Archives: April 2018

Leslie Jamison in interview with the Guardian

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Rachel Cooke interviews Leslie Jamison for the Guardian, discussing her new book The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath.

How does The Recovering connect, if at all, to The Empathy Exams?
There is one line in the last essay in that book where I say “suffering is interesting, but so is getting better”. I threw down some kind of gauntlet, and this book picks that up. The most natural form for it might have been a scholarly monograph; the hybrid nonfiction book is usually a slim volume. But at a certain point, I had to accept that this would be a big book: critical, reported, personal, all sorts of things. I decided to let the material call the shots.

The book examines the lives of several alcoholic writers, among them John Berryman and Jean Rhys. Again, their stories are quite well known. How did you choose who to include?
The picking was largely a function of writers who had been important to me, and of circumstance. So when I moved to Iowa [to join the Iowa Writers’ Workshop], writers who had been there became important: Berryman, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson. Others I sought out, like Charles Jackson [author of The Lost Weekend, a powerfully realistic novel about alcoholism from 1944]. I felt such a connection with the way the alcoholic impulse is evoked in that book. It was revolutionary, then, that he was willing to be so honest about how petty and banal and claustrophobic drinking can be, but he also captures its enthralment. I was fascinated that he’d tried and failed to write a sober novel. Jean Rhys was important to me in my early 20s: I had a heart-swelling identification with Good Morning Midnight [a 1939 novel about a heavy-drinking woman’s feelings of desperation between the wars]. I returned to her in my 30s, when I was thinking harder about what it meant that Rhys never overcame her drinking.

You use Rhys to look at the way our culture may be harder on, more disgusted by, the female alcoholic than the male. Why do you think male drunks are treated with more sympathy than female?
Some of it has to do with care-giving: we’re much more prone to bring expectations of care-giving to women than to men. Part of what it means to be addicted to anything is that you’re absenting yourself from your relationships. That’s more of a crime when a woman does it. This is true in the context of Jean Rhys [who never forgave herself for drinking while her baby son lay dying], but you also see it in the media construction of the crack-mother phenomenon. When a man is a drunk, there is self-destruction. A drunk woman is just as self-destructive, but she’s also unseemly, histrionic, melodramatic.

Was it painful to write about your own  drinking, to remember the blackouts and all the other humiliations involved?
Yes, but not in the ways people expect. I don’t want to write personal narrative unless I’m granular. You lose the truth if you glaze over things. I was reluctant to dramatise the fights with my boyfriend at first, but then I realised that in order to bring someone into my experience, I had to be specific. It was an aesthetic imperative. It’s about craft. When I write loaded personal material, something about the process of crafting, it really bolsters me. How is it serving the larger story? Driving questions carried me through it. It’s actually harder for me to write about other people than about myself.

Have any of the other people in the book responded to it?
Part of my practice is that I ask people who are in a book if they want to read it in manuscript, so we can talk about it, and I can edit. Everyone who’s in it in a substantive way read it a year before publication. Dave [Jamison’s ex-boyfriend], the biggest character, was generous. He made it a better book. But I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. Sometimes, those conversations can be quite difficult. There was material I took out.

(…)

Elements of Literary Style

John Keene for Lit Hub
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For Lit Hub, John Keene’s essay on literary style:

When I first began writing as an adult, although one of my major literary spurs to attempting to put words on the page was Alice Walker’s fiction, I found myself more drawn to the style of John Edgar Wideman. In fact, one of my first published stories heavily mimics his style, particularly his use of clauses connected by commas. The effect beyond sinuous sentences, is to knit a narrative net, to create a capacious space in which all sorts of things, voices, shifts in tone, actions, are visible and can emerge. In the hands of a pro, as he was then and still is, the style can be evocative and effective. In my hands, the results perhaps were cloudier. When I submitted the story to an anthology, the editor, assuming my commas errors, or perhaps attuned less to what I was attempting and more to his own training and aesthetics as a writer, changed a number of them to periods. The result was a transformed story. I got very upset. But eventually, rereading the story, I grasped why he might have reacted the way he did, and worked to ensure that the style did not precede or occlude the content. At least, to the extent that I could.

