It's highly unlikely that if you are reading this you are unaware (or unappreciative) of American novelist Robert Stone. For what it's worth, I rank Stone among a handful of living great American writers and have hungrily seized opportunities to chat with him—with the publication of Outerbridge Reach, Damascus Gate, Bear and His Daughter (his one story collection) and Bay of Souls (published in 2003).
Rooting around various computer backup storage devices, I noted the conversation that follows, done around the time (Spring 1998) of his great middle Eastern novel, Damascus Gate, and realized it has had only very limited circulation. A situation I am pleased to correct for Stone readers and admirers the world over.
…Reviewers have long praised Mr. Stone's ability to create richly detailed settings of hallucinatory or surrealistic sharpness, along with grittily verismo dialogue. ''Damascus Gate,'' in particular, many said, hauntingly conveyed the strange volatility of millennial Jerusalem, a considerable feat for an outsider…How did Mr. Stone achieve it?
''I don't take a lot of notes,'' he said ''I absorb what I see. I don't remember details. You don't have to copy down like mad if you just get details right…''
Characteristic of my various chats with Robert Stone, this one contains more than a fair amount of wisdom, insight and big thoughts—“All the grief of the 20th century has come from trying to turn life into art.” Indeed!
Robert Birnbaum: Your books have been set in New Orleans, Central America, Mexico, Hollywood, the Atlantic Ocean, Jerusalem. Is setting important to your writing?
Robert Stone: Setting is very important. It’s the theater where human fate, where human destiny, whatever you want to call it, is acted out. These are all very fateful places.
RS: Fate, yeah.
RB: When Lucas [the main character in Damascus Gate] is talking to the mother of a drug addict, she says something about sending him to Israel so that he would be less tempted to extreme behavior. Lucas says, "Not tempted to extreme behavior here? Here, in the center of the world where earth touches heaven? Where the destiny of man was written? Where words of fire were made flesh? The prophecy uttered in remote millennia determined the morning? And the place once all we knew of God absconded, promised return, pretended returned, promised messengers, whispered messages? Where the invisible wrote fate on stone? Eternally messages, promises. Next year. In the beginning.” This suggests an investment in a place somewhat more than I remember about the other places you have written about.
RS: Well, I mean, Jerusalem is the place where earth touches heaven and is the mountain. It is the center of the world. It is more, as I came to realize when I spent more time there. Jerusalem is in a way the place I have been waiting to write about, and that I finally got to. Maybe it’s the place I’ve been looking for.
RB: Are Israel and Jerusalem equivalents?
RS: No, no. No.
RB: Your first acquaintance with Jerusalem was when?
RS: The mid-eighties.
RB: And what brought you there?
RS: I had been doing a travel piece in Egypt, and I had been in Egypt for months, and we did a safari—my wife and I—in the Sinai. At that time, after the ’75 war, Sinai was being returned bit by bit to Egypt, and we crossed the Egyptian army lines into the Israeli sector, and then we took a bus to Elat, and then in Elat we took a bus to Jerusalem, so we were arriving in Jerusalem in the morning. It was extraordinary. We had been in the desert for weeks already—and this is the same desert, a continuation of the desert—but we arrived in the morning with the sun on that rosy-colored stone. As I got to know the city a little and I began to see the people, I said, “These are people I write about.” This, in a way, is them being brought to the very place that stands for everything I have been writing about.
RB: You frame Israel as a mediocre place, and the irony of course is that this nation of seemingly—or not even seemingly—intelligent people—how did they manage to form something that was so mediocre?
RS: Well, that is almost a cliché. That is a question that is asked so often that it is not original to me. It is the question that everybody asks, that Israelis ask all the time.
RB: Really? I never had a sense that they were that candid about themselves. The Israelis that I have met and the times I have been in Israel, I rarely found someone who was willing to be critical except about a politician.
RS: Why do things look the way they look? Why is everything physically to the eye so indifferent? Why is the art so bad? The public art? Why does it all look so second-rate? This is part of the same question. Why is it like the government of some Eastern European country between the two wars?
RB: You refer to them as mediocre opportunists like the second-rate people in Eastern Europe.
RS: Yeah, well, Netanyahu, make what you will of him, he speaks for himself.
RB: What about Golda Meir, her concerns that Israelis were becoming like their enemies?
RS: Well, it’s her quote. “If the Arabs make us do this . . . ” This is moral kitsch. This is again not original to me; I owe it to an Israeli journalist. I would like to claim it. I have no illusions about my being an outsider in every respect, but it is also a country I know a fair amount about and connect with.
RB: You’re so ready to make the claim that you’re an outsider? Israel is a nation of outsiders.
RS: Well, yeah. This is so. Well, maybe I’m anticipating.
RB: What are you anticipating?
RS: I’m anticipating trouble.
RB: From the American Jewish community? Has Damascus Gate been published?
