Thornton, Lawrence 1937–
Thornton, Lawrence 1937–
PERSONAL: Born October 14, 1937, in Pomona, CA; son of James Winston (a salesman) and June (a medical secretary; maiden name, Wallace) Thornton; married Toni Clark (a professor of English), 1969. Education: University of California—Santa Barbara, B.A., 1960, M.A., 1967, Ph.D., 1973. Politics: "Liberal Democrat."
ADDRESSES: Home—603 W. Eighth St., Claremont, CA 91711. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Simon and Schuster, Free Press Publicity, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Montana State University, Bozeman, MT, assistant professor, 1974–79, associate professor of English, 1980–84; writer. Visiting professor at Carleton College, 1980; visiting associate professor at University of California—Los Angeles and University of California—Santa Barbara, 1984–88; writer in residence at University of California—Irvine, 1990.
MEMBER: PEN American Center, PEN Center USA West.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts; Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award and Faulkner Award nomination, PEN American Center, award for best novel, PEN Center USA West, silver medal, Commonwealth Club of California, and Shirley Collier Award, University of California—Los Angeles, all 1988, all for Imagining Argentina.
Unbodied Hope: Narcissism and the Modern Novel (criticism), Bucknell University Press, 1984.
Imagining Argentina (novel), Doubleday, 1987.
Under the Gypsy Moon (novel), Doubleday, 1990.
Ghost Woman, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1992.
Naming the Spirits, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.
Tales from the Blue Archives Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
Sailors on the Inward Sea, Free Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Thornton's novels have been translated into French, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Portuguese, and Finnish.
ADAPTATIONS: Imagining Argentina was adapted as a film, starring Antonio Bandera and Emma Thompson, written and directed by Christopher Hampton, Myriad Pictures, 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: In his award-winning first novel, Imagining Argentina, Lawrence Thornton depicts the horrors of political repression in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. During that period, the country's military rulers carried out a reign of terror by kidnapping and murdering thousands of people. Many were students who dared to criticize the regime's policies; others were journalists and political opponents whom the government considered subversive. The fate of the victims followed a similar pattern: those targeted by the military were picked up by the secret police, tortured and killed, and their bodies buried in mass graves. Family members were rarely able to learn the whereabouts of a missing relative, and the victims came to be called los desaparecidos, meaning "those who disappeared."
Thornton's inspiration for the novel came from watching a news program that chronicled how mothers whose sons and daughters were missing gathered daily in a public square in Buenos Aires to demand information about their children. The story that grew out of this program tells of Carlos Rueda, a playwright for a children's theater. Rueda is devastated when he returns home one day and finds that his wife, a journalist, has been taken away by the police, apparently after writing an article about the killings of several high school students. Shortly thereafter, Rueda makes a startling discovery: he has the ability to see in his mind what happens to victims after they are abducted.
Reviewers praised Thornton for creating a compelling, moving drama out of the painful reality of Argentina's past. In a Washington Post Book World article, Patrick Breslin wrote that "Thornton takes for his material one of the bleaker recent instances of human cruelty, sees in it the enduring nobility of the human spirit, and imagines a book that celebrates that spirit." Several critics lauded the author's use of fantasy to enrich a starkly realistic setting, a technique made famous by some of Latin America's most eminent writers, including Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani noted that "although Mr. Thornton is an American who has never lived in Latin America, he seems to have wedded his study of such writers as Borges and Marquez with his own instinctive gift for metaphor and in doing so, created his own brand of magical realism."
Several reviewers commented on Imagining Argentina's setting and imagery. Some felt that Thornton's evocation of Argentina, while an admirable attempt for a writer who has not visited the country, was a weakness in the book. New York Times Book Review contributor Leigh Hafrey, for instance, commented that the author's difficulty in depicting the country is evident in "the movie-lot quality of many of his scenes." Jason Wilson, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, noted that "the background and realistic detail do not always ring true." Kakutani, however, found that Imagining Argentina succeeds in evoking the country. "Its images have the power to persuade," the critic remarked, "and they underline very clearly the ways in which … magic realism mirrors the surreal horror of politics in this part of the world." The PEN American Center judges were similarly impressed, particularly praising the author's symbolic bird imagery in the 1988 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award citation.
Naming the Spirits continues the story of Imagining Argentina, centered around a mute girl who escaped a mass execution and is now haunted by the spirits of her fellow captives who did not survive. The book's web-like narrative also encompasses Carlos Rueda, who told a Buenos Aires couple whose daughter disappeared that the mute girl—Carlos's daughter—would find them. In Naming the Spirits, Carlos retains the power first described in Imagining Argentina to divine the stories and fates of the disappeared when he hears their names. In addition to his daughter, his journalist wife, Cecelia, was abducted after she wrote an editorial about missing students. Carlos tries to keep Cecelia alive by imagining her still living, and Cecelia herself has imagined her own memoir in her mind as an exercise in keeping herself alive.