*

Conversations overheard from infancy on. Kitchen (table) talk, telephone conversations. Banter, indoors and out. Schoolyard back-and-forth. Books, comics, newspapers, magazines, films, TV shows, the radio, records. Jazz, R&B, rock & roll, pop, hip hop, punk, House, classical and art musics. Studies in Latin, French, Greek, German. Later self-taught Esperanto, Portuguese and Spanish, other languages, snippets, texts in other languages. Translating other languages. Imaginary and invented languages, mine and others. Texts I cannot read but pore over nevertheless. Archival documents. The sounds and shapes of nature and the body itself, technologies human and otherwise. Silence.

*

“The difference between prose and poetry no longer derives from issues of quantity or technique, but of quality: the style is in fact perceived as a sproduct of a particular and unrepeatable sensibility)”

–Fiorenza Lipparini, “L’oscurità nella poesia moderna,” in Lettere Italiane, LXI, N.2, 2009

*

I may once have read and heard someone say, apropos of fiction—though never of poetry or drama—something along the lines of one’s style should not be “intrusive” or “obtrusive.” But a few of the fiction writers I deeply admire have or had demonstrative styles: Laurence Sterne, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Yasunari Kawabata, Thomas Bernhard, José Lezama Lima, Gabriel García Márquez, R.K. Narayanan, Manuel Puig, Ernest Gaines, Wilson Harris, Raymond Carver, Alexander Kluge, Muriel Spark, Clarice Lispector, Guy Davenport, David Foster Wallace, James McCourt, C.E. Morgan, Dennis Cooper, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Renee Gladman, and Marlon James. In each case the style for me is synonymous with the writer. Yet I also adore and often return to writers for whom style, while compelling, polished and influential, is sometimes less obvious or overt, at times shifting and recalibrating within and across texts, according to the demands of the narrative at hand, resonating indelibly with the work’s content: Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Ursula K. Le Guin, Leslie Marmon-Silko, Juan Goytisolo, Julia Álvarez, Maryse Condé, Christine Brooke-Rose, J.M. Coetzee, Gish Jen, Jayne Anne Phillips, Samuel R. Delany, Alice Munro, Sarah Schulman, Edwidge Danticat, Tayari Jones, Bernardine Evaristo, Chris Abani, Jeffrey Renard Allen, and Bhanu Kapil, to name a few. Interestingly, to me at least, the first group are nearly all male writers, while the second includes many women and writers of color.

*

Vivid literary style that overpowers content is a plain metal coat rack heavily festooned with a basement’s store of holiday ornaments; powerful content with inadequate style is a giant evergreen onto which someone has attached a few strands of Mardi Gras beads, strips of paper and a couple of Post-Its. In both cases, we are still compelled to look, even if momentarily.

*

“To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content.”

–Susan Sontag, A Susan Sontag Reader

*

Style is not just the clothing in which we place the body of the text, but the body itself fitted, as well or poorly as we imagine and sew them, to that body.

(…)

An excerpt: Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra

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An excerpt from Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra, published today.

OBLIGATORY READINGS

I still remember the day when the teacher turned to the chalkboard and wrote the words test, next, Friday, Madame, Bovary, Gustave, Flaubert, French. With each word the silence grew, and by the end the only sound was the sad squeaking of the chalk. By that point we had already read long novels, almost as long as Madame Bovary, but this time the deadline was impossible: barely a week to get through a four-hundred-page book. We were starting to get used to those surprises, though: we had just entered the National Institute, we were twelve or thirteen years old, and we knew that from then on, all the books would be long.

That’s how they taught us to read: by beating it into us. I feel sure that those teachers didn’t want to inspire enthusiasm for books, but rather to deter us from them, to put us off books forever. They didn’t waste their spit extolling the joys of reading, perhaps because they had lost that joy or had never really felt it. Supposedly they were good teachers, but back then being good meant little more than knowing the textbook.

