My dear friend Christian Stretton (artist, librarian, dad!) went to see author Jonathan Franzen in Manchester last week (3rd October). He reports back:
When Jonathan Franzen appears behind the lectern at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, he stops and stands amidst all the applause with a confused look on his face. Franzen is caught in a moment of time directly between the generous media coverage of his new book Freedom being recalled for pulping, and the equally extensive column inches devoted to the spectacles snatch which will occur tomorrow night.
This pregnant pause though is not due to his being at the centre of a media whirlwind. Instead, his confusion is brought about by the nature of the lectern which he stands behind. In fact, the lectern is an improvised ‘customer comments’ box and, as such, is much too short for his tall frame, and has no place on which he can rest his book. He wrestles the box onto the stage, and then shuffles it around, before looking up and grinning, as if noticing us for the first time.
If you were aware of Franzen’s work only through the copious articles and reviews which he garners, it would be easy to hate him. But to read his books, and to see him speaking confidently, openly about his writing, is another matter. Seeing him here tonight as a vulnerable, all too human writer, a gulf appears evident.
There are many questions tonight (from Dave Haslam) about Franzen’s media presence: he shifts uncomfortably in his seat when asked about the ‘Great American Novelist’ label, talks about the ‘unreality’ of these promotion tours, and even mentions Oprah. But these are not his most interesting (or revealing) answers. Only when Haslam gets down to the writing do we find Franzen exposed. When asked if he reveals his own political beliefs even when writing in character, his articulate response explains how he has many differing opinions in his head, each held to be true at the same time, and the characters that he creates are a way of resolving these differences.
Haslam clearly admires Franzen, and so his line of questioning is unlikely to provoke. Nevertheless, when he asks about Franzen’s own teenage years, the audience note a small crumble in the time it takes for Franzen to compose his answer. ‘At the start of the tour, I said I wasn’t going to talk about the meaning of the title,’ he begins, tantalisingly. The ‘Freedom’ of the title, he goes on to explain, is more about his own personal freedom from his past. This book, it seems, was his release; a way of breaking from his adolescent self. ‘I feel like I was an adolescent until about two years ago’ he smirks (Franzen is 52 years old).
There is no question, Franzen presents himself well. By his own admission, he is unafraid of public speaking, so doesn’t really see the polarity of his writing life, compared to his promotional life. By the end of the evening, we are all charmed by his answers. Yet, for all his success, I feel sympathy for a gentle, fragile man with a talent for constructing a good sentence, caught in the eye of a storm that he seems incapable of creating himself, and unlikely to enjoy.
As I leave, he shakes my hand. A confident American handshake with good eye contact. He seems to have enjoyed tonight, for all its unreality.