Talking Volumes with Michael Ondaatje Fitzgerald Theater, May 27 By Dan Sinykin
I spent the evening with a roomful of cooing, mostly women-of-a-certain-age watching the charming blue-eyed old novelist Michael Ondaatje talk about his life’s work at the Fitzgerald Theater for MPR’s Talking Volumes Series. What strange behavior for all of us at the Fitz tonight, flitting and fluttering while Ondaatje answered canned questions from Midmorning’s slick Kerri Miller. Though I’m terrified that no one agrees with me. William Gaddis, a dead brilliant satirist, once said of book readings, “What is it they want from the man that they didn’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left when he’s done with his work, what’s any artist but the dregs of his work, the human shambles that follows it around?” As Gaddis knew and despised, the cooing women wanted a wink and a smile, the vain pleasure of the initiated. The aesthetic purist (i.e. asshole) in me wants to snicker with Gaddis, but my other (better?) half, the half who thinks of my mother, finds more than self-congratulation in the choral coos.
Ondaatje and Miller sat across from each other in comfy armchairs. The writer leaned in, spoke with his hands, kept one foot resting on the other. Miller sat motionless for the entire ninety minutes, legs crossed, occasionally tapping her chin with the bottom of a Bic. At the end of the discussion, when the floor opened for audience questions, a woman bent to the microphone and mentioned that she had to go relieve herself in the middle of the show -- and not for the obvious reason. She explained that she had felt such intensity between Ondaatje and Miller that she could not contain her own passions, and wanted to know whether they had felt the same.
Ondaatje deflected the question to laughter, saying, “We couldn’t leave the stage.” He’d been deflecting questions all night. A minor character in his latest novel, Divisadero, is a writer. This fictional writer says, “When I wrote . . . that was the only time I would think.” The narrator comments, “[He] could be alone and content, guarded from all he knew, even those he loved, and in this strange way, be fully understanding of them. It was in a sense a terrible proposal of secrecy . . . that could lead somehow to intimacy.” You had to feel for poor Miller, consecrated with the corporeal Book Club, up against this witty scribbler, since he’d already written all he’d thought in his books -- why were either of them doing it? Money? Fame?
I don’t think so. Every time Ondaatje refused to answer a question plainly, rejecting the impulse to rationality, he opened a space for the intimacy of what can’t be said, which is what he does in his writing. Maybe these enraptured women loved that space, and went to the writer hoping to get there again. Maybe I, transferring my own aesthetic pretensions onto each of Ondaatje’s deflections, was the only self-congratulatory snob in the room.