As Nicanor Parra might say, ‘our teachers drove us nuts / with their pointless questions’. But we soon learned their tricks, or developed ones of our own. On all the tests, for example, there was a section of character identification, and it included nothing but secondary characters: the more secondary the character, the more likely we would be asked about them. We resigned ourselves to memorizing the names, though with the pleasure of guaranteed points.

There was a certain beauty in the act, because back then that’s exactly what we were: secondary characters, hundreds of children who crisscrossed the city lugging denim backpacks. The neighbours would feel their weight and always make the same joke: ‘What are you carrying in there, rocks?’ Downtown Santiago received us with tear gas bombs, but we weren’t carrying rocks, we were carrying bricks by Baldor or Villee or Flaubert.

Madame Bovary was one of the few novels we had at my house, so I started reading that very same night, following the emergency method my father had taught me: read the first two pages and right away skip to the final two, and only then, once you know how the novel begins and ends, do you continue reading in order. ‘Even if you don’t finish, at least you know who the killer is,’ said my father, who apparently only ever read books about murders.

The truth is, I didn’t get much further in my reading. I liked to read, but Flaubert’s prose simply made me doze off. Luckily, the day before the test, I found a copy of the movie at a video store in Maipú. My mother tried to keep me from watching it, saying it wasn’t appropriate for a kid my age. I agreed, or rather I hoped it was true. I thought Madame Bovary sounded like porn; every-thing French sounded like porn to me. In that regard the movie was disappointing, but I watched it twice and covered sheets of legal paper with notes on both sides. I failed the test, though, and for a long time afterward I associated Madame Bovary with that red F, and with the name of the film’s director, which the teacher wrote with exclamation marks beside my bad grade: Vincente Minnelli!!

I never again trusted movie versions, and ever since then I have thought that the cinema lies and literature doesn’t (I have no way of demonstrating this, of course). I read Flaubert’s novel much later, and I tend to reread it every year, more or less when the first flu hits. There’s no mystery in changing tastes; these things happen in the life of any reader. But it’s a miracle that we survived those teachers, who did everything they could to show us that reading is the most boring thing in the world.

May 2009

Fitzcarraldo Editions launches in New York

From 3-5 May 2018
Fitzcarraldo Editions US launch party

Fitzcarraldo Editions launches its North American distribution in April 2018, with three launch events taking place in New York in early May: 

3 May: Please join Fitzcarraldo Editions and Lucas Zwirner for the launch of Fitzcarraldo Editions in the US on 3 May at Lee’s, 175 Canal St, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10013,  from 7-10pm. There will be readings from Joshua Cohen, Charlie Fox, Dan Fox, Daisy Hildyard and Bela Shayevich. There will be drinks. Please RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. 

4 May: Charlie Fox and Kate Zambreno in conversation at McNally Jackson Williamsburg, 76 North 4th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249, from 7pm. Details here

5 May: Please join Fitzcarraldo Editions and Cabinet in celebrating the US launch of Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body on Saturday, 5 May from 5-7pm at Cabinet, 300 Nevins Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217-3028. Daisy Hildyard will be in conversation with Alexandra Kleeman, with drinks to follow. The event is free to attend but please RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com.

 

 

 

How Did We Come to Know You?

Keith Gessen for the New Yorker
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Keith Gessen’s story ‘How Did We Come to Know You?’ – an adapted excerpt from his novel A Terrible Country, to be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and Viking in the US in July 2018 – is featured in the New Yorker. The protagonist, Andrei, moves to Moscow from New York to care for his grandmother, Baba Seva.

