Ben Lerner at the RCA

10 October, 18.30-20.00

Monday 10 October, 18.30-20.00
RCA, Kensington Gore, SW7 2EU, Lecture Theatre 1

At 18.30 on Monday 10 October, Hatred of Poetry author Ben Lerner makes a rare London appearance at the Royal College of Art’s Kensington campus alongside Emily LaBarge, Holly Pester and Heather Phillipson, in a panel discussion moderated by Brian Dillon. The talk, hosted by the RCA’s Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the RCA, will focus on the relations between poetry, visual art and criticism.

The event is free but RSVP to is essential – there will be a list on the door.


Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London. His books include The Great Explosion (2015), Objects in This Mirror: Essays (2014), I Am Sitting in a Room (2012), and The Hypochondriacs (2010). He writes regularly for Artforum, frieze, the Guardian, and the London Review of Books. He is working on a book about essays and essayists to be published in 2017.

Emily LaBarge is a writer and researcher based in London. She has a PhD from the RCA, where she is currently Visiting Lecturer. She contributes to esse arts + opinions, Cambridge Humanities Review, The Photographers’ Gallery and Border Crossings. Her current research examines the language of anxiety in contemporary literature. Forthcoming work includes essays on Sylvia Plath, and Throbbing Gristle’s ex-studio — ‘The Death Factory’.

Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Foundations, and is the author of two internationally acclaimed novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Holly Pester is a poet and multidisciplinary writer. She has worked as an archivist, lecturer and practice-based researcher with readings, performances and sound installations featuring at Segue, New York, dOCUMENTA 13, Whitechapel Gallery, and the Serpentine Galleries. She teaches courses on Oulipo and Poetic Practice at the University of Essex. Her poetry collection Go to reception and ask for sara in red felt tip was published by Book Words in 2015.

Heather Phillipson works across video, sculpture, drawing, music, text and live events. Solo projects in 2016 include the Whitechapel Gallery, London; Frieze Projects New York; Images Festival Toronto; 32nd São Paolo Biennale; and a major new commission for the Arts Council Collection’s 70th Anniversary. Recent solo projects include Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Performa New York, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Opening Times ( (all 2015), Bunker259, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Serpentine Galleries (all 2014) and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (2013). Phillipson is also an award-winning poet and has published three volumes of poetry: a pamphlet with Faber & Faber in 2009; NOT AN ESSAY (Penned in the Margins, 2012); and Instant-flex 718 (Bloodaxe, 2013), which was shortlisted for the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. She was named a Next Generation Poet in 2014 and received Poetry magazine’s Friends of Literature prize in 2016. She has been shortlisted for the Film London Jarman Awards 2016.

Part-time Publishing Assistant (3 days a week)

Deadline for applications: 26 September 2016
Fitzcarraldo Editions

Fitzcarraldo Editions is looking for a part-time (3 days a week) publishing assistant. Providing support to Fitzcarraldo Editions’ publisher, the publishing assistant will be involved in every aspect of the publishing process, including editorial, production, publicity, marketing, foreign rights, and general office administration. The position will suit someone able to work as part of a small team but also willing to use their initiative and work on their own. Experience in publishing is desirable but not required. Attention to detail is essential. Knowledge of a foreign language is a plus. To apply, please send your CV and cover letter to by 26 September 2016. Interviews will be held soon afterwards. Salary on application.

Things That Didn’t Happen

Sarah Moss for Granta

‘Things That Didn’t Happen’ is a short story extracted from Sarah Moss’ new book, The Tidal Zone, published by Granta and available to read on their magazine website:

