TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tom Perrotta, is the author of the novels "Election" and "Little Children," which were both adapted into films. His novel "The Leftovers" was adapted into the HBO series of the same name. His new novel "Mrs. Fletcher" has already been optioned by HBO for a possible series. The story is about major life transitions and the sexual transitions that accompany them.
When the novel begins, Eve, a 46-year-old divorced single mother, is saying goodbye to her son Brendan, who's leaving for college. He expects college to be a big beer-and-pizza party with plenty of girls. He's unprepared for the way he'll be called out for his sexist behavior. Meanwhile, Eve, facing the freedom and loneliness of the empty nest, signs up for a community college class called Gender and Society: A Critical Perspective, which is taught by a trans woman.
Although Eve has been worried about the influence of porn on how her son treats young women, she finds herself turning to porn and is surprised by how much she starts to like it. In a review of "Mrs. Fletcher" in Newsday, Marion Winik wrote, (reading) Perrotta has been called the Steinbeck of suburbia and an American Chekov, but with "Mrs. Fletcher," he's become the Jane Austen of 21st century sexual mores. Note to parents - although we'll be talking a little about how the main character becomes drawn to porn, we won't be talking explicitly about the porn she watches.
Tom Perrotta, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to ask you to start by reading from the very beginning of "Mrs. Fletcher."
TOM PERROTTA: OK.
(Reading) It was a long drive. And Eve cried most of the way home because the big day hadn't gone the way she'd hoped - not that big days ever did. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, graduations, funerals - they were all too loaded with expectations. And the important people in her life rarely acted the way they were supposed to. Most of them didn't even seem to be working from the same script as she was, though maybe that said more about the important people in her life than it did about big days in general.
Take today. All she'd wanted from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning was a chance to let Brendan know what was in her heart, to express all the love that had been building up over the summer, swelling to the point where she sometimes thought her chest would explode. It just seemed really important to say it out loud before he left, to share all the gratitude and pride she felt not just for the wonderful person he was right now but for the sweet, little boy he'd been and the strong and decent man he would one day become.
And she wanted to reassure him, too, to make it clear that she would be starting a new life just the same as he was and that it would be a great adventure for both of them. Don't worry about me, she wanted to tell him. You just study hard and have fun. I'll take care of myself. But that conversation never happened. Brendan had overslept. He'd been out late partying with his buddies. And when he finally dragged himself out of bed, he was useless, too hung over to help with the last-minute packing or the loading of the van.
It was just so irresponsible, leaving her with her bad back to lug his boxes and suitcases down the stairs in the sticky August heat, sweating through her good shirt, while he sat in his boxers at the kitchen table, struggling with the childproof cap on a bottle of ibuprofen. But she managed to keep her irritation in check. She didn't want to spoil their last morning together with petty nagging, even if he deserved it. Going out on a sour note would have been a disservice to both of them.
GROSS: That's Tom Perrotta reading from his new novel, "Mrs. Fletcher." So I love that you have these two parallel transitions - mother's transition - the single mother's transition when her son is leaving for college and his transition when he is the one who's leaving. And there's so many points in this book where I think he's being so oblivious to her needs. And I thought back to myself when I left for college. I wasn't thinking about my parents' needs.
GROSS: I didn't ask them, how do you feel now that I'm leaving home? It never would have occurred to me.
PERROTTA: No, you think - you assume they're all right. Their stories are set, and you're the one who's on the adventure.
GROSS: Exactly. And that's part of the point of your book - the mother's story is not set. Like, she's questioning who she is. She's questioning her sexual orientation. She's questioning what kind of life she wants to have, how she should shake up her life. She goes back to community college and takes a course on, basically, like, sex and gender. So what got you thinking about these two parallel transitions - the mother's and the son's - and how you could kind of join them together?
