By Peter Carlson
February 03, 1986 12:00 PM

Tall as a redwood, skinny as a sapling and now, at 77, no longer quite so spry as he once was, John Kenneth Galbraith shuffled stiffly to the podium in the magnificent marble reading room of the New York Public Library. In his long and varied career as an economist, novelist, diplomat and professor, Galbraith has endured enough congresses, conferences, colloquiums and assorted confabs to turn a lesser mind into mush. Now, addressing about 600 writers gathered at the opening ceremonies of the 48th International Congress of PEN (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, novelists), he offered some hard-earned advice to his fellow scribblers. “As regards the meeting of the next few days,” he said, “do not be too relentlessly solemn. Let there be some laughter.”

Galbraith’s plea was applauded and then promptly ignored. For the next five days of endlessly solemn panel discussions, the few scattered outbreaks of laughter were soon smothered in a verbal wet blanket of political squabbling, intellectual hairsplitting and ethereal flights into metaphysics. Which was exactly as expected. In writers, particularly the intellectual heavyweights assembled by PEN, the urge to pontificate is almost as compelling as the need to breathe. What else could explain the time and place of the congress? Most groups convening in January meet in Miami or Honolulu. But it’s tough to discuss “Problems of National Identity” or “How Does the State Imagine?” while sitting at poolside, sipping potent, pastel-colored drinks. So the writers met in Manhattan, the angst capital of America, where the temperature dropped to 8°F and the arctic wind whipping down the canyons of condos could quickly freeze the sensitive soul of any poet foolish enough to venture outside.

Inside, though, there was plenty of hot air. In the conference room of the Essex House hotel—a little wonderland lit by crystal chandeliers and lined with floor-length mirrors and potted palm trees—Nobel laureates, Nobel contenders and lesser literary lights engaged in intellectual sparring matches over almost everything except literature. American novelist Saul Bellow argued with West German novelist Günter Grass about poverty in America. Grass and South African novelist Nadine Gordimer chastised Norman Mailer for inviting Secretary of State George Shultz to address the congress. Feminist author Betty Friedan chastised Mailer for not inviting more women to address the congress. And Grass, Gordimer, U.S. novelist E.L. Doctorow and Israeli writer Amos Oz all grumbled about the official theme of the congress—”The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.” Said Oz: “The imagination of the state exists only in the imagination of the writers who invented this topic.”

Among the few panelists not interested in verbal jousting was John Updike, who delivered, in a soft, shy voice, a lyrical prose ode to his favorite manifestation of the state—the U.S. Post Office. “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” But even that little chocolate éclair of an idea was promptly squashed with a bludgeon. “I certainly share Mr. Updike’s love of blue mailboxes,” observed Doctorow. “I have a feeling, though, that if he goes around the corner, he’ll find a missile silo buried in the next lot, which is what I think of when we talk about the state.”

Such banter tends to grow wearisome rapidly. In fact, as the week dragged on, it sometimes seemed quite plausible that hell is an overlit hotel conference room stuffed with intellectuals—each wearing a plastic name tag and an earphone attached to a translation device—listening as Susan Sontag moderates a panel discussion on “Alienation and the State,” while the trapped air gradually fills with Günter Grass’s pipe smoke, Allen Ginsberg’s cigarette smoke and such smoky phrases as “the Mengeleization of the world” and “the technique and ideology of literary modernism.”

Fortunately, the panel discussions at the PEN congress, like the panel discussions at a convention of aluminum siding salesmen, are merely a pretext for a gathering of people engaged in the same business in different places. “I’m here for what’s going on in the corridors and in the lobby and in the restaurants—getting together with other writers I have read and who have read me,” said Oz. “Writers are almost total recluses. We spend most of our time talking to ghosts, really. We get somewhat crazy. So getting together with other writers once in a while helps.”

To facilitate such friendliness, PEN provided plenty of parties in exotic locales. There was the fete amid the marble splendor of the New York Public Library, a soiree hosted by New York Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion and a bash at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur stood as a reminder of the eternal march of art and culture. There, bartenders poured stiff shots and waiters in tuxedos carried caviar canapés on silver trays, somehow making it easier to take a more benign view of all the bickering at the. panel discussions. “I love the discussions,” said Peter Straub, author of popular horror novels. “They’re so wonderfully contentious. The smell of gunpowder is in the air.” Straub was in an ebullient mood, possibly because he was the only author at the congress whose books were available at the newsstand in the St. Moritz hotel, where the writers were staying. He sipped his drink and watched as Günter Grass chatted with Amos Oz, and George Plimpton chatted with Pierre Trudeau, and everybody stopped to kiss Betty Friedan on the cheek. “Writers are a family,” Straub said with an elfish grin, “a big family with a bunch of crazy uncles.”