Once upon a time, a woman and her husband lay together, and the man’s seed navigated the hollows and chambers of his wife’s body until it came home. Cells began to divide and re-form, as they do, and something new was made. As the weeks went by and the woman began to feel odd and sick, the new thing took shape: a comma, a tadpole, eventually the bud of a brain and a spinal column. Suddenly, in the shallow darkness of a summer night, a heart completed itself and began its iambic beat. The heart beat while the new thing grew a head and arms and legs, while it began to flutter and then to turn in the seas of the woman’s womb. For a long time the creature floated free, tumbling and kicking, learning to listen to the rumble of voices, to dance to music coming from the bright world beyond. When the woman swam, letting the water carry her swelling body, the growing being drifted and spun within her. When she walked the small thing was lulled by the percussion of her footsteps and the constant thrum of her heartbeat against its own, the engine of the ship bearing it on. But as winter passed and the sun strengthened on the ground where the woman walked, as the snowdrops and then the daffodils pushed through the earth and began to open apple-white and yolk-yellow, the creature found itself cramped. The walls of the womb seemed to close on its arms and legs, to wrap even its ribs and behind, and soon the being was pushed down, its head held in the woman’s bones and its hands and feet gathered in. The woman no longer swam. She walked less than she had, and she and the little stranger began to be sore and cross. At last, one bright April morning when white clouds drifted high in a blue sky and leaf-buds beaded the tired grey trees, it was time for the woman and the new thing to part, a painful work that took many hours, into the cold night and through the next morning, which the woman and her husband did not see because they were in a room with no windows, awaiting the child’s birth. The heart had been working for months now and it kept going, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, but always beating the same rhythm. Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. When the child was born there came the ordinary miracle of breathing, that terrible moment when we are cast off from our mother and from her oxygenated blood, when we have never taken a breath and may not know how to do so, the caesura in the delivery room. She breathed. The music of heart and lungs began, and continued, and no-one listened any more.


The Satoshi Affair

Andrew O'Hagan for the London Review of Books

Writing for the London Review of Books, here’s the beginning of Andrew O’Hagan’s fascinating profile of events and personas that unpacks the myth of Satoshi Nakamoto:

Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said ‘Computer Forensics’; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office. Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde. They were looking for ‘originals or copies’ of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile phone records, research papers and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinised, and 32 individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.

Some of the neighbours say the Wrights were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird – to one neighbour he was ‘Cold-Shoulder Craig’ – and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his ‘toys’, but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling ‘the deal’. Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.

At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways – ‘Tailor Made Office Solutions’, it said on a nearby billboard – and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. ‘I tried to intervene,’ one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, ‘and said we would have to call our lawyers.’

Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story – a story too complicated for her to explain – so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On 9 December, after their first night in the new apartment, Wright woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a ‘peer-to-peer electronic cash system’ – a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.

By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumours, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it – they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM – and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the 63rd floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the 61st floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realised he’d rushed out without his passport.


A Mind of Winter

Charlie Fox for Cabinet Magazine

(In time for the Summer Solstice) Charlie Fox, writing for Cabinet Magazine, on snow and snowmen of general and literary snowy-ness:

Consider an author, alone in the snow. Vladimir Nabokov has frozen still, caught out between the past and present as he drifts back into the memory of a childhood winter, its distant sleigh bells ringing in his ears. “What am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland?” he asks. “How did I get here?” Suddenly no longer the small child with the puppyish gaze who spent “snow-muffled rides” hallucinating a role in “all the famous duels a Russian boy knew so well” but the impish old man of writerly legend, he rediscovers himself aged in his New England exile. (He and Vera have not yet left America to live at the foot of the snow-capped Alps in Montreux.) The memories are immaterial; “the snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.” So much is condensed in this handful of snow, now solid, now melting: a whole collection of memories and wonders. But what is the material supposed to mean? Perhaps you have to develop what Wallace Stevens calls, at the start of his poem “The Snow Man” (1921), “a mind of winter” to know. Snow, like so many other materials, keeps its own special area in our thinking, and has its own blizzard of effects on our minds.

A more depressive survey than my own might be occupied by sketching out the imaginary equivalent of the Arctic across these pages. Indeed, snow’s richest metaphorical potential probably lies in its capacity to accurately map states of mental desolation, ranging from inertia to catatonia, through its exquisite blankness. But turn away from this icy eloquence and there are many other properties to be found, a full arc of thinking that curves from the trashy to the numinous. Snow coats reality in a fresh layer of strangeness. The psychological territory it occupies is vast and shape-shifting—if snow sends Nabokov into an elegiac mood, it can also account for great flurries of joy. The most logical response might be simply to play with it, following the thoughts that swirl through the mind as it responds to your attention.

