Category: Writers

The Library of Books and Bombs

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan for The Paris Review
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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes for The Paris Review on the history and transformation of London’s Bethnal Green Library, which was once an insane asylum.

Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.

Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape. 

I googled to check the opening hours and found something stranger. The library building once housed an insane asylum—so notorious that the park was known as “Barmy Park.” On the outside, it looked like a library in a particularly fine picture book, one with watercolor illustrations and a moral ending. The only thing out of place was the violently modern library sign slapped onto the face of the building, letters in blunt red sans serif. When I sat in the main reading room, trying to work, I could not focus. I kept trying to imagine the people who had been locked within these walls. I could not detect a trace of madhouse. It was so quiet. The books were so well ordered. How on earth had this gone from a famous asylum to a home for books? Libraries have always made me feel saner. Perhaps someone hoped this would serve the same purpose?

(…)

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.

(…)

The Painter and the Novelist

Paul Levy for The New York Review of Books
Virginia and Leslie Stephen, 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford

Paul Levy writes on the Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell and her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, for The New York Review of Books.

The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, lived most of her life (1879–1961) in the chilly, concealing shade of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf—the last twenty years following Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Though the attention paid to the Bloomsbury Group seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a surge of interest in Bell. Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister artfully sheds new light on Bell, who is also part of an imaginative group exhibition, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” at Two Temple Place in London (William Waldorf Astor’s townhouse, now an exhibition venue). Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s earliest public art gallery constructed for that purpose) has mounted the first major exhibition of Bell’s work. Her sex life was the chief subject of the BBC series Life in Squares (2015); she was played at different ages by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best.

In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell, the art critic and father of her two sons; she briefly became the lover of Roger Fry, the highly admired art critic; and she was the lifelong companion of the gay painter Duncan Grant, whose work will be featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Queer British Art, 1861–1967,” opening in April, and who was the father of Bell’s daughter, Angelica. Posterity has judged Virginia the greater artist, but in Parmar’s fictionalized account, Vanessa is the nobler, more sympathetic of the Bloomsbury Group’s founding sisters.

Was Bell a good painter? The striking catalog for the Dulwich show (of seventy-six paintings, works on paper, and fabrics, as well as photographs by both her and Patti Smith) equivocates by stressing her place in art history, saying that she was “one of the most advanced British artists of her time, with her own distinctive vision, boldly interpreting new ideas about art which were brewing in France and beyond.” Nancy Durrant, an art critic for the London Times, agrees: “This show is a joy…. What a magnificent creature she must have been.”

(…)

How to Write About Authoritarians Without Getting Arrested

Saba Imtiaz for LitHub
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Saba Imtiaz writing for LitHub on truth, fiction, and fake news in Pakistan.

Every time I travel through Karachi airport, I stop by its bookshop. It’s not the best organized store in the world. The titles are jumbled together. Fiction merging with non-fiction, biographies next to self-help; books that travelers have opened, flipped through, and put back in the wrong section. Sometimes, I surreptitiously hide a biography or two in the fiction section.

Occasionally, the staff will recommend a book about a topic with a selection of fiction and non-fiction. It’s all the same, piled together on one rack, and treated the same way: If it’s written and it is published, it must be true.

In Pakistan, people are constantly looking for some version of the truth, browsing through their smartphones and the fiction racks of bookstores. There is a stream of rumors repeated on talk shows and forwarded on WhatsApp by people citing “sources” claiming to know the “real story” behind a militant attack or a political controversy. There are missives about impending doom: imminent security threats, crime statistics, and public health crises; tailored to suit one’s preset narrative. If you believe in x, y message—or novel—makes perfect sense.

In his latest novel The Party Worker, the Pakistani cop-turned-writer Omar Shahid Hamid depicts a political strongman called “Don” and a linchpin member in his network determined to bring him down. It has all the makings of a crime novel: cops on the hunt for blood and glory, Mafioso, bloody crime scenes, loyalties and betrayals.

But this isn’t an ordinary crime novel. The Don is a thinly-veiled caricature of a real-life Pakistani politician who lives in exile, and whose political party ruled Karachi for decades because of its broad urban appeal—and alleged violent tactics. Allegations against the party range from targeted assassinations to extortion, and writing about the politician, until recently, was largely off-limits. Reportage that critiqued the party’s exiled leader or mentioned the allegations led to sharp rebuttals and full-fledged tirades. Journalists covering the party were limited to reproducing sanitized press releases and transcripts of speeches. It was the party’s facts, period.

