Category: Interview

Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh

Yen Pham interviews for the White Review
For-Otessa-2

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Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— You’ve talked about very specific historical anxieties you’ve inherited from your parents (who are Croatian and Iranian immigrants). They fled fascism and were divested of wealth but raised you to be very rich in culture. What was it like growing up in Newton and how did your family fit in there?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

—  Well, my parents are both violin teachers, and in a sense, that was how I think my parents related to the culture – as musicians and educators. But I’m in the middle of three siblings and I learned a lot from my big sister, who was my hero growing up – very rebellious and sort of counter-culture. So I did not grow up in mainstream America, I guess. I didn’t play sports, although I wish I did, it probably would have been good for me. I always felt estranged from the place I grew up, but part of something less nationalistic and more human – my family culture, which was primarily art-based.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW
— It comes to mind because many of your characters – or, McGlue and Johnson and Eileen – are characters that are deeply imprinted by but also alienated from New England and its culture. Is there a connection for you between the sort of openness in your writing about ‘grotesque’ exterior functions of the body and socially unacceptable interior functions of the mind?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

— Well, yes, because I think both are things that aren’t openly acceptable in quote-unquote civilised society. At least in the culture that I’ve known, we’re meant to feel like there’s something really wrong with us if we don’t look healthy and beautiful all the time, and if we’re having negative thoughts, then we’re not good people and that has to be corrected. And there are industries that work on both sides of that to make people look young and beautiful all the time and to make people feel right and think right and act right all the time. But you know, other cultures aren’t like that. Like, other cultures embrace things that we might think of as evil, or a power that might scare us, or something transgressive or more mysterious. But I think, at least in America… I mean, we come from Puritans, who were totally psycho and stole the country really violently from a Native culture that was probably pretty violent too. Americans don’t really live in lily-white cookie-cutter societies, but I think the way that Christianity has worked in the government has instilled a sense of God as the authority that spies on you and controls the world, more Big Brother than anything else. Growing up, I didn’t totally understand where the sense of the terrifying authority that was always watching me came from, and it was probably a brainwashed conception of God. You know, like, do the right thing, ’cause you’re gonna get in trouble, and what’s the consequence, you’ll go to hell. I’m not a Christian but that entered me through osmosis and it took 36 years for that concept to dissipate. Actually, I’m still working on that.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— That’s an extensive period of unbrainwashing.

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

— And the way that that manifested for me was in the ways that it manifests for my characters quite often. Feeling ashamed of having a mortal body, and feeling like, ‘I must be crazy.’ Like, either I’m crazy, or everybody else is crazy, because what the fuck is going on here, you know? Just as simple as walking down the street and seeing someone suffering and begging for help, and people walking by on their cell phones. How are we doing that? How are we so shut off that this is the way that things work? And this is the way it’s worked for thousands of years, I’m sure. It’s not like we’re all benevolent creatures, but we pride ourselves on being good, and, I don’t know, I question that in my work.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— Do you think that people in general are as weird as the people in your stories?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

—  I think that there are some people who are boring by nature and maybe placid. You know, people vibrate at all different frequencies. I vibrate at a – I would say – a high and neurotic but spiritual frequency, with a lot of anxiety but a lot of passion. And I think my characters do that too, sometimes. I think that there are also some people who were never given the freedom to individuate as children so they didn’t really develop personalities or strategies for coping with the world which would make them interesting. So I don’t blame people for being boring, but I don’t want to write about boring people. Sometimes I attempt to and what I uncover is that they’re boring because they’re really repressed.

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Nothing Will Go Back: An Interview with Dr. Andrea Pető of Central European University

Stephanie Newman interviews for LARB
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Stephanie Newman interviews feminist scholar Andrea Pető about the current state of Hungary, for LARB:

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STEPHANIE NEWMAN: What impact do you think the Trump administration has had in emboldening Orbán and influencing Hungary’s direction overall?

ANDREA PETŐ: As I see US politics from here, there’s much more resistance through the judiciary and the media than there is in Hungary. Our illiberal state is a new form of governance, not a backlash. Nothing will go back to the way it used to be. Because of independent media in the United States, there hasn’t been the same kind of takeover as in Hungary.