(…)

Baba Seva—Seva Efraimovna Gekhtman—was born in a small town in Ukraine in 1919. Her father was an accountant at a textile factory and her mother was a nurse. Her parents moved to Moscow with her and her brothers when she was a child. I knew that she had excelled in school and had been admitted to Moscow State University, the best and oldest university in Russia, where she studied history. I knew that at Moscow State, not long after the German invasion, she had met a young law student, my grandfather, and that they had fallen in love and married. Then he was killed near Vyazma in the second year of the war, just a month after my mother was born. I knew that after the war my grandmother had started lecturing at Moscow State, and had consulted on a film about Ivan the Great (“gatherer of the lands of Rus”) which so reminded Joseph Stalin of himself that he gave her an apartment in central Moscow; that despite this she was forced out of Moscow State a few years later, at the height of the “anti-cosmopolitan”—i.e., anti-Jewish—campaign; and that she got by after that as a tutor and as a translator from other Slavic languages. I knew that she had got remarried, in late middle age, to a sweet, forgetful geophysicist, whom we called Uncle Lev, and moved with him to the nuclear-research town of Dubna—vacating the Stalin apartment for my parents, and then eventually for my brother—before moving back, a couple of years before I showed up, after Uncle Lev died in his sleep.

But there was a lot I didn’t know. I didn’t know what her life had been like after the war, or whether, before the war, during the purges, she had had any knowledge, or any sense, of what was happening in the country. If not, why not? If so, how had she lived with that knowledge? I pictured myself sitting monastically in my room and setting down my grandmother’s stories in a publishable way.

The next thing I knew, I was standing in the passport-control line in the grim basement of Sheremetyevo-2 International Airport. It seemed to never change. As long as I’d been flying here, they made you come down to this basement and wait in line before you got your bags. It was like a purgatory after which you entered something other than heaven. A young, blond, unsmiling border guard took my battered blue American passport with mild disgust. He checked my name against the terrorist database and buzzed me through the gate to the other side.

I was in Russia again.

Baba Seva’s apartment was on the second floor of a white five-story building off a leafy courtyard. I entered the courtyard and tapped in the code for the front door—I still remembered it—and lugged my suitcase up the stairs. My grandmother came to the door. She was tiny. She had always been small, but now she was even smaller, and the gray hair on her head was even thinner. For a moment, I was worried she wouldn’t know who I was. But then she said, “Andryushik. You’re here.” She seemed to have mixed feelings about it.

I came in.

She wanted to feed me. Slowly and deliberately, she heated up potato soup, kotlety (Russian meatballs), and sliced fried potatoes. She moved around the kitchen at a glacial pace and was unsteady on her feet, but there were many things to hold on to in that old kitchen, and she knew exactly where they were. Her hearing had declined considerably since my last visit, so I waited while she worked and then helped her plate the food. Finally, we sat. She asked me about my life in America.

“Where do you live?”

“New York.”

“What?”

“New York.”

“Oh. Do you live in a house, or an apartment?”

“An apartment.”

“What?”

“An apartment.”

“Do you own it?”

“I rent it. With roommates.”

“What?”

“I share it. It’s like a communal apartment.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Do you have kids?”

“No.”

“No kids?”

“No. In America,” I half-lied, “people don’t have kids until later.”

Satisfied, or partly satisfied, she then asked me how long I intended to stay.

“Until Dima comes back,” I said.

“What?” she said.

“Until Dima comes back,” I said.

She took that in.

“Andryusha,” she said. “Do you know my friend Musya?”

“Of course,” I said.

“She’s a very close friend of mine,” my grandmother explained. “And right now she’s at her dacha.” Musya, or Emma Abramovna, was my grandmother’s oldest living friend. An émigré from Poland, she had been a literature professor who had managed to hang on at Moscow State despite the anti-Jewish campaign; long since retired, she still had a dacha at Peredelkino, the old writers’ colony. My grandmother had lost her own dacha in the nineties, after Uncle Lev got swindled out of his share in a geological-exploration company he’d founded with some fellow-scientists.

“I think,” she said now, “that next summer she’s going to invite me to stay with her.”

“Yes? She said that?”

“No,” my grandmother said. “But I hope she does.”

