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Novelist Jonathan Franzen

Author Jonathan Franzen joins Fresh Air to discuss his latest novel, The Corrections. The story revolves around the lives of three children who live far away from their aging parents. The parents' health problems have made it difficult for them to take care of themselves. The children then have to decide how willing they are to change their own lives to care for their parents.


Other segments from the episode on October 15, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 15, 2001: Interview with Jonathan Franzen; Commentary on language; Commentary on the television show "I love Lucy."


DATE October 15, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jonathan Franzen on his newest book, "The Corrections,"
his relationship with his parents and that connection to the book

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We've been focusing most of our programs on terrorism, but we don't want to
completely lose track of what's happening in the arts. So today we're going
to talk about a terrific new novel. My guest, Jonathan Franzen, is the author
of "The Corrections," one of those rare books which is both a literary and a
popular success. It received mostly rave reviews. The New York Times Sunday
Book Review said that its word play was worthy of Nabokov. Last week, "The
Corrections" was nominated for a National Book Award. It's also the current
Oprah Book Club selection, which has helped it reach number one on the
best-seller list.

The story revolves around the lives of three adult children who live far away
from their aging parents. The parents' health problems have made it difficult
to keep taking care of themselves, and the children have to decide how much
they're willing to change their own lives to care for their parents. But the
novel is also a satire about family dysfunction, work, post-modernism and
trendy transgressive art.

Recently Franzen wrote a short piece for The New Yorker about his response to
September 11th. I asked him what it's like to be a novelist now.

Mr. JONATHAN FRANZEN (Author, "The Corrections"): In a larger sense, if
you're talking about what the fiction writer's responsibilities might be, or
chosen responsibility might be: in good times, you know, remind people of
darkness, remind yourself of darkness, remind yourself that there's a world
out there that is unhappy, remind yourself that death exists; and then in dark
times, try to remember, you know, the comedy and the ridiculousness of things.
And I think that that was really more the spirit of what I was saying at the
end of that New Yorker piece.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, I read your book before September 11th and really
loved it, and it was getting great reviews. And I thought, `Wow, this time
around, his book's really going to take off.' And then after the 11th, I
thought, `Well, that's really a shame. That book will probably get lost
because people are so obsessed now with what's happening in the world and with
the uncertainty of the world.' And yet the book became a best-seller, and
Oprah picked it up for her book club. Have you felt that your novel or that
fiction, in general, matters any less right now?

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, does it--I mean, mattering is not a day-by-day thing, and
so the quick answer would be, no, of course not. If you look in any time
scale larger than the few weeks immediately following a national calamity, I
don't think it does. I do feel as if the way it's read inevitably changes
when the tenor of the times change. And it's of some satisfaction to me that
people still seem to find something in it, even though the tenor of the times
more or less flipped overnight. We had been drifting towards a recession,
but it was still basically a blissful, isolated time for us all here in the
country. And now we're in a very different place. I--that goes back to
that--to my remark about what I think the--or what my chosen responsibility as
a writer is, which is to create stuff that, if you're reading it when things
are good in your life, provide some company for you in contemplating the fact
that things won't always be good. But, also, if you're reading it at a bad
time in your life, to, you know, kind of lend a helping hand there, too, and
show that, well, even when things are bad, things can be awfully funny or full
of meaning. And evidently, you know, this particular book has managed to
bridge those two sides of September 11th. We'll see if that lasts.

GROSS: In an earlier essay you wrote, you wrote that most fiction readers are
women. You said writers like Jane Smiley and Amy Tan are confident of an
attentive audience, whereas all the male novelists that you know of, including
yourself, are clueless as to who could possibly be buying your books. Were
you surprised when Oprah chose your novel, "The Corrections," as her book club

Mr. FRANZEN: It went beyond--yeah, I guess surprise is a word. I was so--it
was so unexpected, that I was almost not surprised. It was like, `Oh, hey,
Oprah, thank you for calling. Yeah? Oh, that's nice.' And then I put down
the phone because it literally had never once crossed my mind that this might
be an Oprah pick, partly because she seldom chooses hard covers, partly
because she does choose a lot of female authors and partly because, as, you
know, the reviewer in The New York Times said, you know, this is--`This feels
too edgy to ever be an Oprah pick.' And so it had never occurred to me.