On the other hand, there is this transnational network of politicians and public intellectuals who are meeting and strategizing. The World Congress of Families is an American fundamentalist Christian organization, and, along with the International Organization for the Family, they’ll be meeting here in Budapest from May 25–28, 2017. They support banning abortion and promoting the family as a heteronormative unit. Last year, the conference was in the Caucuses, in Georgia, and there were lots of Russian delegates there. In 2015, the conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course, there is this very strange alliance between the fundamentalist Christians and Russian intellectuals, and now the honorary leader of this latest four-day conference is our Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The organizer is the state secretary for Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capital, which covers social affairs, education, and culture. So, the state secretary responsible for family affairs will be the keynote speaker at this extremely controversial “World Congress of Families.”

In one of your pieces for openDemocracy, you mention the government’s promotion of a more traditional family structure. Is this related? 

Yes, but this “traditional family structure” is not as traditional as you might imagine. The illiberal state has a very different family policy from Christian conservatives. Our government has the rhetoric of promoting all families, but not the practice. I wrote this article about the Polypore state with Weronika Grzebalska [a PhD researcher at Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences] comparing women’s politics in Poland and Hungary. The Polypore state is working with securitization, familialism, and constructing alternative NGOs that mirror existing institutions. The conservative values are only fig leaves. Behind them aren’t values, but power: economic, social, and symbolic power.

That said, if you look at the policies in Hungary, you can’t really see any government attempt to change existing reproductive rights. Abortion today is more or less freely available. Free abortion was introduced by a decree in Hungary in January 1945, after the massive rapes committed by Red Army soldiers, and it was constantly regulated by decrees until 1990, when the constitution needed a higher-level legal framework. In our System of National Cooperation (name of the document replacing the constitution), life must be protected from conception. But the government wouldn’t dare renegotiate how these values will be regulated — with good reason. The number of abortions is decreasing, even though health insurance does not cover pills. Polls are actually showing that more than 70 percent of Hungarian women want to protect the right to an abortion. At the moment, I think what we have is an acceptable compromise, as far as the practice is concerned, for all parties involved.

Another parallel between the United States and Hungary is the rising rate of xenophobia. What was the feminist response to the immigration crisis in 2015, as Syrian refugees crossed into Hungary through Serbia?

This was a transformative moment for everybody, especially for us here in this academic ivory tower. It was important for us that CEU opened its doors to the refugees. The faculty, staff, and students were collecting donations in shifts. In a sense, the non-response and ignorance of the state created space for various civil organizations to flourish. It was also interesting to interact with the Hungarian women who converted to Islam because they had married somebody practicing the religion. They have a very powerful association here in Hungary, and they were the driving force behind this kind of civic initiative, because they spoke the language and, being veiled, had more trust from the women refugees. These Hungarian women had two or three cell phones, and they’d be driving from one place to another to coordinate their humanitarian action. This also proved that the stereotype of the passive Islamic religious woman, who stays home taking care of the kids, is unsustainable. They were out there with their children, organizing and active. The migration crisis changed their position.

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The Language Warrior

Rosemary McClure interviews for LARB
Ngugi-wa-Thiong’o

Rosemary McClure interviews Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for LARB:

ROSEMARY MCCLURE: In what language do you usually write? 

NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O: There was a time I wrote in English, but now I often write in my language, Gĩkũyũ [spoken by almost seven million Kenyans], and translate it back into English. It’s more of a challenge for me.

What sets “The Upright Revolution” apart from your other work?

I describe myself as a language warrior for marginalized languages. Much of the intellectual production in Africa is done in European languages: English, French, Portuguese. The people in Africa speak African languages. They have a right to cultural products written in their language. Translation is an important tool that makes it possible for different cultures to borrow from each other.

What are some examples of cultural borrowing?

The Bible and the Qur’an. People can read them because they’re available in their own languages. Here at UCI, we’re able to discuss Hegel, because his works have been translated. We don’t have to understand the German language to learn from his works. The same is true with Greek mythology; we can learn from it without knowing how to speak Greek. Translation becomes a process whereby languages can talk to each other. 

Is that why you’re enthusiastic about the translations of your short story?

I became excited about this story because Jalada picked the story up, produced a translation journal that included it, and worked with many translators to make it available in many languages. It makes me feel very happy to see young people picking up these languages and showing that it can be done. I’m very proud of the project and that my story has been part of this phenomenon.

In 1977, you were imprisoned for a year for critical works about neocolonial Kenya. How did you cope?

For a writer, it was difficult. You were not allowed to write. You were not allowed to do anything, even ask, “Is it raining outside today? Is it sunny outside?” So the only way I could actually, literally, deal with my prison conditions — maximum-security prison for doing nothing — was by writing secretly. I wrote a novel, Devil on a Cross, in Gĩkũyũ on toilet paper with a pen they had given me to write a confession.

