Archives: May 2016

‘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:

ON BROTHERS AND SISTERS, VICTIMS AND EXECUTIONERS… AND THE ELECTORATE

Alexander Porfirievich Sharpilo, retired, 63 years old

AS TOLD BY HIS NEIGHBOUR, MARINA TIKHONOVNA ISAICHIK

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.

Panty

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay in The White Review
panty-cover

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.

‘Unearthing the Secrets of New York’s Mass Graves’

Nina Bernstein for the New York Times
hart island

Over a million people are buried in New York city’s potter’s field on Hart Island. Writing for the New York Times, Nina Bernstein uncovers some of their stories and the failings of the system that put them there:

Twice a week or so, loaded with bodies boxed in pine, a New York City morgue truck passes through a tall chain-link gate and onto a ferry that has no paying passengers. Its destination is Hart Island, an uninhabited strip of land off the coast of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, where overgrown 19th-century ruins give way to mass graves gouged out by bulldozers and the only pallbearers are jail inmates paid 50 cents an hour.

There, divergent life stories come to the same anonymous end.

No tombstones name the dead in the 101-acre potter’s field that holds Leola Dickerson, who worked as one family’s housekeeper for 50 years, beloved by three generations for her fried chicken and her kindness. She buried her husband as he had wished, in a family plot back in Alabama. But when she died at 88 in a New York hospital in 2008, she was the ward of a court-appointed guardian who let her house go into foreclosure and her body go unclaimed at the morgue.

By law, her corpse became city property, to be made available as a cadaver for dissection or embalming practice if a medical school or mortuary class wanted it. Then, like more than a million men, women and children since 1869, she was consigned to a trench on Hart Island.

Several dozen trenches back lies Zarramen Gooden, only 17 when the handlebars of his old bike broke and he hit his throat, severing an artery. He had been popping wheelies near the city homeless shelter in the Bronx where he and four younger siblings lived with their heroin-addicted mother. With no funeral help from child protection authorities, his older sister scraped together $8 to buy the used suit he wore at his wake. But the funeral home swiftly sent him back to the morgue when she could not pay the $6,000 burial fee.

For Milton Weinstein, a married father with a fear of dying alone, there was no burial at all for two years after his death at 67. A typographer in his day, he had worked in advertising for Sears, Roebuck & Company. But he lost his career to technology and his vision to diabetes; his wife’s mental problems drove their children away. Though she was at his side when he died in a Bronx nursing home, she had no say over what happened to his remains — and no idea that his body would be used as a cadaver in a medical school and then shoveled into a mass grave on Hart Island.

New York is unique among American cities in the way it disposes of the dead it considers unclaimed: interment on a lonely island, off-limits to the public, by a crew of inmates. Buried by the score in wide, deep pits, the Hart Island dead seem to vanish — and so does any explanation for how they came to be there.

To reclaim their stories from erasure is to confront the unnoticed heartbreak inherent in a great metropolis, in the striving and missed chances of so many lives gone by. Bad childhoods, bad choices or just bad luck — the chronic calamities of the human condition figure in many of these narratives. Here are the harshest consequences of mental illness, addiction or families scattered or distracted by their own misfortunes.

But if Hart Island hides individual tragedies, it also obscures systemic failings, ones that stack the odds against people too poor, too old or too isolated to defend themselves. In the face of an end-of-life industry that can drain the resources of the most prudent, these people are especially vulnerable.

Indeed, this graveyard of last resort hides wrongdoing by some of the very individuals and institutions charged with protecting New Yorkers, including court-appointed guardians and nursing homes. And at a time when many still fear a potter’s field as the ultimate indignity, the secrecy that shrouds Hart Island’s dead also veils the city’s haphazard treatment of their remains.

These cases are among hundreds unearthed through an investigation by The New York Times that draws on a database of people buried on the island since 1980. The records make it possible for the first time to trace the lives of the dead, revealing the many paths that led New Yorkers to a common grave.