I do--it has been a source of pain that there are interesting male novelists
out there--and I'll just leave myself out of the statement for the moment--who
don't find an audience because they don't find a female audience because that
is--I mean, so much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the
fact that women read, while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or,
you know, playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I continue to
believe that.

And now I'm actually at the point with this book where I worry--I'm sorry that
it's--I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I've heard
more than one reader in signing lines now in bookstores say, `You know, if I
hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah
pick. I figure those books are for women, and I never touch it.' Those are
male readers speaking. So I'm a little confused about the whole thing right

GROSS: I wonder if you've been--if you feel like you've reached a lot of
readers that ordinarily wouldn't have found your book and if, in doing so,
you've gotten interpretations of your book that are surprising?

Mr. FRANZEN: First and foremost, it's a literary book. And I think it's an
accessible literary book. It's an open question how big the audience is to
which it will be accessible, and I think beyond the limits of that audience,
there's going to be a lot of, `What was Oprah thinking?' kind of responses.
They, themselves, over there at "The Oprah Show," they have no idea how
they're going to arrange the show because they've never done a book like this,
and they're waiting to hear from their readers.

GROSS: So you haven't actually done the show yet? The book club readers are
supposed to be reading it now, but the show addressing it hasn't happened?

Mr. FRANZEN: Right. I've been--I've done the sort of bogus thing where they
follow you around with a camera and you try to look natural. And I've done a
two-hour interview, which will be boiled down to three minutes or so. But,
no, the show with--which I've never seen until they sent me a tape--the little
coffee klatch and then the full audience stuff, that has not happened. Won't
happen till November.

GROSS: Well, Jonathan Franzen, I'd like you to read a section from the
beginning of "The Corrections," and maybe you could just introduce this part
for us.

Mr. FRANZEN: I hope it needs not very much introduction because it is the
beginning of the first real chapter of the book, but it's about the stress of
a wanna-be hipster who's too old really to be a hipster, as his Midwestern
parents arrive in New York City.

`Down the long concourse they came unsteadily, Enid favoring her damaged hip,
Alfred paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport
carpeting with poorly controlled feet, both of them carrying Nordic Pleasure
Lines shoulder bags and concentrating on the floor in front of them, measuring
out the hazardous distance three paces at a time.

To anyone who saw them averting their eyes from the dark-haired New Yorkers
careering past them, to anyone who caught a glimpse of Alfred's straw fedora
looming at the height of Iowa corn on Labor Day or the yellow wool of the
slacks stretching over Enid's outslung hip, it was obvious that they were
Midwestern and intimidated. But to Chip Lambert, who was waiting for them
just beyond the security checkpoint, they were killers. Chip had crossed his
arms defensively and raised one hand to pull on the wrought iron rivet in his
ear. He worried that he might tear the rivet right out of his ear lobe, that
the maximum pain his ear's nerves could generate was less pain than he needed
now to steady himself.

From his position by the metal detector, as he watched an azure-haired girl
overtake his parents, an azure-haired girl of college age, a very wantable
stranger with pierced lips and eyebrows, it struck him that if he could have
sex with this girl for one second, he could face his parents confidently and
that if we could keep on having sex with this girl once every minute for as
long as his parents were in town, he could survive their entire visit.

Chip was a tall, gym-built man with crow's feet and sparse, buttery yellow
hair. If the girl had noticed him, she might have thought he was a little too
old for the leather he was wearing. As she hurried past him, he pulled harder
on his rivet to offset the pain of her departure from his life forever and to
focus his attention on his father, whose face was brightening at the discovery
of a son among so many strangers.

In the lunging manner of a man floundering in water, Alfred fell upon Chip and
grabbed Chip's hand and wrist as if they were a rope he'd been thrown.
"Well," he said, "well." Enid came limping up behind him. "Chip," she cried,
"what have you done to your ears?" "Dad, Mom," Chip murmured through his
teeth, hoping the azure-haired girl was out of earshot, "good to see you."'

GROSS: You know, the book is, in part, about that moment in an adult's life
when they see their parents go from this kind of almost threatening presence,
a controlling presence, to being people who are very weak and very much in
need of help from their children, as opposed to people who are trying to
control their children. What made you focus on that transition, that
realization in your book?

