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‘Vile,’ ‘Deplorable,’ ‘Full of Lies’: Aleksandar Hemon Is No Fan of Philip Roth

What books are on your night stand?

Ray Monk’s “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.”

Oliver Sacks’s “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”

“The 1619 Project,” created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and edited by Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.”

Brenda Hillman’s “In a Few Minutes Before Later.”

What’s the last great book you read?

Semezdin Mehmedinovic’s “My Heart” (published in Bosnian as “Me’med, crvena bandana i pahuljica”). I’ve read the book in Bosnian and in English and it grows with every reading. Semezdin is a magnificent writer, unlike any other, and his book is a novel, memoir, essay, poetry, all in one, infused with copious love. Semezdin is a close friend, so I know who and what the book is about.

Are there any classic books that you only recently read for the first time?

With my poetry group, I am (re)reading Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” in English. I read them some years ago in Serbo-Croatian, but this is the first time that I am reading all 10 in an English translation.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

Well, it depends how we define “a great book.” If that means “important,” then yes — Dostoyevsky is a terrible writer, as is Jack Kerouac, for instance. A truly great book is great in each and every sentence and is read not for “importance” but for a sense of connectedness with the world by way of language.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

A mountain cabin in the fall. Cowbells in the fog outside, fire in the fireplace. “Sketches of Spain,” or Bach’s cello suites, and nothing else to do. Reading 400-500 pages a day, eventually reaching a state of trance, including dreaming of the characters and their dilemmas, picking up the book as soon as I open my eyes to see what happened to those people. I haven’t experienced this in more than 30 years.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I assume that if I know the book there would be other people who know it too. Having said that, one of the great underrated writers is Danilo Kis, whose book “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” is an absolute masterpiece, relevant once again in the light of the Russian genocidal aggression.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Michael Ondaatje, Edward P. Jones, Elena Ferrante, Semezdin Mehmedinović, David Mitchell, Gary Shteyngart, Tracy K. Smith, Robert Hass, Yiyun Li, Lydia Davis, Teju Cole, Olga Tokarczuk.

You grew up in Sarajevo and didn’t start writing in English until you came to Chicago in your 20s. Do you make an effort to keep up with contemporary European literature?

For a few years I was the editor of the Best European Fiction series published by the Dalkey Archive Press. And I am closely following the literary scene in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia.

Are there Slavic writers you especially recommend?

Taking into account that not all the people in the former Yugoslavia, or Eastern Europe, are Slavs, here are some writers with roots in the region, writing in various languages: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Pajtim Statovci, Lana Bastasic, Igor Stiks, Faruk Sehic, Sasa Stanisic, Dubravka Ugresic, David Albahari.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

No. I find the notion of “guilty pleasure” to be insufferably Puritan. American Puritanism makes any kind of joy or pleasure suspect and in need of justifying itself. Whereas I believe that, unless someone is being actively harmed, experiencing pleasure, reading or doing whatever else, should never make anyone feel guilty.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Sharing love/hatred for particular books, art or music is a fundamental way of socially relating to other people. While there are people whom I know I won’t be friends with because they like things that I not only detest but find self-evidently detestable, I have a lot of friendships where shared love for particular books, movies, music is fundamental.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Wittgenstein didn’t trust English doctors, so when he had to have his gallstone removed he refused to do it under general anesthesia. He arranged mirrors in the operating room so he could watch the surgery. It was incredibly painful, so a friend sat by his side throughout the operation, holding his hand. Wittgenstein was also a virtuoso whistler, and could whistle perfectly whole symphony movements.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

Music. It is very difficult to write about music, certainly in a novel. Among other things, representing the experience of music often diminishes it, not unlike representing sex, because it is essentially a sensory experience. I’ve been making music (as Cielo Hemon) and the joy of being inside it, making it, producing it, is hard to convey, or even understand. There are a lot of people writing about music as a social phenomenon (which, of course, it is) but few dare to approach it as a sensory experience.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Language.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I mainly read books about history, music, and also a lot of poetry, sometimes novels. No advice books, least of all self-help manuals, nor any of those middlebrow smartass books that explain humanity and its evolution and history in under 500 pages and a couple TED Talks.

How do you organize your books?

I don’t.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have no way of knowing what people might expect to find on my shelves, but I know that sometimes I am surprised rediscovering books I had acquired in some obscure past. Not so long ago I flipped through a book called “I Was Hitler’s Maid,” a work of World War II propaganda written by two British intelligence officers.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

When I was a kid, my parents gave me an English—Serbo-Croatian dictionary. I still have it in our apartment in Sarajevo.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read everything: kids’ books, adult books, comic books, textbooks, history books, science books, encyclopedias, newspapers, kids’ and adult magazines. Ferenc Molnar’s “The Paul Street Boys” was huge for me. And when I was 12 or so I read Kafka’s “The Trial,” because I read somewhere that David Bowie liked it, and I liked David Bowie.

Have your reading tastes changed over time?

Of course, but mainly in the sense that they multiplied. I am more curious now than I was before, but also quicker to abandon what is boring, predictable, or just lazy and not imaginatively stimulating.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I’d prefer a dance party, in which case I would invite dozens of writers and civilians, but if it is only wine and conversation: James Baldwin, Danilo Kis, Toni Morrison.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I never think that I am supposed to like or not like a book. I frequently put down books after reading the first page. I have dropped books I enjoyed reading, because I picked up another book. I also sometimes finish books I dislike from the beginning.

I intensely disliked Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” found it vile and full of lies (but I finished it). Over time, it has revealed itself as being positively proto-Trumpist. “American Pastoral” is deplorable too. Roth’s steadfast commitment to the many privileges of male whiteness reliably repels me. I also dislike a lot of recent books, but I don’t wish to name them. Bad books are as hard to write as the good ones.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

None. I don’t see why I should be embarrassed for not reading (or reading) any book.

The more I read, the less I read, because each book leads to many other books, so I become more aware of the books I have not read. However, that does not provoke embarrassment but curiosity.

What do you plan to read next?

“Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music,” by David Sulzer.

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