Bob Eckstein’s book The History of the Snowman (2007) is intended as a festive novelty, a goofy stocking filler, but examined with monomaniacal attentiveness over a dismal summer, it seems more like a thorough and eccentric work of anthropology: “The biggest niche in snowman retail is … the artificial snowman industry. Plastic, Styrofoam, glass, wood, wool, silk, ceramic, Lenox, wax, rubber … white chocolate, marshmallow, singing, dancing, lit up, blown up, hung up, strung out.” Eckstein’s manic and materially various catalogue indicates the supernatural versatility of artificial snow, but also illuminates the discreet oddity of the snowman himself, a creature at once cuddly and cold. There’s a touch of cruel fairytale transformation—the fat man turned into a winter vagabond—lurking at the heart of these homemade sculptures as they cannily freeze the body, repurposing a carrot into a nose and coal into eyes. But this ingenuity with humdrum domestic stuff also supplies the snowman with a weird indigent charm, as if he were a jolly hobo paying a yuletide visit. He is a figure of fun, but you might wonder exactly what he represents for the family inside the house. A happy mascot with a balloon physique, the snowman keeps watch over the outside world. He might be a parody of the father or of all fathers and the gloom they supposedly exude, especially in Victoriana (cold, heartless, at some definitive remove from the orbit of the house), or a thrifty homage to an elder, signified by cozy but archaic accoutrements like the muffler and the pipe. The snowman could be an avuncular totem pole.


The Hatred of Poetry

by Ben Lerner

Today is the publication day of the fifteenth book from Fitzcarraldo Editions: Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. Buy the book from our website and read the first few pages of this essay below.

In ninth grade English, Mrs. X required us to memorize and recite a poem, so I went and asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew, and she suggested Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorized Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet, whereas I had only to recite twenty-four words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make fourteen of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorize than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb—a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That, plus the four instances of “it,” makes Moore sound like a priest begrudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the deliberately clumsy enjambment of the second line and the third (“in / it”). In fact, “Poetry” is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right each of the three chances I was given by Mrs. X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence; I just Googled the poem and had to correct what I typed out above, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike ithas been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet is being introduced (including myself) at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach, I basically hum it. When somebody tells me, as so many people have told me, that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe that poetry is dead: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

“Poetry”: What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within. What kind of art has as a condition of its possibility a perfect contempt? And then, even reading contemptuously, you don’t achieve the genuine. You can only clear a place for it—you still don’t encounter the actual poem, the genuine article. Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry or proclaiming its death, usually blaming existing poets for the relative marginalization of the art, and then the defenses light up the blogosphere before the culture, if we can call it a culture, turns its attention, if we can call it attention, back to the future. But why don’t we ask: What kind of art is defined—has been defined for millennia—by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense? Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it, and have largely organized my life around it (albeit with far less discipline and skill than Marianne Moore) and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.


‘On Reading “Portrait of the Artist” as a Young Man’

Karl Ove Knausgaard for the New York Times magazine
james joyce

Adapted from his preface to the centennial edition of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, here’s an excerpt from a piece by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken) on James Joyce’s seminal book for the New York Times magazine:

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Its genesis was long and tortuous — Joyce began writing his novel in 1904 — and the road to its canonisation as one of the seminal works of Western literature was not short either: The reviews spoke of the author’s “cloacal obsession” and “the slime of foul sewers,” comments that seem strange today, insofar as it is the subjective aspect of the book, the struggle that goes on inside the mind of its young protagonist, that perhaps stands out to us now as its most striking feature. What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed.