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, part of it grew out of my own experience, and I'm guessing
you'll have a question or two along those lines. It was...

GROSS: He said resentfully.

Mr. FRANZEN: No, no, no, no, no. No. I don't watch Oprah, but I do listen
to your show. So let me leap-frog over that to...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANZEN: ...some of the more thematic reasons why I was attracted to

GROSS: Good. OK.

Mr. FRANZEN: It seems--I grew up feeling like I was a child and adults were
adults, and I seemed to have grown into a time and a place where people don't
really want to be adults in the same way I understood them to be, which was
well-mannered people who dress differently than children and who, you know,
were--in some way, put their children's interests before their own and, all
around, just were of a different class. They liked being adults, they got a
satisfaction from that.

And ever since the boomer generation faced the problem of adulthood, with kind
of dubious results, and since so much of commercial culture has come to focus
on the 18-to-34 demographic, it seems as if adulthood itself is, to some
extent, a threatened commodity. And yet there is this feeling in the back of
one's head, `Well, there are those parents'--and I get to be a child even up
into my 40s, 50s and 60s because those parents are there, and it seemed to me
an interesting question to look at what happens when you do finally lose those
parents and you're next in line? So that's an interesting question for me,
and it goes to some of the more culturally critical undercurrents in the book.

GROSS: Could you have written this novel only after the death of your
parents? Would you have feared that the novel would have, some way, hurt them
or they would have felt betrayed by it in that a lot of the characterizations
in them were really about them?

Mr. FRANZEN: Or about them and their friends.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. FRANZEN: Their cohorts certainly, which is what this is drawn from. It's
not, per se, a portrait of my parents. It's more a portrait of a type that my
parents were one instance of, that I saw a lot of when I was growing up in the

You know, my father was unhappy with certain things in my second book. He
felt, I think, betrayed by what he perceived as a criticism of religion, when,
in fact, I don't think there is one there. My mother had, by that point, long
since learned how to read my books without reading them and how to skim the
cream off the experience of my being a writer without actually having to, you
know, down the milk underneath it. And she was alive as various pieces of
this book were being published in magazines, to which she had access, and it
was interesting to see how she responded to that.

She, in one instance, asked me to give a paragraph-by-paragraph synopsis--or
accepted my offer to give a paragraph-by-paragraph synopsis of a chunk of this
that was in The New Yorker, just so she didn't have to cast her eyes over it
herself. And I think, you know, my father was a stricter person and I think
might have been more prone to make moral judgments. My mother, at that point
in her life, really was bent on getting along with her kids and would have let
nothing stop that. And I, indeed, wrote much of it when she was still alive
and with the hope that she would be alive to see it published.

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen, author of the best-selling novel, "The
Corrections." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Jonathan Franzen is my guest. He's the author of the new best-selling
novel "The Corrections."

Your novel keeps shifting point of view. It's written from the point of view
of each of the three adult children in this family, as well as from the point
of view as the mother and father. What are some of the things you were trying
to do, novelistically, in having the point of view keep changing?

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, that seems to be a fixture of all my books. And I think
it gets--it comes from, oh, the essential blurriness of my own nature. I
don't seem to be able to be the same person on any two consecutive days,
whether in as straightforward a way as the fact that I'm moody and, you know,
kind of fairly elated one day and then anxious and gloomy the next, to the
fact that, you know, I feel like at once a 12-year-old boy and a 78-year-old
man and a 42-year-old man and a 32-year-old woman. I just--it grows out of my
own sense of having a multitude of voices in myself and being unwilling or
perhaps unable to settle on any single one of them.

There are really two kinds of writers, I think, in that regard. There are the
ventriloquists or the empaths, which is what I think I am, and then there are
the people who have a really, really strong native voice and who will do
everything in their own voice. And probably it's a good idea for me to keep
trying to do that because I don't know if I will ever be able to settle on a
single voice.

GROSS: Is that ability to see many different points of view simultaneously
ever paralyzing in real life when you have to be decisive and figure out which
one direction or which one to head in or which one point of view to have?