PERROTTA: Well, the first part of it is I think that I've been kind of tracking my own life in my fiction. So when my kids were little and on the playground, I wrote "Little Children" based on those experiences. And when they were playing sports in junior high and high school, that gave me some of the raw material for "The Abstinence Teacher." And the most recent era of my life has been this transition to the empty nest and to this post-parental moment of reflection - like, OK, this huge project of raising kids is over. What does my life look like now? What - you know, what does my wife - what does her life look like, as well? But I never really write straight autobiography. And it seemed like a much more poignant thing to reflect on what it would be like for a woman whose son was the other person in her family. She really is alone when he goes to school. The empty nest really is empty for her.
GROSS: Well, another thing that really sets off the story - it's on that day that she's about to drive him to college for his first day there. The girlfriend who her son has broken up with comes over for a visit. So the mother, Eve, goes out to get gas before driving him to college. When she returns, she hears that they're engaged in a sexual act. And he's giving her - her son is giving his girlfriend - really, his ex-girlfriend - these crude sexual commands about what to do to him, calling her the B-word.
And Eve is just, like, appalled. Like, she's, you know, an enlightened woman. Like, she hates this language. She hates everything it stands for. And she doesn't know how to have that conversation with him and certainly doesn't want to have it with him on the day that they're parting, that he's going to college. But she wants him to begin college with the understanding that there's a difference between sexual relationships and real life and the soulless encounter he presumably watches on the Internet.
So what made you think about that? Was that - does that come out of your life, too, of wanting to make sure that your children weren't learning crude, condescending ways of speaking to their boyfriend or girlfriend, from - either learning it from friends, from television, from porn, whatever?
PERROTTA: Well, it - I just think it's a really interesting and peculiar moment in American culture because on the one hand, there is this kind of crudeness in the way that we talk. And on the other hand, there's this conflicting urge to really police the way that we speak. And so you see it with, you know, the B-word, as you said. But so it's very common to hear women laughingly refer to their friends with that word.
But then there's a sense that, you know, a guy should never say it to a woman. And, you know, you might say, well, that's a clear rule. But it's also a confusing rule, you know? And I think it's a shock for Eve to hear her son use this word in a sexual context. And I think she immediately thinks that he learned it from porn, where - because he certainly wouldn't have anybody modeling that kind of language for him in real life.
GROSS: So, you know, she's assuming her son watches porn. And then, once he's out of the house, she starts watching a lot of porn. And would you describe the kind of porn she's especially interested in?
PERROTTA: Yeah. Well, she receives an anonymous text that applies a certain label to her, which you and I have agreed to say - she's a sexy mom, a mom who is sexually desirable. People will know the acronym. And she's offended by it. And it's a dirty text. But at the same time, she realizes she's not really sure about what the term means. And she goes to look it up the way we do. And she realizes that it's not quite the old Mrs. Robinson stereotype. It's a more neutral, and possibly even complimentary, term suggesting that, you know, you may be older. You may be a mom. But you're still desirable.
And in the course of doing this, she's led to a website that basically consists of ordinary women in their 30s and 40s, you know, sending in - or their husbands or their partners sending in videos of them engaged in sex. So it's highly amateur. And it's just about people saying, hey, this is me. Here's my - here, you can get a glimpse into my bedroom.
GROSS: And she's surprised to find herself watching lesbian porn.
PERROTTA: Yes. You know, she samples the menu, which is vast. And at a certain point, she settles on this lesbian porn as - you know, she's never thought of herself in this way. But this porn turns her on. And I think it leads her to the sense that there are sexual possibilities in her world that she hasn't investigated yet.
GROSS: In the sexy mother category of lesbian porn (laughter)...
PERROTTA: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: ...You describe it as often beginning with a reluctant woman grumpily washing dishes or mopping the floor, when the doorbell rings. And then a more confident woman arrives with a bottle of wine and a bit of exposed cleavage, and then the action begins. Did you watch a lot of this before writing the novel?
PERROTTA: (Laughter) I watched enough to write the novel. Yeah, I did. And it was really interesting because, you know, if you - I mean, people have different responses to porn, obviously. And some of it is, you know, disturbing. And some of it is just too much. But I did find that I was especially interested by this category of porn that involved a kind of a seduction because it was, I think, very different from, you know, the stereotypical male porn that would just sometimes just launch right in. You know, nobody wants any talking. But there was this sense that, you know - and I guess maybe this is the definition of a certain kind of female-friendly porn - that it was about two people connecting and about - it was about seduction, actually, very clearly.
