Franzen on Franzen

I was at Kings Place (why no apostrophe?) recently to see Jonathan Franzen talk about his novel The Corrections - the one published in 2001, which made his name, and which caused his new novel Freedom to be so eagerly anticipated. In spite of what his reputation for monk-like devotion to intellectual purity of craft might suggest (see here), Franzen was warm, witty and just as articulate and clever as his writing.

If you haven't been, Kings Place is a shiny, metropolitan Americany new concert and lecture venue next door to the equally new Guardian/Observer offices, on York Way, a couple hundred yards up from King's Cross. The Q&A session was part of the Guardian's book club series, and was held in the rather grand wooden-panelled main concert hall, attended by a mix of Eng Lit students, Dalston tight-trousered types and middle-aged couples (as my Q&A companion said after observing the dress sense of the assembled throng: 'Am I the only person who's actually come from work?').

The book club is hosted by John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, who, at least in this case, made a right pig's ear of the opening twenty minutes (before handing over to a relieved audience) by insisting on giving us the benefit of his own lengthy musings on The Corrections before, each time, stumbling to a halt without asking a proper question, expecting Franzen to pick up the scent.

Amongst the things we learnt once things warmed up: The Corrections is, in effect, a series of five separate short stories (one for each member of the family) just as much as a single work; the father of the central family, Alfred, is at least partly modelled on Franzen's own father and his (Franzen Snr.'s) battle with dementia; and, most impressively, the whole novel was modelled after the human brain itself, with recurring metaphors, phrases, characters and so on placed strategically so as to 'talk to each other' in the same way that synapses in the brain link up.

Franzen was also very honest about the fact that he wrote The Corrections at a time when he felt the urge to 'show off' as a writer (spurred on by reading and being bowled over by a manuscript of his friend David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest). I found myself wondering whether that explained why, personally, I found The Corrections extremely admirable more than actively enjoyable: it feels highly crafted and tightly wound. On the other hand it makes me look forward very much to reading Freedom, which Franzen assured us is looser in form and feel.

You can find me @philblogs.

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