Mr. FRANZEN: You could ask any of my friends or anyone in my family that
question, and they would all start laughing. No, I'm kind of classically
paralytic as far as I seem to just find myself again and again in every way in
situations of conflict and ambivalence and paralysis. And, yeah, so it's
debilitating in a life way, but it's fun on the page and that's...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. FRANZEN: ...probably what makes me a writer.

GROSS: Can you talk about some of the things you were trying with the tone of
your book? Again, I mean, some of your narration is from the point of view of
someone who's very ironic. Of course, when the point of view is from the
mother's point of view, she's very sentimental and not ironic at all. So the
actual tone keeps shifting. Some of it is really very funny in a very kind of
dark, cynical way, and other parts aren't like that at all.

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, I like heterogeneity. I like cities. I like walking down
a street and having the scene change from block to block. I'm attracted to,
you know, Stravinsky, who will go from tuneful to asinine and back to tuneful.
And, you know, I mean, it's a taste matter to some extent that drives me to
use all the tones I have at my command. I think, in general, there is an
overarching comic tone to it. At least that's how I read it. And that is an
antidote; that is my own antidote to my own tendency to write in either sort
of shame-ridden confessional styles or, worse yet, in a very, very
self-important, earnest style. And when I pick up a book that has that tone
of high earnestness, I will usually not read past about page five.

GROSS: You know, the character, the son, Chip in your novel writes for a
little journal that's called The Warren Street Journal, and it's a kind of
journal of transgressive culture.

Mr. FRANZEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And he says that at the offices of the Journal, he sometimes felt
insufficiently transgressive, as if his innermost self were still a nice
Midwestern boy. Is that something you felt about yourself, that your
innermost self was a nice Midwestern boy and that you had to put on these
transgressive clothes to kind of cover that up?

Mr. FRANZEN: Yes and no. I mean, in some senses, that sentence could
describe me. In other respects, though, that would appear to discount the
sincerity or the intensity of the anger I felt about the way our culture was
set up when I was writing my first two books. I think for Chip, it manifests
as a sense of fraudulence. For me, it manifests as attention. I am both a
nice Midwestern boy and somebody who is thinking hard about the way we live
and the reasons we live that way. Chip is not me, but I certainly sympathize
with that particular moment, that spasm of fraudulent feeling that he has.

GROSS: Jonathan Franzen is the author of the new novel "The Corrections."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Jonathan Franzen about
his new best-selling novel, "The Corrections." And linguist Geoff Nunberg
considers the word `infidel' and the language of religious fundamentalism.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Jonathan Franzen, author of the new novel, "The Corrections." It's
a literary and popular success. Last week, it was nominated for a National
Book Award. It's currently number one on the best-seller list. The novel is
about three adult children and their two aging parents who are having
difficulty taking care of themselves. The father has Parkinson's disease.
The novel is also a satire of contemporary family life, work and lifestyles.

The mother in your novel is very sentimental, whether it's planning for
Thanksgiving or the kind of way she'll arrange the house, and it sounds like
your real mother, from the little I've read about her, was a pretty
sentimental person, too. I'm wondering how that affected your taste as a
writer and reader and person, to come from somebody who was pretty sentimental
and not ironic.

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, you could certainly draw parallels between the
disastrously bad relations between me and my mother for, oh, about 20 years,
starting at age 13, and the fact that I wrote two kind of harder-edged books
that were at pains to avoid any possible threat or hint of sentimentality, and
the fact that as she and I got closer, towards the end of her life, I became
more comfortable with writing about stuff that could be potentially perceived
as sentimental. No contest on that one.

GROSS: The father in the novel is taking medication for Parkinson's disease
that causes him to hallucinate, and your father had hallucinations, too, first
from medicine and then problems because of the Alzheimer's disease. And both
your father and the father in the novel were very straight-laced people?

Mr. FRANZEN: It's safe to say straight-laced, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So I'm wondering...

Mr. FRANZEN: Very...

GROSS: ...what it was like to see someone very straight-laced losing control,
both physically but also in terms of their inner life, these hallucinations
and delusions.

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, I think when it was happening to my father, it was
both--it was awful. I felt for him terribly, because I knew that he
really--again, like a lot of men of that generation, his manhood, in part,
consisted of his self-control and ability to contain himself, and as he began
to lose that, it was really terrible for him.

