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Tuesday 10 December 2019

Jonathan Franzen: Oprah, Obama and my smelly socks

The great American novelist of our time puts his feet up and talks to Edel Coffey

Friends again: Jonathan Franzen has made up with Oprah Winfrey
Friends again: Jonathan Franzen has made up with Oprah Winfrey

Edel Coffey

The last time I met Jonathan Franzen, in 2001, he looked like a man under a cartoon rain cloud. Hunched in his blazer, a frown on his thoughtful forehead, he was understandably wary.

His third novel, The Corrections, had just been published to much acclaim. Oprah had even chosen it for her book club, but after Franzen commented on the sometimes sentimental quality of her book selections, he was quickly uninvited from the club. The Corrections went on to sell three million copies worldwide and Franzen is now regularly referred to as 'the great American novelist'. His new book, Freedom, which has just been published after nine years in the making, is this month's Oprah book club choice. "All fences have been mended," says Franzen.

It's amazing what a little success can do. Franzen is now as chilled out and relaxed as he once was tightly wound and angsty. In fact, he is so laid back that, halfway through our interview, he puts his feet up on the table between us, his socks drawing the conversation to an abrupt halt. "Sorry," he says. "I hope you don't mind."

Franzen 2001 would never have done this. But Franzen 2010 is different. In August, he appeared on the front cover of Time magazine, the first author to do so in a decade, and Freedom has been generally accepted as a worthy successor to The Corrections. For all that, he doesn't look like the world's hottest literary property. He needs new glasses, his face is stubbled and his hair is greying and tufted. When we meet, 80,000 copies of Freedom are being pulped; the wrong version of the book was printed. How did it happen? "I believe it was a typesetter error. The old file was used instead of the new file."

Was he annoyed about it? "Of course, it's like walking around all day with pigeon crap on your back or a piece of lettuce hanging from your cheek."

But this version was not so bad. "This is the same uncorrected, unfixed-up proof that President Obama got in Martha's Vineyard."

Well, if it's good enough for Obama . . . "Well, I didn't think it was good enough for him."

Freedom tells the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, whose marriage is falling apart. When I ask why he writes about the devastation of marital love so well, he quotes a lyric by The Mekons, saying dramatically, "Darkness and doubt just follow me around".

Franzen said he made a solemn vow that he would not discuss the concept of freedom on this tour, but the book is as much about the choices we make with the freedom we have as the concept of freedom itself.

It reads like a cautionary tale under the heading: "Use well thy freedom." It's an admonition that was carved in stone on Franzen's own university building in suburban Philadelphia. "I was so irritated by that," he says, "really every day of my college life. The moralising tone, the biblical tone. It has a sort of hideous ironic meaning for me in that I used my freedom to immediately, almost as soon as I finished college, marry a fellow student in some haste, a use of my freedom that I repented at leisure. So they are, in retrospect, mocking words."

How autobiographical is his writing? "I try more and more to write about my own life," he says, "but in less and less direct ways. If I have advanced in my abilities as a fiction writer in nearly 30 years of trying to be one, the increased capacity I have is matched by the increased difficulty of trying to tell ever more deeply buried and conflicted stories so it never gets easier, and that has everything to do with trying to tell personal stories and the degree of invention required to tell stories that cannot be told in a direct way."

Franzen's book has the scope and appeal of a Dickens novel, although it is Tolstoy's War And Peace that he references in Freedom. "It's a model of a kind of experience I've had as a reader that I strive -- in my own latter-day, probably smaller way -- to reproduce and offer readers now.

"It's all the more important now for the fiction writer to provide attractive alternatives, something you look forward to returning to after you're done tweeting and instant messaging."

Franzen sounds like a crank, lamenting the fragmentation of society at the hands of electronic culture, but he's goofy and funny too, a fan of popular culture like The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and is as mesmerised as any of us when it comes to bad television.

Franzen is best-known for his portraits of modern families. The Berglunds in Freedom and before them the Lamberts in The Corrections represent modern suburban families with such fidelity as to feel somewhat uncomfortable. And yet he has never had children himself. Has he ever considered it? "Of course. How not?"

Would he like to have children? "No."

Does he feel he's missing out by not having children? "Oh, undoubtedly. But any choice you make, you're going to miss out on what you don't choose.

"It was impressed upon me by my New Yorker editor that not very many people are good novelists but lots of people are good parents. And that maybe it would be okay to leave the good parenting to the many people who were capable of doing it and spend my own remaining years doing what I'm particularly good at."

With the corrected version of Freedom now on the shelves, his plan is to tour the book for the next year and work on journalism in between.

Is he concerned about his legacy, how to follow up two perfect novels? "I'm a sort of '60s and '70s guy and I'm more taken up with what Flannery O'Connor would call 'the habit of being' than with imagining how the product might look after I'm dead."

Freedom is out now, published by 4th Estate

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