The Party Worker crosses that line drawn in newsprint, depicting the Don as an obese, power-hungry figure with a proclivity for sex workers and ice-cream soda mixed with vodka, whose party uses brutal tactics to control Karachi, while he is protected in exile and has a soft corner at the CIA. Hamid combines the tactics and behaviors of political strongmen to turn the characters in the novel into surreal figures. The book takes on from where reportage ends, imagining how to bring the Don to justice, creating a number of revengeful characters to take on the task. One of them, in truly irreverent Karachi fashion, is called “sisterf***er uncle.”

(…)

Fitzcarraldo Editions: May/June 2017 Events

Wednesday 10 May: Clemens Meyer participates in the European Literature Night 2017 alongside A. L. Kennedy and Francesca Melandri at the British Library, London. 7 – 8:30pm. Tickets here.

Thursday 11 May: Clemens Meyer and Katy Derbyshire participate in the Encounters Series hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages at the University of London. 6:30pm. Further details here.

Saturday 13 May: Beyond Words Festival French Literature Festival hosts readings of the Man Booker International longlisted titles including Compass by Mathias Énard, at the Institute Français, London. 6:30 – 7:30pm. Tickets here.

Thursday 25 May: Claire-Louise Bennet participates in a night of words and music at the International Literature Festival Dublin. 6pm. Tickets here.

Monday 29 May: Olga Tokarczuk in conversation with Claire Armitstead at Hay-on-Wye Festival. 11:30am. Tickets here.

Tuesday 30 May: Charlie Fox discusses This Young Monster at Spike Island, Bristol. 6:30pm. Tickets here.

Tuesday 30 May: Olga Tokarczuk in conversation with Kaye Mitchell at Deansgate Waterstones, Manchester. 7pm. Tickets here.

Wednesday 31 May: Claire-Louise Bennett in conversation with Karl Ove Knausgård at Lillehammer Bibliotek, Norway. 6pm. Tickets here.

Wednesday 31 May: launch event for Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (tr. Jennifer Croft) at Calvert 22. There will be a Q&A with James Woodall, and drinks. Details here.

Wednesday 21 June: London launch party for Brian Dillon’s Essayism at Camden Arts Centre. Details tbc.

Thursday 22 June: Essayism: Brian Dillon and Max Porter at the London Review Bookshop. 7pm. Tickets here.

A Story About a Parasitic Relationship

“Together” by Jess Arndt, recommended by Justin Torres for Electric Lit
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Jess Arndt’s short story “Together”, with an introduction by Justin Torres for Electric Lit.

An Introduction by Justin Torres

Jess Arndt is a great prose stylist — but what does that mean? Well for one thing, it means Arndt writes with such poetry and such precision, that the force of the communication damn near knocks you over. The sentences turn, open, and crash down on you unexpectedly, rhythmically, like waves. Great style has something to do with surfaces, but that’s not all I mean when I say Arndt is a great stylist. I mean, too, that the pace and pull of this story — and really, every story in Large Animals — works something like an undertow. At the beach as child, I remember being warned about undertow and thinking, how could it be, amidst all the foam and roar and sparkle of the ocean’s surface, that an even stronger churning went on below? But that’s exactly the experience of reading Arndt: first mesmerized by the beautiful noise of the language, then knocked down, and dragged out to another, underwater world.“Together” is a story precisely about the churning going on beneath the surface — about the awful lot going on inside each of us. Arndt reminds us that physically, psychically, we are processes; we are happening all the time. The life of both mind and body is defined by an awesome and constant churning. And outside, in our backyards, our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our lovers and bosses — the churning continues. Places and people seduce, destroy, remake us in their undertow. What we would like to understand as form — the backyard, the body — is phenomena. What we would like to understand as impermeable is always susceptible to parasitic invasion. Instability is the shared condition of life. This is a thing we know, but the knowledge quickly stales, or we are distracted from the knowledge, or narcotized, or placated with straighter, more genteel notions I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful.

Reading Arndt, I was reminded of Genet, and reminded specifically of Sontag’s description of Genet, in “On Style.” “He is recording, devouring, transfiguring his experience. In Genet’s books, as it happens, this very process itself is his explicit subject; his books are not only works of art but works about art.” Sontag goes on to connect style, above all, to will: “The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way.” I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful. I suppose it’s a particular kind of lineage, a particular kind of will I’m getting at, when talking about Sontag talking about Genet, and also talking about Arndt — I suppose it’s something like the will of the lover, the will of the parasite, the will of the undertow; I suppose I am talking about the will to queer the world.

