Archives: November 2017

The Jewish-Quarterly Wingate Prize 2018

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We’re thrilled to announce that Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen has been longlisted for the 2018 JQ Wingate Prize. 

Now in its 41st year, the £4,000 annual prize is awarded to the best book, fiction or non-fiction, to translate the idea of Jewishness to the reader. 

This year’s judging panel comprises TLS fiction and politics editor Toby Lichtig; journalist, broadcaster and Booker Prize Foundation trustee Bidisha; author and critic Amanda Craig and London School of Jewish Studies Teaching Fellow Maureen Kendler.

The longlist is as follows:

A Land Without Borders by Nir Baram

Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen

The Mighty Franks by Michael Frank

The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others by Mya Guarnieri Jaradat

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Trial of Adolf Hitler by David King

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

Do I Belong? Reflections From Europe by Antony Lerman

Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations by Joanne Limburg

Judas by Amos Oz

Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem by George Prochnik 

The Holocaust by Laurence Rees

The Chair of judges Toby Lichtig said of the longlist: ‘The Shoah, Israel and family are recurring leitmotifs – but if there’s one overriding theme it is identity: national, cultural and psychological; its contingency, construction and mutability, the borders it builds and wilfully traverses. The Jewish experience – with its long history, complex diaspora and vexed relationship with place – is perhaps particularly well-suited to current, often ugly debates about citizenship, migration and belonging. As such, this feels like a selection of literature for our time.’

The shortlist will be announced at the end of January and the prize winner on 15 February 2018 at an event at JW3.

Diary

Vadim Nikitin for the London Review of Books

Vadim Nikitin’s diary, about the unearthing of a time capsule buried in Murmansk on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, featured in the LRB:

The time capsule was buried in a secluded square in Murmansk in 1967 on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Inside was a message dedicated to the citizens of the Communist future. At short notice, the authorities brought forward the capsule’s exhumation by ten days, to coincide with the city’s 101st birthday. With the stroke of an official’s pen, a mid-century Soviet relic was enlisted to honour one of the last acts of Tsar (now Saint) Nicholas II, who founded my hometown in October 1916. From socialism to monarchism in ten days. Some of the city’s pensioners accused the local government of trying to suppress the sacred memory of the revolution. ‘Our forefathers would be turning in their graves,’ one woman wrote in a letter to the local paper. The time capsule ‘is not some kind of birthday present to the city; it’s a reminder of the centenary of the great October Revolution and its human cost.’

My father had watched the time capsule being buried. He came to Murmansk aged 17. From his remote village, he had dreamed of the sea but he failed the navy’s eye test. In October 1967, he was a second-year student at the Higher Marine Engineering Academy, an elite training school for the Soviet Union’s massive fishing fleet. As a year-round warm water port, Murmansk – the largest human settlement above the Arctic Circle – is a major fishing and shipping hub, home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers.

The time capsule was put together by the Murmansk cell of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. On a Saturday afternoon fifty years ago, my father and his classmates put on their dress uniform – peaked caps and double-breasted black jackets with gold buttons – and marched into the city centre. ‘We weren’t told anything,’ he said. ‘And because we were assembled facing the crowd, I didn’t see much.’

The unearthing ceremony in 2017 fell on a Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps a hundred people, most of them elderly, had gathered at the base of the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention – Murmansk was briefly occupied by British troops during the Civil War. The austere Constructivist structure was the city’s first monument, erected on the tenth anniversary of 1917. A few people were holding Soviet flags. A naval band began to play. Beyond a rope cordon, the boulder and its plinth were pulled away to reveal a concrete slab. As this was being winched out, the mayor gave a speech. The crowd turned towards the hole. There was another slab underneath. This too was prised off, revealing a square cavity filled in with cement. ‘The capsule is missing,’ someone said. ‘Somebody must have got there first.’ A few minutes later, a soldier arrived with a metal detector, followed by men with high-vis vests and hammer drills. They began to chip away at the cement.