As the dead continue to exhort the mute girl to remember them and tell their stories to the world, she slowly regains her voice and ultimately releases a shower of origami birds into the sky that unlocks the voices of the fallen prisoners, shattering the silence that surrounded the war—a silence that had culminated in amnesty for those who committed the atrocities and appropriated orphaned children for their own benefit. "Thornton's novel," wrote Nation contributor Patrick Markee, "like Carlos's gift, fills that emptiness with names and stories and a promise never to forget." Similarly, Booklist critic Joanne Wilkinson appreciated Thornton's story for its lack of overt violence, which results in "elegiac prose" that contains "the resonance of myth," and a writer for Publishers Weekly commented that the "novel's very restraint contributes to its resonance."
Thornton continues his story about Argentina and the los desaparecidos in the trilogy's third novel, Tales from the Blue Archives, which takes place after the civil war. In it, Dolores Masson searches for years to discover the fate of her grandsons, who were supposedly given to a childless couple during the war after the disappearance of Masson's children, her grandsons' parents. Her journey leads her to an encounter with the military officer responsible for their fates, who has survived the war and even profited extravagantly from it. Booklist critic Bonnie Smothers considered the story, despite its authentically sounding South American tone, "overwritten," but still "compelling" and "bittersweet." In a Library Journal review, Margaret A. Smith offered high praise for the novel, calling it "a beautifully written and arresting story" full of hope.
Other novels by Thornton include Under the Gypsy Moon and Ghost Woman. Under the Gypsy Moon melds fact and fiction in telling the story of real-life Spanish literary legend Federico Garcia Lorca and the fictional Spanish-German novelist Joaquin Wolf, both of whom have suffered in war, with Garcia Lorca giving his life to it. The story is told by Ursula Kreiger, Wolf's girlfriend, who recognizes startling similarities between Garcia Lorca's poems and the experiences of her own romance with Wolf. The novel was praised by many critics, including a Publishers Weekly reviewer who applauded "the searing intensity of Thornton's imagination." Ghost Woman is a tale about Sage, a Chumash Indian in California who is the only survivor when her village is raided and its inhabitants slain (including her infant daughter) or enslaved. Sage wanders the coast for ten years before coming to the attention of a Spanish priest who is determined to convert her to Christianity. Ultimately, having been raped and impregnated by a rancher who takes her in, she commits suicide, with her ghost continuing to exact retribution from the family's descendants.
In Sailors on the Inward Sea, Thornton again mixes fact and fiction through the memoir of Jack Malone, a sailor who claims to be Joseph Conrad's inspiration for Marlow, the hero of Conrad's classic novel Heart of Darkness. Indeed, the story is steeped in the lore of Conrad's real-life observations regarding a deadly encounter between a British minesweeper and a German submarine during World War I. Joseph Conrad himself is a character in the Thornton's story, who, having spent hours swapping seafaring stories with Malone, uses Malone's experiences in creating Mar-low, the hero of both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Malone, having discovered this, feels betrayed by his friend, and has written this memoir several years after Conrad's death in order to set the record straight. According to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, Sailors on the Inward Sea is an "eloquent meditation on friendship and storytelling." Though Patrick Sullivan, writing in the Library Journal, thought that Malone's internal conflict was a bit thin, he nevertheless concluded that the novel was "ambitious" and contains "passages of great power and beauty." Brad Hooper, a contributor to Booklist, appreciated the book's sense of adventure as well as its "psychological probing of the artistic mind and the plundering of other people's lives."
Thornton once told CA: "Having waited until my late forties to devote myself full time to fiction has given me the advantage of pretty well knowing what I want to write. If I'd started at a younger age I might have indulged in autobiographical fiction, but I don't see anything like that on the horizon. I believe that fiction plays an important social function, and while novelists can't expect their works to change the world, we have to believe it's possible. That's why my themes are political. I think the writer has an obligation to deal with important materials and do what he can to shed light on those events—present and past—that he considers important."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, July, 1995, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Naming the Spirits, p. 1861; October 15, 1997, Bonnie Smothers, review of Tales from the Blue Archives, p. 390; August, 2004, Brad Hooper, review of Sailors on the Inward Sea, p. 1904.
Library Journal, October 1, 1997, Margaret A. Smith, review of Tales from the Blue Archives, p. 127; September 1, 2004, Patrick Sullivan, review of Sailors on the Inward Sea, p. 143.
Nation, September 25, 1995, Patrick Markee, review of Naming the Spirits, p. 324.
New York Times, November 11, 1987, Michiko Kakutani, review of Imagining Argentina, p. 21.
New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1987, Leigh Hafrey, review of Imagining Argentina, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Under the Gypsy Moon, p. 432; March 16, 1992, review of Ghost Woman, p. 63; May 29, 1995, review of Naming the Spirits, p. 64; September 13, 2004, review of Sailors on the Inward Sea, p. 58.
Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 1988, Jason Wilson, review of Imagining Argentina, p. 30.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 13, 1987, review of Imagining Argentina, p. 7.
Washington Post Book World, October 11, 1987, Patrick Breslin, review of Imagining Argentina.