Justin Torres Author of We the Animals

Together by Jess Arndt

We had it together but we also had it when we were apart. We got it in that comedor in Oaxaca, we both agreed. Or maybe it was that little town, just a few palapas actually and a beach with a deceptive number of black dogs, called San Angelino. But it’s also quite possible that we had gotten it on the subway. Don’t forget about a head of lettuce! our naturopath said. They caravan those heads in from anywhere imaginable. And water these days — it’s no good washing with it.We made a list of what was now okay and what wasn’t. Sugar, yeast, all the essentials — out. Enter: lines and lines of herbaceous esophagus-jamming pills we swallowed noon dinner and night.

(…) 

The Art and Activism of Grace Paley

Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker
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Alexandra Schwartz explores the relationship between Grace Paley’s politics and her fiction.

She spent her life as a protester. How did she find time to reinvent the American short story?

There’s a case to be made that Grace Paley was first and foremost an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist who managed, in her spare time, to become one of the truly original voices of American fiction in the later twentieth century. Just glance at the “chronology” section of “A Grace Paley Reader” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a welcome new collection of her short stories, nonfiction, and poems, edited by Kevin Bowen and Paley’s daughter, Nora. 1961: Leads her Greenwich Village PTA in protests against atomic testing, founds the Women Strike for Peace, pickets the draft board, receives a Guggenheim Fellowship. 1966: Jailed for civil disobedience on Armed Forces Day, starts teaching at Sarah Lawrence. 1969: Travels to North Vietnam to bring home U.S. prisoners of war, wins an O. Henry Award.

Such political passion may seem in keeping with those times, but Paley didn’t slow down once the flush of the sixties faded. In the mid-seventies, she attended the World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she infuriated Soviet dissidents by demanding that they stand up for the Asian and Latin-American oppressed, too. In the eighties, she travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with mothers of the disappeared, got arrested at a sit-in at a New Hampshire nuclear power plant, and co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And that’s not the half of it. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” The F.B.I. declared her a Communist, dangerous and emotionally unstable. Her file was kept open for thirty years.

Paley was an archetypal Village figure, the five-foot-tall lady with the wild white hair, cracking gum like a teen-ager while handing out leaflets against apartheid from her perch on lower Sixth Avenue. She also lived in Vermont, where her second husband, Bob Nichols, had a farmhouse. In May, 2007, they drove to Burlington to protest their congressman’s support for the Iraq surge. Paley was eighty-four, undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Three months later, she was dead. “My dissent is cheer / a thankless disposition,” she wrote in her poetry collection “Fidelity,” published the following year. That incorrigible cheerfulness carried her to the very end. No one was more grimly adamant that the world was in mortal peril, or had more fun trying to save it from itself.

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Interview: Gary Shteyngart & Emily Greenhouse

Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Emily Greenhouse for Granta
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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?

(…)

Kalisto Tanzi by Jana Beňová

Translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone, for Asymptote
Seeing People Off

An extract from award-winning Slovakian writer Jana Beňová’s new novel, Seeing People Off. Translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone, appearing in the April 2017 issue of Aysmptote.

Elza. Together we ate grapes and washed them down with rosé. The next day I discovered a moist grape stem in my pocket. It looked like an undecorated Christmas tree. 

Kalisto Tanzi vanished from the city, which had been hit by a heat wave. The heat radiated from the houses and streets burning people’s faces, and the scorching town seared its brand onto their foreheads. 

I stopped in front of the theater window so I could read Kalisto’s name on the posters and confirm to myself that he did actually exist. I enjoy pronouncing his name, which tormented him throughout childhood and puberty and only stopped annoying him after my arrival. I walk slowly to the other end of the city, the muscles in my legs shake slightly in the hot air. It’s noon. The only things on the planet that are really moving are drops of sweat. They run down to the base of the nose and then spurt out again under my hair. 

I’m going to buy poison. 

Ian saw a rat in the crapper last night. 

The rat-catcher has a wine cellar underneath his store. Underground we escape the unbearable heat and drink. He’s telling me how intelligent the rats are. 

“They have a taster, who tastes food first. When it dies, the others won’t even touch the bait. So we now offer the next generation of rat bait. The rat only begins to die four days after consuming the poison. It dies from internal bleeding. Even Seneca confirmed that this sort of death is painless. The other rats think their compatriot has died a natural death. But even so, if several of them die in a short time, they’ll evaluate the place as unacceptable because of the high mortality rate and move elsewhere. This gift of judgment is completely missing in some people, or even whole nations.” 

(…)

Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower

James Wood on the Australian novelist
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Whatever you think about James Wood, he is one of the few people with enough clout that an article on the ‘forgotten’ novelist Elizabeth Harrower will get people interested in reading her. In this instance, the story of her ‘rediscovery’ happens to be a good one:

The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, “In Certain Circles” (Text), some months prior to publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely “frozen” by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—“That sounds quite interesting, but I don’t think I’ll read it”—and adds that she has been “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel’s quality: “It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written.”

Harrower deposited the manuscript of “In Certain Circles” in the National Library of Australia and essentially terminated her literary career. She has said that she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago, buried in a cellar. She can’t now be bothered with writing. “I don’t know anybody who knows I’m a writer,” she said in 2012. In 1971, plenty of people knew Harrower was a writer. The novelist Christina Stead, for one, declared that Harrower’s “The Long Prospect” (1958) “has no equal in our writing.” But obscurity is a fast worker, when properly paid: by the early nineteen-nineties, all her novels were out of print. Patrick White, who urged Harrower to keep working, once inscribed a book to her with the injunction “To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don’t also WRITE.”

Her work might still be out of print if Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston, a married couple who run the Australian publishing house Text, hadn’t decided to start republishing it in 2012. They began with Harrower’s greatest novel, “The Watch Tower” (1966), the bitter story of two sisters, Laura and Clare, who lose their parents and fall under the sway of Felix Shaw, an abusive and controlling drunk. Over the next two years, Text published the rest of Harrower’s earlier work: “Down in the City” (1957), her first novel, and “The Long Prospect” (1958), her second, both of which she wrote in London; and “The Catherine Wheel” (1960), her third book. “In Certain Circles,” the withdrawn novel, was clearly the publisher’s most precious quarry. Heyward cajoled Harrower into letting him read the manuscript. She had not read any of her own work in forty years, and suspected that she might have to die before it was read again. Heyward thought the novel “extraordinary,” and Harrower agreed to its publication, perhaps figuring that death was a steep penalty for a comprehensive backlist.

Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished. Everything (except feeling, which is passionately and directly confessed) is controlled and put under precise formal pressure. Her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And although her novels can feel somewhat closed, and tend to repeat themselves in theme, her prose is full of variety. She can be bracingly satirical: “The piercing soprano she raised at parties was understood to be her most prized asset, and had won her much applause.” She is generally tart. In “The Catherine Wheel,” a novel narrated by a young Australian woman living in a London bed-sit, a single glance at the room’s furniture tells us much about her self-esteem: “Above it was a mirror, undistorted, except perhaps—I’d already noticed—on the side of flattery.” She can be savagely metaphorical: “She was like a park that had never once removed its Don’t Walk on the Grass signs.” But her wit often teeters on the edge of pain, as it does in that last sentence, which describes Laura and Clare’s vilely haughty mother in “The Watch Tower,” or as it does in this description of pretty, ingenuous Zoe Howard, who will marry disastrously in “In Certain Circles”: “It never mattered what she said to men: they liked her to say anything.” The sentences have an innocent composure, as if Harrower hoped to slip the pain past us: “Yet really, apart from the sense of irretrievable loss, there was nothing wrong at all.” “Really, it turned out to be like every other day, except that she never forgot it.” Zoe Howard, trapped in her painful marriage, standing by a swimming pool on a morning in which she and her husband have managed to effect a brief truce, is described thus: “She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.” What pain lies in the coiled coda of that sentence! Sometimes, the reader has to decode Harrower’s careful irony: “He made a sound not like a laugh” (about a histrionic charmer who is feeling sorry for himself). But Harrower’s prose expands, too, to gather in the Australian landscapes: Sydney, the wide harbor, the narrower suburbs (easily dispatched in one novel as “weedy parks named after councillors”), the blue skies and breathing red outback, the “blue and legendary haze” that seems to hover over the whole world.

Harrower was right about “In Certain Circles” being well written, but surely wrong to take its superb style for granted, as if mere literary muscle memory. Like the rest of her work, the novel is severely achieved: the coolly exact prose cannot be distinguished from the ashen exhaustion of its tragic fires. The book suffers from a few structural difficulties (some weirdly compressed transitions, a couple of characters who never quite come into focus) that may have earned Harrower’s anxious scorn in 1971. But “In Certain Circles” also extends and deepens several of her persistent concerns: how easily we submit to cruelty and coercion; the relations between men and women in a frankly misogynist era; the moral imperative to tell the truth, to shatter the china niceties that sustain bourgeois domestic life. The book belongs with her best work, with “The Watch Tower” and “The Long Prospect.”

Fitz Carraldo Editions