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IN HIS OWN WORDS: Norman Rush

On Monday, Jennifer Acker Shah established Norman Rush’s novels as ones of ideas in the tradition of Henry James. The quotes below represent many of those ideas, like Rush’s keen observations of consciousness, in its construction, operation, and end; relationships and marriage; and the effects of history on experience. They also reveal fascinating insights on the purposes of writing and literature.


“There is always new material to be integrated into the study of me. Each moment of thought demands multiples of moments of classification, analysis, parsing.” —Mating (1991)

“Douglas’s death was bound to bring out all the anxieties that go with looking back and summing up what the verdict of a life came down to, the choices made, what the verdict would be if life ended suddenly without any warning or chance to do the things that were left to do that could improve the judgment an existence got.” —Subtle Bodies (2013)

“Ned was having a particularly strong reaction to the idea of Joris leaving. Partly it was selfish because he hadn’t finished the task of putting together what they had all been, with what they were now. And the question was still there of whether their true interior selves—the subtle bodies inside—were still there and functioning despite what age and accident and force of circumstance may have done to hurt them. He meant something like that…that when they had become friends it had been a friendship established between subtle bodies, by which he meant the ingredients of what they were to be . . .” —Subtle Bodies

“I wanted to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.” —Mating

“I needed to be kept from succumbing to a certain metaphor for marriage I was recurring to too often, that is, of marriage as a form of slowed-down wrestling where the two parties keep trying different holds on each other until one of them gets tired and goes limp, at which point you have the canonical happy marriage, voilà.” —Mating


“It came to him then that probably one of the best things, or at least one of the simplest good things, you could do with your mortal life would be to pick out one absolutely first-rate deserving person and do everything you could conceive of in the world to make her happy, as best you might, and never be an adversary on small things.… And the idea was to let this single flower bloom without notifying her of what was going on.… So this would be his new secret work. It would be like adding, say, potted blue hyacinths, one pot at a time, to a shelf or a ledge in the living room, one at a time, until the atmosphere was paradisiacal.” —Mortals (2004)

“We get into crisis and we need to write down where we are in our lives, write letters or manifestos or farewells to the troops, convert our confusion to text so we can read it and see if we can do what our words tell us we should.” —Mortals

“He would say only slightly facetiously that the main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading.” —Mating

“It’s a rare reader who doesn’t go to the novel looking for a kind of encouragement to live.” —from a 2010 interview with Joshua Pashman for the Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” series

“Books, and the lineage of great books, are part of the discourse that has formed and goes on in a society with humane aspirations.” —from a 2013 interview with Tim Horvath of Tin House

“Literature is humanity talking to itself, Ray thought.” —Mortals

Correspondent: Well, let me ask you something . . . [W]hat is the present state of revolution? How can fiction provide an answer or encourage or empower people to commit revolution?

Rush: Well, don’t hold back from the big questions. I mean, that is the question. Every serious writer is implicitly or explicitly asking that question. What is it that I’m writing about? What does it have to do with the seemingly autonomous evolution of increasingly less propitious circumstances to make change? And the answer to that is the central and most compelling question, it seems to me, for people who write novels which incorporate serious politics and political thinking into them. The answer keeps revealing itself as you write and as things change. — from a 2013 interview on The Bat Segundo Show


“A question that has preoccupied me might be phrased as What is Literature for? That question gets addressed in various imagined situations in this book. As to my own influences, since I write political novels, I look back to the great exemplars, in particular to Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent. They penetrated my soul. So did Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. I admire the work of Chinua Achebe. Henry James’s Princess Casamassima was revelatory for me. I was, unfortunately, I have come to see, for a long time under the esthetic spell of James Joyce. You can see that I have selected my models from the firmament of literary art, and thus must die unhappy. I do think my books are funnier than those I’ve mentioned, though, and that’s a consolation.” —from a 2012 interview

“[T]hat the host is a dying animal, we are merely mortals, and that death is our common fate, the fact of life that should make brothers and sisters of us all.” —Mortals

Click here to read Jennifer Acker Shah’s feature piece on Norman Rush.

Bloom Post EndHomepage photo credit: Tjololo Photo cc

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