Fascinated by the Border Between Innocence and Ignorance: A Conversation with Caleb Crain

Dear Reader,

…Everything in his life up to that point was prelude.


In Caleb Crain’s luminous and elegant novel Necessary Errors, a young American looks for independence–and love–in post-Velvet Revolution Prague.

Until the publication of his critically-acclaimed novel, Crain was perhaps best known as a critic and journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New York Times, the London Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily and n+1He wrote about how it felt for him to switch gears in an earlier post on the Discover blog.

Now Crain discusses the appeal of sending a character abroad, asks “how someone can be responsible for something he doesn’t know”, and shares a list of his favorite books featuring innocents abroad, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.


Why Prague?

Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that a novelist needs a “Faery Land.” He didn’t mean elves. He meant a setting that resembles reality but stands a little to one side—a world that has a touch of remoteness and romance. Hawthorne had worked on a commune as a young man, and he remembered the commune as “essentially a daydream and yet a fact,” so it made sense to him to use it as the setting for a novel. As it survives in my memory, Prague twenty years ago has the same quality: “essentially a daydream and yet a fact.” Food and shelter were cheap, TV was scarce, the worldwide web didn’t exist, and no one had a cell phone. Everything was lightly dusted with unexamined world-historical significance, and there was nothing to do all day but talk, drink, read books, look at buildings, and have love affairs.


What’s the appeal to a novelist of sending a character abroad?

The background becomes foreground. Everything is new to the character, so the character has a motive for noticing everything. He can’t even take himself for granted, because his answer to the question “Why am I this sort of person?” can no longer be “Because everyone around me is.” He’s just arrived, after all, and he doesn’t really know yet what the people around him are like.

Jacob is such an innocent. Is the novel a portrait of an individual, or were you trying to hint at something about America’s way of being in the world?

I’m fascinated by the border between innocence and ignorance. How can someone be responsible for something he doesn’t know? One of the lovely things about being a journalist, a role that I’ve sometimes played, is that you’re allowed to talk about how ignorant you are. You have to, in order to convince people to explain things to you. People often think of ignorance as if it’s a blank, but it has a shape, either because of unacknowledged motives or as the result of the sequence of historical conditions that led to it. I don’t think JAcob is an Everyman, exactly.  It’s more that the representativeness of his ignorance is another of the things he has to struggle with.

 Why did you tell so much of the story through dialogue?


Human beings love to eavesdrop and they’re good at extracting social detail out of scraps of conversation, so it’s an efficient way to tell a story. I’m a big fan of Henry Green, every line of whose novels has to be read with attention and mistrust. James Schuyler’s novel Alfred and Guinevere also has the technique, though I suspect Schuyler got it not from Green but from Ivy Compton-Burnett.

The narrative voice in my novel is pretty tightly bound to the consciousness of Jacob. The reader spends a lot of time sitting with Jacob and listening in on his sometimes overelaborate and often not terribly accurate theories about the world. Dialogue is a way of bumping Jacob into other people—of reminding him and the reader that there are other people in the room, with consciousnesses and theories of their own.

Are the Prague geography and Czech history in the novel real?


Most of the geography is real, though I may have cheated on a couple of alleys. The historical events are also real, though the characters sometimes have their own understandings and misunderstandings of them. In most cases, when there are allusions to Czech writers and artists, I had particular people in mind, and if I don’t name names it’s because I’ve embroidered on their biographies for my own purposes.

Where does the title of your novel come from?


It’s from a line in a poem that Auden wrote in 1929, shortly after he had gone abroad to find a measure of sexual freedom for himself: “a sudden shower / Fell willing into grass and closed the day, / Making choice seem a necessary error.”

What are your own favorite books about innocents abroad?


Proust says in his essay on reading that there’s a kind of writer who’s so deficient in will-power that he needs to read a few pages of a favorite author every morning in order to summon up the energy to do any writing of their own. A little lightbulb flashed on when I read that passage, and I thought, “Oh, the deprecation is a hunter’s blind. He’s talking about himself.” And it occurred to me that if the habit was good enough for Proust . . .

So while I was writing, I re-read books I loved, a few pages at a time every morning. I chose them by how fond I was of them rather than by their content, but in retrospect, I notice that many seem to have been about an innocent person venturing into a world that isn’t innocent. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, for example: she tumbles into the quite hazardous world of adult fantasy. In Oliver Twist, the foreign country is the underclass. Others that were important to me: Christopher Isherwood’s Good-bye to Berlin, Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. In Bedford’s novel, the foreign country is the twentieth century, and the innocent is her whole family. And then of course there’s Henry James’s The Ambassadors, though that’s a somewhat tricky case, since the innocent in question happens to be middle-aged.

Who have you discovered lately?


I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to read Jonathan Bolton’s Worlds of Dissent until after I’d finished writing my novel, because it’s a rich, insightful, and fantastically well researched portrait of how Czech dissidents lived and wrote about their lives during the difficult years between the Czech Spring of the late 1960s and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and I would have profited from it. While on vacation last week, I polished off the classic John LeCarré novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I was surprised to learn that not only is a key action sequence set in Czechoslovakia but the love affair whose frustration drives the plot is a gay one! Speaking of spies, anyone fascinated, as I am, by the Edward Snowden case ought to read Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls, a sympathetic and open-ended exploration of why some individuals choose for ethical reasons to defy the norms of their peers.

I’m impressed with Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa, which never puts a foot wrong; he has a fine ear, and it has the ring to me of a poet’s novel. Somebody needs to reprint Salka Viertel’s 1969 memoir The Kindness of Strangers, which I found a vintage copy of at New York’s Housing Works Bookstore not long ago. Viertel’s memoir starts off as a tale of an Eastern European childhood, in the vein of Sybille Bedford, and ends up as a chronicle in the style of the later F. Scott Fitzgerald of intellectuals struggling for survival in Hollywood—the mix is dizzyingly entertaining. And whoever reprints it should get Lisa Cohen to write the introduction: Cohen’s book All We Know is a moving, funny, and stylish biography of three women who didn’t leave monuments of a conventional kind yet deserve to be remembered anyway.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.