A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause
July 2017 Indie Next List
— Travis Smith, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC
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An Indie Next Pick for July 2017
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"A unique, poetic critical appreciation of Marcel Marceau.... A fascinating book.... Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch." --Kirkus Reviews, starred review
As a fledgling radio producer, Shawn Wen became fascinated by the one subject who seemed impossible to put on air: French mime Marcel Marceau, the internationally acclaimed "artist of silence." At the height of his fame, Marceau was synonymous with Bip, the red-lipped, white-faced mute in a sailor suit who conjured scenes, stories, and sweeping emotion through the gestures of his body alone. Influenced by Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, credited with inspiring Michael Jackson's Moonwalk, Marceau attempted in his performances to "reveal the fundamental essences of humanity."
Beyond Bip, Marceau was a Jewish Holocaust survivor and member of the French resistance; a bombastic iconoclast; a collector of failed marriages, masks, antique knives and doting fans; an impassioned workaholic who performed into his eighties and died deeply in debt soon after leaving the stage. In precise, jewel-like scenes and vignettes, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause pays homage to the singular genius of a mostly-forgotten art form. Drawing on interviews, archival research, and meticulously observed performances, Wen translates the gestural language of mime into a lyric written portrait by turns whimsical, melancholic, and haunting.
Shawn Wen is a writer, radio producer, and multimedia artist. Her writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, The Seneca Review, The Iowa Review, The White Review, and the anthology City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis (Faber and Faber, 2015). Her radio work has been broadcast on This American Life, Freakonomics Radio, and Marketplace. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships, including the Ford Foundation Professional Journalism Training Fellowship and the Royce Fellowship.
Sarabande Books, 9781941411483, 136pp.
Publication Date: July 11, 2017
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. The line between quotations and the narrator/author’s voice is fluid. What does this say about the nature of authorship? What effect does it have on the reader? How does the form interact with the content? Why might the author have chosen this technique, especially in a book about Marceau?
2. Interspersed throughout the book are descriptions of Marceau’s collections, the objects he owns. Why do you think the author included these descriptions? What effect does the catalogue of physical items have on a narrative about miming, which relies on an empty stage?
3. The Holocaust is an omnipresent force in the background in the book, but rarely comes to the surface. The link between the atrocity and Marceau’s work is implied, but never made explicit. Why do you think it’s never made explicit in the essay? In what ways does the subtlety of the essay reflect Marceau’s work? In what way is Marceau’s work informed by the holocaust?
4. Theodor Adorno claimed that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. What does he mean by this? How is the silence of the art of mime informed by this sentiment? Can silence be a more appropriate form of expression than language in the face of atrocity?
5. Deburau, Marceau’s influence, made his Pierrot a silent character under the order of Napoleon, who banned speech from all but state-run theaters. In what ways is art a reflection of power, and in what ways can it work to subvert power? Is Marceau’s Bip subversive? In what ways is he, and in what ways is he not?
6. The essay is extremely lyrical and heavily fragmented. It’s written as a series of 18 “scenes” of Marceau’s portrayal of Bip, interspersed with quotes, lists, and the author’s thoughts. What effect does the interruption of narrative have on the reader’s understanding of Marceau’s life? What is the lyrical form and deconstructed narrative able to achieve that a traditional autobiography wouldn’t be able to?