GROSS: And then, in contrasting that with her son - with Eve's son - he grows up in a boy culture where date rape doesn't seem like it's necessarily wrong to the boys. And if you're a guy who tries to intervene and stop date sexual harassment or date rape, you're going to be bullied for it. And it makes it very confusing for the boys, I think. And I'd like to know what you were thinking about when you were writing this character who is kind of subscribing to that kind of behavior and language and not really understanding what's wrong with it, even though he grows up in a family that wouldn't tolerate that kind of behavior.
PERROTTA: Right, and he would say that it was wrong if you asked him about it. And I do think that I was really interested in the fact that, you know, we talk way more about consent than we did when I was in college. Our...
GROSS: When were you in college, by the way?
PERROTTA: I graduated in 1983. And, you know, I think the - a whole sort of body of knowledge of, you know, or just even the category of sexual harassment didn't fully exist. Like, I think I certainly knew students who'd had affairs with teachers. And that was sort of considered, you know, a little bit risky but not beyond the pale. And, you know, it just hadn't been codified as an offense at that point. It would soon change.
But I will say, you know, we didn't speak as much about consent. We didn't speak as much about sexual boundaries. I think we were closer to the sexual revolution. It was right at the moment when AIDS started to really change people's sexual behaviors. But it is interesting to me that, you know, students now have all these workshops and sessions about consent.
And yet it does seem like the problem - I don't know if it's getting better. Statistically, it's hard to say. But it does seem that these guys are somewhat immune to all of the teaching. Or they arrive at college still expecting to have that party that they've been dreaming about.
GROSS: Right. I'd use the word oblivious. Like, the son in this novel - the boy who is going to college and is in college for a good deal of the book - he's oblivious to girls as equals, to girls as, like, full human beings, to girls as sexual partners, as opposed to truly, like, sexual objects or appliances. And he just - really, he's oblivious.
PERROTTA: (Laughter) Yeah, and I, you know, it - when you read stories about sexual assault on campus, and frat parties and every - you just sort of - it does seem that there's some kind of stubborn culture of male entitlement that is somehow resistant to all of these pushes to change it. And, you know, as a writer, I just thought that was - it would be really interesting to try and get into the mind of a kid like this.
And, you know, I will say he's oblivious, but he does find himself attracted to a young woman who is very much on the other side of the divide. She's an activist. She sees herself as being very involved in social justice. They connect because they have autistic siblings. And he goes to a group that she leads to talk about the challenges of people with autistic siblings. But he goes there, mainly, because he's interested in her.
And I will say, over the course of the book, in some ways, she illuminates him. I don't know that she brings him into full consciousness. He's a very flawed and oblivious guy throughout. But she does challenge some of his assumptions. And college challenges some of his assumptions. He's resistant to those challenges. But I will say he gets some little bit of education over the course of the book.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Perrotta. His new novel is called "Mrs. Fletcher." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Tom Perrotta. His new novel is called "Mrs. Fletcher." He also wrote the novels "Election" and "Little Children," which were made into films, and the novel "The Leftovers," which was adapted into the HBO series of the same name.
Everyone in your book is having some kind of sexual or sexual identity or gender identity crisis. And you think that's one of the things that defines our time now, right?
PERROTTA: Yeah. And I was writing the book at that moment when, you know, what had been a kind of fairly rarified academic discussion of gender fluidity suddenly really entered the mainstream culture. And, you know, I was trying to situate my characters in that conversation, where - you know, I think Eve, for instance, has a transgender professor in her gender and society class. And, you know, Brendan's sort of masculine view of the world is challenged by Amber, the young woman I was just talking about. So I really was trying to react in more or less real time to this cultural conversation that went from peripheral to central in what felt like record time.