The first time I heard about James Joyce, I was 18 years old, working as a substitute teacher in a small community in northern Norway and wanting to be a writer. That ambition had prompted me to subscribe to a literary journal, and in one of the issues that came in the mail there was a series of articles on the masterpieces of modernism — among them Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” which he published six years after “Portrait,” and which also featured the character of Stephen Dedalus. The word “modernism” evoked in me a vague notion of machines, futuristic and shiny, and when I read about the tower that Stephen inhabits at the beginning of the book, I imagined some sort of medieval world of turreted castles, though with cars of the 1920s and airplanes, a place populated by young men reciting works in Latin and Greek; in other words, something very remote from the world in which I resided, with its quaysides and fishing boats, its steeply rising fells and icy ocean, its fishermen and factory workers, TV programs and pounding car-audio systems. I longed to get away. What I wanted was to write, and I resolved to read this marvelous work and be illuminated by all its radiance. For me, at that time, literature represented somewhere else, and my conception of “Ulysses” was tinged by the books I had read, the boyhood excesses lived out in the French fantasies of Jules Verne, for instance, or swashbuckling classics like “The Count of Monte Christo,” “The Three Musketeers,” “Ivanhoe” or “Treasure Island” — imaginary worlds in which I had lived half my life and which for me were the very essence of literature. Literature was somewhere other than me, so I thought, and related to that was another idea I had, that everything of meaning was to be found at the center, that only there did important things happen, while all that occurred on the periphery — where I felt I was — was without significance and unworthy of being written about. History belonged to others, literature belonged to others, truth belonged to others.


Jean-Philippe Toussaint & Adel Abdessemed in conversation (3 June)

At Bold Tendencies, Peckham, 7 p.m.
A statue depicting former French national soccer team player Zidane's head-butt on Italian defender Materazzi during the 2006 final of the soccer World Cup is seen in front of the Centre Pompidou modern art museum in Paris

Adel Abdessemed and Jean-Philippe Toussaint  in conversation, with Farah Nayeri and Dr. Donatien Grau, Bold Tendencies, straw auditorium, 7 p.m., 3 June 2016, free entry

From Zidane’s infamous headbutt in 2006 to Jeff Koons’ BMW Art Car in Le Mans, from Didi-Huberman’s fireflies to live streams and thunderstorms in Corsica, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s latest book Football is about more than stadia and international players – it is a journey and a pastime, a link to childhood and to the art of writing, a world of headbutts, melancholy and passion. Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi was also immortalised in ‘Coup de tête’ by artist Adel Abdessemed, a large-scale sculpture made on the occasion of the artist’s Centre Georges Pompidou retrospective in 2012. Toussaint and Abdessemed, whose in situ work ‘Bristow’ is the 2016 Bold Tendencies commission, are collaborating on a project for the 2016 Avignon theatre festival. They will be joined by the New York Times writer Farah Nayeri in a conversation about contemporary art, writing and football, moderated by Dr. Donatien Grau. The event will include screenings of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s ‘Brief History of Football’, a series of four three-minute films commissioned by Arte for Euro 2012, and a screening of a video work by Abdessemed.

Adel Abdessemed (b. 1971) is a contemporary artist. Thrice a participant to the Venice Biennale (2003, 2007, 2015), he has had numerous solo shows, including PS1/MoMA, New York, in 2008; MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, in 2008; Parasol Unit, London, in 2010; the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou, in 2012.

Dr. Donatien Grau is editor-at-large at Purple Fashion Magazine.

Farah Nayeri is a culture writer based in London. She writes for the New York Times. Formerly Bloomberg’s culture correspondent, she covers mainly visual arts and architecture.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels, all published by Éditions de Minuit in France, and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis for Running Away and the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie.

Second-hand Time

by Svetlana Alexievich

Today is the publication day of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time (which is available to buy from our website). Here’s an extract:


Alexander Porfirievich Sharpilo, retired, 63 years old


Strangers, what do you want, coming here? People keep coming and coming. Well, death never comes for no reason, there’s always a reason. Death will find a reason.
He burned alive on his vegetable patch, among his cucumbers… Poured acetone over his head and lit a match. I was sitting here watching TV when suddenly I heard screaming. An old person’s voice… a familiar voice, like Sashka’s… and then another, younger voice. A student had been walking past, there’s a technical college nearby, and there he was, a man on fire. What can you say! He ran over, started trying to put him out. Got burned himself. By the time I got outside, Sashka was on the ground, moaning… his head all yellow… You’re not from around here, what do you care? What do you need a stranger’s grief for?

