Prospero's Son: Local Author Writes Of Life, Books, Love And Theater
April 23, 2013 12:28 p.m.
Seth Lerer, author, dean of arts and humanities, UC San Diego
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In Shakespeare's last play The Tempest, the main character, Prospero, averts a tragic ending by renouncing his books of magic and sorcery.
In the new memoir, Prospero's Son, author Seth Lerer averts a tragic ending to his family's history by embracing the books of his youth in an effort to understand his later life. In the process, he confronts some painful secrets about his relationship with his father and with his own son. Seth Lerer is dean of arts and humanities at UC San Diego, and his memoire is called Prosperro's son. Welcome back.
LERER: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: You're best known for writing about children's literature. And some would say this is quite a leap from that. What led you to writing this memoire?
LERER: I think of this book as a personal sequel to my history of children's literature. One of the things I came to realize when I was working critically on works of literature from the Aesop to the Grimm brothers to Harry Potter. How so much literature are designed to help young people understand the world as a system of signs. As I was reading for the book and writing the book, I was reading to my own son. So all of these activities came together. And I came to ask myself, what is the book of my own life? How do we make ourselves the heroes of our lives, and how do we realize in the end that maybe we're not so much the heroes of our own lives at the minor characters in other people's novels.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things that you do in this book is you talk about -- you want to relate it to what you learn from loving literature and loving theatre and your real expertise when it comes to children's literature. I wonder if you can give us an example of how the books you loved as a child helped shape your life.
LERER: Well, so many of the books I grew up with as a child in the 1950s were in fact books of the 1940s. My favorite was make way for ducklings. I talk about this in my children's literature book. The family of ducklings set up a house, a nest in Boston, and the father duckling goes away for a week and says I'll be back and I'll meet you. And then the mother duckling gives birth. And when I read this book as a child, it was a lovely story. It was a story about family and place. Which I read the book as an adult and a scholar, I realized that the book was published at the end of 1941, and it's a book with the war. The father is saying to the mother raise the children, and I'll be back. And one of the things that I also realized is that every day as a child, dad in a traditional family. It's different now. But when I was a child, dad would say to mom I'll be back. And you hoped that he would be. And this book and the story stayed with me as I was thinking about my own life and my own memoire because I wondered would my father be the same when he returned as when he left? And after he passed away ten years ago, and I discovered so many things about him and read his life in the way that I've read book
RIH2: Came to understand that for so many of us, none of our parents are the same coming back as when they left.
CAVANAUGH: The book is not only about literature, children's literature, it contrasts theatre and performance with the way we live our lives. How much as you've looked into it and wrote this book, how much performing was present in your family when you were growing up?
LERER: I grew up in a family of performers. May parents were teachers but also amateur actors. They would love for a troupe in the way some families might look for a good school or the good church or the good Temple when we moved. And I came to terms with whether or not we really are who we are or are we always performing? One of the themes might have book and my teaching, I'm teaching Shakespeare now at US San Diego, is life really a performance? Are we all actors? And in some sense, how do we get behind the masks of everyday life to see who we are? So theatre was central to my life. I in many ways led a theatrical life. And as a teacher, as a university administrator, as a parent, as a child, I played many roles. All the world truly is a stage.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this book is written in a series of flashbacks. Each chapter is like its own essay. Why did you choose to structure it that way?
LERER: I did it for several reasons, and that's a great question. One is that I think today our sense of narrative and memory is fractured. Very few of my students and very few of us today think in linear terms. We watch movies, we watch television, constantly being interrupted, constantly flashing back. I second issue is that this is a book about objects and things and the ways in which every object I pick up reminds me of another story. And so everything in this way is a kind of flashback to the past. But I think the other thing about the flashback narrative is to understand that so much of our lives are about trying to figure out what memory is. I have a quotation by Morris in which he said anything processed by memory is fiction. Do we really, really remember? So each chapter in my book is not just a flashback, and as you say, it cannot just be read individually, but it is also a bedtime story. And each chapter is short, and in a way it can be read as a little meditation, a fable before going to bed.
CAVANAUGH: Read us something from your book.
LERER: I'd like to read a passage from the beginning of the book. It talks about how I entered my father's apartment after he died. And that morning, I was teaching the Tempest at Stanford, and I drove up to an apartment in San Francisco. So the page brings together memories of the tempest with what I find. "My father's of a better nature, sir, than he appears by speech. I got up and opened the closet. There were 100 shirts all pressed and still in their dry cleaning bags. There were 24 pairs of shoes, a dozen cashmere sweaters, 30 shoes hanging on books. Broad-brimmed fedoras, baseball caps, a Stetson. I pushed aside the rack of suits and behind them on another ram were fur coats reaching to the floor. There were half a dozen leather jackets, leather pants, three shopping bags stacked against the back wall. A whip handle, long steel chains, a set of cuffs wrapped in a towel by a disassembled rack. I reached in and pulled up a handful of matchbooks, the stud, the end up, badlands. Moby-Dick. Look, what a wardrobe here is for thee. I found an inlaid wooden box, a crust of cocaine still inside it. I found a roll of '20s. Turning back to his desk, I sliced through papers, threatening letters from a spurned recover, a restraining order against someone else, rough magic, robes, utensils, things of darkness. Are you not my father?"
