Paul La Farge, at Large on Bennington Campus
By Nicholas Barney
Franklin was packed March 11th as visiting professor Paul La Farge read Rosendale, his newest work of fiction. Part of the Literature Evenings at Bennington, students and faculty gathered to hear the latest of professors and published writers to visit the college. After commenting on the large turnout and the quality of Rosendale, published this Fall in The New Yorker, faculty member and writer Ben Anastas stepped aside and Paul took the podium.
Paul thanked the college for taking him on as a professor, acknowledged students of his Horror Fiction class who were in attendance, and spoke briefly about Rosendale, the second work in his as of now uncompleted trilogy of short stories. La Farge is the author of four novels, including The Artist of the Missing, Haussmann, or the Distinction, The Facts of Winter, Luminous Airplanes, as well as countless essays and short stories.
La Farge, a local of New York City and graduate of Yale University, has been published in The New Yorker, The Village Voice, and Harper’s, as well as the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Bard Fiction Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowments for the Arts and the New York Foundation of the Arts. Before teaching at Bennington, La Farge taught at Columbia and Bard, where he is a member of the MFA faculty, and was selected for the artist-in-residency programs at MacDowell and Yaddo - enough accolades to make any full-time member of the Bennington Literature department blush.
Rosendale is a story in dialogue with the classic tale of Frankenstein, only in this modern text the monster is a golem made of clay and the protagonist an erotic dancer named April P. Infusing Jewish folklore, crises of modernity, and humor, Paul received laughs early and consistently from the crowd who picked up on every joke without any prodding from Paul’s consistent tone. Such raucous laughter might seem out of place at a horror reading, but according to student Alec MacNeil, humor and horror are more closely linked than most think. In discussing his desire to take Paul’s class, MacNeil explained, “I’ve always been more interested in humor coming out of a sense of awkwardness, tension, or unease, and the idea that laughter can be a release of tension while still building tension. I’m interested in studying the sense of unease and tension that horror writers cultivate in their work, and to see if those same techniques can be used to build tension through humor.”
As the reading drew to an end, and the interactions with April P. and the golem more tense, I became aware of a reflection of light in Paul’s glasses, effacing his eyes. Every now and then he looked up over the light, and appeared to be watching the crowd doubled - a visual that could not have been more fitting for the reading. He finished to a clamor of applause, the light gone from his glasses, the crowd dispersed, and the evening ended. Later in the week, I caught up with him over email and asked him a few questions:
When did you first start writing? Do you place any importance on starting early, do you think it matters at all what age you started and/or how long you have been writing?
I started writing fiction seriously when I was a senior in college, and I started to think of writing as what I would do with my life about three years after that. On the whole, I think that when you start writing probably isn't as important as how serious you are about writing, once you've started. Toni Morrison didn't publish her first book until she was 39. Marilynne Robinson published her first book when she was 37.
What drew you to the genre of horror?
I'm writing a novel about the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose work I read obsessively when I was a kid. My book is about an incident in Lovecraft's life, and how versions of it get told and retold by various people over the years. In order to write it, I've been re-reading Lovecraft's stories and novels, and thinking about what makes them work, and why he has such a large following today. And that made me curious about how horror fiction works more generally, which led me to the work of some very interesting and depressing thinkers: Thomas Ligotti, Eugene Thacker, George Sieg, Reza Negarestani. Horror turns out to be a good way of talking about the world.
What are your plans for the future? Do you wish to stay at Bennington? What other projects are you pursuing and/or wish to pursue outside of academia?
Plans for the future: keep writing. Finish this book. I'm very happy teaching at Bennington, and my students are wonderful, but I'm a visiting professor and the decision about whether I stay on here is up to the college, which has to take factors other than my happiness (availability of positions, desire to bring new writers to campus, etc.) into consideration.
Literature Evenings are held, in conjunction with Poetry at Bennington, in Franklin or Tishman on scheduled Wednesdays at 7 pm. Keep an eye out for award-winning poet Claudia Rankine, who visits Bennington April 1st.