At the same time, because he was so distant, I kept hoping that--first of all,
I had a hard time admitting what was really going on, and I kept hoping that
this would lead, perhaps, to a breaking down of the boundaries that had
separated us, and that we really could be close in a way that he had never
been able to be before, and unfortunately, that proved not really to be the
case. By the time the boundaries were down far enough for that to happen,
there wasn't much left on his side of the boundary.

GROSS: You know, in the piece you wrote about your father's Alzheimer's
disease in The New Yorker, you said that watching your father lose his
intelligence, sanity and self-consciousness, you found yourself becoming less
afraid of losing those abilities yourself. You became a little less afraid in
general. I really wanted to know why, I mean, because so often, it's the
other way around. You see somebody you love deteriorate and you really worry
about your own future.

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, again, I was a very old eight-year-old. I really meant
it when I say--well, as Lydia Davis, in a famous very short story of hers
says, you know, I--there was a young woman who considered herself an old
woman, and she would ask herself, `Why are these young men flirting with this
old lady?' You know, I identified so much with my parents that I was always
their age, and one thing that happened was that when they got sick and died, I
couldn't identify with them anymore. I was actually freed to be my own real

Beyond that, I think, you know that people close to you are going to die, and
you live in fear of that, especially if they're as important to you as my
parents were to me, and realizing that I could walk into a room with my
father, you know, raving mad, or walk into a room where he was barely
breathing and near death, that here comes this thing which is unimaginable,
that I'm terrified of and yet I'm going through it. In a way, I projected or
I translated that directly onto what he was going through; that is, it had
been--you know, it was unimaginable, obviously, to him, as to all of us, like
how am I going to get through death? And to see that this one terrifying,
unimaginable thing that I'd been imagining--or I'd been facing and fearing
indeed could be traversed, did make me less afraid of other painful
possibilities in the future, including losing those various things.

GROSS: There's something you write about your father's actual death. You
say, `I don't like to remember how impatient I was for my father's breathing
to stop, how ready to be free of him I was.'

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, I think that goes back to the idea of a very disciplined
person letting go. Interestingly, I felt that I myself was a supremely
disciplined writer. You know, I would have 6 to 10 cigarettes a day. I would
sit down at 9 in the morning and I would write until 5, and I produced these
very together novels, these two books that I found rather unassailable, at
least emotionally, and yet, as he was falling apart, I was realizing that that
old kind of all-controlling way of writing was just no longer working for me,
and that I needed, however scary the prospect was, I needed to let go of
something as a writer. I needed to fall apart a little bit myself, and again,
you know, when it was clear he was going to die--it was just a matter of, you
know, is it going to be at 9:00 or at 12:00?--I did feel this building sense
of exhilaration to be free, first of all, of this week-long vigil that my
mother and I had been sitting, and also to, you know, get on with being my own
person and to let go and do that after that strong father was gone.

GROSS: Did it take a lot of courage to write that sentence?

Mr. FRANZEN: Oh, you can't ask authors to congratulate themselves for their

GROSS: Right. OK, yeah. Well, you know what I mean.

Mr. FRANZEN: No, no, it...

GROSS: Was it hard for you to say that in public? Because it could so easily
be misunderstood.

Mr. FRANZEN: Here's the way it really works. That piece I wrote, it
started--it was more or less assigned as a book piece about David Shenk's new
book about Alzheimer's--it's a very good book, called "The Forgetting"--and
when I sat down to do an outline, I realized, you know, what I'm really
interested in here is talking about my father and what happened to him, and
the way in which I remember it and the way in which his memory was going, and
have it be sort of a meditation on memory in general.

So I sat down to write it, and trusted that my editor would take out anything
that was too compromising personally, and when it was closed, I felt this
panic. I thought, `Oh, my God, I should not have published this. This is a
terrible thing to have done. It's so exposing.' And I actually just think it
was more in terms of how exposing it was of my parents, even though they're no
longer here. But it's more like jumping off the diving board happily, because
I enjoy jumping off the diving board, and then worrying right before I hit the
water, `Ah, is this really going to be painful.'

