In Conversation With Paul Holdengräber, Part 3 ('Never Two Without Three')


This conversation will appear in Issue 1.2 of The Scofield, which will be available for free download in early November 2015.


At the end of our second conversation, in the summer of 2014, the New York Public Library's "Curator of Public Curiosity," Paul Holdengräber, generous as ever, told me we would have to meet again for another conversation. "Jamais deux sans trois," he said. Never two without three.

A few months ago, I met up with him again, though this time with a change in venue. While our first two conversations took place in his office in the library, this time we left those shelves of books and protective stone lions behind, and met on a bench in Central Park.

Miniature boats zigzagged across the water of a pond nearby, couples canoodled on adjacent benches, and children screamed their delight as they ran down pathways and stumbled on the grassy hills, reminding us adults of our primate nature as they swung from tree branches and climbed an enormous Alice in Wonderland statue.

With the beautiful chaos of life swirling around us, we ventured down the rabbithole of conversation.

Tyler Malone: In one of our previous conversations we spoke of the Rainer Maria Rilke line, "Love consists in this: that two solitudes meet, protect, and greet each other." Our second issue of The Scofield is centered around love, so I'm wondering if you agree with Rilke's definition of love, or what your definition of that seemingly indefinable concept would be.

Paul Holdengräber: Well, my definition would be partly just that--that it is indefinable. I think that when we love someone, we share their adjectives. There's a common language in love, and I think the most profound thing one can share is a sense of humor.

Two solitudes meeting--yes, I think so. Essentially, in the Platonic context, we are two pieces that come together and fit together. That is somewhere in the dialogue on love in Plato. In love, we are two solitudes that come together, that probably, in one moment or another, fulfill each other but remain alone. I have very strong models in my life. My parents were married for over seventy years. How do you manage that? How do you manage to keep the thrill for so long? How do you manage to keep the connection?

Is part of it in that allowance for solitude? Must love give everything, including space? Must love admit everything, including its failure to ever truly overcome solitude?

Perhaps. This is why I'm so interested in the connection between your first and second issues: from solitude to love, it's a nice trajectory. That relationship between solitude and love is so deep. I love quoting the line of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, one I've probably already quoted in one of our previous conversations, that says, "The goal is for the child to be alone in the presence of the mother." That to me has always been such a deep definition of reading, in some form or fashion, but it also in some way gets to a definition of love: that one is alone but nurtured. As a parent, and also as a lover, one doesn't want to hover. It's about being present, but also giving the other room to breathe.

There's a wonderful quote from Roland Barthes where he's talking about reading next to a lover. He says, "To be with the other and to think of something else." To my mind, that is perfect, that is love: to be comfortable enough being with someone to be able to think of other things while you're with them.

When I first met you, you recommended Atmosphere for Lovers and Thieves, an album by Ben Webster, which has become a big part of my listening life. It's a phenomenal album with a great title. I wanted to hear you talk about that album and particularly that title. What kind of atmosphere would be both for lovers and thieves? Or what is the connection between lovers and thieves?

It is a fascinating title, precisely because I don't know. It has the impression of someone lurking around and escaping in the dark after some lovemaking. You have the sense of Brassaï at night. I don't know the history of that title, but it is a title that fits. Doesn't it just make sense when you listen to the album?

Yes, definitely, but it's sort of difficult to pinpoint the reason.

It's one of the most breathtaking albums, partly because you hear Ben Webster, as never before, breathing into his instrument. There's something about it that takes your breath away. Lovers take your breath away too, of course, which perhaps is a sort of thievery. I'm only inventing here, but I'm sure I could think more directly about the connection between lovers and thieves. I mean, there's the obvious connection of a lover being someone who "steals your heart." So there must be something there. I'd have to give it more thought to give you anything beyond that.

I was rereading Hamlet recently for another project I'm working on, and a friend said to me something that stuck with me. He said, "'To be or not to be' is a great question, but that the real devastating question of Hamlet is not 'To be or not to be,' but the first words, 'Who's there?'" That sort of colored my rereading, that idea that the main problem underpinning everything in Hamlet is that act of reaching out in the darkness for connection, for love, for something, anything. I'm not sure if I have a question here, but...

Well, then I'll make a question for you, just because I'm feeling very kind and generous. I think your question pertains to me because that is what I do: I put someone in front of me, when we're speaking at the New York Public Library, and I ask them, in a sense, "Who's there?" Is someone there? And who is that someone who is there? And can you be there when you're there with me? And when you're there with me what kind of a someone are you? Because it's a very different someone with me in front of an audience of five hundred people than the someone at home alone or at home with your lover.

That's the Joyce line a professor of mine spent hours discussing with a class: "Who's he when he's at home?"

