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JewishJournal.com

January 25, 2007

Literary paprika

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tommywood/article/literary_paprika_20070126

Mark Sarvas

Mark Sarvas

What better way to start the New Year than by sprinkling a little literary paprika?

Consider this: Mark Sarvas, a New York-born son of Hungarian parents, a voracious reader, a Francophile and a foodie, comes to Los Angeles to be a writer, sells some screenplays and starts an acclaimed literary blog, The Elegant Variation (marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar ).

To top it all off, Sarvas has just completed his first novel, as yet untitled and currently being submitted to publishers. "Yoy Ishtenem!" If ever there was a ready-made subject for Tommywood, this is it.

Let's begin with some background.

Sarvas' father was born in Budapest, his mother in Vienna, and both grew up in Budapest. On his mother's side, much of her maternal family was murdered at Auschwitz, and her father spent much of the war in forced labor, arriving eventually at Mauthausen, where he was liberated at war's end. Sarvas' father's family lived under false papers in the country during the war, and it was Sarvas' father's task to smuggle food for them.

His parents married in 1955 and divorced a year later. Sarvas' father left Hungary the next year, following the 1956 revolution. Sarvas' mother came to the United States in the 1960s. They reunited in New York and remarried. Mark Sarvas was born soon thereafter. As he told me, that tale, in of itself, could make for a novel.

Sarvas' own story is rich with foreshadowing of his literary interests. He was born in Manhattan at a hospital on East 30th Street that no longer exists, The French Hospital. His mother tells an apocryphal story that as a 1-year-old, he ate the frontispiece page of "The Complete Works of Shakespeare," predestining him for life as a littérateur.

Sarvas, however, credits a high school creative writing teacher with steering him to writing (and away from the rock band that was consuming his energies). That, and reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" as a sophomore at New York University, which "set a fire" within Sarvas to become a writer. (As noted in his blog, Sarvas re-reads "Gatsby" every January to begin the New Year -- more on that later). He began writing short stories and went on to become managing editor of the NYU paper, The Washington Square News.

Upon graduating in the fall of 1986, Sarvas came to Los Angeles with the promise of co-writing a script for the TV show, "Moonlighting." Although, as they say in California, that didn't pan out, Sarvas did begin to write scripts.

Aided and abetted by his agent (now manager) Steve White, he joined the league of screenwriters who make a living, but whose work rarely gets made or read by more than a cadre of industry folk. He was writing, but was he expressing himself?

Someone famously said that Los Angeles is a pool where you dive in at one end and come out the other to find 20 years have gone by. As the 21st century dawned, Sarvas found that he had become a fan of literary blogs, online personal diaries that refer to, quote from and comment on writers -- the blogger reviews and writes while often narrating his or her own travails and adventures in the writing world. Sarvas admired Maud Newton's www.maudnewton.com/blog and Laila Lalami's Moorish Girl blog, www.lailalalami.com/blog/.

One day -- Oct. 14, 2003, to be precise -- feeling that he had something to add to the literary conversation, Sarvas launched The Elegant Variation blog. The rest, as they say in the blogosphere, are entries.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," Sarvas now says.

The Elegant Variation, according to Fowler's and as cited on Sarvas' blog, refers to prose that calls attention to itself. Sarvas' interest is in fiction that does the opposite, so I can only assume that he is being self-deprecating about his talents, ambitions and the inherent potential pretension of being a literary blogger. Sarvas' blog appears over pleasing shades of green background.

The center features his daily digest of news (i.e., Salman Rushdie's next work will be a historical novel), comments about reviews, literary prize winners, obits, new books, events, all featuring links to the those texts. On the left side of the Web page are books Sarvas is currently recommending, such as a new collection of Paris Review interviews, "The Mystery Guest" by Gregoire Bouillier and "Ticknor" by Sheila Heti.

As blog entry followed blog entry, Sarvas realized that he had a unique perspective: "I could provide coverage of L.A authors and L.A. events," he said.

For a while, he ran a Monday morning critique of the Sunday L.A. Times Book Review, but he stopped to give the section's new editor, David Ulin, time to find his footing. Now that more than a year has passed, Sarvas is considering starting up again.

He also tries to highlight authors and items of literary interest that are, "further afield." He championed the British author John Banville long before the Booker Award committee anointed him.

Sarvas' blog is in the process of running an in-depth interview with Banville and in the past has featured interviews with authors such as Andrew Sean Greer ("The Confessions of Max Tivoli"). A recent interview with Jonathan Lethem broke the news that Lethem is introducing a Philip K. Dick anthology.

Sarvas feels that "he's at the right place and at the right time," he said. He believes "there's an evolving sense of a literary community," both in Los Angeles and in cyberspace. In that regard, he was also instrumental in founding the Litblog Coop (lbc.typepad.com), a blog that recommends contemporary fiction.

Part of what Sarvas most enjoys about his blog is the friends he has made and the correspondences he has had with readers from all over the world. He has even engendered a literary dust-up with another blogger -- not quite Mailer vs. Vidal or a Trump vs. Rosie fracas but still evidence of the growing pains of an ever-expanding community.

The Elegant Variation has no commercial dimension -- no ads or banners. Sarvas makes "not a dime," from the blog, he says. It is "a labor of love." For this writer, at a time when literary books no longer hold the general culture in thrall and in a city where many sit alone in rooms wondering, in the words of E.M. Forster, "how to connect," it is reassuring to read a blog where someone cares about literature and those novels that may never make the best-seller lists.

Beyond that, I feel a certain kinship with Sarvas, based on our shared backgrounds. Reading his blog makes me want to call out, much as Baudelaire addressed his reader, "Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon fr?re" -- not only because I want to amortize my expensive education, but also because I am confident that Sarvas would get the reference.

It is easy for me to imagine the two of us in Budapest 100 years ago, scribbling our feuilletons in the corner of a café, rather than in Los Angeles, each in our own corners of the increasingly wide world Web. If any of the Hungarian Jews who came to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s were young men today, wouldn't they be writing literary blogs? In this way, I look at the whole notion of creating The Elegant Variation as an essentially Hungarian enterprise.

At the same time, it is also very L.A. This is the City of Dreams in the State of Self-Invention (Just consider our governor, for starts). It is also a place where one person can still stand out and stake a claim. In that sense, The Elegant Variation is very much of California and of L.A.

But to really understand why people still come to Hollywood, and why they continue to pitch and write on spec, or still write literary novels and/or start blogs -- and continue to do so in the face of the changing industry -- you have but to turn to Sarvas's favorite novel, "Gatsby" (and let's not forget that Fitzgerald himself ended his days here). Is there a better explanation for the essential optimism that animates our lives and that inspires Sarvas and "The Elegant Variation" than how Fitzgerald concludes his great novel?

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning -- "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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