GROSS: You know, sometimes our self-image is tied to the way other people see
us, you know, to the mirrors they hold up to us, and a lot of that has to do
with how our parents saw us when we were coming of age. That sticks with you
a long time. How did it affect your image of yourself to have your father
forget who you were, or mistake you for somebody else and so, like, the mirror
he's holding up to you is, like, the wrong image?

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, that was nothing new. I had been mistaken for a lot of
things by both my parents. Before that happened, I'd been mistaken for a
budding young scientist or engineer or possible lawyer or possible banker or
possible international journalist, so that sense of not being known for
myself, you know, came to me at the age of about seven, and indeed, is
probably at the center of why I write. It's to try to say over and over
again, `No, I'm not that. I'm this.'

But that is, of course, the paradox of Alzheimer's. They talk about, you
know, the sufferer losing himself, but what's in fact happening is that the
people around him are losing their selves with respect to the mirror that the
sufferer is holding up.

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen, author of the new novel, "The
Corrections." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen, author of the new novel, "The

As I think I've mentioned, I really like your novel, "The Corrections," a lot,
and I think part of the problem I knew I would encounter in interviewing you
is that the story in the novel has a lot to do with relationships and the kind
of psychological connections between people. The tone of the novel is great
because of how the tone keeps shifting from person to person, and your
terrific use of language and the type of humor that you put into it. But my
fear was--and perhaps I've sadly succeeded in doing this--that I would end up
reducing some of your novel to this kind of psychopathology, because things
are hard to talk about sometimes, and to maintain the tone that your novel
does while talking about it.

But I figure I'm not the only one who's going to be pushing you into that
particular corner. You're being interviewed a lot and probably a lot of
people like myself are trying to turn your novel into, you know, a personal
introspection or, you know, at the worst end of it, some kind of psychobabble.
So has it been hard for you? And I offer myself as one of the guilty parties
here. I mean, I've tried my best, but I know I'm going to end up being a
little reductionist in the way I treat it.

Mr. FRANZEN: Well, it's part of a problem I've been experiencing again and
again as I've been out on this book tour. People--I'm not very interesting.
I mean, really, I'm not, or you know, if you spend a day with me, you might
find me interesting if you're so inclined, but you know, I really, really work
hard on trying to make a book work and be full and entertaining, and I feel as
that the book is having the success, and then people turn to me and say--well,
you know, if, you know, Lou Reed cuts a record or if Bob Dylan cuts a record,
you listen to the music and then you look at the guy who cut the record and
you can see, you know, that they're more or less identical.

Here, it's like I worked for many years to find that tone for the book, and I
worked for many years to come up with a structure that would make the book
really, really work. And yet that's intrinsically uninteresting material, so
there is this kind of OK, well, let's talk about the person then, and then I
sort of trot out my really rather ordinary life experiences and feel as if I'm
a disappointment, and that's the chief nature of--I mean, I understand you
have to do an interview, and I understand an author interview is a brutally
hard thing to do for a fiction writer, at any rate, and I probably am not
alone among fiction writers in feeling like I wish I had something more
interesting to say, but the book is where it's at. The author is not.

GROSS: Well, Jonathan Franzen, I thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FRANZEN: Thank you for talking to me.

GROSS: Jonathan Franzen is the author of the new novel, "The Corrections."

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Commentary: Cultural gap often makes language translation

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been listening to the way people translate
the language of Islamic fundamentalism, and he's thinking about why it has
such a medieval sound to American ears. Geoff wonders if it's possible to
translate between secular and religious cultures, or if it's just a gulf that
language can't span.


Listening to the video of Osama bin Laden that was released after the US began
its attack on Afghanistan, I was struck by the way the interpreter had him
calling President Bush the head of the infidels and insisting that the army of
infidels must leave the land of Mohammed.

Infidel is such a quaint word in English that I wondered whether it was a fair
translation. With the help of an Egyptian colleague, I checked out the Arabic
version of bin Laden's message. He had used the word kaffir, which does
indeed translate as infidel. Kaffir is one of those elastic terms that can
stretch from out and out heathens to the heretics in the apartment upstairs.
But in its strict meaning, kaffir refers to non-Muslims, particularly when
they're considered confrontationally.

