Why does everyone like John Irving?

On Friday, 19 April, an unusually large number of people will have the opportunity to meet an author important to them when John Irving reads excerpts from his latest novel In One Person and answers audience questions at the University of Helsinki.

Why does everyone like John Irving?

The popularity of this North American author is extraordinary. His books are equally suitable as a present to a teenage goddaughter or as a Christmas gift to an elderly grandfather. John Irving’s stories are read by blue-collar workers and professors alike. How does he do it?

The headline of this article is of course a lie, because not everyone enjoys Irving’s books. Some in the academic literary world, for example, may find him a bit too populist.

But Howard Sklar, who moved from the United States to Finland 15 years ago, begs to disagree. Sklar previously taught English in a comprehensive school in Espoo and now investigates the art of sympathy in fiction at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Modern Languages. Many of Irving’s works have meant a great deal to him.

“Irving has the ability to affect readers on so many levels. He is thought-provoking, but he also makes readers feel deeply. Sometimes, one feels that he captures the whole of life in his stories. For me, there are few writers who both make me laugh and cry. Irving is one of them, as was his favourite writer, Charles Dickens,” Sklar says.

Irving’s most political novel in two decades

Irving is a master storyteller. Rather than avoid difficult topics, Irving instead chooses to tackle people’s worst fears, including incest, war, or the death of a child. And in the midst of this, he suddenly presents a scene of such astonishing surrealism or beauty that the reader cannot help but smile.

According to Irving himself, his new novel is his most political since The Cider House Rules. In One Person is the story of Billy Abbott. The novel’s central themes include sexual awakening, bisexuality, inadequacy in love and intolerance.

In a radio interview last May, Irving said that he is surprised how resistant many Americans still are to the subject of sexual tolerance.

However, they may in fact be more tolerant than Finns, for gay marriage has already been legalised in nine US states and Washington DC, the nation’s capital.

All 14 of Irving’s novels have been translated into Finnish.

John Irving will be reading excerpts from his latest work and answering audience questions on Friday, 19 April, from 10 am to noon in the PI lecture room of the Porthania building. Free admission.

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Text: Ville KOrhonen
Photo: Elke Wetzig/CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons
Translation: Language Services/Language Centre, University of Helsinki
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