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Interview: Hisham Matar

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

What’s your earliest memory?

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

Who is your hero?

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Melville House Books

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Gary Shteyngart & Emily Greenhouse

Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Emily Greenhouse for Granta
Gary

Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 interview with Emily Greenhouse, appearing in the online edition of Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2. 

Gary Shteyngart was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. His new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is published in the UK by Granta books on 16 September. Emily Greenhouse caught up with Gary to ask about the email epistolary, how he’d do in a literary Celebrity Death Match, and the ‘äppärät’ – his dystopian rendering of a smartphone on anabolic steroids.

EG: How did featuring on the Best of Young American Novelists list in 2007 affect your career?

GS: It made life nicer. A gentleman with a photocamera took a picture of me for some site on the intertube.

Your latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is written in diary entries, ‘long form standard English texts’ and Global Teen text conversations. Is this a cynical comment on the shortened attention span of our generation, or is ‘email epistolary’ the genuine future of the novel?

OMFG, totes! I’ve been losing the power of good riting over the years. I’m dictating this to an intern. I hope she gets it write.

In the prologue to Absurdistan, you write, ‘I’m a deeply secular Jew who finds no comfort in either nationalism or religion.’ You’ve made clear your discomfort with Soviet nationalism, yet I felt a deep appreciation for America throughout Super Sad. Your love for New York, especially, shines through. Has a bit of Emma Lazarus’ American Dream seeped in?

America’s in deep shit. That makes me love it more and fear for its future. But overall nationalism is a terrible thing. Unless you’re Canadian. Then it makes perfect sense.

Any thoughts on London?

I can’t even afford to have thoughts on London, much less live or visit there.

Towards the tail end of Super Sad, Lenny remembers reading the ‘New York Times (the real Times, not theLifestyle Times) … in the subway, folding it awkwardly while leaning against the door, caught up in the words, worried about crashing to the floor or tripping over some lightly clad beauty (there was always at least one), but even more afraid to lose the thread of the article in front of me, my spine banging against the train door, the clatter and drone of the massive machine around me, and me, with my words, brilliantly alone.’ Is it still possible, in this just pre-äppärät age, to be truly, brilliantly alone?

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Interview: James Little by LeRonn P. Brooks

Part of BOMB's Oral History Project, documenting the life stories of New York City's African American artists
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James Little has worked nearly half a century at mastering the craft of painting. While our conversation here delves into his painterly “alchemy”—he makes all his own paints and mixes beeswax and varnish into it—it also documents a life in painting. Born into a family of artisans with high expectations in a segregated Memphis, the artist learned the value of hard work, creativity, and persistence. His experimentation with the transformative properties of his materials reflects these emphases, and his search for excellence mirrors the work ethic of the community that raised him. This is to say that memory has its textures and its colors—their own connotative ends; Little’s paintings demonstrate a quest for the perfection of craft, but do not covet certainty despite the precision with which they are ordered. His paintings are guided by intuitive responses to form, color, and feeling. This approach is not overly calculated, though its complexity may suggest so. His expression is personal—visceral exchanges between memory and its hues, between emotion and the logistics of its use, between logic’s place in the fog of the human heart, and the ways that rationale can be envisioned as painterly “surface.” Here, to speak solely of order is to imply, in some way, process, but this implication does not necessarily suggest the course of a method as the ends of his labor’s purpose. Little’s “purpose” cannot be narrowly defined by his methods nor is it all a simple matter of procedure.The imagination has its own speculative ends and its interchanges with the world are, in Little’s paintings, as vibrant and curiously bedecked as any prism thread with light. What follows is a conversation about artistic vision, practice, and the importance of perseverance. It is a document concerned with valuing painting as of form of experiential evidence, and the imagination as a vivid context for human worth, history’s propositions, and a life’s purpose. 

— LeRonn P. Brooks

LeRonn P. Brooks So James, I’d like to start by speaking about your childhood in Memphis, before you became an artist. What was the South like when you were a child?  

James Little Memphis was a very segregated city when I was growing up in the ’60s. It’s just north of the Mississippi border. My family is from Mississippi. My father, Rogers Little, his family migrated from Georgia. There were a lot of Irish, Native American, and black people in his family. My mother’s family came out of the Carolinas and the West Indies. Somehow, she ended up in Mississippi. That’s where my mother was born along with a lot of her siblings. When I was growing up we were very poor. And my father worked very hard, so did my mother. But we weren’t as poor as the majority of the people around us. You know, we actually lived pretty well. My mother was a great cook. Both my parents grew up growing their own food. They knew how to survive. They were very efficient, hard-working, and God-fearing people. But you know, that was kind of the way it was. 

