Magazine article World Literature Today

Lahti Writers' Reunion

Magazine article World Literature Today

Lahti Writers' Reunion

Article excerpt

After I had babbled through my presentation about men and women where we live, Chairman Jarmo Papinniemi turned to Krisztina Tóth, sitting beside him, and said that she had been furiously taking notes throughout my talk and would no doubt have a lot of comments. Papinniemi was wrong. You could see from the Hungarian's face right away that she had not listened to a word of my speech. Those furious notes had been lastminute revisions to her own presentation. I had made the same kind of revisions during Frenchman Marcel Cohen's speech, even as I maintained a flatteringly thoughtful expression as if I were immersed in his presentation. Many other listeners also assiduously took notes on that June Monday under the canopy on the back lawn of the Messilä manor house. They, too, were probably thinking about their own things.

The Hungarian gathered herself and said she did not want to talk about men and women. It annoyed her that people were always asking her what she as a woman writer thought about women's issues.

"How would you men feel if you were always being asked what you as male writers think about men's issues?"

It occurred to me that I have been pressed countless times to tell what I as a male writer think about men's issues and that I haven't felt anything in particular about it, but I decided to treat the Hungarian's question as rhetorical. I like to treat questions as rhetorical when I don't dare reply to them. It looked to me as if nothing would appease the Hungarian now, especially not anything smart-aleck. Her irritation appeared to stem from something else. She had thought these thoughts while at home and she was not going to change her mind here in Finland.

I myself converse the very same way, using thoughts I have thought in some other context. My whole presentation had come about through this technique: when Papinniemi called and asked me to present something, I immediately wondered if I could find something appropriate in my old talks. I told Papinniemi that I couldn't make the reunion, I had too much work. The lie seemed to require an accompanying truth, so I added that I am afraid of appearances and especially afraid of panel discussions. Such reckless candor seemed to justify a new lie, so I said that I had in fact conquered these fears in recent years and therefore might indeed come. I drove myself into a peculiar spiral of accepting and declining. I always trap myself there when someone asks me for something. I can only get free by wrenching myself free, by shouting something. I shouted that I'd like to take part in the reunion and that I'd send in my paper in the next few days.

After the call I checked where all I had given presentations about men and women and their different speech habits. I pulled out the parts I could still bear to read and placed them one after another. The resultant composite seemed disjointed. My starkest generalizations also made me uneasy. What had seemed witty in Äänekoski and Kouvola and Vammala sounded backward when imagined amid the, surely, very sophisticated atmosphere of the writers' reunion. I decided to tack on after every generalization in the speech the phrase "where we live."

"Generalizations like that are very clever but rarely hold up in reality," pronounced poet Johanna Venho, who rose after the Hungarian to criticize my talk. Venho thought generalizing as a whole stupid and my generalizations, which anyone could easily disprove, particularly stupid.

"I for one am very clearly a man where you live," said Venho.

I gazed at Venho with an appreciative, pleased smile on my face. I had expected her to commend me and I wasn't able to alter my expression so quickly. When I thought of the incident afterward, I was amazed at this optimism of mine, this tendency to be prepared for praise. My instinct to expect the best must after all be stronger than my eternal gloom and fear of punishment. I did also realize that Venho's sweet and gentle presence, evocative of some mythical being, had led me to expect gentle words, but I considered this, too, a sign of strength and optimism: I evidently assumed that attractive women always treated me well. …

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