[…]

Matthew McNaught wins the 2016 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize

We are delighted to announce that Matthew McNaught has won the inaugural Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, an annual competition for British and Irish writers yet to have secured a publishing deal, rewarding the best proposal for a book-length essay. McNaught was awarded the prize for Immanuel, an essay about faith, doubt and radical religion, inspired in part by his experiences growing up in an evangelical Christian community in the south of England. He lives in Southampton, where he works in mental health, and has written for n+1.

McNaught will receive £3,000 in the form of an advance against publication with Fitzcarraldo Editions, and will have the opportunity to spend up to three months in residency at the Mahler & LeWitt Studios in Spoleto, Italy, during the summer of 2016, to work on Immanuel, which will then be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2017.His winning proposal was one of seventy entries, and one of five to be shortlisted. The other four shortlisted entries were:

– Corona by Felix Bazalgette, an essay inspired by the crash of Corona satellite #1005 in Venezuela in 1964, the history of aerial photography, the use of vision as metaphor, and the lies that sustain militaries.

– Bad For You by Alice Hattrick, an essay about perfume and all its associations blending life writing with criticism, and drawing on personal experiences of death, gendered and psychosomatic illness and emotional attachments, as well as art and its history.

– Growing up Modern by Jennifer Kabat, a collection of essays exploring art, war and the landscape, examining modernism’s legacy, and what might be scavenged from it.

– Double-Tracking by Rosanna Mclaughlin. Inspired by Tom Wolfe’s notion of duplicitous identities, Double-Tracking looks at the cultural phenomenon of ‘being both’ – whether establishment and bohemian, butcher and aesthete, or an ingenue and initiate of high-culture – tracing the history of duplicity through mythology and literature, philosophy, fashion, the art market, politics, photography and camp. .

The prize, which was judged by Joanna Biggs, Brian Dillon, Paul Keegan, Ali Smith and Jacques Testard, was set up to find the best emerging essay writers and aims to reward essays that explore and expand the possibilities of the form. Made possible by an Arts Council Grant in 2015, it provides the winning author with their first experiences of publishing a book, from the planning, research and writing of it through to the editing, production and publicity stages.

For any PR enquiries, please email info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com.

EDITORIAL COMMITTEE

Joanna Biggs is a writer and editor at the London Review of Books. Her book about the way we work, All Day Long, is published by Serpent’s Tail.

Brian Dillon is a writer and critic. His books include The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015), Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg Press, 2014), Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011), Tormented Hope (Penguin, 2009) and In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005). He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art.

Paul Keegan has been editor of the Penguin Classics and Faber poetry editor; he co-founded Notting Hill Editions, has edited the Collected Poems of Ted Hughes and The Penguin Book of English Verse.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness and lives in Cambridge. Her latest novel is How to be both (2014 Hamish Hamilton / Penguin) and her latest collection of stories is Public library and other stories (2015, Hamish Hamilton).

Jacques Testard is the publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions, and a founding editor of The White Review.

THE MAHLER & LEWITT STUDIOS

The Mahler & LeWitt Studios are established around the former studios of Anna Mahler and Sol LeWitt in Spoleto, Italy. The residency programme provides a focussed and stimulating environment for artists, curators and writers to develop new ways of working in dialogue with peers and the unique cultural heritage of the region. For more information please visit mahler-lewitt.org. 

‘California Notes’

Joan Didion for The New York Review of Books
joandidion

The NYRB have published notes written by Joan Didion around the time she was meant to be covering the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone: ‘I never wrote the piece about the Hearst trial,’ she writes in her introduction, ‘but I went to San Francisco in 1976 while it was going on and tried to report it. And I got quite involved in uncovering my own mixed emotions.’

The first time I was ever on an airplane was in 1955 and flights had names. This one was “The Golden Gate,” American Airlines. Serving Transcontinental Travelers between San Francisco and New York. A week before, twenty-one years old, I had been moping around Berkeley in my sneakers and green raincoat and now I was a Transcontinental Traveler, Lunching Aloft on Beltsville Roast Turkey with Dressing and Giblet Sauce. I believed in Dark Cottons. I believed in Small Hats and White Gloves. I believed that transcontinental travelers did not wear white shoes in the City. The next summer I went back on “The New Yorker,” United Airlines, and had a Martini-on-the-Rocks and Stuffed Celery au Roquefort over the Rockies.