Muslim scholars divide the world between the dar as-kufir(ph), the land of the
kaffirs, and the Dar al-Islam, the land of the Muslims. I suppose the term
Dar al-Islam would be the Muslim counterpart to our word Christendom. But
that word is pretty antiquated, too. The concept of Christendom hasn't played
much of a role in the Western psyche since the Poles and Germans turned back
the Turkish armies at the siege of Vienna in 1683, the last time a Muslim
power was ever a serious threat to the West.

That seems to be the story with a lot of the words that translators use to
render the language of Islamic fundamentalism. They have a musty, medieval
sound. When somebody talks about infidels, I have an image of the characters
in "Ivanhoe" who were always slipping off to the Holy Land to fight the
Saracen infidel. In modern English, it isn't a word that we ever use in
earnest. People may style themselves infidels to suggest their defiance of
some ruling orthodoxy, but it's a sign of how thoroughly our culture has been
secularized that not even Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson would use the word
infidel to describe non-believers, whatever their sexual orientation. It's
like calling somebody a pagan or heathen. It makes you sound like a
sergeant-major out of a Kipling story.

That was the weirdest thing about Falwell's rant about all the people who had
brought the September 11th attacks down on America's head. He said it was the
fault of the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians
and the ACLU. To most Americans, that word pagans was a tip-off that Falwell
wasn't simply being intolerant, he was living in some other century. In fact,
the only time we still hear the word infidel used literally is when it's put
into the mouths of swarthy villains. That was what was so odd about hearing
the word in the voice-over translation of bin Laden's video. It sounded like
something from a pulp fiction melodrama: `Die, infidel dog!'

Infidel may have started its a life as a homegrown English word, but it's
ending its days as a translation. Whether it's ominous or comic, it isn't a
notion we use ourselves. That's always the problem when you try to translate
across a cultural divide. The words may be there, but they echo differently
in the other person's room.

The difficulty can cut both ways. A couple of weeks ago, the White House had
to apologize when President Bush offhandedly described the war on terrorism as
a crusade. Americans use that word without paying much attention to its
origins, and we tend to forget that it has the root for cross buried in it,
particularly when our Latin is shaky. But in Arabic, crusade translates as al
hamalat as-alibyah(ph), or campaign of the cross. And it can still evoke some
vivid historical memories. It was disconcerting to hear bin Laden throw the
term back in an utterly literal way, referring to Bush as a big crusader. For
us, that's a word that you apply to a courageous politician, a cartoon rabbit
or a World War II British tank.

It all underscores the problem that the US faces as it tries to persuade the
Muslim world that it isn't engaged in a religious war, and it's all the more
difficult because in a certain sense, it is a religious war, as Andrew
Sullivan was arguing in an article in The New York Times last week, not a war
between Christendom and the Dar al-Islam, but between modernity and
traditionalism, and deeper than that, between two visions of salvation, one
secular and the other fundamentalist. You wonder how there could be any
accommodation or understanding between the two sides when they hear the same
words so differently.

But if communication is difficult, you want to believe that it isn't hopeless.
A couple of days ago, I was talking about Bush's crusade gaffe with a friend
who teaches medieval Arabic history. Actually, she told me, if you wanted to
do justice to crusade the way Bush used the word, you wouldn't translate it
with the Arabic phrase that means campaign of the cross. You'd use that word
jihad. Jihad does have the meaning of a religious war, but like crusade, it
can also mean any kind of personal moral struggle. `These days,' she said,
`my jihad is being department vice chair.' That made the word jihad sound a
little less alien to me, and with it, the corner of the Muslim mind that it

You wonder if the worlds are really so different that there can't be any
translation between them. It reminded me of what a translator told me once.
Verbatim translations tend to sound odd, particularly when they have to bridge
a vast cultural gulf. But if you root around, you'll usually find some other
word that suggests a common point of understanding. If you're a translator,
he said, you have to believe that when it comes to the crunch, people can
always find something to talk about. And sometimes the translation that takes
people at their literal word is the one that winds up being unfaithful.

GROSS: Linguist Geoff Nunberg is the author of the new book, "The Way We Talk
Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture from NPR's FRESH AIR."

This is FRESH AIR.

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Commentary: Looking back on "I Love Lucy"

Today is the 50th anniversary of the premiere of "I Love Lucy," the CBS series
that helped define the TV sitcom. David Bianculli looks back at a more
innocent era.


