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Resonances: Contemporary Writers on the Classics at PEN World Voices Festival

By Bud Parr

My goal each day of the PEN World Voices Festival is to find one writer or one book I've never heard of that sparks my interest. What more could one ask for? Thursday's find was Marcel Möring whose novel, In a Dark Wood, owes its conception to Dante's Inferno.

I found Möring at a panel called "Resonances," where writers shared the classics that have inspired or informed their work. The presentations were geared primarily toward the students at Baruch college (The panelists were given Baruch's current "Great Works" reading list in advance), so some of the discussion was a bit basic and sometimes un-engaging, but I'm always drawn to the subject of author influences. It was a packed room mixed with young and old, and aside from Dante (n.b. Two out of five discussions were on poets) the works discussed weren't the standard canonical fair you might expect to hear about.

Martín Soleres, for instance, talked about Juan Rulfo's great 1955 pre-magical-realism novel, Pedro Paramo, giving just enough of his interpretation to be enticing, and a little bit of backstory on the novel - much of the story was written in segments with little order to them, and it was not until Rulfo was playing ping-pong with a friend that his game inspired the structure of the book.

Aleksandar Hemon read from Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Borowski was a Polish Auschwitz survivor who committed suicide at age 29, after writing some potent short stories about his experiences. Yale University Press is releasing a new edition of his work this summer, called Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories.

While Major Jackson's subject, Derek Walcott, is not exactly unheard of, I appreciated someone discussing poetry for students. In the Q&A Yiyun Li discussed how she limited her time on the internet and was able to spend that time reading some of the great Russian classics - perhaps a good reminder to students these days.

While Möring's discussion of Dante wasn't inspired necessarily (as one PEN blogger pointed out) I did enjoy the personal aspect of how his novel came about and how in a way, it was the idea for the novel that brought him to Dante. He'd previously only read it in school, but without much thought, then went back to it after he had this idea. He had grown up in a small town in The Netherlands that has a reknowned motorcycle race each year. Apparently the race attracts a lot of tough characters and it was one year he was working at the race with a friend, that the resemblence to The Inferno struck him. The idea incubated for many years while he wrote other novels and finally wrote his novel. It will be interesting to see. Novels directly informed by a classic always face the hurtle, in my view, of the classic looking over its shoulder.

See the attached video for the complete discussion.

Published May 3, 2010   Copyright 2010 Bud Parr

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