Isadora

An excerpt in Guernica from Amelia Gray's new novel
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Amelia Gray’s new novel Isadora is based on the life of dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan. This excerpt in Guernica explores the childhood of one of Duncan’s mentors, Max Merz. 

The story of a Viennese boy who became a German man, thanks in unlikely part to Benjamin Franklin.

When Max Merz was a boy, he wanted nothing more than to grow up to become an intellectual. He was ten years old when he first had this idea, studying English under the casual tutelage of an American student who found in Max an eager pupil and extra income every other weekend at the Merz family grocery. To teach the boy clauses and tense shifts, the student loaned him a copybook featuring the writing of Benjamin Franklin. The words were designed to be traced, to hone penmanship rather than theory, but Max found utility in both. And so his very first experience with philosophy came to him in a new language. Florid and lush, Franklin’s paragraphs bloomed in his own hand, the central tenets half obscured by his own understanding but slowly revealing themselves, the curtain drawing aside.

He began to take an immodest pleasure in his book each night, arranging himself by the lamp and touching the silver nib of his pen gently to his lips as a serious scholar might before tracing Franklin’s words with passion and vigor, pausing at times as if he were inventing the ideas and then noting them swiftly, before they flew away. He repeated the action, laying sheet after sheet of parchment over the original and tracing until the words were etched onto the page.

Max loved the feeling of writing more than the process of thinking, and it was immaterial to him that the words he put down were not his own. He copied another page from memory, daydreaming of long nights at the dinner tables of his future professors at university. He would communicate with these men as equals and love them as brothers. Late into these intellectually rousing nights, the professors’ young wives would pour themselves another thimble of port and smile at Max with the same tender look of sentimental pride they had once given their husbands.

(…)

The Library of Books and Bombs

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan for The Paris Review
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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes for The Paris Review on the history and transformation of London’s Bethnal Green Library, which was once an insane asylum.

Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.

Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape. 

I googled to check the opening hours and found something stranger. The library building once housed an insane asylum—so notorious that the park was known as “Barmy Park.” On the outside, it looked like a library in a particularly fine picture book, one with watercolor illustrations and a moral ending. The only thing out of place was the violently modern library sign slapped onto the face of the building, letters in blunt red sans serif. When I sat in the main reading room, trying to work, I could not focus. I kept trying to imagine the people who had been locked within these walls. I could not detect a trace of madhouse. It was so quiet. The books were so well ordered. How on earth had this gone from a famous asylum to a home for books? Libraries have always made me feel saner. Perhaps someone hoped this would serve the same purpose?

(…)

Lessons in Slowness

Susanna Basso for Asymptote
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Susanna Basso writes for Asymptote on how her translation process has developed over the course of her career. Translated from the Italian by Matilda Colarossi.

Translating is beautiful in autumn, when the days are short and I need to turn my desk lamp on earlier. Natural light distracts me a little; it lights up the room, all of the other books, the furniture, the curtains . . . Here, in this circle of white light that isolates me, we are truly alone, the sentences and I. For every book I have translated, I could tell you what was happening inside this room and in the outside world. This would, I imagine, be anything but interesting, and yet my life has accompanied the life of the words I have looked up, and it has, for me, not been easy to keep them in check. 

As a young woman I translated while in a little white room with no wardrobe, on a bare table, and near a phone that kept interrupting me, that kept dragging me outside to the thousands of things that I had asked others to expect of me. I had yet to come to terms with the slowness translation imposes; I remember trying to invent ways to go faster. I was convinced that experience would make me faster. I would often get frustrated. I would find almost every text repetitive, almost every author a little bit wordy. 

Then I discovered that experience does not, in any way, make translation faster, but it does heal impatience and our need for the phone to ring. 

At the time, I remember, I was fresh out of university and full of literary enthusiasm, and I swathed the words of the Brontë sisters in my own voice. I experienced the difficulty of having to combine the spontaneity of the simple letters between the sisters and their friends, and the intense richness of those extraordinarily captive and yet free women.

(…)

Interview: Hisham Matar

New Statesman interviews Hisham Matar
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 The novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist on travelling in time, living without TV and admiring Angela Merkel.

What’s your earliest memory?

Straight lines going up to the sky. I must have been in a pram in Manhattan. My mother was probably on her way to buy the latest Boney M record.

Who is your hero?

It is no longer that possible to have heroes. But before this tragic affliction took hold, and in chronological order, there were my paternal grandfather, Hamed Matar, who fought in the Libyan resistance under Omar al-Mukhtar and bravely took part in several battles against the Italian invaders; the mysterious Native American we called el-Hindi, who used to dive from great heights into the sea near our house in Tripoli; the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy; Malcolm X; the Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter; and Greta Garbo.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Great writing fills me with hopeful enthusiasm and never envy. The last book to do this was The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

I have admired many. Dag Hammarskjöld, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Merkel and the various men and women currently leading the peace process in Colombia are some.

(…)

The Painter and the Novelist

Paul Levy for The New York Review of Books
Virginia and Leslie Stephen, 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford

Paul Levy writes on the Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell and her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, for The New York Review of Books.