Everyone wants a good look at death. Ooh! Well… In our village, where I lived with my parents before I was married, there was an old man who liked to come and watch people die. The women would shame him and chase him away: ‘Shoo, devil!’ but he’d just sit there. He ended up living a long time. Maybe he really was a devil! How can you watch? Where do you look… in what direction? After death, there is nothing. You die and that’s it – they bury you. But when you’re alive, even if you’re unhappy, you can walk around in the breeze or stroll through the garden. When the spirit leaves, there’s no person left, just the dirt. The spirit is the spirit and everything else is just dirt. Dirt and nothing else. Some die in the cradle, others live until their hair goes grey. Happy people don’t want to die… and those who are loved don’t want to die, either. They beg to stay on longer. But where are these happy people? On the radio, they’d said that after the war was over, we would all be happy, and Khrushchev, I remember, promised… he said that communism would soon be upon us. Gorbachev swore it, too, and he spoke so beautifully… it had sounded so good. Now Yeltsin’s making the same promises. He even threatened to lie down on the train tracks… I waited and waited for the good life to come. When I was little, I waited for it… and then when I got a little older… Now I’m old. To make a long story short, everyone lied and things only ever got worse. Wait and see, wait and suffer. Wait and see… My husband died. He went out, collapsed, and that was that – his heart stopped. You couldn’t measure it or weigh it, all the trouble we’ve seen. But here I am, still alive. Living. My children all scattered: my son is in Novosibirsk, and my daughter stayed in Riga with her family, which, nowadays, means that she lives abroad. In a foreign country. They don’t even speak Russian there any more.

I have an icon in the corner and a little dog so that there’s someone to talk to. One stick of kindling won’t start a fire, but I do my best. Oh… It’s good of God to have given man cats and dogs… and trees and birds… He gave man everything so that he would be happy and life wouldn’t seem too long. So life wouldn’t wear him down. The one thing I haven’t gotten sick of is watching the wheat turn yellow. I’ve gone hungry so many times that the thing I love best is ripening grain, seeing the sheaves swaying in the wind. For me, it’s as beautiful as the paintings in a museum are for you… Even now, I don’t hanker after white bread – there’s nothing better than salted black bread with sweet tea. Wait and see… and then wait some more… The only remedy we know for every kind of pain is patience. Next thing you know, your whole life’s gone by. That’s how it was for Sashka… Our Sashka… He waited and waited and then he couldn’t take it any longer. He got tired. The body lies in the earth, but the soul has to answer for everything. [She wipes her tears.] That’s how it is! We cry down here… and when we die, we cry then, too…

People have started believing in God again because there is no other hope. In school, they used to teach us that Lenin was God and Karl Marx was God. The churches were used to store grain and stockpile beets. That’s how it was until the war came. War broke out… Stalin reopened the churches so prayers would be said for the victory of Russian arms. He addressed the people: ‘Brothers and sisters… My friends…’ And what had we been before that? Enemies of the people… Kulaks and kulak sympathizers… In our village, all of the best families were subjected to dekulakization; if they had two cows and two horses, that was already enough to make them kulaks. They’d ship them off to Siberia and abandon them in the barren taiga forest… Women smothered their children to spare them the suffering. Oh, so much woe… so many tears… More tears than there is water on this Earth. Then Stalin goes addressing his ‘brothers and sisters’… we believed him. Forgave him. And defeated Hitler! He showed up with his tanks… gleaming and iron-plated… and we defeated him anyway! But what am I today? Who are we now? We’re the electorate… I watch TV, I never miss the news… we’re the electorate now. Our job is to go and vote for the right candidate then call it a day. I was sick one time and didn’t make it to the polling station, so they drove over here themselves. With a red box. That’s the one day they actually remember us… Yep…

