With a well-honed and concise sense of authorial observation, Jeffrey Eugenides commented on our slice of the Central Coast: “Santa Barbara has some nice medical facilities. That’s reassuring. So, I’ve decided to undergo a colonoscopy during this lecture.”
Eugenides opened his Tuesday lecture at Campbell Hall with this unexpected and hilariously deadpan ice-breaker, which incited a chorus of laughter. Clearly, this would not be your run-of-the-mill English lecture. In fact, it felt more like equal parts writing seminar, personal monologue and brief history of Asia Minor all rolled into one.
Sing in me, O Muse, of Mr. Eugenides acerbic wit, the divine germination of his brilliant novels, that gentle wrath of his hermaphroditic narrator Calliope and…ah, forget it. Let’s start from the beginning.
The bulk of Mr. Eugenides’ lecture focused on the novel that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Middlesex, including all of the tribulations and cosmic coincidences that led to its completion. He suggested that the first intimations of the story’s main character, Calliope Stephanides, were shaped in his mind while translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses from the original Latin in high school and his introduction to the character of Tiresias, who was at different times a man and a woman. “Even then,” Eugenides recalls, “I recognized the utility of this character, from a storyteller’s perspective.”
For those of you not familiar with the myth, Tiresias settles a dispute between Zeus and Hera concerning whether men derive more pleasure from sex than women. This sexy Latin lesson made an impression on fifteen-year-old Eugenides.
Flash forward twenty years or so. While researching at Columbia’s medical library, he comes across a genetic condition called “5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphroditism” It only occurs in small incestuous communities, due to a solitary mutant gene on the fifth chromosome. Old memories of Tiresias meld with this new info – their combination uncovers images of his grandparents’ village in Smyrna somewhere else in Eugenides mind. Suddenly, he has an epiphany.
“I remember the whole book just came to me in a lightning bolt,” Eugenides said. “I would trace the trajectory of the gene across the generations. It was unusual that a book would come to me in such a crystalline form. That is probably when my many years of despair began.”
Again, the humble author oozed affable sarcasm. He charted the usual struggles of a novelist watching his material come to fruition; the biggest problems arose when considering the history of the Stephanides clan and determining the gender confusion of Cal’s narrative style. Subtle shifts between first and third person narration solved the first problem while Cal’s eventual identification as a male solved the second. Also, a series of interesting coincidences – like receiving a crucial photograph of his grandparents out of nowhere -propelled the novel to completion. A little help from the gods never hurts.
Overall, the lecture proved Mr. Eugenides to be a talented and funny individual. Though he gets irked by those who “wish they had the time” to write a novel, he relishes the fact that his well-received opening page for Middlesex took two years to write.
“I guess I just had the time,” he admitted with a smirk. And so the gods willed it.