Thursday night on "The Agency," a CBS drama series about the CIA, there's a
fictional drama about terrorists threatening to unleash an epidemic of
anthrax. Tomorrow night on the CBS Navy drama "JAG," one of the main
characters is trapped in an American consulate building in another country
that's overtaken by force. Tonight on "Third Watch," the NBC drama series
about New York City firefighters, police and emergency health workers, the
usual scripted stories and fictional characters are being set aside. Instead,
the show is offering a two-hour documentary special, letting real New York
City rescue workers tell their own stories about September 11th.

But also tonight, on TV Land, Lucy and Ethel try to con Ricky and Fred into
taking them to a nightclub. Is it any wonder, in these times when even
entertainment on television can be so somber, that I love Lucy? Looking at "I
Love Lucy" now is like cuddling up with a warm blanket. The problems are
never more serious than a burnt pot roast or a hugely expanding loaf of bread.
Everything is familiar and comforting. Ricky's `Hi, honey, I'm home,' Lucy's
childlike cry and another scheme by Lucy that backfires big time, like the
time she sneaks her way into doing a live commercial for a vitamin supplement
on a show hosted by Ricky, only to be knocked for a loop by the syrup's high
alcohol content during several rehearsal tastings.

(Soundbite from "I Love Lucy" episode)

Ms. LUCILLE BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Are you tired, rundown an' listless? Do
you pop out at parties? Are you unpoopular? Well, are you? The answer to
all your problems is in this little bottle. Vitaminavegemin. That's it.
Vitaminavegemin contains vitamins an' meat an' megetables and vinerals.

(Soundbite of hiccup)

Ms. BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) So why don't you join the thousands of happy
peppy people and get a great big bottle of Vitavivi--vini--meeny, miney, moe?

BIANCULLI: It's funny to think that 50 years ago, "I Love Lucy" was
cutting-edge television in so many respects. It was the first TV series in
which the central married couple were from different ethnic backgrounds. Desi
Arnaz, Lucille Ball's real-life husband, was Cuban, and so was Lucy's
bandleader husband, Ricky. It was the first TV series to show its character
pregnant--again mirroring real life, since Lucille Ball was expecting at the
time--when even the word `pregnant' couldn't be used on television.

And because Lucy and Desi wanted to produce "I Love Lucy" on the West Coast
rather than in New York, they ended up pioneering a whole new method of
mounting a situation comedy. Instead of broadcasting it live, they filmed it,
using multiple cameras to capture the action simultaneously. It was a
technique borrowed from Art Linkletter, who used it to capture kids saying the
darnedest things, and it worked so well that it remains the basic template for
the three-camera sitcom 50 years later.

The show was a huge hit from the start and left TV, only because Lucy and Desi
wanted to stop it, as TV's number-one show, something only a handful of
series have done in the entire history of television. It had a great number
of classic bits and episodes, many of which can be seen this week in TV Land's
nightly marathon salute. Tonight, in fact, the marathon kicks off with the
very first episode of "I Love Lucy," broadcast at 9 PM Eastern time, exactly
50 years to the minute from the time it first aired on CBS. It's televised
almost as it was then, except for some alterations in the original animation
and presentation that had to do with the show's original sponsor, Philip
Morris. Those changes are explained during the commercial breaks by TV Land
president, Larry Jones.

(Soundbite from TV commercial)

Unidentified Voice: Call for Philip Morris!

Mr. LARRY JONES (President, TV Land): As you can see from these brief
selections, the original opening to the show featured animated Lucy and Ricky
figures and a pack of cigarettes. That pack was an element of the show's
interstitials and the closing credits as well. The opening included a
spokesman pitching the product, and its mid-show break was a testimonial
commercial shot in Las Vegas.

Unidentified Man: I'd like you to try a simple test. Do you mind?

Unidentified Woman: Not at all.

Unidentified Man: Well, first, let me offer you a Philip Morris cigarette.
Here you are.

Mr. JONES: While our intention was to recreate this historic half-hour of
television, we certainly hope you understand the changes we made. We now
return to...

BIANCULLI: The rest of the show, though, is pure Lucy. We've come a long way
in 50 years, but sometimes--and this is one of those times--it's nice to be
able to go back.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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