GROSS: So the mother, for instance - she's taking a course on gender and society for - at a community college which has a lot of, you know, like, adult students and students who are, like, working. So the students are assigned to write, quote, "autobiographically and analytically about their own problematic experiences on the gender spectrum with special emphasis on the social construction of identity, the persistence of sexism in a post-feminist culture and the subversion of heteronormative discourse by LGBTQIA voices." That's not high academic language that I just read, but it's certainly not street language, either. It's language that comes from - I think it's fair to say it comes from academia. Would you say that's true?
PERROTTA: Absolutely. And...
GROSS: So what do you think about when you hear, like, the language to describe sexual identity, orientation, gender constructs? Do you hear that language that originates in academia and is being used to describe, really, like, personal, intimate, volatile subjects?
PERROTTA: Yeah. You know, I think it is - it can be problematic. I mean, to use an academic term, there is something alienating about academic language and there's something maybe a little alienating about people suddenly being told, you know, you can't say that anymore. And, you know, a lot of what's emanating from academia is this sort of set of restrictions. You can't say this. And there's been, I think, a lot of resentment on the part of people who feel like, hey, I never signed on to that set of terminology. And, sometimes, they might, you know - I mean, it really is a good question as to whether or not we need new terms, or at least we need maybe to be a little more forgiving of people who aren't up to date on the most recent set of dictates about how this or that can be spoken of.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Perrotta. His new novel is called "Mrs. Fletcher." We'll talk more after a break. And Lloyd Schwartz will review a new collection of recordings by the pianist Lloyd and many other music lovers consider the most insightful classical pianist who ever recorded, Arthur Schnabel. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Perrotta. His novels "Election" and "Little Children" were adapted into films. His novel "The Leftovers" was adapted into an HBO series. HBO has already optioned his new novel "Mrs. Fletcher." It's about a divorced single mother who's facing life as an empty nester now that her teenage son has gone off to college. She runs a senior citizens center and is taking a community college class on gender and society taught by a transgender woman. The son is having trouble adapting to college life and is getting called out for his sexist behavior.
So did you come of age with feminism and with the gay rights movement?
PERROTTA: So I went to college in 1979 from a working-class high school. And so I really did have to have my consciousness raised. I came feeling probably the way my parents had. I would say, like, oh, there were no gay people in my high school. And, sometimes, I would make homophobic jokes. And I remember one day, a couple things happened. One, I had a wonderful professor who was gay. And I suddenly realized that I was an idiot for talking about...
PERROTTA: ...Things I didn't know. But I also had another friend, you know, just say to me like, why do you care? Why does it matter to you what somebody else does, you know, in their bedroom? And (laughter) I really was just - I had no answer for that. Why do I care? Because it made me feel superior, I guess. And I think there's a line in the book where Margo says, you know, feeling superior is its own reward. And I think, you know, all it took was just a few people asking me, why did I feel this way? Why did I think that way? And, you know, I changed the way that a lot of Americans did over those years.
GROSS: Another thing that I think is explored in your novel is the difference between the sex people are attracted to when watching pornography and what they want or feel comfortable with in real life. And for some people, that's the same, even though it might be hard to get in real life what you've watched on porn. But for other people, it's really different. You can be turned on by something in porn and not feel at all comfortable with that in real life. Is that something you wanted to explore in the book?
PERROTTA: You know, I think that I was just very interested in the way that porn encourages us to think about sex, which is it breaks it up into all these categories. And I think some of them are incredibly specific and I guess, you know, would be, you know, their fetishes or whatever. But I think anybody who's spent any time in that realm, you know, will just suddenly be exposed to something that you never even thought about or that you might have thought was, you know, not your cup of tea. And then you start going, that's more interesting (laughter) than I thought. Or, you know, I find that arousing or whatever.
So that was definitely a part of porn that's really interesting 'cause I think that most of us - we don't know what other people do. And - but we don't want to do things that our partners are going to find shocking or, you know, embarrassing. But now, suddenly, we have all this information that sort of suggests that all these people are doing all these things. And maybe there's more things on heaven and earth than we dreamt of before. But that is also in the realm of fantasy sometimes. And in reality, it's just not going to work. Or it's just not what it felt like on screen when somebody else was doing it.