The image of the Golden Gate is very strong in my mind. As unifying images go this one is particularly vivid.

At the Sacramento Union I learned that Eldorado County and Eldorado City are so spelled but that regular usage of El Dorado is two words; to UPPER CASE Camellia Week, the Central Valley, Sacramento Irrigation District, Liberator bombers and Superfortresses, the Follies Bergere [sic], the Central Valley Project, and “such nicknames as Death Row, Krauts, or Jerries for Germans, Doughboys, Leathernecks, Devildogs.”

Arden School class prophecy:

In Carnegie Hall we find Shirley Long
Up on the stage singing a song.
Acting in pictures is Arthur Raney’s job,
And he is often followed by a great mob.
As a model Yavette Smith has achieved fame,
Using “Bubbles” as her nickname…
We find Janet Haight working hard as a missionary,
Smart she is and uses a dictionary…
We find Joan Didion as a White House resident
  Now being the first woman president.  

Looking through the evidence I find what seems to me now (or rather seemed to me then) an entirely spurious aura of social success and achievement. I seem to have gotten my name in the paper rather a lot. I seem to have belonged to what were in context the “right” clubs. I seem to have been rewarded, out of all proportion to my generally undistinguished academic record, with an incommensurate number of prizes and scholarships (merit scholarships only: I did not qualify for need) and recommendations and special attention and very probably the envy and admiration of at least certain of my peers. Curiously I only remember failing, failures and slights and refusals.

[…]

 

‘Outside the Door’

By Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire
clemens meyer

Selected by Petra Gropp for the Short Story Project, here is an excerpt from ‘Outside the Door’ by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire. Incidentally, we will be publishing Katy’s translation of Clemens 2013 novel, Im Stein (Bricks and Mortar) later this year.

I

I go out in the yard with the dog. Just after two in the morning and the night’s very warm; the summer’s come back again this August after a long cool and rainy stretch. The hottest day of the year was this week. It wasn’t good for my dog, the heat. Wasn’t good for me either, that the nights didn’t cool off while I was writing. I always plan to write during the day but then I don’t start until everything’s quiet. I live on the ground floor, what we used to call the mezzanine, a word rarely used now. As a child, I didn’t know what it meant when I read it in books. I thought it was a secret. A strange in-between level inside houses.

My dog is having trouble getting down the half flight of stairs. Slowly, he puts one front paw on the first step, reaches the other very hesitantly too far down and can’t find the step to hold him; he often falls if I don’t watch out, and slips onto the tiles by the back door, sometimes turning over in mid-flight. The tiles are smooth and his back legs slide on them; he lands spread-eagled as though he wanted to do the splits. His body’s barely in one piece. I stand on the threshold and watch him struggle a couple of feet into the back yard and pee on the spot of ground where he always pees. The paving stones there are almost white by now. I carry him up the stairs; he’s lost a lot of weight these past weeks. His piss has a strong smell of sulphur, all the way into the hall. The door to my flat is closed. I can’t remember closing it. I search my pockets for my keys. Nothing. How am I going to get back in? My mother has a spare key; I could go over to the phone box and call her. But she’s in Africa, until the end of the month I think.

My flat has a double door; if I push the right-hand door with the handle and the lock on it as far inwards as it goes, I can put my hand through the gap to the two bolting mechanisms that keep the other door closed by means of two metal rods, the bottom one going down into the floor and the top one going up into a small opening in the door frame. If I manage to reach the lever that moves the rods, I can push both doors inwards and the lock will give way. It’s a complicated process, especially since I’ve inserted a cork into the top bolting mechanism to prevent the lever being released and the door being opened that way. It’s enough to release this upper rod from its anchoring in the wood of the frame, you see, and then the bottom rod pops out on its own if you throw your body hard enough against the two doors, best of all in the middle. It’s difficult to describe technical or mechanical processes exactly.