“That sounds good,” I said. In August, most Muscovites left for their dachas; clearly, my grandmother’s inability to do the same was weighing on her mind.

(…)

Manifesto

Harmony Holiday for The Poetry Review
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Harmony Holiday’s ‘poetry manifesto’, featured in The Poetry Review.

I am inside somebody who loves me. I can’t help but hear Whitney Houston’s proclamation, I wanna dance with somebody, with somebody who loves me when I announce that, that’s the pitch it accesses, and it’s accurate, I want to take myself dancing and poetic language allows it, although the deliberate confession I launched into the dance with derives from a desire to revise or refuse the truth Amiri Baraka offered in his poem ‘An Agony. As Now’ when he wrote I am inside someone / who hates me. No. Not anymore. Not today. No more patient and methodical self-sabotage or effort to feel my way into brown skin with self-loathing as the neural-transmission. No more shrill militancy to protect us from our private sense of helpless sublimation. I am inside somebody who loves me. She would kill for me. She writes in order to avoid having to murder the ones who are inside somebody who hates them. As an act of love she addresses their pathology with reckless authority and most of all, movement, a way of penetrating space that refuses to close the self to the self, that is no longer complicit with being held hostage behind self-inflicted enemy lines. And she understands that her position is one of luxury, that being in a black body and loving it in the West is either a lie or insane or deranged or anti-social or so electric and full of life it nearly knocks you down as it passes through you as lucid resolve, redemptive and precarious.

From that loving pact, can a poem be choreographed or improvised the way a dance can? Maybe, if it can be inhabited the way a body is, if each word and phoneme indicates a part of a living system moving through space and time with immortal intentions, if the words populate a vision and also dangle that vision over the ledge of the unknown, testing and establishing its boundaries in the same gesture. If the poem is inside of a syntax that loves it, it cannot help but propel with the grace and rigor of a spinning body. But if I am inside somebody who loves me but I articulate that love in a language that denies me, that wants me to bend to its broke-down grammar, acquire the tension of its jittery stops and starts, a showdown is brewing, some kind of revenge for the haunt of false epiphanies and memories wilting in the shade of namelessness is on the horizon.

Somewhere between the somebody who loves me and the language that tries to exploit me for my ineffable vital energy, there’s a crevice for intention/inevitable linguistic disobedience that thus obeys that love we begin with and occupy relentlessly, and there are poems lighting up that crevice and broadening it into sanctuary. The poems I love, and love to write, exact the joy of that space as retribution, reaching out with rage and tenderness for new utterance and ideas as well as for the ancient ones, on both sides casualties of colonialism, so that when we note that everywhere members of the African diaspora live, an unapologetic practice of improvisation and ‘speaking in tongues’ and dancing to go with it and religion to legalize it and jazz music to canonize it into something secular that the colonizer’s mind can openly fetishize, we realize that we are witnessing a poetics of refusal so sophisticated it passes for something verging on the folkloric. The black and brown bodies of the world refuse to follow the drab codes of western language/logic, in thought or in form, and poetry is our most effective weapon and reprove besides our actual bodies. Though I’d rather not label it war. I’d rather say I am inside somebody who loves me and I can prove it by the way she speaks of me, to me, and through me, and by the rules she refuses to follow. In not so much a hierarchy as a system, the way we move through space and time, how we treat and see our bodies, how valuable we believe we are, how free, how eager to know ourselves and reflect that knowing as being, becomes the way we think and those thoughts become the way we live especially when surrendered beyond the stage of vibration into spoken language.

(…)

What does she think she looks like?

Rosemary Hill for the London Review of Books
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For the London Review of Books, Rosemary Hill examines the cultural history and significances of women’s clothing, a text which was originally given as a lecture at the British Museum in March 2018.