The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, lived most of her life (1879–1961) in the chilly, concealing shade of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf—the last twenty years following Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Though the attention paid to the Bloomsbury Group seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a surge of interest in Bell. Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister artfully sheds new light on Bell, who is also part of an imaginative group exhibition, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” at Two Temple Place in London (William Waldorf Astor’s townhouse, now an exhibition venue). Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s earliest public art gallery constructed for that purpose) has mounted the first major exhibition of Bell’s work. Her sex life was the chief subject of the BBC series Life in Squares (2015); she was played at different ages by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best.

In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell, the art critic and father of her two sons; she briefly became the lover of Roger Fry, the highly admired art critic; and she was the lifelong companion of the gay painter Duncan Grant, whose work will be featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Queer British Art, 1861–1967,” opening in April, and who was the father of Bell’s daughter, Angelica. Posterity has judged Virginia the greater artist, but in Parmar’s fictionalized account, Vanessa is the nobler, more sympathetic of the Bloomsbury Group’s founding sisters.

Was Bell a good painter? The striking catalog for the Dulwich show (of seventy-six paintings, works on paper, and fabrics, as well as photographs by both her and Patti Smith) equivocates by stressing her place in art history, saying that she was “one of the most advanced British artists of her time, with her own distinctive vision, boldly interpreting new ideas about art which were brewing in France and beyond.” Nancy Durrant, an art critic for the London Times, agrees: “This show is a joy…. What a magnificent creature she must have been.”

(…)

How to Write About Authoritarians Without Getting Arrested

Saba Imtiaz for LitHub
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Saba Imtiaz writing for LitHub on truth, fiction, and fake news in Pakistan.

Every time I travel through Karachi airport, I stop by its bookshop. It’s not the best organized store in the world. The titles are jumbled together. Fiction merging with non-fiction, biographies next to self-help; books that travelers have opened, flipped through, and put back in the wrong section. Sometimes, I surreptitiously hide a biography or two in the fiction section.

Occasionally, the staff will recommend a book about a topic with a selection of fiction and non-fiction. It’s all the same, piled together on one rack, and treated the same way: If it’s written and it is published, it must be true.

In Pakistan, people are constantly looking for some version of the truth, browsing through their smartphones and the fiction racks of bookstores. There is a stream of rumors repeated on talk shows and forwarded on WhatsApp by people citing “sources” claiming to know the “real story” behind a militant attack or a political controversy. There are missives about impending doom: imminent security threats, crime statistics, and public health crises; tailored to suit one’s preset narrative. If you believe in x, y message—or novel—makes perfect sense.

In his latest novel The Party Worker, the Pakistani cop-turned-writer Omar Shahid Hamid depicts a political strongman called “Don” and a linchpin member in his network determined to bring him down. It has all the makings of a crime novel: cops on the hunt for blood and glory, Mafioso, bloody crime scenes, loyalties and betrayals.

But this isn’t an ordinary crime novel. The Don is a thinly-veiled caricature of a real-life Pakistani politician who lives in exile, and whose political party ruled Karachi for decades because of its broad urban appeal—and alleged violent tactics. Allegations against the party range from targeted assassinations to extortion, and writing about the politician, until recently, was largely off-limits. Reportage that critiqued the party’s exiled leader or mentioned the allegations led to sharp rebuttals and full-fledged tirades. Journalists covering the party were limited to reproducing sanitized press releases and transcripts of speeches. It was the party’s facts, period.

The Party Worker crosses that line drawn in newsprint, depicting the Don as an obese, power-hungry figure with a proclivity for sex workers and ice-cream soda mixed with vodka, whose party uses brutal tactics to control Karachi, while he is protected in exile and has a soft corner at the CIA. Hamid combines the tactics and behaviors of political strongmen to turn the characters in the novel into surreal figures. The book takes on from where reportage ends, imagining how to bring the Don to justice, creating a number of revengeful characters to take on the task. One of them, in truly irreverent Karachi fashion, is called “sisterf***er uncle.”

(…)

Fitzcarraldo Editions: May/June 2017 Events

Wednesday 10 May: Clemens Meyer participates in the European Literature Night 2017 alongside A. L. Kennedy and Francesca Melandri at the British Library, London. 7 – 8:30pm. Tickets here.

Thursday 11 May: Clemens Meyer and Katy Derbyshire participate in the Encounters Series hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages at the University of London. 6:30pm. Further details here.

Saturday 13 May: Beyond Words Festival French Literature Festival hosts readings of the Man Booker International longlisted titles including Compass by Mathias Énard, at the Institute Français, London. 6:30 – 7:30pm. Tickets here.

Thursday 25 May: Claire-Louise Bennet participates in a night of words and music at the International Literature Festival Dublin. 6pm. Tickets here.

Monday 29 May: Olga Tokarczuk in conversation with Claire Armitstead at Hay-on-Wye Festival. 11:30am. Tickets here.

Tuesday 30 May: Charlie Fox discusses This Young Monster at Spike Island, Bristol. 6:30pm. Tickets here.

Tuesday 30 May: Olga Tokarczuk in conversation with Kaye Mitchell at Deansgate Waterstones, Manchester. 7pm. Tickets here.