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Interview with Han Kang

Sarah Shin for The White Review
han jang

Published by The White Review and translated by Deborah Smith, here’s an excerpt from Sarah Shin’s expansive interview with author of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang:

Han Kang is a disquieting storyteller who leads the reader into the very heart of human experience, where the singular crosses the universal. Author of ten books of fiction and poetry in her native Korean, Han’s subversive work has been brought onto the Anglophone stage through close partnership with her award-winning translator Deborah Smith. Smith’s elegant renditions of the novels HUMAN ACTS (2016) and THE VEGETARIAN (2015) form part of a recent blossoming of international interest in Korean literature; Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature launched in 2013 and consists of 25 translations so far. Originally published as three novellas in South Korea nearly a decade ago, Han has said that THE VEGETARIAN was initially received as ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea. It has since become a cult bestseller, with translation rights sold in twenty countries and its central novella ‘Mongolian Mark’ awarded the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Prize in 2005. HUMAN ACTS, her latest novel, was awarded the Korean Manhae Literary Prize last year, adding to her numerous other accolades.

‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ This line from the great modernist poet Yi Sang, written in the Korean script hangul banned under Japanese rule, reportedly obsessed Han during university and became the seed for THE VEGETARIAN. Yi’s dream-like images evoking the violence of imperialism upon the colonial subject are mirrored in Han’s surrealistic and painterly portrayal of a woman’s personal rebellion. The novel tells the story of Yeong-hye who, haunted by grotesque dreams, first gives up meat, then food altogether in a radical refusal of human cruelty and destruction. In a patriarchal society where vegetarianism is rare, Yeong-hye’s transgression eventually leads to her institutionalisation and force-feeding. Han’s life-long exploration of the themes of violence and humanity are here rooted in the anorexic body forming a provocative psychological portrait of a woman’s body politics.

HUMAN ACTS revisits these themes but pans out to the national stage, excavating the traumatic legacy of the Gwangju massacre in post-war Korean history. Opening in the Gwangju Commune, the action unfurls in the crucible of the 1980s student and worker-led democratic movement. In 1979 when military dictator Park Chung-Hee, the father of current president Park Geun-Hye, was assassinated his ‘protégé’, General Chun Doo-Hwan, succeeded him and extended martial law across the country, closing universities, restricting press freedom and banning political organising. On 18 May 1980 when students gathered in Gwangju to protest these measures, the government responded by sending in soldiers who opened fire on the crowds. A citizen army managed to eject the military presence and in the following days virtually the whole city joined together in creating an autonomous community comparable to the Paris Commune. The uprising endured for a few days until it was crushed by a US-approved military operation on 27 May that killed and injured thousands.

The massacre left a deep imprint in Korea’s cultural memory, in part because the truth around events was suppressed for years afterwards. Conservative accounts painted the incident as a Communist plot driven by North Korean sympathisers, and the death toll remains contested. ‘Gwangju’, Han says, has become another word ‘for all that has been mutilated beyond repair. The radioactive spread is ongoing.’ Thus HUMAN ACTS is a book with a banging door – it is fiction as a form of alternative historiography where the unresolved past pollutes the present. For Han, ‘Gwangju’ functions like a common noun denoting mankind’s capacity for acts of extreme violence in the same instance as acts of great humanity. Indeed, Korea’s tumultuous history has seen a succession of Gwangjus: there has been little closure, for example, for the Korean women forced into sexual slavery under Japanese colonial rule, or for the families separated by the Korean War that left the two Koreas divided by the Demilitarized Zone when the Cold War turned hot on the peninsular.

A language carries its culture on its back and Han deftly transports the myriad complexities of Korean history through her spare prose. Yet HUMAN ACTS, likeTHE VEGETARIAN, is often about the failure of language to adequately convey experience. In a striking scene, a survivor of torture asks, ‘Would you have been able to string together a continuous thread of words, silences, coughs and hesitations, its warp and weft somehow containing all that you wanted to say?’ Han certainly attempts to do so, both in her lyrical work and in this interview, conducted through email and translated by Deborah Smith.

Q. THE WHITE REVIEW — The history of Korea in the twentieth century is rich in trauma – why did you choose to write about the Gwangju Uprising in particular?

