of Vincennes cordially addressed her constituents, and then presented the authors with the medal of the city.
Each author had his own interpreter. Simultaneous interpreting is a difficult and demanding activity, and the levels varied (some may have been publishing-house employees rather than professional interpreters). Richard Russo’s interpreter was astonishingly good, and received a round of applause from the audience after accurately rattling out a French version of a long peroration by Russo. The audience was nearly all French, but seemed to be conversant in English—there was noticeable clucking if an interpreter’s version française wasn’t up to snuff.
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The evening wound up being about two main topics: The Pulitzer Prize itself, then the Writer in the Age of Trump. The authors spoke frankly about the life-changing character of the prize. All said there was a dramatic change in terms of recognition and prestige. Richard Russo’s midlist book suddenly became a bestseller, and his previous novels came out of oblivion and started selling as well. Michael Chabon recalled it as the happiest day of his life. When he told his young son that Daddy had won an important prize, the boy responded with “Open it! Open it!”
When Eugenides’ Middlesex won the prize, it served as a touchstone in mainstreaming what had been a very offbeat subject. Readers personally affected by gender issues wrote to thank him. Colson Whitehead’s pessimistic view of life, including his own, momentarily turned rosy. At the same time, while the prize changes everything, it changes nothing about the author’s ordeal of facing the blank page once again. There was also the problem of being expected to repeat oneself.
Politics was the second subject to dominate the evening. Eugenides, Chabon, and Russo attained prominence in the early 2000s, the George W. Bush era. They remembered not just their personal animus against his policies, especially during the Iraq War, but also the bitter experience of being an American abroad and having to apologize for, condemn, or explain U.S. policy. Eugenides was living in Berlin, and saw his perception of Germans as relatively pro-American suddenly do a U-turn. Most consider the current climate to be not as bad as back then, because the Administration hasn’t yet lurched into a shooting war. Chabon said that foreigners also have the impression that a huge number of Americans clearly oppose Trumpism.
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Whitehead waxed acidic about reactionary and racist streaks of American life, throughout its history, blaming it on human nature, and expressed little hope for more than periodic change. All the prize-winners were skeptical about the power of writers to directly impact the situation. Russo and Chabon agreed that the most efficient action to take was financially supporting activist groups. Whitehead expressed admiration for political journalists at the Washington Post and elsewhere. Eugenides said that during his years as a professor at Princeton he was insulated from politics, and that none of his students had ever discussed politics with him. One distraught student who came to see him was upset because she didn’t think she was a good enough writer.
It was fascinating to watch the different personalities express themselves and interact with each other. Jeffrey Eugenides was tall, lean and professorial. He recounted how as a young man he imitated his Brown University mentor John Hawkes to learn how to acquire the persona of a tweedy author. He definitely succeeded. Michael Chabon looked startlingly like Richard Branson with his long and thick gray locks, and equally long and thick beard. He was reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet with both his looks and moral earnestness, but with an endearing spritely quality. Richard Russo was avuncular and warm, and unself-consciously embodied old-fashioned American decency. Colson Whitehead was sleek and intellectual, his poutish pessimism mitigated by a quirky sense of humor. In fact, humor was the one quality that characterized all the Pulitzerians, and was greatly appreciated by the audience. The authors convinced them that positive American qualities endure; while others evoked the old saying “This too shall pass.”
Podcasts and videos of the Americas Festival are available on their web site: www.festival-america.com.
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Lead photo credit : A Rollicking Night of the Pulitzers Caps the Festival America. Photo: Youtube clip from "Une soirée avec les Pulitzer - Festival America 2018"