Progress was slow. With no sign of the capsule, an archived copy of the original text was produced and handed to a retired local actor. ‘Our dear successors, fellow citizens,’ he read out: ‘We are gathered here on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Great October Revolution, at the foot of a sacred place: the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention. Through five subsequent decades, we extend our hand in brotherly greeting from 1967.’ The letter listed the achievements of the preceding generation: ‘In a half-century of Soviet rule, a sleepy, derelict Russian hinterland became a large industrial and cultural centre, a beautiful city of 300,000. In the tundra we built mines and factories, created a mighty fleet, laid roads and learned to grow rich harvests in the thin Arctic soil.’ There was a smattering of applause. ‘We are proud and happy to live in the 20th century, which signalled the start of the transition from capitalism to socialism,’ he read on. ‘We are certain that you, our descendants, will complete the revolutionary transformation of the world.’ Awkward pause. ‘We even confess to being a little envious of you, who will live to see with your own eyes the fruits of our labours. We took the first step into space; you will fly to other planets. Try to remember us, your ancestors, who built your city and gave their lives to building communism. Fiercely love your wonderful motherland! Let the eternal fire of immortal Leninist ideas always burn brightly in your hearts – the fire of revolution sparked in the unforgettable year, 1917.’

There was polite clapping, and a few hurrahs. As the drilling continued, dusk started to fall on the thinning crowd. Finally the slender, foot-long sharp-tipped metallic cylinder was lifted from the rubble. It looked like a relay-race baton. By that point, only a smattering of reporters and die-hard capsule buffs remained. An official announced that it would be opened another day, when more people could witness it. With that, the last of the crowd dispersed.

(…)

Fairouz in Exile

Matthew McNaught for n+1
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Featured in n+1, Matthew McNaught’s poignant essay explores the experiences of displaced Syrian civilians through the story of his friend, Ahmad:

FAIROUZ IS UNSTUCK IN TIME: one moment, a 1960s starlet in a silk scarf, a Spanish guitar in her hands; the next, a stately elder in a white dress, all regal poise and consoling gaze before an auditorium of fans. Seconds pass and she is Nouhad Haddad, a late-1940s teenager with puppy fat and frizzy schoolgirl hair, before the stage name, the stylist, the international fame.

“Just search ‘Fairouz morning songs,’” Ahmad told me.1 “There are hundreds of compilations.” This was one of the first I found. Like the images in the slide show, the songs move back and forth through time. The Arabic ensemblestrings, oud, and zither, braiding a single line over the clattering groove of percussionis replaced now and then by bossa nova guitar or jazzy piano. Throughout it all, the voice is unmistakable. The same tender and maternal tone, alighting softly on consonants; the same clear, high notes and birdlike tumbles down the scale.

I write your name, my love, on the poplar tree

And you write my name, my love, in the sand of the street

My God, her voice is like honey, writes one commenter. This is an unusually civil corner of YouTube. Many just stop to say good morning, in the ornate way Arabic allows: morning of hope, morning of roses, morning of love. Others reminisce, and in this the Syrians outnumber any other nationality, even those from the diva’s native Lebanon. That morning sun, that smell of Damascene jasmine, and Fairouz filling every house. God, may those days return. One comment recurs like a mantra, repeated almost word for word under every compilation video like this: There is nothing sweeter than starting the day with a cup of coffee and the voice of Fairouz.

Tomorrow, when the rain falls on our broken stories

Your name will remain, my love, and mine will be erased

AHMAD TOLD ME his Fairouz ritual starts soon after 9 AM. He doesn’t need to set an alarm; by nine, enough of his seventeen roommates are up to make oversleeping impossible. He makes his bed, tidies the portion of the room he shares with two other Syrians, and brushes his teeth. He goes to the kitchen, one of two in the apartment, pulls up the YouTube compilation on his phone, and puts the kettle on.

Sometimes Ahmad enters the kitchen to find Edmund, from Ghana, at the table rolling his morning joint. Hassan, from the Congo, often sits by the windowsill, pouring sweet black tea from one glass to another until it has a head of silky foama habit he acquired in Mali, one of the longer stops on his ten-year journey to Europe. The Albanians listen to Albanian pop music on their phones, Edmund to dancehall, Hassan to Bob Marley. But when Ahmad has his morning coffee, everybody knows it’s time for Fairouz.