GROSS: So the mother, Eve, wanting some kind of adventure in her life with the new freedom that she has - like, she misses her son. She's alone. So she's both lonely, but she also sense senses she has this freedom. And she wants to use it. And one of the ways she uses it, as we've discussed, is, like, watching pornography. But when she goes out to dinner with a younger woman who works on her staff at the senior citizens center, she makes a pass at her, which is rejected. And this is the first time she's ever even thought of the possibility of having a relationship with a woman. And when she's rejected, it's kind of devastating.
It's like, OK, I tried freedom. Like, what did I think I was doing? Like, apparently, I can't do that. Apparently, I've made a terrible mistake. Now I'm just really embarrassed. It's inappropriate, too, she thinks as, like, the boss to have made a pass at someone who works for her. And she says, like, that's sexual harassment. Like, why did I do that? And she's just heartbroken and disappointed in herself and also inhibited by the response that she's gotten. And I thought it was interesting for you as a male writer to try to really get deep into this woman's head while trying out for the first time a lesbian relationship.
PERROTTA: Yeah. And I think, you know, it really was coming from that sense that, once she starts looking at porn, certain things in real life look different to her. So she's watching all this porn where a confident, experienced woman is seducing a woman who is sort of - reluctant, I guess, is the word that's used in the book. There's a confident one and a reluctant one. And she's having this wonderful dinner with her employee. And there's - it's kind of flirtatious, and they're discussing sex. And they're discussing gender. And she keeps feeling, like, the gravity of this porn scenario.
It's like, oh, you know, which one of us is the confident one? Which one of us is the reluctant one? And, somehow, I think this is really what the book is about. During this fall that most of the action takes place in, Eva's feeling her life becoming a kind of a porn scenario or a series of porn scenarios. And they do cause her to act in ways that she never would have acted before and ways that go against her principles. And one of the things that she says that I do think is absolutely true is, in porn, there's no such thing as sexual harassment. Any time a kind of illicit situation is set up, it's so that the doctor can have sex with the patient, so the babysitter, you know, can get together with the parents who've come home, you know? There's no sexual harassment in porn.
And so just for a second, I think Eve mistakes her life for a porn scenario. And then when, you know, cold water gets splashed on her, it's like she's waking from a dream. Like, what was I doing? What was I thinking? And I am very interested in those moments when people do things that run contrary to their deepest principles, to their sense of right and wrong. Those are the moments I think when we find out who we really are.
GROSS: And are you saying, too, that we sometimes confuse freedom with violating our own principles?
PERROTTA: Yeah, that's really interesting, right? That's certainly how it is when we're kids, right? We're told, you can't do this, and you can't do that. And the minute you find yourself alone and unsupervised, those are the things you want to do. And so there is something in that kind of youthful rebellion against parental strictures that I think, you know, can still affect you when you're an adult. You know, when - I remember talking to a friend of mine when our kids had first left for college. And he's a little bit older, and his kids had been gone. And I said, oh, yeah, we're going to have an empty nest, you know, pretty soon. And he just looked at me sort of weirdly and said, well, the pressure to have sex is enormous.
PERROTTA: You know, it's like the kid's leaving, where it's like before when your parents left. Like, you're suddenly free. There's nothing stopping you. And I do feel like Eve is in this moment when, you know, she's alone. She's on her own. And I think she does want to have a sexual life. And she's trying to figure out how to make that happen.
GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Perrotta. He wrote the novels "Election" and "Little Children," which were adapted into films. His novel "The Leftovers" was adapted into the HBO series of the same name. His new novel is called "Mrs. Fletcher." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAKE SONG, "TOUGHER THAN IT IS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Tom Perrotta. His new novel is called "Mrs. Fletcher." He also wrote the novels "Little Children" and "Election," both of which were made into movies. His novel "The Leftovers" was adapted into the HBO series of the same name.