I don't know that line. Another very good one. So that's two great quotes you've brought fresh to me now, and you know that I am a man who loves his quotations. But yes, from Hamlet and from Ulysses, those are the questions that pertain to what I do: "Who's there?" And can you be the someone you are when you're at home? Can there be this forgetfulness of the presence of others? Can you be alone in the presence of others? Can you be alone in front of my gaze while I'm asking you "Who's there?"

You mentioned that line from Winnicott that you take as a great definition of reading, "Being alone in the presence of the mother." Last conversation we spoke for the majority of the time about "the art of conversation," so this time I wanted to focus more on your other great love: "the art of reading." How is reading similar to but also different from conversation?

In a sense, they both demand interiority; they both demand a receptivity, as well. When you are reading, you are alone and not alone. In some deep way, if you're reading things that inspire you--I was going to say "if you're reading great literature," but that might be problematic--you are conversing with the best minds. One of the pleasures of reading is that you get the best of conversation without having to actually deal with someone being there, living.

The physicality of another.

Exactly. One of the pleasures of reading is that you can take whatever material you have on your journeys without having the idiosyncrasies of having human beings around you. So there's a distillation of greatness in reading. You're close to the greatest minds. Reading is one moment of the dialectic. I try through the art of conversation to take people back into that chamber of reading.

In reference to this, something you must read, if you haven't already, is Proust's essay on reading. Just before writing Remembrance of Things Past, he translated--though it wasn't really him translating--a text by Ruskin called Sesame and Lilies. The introduction of that Ruskin text was called "On Reading." Proust writes an essay on reading "On Reading"--so it's already kind of a meta project. The first line of the essay is something like this: "There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book." He talked about the fact that what we remember now as adults of our readings as children aren't necessarily the books themselves but where we were, what interrupted the pleasure, how the physicality of our body became a part of the experience, etc.

I'm curious why you didn't want to use the words "great literature." You thought saying that might be "problematic."

I said "problematic," but I hate that word. I guess I don't think it's problematic at all. I definitely think we need to be discerning, but our judgment is marred by our feeling that perhaps what we're defining as good...

Oh, I don't know, I can already see five hundred problems with what I'm trying to say. You've put me in front of a bomb.

Isn't that the job of the interviewer?

In some ways. But yes, I suppose there is something that is "imaginative literature," something that provides us "with a tingle in our spine," as Nabokov says about great literature, but it may not be as universal a concept as I once upon a time thought (and maybe still think). Still I would say that I do think of good work as work that is recalcitrant and difficult. When you read, there should be effort involved.

You're maybe already answering this a bit, but I'm curious in your personal definition: What makes a great book a great book? Or it doesn't even have to be about books: What makes great art great art?

I suppose it has to do with something that is endless, something that is not finite. One of my obsessions over time is our relationship between aging and taste. I just can't get over thinking about what would happen if I revisited works that I loved once upon a time. Would they still inspire me in the same way? What do we remain faithful to?

I have a feeling if I reread Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, it would still hold a lot of the power it once held for me, but if I reread some other things which had a spell on me in my youth, would I feel the kind of kindredness and affinity and power I once did? Is good art something that is endlessly fascinating? Is good art, like Werner Herzog says, something that brings you into contact with some sort of "ecstatic truth"? There's something of the order of the sublime--something that takes you out of yourself, something that is much larger.

I find more and more these days that I run into really intelligent people who can't like art that they don't politically agree with, and it boggles my mind. Even as political a person as I am, I don't go to art for politics. I don't want a stump speech spoken into a megaphone on a soapbox, whether I agree with it or not. I want ambiguity, nuance, dialogue--that ecstatic truth, that sublime, that tingle in the spine. So I'll put the question to you: Can you like art that you don't politically agree with?

I think the world would be very impoverished if I read in order to find myself in what I read. In some way, the whole point of the enterprise of thinking is to be confronted by something that is not you. I mean, the whole point of speaking to people is to be upset by them, in some way--upset in the sense of being challenged.

I went to university at a time when identity politics was at its height--though maybe it is at another height now, I don't know--but I think that way of thinking is a disaster. To read who you are is not the point of reading for me, nor is it the point of conversing.

You would never have a conversation with Mike Tyson if it were.

No, I wouldn't, and let me remind you, of course, there were people who objected to my bringing Mike Tyson to the library. This brings us to another point though. Looking at it from the other side, if you were to ask would there be people I disagree with so strongly that I wouldn't feature them, I would have to say yes.

And who would fit into that category?