This isn’t an essay about clothes, exactly, nor is it about fashion, quite. It is about women and clothes and something that happens between them that we could think of as a kind of third rail of female experience. I’ve thought about this for some time but my thoughts were focused when I saw Isabelle Huppert in Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 film, Elle. The film begins with a rape about which the victim, Huppert, is ambivalent. This sent the critics, particularly male critics, scuttling to and fro wondering whether it was a feminist, post-feminist or anti-feminist film, or just in some baffling way French. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw went for ‘provocative’, before deciding it was a ‘startlingly strange rape-revenge black comedy’. I didn’t think it was as strange as all that and I did think it was funny, but what really struck me was that every woman I knew who had seen it was mesmerised not by the ‘issues’ but by Huppert, and not just for her acting – she’s always good – but for what she wore: ‘the clothes’, women said to one another, were ‘amazing’. Yet when you look at them in stills they aren’t amazing, they are the epitome of French ready-to-wear chic. So if it wasn’t the clothes or the actor that created the effect, it was some compound of the two that created a character, a presence able to walk the tightrope that carries the film over the fire pit of sexual violence and women’s agency.

There are many less extreme instances in real life where women dress to create a particular effect that isn’t principally or at all about attracting men, though men often think it is. There is, for example, the iron rule that north of Derby no woman can wear tights on a night out. Why? How did Liz Hurley launch an entire career by wearing a dress much less extreme than many that Versace has shown on the catwalks of Milan? What happens when it goes wrong? Did Diana overdo it on Panorama? Why do Melania and Ivanka, on a trip to the Vatican, look more Gothic than Catholic? And at what point do we draw the line between dress and costume, between life and art? Edith Sitwell was made to feel self-conscious about her appearance as a child. As an adult she made sure that everyone else would be conscious of it too; this was dress as the performance of personality.

My thoughts about women and their clothes, how they wear them and also how they write about them, led me to Virginia Woolf and the term she coined: ‘frock consciousness’. On 6 January 1925, at the beginning of her diary for that year, she wrote: ‘I want to begin to describe my own sex.’ That thought recurs in the diary as the months go on and it is cast, increasingly, in terms of clothes. ‘My love of clothes interests me profoundly,’ she wrote. ‘Only it is not love; and what it is I must discover.’ This was the year Woolf published Mrs Dalloway, which brought her to literary prominence; the previous year she had sat for her photograph in Vogue. For that she chose to wear a dress of her mother’s, which was too big for her and long out of fashion. To plant it in the most famous fashion magazine in Europe was to make a statement, however ambiguous. And the experience of the sitting prompted a further thought: ‘My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc. These states are very difficult … I’m always coming back to it … Still I cannot get at what I mean.’ I don’t suppose that I shall get at it either, but I will revolve the question again and apply the advantage of nearly a century of hindsight to the idea of frock consciousness, an idea that I think was not born but at least much heightened in that period between the world wars just as Woolf was trying to put her finger on it.

If human character did, as she famously suggested, change in or about 1910, women’s clothes changed very soon afterwards. Another product of 1925 was the woman’s ‘pullover’. Not today the most exciting item in anyone’s wardrobe, it was in its way revolutionary. A pullover is pulled over the head both on and off and the person who does the pulling is the wearer. Yes, I know, but until then it had been, for more than a century, virtually impossible for a woman to get dressed – or undressed – by herself. The rich had ladies’ maids, the poor had one another, but the laces and hooks and eyes, the fastening behind, required assistance. This was not true for men. In the persisting convention that women’s clothes have buttons on the left, for the convenience of the average right-handed dresser, while men’s have them on the right, to suit themselves, there remains an archaeological trace, a fossil record, of the different history of women and men in their relation to their clothes. Fashion writers, who are apt to discuss new trends with the urgency of war reporters on a particularly dangerous front line and to misuse the word ‘iconic’ relentlessly, can be forgiven for idolising the Italian couturière Elsa Schiaparelli and her ‘cravat’ pullover. It stands for a new age in women’s clothes. Not only could you get in and out of it by yourself but the fiddly bits, the bow and ribbons, are knitted into the one piece. Schiaparelli, who was a surrealist and worked with Dalí, had made a satire, a cartoon of female dress.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions