Monday, November 25, 2013

Philip Graham Remembers Oscar Hijuelos


Normally, we at Ninth Letter love to use this blog as a way to announce the continuing successes of the writers who have been published in our magazine.  It’s a way to celebrate writers we admire, and a way of keeping in touch, too.

Now, however, we are faced with the sad task of saying goodbye to Oscar Hijuelos, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.  In our sixth issue (v. 3 #2, Winter 2006) we published an excerpt from Oscar’s novel-in-progress, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise, accompanied by an interview with him about that excerpt.  Sadly, Oscar wasn’t able to complete the novel before his sudden death on October 12, 2013.

In the excerpt, the journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley (who was indeed a friend of Twain’s), says that, “if there is such a thing as ghosts, literature will be the only verifiable version of them.”  In the interview, Oscar elaborated on this intriguing idea:

“Its source is a kind of tautology that has to do with the sense that even as I am writing these words now, someone will be reading them, perhaps (well, not in my case, but say someone like Twain), a hundred years from now.  But when I assume that what I am writing now will be preserved in a book (or a journal) I always get the image of some library stack—could be two hundred years from now—and of a student or librarian reading this over and thinking, So that’s what it was like back then.  And I guess it’s informed by my feeling that literature is a way of preserving voices from the past: I mean, even as I tried to imagine what Twain might think or say in a given situation, I not only thought that his books contained his spirit, but I also had the odd sensation that he was somewhere nearby, sort of like a ghost.  And I think that he must have surely been aware of it himself while reading his favorites, like Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution. (It was the book he had by his deathbed.)

“That I have Stanley saying this has to do with his own passions—he read everything—junk novels, Greek and Latin works in the original, countless kinds of books, as well as all current literature, from Tolstoy to Twain, as if reading was an absolutely necessary part of existence, as essential as breathing.  By then, the 1890s, photographs and primitive film making were also preserving images of human life, but I guess the line just conveys my own feeling that nothing will ever quite capture the human inner voice and spirit the way that books do.”

You can hear something of Oscar Hijuelos’ spirit in this interview, and even more so of course in his critically acclaimed novels, which are now the afterlife he imagined, the place where his very human inner voice can best be found.

--Philip Graham

Philip shares more memories of Oscar at his own blog,

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