Percival Everett Delivers Finzi-Contini Lecture

Megan O'Donnell

Waiting for Percival Everett’s Finzi-Contini Lecture last week, folks in the lecture hall seemed more eager than usual to speak to one another, talking to strangers—sometimes over rows of seats—about stories.

“Are you a fan?” asked a man to the woman behind him.

“Yes!” she answered, her enthusiasm audible. “How many have you read?”

“Only four. But I suppose he has something like thirty or forty.”

“My gateway drug,” she said, holding up a paperback of Percival Everett’s 2020 novel Telephone.

From a few rows behind her, another attendee joined in. “Which ending did you get?” they asked. This question might sound nonsensical to the uninitiated. But that reader knew it referred to the three different versions of Telephone—all with nearly identical covers and no indication that other versions existed—each with a slightly different plot.

“A devastating one. You?”

Such interactions picked up again—with renewed fervor—after the lecture. Here were colleagues and strangers and friends compelled to share their experiences as readers. I found these readerly conversations particularly inspiring when considered alongside the talk itself, especially the part where Everett admitted that readers are not particularly on his mind when he writes.

Although Everett considers readers integral to the meaning-making process of fiction, he doesn’t fret about what they might desire or think. “The circuit of fiction is not complete until it has a reader,” but readers are not a monolith. There are too many of them to worry about pleasing any, he explained.

Percival Everett is the author of more than thirty novels and story collections, including, most recently, The Trees and Dr. No. The range of what drives Everett’s fiction and how he approaches it is as eclectic as his literary oeuvre.

Throughout the lecture, “Abstraction, Nonsense, and the Real in Fiction”—and the conversation that followed with Professor Ernest Mitchell (Yale English)—he spoke of being driven by a desire to “press the limits of artifice to see where those limits lie” in his writing, something he does in a variety of ways. When he inhabits a first-person perspective for his novels, he becomes a “lay expert” in subjects from hydrology to mathematics.

“People accuse me of having jazz rhythms in my writing,” he said, “I don’t know what that means. Repairing guitars informs my writing more than playing music does.” Then he told a story about trying to restore a beautiful, old guitar with a damaged fingerboard. After several failed attempts he realized that there was no saving the fingerboard. “And that’s when I abandoned that novel.”

He concluded with a reading from The Trees, a harrowing chapter that consists almost entirely of the names of lynching victims from 1913 to the present. Partway through the ten pages of names, Professor Damon Thruff, the character writing the list, explains:

“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here.”

Everett revealed that, like Damon Thruff, he too copied down each name by hand in pencil.

“I would never be able to make up this many names,” Everett read. “The names have to be real. Don’t they?”

The Finzi-Contini lectureship was endowed in 1990 by the Honorable Guido Calabresi, Judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and Dr. Paul Calabresi, in memory of their mother, Bianca Maria Finzi-Contini Calabresi, a scholar of European literature and Professor of Italian at Albertus Magnus College.

A revised version of Percival Everett’s lecture will be published in the Summer 2023 issue of The Yale Review.

Megan O’Donnell is the associate communications officer for the Whitney Humanities Center and a PhD candidate in the English department at University of Delaware. She works on depictions of ecology and the environment in nineteenth-century British fiction.