A. HAN KANG —  The twentieth century has left deep wounds not only on Korea but on the whole of the human race. Because I was born in 1970 I experienced neither the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945, nor the Korean War, which began in 1950 and was concluded with a cease-fire in 1953. I began to publish poetry and fiction in 1993, when I was twenty-three; that was the first year since the military coup d’état in 1961 that a president who was not from the army but a civilian came to power. Thanks to that, I and writers of a similar generation felt that we had obtained the freedom to investigate the interior of the human without the guilty sense that we ought instead to be making political pronouncements through our work.

So my writing concentrated on this interior. Humans will not hesitate to lay down their own lives to rescue a child who had fallen onto the train tracks, yet are also perpetrators of appalling violence, like in Auschwitz. The broad spectrum of humanity, which runs from the sublime to the brutal, has for me been like a difficult homework problem ever since I was a child. You could say that my books are variations on this theme of human violence. Wanting to find the root cause of why embracing the human was such a painful thing for me, I groped inside my own interior, and there I encountered Gwangju, which I had experienced indirectly in 1980.

[…]

Interview with James Salter

In the Paris Review
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A great writer, James Salter, died aged 90 last Friday. Here’s an excerpt from his Paris Review interview from 1993, on his French literary influences:

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your sensibility is French?

SALTER

Not particularly. Ned Rorem said that it is. I like France, and I like the French, but no.

INTERVIEWER

Is Colette a figure who has meant anything to you?

SALTER

Oh, yes. I don’t remember when I first came upon her. Probably through Robert Phelps, although I must have read scraps here and there. Phelps was a great Colette scholar who published half a dozen books about her in America, including a book I think is sublime, Earthly Paradise. It’s a wonderful book. I had a copy of it that he inscribed to me. My oldest daughter died in an accident, and I buried it with her because she loved it too.

Colette is a writer one should know something about. I admire the French for their lack of sentimentality, and she, in particular, is admirable in that way. She has warmth; she is not a cold writer, but she is also not sentimental. Somebody said that one should have the same amount of sentiment in writing that God has in considering the earth. She evidences that. There’s one story of hers I’ve read at least a dozen times, “The Little Bouilloux Girl” in My Mother’s House. It’s about the most beautiful girl in the village who is so much more beautiful than any of her classmates, so much more sophisticated, and who quickly gets a job at a dressmaker’s shop in town. Everyone envies her and wants to be like her. Colette asks her mother, Can I have a dress like Nana Bouilloux? The mother says, No, you can’t have a dress. If you take the dress, you have to take everything that goes with it, which is to say an illegitimate child, and so forth—in short, the whole life of this other girl. The beautiful girl never marries because there is never anyone adequate for her. The high point of the story, which is marvelous because it is such a minor note, comes one summer when two Parisians in white suits happen to come to the village fair. They’re staying nearby in a big house, and one of them dances with her. That is the climax of the story in a way. Nothing else ever happens to her. Years later, Colette is coming back to the village. She’s thirty-eight now. Driving through town she catches sight of a woman exactly her own age crossing the street in front of her. She recognizes and describes in two or three absolutely staggering sentences the appearance of this once most beautiful girl in the school, “the little Bouilloux girl,” still good-looking though aging now, still waiting for the ravisher who never came.

INTERVIEWER

When did you get to know Robert Phelps?

SALTER

It must have been in the early 1970s. A letter arrived, a singular letter; one recognized immediately that it was from an interesting writer, the voice; and though he refrained from identifying himself, I later saw that he had hidden in the lines of the letter the titles of several of the books he had written. It was a letter of admiration, the most reliable form of initial communication and, as a consequence, we met in New York a few months later when I happened to be there. He was, I discovered, a kind of angel, and he let me know, not immediately, but over a period of time, that I might belong, if not to the highest company, at least to the broad realm of books and names—more was entirely up to me.

Phelps introduced me to the French in a serious way, to Paul Léautaud, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, and others. His life in some respects was like Léautaud’s—it was simple. It was unluxurious and pure. Léautaud lived a life of obscurity and only at the very end was rescued from it by appearing on a radio program that overnight brought him to public attention—this quirky, cranky, immensely prejudiced, and educated voice of a theater critic and sometime book writer and diarist who had unmercifully viewed life in the theater for some fifty years and lived in a run-down house with dozens of cats and other animals and, in addition to all this, carried on passionate love affairs, one for years with a woman that he identified in his diaries as The Scourge. Phelps had some of that. He lived a very pure life. Books that did not measure up to his standards he simply moved out into the hall and either let people pick up or the trashman take away. He did this periodically. He went through the shelves. So on his shelves you found only the very best things. He believed in writing. Despite every evidence to the contrary in the modern world, he believed in it until the very end. Phelps died about three years ago. I said I thought of him as an angel. I now think of him as a saint.

