The Jerusalem Prize

1999 - Donald Richard DeLillo

Born: November 20, 1936, New York City, US

Author's quote: "No sense of the irony of human experience, that we are the highest form of life on earth, and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die."

Prize share: 1/1


Books Written By Don DeLillo


About Don DeLillo

DeLillo grew up in a working-class Italian Catholic family, from Molise, in an Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, not far from Arthur Avenue. Reflecting on his childhood in The Bronx, DeLillo later described how he was "...always out in the street. As a little boy I whiled away most of my time pretending to be a baseball announcer on the radio. I could think up games for hours at a time. There were eleven of us in a small house, but the close quarters were never a problem. I didn't know things any other way. We always spoke English and Italian all mixed up together. My grandmother, who lived in America for fifty years, never learned English."

As a teenager, DeLillo wasn't interested in writing until taking a summer job as a parking attendant, where hours spent waiting and watching over vehicles led to a reading habit. In a 2010 interview with The Australian, DeLillo reflected on this period by saying "I had a personal golden age of reading, in my 20s and my early 30s, and then my writing began to take up so much time". Among the writers DeLillo read and was inspired by in this period were James Joyce, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, who was a major influence on DeLillo's earliest attempts at writing in his late teens. As well as the influence of modernist fiction, DeLillo has also cited the influence of jazz music – "[...] guys like Ornette Coleman and Mingus and Coltrane and Miles Davis" -and postwar cinema: "[...] Antonioni and Godard and Truffaut, and then in the '70s came the Americans, many of whom were influenced by the Europeans: Kubrick, Altman, Coppola, Scorsese and so on. I don't know how they may have affected the way I write, but I do have a visual sense." On the influence of film, particularly European cinema, on his work, DeLillo has said, "European and Asian cinemas of the 1960s shaped the way I think and feel about things. At that time I was living in New York, I didn't have much money, didn't have much work, I was living in one room ... I was a man in a small room. And I went to the movies a lot, watching Bergman, Antonioni, Godard. When I was little, in the Bronx, I didn't go to the cinema and I didn't think of the American films I saw as works of art. Perhaps, in an indirect way, cinema allowed me to become a writer." DeLillo also credits his parents' leniency and acceptance of his desire to write for encouraging him to pursue a literary career: "They ultimately trusted me to follow the course I’d chosen. This is something that happens if you’re the eldest son in an Italian family: You get a certain leeway, and it worked in my case.”

After graduating from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1954 and from Fordham University in the Bronx with a bachelor's degree in Communication Arts in 1958, DeLillo took a job in advertising because he couldn't get one in publishing. He worked for five years as a copywriter at the agency of Ogilvy & Mather on Fifth Avenue at East 48th Street,[12] writing image ads for Sears Roebuck among others, working on “Print ads, very undistinguished accounts...I hadn’t made the leap to television. I was just getting good at it when I left,"in 1964. DeLillo published his first short story, "The River Jordan", in Epoch, the literary magazine of Cornell University, in 1960 and began to work on his first novel in 1966. Discussing the beginning of his writing career, DeLillo said, "I did some short stories at that time, but very infrequently. I quit my job just to quit. I didn't quit my job to write fiction. I just didn't want to work anymore." Reflecting in 1993 on his relatively late start in writing fiction, DeLillo said "I wish I had started earlier, but evidently I wasn’t ready. First, I lacked ambition. I may have had novels in my head but very little on paper and no personal goals, no burning desire to achieve some end. Second, I didn’t have a sense of what it takes to be a serious writer. It took me a long time to develop this."


Reviews

White Noise - Don DeLillo

By Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Jack Gladney teaches at the College-on-the-Hill. He and his wife Babette live, with four of their children from previous marriage (Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder) in the quiet college town of Blacksmith. Jack and Babette are both afraid of death and it is this fear that is central to the novel. Whose fear is the greater? "Sounds like a boring life." "I hope it lasts forever," she said.

Jack and Babette's fear of death, the world in which they live and participate is conveyed satirically through a series of events (some of more direct consequence than others) which are peppered with laugh out loud moments. There's a subtlety in the observation and the writing that makes this novel work.

`The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation.'

Jack serves as the department chair of Hitler studies, a discipline that he invented in 1968, despite the fact that he does not understand German. Hitler's importance as an historical figure gives Jack a degree of importance by association: `Some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death. You thought he would protect you.' His colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, has come to Blacksmith to immerse himself in what he calls `American magic and dread.' Murray is a lecturer in living icons who is trying to establish a discipline in Elvis studies. Murray finds deep significance in things that are ordinary - especially the supermarket: `This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it's a gateway or pathway. Look how bright. It's full of psychic data.'

The major events in the novel concern an airborne toxic event and its consequences, and Jack Gladney's search for a mysterious psychopharmaceutical drug called Dylar once he discovers that Babette is participating in an experimental study (of sorts). All this fear of death becomes an inability to really live, especially in a world full of white noise, rampant consumerism and simulations, or does it?

`In a crisis the true facts are what other people say they are.'

This novel was published in the mid-1980s, and while I read it then, I enjoyed it a whole lot more this time around. Disturbingly, it made more sense.

 

White Noise - Don DeLillo

By A Customer

Reading this book staggered me: the phrasing is so spot on, the themes so unusual yet compelling, the dialogue so full of witty, off-the-wall observation that I was left marvelling at the author's magical ability to put words together in unusual yet telling combinations and searching bookshops for more of his books. But having read three others from different periods of his career (the vastly overrated 'Underworld', the execrable 'Ratner's Star' and the mixed 'Great Jones Street') I am left in little doubt that this is his chef d'oeuvre. By some fortunate inspiration, DeLillo discovered his perfect theme for this book: fear of death. He takes this theme and looks at it from all possible angles; yet this is not at all a morbid book. It is instead the funniest black comedy around: the exchange between Jack and his wife when preparing to have sex made me explode with laughter. I found the latter so hilarious that I even shared it with one of my advanced English as a foreign language classes, whose eyes were standing on stalks by the end! Last but certainly not least, DeLillo's understanding of the impact of popular culture on our minds and lives is remarkable: he forced me to make connections about the insidious influence of technology and the media that I would certainly never otherwise have made, and continue to bear in mind every time I read a newspaper or switch on my computer. If you only ever read one contemporary novel, read this one: this is the book that encapsulates our time, not 'Underworld'.