[…]

Football

by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Fitz Toussaint Angle lo-res

Today is the publication day of Fitzcarraldo Editions’ thirteenth book, Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. In honour of this, here’s an extract from the essay from the pages ‘Tokyo/Japan 2002′:

It was greyish in Tokyo the morning I arrived, hot, heavy, foggy. My mind numb, I fought against sleep in the big, almost empty orange ‘Airport Limousine’ coach that took us into the city in the early morning, snoozing on my seat together with the few Japanese present in the bus, a people quick to take a little public nap in shared transport (you would think that the whole nation suffered from chronic jet lag). In short, Tokyo wore its usual face in those first days of the World Cup. The most I can say is that I was woken up in my hotel room at about four o’clock in the morning by a confused urban racket that mixed with my dreams and finished in disarray with a chorus of male voices chanting incomprehensible pleasantries, invariably punctuated by ENGLAND! ENGLAND! while, through the half-open curtains of the room there passed a dawning day, still milky with the air of Helsinki daybreaks. It’s the first time too that, in a Tokyo hotel, a fellow guest has asked me at reception which country I came from, and who, when I told him I was from Belgium, asked me when I was playing. When I was playing? But I was still as plain-clothes as possible, dark trousers and black jacket, no tricorn or scarf, hunting horn, devil jersey or red BELGIUM cap, but, with a lot of self-control, working out what he was referring to, I told him I was playing tomorrow, tomorrow night. Good luck, he said.

During those first few days in Tokyo, I stayed in a small hotel in Shibuya, at the end of a street of love hotels lit by multi-coloured neon signs, which rose at a slight gradient no distance from Bunkamura. Since arriving, I divided my time between lectures at universities and match broadcasts on television. I took my meals at restaurants with Japanese professors who welcomed me into their classes, or alone in my hotel room, snack-ing in front of England-Sweden or Spain-Paraguay on television, sitting on my bed in my cramped little room, my food cartons spread out around me on the bed covers, the plastic film that covered the dishes already rolled up in a ball in the bin, the chopsticks separated, opening the sachet of soy to pour it carefully over the food, fingers slightly sticky with sauce. I like picnicking like that in hotel bedrooms when I’m in Japan, it’s a pleasure to leave the hotel to go and dig out some local convenience store, 7-Eleven or FamilyMart, open twenty-four hours a day, and assemble a menu among the shelves by carefully choosing different dishes from the refrigerated compartments (sushi here, seaweed there, fragments of pumpkin, aubergines, spinach), then to head towards the drinks and hesitate between the different kinds of tea, before opening the door of a freezer to take out, for dessert, a little tub of green tea ice-cream (in Kobe, after the Brazil-Belgium match that ended at night, I wasn’t the only one doing this kind of shopping before going back to the hotel, there was a real procession of customers who passed through the Lawson store before filing back to their rooms through the luxurious hotel lobby, clutching plastic bags).

The first match I had a ticket for during the World Cup jointly organized by Korea and Japan was Japan-Belgium on 4 June 2002 in Saitama, it was Japan’s opening match, the co-organiser’s entry into the fray, the match of a whole nation (Japan-Belgium, poor us!). A rumour was already circulating that to get to the stadium it would be wise to allow a journey time of three to four hours, there would be at least sixty thousand Japanese spectators, and apparently I had no idea about Japanese crowds given that two or three hundred thousand people will sometimes hurry to see a firework display around a tiny stretch of water. So I prudently left the hotel early in the afternoon, carrying a light rucksack containing my binoculars, a camera and my supporter’s cap. Tens of kilometres away from the stadium, before I even entered the metro, I started to notice the first blue jerseys in the streets of Tokyo, those blue Japanese jerseys like the ones worn by the French team, most bearing the 7 of Nakata or the 5 of Inamoto, the 8 of Ono or the 10 of Nakayama, and, all these blue jerseys, like isolated droplets which, resembling one another, finally form a thin stream flowing in the streets, then a great watercourse, a blue river, increasingly swollen, leaving the mouths of the metro and spreading along the avenues to enter the stadium where, suddenly, huge waves form and surge along the crowded stands, and where, amidst an enormous hubbub, rises the irrepressible blue tide of sixty thousand Japanese supporters on their feet, chanting the name of their country: NIPPON, NIPPON!