WITHIN SECONDS of our first real conversation in six years, Ahmad was mocking me like in the old days. When we last spoke, I had been studying Arabic in Syria for more than two years and gained a limited, inelegant fluency in the Syrian dialect. He’d had fun with this, testing me with a barrage of ornate expressions straight out of a ’30s Damascene period drama or getting me to repeat rude or obscure Syrian insults. Five years in England with an Iraqi wife had left me with a mongrel accent, a Baghdad-Damascus-Hampshire cross that he now found hilarious. “Your Arabic is amazing,” he said, through wheezing laughter.

Between 2007 and 2009 I was a part-time English teacher at a language school in the center of Damascus. Ahmad, who was 20 at the time, helped run a nearby café. When I had morning classes, he gave me my first coffee of the day and often my first conversation.

It didn’t take long for me to update him on my own news. I got married, left teaching, went back to school, and started a job in mental health. I lived in Southampton, on the south coast of England. Southampton was nice, I said, but a little dull.

Ahmad’s news took longer. After March 2011, he threw himself into the protest movement in his home suburb of Moadamiya. He saw peaceful marches turn to bloodbaths, and after months of killing and mass arrests, saw the opposition in Moadamiya turn to violence. He lost his job when the café closed down in 2012. He saw the regime response in Moadamiya escalate to a full-blown siege, and the armed opposition there turn increasingly sectarian and Islamist.

He managed to flee to a safer suburb in 2013, leave Syria for Lebanon in 2014, and fly to Nepal, where a family friend had offered him a job in a Syrian restaurant in the tourist town of Pokhara. After a few months running the kitchen he fell out with the owner, lost his job, survived an earthquake, and spent the last of his meager savings. With the help of friends, he borrowed enough money to get a flight to Istanbul that stopped over in Serbia. He fled the airport during transit. From Serbia he began his long journeyby foot, by bus, by shared taxito Bielefeld, in northwest Germany. Bielefeld was nice, he said.

He listed his losses quickly, as if to skate over the full truth of them: an uncle beheaded by pro-regime shabiha in a mosque. Four cousins to shelling. Another cousin, taken at a checkpoint and tortured to death. An aunt, shot by an antitank round while driving her car. A close friend to a sniper, another to torture, two more to gunfire. All this, he said, was before the siege really began.

His parents and his siblings were OK. His mom and dad had fled to Lebanon along with two of his sisters and his younger brother. His parents were in poor health but lived in relative safety. His two other brothers, his sister, and their families were still living under siege in Moadamiya.

He didn’t want to stay in Germany for good, he said. But for now he wanted to make the most of it: master the language, get a job. And he wanted, more than anything, for some of his family to join him. The younger ones had missed out on years of schooling. If they made it to Germany, they could at least get an education.

(…)

York launch party for Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body

At Pica Studios, 29 November
Second Body

Please join us for the York launch of The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard on Wednesday 29 November, 7-9 p.m., at Pica Studios, 7A Grape Lane, York, YO1 7HU.

Daisy will give a short reading and there will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please do RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com.

Every living thing has two bodies. To be an animal is to be in possession of a physical body, a body which can eat, drink and sleep; it is also to be embedded in a worldwide network of ecosystems. When every human body has an uncanny global presence, how do we live with ourselves? In this timely and elegant essay, Daisy Hildyard captures the second body by exploring how the human is a part of animal life. She meets Richard, a butcher in Yorkshire, and sees pigs turned into boiled ham; and Gina, an environmental criminologist, who tells her about leopards and silver foxes kept as pets in luxury apartments. She speaks to Luis, a biologist, about the origins of life; and talks to Nadezhda about fungi in an effort to understand how we define animal life. Eventually, her second body comes to visit her first body when the river flooded her home last year. The Second Body is a brilliantly lucid account of the dissolving boundaries between all life on earth.

