'Never Be Daunted'
I. The "You," Just So You Know, Is Professor Mark Axelrod
You are sitting across one of those tiny, round Parisian caf tables from . . . Samuel Beckett. (Beckett, to fill us all in here, is the world-famous writer with the indelible crag of gray face and shock of white hair, his head looking like it was hewn from rough granite by God's exhausted hands, poised, facing without a flinch—and with a totally new kind of dignity—the onslaught of horrors and emptiness wrought by the first half of the 20th century. He authored groundbreaking works of theater like Waiting for Godot and Krapp's Last Tape, as well as a trilogy of novels that took fiction a few steps past Joyce's Ulysses into something that people would later recognize as "postmodern." Which he helped inaugurate, and for which, among other things, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. That Beckett.)
This is the early 1980s, and the elderly Beckett facing you is by now a deathless icon, having long outlived everybody—Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner—who could be said to be his peers. You are, in the manner of late bloomers, still starting out. You have somehow finagled this audience with the Great Man through the acquaintance of an acquaintance. As you remember it later, Monsieur Beckett is "self-effacing" and "quiet"; he is "even more nervous than I was," and he's fidgeting with his napkin, his coffee saucer, his little cigars. And every time you ask him a question about himself—since, what else are you supposed to do? You have only an hour of your life to spend with this man, and you know you will not pass this way again—he turns the question around and asks you about yourself. And he doesn't seem to be blocking your questions because he resents intrusions into his privacy. No, not at all. He seems genuinely interested in you. Discovering that you write—and that you write all sorts of things: poetry, screenplays, novels, literary criticism—he wants to know how the devil you juggle all those forms so nimbly, because, he confesses, he can't. One of the 10 greatest writers of the 20th century is asking you, humbly and rather sweetly, for your ideas on how to write.
At this point in your life, you are already in your thirties and have every right to consider yourself a failure in several areas. You couldn't hack dentistry—halfway through dental school at the University of Indiana, they threw you out. You did publish an interesting little book of concrete poetry, but it's hard to tell if the 14 people who read it think it's any good. When you moved to Hollywood to turn your (unpublished) novel into a screenplay, you got all the way into an important agent's office, an agent who offered you an actual contract, but for some reason you can't even remember now, you suspected some legal catch, and turned him down, and the chance (there being few second acts in screenwriting careers) has never come round again. By your own account, you are, at this point in the 1980s, a "vagrant," a "work-in-progress," toiling away at a Ph.D mill in frigid Minnesota, so while Samuel Beckett is focusing his iconic head with those tragically watery eyes straight at you, a voice is thundering inside you, saying, "What interest could Samuel Beckett possibly have in whatever I do?"
You don't want to blow this. Years earlier, you remember, Jorge Luis Borges (one of the other 10 greatest writers of the 20th century) walked by your table at a caf in, of all places, Bloomington, Indiana: "The first time I saw him was a Sunday morning at a caf," you recall now. "I was doing some writing and he walked in with Mara Kodama, before they were married, and someone else. I just sat there and stared as they walked by my table and sat nearby. My hand was frozen. Mouth contorted. One just doesn't sit in a Bloomington caf on a Sunday and expect Borges to walk in for brunch. The caf was practically empty, but filled with my anxiety. I never went up to him, never said anything to him and the opportunity disappeared. It was after that moment when I told myself, never again would I let that happen."
So you don't. You regard Beckett's regard of you, somehow, as your due, and you allow yourself to dwell in it. Bask in it. You come away from this Parisian tryst with a little confidence. You spend the next two decades writing and publishing like crazy—a trilogy of novels of your own, a book of short fictions, another novel, two well-received works of literary criticism, several textbooks on screenwriting, articles all over the place. You become a full professor of English and Comparative Literature at Chapman University. You lecture throughout Europe and South America as an expert on screenwriting, on Latin American fiction, and as a practitioner of a brand of writing called metafiction, or fiction that takes as its subject the writing of fiction and the fictive nature of reality. You find yourself being offered visiting posts at universities foreign and domestic where you present your ideas to eager colleagues and students. You win lots of awards and sinecures. And, in doing all this, you find yourself, curiously, at the vortex of three of the most vital artistic movements of 20th-century writing: the postmodern self-reflexive novel as initiated by Beckett and Cortazar and popularized in the U.S. by John Barth, Ronald Sukenick, and your old pal Raymond Federman; the Latin American novel that took the literary world by storm after Gabriel Garca Mrquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude; and that monstrously influential machine of narrative storytelling called Hollywood. Your finger is firmly on the cultural pulse.
Yet, you will acknowledge, playfully if quite painfully, in your most recent book of fiction that although "the majority of the minority of the literary critics who have read Axelrod's work have all overlooked the political nature of it, that oversight is due to the fact everyone ignored him anyway." You will be hurt when one reviewer of that book (that would be, um, me) notes that your work has been "flying under the radar" of most readers of contemporary fiction, and you're hurt not so much because he is wrong, but because he is in fact being generous. "My work hasn't been flying beneath the radar," you explain. "When it comes to my fiction, the radar has been turned off."
So what do you do? You keep plugging: in 2006, you publish a new book on how to adapt classic works of fiction to the screen (I Read It at the Movies: go to Amazon.com); though you are going through all manner of personal sturm und drang, you write a whole new novel over the summer, (this one a potboiler for money: you're tired of writing for critical plaudits); and you put together, on a tight budget, a dazzling lecture series called the John Fowles Literary Forum for Chapman U's John Fowles Center for Creative Writing that will begin Feb. 12 and run through April 23. You follow Bill Gorton's drunken advice in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: "Never be daunted. Secret of my success. Never been daunted." That's Professor Mark Axelrod all over.
II. How the John Fowles Center Got to Be Called The John Fowles Center, or, The Axelrodian Thing.
The fact that Chapman University, located as it is in the modest academic backwater of Orange, California, has something called the John Fowles Center for Creative Writing, named after a major British writer (very recently deceased) who spent most of his adult life isolated in the tiny seaport village of Lyme Regis, England, writing novels like The French Lieutenant's Womanand The Magusfairly screams out for an explanation. And the explanation is Mark Axelrod. Back in his twenties, after dropping out of dental school and not signing the screenwriting contract that could have meant his entre into big Hollywood money, Axelrod shuffled up to Carmel, where he took up shelter in a converted garage with a tiny bed and a space heater, got a job in an art gallery, and worked, bohemianly, on a new novel. It was sort of Play Misty for Me romantic, there being a woman up there to pursue and all, but after awhile Axelrod realized this wasn't working out either, and so he did the quixotic, Axelrodian thing: he wrote a long letter to a famous writer he'd never met asking for career advice, choosing this particular famous writer for no other reason than that they happened to share the same birthday (March 31). John Fowles turned out to be the opposite Aquarian, and he seemed to find Axelrod's career plight endearing enough, and the calendrical coincidence sufficient enough, to write a response. So a correspondence was joined. Amazing, and a lesson to all those who tend to let the main chance slip away. Their letters tapered off, eventually, but in the 1990s, Axelrod went to England and finally met up with the novelist in Lyme Regis, where, on the strength of Axelrod's post-Beckett-meeting credentials and that dauntless personality, Fowles agreed to lend his prestigious name to a new creative writing center located in a Southern California he otherwise had absolutely no use for (cf. his bitterly dismissive treatment in the novel Daniel Martin). Soon afterwards, Fowles visited Chapman to receive an honorary doctorate and to bless the new center, and Axelrod scrambled for funding, eventually securing it from Chapman and the National Endowment for the Arts.
