Book Brahmin: Jerome Charyn

Prolific author Jerome Charyn has been teaching film for the past 14 years at the American University of Paris. He learned the art of table tennis while living in Paris and was demolished in many a tournament by teenage champions. He discovered language and literature through the poems of Emily Dickinson. His previous novel, Johnny One-Eye, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Charyn's new novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, will be published by Norton next Monday.
On your nightstand now:
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Hitler by Ian Kershaw, The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell and Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. I like to read with Emily Dickinson's cadences inside my head, to bump along with her music. But right now I'm finishing a novel about Berlin during World War II. So I dream with Emily Dickinson and with the sinews of Berlin's bombed-out canals and streets.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Bambi. Name one child who has ever really recovered from the death of Bambi's mother. All my life I have been striving to recapture the emotion of that sense of loss on every page I write.
Your top five authors:
Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and Cormac McCarthy. All of them are magicians who have a striking sense of the line and are as unpredictable as the greatest of sharpshooters... or ping-pong players.
Book you've faked reading:
War and Peace. When I was at college, a couple of centuries ago, you were considered worthless until you had read Tolstoy's War and Peace. Naturally I decided not to read the book. But Tolstoy was everywhere, and pretty soon I was babbling about the beautiful Natasha and the bumbling Pierre Bezhukov. I invented battle scenes, love stories, tales of catastrophe and ruin. People never ceased to listen. Years later I dipped into War and Peace and discovered that all my battle scenes and tales of catastrophe were in the book. Either I had invented Tolstoy or Tolstoy had invented me.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. The whole planet sees Leonard Cohen as a magnificent songster, but I see him as a great novelist gone astray. From its opening lines, the novel reads like a love song to a vanished Indian tribe. It's funny, lyrical and heartbreaking.
Book you've bought for the cover:
The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
. There are three Cossacks who look like rabbinical students riding across a pale white background, as if they were personages in a painting by Chagall.
Book that changed your life:
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. When I first read the opening lines, told from the point of view of a man with the mind of a child, I realized I wanted to write. Nothing else would please me than to play with words the way Benjy plays, with the same sad, syncopated melody.
Favorite line from a book:
"To shut our eyes is Travel," from The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Don't we Travel with our eyes shut whenever we dream our way into a book? Isn't she trying to reassure us that writing and reading are the only Aladdin's lamp we'll ever need?
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Gulliver's Travels. How modern Gulliver's voyages suddenly seem, as if Jonathan Swift were examining our own interior landscape, where we are both large and small, and our whole identity can change in an instant.

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