THE NEW YORKER

Don DeLillos Annotated "Underworld"

On December 2nd, Christie’s will host the PEN American Center’s First Editions/Second Thoughts benefit, an auction of first-edition books annotated by their authors. (Last year, PENEnglish held an inaugural version of the event, at Sotheby’s in London.) Among the offerings is a copy of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel “Underworld,” its original cover featuring a bird alighting over the Twin Towers, the silhouette of a church in the foreground below. Inside the eight-hundred-page book are four hundred pages of DeLillo’s handwritten notes, providing anecdotes, playful commentary, and his recollections of writing the book. I recently spoke to DeLillo, via fax, about the process of revisiting the novel, which he had said was a “somewhat grudging experience” that turned into “several days of pure pleasure.”

DeLillo was given the option of annotating “Underworld” or “Americana,” but felt that his distance from the latter was too great. “I have fairly clear recollections of writing the book—the room, the desk, the painting on the wall, the feeling that after two years of work (of an eventual four years) I now considered myself a novelist,” he said. “But I was fairly certain that the text itself would resemble foreign matter.” In rereading “Underworld,” he said that he was sometimes surprised—by the space given to the Bronx storylines (“These are words and phrases and curses meant to be delivered orally … sounds and actions, not alphabetic symbols set down on a page”), by the power of certain turns of phrase, and by the process of rediscovering his own work seventeen years after its publication. “I found it interesting to become curious about something that I myself had written,” he said.

Here are a selection of pages from the annotated book, accompanied by further comments from DeLillo:

  “My editor was waiting for the manuscript … and I kept telling her that I was working on a new first sentence. I kept writing it and rewriting it and there must be a record of this somewhere in the archive—but would these pages be located in box number one or in the last box?”

 

“My editor was waiting for the manuscript … and I kept telling her that I was working on a new first sentence. I kept writing it and rewriting it and there must be a record of this somewhere in the archive—but would these pages be located in box number one or in the last box?”

  “The sentence in question, when I encountered it after seventeen years, was a complete surprise. I did not recognize a word of it and I think that what hit me hardest (in the best sense) was the end of the sentence: ‘the subway seals you durably in the stone of the moment.’ ”

 

“The sentence in question, when I encountered it after seventeen years, was a complete surprise. I did not recognize a word of it and I think that what hit me hardest (in the best sense) was the end of the sentence: ‘the subway seals you durably in the stone of the moment.’ ”

  “When I exchange messages with translators, it almost always occurs to me that the pleasure I take in working certain words and phrases toward a rhythm, a pattern, even a visual design—this effect is lost in translation. But the contact with the men and women themselves, in conversation or in print, leaves me always with a certain satisfaction, a sense that we’ve made a worthwhile effort to gain a common end.”

 

“When I exchange messages with translators, it almost always occurs to me that the pleasure I take in working certain words and phrases toward a rhythm, a pattern, even a visual design—this effect is lost in translation. But the contact with the men and women themselves, in conversation or in print, leaves me always with a certain satisfaction, a sense that we’ve made a worthwhile effort to gain a common end.”

  “My editor was waiting for the manuscript … and I kept telling her that I was working on a new first sentence. I kept writing it and rewriting it and there must be a record of this somewhere in the archive—but would these pages be located in box number one or in the last box?”

 

“My editor was waiting for the manuscript … and I kept telling her that I was working on a new first sentence. I kept writing it and rewriting it and there must be a record of this somewhere in the archive—but would these pages be located in box number one or in the last box?”