III. Why the John Fowles Literary Forum Is Cool
A decade has now passed, and the JFC is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Since its founding, the lecture series Axelrod puts together has hosted all manner of writers, though the ones who stand out are the ones who exemplify the literary movements Axelrod has had his hand in, either as a practitioner or as a critic: American experimental fiction and contemporary Latin American writing. On the North American experimental side, Raymond Federman (who, in books like Double or Nothing, contributed to the "death of the novel" controversy in the 1960s and '70s) has been a regular guest, along with Steve Katz (The Exaggerations of Peter Prince, Weir & Pouce). Mark Amerika, the art provocateur who, among many other things, writes interactive "Internet fiction," raised a royal ruckus among the JFC's audience a few years ago. And last year the center hosted a touching tribute to Axelrod's friend Ronald Sukenick (the author of Up, 98.6, and the mostly forgotten but great The Death of the Novel and Other Stories), who died in 2004.
If you go to college these days, writers like these aren't exactly cluttering up your syllabus, and the general cultural discourse has pretty much marginalized white guys from the 1960s who self-consciously foreground the creative process in their writing. (Take, for example, Axelrod's own exuberant but mostly unread Bombay, California, his novel about writing a Hollywood screenplay, which is written in the form of a screenplay and comments on itself throughout.) This sort of metafiction had its heyday back in the 1950s and 1960s, and by many accounts it exhausted its aesthetic frisson and the goodwill of its readers by getting self-indulgent and hermetically sealed off from the world. Though there's something to be said for that criticism, two of the most imaginatively daring youngish writers in America—Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace—clearly cut their teeth on the American metafiction of people like Sukenick (and John Barth and Vonnegut) and, in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or Infinite Jesthave given a new warmth and intimacy (not to mention a new hipness quotient) to the practice of metafiction. Axelrod, bless him, is helping keep the fathers of that tradition alive.
As for the Latin Americans, probably the jewel in the center's crown has been the frequent presence of Luisa Valenzuela, one of Argentina's most important writers and a contemporary avatar of the magical realism invented by Mrquez. How did Axelrod snare Argentina's most famous female writer? Well, that's another Axelrodian anecdote: his wife (who is Argentinean herself) happened to sit next to Valenzuela on a plane one day and struck up a conversation. When Axelrod heard about it later, he knew he wasn't going to let that coincidence pass any more than he did the coincidence of sharing John Fowles' birthday. So he used that chance meeting as a wedge to invite her to come out for a reading, whereupon he and Valenzuela forged a friendship that's now well into its second decade. Now, Axelrod says, "she's my biggest fan," supporting the lecture series and consistently blurbing his fiction.
It's the Latin Americans whom Axelrod is highlighting in this year's lecture series, as well as in a bracing art exhibition, to be held in Chapman's brand-new Leatherby Library, of Argentinean and Chilean artists that will run concurrently with the lectures. (The exhibit also begins Feb. 12.) The painters—Alejandro Boim, Carlos Martin Musiera, and Camilo Ambrosio Utard—share not just bold coloration but a sort of surreal and violent pictorialism that comes from, among other things, their shared interest in exposing the torture and oppression practiced by the political regimes of Argentina and Uruguay. Ambrosio Utard's work includes a painting of the bloodied back of a nude and shackled prisoner kneeling after a beating. The flesh of the man's back glows a strangely beautiful orange and yellow (as in Van Gogh), which highlights the pain of the flayed skin at the same time that it suggests a transcendence of pain (perhaps through prayer)—yet the painting puts the viewer in the position of the torturer looking at the work he'd just finished. Among Musiera's paintings in the exhibition is the almost surreally cruel image—Bosch-like in its idiosyncratic creepiness—of another naked back, this one perhaps of a woman, who has had her torso run through with what appears to be a huge wire coat hanger. There are rambunctious, pop-inflected works in the exhibition, too (one by Boim features Batman with the mask of the Joker in the crook of his arm), and portraits by Ambrosio Utard that have a Picasso-like flamboyance. There's a reckless anything-goes quality to these artists—in terms of color, composition, cultural borrowing, political commentary, narrative thematics—that's quintessentially Latin American: unafraid of the garish, willing to mix traditions, exuberantly alive even when dealing with horror.
