Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Arnost Lustig, Writing Teacher

One of my first writing teachers died: Arnost Lustig.

From the obituary in the Washington Post:

“Arnost Lustig, a Czech-born fiction writer who drew on his experience as the survivor of three concentration camps to create unsentimental portrayals of life during the Holocaust, died Feb. 26 of cancer in Prague. He was 84.

“Mr. Lustig, a retired professor of literature at American University, had written more than a dozen novels and short story collections since the late 1950s. He won acclaim for his finely rendered portraits of people who confront terrible choices - and manage to commit tiny acts of great heroism - during the most horrific of times.”

What I mostly remember about his fiction workshop is that he made us read Aristotle’s Poetics, which I thought was horribly old-fashioned and odd. (Though, later, when I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which draws upon Aristotle, the material suddenly all seemed so important and relevant.)

And Arnost gave us assignments like “write the saddest story” or “write the most beautiful thing you know.” I’m not sure I ever came up with something sad enough to impress him (how can one convey sadness to a Holocaust survivor?), but I do think that perhaps I passed one test he put me through, and—as with so much from that class and that time—one that I didn’t realize the significance of until much later.

There was a boy in the class with whom I had a not-very-secret flirtation. He read his “sad” or “beautiful” story out loud for critique, and—obviously—it wasn’t very good; it definitely needed some work. This boy—like all the boys who caught my eye during this time—was confident, bordering on arrogant, if not tipping into being a fully arrogant you-know-what. Right after he finished reading the story, Arnost looked straight and hard at me and asked what I thought of the story.

Was I supposed to choose the flirty boy, and tell him how great and wonderful his story was? Or choose Truth in the service of creating Art—telling him why the story wasn’t working?

The boy smiled his smarmy smile at me.

I chose art. I think Arnost knew I would and that’s why he asked.

And here, underlined in my old copy of Poetics, is Aristotle on tragedy, and my God! It’s exactly right:

“Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts which have those emotional characteristics.”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.