RS: Yes, it is just out. It was just reviewed in the New Yorker. Actually, Daphne Merkin gave it an extremely favorably review, for which I am very grateful. I am responsible for my feelings and my attitudes, and I know what they are and I know how I feel about Israel. I know how I feel about the Jewish people. I will be responsible for that, and I don’t need anybody to tell me how I feel, or to interpret how I feel, or construe how I feel. I know how I feel. And so whatever flak I get, I feel honest about it. I am a friend of Israel. I am not an enemy of Israel. And I am certainly not an enemy of the Israeli people or of the Jewish people, and I know that perfectly well and so does everyone who knows me well.
RB: I thought that you might have used the quote from the Kabbalah that “to tell the truth without sorrow is the greatest gift” as an epigraph to begin the book.
RS: There are so many great epigraphs I could have used and didn’t. And I’m not sure about the one I did use, which is from Melville [“Enigma and evasion grow; And shall we never find Thee out?”]. But yes, God, there are so many, so many statements in the Kabbalah and Zohar, and so forth. But I resisted, in a way. I thought I wouldn’t invoke these words.
RB: There is a quote by a painter very late in the book, the unnamed painter.
RS: Gosh, he’s unnamed because I can’t remember his name.
RB: "Losing it is as good as having it."
RS: That absolutely wiped me out. He had a show in the Whitney together with Hopper, and I never forgot that.
RB: The quote was printed on the wall?
RS: Yeah. I thought that it was extremely wise.
RB: Tell me why you think it is true.
RS: That which we have, we invariably somehow lose. And at the same time, it can’t be taken away. That is what I take it to mean, and I take it as true.
RB: Are you satisfied with this book?
RS: I am satisfied with it. It cost me everything but my sanity and maybe that, too.
RB: I noticed a page count difference between the advance reader’s edition and the final hardcover.
RS: I went over those proofs and made some changes. I had some mistakes in there; I tried to straighten them out.
RB: I spoke to you last spring or last summer and you were still working on Damascus Gate, and I don’t know if you were two minutes away from finishing it or two months away—but maybe it’s the same thing, you’re not finished.
RS: I am a lifetime away, it seems.
RB: What’s the process when you finally submit the manuscript? It goes to your editor, an editor, and then it comes back to you...?
RS: And they say okay and then it really goes. Then I work on it with Larry Cooper, the copy editor. I don’t work much with a regular editor, but Larry is, as Philip Roth once said of him—he would marry him. Larry is the best, the best in the world.
RB: Is your fiction fact-checked?
RS: To a degree. I mean, they’ll say you can’t have Passover and Easter the same day that particular year. You do a realistic novel, you can’t take absurd liberties. If you’re going to do a novel that is not “realistic,” that is one thing. But if you’re going to do a realistic novel, you have got to make it real. You’ve got to conform to the rules.
RB: You’ve said you feel that there is humor present in your writing. When I read this novel I did find a number of things I thought were funny, including your description of some explosives as a very sophisticated form of pasta. Is there humor here?
RS: Yeah, oh yeah. Yeah, I think there is humor. What is the difference between the incidental funny things that happen between people and humor?
RB: In the context of something that is so fraught with the weight of the centuries and the really big questions, and people who are really in trouble, I think that that can overshadow the light things, the funny things.
RS: I think it does, but there is no life without humor. There was never anywhere, I don’t think, that people found themselves without a degree of humor. I think even in the lowest circle of hell.
RB: “All the grief of the 20th century has come from trying to turn life into art.” Big claim. Big sentence.
RB: Can you say more?
RS: Well, I think it is something you have to think about. But the aestheticization of the politics of ordinary life—of being able to wake up every day and be in a play, in a drama, in a political drama—this is what the 20th century lived for. It is what destroyed civilizations that came before, but...this is what the communists and the Nazis and the fascists were all offering; be part of this drama, leave your commonplace life behind and engage in this political drama. And the result was what we’ve seen.
RB: The bigger political movements and “isms” of our century were some form of performance art?
RS: In a way, they descend from people like Wagner: Nietzsche and Wagner. Wagner, I think, was tremendously influential on Marx. Have you ever seen Pierre Chertraus's Marxist Ring cycle? You can see how really close Wagner and Marx are. Marx once wrote a long narrative poem that ends with this götterdämmerung. And Walter Benjamin said this about fascism, but it was not only true about fascism. He said fascism is the aestheticization of politics. But it wasn’t only fascism; it was all the “isms.”
RB: The music that is mentioned in this book is, of course, [from] the anti-Semitic British professor who plays things that are actually banned.
RS: Orff is banned.
RB: Strauss is banned?
RS: Strauss is banned. Not Wagner. But Orff and Strauss.
RB: How long is the list of banned music?
RS: I don’t know that it extends beyond Orff and Strauss. It is that those two really served the Nazi state. When Zubin Mehta conducted Tristan and Isolde at the Israeli symphony, there were demonstrators. But Wagner is not—it isn’t played much, but it isn’t banned. But Orff and Strauss.