INTERVIEWER

It seems as if André Gide was a major influence on you at one time.

SALTER

He was, but I cannot remember exactly why. I read his diaries when I first started writing in earnest, and then I read, and was very impressed by, Strait Is the Gate. I had an editor at Harper Brothers, Evan Thomas, who asked me what I was interested in, and I told him I was interested in Gide. A look of bewilderment or dismay crossed his face, as if I’d said Epictetus, and he said, Well, what book of his are you reading? I said, Strait Is the Gate. It’s simply a terrific book. Have you read it? He said, No. I could tell from his tone that it was not the sort of thing he read or that he approved of my reading. My impression of Gide, looking back, is of an unsentimental and meticulous writer. I would say my attentions were not drawn to the wrong person.

INTERVIEWER

Are there other French writers who particularly influenced you?

SALTER

I’ve read a lot of them. Among those who are probably not widely read I would say Henry de Montherlant is particularly interesting. Céline is a dazzling writer. Here we have a disturbing case. Certain savage works of his have been stricken from the list. We know his views. The French almost executed him themselves. So we are talking about a dubious personage who is now deemed, I think correctly, as one of the two great writers of the century in France. It’s a perfectly valid nomination. Even his last book, Castle to Castle is tremendous. It must have been written in the most trying circumstances imaginable. When you read something good, the idea of looking at television, going to a movie, or even reading a newspaper is not interesting to you. What you are reading is more seductive than all that. Céline has that quality.

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‘I think the dead are with us’

Interview with John Berger in the New Statesman
John-Berger

A rare interview with John Berger, in the New Statesman, on his life’s work, and how to classify his books:

In 1967, while working with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr on A Fortunate Man, a book about a country GP serving a deprived community in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, John Berger began to reconsider what the role of a writer should be. “He does more than treat [his patients] when they are ill,” Berger wrote of John Sassall, a man whose proximity to suffering and poverty deeply affected him (he later committed suicide). The rural doctor assumes a democratic function, in Berger’s eyes, one he describes in consciously literary terms. “He is the objective witness of their lives,” he says. “The clerk of their records.”

The next five years marked a transition in Berger’s life. By 1972, when the groundbreaking art series Ways of Seeing aired on BBC television, Berger had been living on the Continent for over a decade. He won the Booker Prize for his novel G. the same year, announcing to an astonished audience at the black-tie ceremony in London that he would divide his prize money between the Black Panther Party (he denounced Booker McConnell’s historic links with plantations and indentured labour in the Caribbean) and the funding of his next project with Mohr, A Seventh Man, recording the experiences of migrant workers across Europe.

This is the point at which, for some in England, Berger became a more distant figure. He moved from Switzerland to a remote village in the French Alps two years later. “He thinks and feels what the community incoherently knows,” Berger wrote of Sassall, the “fortunate man”. After time spent working on A Seventh Man, those words were just as applicable to the writer himself. It was Berger who had become a “clerk”, collecting stories from the voiceless and dispossessed – peasants, migrants, even animals – a self-effacing role he would continue to occupy for the next 43 years.

The life and work of John Berger represents a challenge. How best to describe the output of a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, contains ten “novels”, four “plays”, three collections of “poetry” and 33 books labelled “other”?

“A kind of vicarious autobiography and a history of our time as refracted through the prism of art,” is how the writer Geoff Dyer introduced a selection of Berger’s non-fiction in 2001, though the category doesn’t quite fit. “To separate fact and ­imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to sea,” Berger wrote in 1991 in a manifesto (of sorts) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book he first read, in French, at the age of 14.

Berger’s influence in the literary and wider artistic worlds is a little easier to measure. “He is the lodestar of the contemporary literary experience,” the Irish novelist Colum McCann tells me. “I cannot imagine my bookshelves without him. The other writers would collapse.” Susan Sontag described him as “peerless” for his ability to merge “attentiveness to the sensual world” with “the imperatives of conscience”, though Berger himself prefers to be described, simply, as “a storyteller”. Social and political commentary, subjective response and aesthetic theory are the ­basic elements of much of what he writes – but it all begins with seeing.

When I arrive, wet, to meet Berger at a house in Paris one recent gloomy morning, he looks concerned. “You’re cold!” he says, urging me to sit down by the radiator while he disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.

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