‘Part amateur detective, part visionary, Hildyard’s voice is so intelligent, beguiling and important. Like Sir Thomas Browne or even Annie Dillard, her sly variety of scientific inquiry is incandescent.’
— Rivka Galchen, author of Little Labors

‘In its insistence on the illusion of individuality and on the participation of human animals in the whole of earthly life, The Second Body might be an ancient text; in its scientific literacy and its mood of ecological disquiet, Daisy Hildyard’s book is as contemporary as the morning paper. If ecstasy means to go outside oneself, the word usually carries connotations of chaos and inarticulacy. Here, however, is a precise and eloquent ecstasy – and this slender book about who we are beyond our own skins is likewise much larger than itself.’
— Benjamin Kunkel, author of Utopia or Bust

‘Daisy Hildyard has turned her curious, sifting, brilliantly original mind onto the pressing ecological questions of our age. The result is a series of essays as captivating as they are delightful, their object no less than to quietly rewire our thinking.’
— Sarah Howe, author of Loop of Jade

‘Hildyard takes us on a white-knuckle philosophical ride through identity, agency, ecology and molecular biology, leaving us vitally disconcerted, but with a strange new sense of community and solidarity. A curious, oblique, important, and fascinating book.’
— Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast

‘In The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard gives a body to an idea in a series of curious encounters that take us from the floor of a butcher shop to the computer room of a biologist to the wreckage of a flooded home. Heady and visceral both, this essay revels in the mess and splendour of the world.’
— Eula Biss, author of On Immunity

Daisy Hildyard holds a PhD in the history of science, and has previously published essays on the language of science, and on seventeenth-century mathematics. Her first novel Hunters in the Snow received the Somerset Maugham Award and a ‘5 under 35’ honorarium at the USA National Book Awards. She lives with her family in North Yorkshire, where she was born.

On Marguerite Duras

Rachel Kushner for the New Yorker
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A section of Rachel Kushner’s introduction to ‘The Lover, Wartime Notebooks, Practicalities’ by Marguerite Duras (recently published by Everyman’s Library) has been featured in the New Yorker:

Marguerite wasn’t always Duras. She was born Donnadieu, but with the publication of her first novel, “Les Impudents,” in 1943, she went from Donnadieu to Duras and stayed that way. She chose, as her alias, the village of her father’s origins, distancing herself from her family, and binding herself to the emanations of that place name, which is pronounced with a regionally southern French preference for a sibilant “S.” The village of Duras is in Lot-et-Garonne, an area south of the Dordogne and just north of Gascony. The language of Gascon, from which this practice of a spoken “S” derives, is not considered chic. More educated French people not from the region might be tempted to opt for a silent “S” with a proper name. In English, one hears a lot of “dur-ah”—especially from Francophiles. Duras herself said “dur-asss,” and that’s the correct, if unrefined, way to say it.

Marcel Proust, whom Duras admired a great deal and reread habitually, modelled the compelling and ridiculous Baron de Charlus on Robert de Montesquiou, of Gascony. Some argue that on account of Montesquiou’s origins and for the simpler reason that Charlus, here, is a place name, it should be pronounced “charlusss.” In “Sodom and Gomorrah,” Proust himself makes quite a bit of fun of the issue of pronunciations, and how they signify class and tact, and specifically, the matter of an “S,” of guessing if it’s silent or sibilant. Madame de Cambremer–Legrandin experiences a kind of rapture the first time she hears a proper name without the sibilant “S”—Uzai instead of Uzès—and suddenly the silent “S,” “a suppression that had stupefied her the day before, but which it now seemed so vulgar not to know,” becomes the proof, and apotheosis, of a lifetime of good breeding.

So vulgar not to know, and yet what Proust is really saying is that it’s equally vulgar to be so conscious of élite significations, even as he was entranced by the world of them. Madame de Cambremer-Legrandin is, after all, a mere bourgeois who elevated her station through marriage, and her self-conscious, snobbish silent “S” will never change that, and can only ever be a kind of striving, made touchingly comical in “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Duras is something else. No tricks, full “S.” Maybe, in part, her late-life and notorious habit of referring to herself in the third person was a reminder to say it the humble way, “dur-asss.” Or maybe it was just an element of what some labelled her narcissism, which seems like a superficial way to reject a genius. Duras was consumed with herself, true enough, but almost as if under a spell. Certain people experience their own lives very strongly. Regardless, there is a consistent quality, a kind of earthy simplicity, in all of her novels, films, plays, screenplays, notebooks, and in the dreamily precise oral “telling” of “La Vie Matérielle,” which is a master index of Durassianisms, of “S”-ness: lines that function on boldness and ease, which is to say, without pretension.

(…)

Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula M. Becker by Marie Darrieussecq (trans. Penny Hueston)

Jonathan Gibbs for Minor Literatures
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Jonathan Gibbs reviews Marie Darrieussecq’s biography of Paula M. Becker for Minor Literatures:

(…)

Modersohn-Becker is not widely unknown, outside Germany at least; there are exhibitions, from time to time, and a biography and a monograph in English, but Darrieussecq’s book is primarily a work of recuperation, and avowedly so. Like Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (Les Fugitives), about the American actor and director, it is not just a work of scholarship, but a creative act, a tribute from one artist to another. Indeed, a tribute from an artist lucky (or privileged) enough to have lived to see success, to one who died before she could produce all she was capable of.

The facts, then: Paula Becker was born in 1876 in Dresden. She studied art in Paris in 1900, when Cézanne was setting the city alight with his pre-Modernist visions, and where women could finally enrol in proper art academies – although they paid more than men to do so, and the male life models wore underpants. (To protect what? The models’ modesty? The artists’ morals?)

1900 was also the year that Paula met the poet Rilke, who was visiting the artists’ colony in Worpswede, where she was a regular. Their intense friendship survived, on and off, for the rest of her life, through letters, exchanges of their work, and frequent meetings. Rilke, whom she painted, and who wrote the poem ‘Requiem for a Friend’ about her on the first anniversary of her death, was, of course, less exclusive in his intensities, especially with women. In fact, he married Paula’s friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff (disastrously). Paula married one of the Worpswede painters, Otto Modersohn, in 1901, only to leave him five years later, returning to Paris to paint. In 1907 they were reunited, and Paula became pregnant. She died of an embolism, weeks after the birth of her daughter. She was 31 years old. Her last word, after her collapse, was “Schade”: what a shame; what a pity.

It’s that sense of pity and waste that drives Darrieussecq’s book, the sense of injustice both in the conditions of women artists’ existence at a time when art and society were taking great bounds forward, and in her treatment since. Why hasn’t everyone heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker? She was, Darrieussecq points out, the first woman to paint herself naked, the first woman to paint herself naked and pregnant.

(…)

It is this forthrightness, this political claim-staking, as much as the revealed facts of Modersohn-Becker’s life, that make this such a striking book. It is striking enough in its presentation. Darrieussecq writes in fragments, skipping through the parts of the life that tell her nothing she needs to know. She drops in references to her own life, her own work, her take on what she sees in the paintings. (The translation, by Penny Hueston, is as clear and unfussy as the original.) Darrieussecq complains that the Museum Folkwang in Essen is hiding its sole Modersohn-Becker in the basement, along with work by other woman painters. A footnote says the museum later moved the painting upstairs. Another (translator’s) footnote tells us that, thanks to Darrieussecq’s book, Paris saw its first major retrospective of Modersohn-Becker last year, at the Musée d’Art Moderne.

The act of recuperation does not merely benefit its subject, brought finally into the light; the benevolence reflects onto the recuperating agent, and refracts outwards to the reader. You feel better for having read it. It is constructed so well that you feel better reading it, too.

No Punctuation and Noisy Neighbours – Translating Proust’s Letters

Lydia Davis in The Guardian
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Lydia Davis on the experience of translating Marcel Proust’s letters for The Guardian:

(…)

André Gide describes, in his journal, Proust’s style of talking: “His conversation, ceaselessly cut by parenthetical clauses, runs on …” This style, so natural to him in conversation, pours out also in his letters – letters, as his friend Robert Dreyfus put it, “in which he always wanted to say everything, as in his books, and in which he succeeded by means of an infinity of parentheses, sinuosities, and reversals”. It is the same style that is evident, though more controlled, in the extended sentences of his finished, published work (or, perhaps one should say, never quite finished, but brought to a certain point and then ended).

We are told that Proust wrote very fast. This, too, is apparent in the letters, in the sprawling handwriting, in the tendency to abbreviate, in the occasional missing word, and perhaps, though not necessarily, in the missing punctuation. Yet, at the same time, his syntactical agility is always in evidence, as in a letter in which he includes in one fairly short sentence a rather elaborate, and in this case indignant, parenthetical remark (“as I have been accused”) that manages to enclose within it yet another clause (“it seems”): “I have been so ill these days (in my bed which I have not left and without having noisily opened or closed the carriage entrance as I have it seems been accused of doing) that I have not been able to write.” Here he exemplifies, in a rougher, more urgent way, his declaration concerning his published writing that a sentence contains a complete thought, and that no matter how complex it may be, this thought should remain intact. The shape of the sentence is the shape of the thought, and every word is necessary.

Perhaps the most extreme example, in Letters to the Lady Upstairs, of his complex syntax and lack of punctuation, as well as his colourful and fertile imagination, comes in a letter which is mainly devoted to the cathedral of Reims, which was heavily damaged by bombardment in the first autumn of the war. It approaches the precision, rhetorical heights and luscious imagery of In Search of Lost Time (and with a reference to a Ruskin title covertly slipped in): “But I who insofar as my health permits make to the stones of Reims pilgrimages as piously awestruck as to the stones of Venice believe I am justified in speaking of the diminution to humanity that will be consummated on the day when the arches that are already half burnt away collapse forever on those angels who without troubling themselves about the danger still gather marvellous fruits from the lush stylised foliage of the forest of stones.”

(…)

Interview with Ocean Vuong

Lit Hub interview the award-winning writer
Ocean-Vuong

Ocean Vuong on his most reread books, current projects, and being part of  ‘a great river of language’:

(…)

Is there a book you wish you had written?

No, if it’s good and beautiful and already made, what difference does it make if I had written a certain book or not? I have been trying to interrogate the notion of art-making as possession and conquest. This idea of creation as possession can lead to envy and bitterness—which is a total buzzkill to creativity.

As a writer, I feel more potent and powerful when I see myself working in a great river of language, one that has been running before me and will continue after me. In this window of time we call a life, I get to add to that river. That’s kind of cool I think. To walk into a party (sorry, new metaphor), say a bunch of super emotional stuff, then be like: “Thanks for listening, guys, but I have to go feed my dog, Susan—he’s diabetic,” then climb out the window, down the fire escape, and fade into the night.

What’s the book you reread the most?
One Big Self by C.D. Wright, Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral, and Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson.

Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read?
Pride and Prejudice. And like 50 others.

What’s the new book you’re most looking forward to?
Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here (Coffee House Press, 2018) is a book I brace for, in awe and relief. His work is so tight, searing, and unabashedly sharp and full at once. His poems turn me into a horizontal entity. Reading them, I have to lie down. They remind me of gravity, how it pins me to the world without ever touching me. Hieu’s work is like that. A kind of force. Or better yet, a force of kindness. 

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a novel composed of woven inter-genre fragments. To me, a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story. I also want to interrogate the arbitrary measurements of a “successful” literary work, particularly as it relates to canonical Western values. For example, we traditionally privilege congruency and balance in fiction, we want our themes linked, our conflicts “resolved,” and our plots “ironed out.” But when one arrives at the page through colonized, plundered, and erased histories and diasporas, to write a smooth and cohesive novel is to ultimately write a lie. In a way, I’m curious about a work that rejects its patriarchal predecessors as a way of accepting its fissured self. I think, perennially, of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. This resistance to dominant convention is not only the isolated concern of marginalized writers—but all writers—and perhaps especially white writers, who can gain so much by questioning how the ways we value art can replicate the very oppressive legacies we strive to end.

I’m also working on riding my bike with no hands. I’m getting really close. The other day I made it half way down my block without touching my handlebars. My goal, by the end of the year, is to ride my bike to a friend’s house while carrying, with both hands, a pink box of vegan cupcakes. I’m optimistic. But who knows—we’re in the Trump era after all.

This all sounds terribly pretentious (no-hands cupcake delivery included). But I believe in it. So I’m gonna try my best.

Clown School

Nuar Alsadir for Granta
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Featured in Granta Magazine, Nuar Alsadir’s essay ‘Clown School’ examines selfhood and performance: 

After my first day of clown school I tried to drop out. The instructor was provoking us in a way that made me uncomfortable – to the nervous smiley woman, ‘Don’t lead with your teeth;’ to the young hipster, ‘Go back to the meth clinic,’ and to me, ‘I don’t want to hear your witty repartee about Oscar Wilde.’

