KR Conversations

David Winner

David Winner’s most recent novel, Tyler’s Last, a darkly comic homage to Patricia Highsmith, came out in October of 2015. His first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2015 Gival Novel Prize and was nominated for the National Book Award. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Village Voice, Iowa Review, Fiction, Chicago Quarterly Review, and several other publications in the US and UK. He is fiction editor of the American, an international web magazine based in Rome. An excerpt from his essay “Aunt Dorle’s Master Lovers” as well as a photo gallery can be found here. It appears in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Aunt Dorle’s Master Lovers”?

While cleaning out my Great Aunt Dorle’s midtown Manhattan apartment years after her death, I discovered hundreds of love letters all written in the 1930s by different men addressed to Dorle, who was a figure in the music world who worked closely with Toscanini and Maria Callas. Initially, I’d been disappointed that none of them seemed to be from anyone famous, but once I put the name John Franklin Carter, the married man who’d sent her about two hundred, into the New York Times archive and learned that he had ostensibly been tasked by Goering to run a “Hitlerest” party against Roosevelt in the 1932 elections, I got hooked. The lovers were all pretty interesting. They fought at Gallipoli and in the Spanish Civil War. They sold Ottoman rooms in Damascus that ended up at the Metropolitan Museum. Their letters were full of passion and humor, their stories dark and surprising.

You discuss engaging in “American ancestor worship” of your great aunt, Dorle, when you were a child. In both growing up and understanding Dorle better, do you believe you’ve come to worship her less or more? Do details on a person’s life, especially unflattering or humanizing ones, endanger the perceived sacredness they may have? Can you both truly know and honestly worship a partially flawed and incredible human being at the same time?

The ancestor worship came from my father and how loving Dorle and her husband Dario had been with him as a child when his actual parents were (in his opinion) terrible people. I wasn’t so surprised to find a photograph of his father Percy, a reporter in North Africa, standing chummily next to Mussolini, who apparently trusted Percy enough to allow him to write his own questions and answers to an interview in the twenties. Percy left my grandmother, Faie, before my father was born, and my father had a difficult childhood, sent away young to boarding school after Faie married a wealthy businessman and moved to Pasadena. But on visits to New York, Dorle and Dario showered him with love and affection like secular saints. My awe of Dorle faded at the same time as my love of her began after we started to spend Friday nights together in New York, when I was ending my twenties and she was beginning her nineties. She smelled of age and cigarettes, did not share my dogmatic leftism and wasn’t always nice to my mother, but was frank, generous, and full of incredible stories.

Obviously, the “Hitlerest” information I learned a decade or so after her death should have stilled any remaining ancestor worship, though she was Jewish and there was no real reason to think she’d known about it. The revelation was so bizarre and extreme that I’m embarrassed to admit that I was excited, sort of titillated by it. I didn’t even know there was a Hitlerest party running against FDR, much less that its leader was Dorle’s longtime lover. I remember telling friends about it (“Can you believe this!”) only to be greeted by disturbed expressions. Still, I was relieved to learn that the Times story was largely false, though my father did tell me that he remembered Dorle forgiving her friend Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, the soprano and former Goebbels-mistress, her Nazism because Dorle believed art was more important than politics. In a way, my childhood ancestor worship had returned in a very different form. Dorle was not some saintly figure, but more of a Kali—loving us warmly but connected, if indirectly, to destructive forces in her youth.

As you present it, Dorle’s history seems to revolve around love, both in the fiction of her stories and the actualized forms of her correspondences. What does it mean for you, and for writing, to compose an essay about the pieces of writing in her life which show her love and provide glimpses of her lovers? What role do you think this contemporary composition plays in understanding the personal history of the deceased?

We certainly have a striking juxtaposition between the idealized romantic love (that even makes Henry the Eighth seem kind) of her fictions and the dramas and difficulties of her actual love affairs with mostly married men.

With her love affairs, her travels, her professional success, Dorle may emerge from the essay as a kind of proto-feminist. And she was so genuinely brave and lived so much more independent a life than many women of her time. But reading through all the letters stripped some of that away. She seemed (if her lovers were to be believed) to be constantly begging for marriage and commitment. The trope of the woman desperate for commitment from a man gets exploded by a woman apparently demanding commitment from several men at the same time.