Wednesday 31 May: Claire-Louise Bennett in conversation with Karl Ove Knausgård at Lillehammer Bibliotek, Norway. 6pm. Tickets here.

Wednesday 31 May: launch event for Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (tr. Jennifer Croft) at Calvert 22. There will be a Q&A with James Woodall, and drinks. Details here.

Wednesday 21 June: London launch party for Brian Dillon’s Essayism at Camden Arts Centre. Details tbc.

Thursday 22 June: Essayism: Brian Dillon and Max Porter at the London Review Bookshop. 7pm. Tickets here.

A Story About a Parasitic Relationship

“Together” by Jess Arndt, recommended by Justin Torres for Electric Lit
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Jess Arndt’s short story “Together”, with an introduction by Justin Torres for Electric Lit.

An Introduction by Justin Torres

Jess Arndt is a great prose stylist — but what does that mean? Well for one thing, it means Arndt writes with such poetry and such precision, that the force of the communication damn near knocks you over. The sentences turn, open, and crash down on you unexpectedly, rhythmically, like waves. Great style has something to do with surfaces, but that’s not all I mean when I say Arndt is a great stylist. I mean, too, that the pace and pull of this story — and really, every story in Large Animals — works something like an undertow. At the beach as child, I remember being warned about undertow and thinking, how could it be, amidst all the foam and roar and sparkle of the ocean’s surface, that an even stronger churning went on below? But that’s exactly the experience of reading Arndt: first mesmerized by the beautiful noise of the language, then knocked down, and dragged out to another, underwater world.“Together” is a story precisely about the churning going on beneath the surface — about the awful lot going on inside each of us. Arndt reminds us that physically, psychically, we are processes; we are happening all the time. The life of both mind and body is defined by an awesome and constant churning. And outside, in our backyards, our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our lovers and bosses — the churning continues. Places and people seduce, destroy, remake us in their undertow. What we would like to understand as form — the backyard, the body — is phenomena. What we would like to understand as impermeable is always susceptible to parasitic invasion. Instability is the shared condition of life. This is a thing we know, but the knowledge quickly stales, or we are distracted from the knowledge, or narcotized, or placated with straighter, more genteel notions I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful.

Reading Arndt, I was reminded of Genet, and reminded specifically of Sontag’s description of Genet, in “On Style.” “He is recording, devouring, transfiguring his experience. In Genet’s books, as it happens, this very process itself is his explicit subject; his books are not only works of art but works about art.” Sontag goes on to connect style, above all, to will: “The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way.” I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful. I suppose it’s a particular kind of lineage, a particular kind of will I’m getting at, when talking about Sontag talking about Genet, and also talking about Arndt — I suppose it’s something like the will of the lover, the will of the parasite, the will of the undertow; I suppose I am talking about the will to queer the world.

Justin Torres Author of We the Animals

Together by Jess Arndt

We had it together but we also had it when we were apart. We got it in that comedor in Oaxaca, we both agreed. Or maybe it was that little town, just a few palapas actually and a beach with a deceptive number of black dogs, called San Angelino. But it’s also quite possible that we had gotten it on the subway. Don’t forget about a head of lettuce! our naturopath said. They caravan those heads in from anywhere imaginable. And water these days — it’s no good washing with it.We made a list of what was now okay and what wasn’t. Sugar, yeast, all the essentials — out. Enter: lines and lines of herbaceous esophagus-jamming pills we swallowed noon dinner and night.

(…) 

Interview: Melville House Books

Kaitlyn Tiffany for The Verge
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How the scrappiest social media team in publishing is holding the industry’s feet to the fire: Melville House has thoughts on Amazon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and ‘publishing during wartime.’

Dennis Johnson, co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House Books and one of the first book bloggers, is possibly best known for the fight he picked in the spring of 2014.

He was at the front of a group of independent publishers who decided to spar with Amazon over the predatory, escalating fees it was charging small publishers, as well as its covert war on the major publisher Hachette, which it carried out by deliberately delaying shipments and hiking prices. Johnson asked The New York Times how Amazon’s business practices weren’t considered “extortion,” and compared the monolith to the Mafia.

That was a decade after Johnson’s first spat with Amazon, when Melville House’s books were pulled from the site completely until Johnson paid what he referred to as “a bribe.” More recently, he and the team at Melville House have spent plenty of time tweeting and blogging criticisms of Amazon’s new physical bookstores, which they take issue with because they’re run algorithmically and don’t employ booksellers. At the London Book Fair in March, Johnson live tweeted the pitiful traffic to Amazon Publishing’s booth, which some weirdo decided to set up directly across from Melville House’s.

Amazon isn’t the only big kid that the small team spends their days needling online — their tweets work in tandem with the revived MobyLives blog, where everyone on staff takes turns dissecting issues around publishing, politics, and culture. They had words for Marvel after it blamed declining comic book sales on its more diverse roster of superheroes. And for Hachette Australia when it wanted to tattoo a dragon on a real woman’s back to promote the latest Girl with the Dragon Tattoo installment. And for Simon & Schuster when it offered Milo Yiannopoulos a reported $250,000 for a book on free speech.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions