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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.

(…)

Muscular Sanity: The Language of Pain in Literature

Emily Wells for the LA Review of Books
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For the LA Review of Books, Emily Wells on the articulation of pain in literature.

“English,” Virginia Woolf writes in “On Being Ill,”

which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache … The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to his doctor and language at once runs dry.

Woolf seeks to establish illness as a serious project in literature, which “does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent.”

However, even in this essay on illness, Woolf only hints at the mental and physical ailments that plagued her throughout her life, asserting that, in the matter of disease, “we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy […] would be intolerable.” Though she potently explores states of illness in her fiction — Rachel’s delirious, raging fever in The Voyage Out, Rhoda’s madness in The Waves, and Septimus’s suicidal mania Mrs. Dalloway — in describing pain explicitly and specifically her own, language does appear to run dry.

Considering this disparity between her fictional and nonfictional treatments of pain, we must ask, is the “running dry” a failure of language, or of the will? Does Woolf’s reticence owe more to the shame that goes hand in hand with sharing one’s pain than to a weakness in the language itself? Perhaps language fails us only when we wish to express our pain, rather than the pain of others. In her 1985 volume The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry echoes Woolf’s lamentations at the limits of language:

Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language […] Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

Scarry also notes that the language used to describe the physical pain experienced by the individuals she has interviewed often comes from others speaking on their behalf. To the person in pain, there is no reality besides that pain. The effect of this reality-defining pain on an individual identity is modeled in Meghan O’Rourke’s most recent poetry collection, Sun in Days, a poignant meditation on chronic illness:

I discovered what I had always naturally called I was really no longer an “I.”

It changed all the time — in fact, entirely receded as a coherent notion — according to something happening in my cells that no one could identify …

Walking, teaching, writing, I experienced myself as categorically fraudulent.

This experience of categorical fraudulence, in which one lacks the exact word for an experience, may force a writer into the realm of metaphor. Yet in Illness as a Metaphor, Susan Sontag takes issue with disease metaphors. “I want to describe not what it’s really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and to live there,” she writes, “but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation; not real geography but stereotypes of national character.” Throughout, Sontag challenges psychological abstractions that do more harm than good:

We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy […] About that metaphor, the military one, I would say, if I may paraphrase Lucretius: Give it back to the war-makers.

Sontag’s condemnation of metaphor is refreshing and even salutary, but what language is left for those who suffer from diseases that don’t have a precise scientific designation? Can writers who wish to convey the nuanced experience of being in an ill body resist metaphor? In any event, relying on seemingly precise definitions may actually obscure the true meaning of an experience.

(…)

Launch for Arkady by Patrick Langley on 21 March

At the ArtReview bar
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Please join Fitzcarraldo Editions and ArtReview in celebrating the launch of Arkady by Patrick Langley from 6.30-8.30pm on 21 March 2018 at the ArtReview bar, 1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH. There will be a short reading. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. 

The White Darkness

David Grann for the New Yorker
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Featured in the New Yorker, David Grann’s longform piece on British explorer Henry Worsley, who successfully retraced Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in the Antarctic in 2009, and sadly died in 2016 during an attempt to cross the Antarctic unaided.

(…)

At 10 a.m.—the hour that Shackleton had set out—Worsley and his men leaned into their harnesses and began their trek. This was the moment that he’d been waiting for nearly all his life, Worsley thought. Yet, as he strained with his arms and his legs to propel himself forward and drag the heavy sled, he was gnawed by doubts: “I was nervous about lots of things; of failing the team; of getting injured; of letting down all those people who had supported us; of plainly not being physically up for it—put simply, I feared failure.”

The surface was generally flat and smooth, and as he and the other men headed south, toward the Ross Ice Shelf, they began to gather some momentum. Worsley made sure that they followed the advice of Matty McNair, who had instructed them on Baffin Island: “Stay together, never separate.” She had drummed into them one other rule: “If you get wet, you die.”

After several miles, they came upon another desolate wooden hut. Robert Falcon Scott and his men had built it in 1911, on their fateful South Pole expedition. Ice crept over the timbered walls and glazed the windowpanes like jungle vines. Inside the hut, Worsley and his companions found the chart table where Scott had studied his maps, and the bunk belonging to Captain Lawrence Oates, who had left the party’s tent on the return journey from the Pole, saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was never seen again.

As Worsley inspected the objects, he felt uneasy: “I couldn’t shake the sense of pathetic sadness from my mind.” The men quickly resumed tracing the path of their forebears, which had long since been obliterated by the windswept ice. The fresh tracks made by Worsley and his companions gradually vanished as well; tiny granules of ice swirled in the wind like ash. The men used a compass to maintain a southward trajectory. Their breath smoked and their bodies sweated in the arid cold. After slogging for seven hours, Worsley gave the order to stop for the day. They had covered nearly eight nautical miles. In order to reach the ninety-seven-mile mark on January 9th, the men would need to average between ten and twelve nautical miles per day. But it was a promising start.

They began the cumbersome process of making camp: pitching their tent, which was roughly fourteen feet long and seven feet wide; gathering provisions from the sled; squeezing inside the shelter and removing their ski boots and sweaty socks, which they hung on a clothesline above their heads, along with any other damp items; checking their bodies for frostbite and putting on dry socks and tent “booties”; and firing up a gas cooker, melting snow in a kettle, and pouring hot water into packets of freeze-dried meals.

As the men ate, they talked about the relatively warm weather—the temperature had reached fourteen degrees. Adams delivered the evening broadcast, reporting that they had been blessed with “beautiful sunshine, exactly as Shackleton had a hundred years ago on his first day.” Privately, though, Adams confessed to Worsley and Gow that he felt like an amateur hauling his sled, and had a deep sense of unease. “He was right and honest,” Worsley wrote. “None of us knew what the next two months were going to be like.”

Following supper, the men dipped their toothbrushes in the snow and cleaned their teeth, which Worsley believed was essential to maintaining a sense of humanity. Then, jostling for space, they spread out their sleeping bags. Worsley, however, didn’t climb into his. In spite of his aching muscles and the dropping temperature—the sun was now hugging the horizon—he went for an evening walk. He decided to make this a daily ritual, like a mystic who pursues enlightenment through self-abnegation. The harsh reality of Antarctica had seemed only to deepen his entrancement with it. Outside, he often picked up objects—a fragment of a penguin skull, a small rock—and put them in a pocket, despite the extra weight. “We used to take the Mickey out of him for taking all this rubbish,” Gow recalled.

After Worsley’s stroll, which lasted about twenty minutes, he returned to the tent and settled into his sleeping bag. They all kept plastic bottles nearby, in case they had to respond to what Adams referred to as a “call of nature.” Before falling asleep, Worsley wrote briefly in his diary, ending with a quote from Shackleton: “I pray that we may be successful, for my heart had been so much in this.”

Within eight days, they had covered more than seventy-five nautical miles. The scale of the Ross Ice Shelf was dawning on Worsley: it was bigger than France. Shackleton described it as a “dead, smooth, white plain, weird beyond description.” Worsley and his men moved in single file and rarely spoke, hearing only the thumping of their sleds or the soundtracks on their iPods. Adams loved to listen to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers; Gow sometimes trudged along to an audiobook of Lansing’s “Endurance.” Worsley’s playlist included Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band playing “Eyes on the Prize” (“I got my hand on the gospel plow / Won’t take nothing for my journey now”) and “We Shall Overcome” (“We are not afraid, we are not afraid”).

(…)

Paris in August

Jacqueline Feldman for The White Review
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Jacqueline Feldman’s essay on surveillance, paranoia and the emergency state in Paris, featured in The White Review.

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‘Our police are behaving more like American police now,’ I heard last February, at a dinner party in the Sixth Arrondissement. As for the United States, no one’s prognosis was optimistic, but finally the other guests agreed that the Americans had been impressive lately in their protests. They looked at me. Bravo, they said. Certainly, they added, aspects of the Women’s March had been problematic, but overall they had been cheered to read of the assemblies. One only hoped the French, too, would turn out so numerously were Marine Le Pen elected President, as the guests expected she would be.