A few seconds before kick-off, in the electric atmosphere of the stands of the Saitama stadium, while the players were already in place and the match was about to begin, four amazing fighter planes suddenly flew over the stadium at a low altitude, brushing the rooftops and disappearing with a deepening roar and leaving in their wake unsettling scraps of smoke and sinister reminiscences of war, violence and air-raids. But apart from these childish militaristic displays, the evening was as gentle as could be. The whistle was blown, and when, like an unexpected deliverance, Belgium opened the scoring with a spectacular acrobatic scissor-kick by Wilmots, I leapt from my seat, arms in the air, turning in a circle and giddily jumping around in the stands, not knowing where to go, who to celebrate the event with, before spotting another Belgian as isolated as I was among the terraces. We gauchely hurried towards each other, not knowing how to concelebrate our goal, merely striking our palms violently together, like two American basketball players who have just pulled off some kind of feat. Nothing more, we didn’t exchange a word, I don’t even know if this man spoke French (it was one of the strangest relationships that I have ever had in my life), finding him again a quarter of an hour later in the same place to repeat the same gesture after Belgium’s second goal. I could have settled for celebrating the Belgian goals, but I must confess that, almost without admitting it to myself, I always felt a secret satisfaction at the sight of this stadium exploding and trembling on its foundations each time the Japanese scored a goal. In the end, this draw suited me wonderfully well, it was even the exact score that I had wished for. I remember that, in early December, when the group stages were drawn, I had sent an email to Kan Nozaki, my Japanese translator, to tell him I hoped we would be outdoing each other with courtesies at this Japan-Belgium game and that, knowing by reputation the excellent manners of his countrymen, I hoped that the Japanese would have the exquisite politeness not to beat us, and that we would have the elegance not to take advantage of this to win.

[...]

‘How Uber Conquered London’

Sam Knight for the Guardian
uber

Writing for the Guardian, Sam Knight tells the story of the rise and rise of Uber in the UK capital:

Every week in London, 30,000 people download Uber to their phones and order a car for the first time. The technology company, which is worth $60bn, calls this moment “conversion”. Uber has deployed its ride-hailing platform in 400 cities around the world since its launch in San Francisco on 31 May 2010, which means that it enters a new market every five days and eight hours. It sets great store on the first time you use its service, in the same way that Apple pays attention to your first encounter with one of their devices. With Uber, the feeling should be of plenty, and of assurance: there will always be a driver when you need one.

When you open the app, Uber’s logo flaps briefly before disappearing to reveal the city streets around you, and the grey, yet promising shapes of vehicles nurdling nearby. The sense of abundance that this invokes can make you think that Uber has always been here, that its presence in your neighbourhood is somehow natural and ordained. But that is not the case. To take over a city, Uber flies in a small team, known as “launchers” and hires its first local employee, whose job it is to find drivers and recruit riders. In London, that was a young Scottish banker named Richard Howard.

Howard was 27 and had recently been made redundant by HSBC, where he sold credit default swaps, a form of derivative that became notorious during the financial crisis. He grew up in Glasgow, where his father sold musical instruments, and never felt entirely at home in the deferential, bonus-driven atmosphere of investment banking. When he lost his job in November 2011, Howard figured that tech must be the coming thing. He began to trawl technology news and, like a lot other people, was struck by reports of a fundraising round for a startup called Uber the following month. It wasn’t just the money – a valuation of $300m for a company that had been up and running for 17 months – but the seriousness of the players involved: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon; Menlo Ventures, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest venture capital firms; Goldman Sachs.

On 7 December, Howard found Uber’s website and sent them an email. “I emailed whatever it was, help@uber, info@uber, and said, ‘Hey, I would love to work with you guys. I live in London. Are you coming to London?’” he told me recently. By Christmas, Uber had replied. After a couple of Skype interviews, Howard travelled to Paris to meet the Uber team there – at the time, Paris was the only city outside North America where the company was operating – and in February 2012, Howard was hired. He filled in his contact information on a company-wide spreadsheet. He tried to work out whether he was Uber employee number 50, or 51.