CAVANAUGH: And you have gotten us to one of the major secrets that is revealed and dealt with in your book, the fact that your father was gay, that he only started to live openly as a gay man later in life. What did you make of it now as you passed your father's death, passed those discovers that were disturbing to you? What have you synthesized from that journey of knowledge about your dad?
LERER: Well, I'm glad you ask. And I just want to say that part of the passage, the idea of the passage I read was the story of discovery. How I wanted to show not simply that a secret was revealed but by progressively going into his things. The objects take on a different kind of meaning, and they resonate. And the way I make meaning out of them is through the literature I knew. And so much of our lives, not just in terms of gender but in earlies it of identity, so much of our lives was about passing. To be a secular Jew in New York in the 50s and '60s was about trying to pass. The question for so imgrant, how do you maintain your own identity and how do you gain acceptance? For so many people of my father's generation, it was also about passing in so many kinds of ways. So I think less the issue of gay or straight and more the issue of how can you become accepted? How would you be accepted by yourself? And how is the experience of any person an experience of trying to gain acceptance? The point I want to make is even though this is a personal story, a very particular story, I want to believe that everyone in their own way has felt something like this, the discovery of a past, the recognition that there's someone behind a mask, and the recognition that whether you're a European or an Asian immigrant, whether you're gay or straight, whatever you are, there always comes a moment when you ask yourself who are you really? Are you not my father?
CAVANAUGH: I wonder what turning your memories into literature has done to your memories. Has it changed them?
LERER: It's a wonderful question because as a reader and as a teacher, I wonder whether my memories were ever not literary. I wonder -- and part of the question of the book is, if you live in books, just as if you live in films or television or video games or you live in online chat worlds, if the imaginative worlds in which live shape the experience of your life,. So I what I would say is not so much that I turned my memories into literature. But that I've learned how to expose what is literary about life. Figurative language, metaphor, the images we live by, the idea of a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's how we make sense of things. Life may in fact be random and causeless. But we need to make a meaning out of it. So the way I've learned to make a meaning is to make a literary narrative.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you told us earlier that you were going -- perhaps thinking that you were the hero of your own life, and perhaps found out that you were actually a minor character in the lives of others. What has that realization that has come through writing this memoir done to your interaction with people?
LERER: It has made me acutely sensitive of the way in which I play a role in other people's lives. And I know a lot of writers. And every now and then you have the feeling that I'm sitting here talking to a writer, and one day I'm going to show up in his or her book. But even without writers, I think that we understand that we want to be the little character. We want to be the star of the show. But when I'm with other people, I realize I'm just the second banana. And it's both humbling and it's enhancing. Because it gives you a good sense that there are no single performers. We're all part of a great big stage troupe, and if we're going to get along, we have to learn our lines and watch the queues.
CAVANAUGH: And with that, I gave a stab at trying to figure out why you named your memoire Prosperro's son.
LERER: Well, those of you in the audience know that Prosperro in fact does not have a son, he has a daughter, Miranda. But the question is, in so many ways that my father was the magician of my life. And so to imagine if Prosperro had had a son, to imagine Prosperro, the magician of our lives, the great figure, what would it be like to be his child? And in the course of the tempest, Prosperro does get a son-in-law, but he needs to find a way of truly understanding what another man in his life is like. And certainly for me, in aspiring to live my father's magic, he taught me so much about walking into a room, about teaching a class, giving a speech, being present in the place. What does it mean for my own son to grow up with his Prosperro?
CAVANAUGH: In talking about your book, there are so many vignettes, there's so much information that you give us about the way your father acted, the drives you went on with him, his magical kind of driving.
CAVANAUGH: During the night. But do you feel in writing this book that you actually understand him better than you did?
LERER: I think I understand him better in part because I'm writing the book and in part because it's a long time writing the book. And understanding takes a long, long time. Not just for the self but for literature. One of the thingsive come to realize as a teacher is that we compel our students to read books when they're 18, 19 or 20. But no one should read until they're 50. So what does it mean in fact to understand? What I think is at the heart of your question is a recognition that understanding is kind of kaleidoscopic. It changes with every turn. And as we age, we think we may understand more, but what we understand is different.
CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, Seth, is that you said this that this book is a turning point for you. How do you see your writing and your subject matter evolving from this point on?
LERER: I think that what I learned to do in this book and what I hope readers will see for their own writing and reading is what it means to write in the first person. When students go to school, and they're taught composition, they're always told never use I. When we read literary criticism or read journalism, everything is in the passive voice. So I learned the courage of writing in the first person. And the other thing I want to say is I learned the courage of writing a short sentence. It's very hard to write a powerful short sentence. So I think the texture of my writing has changed. Where I see myself moving now is working more with Shakespeare and theatre, looking more at how media and culture shape our lives, and a great interest of mine of course is the history of reading. And this is a book that is written from the perspective of someone who grew up with a physical book printed on a page. This is a book that may well be read more by people on their Kindles than by people on their couches.
CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much.
LERER: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.