The new book "Mrs. Fletcher" revolves around two main characters - a divorced mother whose son is leaving home for college and during most of the book is gone at college and the son and the transition he's making in his life. They're both making transitions in terms of their sexuality, their understanding of sex and the future that they see for themselves.
So I want to take a turn in the conversation to the senior citizen center that Eve runs. And she has to call people sometimes to say, your father is really misbehaving, you know?
GROSS: She has to call one guy and say, like, you have to come get your father. He can't work here anymore. He's exposed himself and said - you know, said terrible things in the women's room. And the women - the seniors who were in the bathroom were on the verge of calling the police. So like, this has got to stop. Did you ever get one of those? I don't know if your parents have ever been in an assisted living facility or a nursing home or a senior center where you've ever gotten a call like that.
PERROTTA: You know, I have not had that happen personally. But when my kids were younger, I remember that, you know, the local paper had a story about the father of a woman who was - you know, who I'd see in the schoolyard. And it sounded like he had been exposing himself. And it was - I thought, oh, this is terrible; her father's a sex offender. And then, you know, she was just sort of explaining that her father has dementia and was just, you know - he just didn't know what he was doing.
And in the course of writing the book, I did speak to a woman who runs a senior center. And she was telling me that that was, you know, one of the saddest parts of the job - was just having often to break - be the one to break the news - to say to people, your elderly parent needs to be in assisted living; they're no longer able to act appropriately. And it really is, you know, a kind of a - you know, almost like the flip side of preschool, right? You can't go to preschool unless you're, you know, potty trained, and you can't stay at the senior center if you are incontinent.
GROSS: You write from multiple perspectives in the book. There are chapters from the perspective of the mother, chapters from the perspective of the son, chapters from the perspective of the woman who's the employee at the Senior Center and who the mother tries to have an affair with. Why did you want to write from multiple perspectives?
PERROTTA: Well, the truth is, with this book, that I actually didn't. My original thought was that I was going to write a very short, tight book about a woman who goes into a kind of weird sexual fugue state when she's - after her son leaves for college. And so the Eve story was going to be the entire story. And I wrote that first - the first chapter of the book, but her son had become a vivid character in that. And I suddenly was like, I want to know what he's doing, what's happening with him. And I realized that the counterpoint of the two of them on these journeys of, you know, transformation was really interesting.
And then - you know, this is just how I write now I think. Eve's employee is - I know she's going to be part of a romantic story, and so I want to know who she is. So you know, let's spend a chapter with her. And I spend chapters with Margo, Eve's Professor. There's a boy named Julian in Eve's class who's had some bad experiences with Eve's son. And we spend some time with him.
I don't know. I guess that it's just become my way of writing - is that a single point of view just doesn't seem enough for me in a novel. I've read great novels that have just a single point of view, but I feel like I need to kind of get inside as many characters as I can.
GROSS: Since you write about turning points in people's lives, what was a big turning point in your life?
PERROTTA: Well, I do have to say that going to college was - going college at Yale, specifically, after growing up where I did in New Jersey. At the time, I was really adamant with myself that I was not going to let this snobby Ivy League world change who I was and that I could go there, kind of take what it had to offer and emerge kind of unscathed. And what I discovered - and I really tried that. I had a girlfriend at home. I came home a lot on weekends. I always came home for the summers. I always had blue-collar jobs during those summers.
But at a certain point in my late 20s, I suddenly realized, you know, I don't eat the same food as my parents anymore. I don't watch the same TV shows as them. I don't read the same books. I feel like there's this distance sometimes between me and older friends. I think that it's just - in spite of all my determination, I had been really transformed by the experience of going to this, you know, elite, Ivy League college at that particular point in my life.
GROSS: How did your parents and how did your old friends react to the changed version of you? Did your parents say, what happened to you? You're not our son anymore.
PERROTTA: No. You know, my parents were great about it I think, especially my mom. She was the one who really encouraged my siblings and me to go to the best schools we possibly could. And I think she sort of accepted that transformation.
