Russell Banks’ background isn’t significantly international in any way; it is rather working-class American (his father, a New Hampshire plumber, deserted the family when Russell was 12). His concerns in his novels are identifiably American and so, usually, are his settings. (There are, of course, exceptions in a career that has entered its sixth decade; he started publishing short stories in the 1960s.)
That makes him the first uninflectedly American writer to appear in Just Buffalo Literary Center’s phenomenal Babel series when he speaks at Kleinhans on Thursday.
We have become used to international figures of the highest literary stature coming to Buffalo for the Babel series – Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Orhan Pamuk, A.S. Byatt. Nobelists and should-be Nobelists are commonplace. But what we’ve not seen – until Banks – is an American writer of equal stature and equivalent longevity. (Other Babel guests with American citizenship, such as U.S.-born Maxine Hong Kingston and Chinese-born Ha Jin, are best known for writing about other cultures, or assimilation.)
Banks is 72 and an eloquent man of no small jollity to talk to on the phone. His Babel singularity tickled him a bit, especially when he was reminded of that Nobel Prize jury secretary (Horace Engdahl) who predicted a few years ago that Americans would no longer win the prize because “the U.S. is far too isolated, too insular … they don’t participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
“I just thought that was an incredibly provincial statement,” said Banks, a fearless writer in the greatest and most powerful American traditions of social criticism and concern for the alienated and disenfranchised. “He was misreading American literature to an extraordinary degree. I travel a lot abroad. I see how the rest of the world tends to see American literature. And it’s the most widely translated work in Western Europe and in most of the rest of the world as well.
“Apparently, the rest of the world is very interested in what American writers have to say about themselves, about America and about the world at large.”
Nor is Banks’ own attachment to his tradition in American literature the slightest bit superficial. He was one of those interviewed for a documentary on the extraordinary, once-fashionable and now tragically eclipsed Chicago writer Nelson Algren, the writer of the once-popular and significantly filmed “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “A Walk on the Wild Side.” Banks is confident that Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell will be Algren’s “peers in the canon” eventually, but “he was really unique as a writer. He fell between the cracks. He was both a highly original stylist, and even an expressionist kind of writer, but he had a social realist perspective on the world that was unusual.
“It’s still unusual for someone to be as rich a writer as he was, stylistically and linguistically on the one hand and on the other to have a dead-on social determinist’s view that was focused on the lower classes, the marginalized and the oppressed among us. He was also the first to write about drugs and drug addiction in a serious way as a social problem, not as a simple weakness of character.
“He was a fascinating writer.”
Banks continued, “I hope his kind of writing returns to favor – virtually without any self-adoring restraints and onanistic focus on the life of the writer, but rather on the lives of the people around us. I like to think we’ll return to that kind of literature over time.”
If so, Banks himself will be one of the more important figures in that development. In so many ways, what he says of Algren is akin to many of Banks’ own works, from his most recent novel “The Lost Memory of Skin” to “Continental Drift” (which contains a character’s oft-quoted intention to “destroy the world as it is”) to his John Brown novel “Cloudsplitter” to the two novels made into exceptional films at almost the same time, “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” which is the novel the Babel series has chosen to focus on. (Atom Egoyan’s remarkable film of it was shown in the Market Arcade Theater as prelude to Banks’ visit.)
It is a mark of Banks’ fearlessness as a writer that his last novel, “The Lost Memory of Skin,” deals with characters whose histories touch on an area of American life treated with mounting antipathy, diminishing compassion and even sometimes hysteria – child abuse and, in particular, pedophilia.
He intends to discuss it on Thursday. The subject concerns him greatly, in particular “the degree to which we’re fearful of our children being sexually exploited and abused and how we manage to deal with that fear – or DON’T deal with that fear.”
The novel was critically praised, but Banks said, “I did note that almost every review began by saying ‘This is going to be a tough one’ – preparing the reader for the darkness of the story. It’s always kind of depressing to read that in the first paragraph of your reviews. On the other hand, I don’t deny it. My publisher had the same apprehension when I turned the book in. They’re very loyal to me, but they also said ‘This is going to be a hard sell.’ ”
So much so that they were initially going to ignore the protagonist’s abusive past on the jacket copy until Banks told them “ ‘trust the reader.’ So they did. I think it was the right decision. People do take the book seriously, and it has provoked a lot of discussion. I took the longest book tour I’ve ever taken with this book.”
“I had three books that, directly or indirectly deal with the sexual abuse of children – ‘The Sweet Hereafter,’ ‘Rule of the Bone,’ and ‘Lost Memory of Skin.’ I didn’t realize it at the time, when I was writing the books – I only realized it recently – that they all three had that in common but that’s not really what they’re about. They’re about something else. They’re about fear and maybe the abandonment of our children.
“In an odd way, maybe it’s a transference of guilt into fear. I want to examine that in this talk [in Buffalo]. What are we really afraid of? And what have we really done? Why are we trying to protect our children so desperately? Does it mean that we’ve failed to protect them, and we’re trying to compensate for that?”
Banks is nothing if not cognizant of his remarkable good fortune in having filmmakers on the level of Egoyan and Paul Schrader (“Affliction”) make such fine movies of his books.
“I was very lucky that two of the best auteur filmmakers in the world elected, at the same time, to adapt two very different kinds of novels of mine. ‘The Sweet Hereafter,’ I’d have said, will never be made into a movie. There are four different narrators and it starts with a school bus accident. That’s a hard way to get things going. When Egoyan decided he wanted to make that and [Paul] Schrader decided he wanted to make 'Affliction,’ I felt really blessed. They both pulled me into the process too.”
Until then, said Banks, he tended to subscribe to the Hemingway theory of the way writers should deal with filmmakers: “Drive to the Nevada/California border, throw the book across the state line and throw the money back. And then turn around and drive home.”
The filming of “Affliction” led to his being tapped to write an early script for the film version of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which Francis Ford Coppola had wanted to make for decades and which he finally succeeded in doing this year with Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) as director.
“I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to [write an ‘On the Road’ script ] if it hadn’t been initiated by [Buffalo born and raised producer] Linda Reisman, who was, at the time, working for Francis Coppola and running his Zoetrope Studio when it was based in New York.
“I had an idea how it might be handled. I saw Kerouac late in life. [Read the fine Paris Review interview with Banks online.] He was no longer the kid we imagine – Sal Paradise from ‘On the Road.’ He had turned into a sad and broken and sick man. It was in the ’60s. The novel was set in 1948. And here we were, in the late 1960s. America had changed. It was no longer possible to be as innocent as that novel portrayed.”
That’s how Banks approached the script. Banks has read the script of Salles’ and Coppola’s finished film and says it “had a different point of view from the screenplay I did. The screenplay that they used was much more sentimental and naive than my own meant to be.”
He got involved in writing it, though, because he thought, “I can learn a lot working with Francis Coppola – about screenwriting, filmmaking, etc. And that turned out to be the case.”
In fact, Banks isn’t working on a novel at the moment, but is indeed writing a film script for a version of his novel “The Darling,” which Martin Scorsese is planning to produce, thus far, with Jessica Chastain in the lead role.
But more likely to be made first, he guessed, would be a film version of his novel “Rule of the Bone,” which, could be shot early in 2013.
“You know how that goes,” Banks said. “You wait until the check clears.”