David Blackburn

Franzen on Franzen’s dark inner torments

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Judging by the critical reaction, Jonathan Franzen Freedom is a Marmite book. But, even those who love Franzen’s latest trip to the heart of America concede that The Corrections is a far superior book. The Corrections is a book of riveting scope, tempestuous depths and exact style: a convincing pretender to the title of ‘Greatest American Novel’. Franzen recognises that he may not surpass his earlier achievement. Much of what he has said in recent interviews has been, frankly, bland. His demeanour has not been wholly dissimilar to say, Jordan’s – I’ve a book to sell, let’s get on with it and kindly keep the banal questions to a minimum.

However, he cuts loose in the latest issue of The Paris Review, making an honest self-assessment that extends far beyond his ability as a writer. Franzen has suffered for his art; now it’s your turn: the interview has the confidential note of a private submission to a psychiatrist, reading it is voyeuristic. You have to subscribe to read it in full, but here is an excerpt:

‘Again, after much trying and failing, I’d seen that there was no way I could write directly about certain central parts of my own experience, my experience with my mom and my experience in my marriage. What made direct revelation impossible was partly my sense of shame and partly a wish to protect third parties, but it was mostly because the material was so hot that it deformed the writing whenever I came at it directly. And so, layer by layer, I built up the masks. Like with papier-mâché, strip after strip, molding ever more lifelike features, in order to perform the otherwise unperformable personal drama.’