We die how we lived… I even go to church and wear a little cross, but there has never been any joy in my life, and there isn’t any now. I never got any happiness. And now even praying won’t help. I just hope that I get to die soon… I hope the heavenly kingdom hurries up and comes, I’m sick of waiting. Just like Sashka… He’s in the graveyard now, resting. [She crosses herself.] They buried him with music, with tears. Everyone wept. Many tears are shed on that day, people feel sorry for you. But what’s the point of repenting? Who can hear us after death? All that’s left of him are two rooms in a barracks house, a vegetable patch, some red certificates, and a medal: ‘Victor of Socialist Emulation’. I have a medal just like that in my cabinet. I was a Stakhanovite* and a deputy. There wasn’t always enough to eat, but there were plenty of red certificates. They’d hand you one and take your picture. Three families live together in this barracks. We moved in when we were young, we thought it would only be for a year or two, but we ended up spending our entire lives here. And we’ll die in this barracks, too. For twenty, for thirty years… people were on the waiting list for an apartment, putting up with this… Then, one day, Gaidar comes and laughs in our faces: Go ahead and buy one! With what money? Our money evaporated… one reform, then another… We were robbed! What a country they flushed down the toilet! Every family had had two little rooms, a small shed, and a vegetable patch. We were exactly the same. Look at all the money we made! We’re rich! We spent our whole lives believing that one day, we would all live well. It was a lie! A great big lie! And our lives… better not to remember what they were like… We endured, worked and suffered. Now we’re not even living any more, we’re just waiting out our final days.


Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay in The White Review

Read an excerpt from Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s novel, Panty (tr. Arunava Sinha), to be published in June by Tilted Axis Press over on The White Review:

She was walking. Along an almost silent lane in the city.

Work – she had abandoned her work a long time ago, to walk. The sky had just turned a happy black.

As she walked, she mulled over two words – ‘legitimate’ and ‘illicit’. The presumption that these words were innate opposites – how totally were individuals expected to acquiesce to this! And yet the illicit held the greatest attraction for all that was legitimate.

Once, in an urge to ascertain the meanings of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illicit’, she had wished for a space that was at once one of emptiness and of equilibrium, the kind of space that defied the laws of nature. She had searched for such a space, but never found it.

Having walked for hours, when she came to her senses she discovered herself in the lane she was in now. And saw that the place was unfamiliar.

The lane was narrow and deserted, with ramshackle houses on either side. The bricks were exposed in the crumbling walls. The windowpanes were broken, and dirty water dripped from the pipes. Sucking out all the life force from this water, a banyan sapling had begun to rear its head. There were three or four antennae on the roof of every house in this lane full of potholes and crevices. Thousands of crows sat on the antennas. So many crows that the city would turn dark if they were all to spread their wings simultaneously.

Only a handful of rickshaws rattled by, some pulled by hand, some with pedals. There was the odd passer-by, humming, cigarette tip glowing. A dog whined at the sight of one of them. She was about mid-way down the lane when it was abruptly plunged into impenetrable darkness. A power cut had swooped down like a black panther, gobbling up the lane. Everything was annihilated by the killer paw of darkness.

She couldn’t decide what to do. Carry on? Go back? Both options appeared equally futile. She sensed the blindness even within her consciousness.

Surprised by her awareness of the extreme silence all round, a strange touch against her lips caused her to jump out of her skin.

Someone’s lips descended on hers; on the lips alone. They didn’t touch her anywhere else, the rest of her remained untouched and absolutely free; in the utter darkness an unknown pair of lips kissed hers deeply. A mild pain of being bitten and mauled, the warmth, the saliva, and the fire of an unfamiliar ache spread across her lips as one.

A kiss! A kiss! A kiss! She felt the kiss right down to its roots. So this was a kiss? So this was a kiss, when it was detached from the rest of the body? When – completely dissociated from the heart, from the consciousness, from even the obstacle of knowledge – a pair of lips united with another? When it was the coming together only of two pairs of lips? An isolated union?

In that darkness, the disembodied lips filled her lips, her tongue and the fleshy cavity of her mouth with the taste of the kiss, and she stood erect, savouring this novel feeling. She was hooked. When the lips left her, ending the kiss, the first sensation that returned was of sound. She heard, in turn, the sound of metal being hammered, of bus wheels rotating, of anklets jingling in a nearby house. The street lamps snapped back on, and the movement of people resumed. A dog howled.

She wanted to cry. She stood there for a long time, pressing her fingers to her lips. All this time, she’d thought she knew what a kiss was. Just as she’d thought she knew what love was, what the body was, what art was. When in fact she had known none of these.

She resumed her slow walk to the bottom of the lane. And then, as she turned the corner onto the main road, the meaning of ‘illicit’ became clear to her.

She had returned to the same lane many times since then, always just as dusk descended. There she would stand still and wait for the lights to go out, for a kiss to swoop down on her.

Fitz Carraldo Editions