‘The Setting is Provincial’

Writing from my hotel room in Amsterdam, the final day of my short overseas reading tour. I’m staying at the Ambassade hotel. Flipping through the guest book yesterday, I was floored to see the names of countless authors who have stayed here before me: Tobias Wolff, Wally Lamb, Jhumpa Lahiri. To name a very few.
Maybe 20 feet from my window is the Heren Gracht, one of the many canals sluicing through Amsterdam in a series of diminishing U’s. Right now, the Frederik Albert boat is passing by, long, low, glass-covered, Dutch flag waving at the rear. It’s a gray day. The row houses across the canal are dark inside.
I read last night from “Pulp and Paper” at The English Bookshop here in the city. There were about a dozen people packed into a bright, intimate space, surrounded on four sides by books. British, mainly. An Aussie. A couple of Americans. The shopkeeper, a native of South Africa.
Maybe it’s being over here that suggested it. But I decided to do something different. At the start, I told a story I’d read in the introduction to Gunter Grass’s “Tin Drum.”
(I know Grass admitted a few years back that he was conscripted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and he recently wrote a poem assailing Israel for its threats to attack Iran, but he is also Germany’s most famous living writer and public intellectual, a Nobel laureate, and, so on my flight into Berlin, I’d decided to read the introduction.)
Grass says that in the summer of 1959, he met the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff at a hotel in Zurich.
“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” Wolff said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?”
“I don’t think so,” Grass replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces–”
“Say no more,” Wolff broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”
I told this story last night before reading from “The Herald,” my story about the Central Jersey newspaper reporter — perhaps the most provincial in a book of provincial stories set in New Jersey and New York.
The anecdote gave me confidence somehow. That I had standing, in a way, to come to Berlin and Amsterdam and read these stories. It answered, in part at least, a question I’d posed to myself: why am I here?
And it has me thinking about what’s next for me. The novel I’m working on is set in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ve never been there. (Though I hope soon to go.) I’ve always struggled with this as a writer: how to imagine, faithfully, the things beyond our experience.
The dictionary definition of “provincial” is: “of or relating to a province.” Also, though: “limited in perspective.”
Perhaps it’s in this sense, imagining the life of a single person — their loves, their hopes, their fears; their daydreams and the ways they combat boredom — that writers find the courage to begin.

One Response to ‘The Setting is Provincial’

  • Steven Hart says:

    For Wolff, all great literature was rooted in the provincial. To New York publishers, any book not rooted in New York is “regional.” Especially if it’s set in New Jersey.

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