I would have real trouble giving the platform of the New York Public Library, or any platform honestly, to a revisionist historian, because it's no longer a question of opinion. The holocaust either happened or didn't happen, for example. If the debate becomes a debate over those kinds of facts, it would really be highly problematic. But certainly people whose views I don't share, I would bring, and I do bring, to sit on that stage and talk with me. It's very important to bring people there who do not share your "worldview," as you say, which may be too lofty of a word, a little pie-in-the-sky.

For example, I've had these conversations with my children about hiphop. When you listen to some of it carefully, it can be very challenging.

Sure, there's some misogyny, homophobia, etc. that a listener might not agree with, even if they enjoy other aspects of the music.

On the other hand, does one want to shield them from it? I'm not sure. I think the best thing you can do is provide them with the best tools to analyze it. I think Oscar Wilde is deeply right about this, as he often was. There's no moral or immoral art, only good or bad art.

I only ask about what makes great art because what you do seems tied up in this tension, for as a "curator of public curiosity," you curate things you love, that you deem of a certain quality, but you also make sure it goes beyond just your own personal tastes.

Yes. It has to. It really has to. I always say: "It's an informed subjectivity." That's at the core of what I do. I don't work with hundreds of people in committees, but I listen to people, and they have a huge influence on me. I listen to their tastes. My goal and my role is to absolutely not make it about only my tastes. In fact, it may be about actually challenging my tastes--and by challenging my tastes, I challenge myself, and by challenging myself, hopefully I challenge my audience.

One of the things I'm fascinated by is figuring out how do I manage to talk to people whose work I absolutely don't know. I'll give a good example. I'm becoming more and more interested with the work of athletes. I know next to nothing about sports. What did I know about Mike Tyson?

And yet, that's one of your greatest conversations. One that I wish I had been there to see in person. I've listened to it more than once.

Thank you for saying that. It really did change the playing field for me. It changed the way people now read Mike Tyson too. His book has sold tens of thousands of copies in paperback, and in the paperback, he added a whole chapter on his conversation with me at the library. He talks about me as this short, wiry, Belgian, intense man. Now, I'm not particularly short; I don't think I'm all that wiry; I'm not Belgian; but I am intense. He got the intensity right.

The passion I felt in speaking with him doesn't have to do with my tastes. I remember my mother, just before she died, knew I would be interviewing Mike Tyson two weeks later. She would always ask me, "Pauli, who are you talking to next?" So I would say something like "Javier Marías," and she would say, "Tell him that he has a fan in Brussels." But when I mentioned Mike Tyson, she said, "Who might he be?" I told her he was a boxer, and she said, "You're speaking to a boxer?" But then she caught herself, and said, "Well, how interesting! Ask him for me, if you will, what it feels like to be hit so strongly on the head." I asked him, and I remember his response, which was brilliant, as indeed he is. His response was: "What I did for a living is what you've tried to avoid your whole life."

Here you have a man who has maimed so many people, and in so many different ways, yet remains so vulnerable at the same time. So this was an intense conversation, and it was not only out of my usual taste range, but also out of what might normally be considered "the canon." I can't quite imagine Harold Bloom speaking to Mike Tyson. I don't think that will happen, and yet I also love speaking to Harold Bloom.

I was there that day, and it too was one of your best.

I would love some day to invite him back. I hope he'll be healthy enough for it.

Me too. We've talked previously about how you were not an early reader. You weren't quite as late as Flaubert, you said, but you discussed how your father gave you Dostoevsky's The Idiot when you were bedridden. You said that The Idiot opened up the world of literature for you. Was it something particular about that book? Or did it just hit you at the right time and in the right place? Does Dostoevsky still loom large for you?

He looms large, and yet, what a bad boy I've been because I probably haven't read him in years. The last time I read him was probably when I taught Notes from the Underground, which is a tiny little book, which certainly doesn't have the kind of vision and vigor of The Idiot or Karamazov or The Demons or any of the larger-scope books. The question you ask is really just another question about love, in a way. It's about who we meet and when--everything is a question of timing. It's the right book at the right time in the right circumstances. Our love is dependent on so many external circumstances.

I was bedridden. I had an illness which could have provoked idiocy, so my father proved himself at that moment, and retrospectively, to be particularly humorous in giving me The Idiot because I had meningitis. He gave me this book about someone who could have been perceived as traumatically injured in his brain. Dostoevsky at that point transformed the playing field for me. I would imagine, once again to come back to one of your earlier questions, the power of Dostoevsky wouldn't be diminished or tarnished at all. I mean Crime and Punishment or The Gambler--I imagine those books would remain powerful for me.

What other writers loom large for you? I know Rilke and Benjamin and Proust we've talked about extensively in previous conversations, and Dostoevsky we just mentioned, but who else is in your personal pantheon?

