December 20, 2004

Reading Log: Frederic Prokosch

(The first in an ongoing series in which I’ll call attention to works of literature and entertainment that not everyone else is reading.)

In 1935, twenty–something grad student Prokosch had a bestseller with his first novel, THE ASIATICS, a beautifully written plotless travelogue about a young man’s overland journey from Damascus to Hong Kong. The amazing thing was that the author hadn’t been to any of the places he described—but people who had been there said that he’d caught the essence of those places better than most guide books. He repeated the feat in his second novel, THE SEVEN WHO FLED, about seven archetypal Europeans who scatter across Central Asia after fleeing a strife–torn city. The Asiatics is currently being reissued.

I’m reading his out–of–print 1983 memoir, VOICES. From a very young age Prokosch practiced writing down conversations immediately after hearing him—and he sought out the best people of the 20th century to converse with. He talked to everyone: Joyce, Mann, Stein, Pound, Eliot, Auden, Hemingway, Woolf, Wolfe, Nabokov—the list goes on and on. Each eminence gets a brief turn in the spotlight, often debunking and enhancing the mystique of greatness at the same moment. Most unexpectedly hilarious: E. M. Forster, needlessly protesting that his relations with D. H. Lawrence contained “no hint of impropriety.”