N: I think about these questions, why people live the way they do, all the time.
P: You do?
N: Yes, I…
N: Helen once told me that when she reads obituaries, she’s looking for whether the person loved and was loved. Did they have a family, were they married long, did they have children, grandchildren? And it kind of blew my mind at the time, ’cause it never occurred to me to judge someone by their family.
P: Instead, you’re looking at what?
N: What they… what they did.
P: Meaning their work, their accomplishments?
N: – Yes.
P: – And yet, there’s something about what Helen said that stayed with you, that… that makes you think she might be on to something. I just think there are so many different matrices by which to measure a man’s worth, and I… I don’t know which is right. I’m writing a whole book about this question. At least, I’m trying to.
P: – Your new novel?
N: – Yeah.
P: You haven’t talked about that much in here. It’s historical, right? It’s World War II?
N: – Right. Do you know who Omar Bradley is?
P: Uh, it sounds familiar.
N: He’s a… he’s a war hero. He was a five-star general. He was the commander of the First Army at Normandy.
N: The book is based on his life. I mean, it’s fiction, but he was fascinating. He was a great man. He led this extraordinary, significant life. You’d have to write two or three books just to cover half of his achievements. I spent half of chapter two writing about one meeting he had with Montgomery, and then I got to page 65, and…
P: What happened on page 65?
N: Marlene Dietrich.
N: I was gonna leave her out, but then I just… I don’t know, she somehow appeared on my screen.
P: She just appeared? On her own?
N: Uh, no.
P: And then seduced your main character? Did you make this up, or…
N: No, no, no, no, it happened. Well, it was rumored to. There are photos of them together. And Bradley was married, I’m guessing. For 49 years. To the girl across the street. But you see, that’s… that’s who he was. He wasn’t just some fearless leader, some cartoon Captain America, he was… he was flawed, and imperfect, and selfish, and that, I now realize is what makes the book compelling. It’s the center of all of it. What do we make of this guy? Does the fact that he had sex with a movie star outside marriage, does that somehow negate all of his achievements? Or do those traits that made him cheat… ego, intensity, drive… do they also lead him to achieve?
P: Those are some big questions.
N: Well, I mean, it’s a very big book. And I hope it’s an important one. If I could only fucking finish it.
P: Are you having trouble?
N: No, I’m not having trouble. I just… Well, the problem is I don’t have any time. Between the teaching and the baby, and… I need to do more research. I need to go to France and spend six or eight weeks and see where he lived, and he fought, and he fucked and…
P: So why not go? Buy a ticket.
N: I’m sure you could figure it out. No, Alison’s program is accelerated, so she’s got courses all summer and the soonest I can get away is… I don’t even fucking know. Fifteen months?
P: That’s frustrating.
N: When I go I need… I need time to write the thing. I mean, a book like this, it takes concentration. Real focus. It’s not some piece of pulp you can pump out in ten weeks.
P: Like “Descent”, you mean?
N: ”Descent” is what it is. It was… It was… It was… it did amazingly well. But I’ve known for a while I wanted to take the next step. I wanted to do something bigger with real scope. Something serious and significant.
P: So do you notice that the words you use to describe Bradley’s life… “big,” “significant,” “great”… you’re now using them to describe your new book.
N: Well, he’s the subject of the book. But what I’m interested in is how this subject relates to your own life. In your mind. I want to know… I want to know if it’s possible, really possible to be both.
N: A good man and a great man.
P: And by good, you mean?
N: Well, the way Helen reads the obituaries, you know, for long-lasting marriages, for virtue, basically, monogamy, partnership, love. I mean, do the men who Helen thinks led good lives, how many of them also had great lives?
P: Depends on what you mean by great.
N: Would General Bradley have conquered Normandy if he’d been home changing diapers? I’m serious. You look at the way this guy led his life. He went out in the world and he followed his instincts, and he took whatever he wanted. Maybe he was narcissistic, maybe Mary was unhappy, but his life had consequence. He basically won the war for us. So do we judge him for his absence for his family and his infidelity, or do we just let that slide, because what does it matter at the end? The guy stopped Hitler.
P: What does it matter to whom?
N: There’s a certain type of man that history reveres. We see it over and over. Jefferson, Hamilton, Picasso, Hemingway, all of them cheaters. It’s like they have this bald desire, this… this willingness to take whatever they want, that ends up making them remarkable.
P: But again, I want to understand how this connects to you.
N: What if, I mean, what if? What if I… What if I have it in me to be great? What if the only thing that separates me from Ernest Hemingway is that he never had to choose? He… He… He just gave himself permission to do whatever the fuck he wanted in the name of his work and he didn’t care who he made suffer. And he blew out his brains at 60.
P: Well, what does that mean?
N: You tell me.
P: It’s one minute to three, Noah.
N: Is it?
P: But before we stop, I’d like to return to where we were at the start of the session. You have some questions to answer with Alison. Are you ready to tell her your divorce is finalized? And do you actually want to move forward with your second marriage?
N: I know I want to be a good husband, I want to be… I want to be a good partner and a good father, and I love having a family, um, and a home and people who depend on me, but I know that in my gut. But I also want to go to France, and… for two years, and fuck whoever and feel alive again, and write a great novel. What I do not want is to be dishonest. I tried that and I hate myself for it. I…if there’s one thing I could change, I do not want to lie…to myself or anyone else.
P: I think that’s admirable, Noah.
N: I really do.
P: And we’re at time.