I noticed the poster which read Respond to a terrorist attack in a doctor’s office, and subsequently, I would see it in libraries. It looks like an in-flight safety guide, but these stick figures flee, push a couch against a door, silence their phones and crouch behind a pillar. Also new since I moved away were the guards who searched purses at the doors to grocery stores. While the 1955 law creating an emergency state authorised house arrest for ‘anyone… whose activity proves dangerous to security and public order,’ the 2015 revision specifies that it may be applied to those for whom exist ‘serious reasons to think their behaviour constitutes a threat to security and public order,’ and, in this way, deemphasises their behaviour in favour of what is thought about them. The law that replaced the emergency state on 1 November 2017 requires a judge’s sign off before searches, though not ‘individual measures of administrative control and surveillance’, the former house arrests, but it preserves this wording. Another criterion must, now, co-present: the list of possibilities includes apologia for terrorism. Defined by the November 2015 law, the house arrests – numbering 400 in the law’s first three months, though at last count on 30 October, only 41 were in effect – might have required suspects to stay someplace other than their home, to stay in place for as many as twelve hours, to check in with authorities as many as three times daily, to wear an ankle bracelet, to turn in a passport or to break off a relationship deemed suspicious. The new law diminishes these impositions, for example by widening the bounds of the detainment to an entire town, and by limiting the frequency with which suspects must check in to once daily. Sensibly, both 1955 and 2015 laws stipulate these house arrests should not ‘take the effect of creating camps’. These laws have been compared with the US PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001; another American analogue for its near-unanimous passage days after the 9/11 Attack, the Authorisation of Use of Military Force, provides for strikes abroad against the perpetrators as well as anyone understood to be ‘associated forces’. The French emergency state, by contrast, addressed an enemy within. It was developed as temporary, requiring a vote after twelve days, but remained in effect continuously after November 2015, involving six renewals of varying lengths. While politicians including the president touted the new law as a way out of this widely ironised predicament of permanent emergency, they simultaneously insisted the law pass before the emergency state expired, so that protection would be continuous. ‘I’ve decided that in November we will emerge from the rule of law,’ Macron said on 19 September in New York. He corrected himself, having meant to say not état de droit but état d’urgence, emergency state.

 

More generally visible is the governmental threat metric Vigipirate, with its signs hanging in public buildings, and operations of the police or military, such as Sentinelle, which has stationed soldiers throughout the country since the shooting at CHARLIE HEBDO in January 2015. Sentinelle has elicited censure for its expense as well as the question, after a man drove a car into six of these soldiers in the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret on 9 August, wounding them, as to whether it creates targets. Also controversial has been the surveillance law developed in 2015, which allows the government to monitor phone and Internet usage automatically. Last January, I stayed with environmentalists who, before meetings, collected phones from those present, placed them in a receptacle, set it down outside the room, and closed the door. I hear that lately, they have used a microwave, figuring that it blocks signals completely. The converted barn where they live in Bure, Meuse is a 21-kilometre drive over fields from the nearest market town. They recalled a period of relentless vehicular searches the previous summer. Then as now police were behaving as ‘cowboys’, they told me, using that English word. One of these activists explained that, after breaking the windshield of a car belonging to police who were, by his account, taunting him, he was considered wanted, and that when he was picked up, protesting a revision to French labour law in Nancy, the physical brutality of his apprehension struck him as disproportionate. He could not be sure of this, but it would come to seem of a piece with the other activists’ experiences. He had required new glasses. His treatment may not have been explicitly permitted by the legislation, but, as another of the activists wrote to me, mimicking gendarmes’ remarks, ‘It’s the emergency state, we do what we want.’ This group of activists has made headlines for a foot injury sustained by one of them while protesting, the effect of a gendarme’s stun grenade, as well as a raid on 20 September resulting in the seizure of some forty computers.

 

A sense of futility had accompanied me following my move back to the US, as if I had, by leaving, given up on Paris. During the attacks in November 2015, I was concentrating in an apartment where I had moved a few weeks previously, drafting an article about the accents of American presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who are from New York City, where I found I now lived. Such commentary had to be formulated from the posture of an observer. I had adopted it cynically. Only when we’re lucky enough to live comfortably do we regard the geopolitical landscape as if through a window. Sometimes, it breaks. Citing N. H. Julius, the nineteenth-century German physician and writer on prisons, Foucault locates Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon historically, at the advent of the modern state, with which individuals found themselves engaged in a preeminent relationship. Discipline had been achieved by spectacle, a theatre of the scaffold; now, those who had been onlookers were monitored themselves. While the act of watching characterises the panopticon in the popular imagination, essential too to the machinery is the isolation of the watched, their ‘lateral invisibility’, and their inability to verify the watching. Venetian blinds as well as dividing walls conceal any guard in the watchtower, even the guard’s shadow. In the unfamiliar city I fielded messages from distant friends, who thought that I still lived in Paris. Waiting to hear from Parisian friends, I checked Twitter and, scrolling, wondered whether it was required of me to post.

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