Plotting the search for cultural identity

By KEVIN LANAHAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, October 23, 2005

In James Lasdun's gripping new novel, "Seven Lies," (W.W. Norton; 224 pages; $23.95), narrator Stefan Vogel, an East German consumed by the West and all its vainglory, emigrates to the United States after the fall of communism for the dream life he coveted during the repressive years of the Cold War.

But Vogel's journey to the United States is facilitated by a series of dangerous deceits and sordid self-inventions. Once in America, he wraps himself in even more mendacity to maintain what appears to be a new life of blissful freedom.

The facade begins to fade, however, when a stranger at a Manhattan cocktail party suddenly throws a glass of wine in Vogel's face at the utterance of his name. Perplexed and shamed, the incident finally kick-starts his conscience. Later that evening Vogel begins a diary that tells the story of his transgressions in reverse.

What Lasdun has created with the follow-up to his critically acclaimed first novel, "The Horned Man," is a chilling psychological examination of how the totalitarian state can damage the human imagination and how a capitalist society can disappoint. Vogel is a man without a country, without a true identity, forced to come to terms with the vertigo of cultural detachment and his own moral deterioration.

Soul searching

Lasdun, raised in London, has been in the United States since 1986, teaching at various colleges, including Princeton, Columbia and New York University. He now makes his home in Woodstock, on a piece of property he describes as being "at the top of a long, dusty, isolated road." He is a visiting writer-in-residence at the University at Albany. Friday he will read from "Seven Lies" as part of the New York State Writers Institute Visiting Writers Series.

Lasdun himself admits he identifies somewhat with his character's struggle. "Growing up in England, we were a Jewish family -- but very secular. We lacked any real Jewish identity," he said, speaking from Boston where he was on tour in support of his new novel.

"My father would always say 'We're not English,' and we certainly weren't part of the ingrained Englishness. But there was an absence of something else, which you absorb as a child," he said.

Like Vogel, Lasdun has done some soul searching to reconcile this question of cultural identity, and in similar form: Where Vogel takes pen to paper, Lasdun has revisited the theme in his previous books of poetry and short story collections.

Lasdun's debut novel, "The Horned Man" (a New York Times Notable Book for 2002), concerns Lawrence Miller, an English ex-patriot, teaching at a college just outside New York City. Miller begins to suffer under the paranoia and loneliness of metropolitan life, and slowly becomes unmoored, losing his grip on his neat American life and reality. The numerous comparisons between Lasdun and Franz Kafka, the grand champion of surrealist alienation, comes as no surprise.

"When I wrote 'Landscape With Chainsaw' (his second poetry collection), I think what I was doing was reacting to this slight suppression of my family's identity," Lasdun said. "It was liberating to take the lid off that, to find your history and the way you are in the world."

A changed world

"Seven Lies" is being called a political thriller by some critics. Lasdun said he didn't necessarily set out to write a novel in that vein, but he was keenly aware of how significantly the world has changed since Brezhnev-era East Germany, when the demarcations between freedom and totalitarianism were obvious.

"There's really nothing anymore that opposes the American dream. Everyone has sort of signed on and so the (American) culture has been allowed to run rampant. The U.S. is still the best option in many respects, but how much pleasure can we take in our modern culture anymore?"

Lasdun was considering the answer to this question as he prepared to write "Seven Lies." "I just thought, 'What would it mean for someone to break the bonds of common decency for the American ideal, even when that ideal doesn't bear itself out?'


In addition to his novels and books of poetry, Lasdun has won awards for his screenwriting, including the 1997 film "Sunday," which captured the prize for best screenplay at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, which involves a newly homeless man in Queens who poses as a movie producer to an aspiring British actress, also explores the moral puzzle of self-identity.

"Besieged," a film based on a Lasdun short story, was released in 1998 and was directed by Benardo Bertolucci, famous for such epic works as "The Last Emperor," which won the Oscar for best picture.

"The movies and screenwriting took place in a period of about five years when I really needed to do something different in my life other than teaching and writing poetry," Lasdun said. "Winning the Sundance prize, though, was a little like winning a prize for skateboarding: it wasn't my real profession."

Lasdun's two novels have been purchased by movie studios and have been, as he puts it, "tantalizingly close to getting to the advanced production stage." And, he's working on a new screenplay before plunging back into fiction or poetry. "For now," he says, "I'm trying not to think too much about it."

Looking back on his own journey from England to America, from struggling artist to renowned novelist, does Lasdun feel any closer to calling this country home?

"My wife is American and both of my children were born here," he says, in an accent that, despite his 20 years in this country, is noticeably British. "I remember getting the call with the offer (to teach in the United States). I was living in a section of London that wasn't the best, just trying just to make ends meet. When I arrived, I went walking in New York City and just knew I had no intention of going back."

Kevin Lanahan is freelance writer from Clifton Park.

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James Lasdun