These are qualities that the writers whom Axelrod has brought together in this year's series also share. Carmen Boullosa, one of Mexico's foremost poets and novelists, initiates the series Feb. 12. In a long career that has only recently begun to flower in America (she has had two of her novels translated into English in the past decade, and she now teaches frequently at universities in the U.S.), Boullosa (like Valenzuela, like Chile's Isabel Allende) is the beneficiary of a kind of perfect storm of historical circumstance. Writing in the wake of Latin American giants Borges and Mrquez, and the enormous fictional vistas they opened up (not to mention the international audience they created), Boullosa has been able to expand on their techniques, at the same time bringing feminist concerns to the table and taking advantage of the enormous relaxation of erotic restrictions that hampered previous generations of female Latin American novelists. Her themes—succinctly summed up in a BOMB magazine interview as "love, erotics, the body and the pleasures that can be experienced through the senses" should make for a provocative lecture.
The other writers to follow in the series—a group of Argentinean and Uruguayan writers, all but one female, and a number of them victims of torture by oppressive regimes—are likely to be just as provocative, especially to OC readers, used as they are to meeting American writers at Borders over polite cups of chamomile. Readers may have "overlooked the political nature of" Axelrod's own work (impossible to do, really, if you read Capital Castles, the middle book of his trilogy), but nobody will miss the politics of this lecture series.
IV. Kevin Bacon or Ezra Pound? You Decide.
Mark Axelrod went to high school with David Letterman. (Let's just say it: Axelrod is the Kevin Bacon of Orange County.) Letterman called him "Ax" back then, and though the comedian remembers him enough to send him tickets to his show when Axelrod's in New York, their common roots in Indianapolis have been pretty much axed, and they've been flung to opposite coasts (and, well, fates). It's always fascinating how people end up in Southern California. ("Tip the world on its side and everything loose falls into California." Can't locate the source of the quote, but it's true.) After kicking around loose for years, Axelrod fell into a tenured professorship at Chapman, which for years was a sleepy and overlooked private college whose financial health was grave before James Doti, the current president and absolute money magnet, initiated a $200 million endowment campaign that's resulted in a new law school, a new and amazingly outfitted film school, an attractive high-tech library, state of the art new sports facilities, and a gorgeous facelift to the entire campus. Chapman's college rankings are shooting up, and Axelrod's benefiting from the more talented student pool, the greater prestige, the greater access to funding for his many projects. Among those projects is his plan to jumpstart a dormant critical journal (called the New Novel Review) that would investigate the work of the practitioners of the experimental novel he's been championing all these years, as well as getting back on track Chapman's Distinguished Writers series that's been languishing due to lack of funding. The series has attracted luminaries like Allen Ginsberg and Joseph Heller in the past, and if he can get the funding—and Axelrod's fingers have found themselves in a lot of pots—he plans to have Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, or V.S. Naipaul come to OC next year.
Mark Axelrod is an amiable whirling dervish of energy, an ambassador of literature, really, one of those good soldiers who may end up as well-known for how he promoted great writing as for his own work. Call him Orange County's version of Ezra Pound. His own enthusiasms bridge North and South America, the moneymaking impulse and the artistic one, a love for the popular and the esoteric, and the bridges have been made possible by that Axelrodian thing: that dauntless willingness to make the connection, to put himself out there, to make the idea in his head real. He's an entrepreneur (literary division), it turns out, and in that an awfully nice fit for the county he lives in.
THE JOHN FOWLES LITERARY FORUM AND ARTE LATINOAMERICANO EXHIBIT AT CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY, LEATHERBY LIBRARIES, SECOND FLOOR, THE DOY AND DEE HENLEY READING ROOM ONE UNIVERSITY DR., ORANGE, (714) 997-6750; WWW.CHAPMAN.EDU. CARMEN BOULLOSA KICKS OFF THE LECTURE SERIES ON FEB. 12, 7 P.m. CONTINUES THROUGH APRIL 23. EXHIBIT BEGINA Feb. 12 AND RUNS THROUGH MAY 15. CALL OR CHECK WEBSITE FOR ADDITIONAL LECTURE TIMES AND OTHER INFORMATION. FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.
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