I was the only non-actor in the program and had made the mistake, as we went around the circle on the first day, of telling everyone that I was a psychoanalyst writing a book about laughter. As part of my research, I explained, I’d frequented comedy clubs and noticed how each performance, had it been delivered in a different tone of voice and context, could have been the text of a therapy session. Audience members, I told them, laughed less because a performer was funny than because they were honest. Of course that’s not how all laughter operates, but the kind of laughter I’m interested in (spontaneous outbursts) seems to function that way, and clown pushes that dynamic to its extreme – which is why I decided to enroll in clown school, and how I earned the grating nickname ‘smarty pants’.

But if I dropped out, I’d lose my tuition money. So I decided to stay, and, by staying, was provoked, unsettled, changed.

 

*

 

There’s a knee-jerk tendency to perceive provocation as negative – like how in writing workshops participants often call for the most striking part of a work to be cut. When we are struck, there’s a brief pause during which the internal dust is kicked up – we lose our habitual bearings, and an opening is created for something unexpected to slip in. Habit protects us from anything we don’t have a set way of handling. As it’s when we’re off-guard that we’re least automatous, it’s then that we’re most likely to come up with spontaneous, uncurated responses.

It turned out the perpetually-smiling woman was sad, the hipster (who didn’t even do drugs) acted high as a way of muting the parts of his personality he was afraid we would judge, and I found it easier to hide behind my intellect than expose myself as a flawed and flailing human being. Each role, in other words, offered a form of protection: by giving off recognizable signals to indicate a character type, we accessed a kind of invisibility. We cued people to look through us to the prototypes we were referencing. When the instructor satirized those roles, he defamiliarized them so that the habitual suddenly became visible. His provocations knocked the lids off the prototypes we were hiding inside of, in a similar way to how many psychoanalysts, in the attempt to understand a person’s conflicts, begin by analyzing their defenses – what is being used as cover – before moving on to what is being covered up and why.

Both psychoanalysis and the art of clowning – though in radically different ways – create a path towards the unconscious, making it easier to access the unsocialized self, or, in Nietzsche’s terms, to ‘become the one you are.’ Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott considered play ‘the gateway to the unconscious’, which he divided into two parts: the repressed unconscious that is to remain hidden and the rest of the unconscious that ‘each individual wants to get to know’ by way of ‘play’, which, ‘like dreams, serves the function of self-revelation’. In clown school, the part of the mind that psychoanalysis tries to reveal – by analyzing material brought into session, including dreams or play – is referred to as a person’s clown.

 

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Each of us has a clown inside of us, according to Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama and founder of The Funny School of Good Acting, where I was taking my two-week, six-hours-per-day workshop. The theatrical art of clowning – commonly referred to as ‘clown’ – is radically different from the familiar images of birthday party, circus or scary clowns. Bayes’ program helps actors find their inner clown. The self-revelation that results provides access to a wellspring of playful impulses that they can then tap into during creative processes. His method stems from the French tradition developed by his former teachers Jacques Lecoq and Phillippe Gaulier – the kind of training the fictional main character of Louis CK and Zach Galifankis’ TV series Baskets seeks, and that Sascha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson and Roberto Begnini underwent early in their careers.

Lecoq, who began as a physiotherapist, believed ‘the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant’ – a phrase that could be applied to the unconscious.  The process of trying to find your clown involves going through a series of exercises that strip away layers of socialization to reveal the clown that had been there all along – or in Winnicott’s terms, your ‘true self’.

 

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Fitzcarraldo Editions and The White Review at Offprint Paris

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For the first time since 2015, The White Review and Fitzcarraldo Editions will share a stand at Offprint Paris from 9-12 November at the Beaux-Arts de Paris.

Offprint is an art book fair which brings together 130 publishers from 39 countries. 

The opening times are as follows: 

Thursday 9 November 17.00-21.00
Friday 10 November 13.00-20.00
Saturday 11 November 11.00-19.00
Sunday 12 November 11.00-18.00

We look forward to seeing you there.

Fitz Carraldo Editions