I remember, occasionally - my father has been dead for the past 15 years, but I do remember a few times when I was sort of just mocking some TV show he was watching. And I remember - and I thought it was just a dumb show. It was - I can't even remember what it was. And I remember that he turned to me with a really - he was both irritated and wounded I think by the fact that I was looking down on the show that he was watching. And you know, I still actually feel bad about that.
And you know, don't - that's the part of the transformation in my own life that I'm not crazy about, you know - the sense that the country really is divided by class. And you know, by virtue of going to an Ivy League school, I did, like, sort of jump social classes. And it's really - you know, you've - there is a kind of condescension that can come with that that I, you know, have to really fight in myself.
GROSS: Well, Tom Perrotta, thanks so much for talking with us again.
PERROTTA: Oh, thanks so much for having me. It's such a pleasure.
GROSS: Tom Perrotta's new novel is called "Mrs. Fletcher." After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review a new collection of studio recordings that pianist Artur Schnabel made in the U.S. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. You can count our music critic Lloyd Schwartz among the many music lovers who consider Artur Schnabel the most insightful classical pianist who ever recorded. Schnabel, who died in 1951, was Austrian, and most of his recordings were made in England. But Sony has now released a two-CD set of the studio recordings he made in America. Here's Lloyd's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTUR SCHNABEL PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 5 IN E-FLAT")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Artur Schnabel began making studio recordings in 1932. Although he had been reluctant to record, once he set his mind to it, he began with one of the most ambitious recording projects of all time - the first complete set of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas and five piano concertos. Some of us think these performances have never been surpassed.
Living in America during World War II, Schnabel's recording career diminished mainly because of a notorious strike called by the musicians' union, although he continued to make noncommercial V-Discs for our troops overseas. But in 1942, just before the two-year strike went into effect, he made his only commercial recordings in America.
For RCA Victor, he recorded new versions of two late Beethoven sonatas, the last two Beethoven concertos and a set of Schubert impromptus. These have all just been issued on a new set by Sony. All these recordings are extraordinary. But the big news is the Schubert, which we don't know why Schnabel never approved for release. So these marvelous Schubert performances are now available for the very first time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTUR SCHNABEL PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "4 IMPROMPTUS, OP. 90, D. 899: NO. 2 IN E-FLAT: ALLEGRO")
SCHWARTZ: However many times in his career Schnabel played these pieces, each of these recordings has an extraordinary freshness and spontaneity. Not a single note is on automatic pilot. At every moment, you feel him having a living conversation with the music, deeply felt or deeply playful.
Schnabel was known for the occasional wrong note, but that's partly because these recordings were made before the use of tape when even a single note could be spliced in from another take. These studio recordings are really like live performances, and this is particularly true of the set of Schubert impromptus, a really appropriate name in this case, where so many different moods and emotions surface sometimes simultaneously in even the briefest passage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTUR SCHNABEL PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "4 IMPROMPTUS, OP. 90, D. 899: NO. 1 IN C MINOR: ALLEGRO MOLTO MODERATO")
SCHWARTZ: One of the most moving passages in these recordings is the slow movement of the Beethoven fourth piano concerto. Here, the orchestra is an image of ruthlessness, rudeness and brutality while the piano is the calming, consoling spirit. One traditional analogy for this movement is Orpheus pacifying the wild beasts with his lyre.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTUR SCHNABEL PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 4 IN G MAJOR, OP. 58")
SCHWARTZ: This is music that depicts the triumph of tenderness, of art over brute force. Artur Schnabel captures this with heart-rending sensitivity. In a brutal world, isn't this the music we most need to hear?
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has a new book of poems called "Little Kisses." He reviewed "Artur Schnabel: The RCA Victor Recordings."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Ariel Levy, a New Yorker writer and author of the memoir "The Rules Do Not Apply." The centerpiece of the book is her miscarriage, which she had alone in a hotel room when she was on assignment in Mongolia and five months pregnant. Levy won a National Magazine Award for her New Yorker article about her miscarriage. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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