May 19, 1999
Today you would be ninety-seven
if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable, you and your children,
driving from clinic to clinic,
an ancient, fearful hypochondriac
and his fretful son and daughter,
asking directions, trying to read
the complicated, fading map of cures.
But with your dignity intact
you have been gone for twenty years,
and I am glad for all of us, although
I miss you every day — the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
On this day each year you loved to relate
that at the moment of your birth
your mother glanced out the window
and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today
lilacs are blooming in side yards
all over Iowa, still welcoming you.
It's the birthday of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (books by this author), born in Istanbul in 1952, where he grew up in a fairly wealthy and Westernized district. He studied architecture and then journalism, but at 23 years old, he decided to become a novelist. He lived with his mother and wrote full time, and seven years later, he published his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982). He's worked as a novelist for more than 30 years and has never held any other kind of job. And apart from three years he spent in New York, he's lived his entire life in the Istanbul district of his birth.
In 2005, Pamuk gave an interview in which he made remarks about the Armenian Genocide and the mass killing of tens of thousands of Kurds. He said: "Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do." Criminal charges were filed against Pamuk in Turkey, and his statements resulted in a new law making it illegal to make anti-Turkish remarks. There was an international outcry, and several noted authors — including Gabriel García Márquez, Umberto Eco, John Updike, and Günter Grass — spoke out in Pamuk's defense. The charges were dropped early in 2006.
His recent books include The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist (2010), Pieces from the View: Life, Streets, Literature (2010) and The Silent House (2012).
It's the birthday of novelist and poet Louise Erdrich (books by this author), born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her mother was French Ojibwe and her father was German American; she grew up in a big family, the oldest of seven children, with lots of extended family nearby. She said: "The people in our families made everything into a story [...] People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. You just sort of grab the tail of the last person's story: it reminds you of something and you keep going on. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break and fall, it gets into you somehow."
Her parents encouraged her writing — her father even paid her a nickel for every story she wrote. When she was a teenager, her mother found a picture in National Geographic of ice sculptures at Dartmouth College, and it piqued her interest since Dartmouth was historically dedicated to educating Native Americans. Erdrich was accepted as part of the first class to admit women. It was also the first year of Dartmouth's new Native American Studies program, run by a young professor named Michael Dorris, whom she eventually married. Erdrich said of writing: "I was in college and had failed at everything else. I kept journals and diaries when I was a kid, and I started writing when I was nineteen or twenty. After college I decided that that's absolutely what I wanted to do. Part of it was that I did not prepare myself for anything else in life."
After graduation, she returned to North Dakota and worked as a resident poet in the schools, driving all over the state in her old pickup truck. She often went out to the local bar in whatever town she happened to be visiting, and there she heard all kinds of fascinating stories. She was writing poetry, but she was frustrated by it, and she finally realized that she was trying to tell too many stories in her poems, and that what she really needed to write was fiction. She thought about the people she had known growing up in Wahpeton and on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, and about various conversations she had had in bars around North Dakota, and she started writing a book that was a collection of stories told by a whole chorus of characters. By this time, she was living in Fargo, renting a tiny apartment above a flower shop. She said, "It was heaven to have my own quiet, beautiful office with a great window and green linoleum floors and a little desk and a view that carried to the outskirts of Fargo." Eventually she set her book aside, convinced that she needed to write a more conventional novel. In the meantime, she published her first short story, called "Saint Marie." She got two letters in response: one from an angry priest who felt she had misrepresented his religion, and the other from Philip Roth, who said he liked it. She was too shy to write back but it inspired her to keep writing. Her novel was rejected by everyone she sent it to, so after a while she gave it up and went back to her first book, and that became Love Medicine (1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her novels include The Beet Queen (1986), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), The Plague of Doves (2008), and The Round House (2012).
It's the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Bowen (books by this author), born in Dublin (1899). She was an only child, and her parents came from good families but didn't have much money. Her father was mentally ill, in and out of hospitals, and her mother died when she was 13; after that, she was raised by various relatives. In 1923 she published her first book, Encounters, and got married to an administrator—it was apparently a platonic marriage more than a passionate one, but they were content.
Bowen was friends with Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, and Eudora Welty. Welty wrote about visiting Bowen at her family house in rural Ireland in the 1930s: "It was so lovely to be in that house, and I immediately fell into the way things were done. Elizabeth worked in the morning, which is what I like to do, and at about 11 o'clock you could come downstairs if you wanted and have a sherry and then go back to work. Then you met at lunch, I mean to talk, and the whole afternoon was spent riding around, and the long twilights coming back. There was usually company at dinner time. And evenings, just a few people, or maybe more. We liked to play games. Eddy Sackville-West was visiting her, and we all played 'Happy Families,' a children's card game—it's just like 'Going Fishing' where you try to get all of a family in your hand by asking 'May I have?' except that it's done with Victorian decorum."
Bowen's novels include The Death of the Heart (1938), The Heat of the Day (1949), and Eva Trout (1968).
She said, "I am sure that in nine out of ten cases the original wish to write is the wish to make oneself felt. It's a sign, I suppose, of life's decreasing livableness as life that people should feel it possible to make themselves felt in so few other ways. The non-essential writer never gets past that wish."