Uber began as a luxury brand. Its tagline was “Everyone’s Private Driver”. The company’s origin myth is that its two founders, serial entrepreneurs Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick, emerged from a tech conference called Le Web in Paris in December 2008 and couldn’t find a cab. In the age of smartphones and GPS, this seemed to them a ridiculous state of affairs. From the get-go, though, Uber’s idea of a car and driver was something lavish and fun. Unlike its main rival in the US,Lyft, whose ride-sharing philosophy derived more from a hey-I’m-going-that-way-anyway approach, Uber was built on selling bite-sized access to big black cars and Kalanick’s memorable – if slightly untranslatable to British ears – wish to “be a baller”.

For Howard, in London, setting up Uber meant finding the right kind of cars. He worked his way through yell.com, ringing up high-end chauffeur companies and trying to persuade drivers to accept jobs from an app they had never heard of. (Uber likes to describe itself as a marketplace: for a commission, it connects drivers and passengers, sets the fee, and handles payment.) In late March, Kalanick, who by this point was Uber’s CEO, flew to the UK and emailed his only employee in the country. “Yo London, I’m here,” he said. The two men met in Moorgate and Kalanick outlined his plans for the city. “He said, I want to get [Mercedes] S classes on the road for the same price as black cabs,” Howard recalled.

London was the 11th city that Uber went into, but it was like no other taxi market that the company had attempted to disrupt. London had the scale and mass transit systems of New York, but it also had the medieval, twisting streetscape and complex regulations of other European capitals. It was already served by a formidable private transport market, with one of the world’s most recognisable taxi fleets – the black cabs – and a fragmented scene of some 3,000 licensed “private hire” operators. Just one of these, Addison Lee, had 4,500 cars and revenues of £90m a year. London even had ride-hailing apps, led by Hailo, which had already signed up 9,000 black cab drivers. Kalanick has described London as the “Champions League of transportation” and said that Uber spent two years plotting its approach to the city.

Howard rented a one-room office on the King’s Cross Road, next door to an Ethiopian church. Two launchers, from Seattle and Amsterdam, arrived. He put a sign on the wall that said “#Hailno” and tried not to think too much about the competition. “We were worried,” he told me. “We were worried that Addison Lee would get smart, spend £1m – which isn’t a lot of money for them – and make a really nice, seamless app that copied Uber’s. But they never did.”

Instead, Howard focused on what he was good at, which was getting sceptical drivers into the office, showing them how Uber worked and giving them a free iPhone. “I am a salesman – that’s what I am,” he told me. Howard went after Mercedes S class and BMW 7 series drivers, typically one-man operations, who might freelance for a number of small chauffeuring companies. He made them a special introductory offer: they would be paid £25 an hour to work on the Uber platform whether they got any jobs or not. “We gave these guys a security that they didn’t previously have,” he said. Chauffeurs could sign up for as many or as few hours as they wanted, and they could log off if an existing client came calling. They earned money sitting in their cars. In a trade where drivers typically earn £50 an hour when they are working, but can go whole afternoons, days even, without a job, and have punishing running costs, Uber sounded almost too good to be true.

Driver No 1 was Darren Thomas. Before he joined Uber, most of his work came from Spearmint Rhino, the lap dancing club. Thomas had drifted back into chauffeuring after working for seven years as a salesman in the tiling industry. He signed up for as many hours as he could bear. “I absolutely caned it,” he told me. Soon he was earning £2,500 a week. On Uber’s first day in London, in the middle of June 2012, Howard had around 50 drivers on the platform. They did only 30 trips in 24 hours, but there was a single, glorious moment when seven rides were under way simultaneously and Kalanick happened to log in from San Francisco. “Travis was just blown away,” said Howard. “He was like, ‘Guys, look at London! This is unbelievable!’ It was just kismet, I guess.”

[…]

Fitz Carraldo Editions