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The Missouri Review 29.2 (2006) 28-40

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A Conversation with Sven Birkerts

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Sven Birkerts

Essayist and critic Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays and a memoir, My Sky Blue Trades. His The Gutenberg Elegies will be reissued this fall. A book on formative novels and a reflection on the craft of memoir are forthcoming from Graywolf Press. Editor of the literary journal AGNI and member of the Core Faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars, Birkerts teaches writing at Harvard. He lives with his family in Arlington, Massachusetts. [End Page 28]

Interviewer: I'm interested to know what direction your work has taken since the publication of your memoir, My Sky Blue Trades. Are you back to critical writing or still reckoning with your past?

Birkerts: Odd that you should frame it as an either/or because I feel like whatever I'm doing since the memoir is trying to be a both/and. I'll explain that in a minute. But I need to talk about that memoir first because it was, for me, a writing experience like no other. I mean, I'd been slugging out reviews and literary essays since 1979, going at a pretty hard clip, possibly wearing myself out with that kind of writing, though being the workaholic that I am I hardly noticed. Then, in my late forties, came this really strong new writing impulse, this absolute fascination about going back into my past, my family origins, my dazed and confused years. For two years or so, that became the daily occupation. It was an amazing continuity. I would take my notebook to the Starbucks in Arlington every single day and write, and rewrite, and when I wasn't doing that I was carrying it all in my head, thinking, turning the crystal this way and that. This was the first time I had worked on something long. Everything else, even The Gutenberg Elegies, had been essays put together. But now I had this immersion, this ongoing "problem" to work on, and it was addictive, though I only discovered to what extent when I had written "the end" and posted it. I had the postpartum blues, and they came on hard. The prospect of going back to the review thing, the "read, digest, write a thousand words" thing, felt dispiriting. I wanted more of the other.

Impulsively, I threw myself into writing a novel—my midlife crisis activity—and spent a good year and a half writing several drafts of a not-remotely-good thing. When I read that with clear eyes I felt really depressed. But then, almost out of the blue, almost in answer to some petition, I got the idea to reread a novel from my youth, Knut Hamsun's Pan. I wrote an essay that was half memoir, half literary reflection, and I sent it to Anne Fadiman at the American Scholar. She liked it, took it, and this heartened me greatly. Nothing by halves. All of a sudden I was on fire with this new business: I would reread a novel I had loved and then I would write about how it had entered [End Page 29] my life. I was doing one a month for about a year. I did D.H. Lawrence, Walker Percy, Saul Bellow, Ford Maddox Ford, Nabokov, Woolf, James. I loved it. And then one day, just like that, the urge went away—I had done all I wanted to do. Those are being gathered up in a book that Graywolf will do.

But where were we? Post memoir: I am looking for the bigger, deeper, more sustaining project. But so far all I have are inklings. One is in a mental file called "the death of the imagination" and is a kind of broad meditation on what we've done to ourselves with our hyper-refined and inescapable technologies—it exists mostly in my head. The other is more about the '60s, that most peculiar interlude. It seems like every essay I write of...


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