Why not talk about someone current rather than speaking about my old passions?

That works. Instead of your old loves, let's go to your new loves.

I've been stunned recently by Ben Lerner, who I think is such an extraordinary writer. He is someone who I hope people start to read. I find him, among the younger writers, someone who doesn't suffer from the kind of cynicism that many others in that world do. I think his two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, are particularly effective when seen as a diptych.

Someone else who matters to me, an older passion, is Thomas Bernhard. There is one book that I highly recommend called Concrete. The title is perfect because the text is one huge block. It's the story of a man who is about to sit down and write the definitive study of Mendelssohn, the composer. Every time he sits down and is about to begin, he is interrupted. It's great. Highly recommended.

How do you choose what you read? (Besides what you read for work.)

Serendipity. The only way we celebrate Shabbat in our home is to go to a bookstore every weekend. I happen upon things. This year, I must say, my life has become particularly complex. I accepted an invitation to be a judge of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, so I have at home at the present moment four hundred books. So when you ask me what I choose to read, you're very kind to assume that I have a choice. For the moment, I have no choice but to be buried. It is true that I spend a lot of time--more time than I care to perhaps--reading non-fiction instead of fiction.

Besides the National Book thing, is there a reason for that? Is that part of getting older?

I think it might be. Do you find that to be true with you?

I haven't yet.

You're a lucky man. You're, of course, much younger though.

David Markson, who we did our first issue on, famously said that towards the end of his life he couldn't read fiction anymore, even books he was once so passionate about like The Recognitions and Under the Volcano, he couldn't stomach returning to. Ulysses was his only exception.

Under the Volcano? Lowry?

Yes, Malcolm Lowry was Markson's mentor, more or less.

Now that was a book that I loved, but God, how has that aged?

Yeah, when's the last time you read it?

Well, the last time was the first time too.

Which happens with lovers as well.

Sometimes the best love affairs are the ones that only last one night. But I know in our conversations you've brought up Markson a number of times, and I've still never read him. I'll have to.

You should, but I bring him up not to pester you about reading him, but just to say that though I haven't felt that move away from fiction, I have heard that some writers as they get older do move more towards non-fiction. Markson was someone who did and was very open about it. Other big writers, who will remain nameless, I've heard similar things about, but it embarrasses some that the thing they love, the thing they do, has lost its luster for them as a reader.

Maybe as you get older, you are less interested in plot? When Don DeLillo was at the library, he talked about being so uninterested in the plot and being so interested in the sentence.

Those are the writers I love. That's Joyce. That's Woolf.

Of course, and to come back to an earlier question, maybe those are the works that matter more, because they have, in a way, exploded a form.

To me, if you're reading for plot and only plot, then what would be the point of rereading? Once you know the end, and have seen all the moves that get you there, then what's the reason to go back and do it all again? But if it's about these other things, aesthetically beautiful sentences and thematic heft and ambiguity and all that, then it becomes more interesting to come back to because those more nuanced things change with you in a way that I don't think it's easy for plot to change over time.

You know, I'm not sure if that's true. I'm not saying I disagree, but that I'm just not sure. I had a conversation with Carlo Ginzburg a number of years ago and he said that when he first read The Charterhouse of Parma at age fifteen, he was younger than all the heroes, but now rereading it he was suddenly older, even though they haven't changed at all. So for him something in the plot changed as well, just in relation to his aging.

For me, that seems like it still has to do more with what's going on underneath the plot than just with the actual plot itself. The same things still happen, but the same themes aren't necessarily always there. You can go back to a book years later, and suddenly you think thematically or philosophically it's about something completely different than you thought when you first read it.

It may be a cliche, but I think it's true that great readers are always rereaders. The other day I took my two young boys to see The Third Man at Film Forum, and I thought immediately that the best thing we could have done when the end credits began to roll would be to sit and wait for it to start again. Of course, I didn't, because I couldn't submit my children to that, but it just proves what you're saying, I think. I don't read for the plot; I read for those extraordinary images and ideas and I take them in.

I'm obsessive about retracing. I try out again and again and again the very same quotations to see how people react differently to them. They are tests; they are signposts. A quotation comes off completely differently based on who it is you enunciate it to. Sometimes people think--I know they do--Oh, there goes Holdengräber again, using the same old sentences. But for me they're really not about namedropping, they're about the various moments that have captured and stayed with me, that have formed and shaped me. I can't live without certain sentences in the same way I can't live without breathing. They are really everything to me. To speak the language of love, quotations can be seductive tools. They are an invitation.


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Tyler Malone is a writer and professor of English. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Scofield. His writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Millions, Full Stop, The Offing, and elsewhere.