We also have strange flashes of what seems sort of like 1970s open sexuality. J.B.S. Haldane, a British geneticist who came up with the idea of in vitro fertilization, tells her not to send letters to his home, as his wife might read them, but then proceeds to invite her to a whole house party at the same residence. George Asfar, her Syrian lover, wrote the following from Damascus, “Fouaz proposed to cheer me up to take me to a Pazon . . . The adventure would have amused me if you were with me; bring back a concubine, I would have loved to watch your reaction; but a concubine behaves so well toward the legitimate wife, that I am sure you would have been enchanted.”

It’s hard for me to say what I’ve really learned about Dorle and love because the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit very well together. But my instinctual generalizations about gender and sexuality in the 1930s have been challenged by Dorle and by the letters that were sent her.

What role do you feel forgiveness plays in asking and learning about someone’s personal history? You discuss Dorle’s astounding forgiveness of her father and husband; do you feel the readers of your piece, or you yourself, have an obligation to pass on this forgiveness to Dorle where it makes sense? 

Dorle may have been able to forgive her father and husband because she was not the real victim of the more serious harm they perpetrated. She did not lose her savings like the poor Lower East Side Jews who deposited their money in her father’s bank. She may have been betrayed by Dario romantically, but she was not killed like a beautiful cheetah photographed beneath him when he was an officer in the Fascist army in Eritrea. The officers all look so friendly and dashing in the photo album from ’20s Asmara that came from Dario’s family, but who knows how many Eritreans they wounded and murdered? I don’t think we fully contend with the racism and violence of colonial Europe.

In my last novel (Tyler’s Last) about racist thriller-writer Patricia Highsmith and her most famous character Ripley, I tried to exhume some of the bigotry of the past that we tend to contextualize and ignore. For me, there wasn’t much question of forgiving or not forgiving Dorle (who, after all, had given me and still gives me so much), but I wonder how her beloved Europe could have seemed so romantic and glamorous while perpetrating such colonial horrors. And my whole conversation about past crimes and bigotry seems beside the point at a moment in American history in which our worst demons have stepped out of the shadows.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I wrote only fiction for years with the exception of one piece in the Village Voice about Dorle’s friend, Tobias Schneebaum, who ostensibly engaged in cannibalism when he was adopted by an indigenous tribe in the Peruvian Amazon during the 1950s. But after Dorle’s mass of documents landed in my lap, I became more interested in delving into her and her world. The truth (to whatever degree I could get at it) seemed better than anything I could make up. That’s pushed me into more of a nonfiction direction.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

Probably travel. I go wherever I can afford as much as I can in search of some delirious dislocation. I’ve shown up in some former Soviet republics like Georgia and Armenia, cultures about which I have no understanding, places in which people may not quite know what to make of me. A taxi driver drove me the 100-odd kilometers from Tbilisi to Stalin’s birthplace in Gori for about ten dollars. He was sweet, it was perfectly safe, but my irrational fear that he might do something to me provided me with the kernel of my most recent novel.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

Sort of both at the same time. I once wrote a really flawed novel in which I put my ungrammatical Italian into the mouths of some of my characters and had the brilliant idea of showing it to a family friend (through Dorle, of course) William Weaver, Calvino, and Ecco’s translator. He said the classic thing, “put in a drawer, forget about it, and try again.” I was devastated, but I kept writing novels, and they did get better. Brilliant first novels (Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionalist) confound me. How can someone just sit down and write a good novel? We don’t expect to be able to buy some wood and tools and make an elegant chair. What I got from Weaver was the idea that novel-writing requires on the job training. Most of us mere mortals have to keep writing them until maybe we begin to get better.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

One, a novel called Enemy Combatant, has unfortunately been made newly relevant by Trump’s apparent decision to restart CIA secret prisons. In the mid 2000s, my protagonist—crazed by rage against the Bush administration, substance abuse, an imperiled marriage and ambivalence about impending fatherhood—runs across evidence of prisons on a trip to Armenia and Georgia. With his even more deranged old friend, the Jewish-adopted Korean-American, Leonard Kaufman, he tries to release a British-Pakistani prisoner originally captured in Afghanistan.

The other project stems from the Kenyon Review essay. Using the love letters, Dorle’s adolescent diary, and some research, I try to tell the story of five of her 1930s love affairs, letting fiction take me where fact cannot. Some ecstatic love letters written on the Mauretania by Albert Coates, a conductor who sent Dorle pictures of himself with George Bernard Shaw, were in a drawer in Dorle’s apartment but addressed to some mysterious figure named “Joanny” who might or might not have been a nickname for Dorle. I try to make sense of the loose ends like that one.