RB: Quite a cast of characters that you put together here. Is anybody here beyond your overreaching sympathy for all human beings in trouble? Is there anyone you really were more fascinated by, more sympathetic to?
RS: Well, in a way I’d like to think I forgive everybody. I was...I think you can read into the characters for whom I am sympathetic, and a number of people obviously who I am really fond of in this book.
RB: I couldn’t grasp your sense of Zimmer. I am not sure you know he’s hardly a...
RS: He’s a hard case. He’s a hard case. He descends in a way—if you remember the character Naftali, he is based on a real guy who I have known for years. There is a character going to Naftali in A Flag for Sunrise. He is sort of like Zimmer.
RB: Right. Guys just show up. They’ve got a long, sad story; they have skill and survival.
RS: And they’re mean.
RB: And they’re mean, right. They’ll go on surviving. Indestructible. And they are employed by everybody: good guys, bad guys. You also quoted something that was from Cuba—“Have to not die”...
RS: You have to not die, yeah.
RB: The translation was, “You have to not die.”
RS: Yeah, that’s it...the good translation in English is, “What you’ve got to do is you’ve gotta not die.” When I first handed in the proof, I had, “What you gotta do is you’ve gotta not kill,” which is not the way it goes.
RB: You have these two half-breed main characters.
RS: I don’t know what you call them, Michelins, mongrels, all this; my family is full of them.
RB: We’re all mongrels. Did you end up in any of the camps in Gaza?
RS: Oh yeah.
RB: Are they grim?
RS: Yeah. They are like Soweto. They are as grim as they could possibly be. They are as grim as anything on earth. 700,000 people. It’s truly ghastly.
RB: Any hope?
RS: Ever since the beginning they have been trying to make the Egyptians take it. All the Egyptians, all they need is 700,000 more inflamed Islamic extremists, so they are saying, “No thanks.” I don’t know what will happen there because they go on having kids...The Israelis kind of played one faction against the other, and they used it for...it was desolation row for the Israelis. Dope and guns and so forth. Everything that was conceivably useful, you could always find a guy down in the Gaza Strip who was your guy. It was like the CIA having assets in Mexico or something. And they are terrible, bad guys, but they’re my guys and I use them.
RB: Giving them no shot at a superior moral standing since the Israelis are running people like everyone else is running people. Are you done? You said that you’ve been wanting to write about Jerusalem for a long time, and now you’ve done it.
RS: Now I’ve done it.
RB: Now what?
RS: Well, in a way you always go on writing about Jerusalem in a certain way. Maybe everything is about Jerusalem. My next book, I think, also has a religious dimension, but it is set in Alaska.
RB: What happens after you’ve done a book?
RS: Well, I don’t seem to get much rest. I am kind of a workaholic, but I am also a perfectionist and I am also kind of lazy, so . . .
RB: Good combination.
RS: In paradise. So I don’t know. I don’t know where the year went. I was really looking forward to the end of my teaching.
RB: You’re at Yale?
RS: Yale, yes. And I went down to Key West, and it just seemed I started writing other stuff and I started well. So I ended up not having a lot of rest, and I’m obviously facing the road, so . . .
RB: Are you finding it more challenging?
RS: Yeah. I’m 60. And 50 can feel the same as 30, but not 60!
RB: I’m 51 and I’m not sure I feel 30, but...
RS: Fifty is good. And then you find you’re 51 and 52, but when you are around 50 you still can feel 30. Not when you are 60. That’s when you feel like you know you’re not 30 anymore. You’re really not. So I don’t know.
RB: You have a stature now as a writer—capitalized, italicized, bold-faced—and the New York Times calls you to write a little of this, and the book review calls you to write a little of that, and maybe Harper’s calls. Is this what you want to do? And then the Boston Public Library calls you to come here.
RS: It’s what I thought I wanted. So I guess it must be what I want.
RB: Is there a way in which you feel like you can slow yourself down or measure yourself?
RS: I don’t know. I may have to try.
RB: You also strike me as someone who just wants to leave it all out there. You want to use it all up.
RS: Yeah, well, I believe in using it all up. I believe that above all. I mean, what are you going to leave behind? Use it up.
RB: The question is, how do you do that?
RS: Tough question.
RB: You don’t have a date or a schedule when your Alaska book is going to be done? Two years, three years, five years?
RS: Oh no, God knows. I hope I live to see it.
RB: Starting a novel, are there any reference points to the novels you have already written? Does it ever somehow . . . is it there somewhere?
RS: Oh, yeah. I think if you read it—I think anybody who reads it is going to see it.
RB: Do you work at trying to avoid that?
RS: Yes, I try to make it different. I don’t want to be singing the same songs, but I think a writer has certain concerns. I don’t think a writer should have the same characters or anything like that, but a writer will have the same certain concerns, and those concerns will come up.
RB: Would you call those moral imperatives?