Thinking About: Philip Graham’s “The Moon, Come to Earth”

In THE MOON, COME TO EARTH (University of Chicago Press, 2009) Philip Graham sends his dispatches from Lisbon, accounts of a year spent in Portugal with his family while his wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, began her field work among Cape Verdians. In many ways, this is a writer’s literary pilgrimage. Graham goes to a reading to hear the novelist Saramago. As Saramago begins a little speech, Graham silently wills ‘my ears to stretch out to Dumbo’s size.’ What he catches is wonderful, as the writer says “All one needs to know in life is that others exist. Life is not just ‘me.’ ”
Graham is never in any danger of a pathological level of writerly self-absorption. He is too busy being entranced, charmed–and sometimes confused or bewildered–by the new world around him. A viewing of a play of “Moby-Dick” of all things (in Portuguese of course) evinces bemusement on his part and amusement on ours: “The stage scenery resembles a Zen version of the high seas….Even a three-hour play can’t serve up more than a sliver of a six-hundred page novel, so absence needs to be the aesthetic of the day.”
Of course seemingly ordinary events have their own transformative power. An art installation on the street evokes the image that “The moon, it appears, has come to earth tonight, magically just for her (daughter Hannah), and even if it has left the shifting clouds behind, Hannah radiates concentration and lines up her shots. I decide to give her all the time she needs, suspecting that my daughter must feel some kinship with this fallen moon. After all, they’re fellow travelers, taken out of context and isolated. I lean back on a stone bench and marvel at just how private public art can be.”

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Q: I was struck how the book is about observing one thing–a stay in Portugal–but turns into observing another–your daughter’s difficult entry into adolescence. There is forshadowing, but it seems like maybe that wasn’t on purpose in a narrative sense–but just what you were seeing.
Can you comment on this, or on writerly observation in general, and how it spills into life?

A:  The first half of my Lisbon dispatches I wrote in close to real time, for the McSweeney’s website, and so my voice is that of a traveller who, writing in the present tense, is in the middle of a narrative that hasn’t yet completed.  It’s eerie, though, how many signs of an approaching crisis were there almost from the start, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  I had thought I was being attentive to my daughter’s experience living in a foreign culture, but there was much I missed–perhaps because I was too entranced with the pleasures of living in Lisbon, but also because I let her successes–and there were many of those–blind me to her struggles.  But life sometimes sneaks up on you, and when it came time to collect the various dispatches together into a book, I didn’t revise any of them to make myself look better.  And so the book changes, as one reads it, from a celebration of living abroad to a cautionary tale of living abroad.  And yet, Alma, Hannah and I still love Lisbon; Hannah says that’s where her soul belongs.

Q: Your love of Lisbon is clear throughout. If you had 24 hours where you were magically transported there (and budget wasn’t an issue and maybe not sleep!) how would you spend the day?

A:  I would walk from one end of the city to the other, and back again, traveling across neighborhoods I wasn’t familiar with, searching for surprises.  Even with all those hills, Lisbon is a great walking city, and I would hope to come upon small neighborhood parks, tascas busy with a noontime crush of customers, a specialty bookstore perhaps, a small but beautiful church, a club playing unfamiliar music, and of course all the varying views of the city’s skyline, bordered by the Tejo river.  Lisbon is a dizzy mixture of ancient and modern, different historical realms sometimes overlapping each other, and though I lived there for a year, there remains so much more to discover.

Q: Sometimes in interviews writers get asked the same questions over and over. Is there a question you don’t get asked but would like to answer about the experience of writing the book? Also, is there anything in the reception of the book that has surprised you?

I would have liked a question about Portuguese literature.  Portugal can boast of some of the strongest contemporary writers in Europe, and its literary influence extends to Brazil and African countries like Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde, all of which were once part of Portugal’s vast empire. And of course the great 20th century poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote poems through his multiple personalities, casts a long shadow.  I quote from a lot of Portuguese writers here and there in the book–because their writing is dear to me and helped me make meaning of my Lisbon experiences, but also because the Portuguese themselves live and breathe literature–it’s far more embedded in the country’s cultural consciousness than anything American writers could dream of.  Plus, if I read a line of poetry like this, by Sophia de Mello Breyner, “Through your heart passed a boat/That without you still follows its course,” then how could I possibly resist fitting it into a dispatch somewhere?

As for the second part of your question, while the critical reception for The Moon, Come to Earth has been very generous, I’ve noticed one oddity.  There a strong political undercurrent in the book–I write with frankness about my chagrin over the Bush administration, and what it was like as an American living abroad during those times.  One reviewer thought I was being too harsh about Bush, while another actually thought I was defending him!  That last view especially I find hard to understand . . . 

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Many thanks Philip for the beautiful book and the interview! To see more of Graham’s thoughts and writing:  http://www.philipgraham.net/

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