Regular Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Roundtable attendees who were expecting to see Anthony Doerr in the Hall of Philosophy Thursday will find him somewhere else today.
At 12:15 p.m., Doerr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, will discuss his work in the Amphitheater.
Doerr had asked Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, if he could do a visual presentation to go along with his lecture on his book. Because programming is so tightly scheduled, Babcock said she struggled at first to find a location.
But thanks to some serendipitous circumstances — such as the fact that tonight’s musical act, The Suffers, doesn’t require much setup — she and Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming, were able to secure the Amp for Doerr’s lecture.
Doerr is worth the effort, Babcock said. He’s a returning CLSC author, having previously visited in 2005 to discuss About Grace. He also taught at the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival in 2013.
“We think he’s wonderful, and we thought he was wonderful even before All the Light We Cannot See,” Babcock said. “So when I heard that he was out with a new book, I read it immediately, and, fortunately, contacted him immediately.”
Babcock knew as soon as she read the book that she wanted it to be a part of 2015’s CLSC list, and she was lucky enough to invite Doerr before he and his book started garnering widespread acclaim a much busier schedule. She had visited France a few months before reading All the Light We Cannot See and said it brought beautiful memories rushing back to her.
The book reminded Babcock of a trip she and a friend took to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation in Paris, a memorial dedicated to the 200,000 people deported from France to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The memorial is shaped like a ship’s prow, with 200,000 lit glass crystals lining its walls and a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever,” Doerr wrote in All the Light We Cannot See.
The beauty of this experience was something Babcock found mirrored in Doerr’s book, she said.
“I’m fascinated by the way people get involved in movements and how lives that are ordinary make a difference,” Babcock said. “And I know this is fiction, but it doesn’t feel like fiction.”
The ordinary lives Babcock refers to in All the Light We Cannot See are those of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, the novel’s central characters. They occupy two opposing sides of the war: Marie-Laure and her family and friends become part of the French Resistance movement, while Werner is set on the path to become a Nazi. The novel alternates between their viewpoints and different timelines, but it soon becomes clear that they’re set to collide.
Peg Snyder, manager of the CLSC Veranda, said the reader can probably feel the currents pushing Marie-Laure and Werner toward their destined meeting.
“It’s like a Romeo and Juliet thing,” Snyder said. “We know it’s not going to work out.”
It’s Doerr’s style and sympathetic prose that makes this meeting — and the book as a whole — work as well as it does, Snyder said. What impressed her most was Doerr’s tactful handling of Marie-Laure’s voice. In addition to being a teenage girl, she’s also blind, something outside of Doerr’s own experience.
“The fact that he wrote as a young woman — and a blind young woman — is amazing,” Snyder said. “That’s what I think takes talent: to write in some voice that is so alien to your own.”
Babcock said it’s this tempering and reversal of expectations that made the book work for her. All the Light We Cannot See is set in World War II and features a character with a disability — elements that have been tackled by other authors countless times and that could be seen as cliché.
Doerr shatters all of those preconceived notions, Babcock said.
“It’s a completely different story, a completely different way of approaching it,” she said.
While Doerr’s book explores the past of Europe, Babcock felt it would be an interesting way to approach the theme of Week Seven, which is “Redefining Europe.” The book is “rooted in a time that’s very formative” for Europe, and what the book portrays in terms of the CLSC’s vertical theme of “truth and consequences” fits that bill as well, she said. The ideas Doerr presents in All the Light We Cannot See show the legacy and impact of World War II and its effect on the continent today.
Inviting Doerr back to the CLSC was also a way to celebrate his success — success that Babcock has had an interest in since first reading his work almost a decade ago. She said Doerr winning the Pulitzer Prize felt special to her, and he deserves “every ounce of acclaim he’s gotten.”
“It feels like one of our own,” Babcock said.