Archives: October 2014

John Jeremiah Sullivan on the Origin of the Essay

Excerpted from Best American Essays 2014

John Jeremiah Sullivan is the editor of Best American Essays 2014. Check out the table of contents here. Who knew Zadie Smith was American? Jokes apart, there’s some excellent pieces in there, including Lawrence Jackson’s ‘Slickheads’, about growing up in Baltimore in the Eighties, and written in that era’s slang. The New Yorker have excerpted JJS’s intro, on Michel de Montaigne and the origins of the essay: 

It is a curious fact that the word essayist showed up in English before it existed in French. We said it first, for some reason, by not just years but a couple of centuries. France could invent the modern essay, but the notion that someone might seize on the production of these fugitive-seeming pieces as a defining mode was too far-fetched to bear naming. Rabelais had written Pantagruel, after all, and people hadn’t gone around calling themselves Pantagruelists (in fact they had, starting with Rabelais himself, but the word meant someone filled with nonjudgmental joie de vivre). Had a Bordelais born with the name Michel Eyquem titled his books Essais in the 1580s? Fine—Montaigne was Montaigne, a mountain in more than name. One didn’t presume to perpetuate the role. France will cherish his example, but the influence it exerts there is partly one of intimidation. In France the essay constricts after Montaigne. It turns into something less intimate, or at least less confiding, becoming Descartes’s meditations and Pascal’s thoughts. It’s said that even a century and a half after Montaigne’s death, when the marquis d’Argenson subtitled a book with that word, Essays, he was shouted down for impertinence. Not a context in which many people would find themselves tempted to self-identify as “essayists.” When the French do finally start using the word, in the early nineteenth century, it’s solely in reference to English writers who’ve taken up the banner, and more specifically to those who write for magazines and newspapers. “The authors of periodical essays,” wrote a French critic in 1834, “or as they’re commonly known, essayists, represent in English letters a class every bit as distinct as the Novellieri in Italy.” A curiosity, then: the essay is French, but essayists are English. What can it mean?

Krapp Hour

Anne Carson's literary talk-show in Granta

Excellent piece by Anne Carson in the penultimate issue of Granta:

Cast:   KRAPP, host
              guests, various

Set: a TV talk show, minimal lighting, blackouts where marked. Kitchen chair for KRAPP, couch for guests. Couch is not big enough for all guests, they gradually pile up. Guests are introduced by KRAPP briefly hoisting a placard from a pile under his chair.

(enter KRAPP, K, to brief theme music)

K: not much you have to know about me, I need very little space and I like very little attention. Funny to end up here you may think, in this line of work, did I back into it, well more or less, I guess I did, yes and no, never mind, more important is other people do (need space, like attention), they come here, their eyes are bright, I love the brightness of their eyes, it is ever a surprise to me. If I had a family (I don’t have a family) I cannot imagine they would look at me with such bright eyes. Admittedly there was a time I thought I would grow and flourish here, become happy and interesting and modern, well my old dad put paid to that notion the one time he came to the show – ‘unchanged for the worse’ he said and I believe I have adhered to that standard ever since.

(K holds up placard JACK KEROUAC AND HIS MOTHER GABRIELLE (GABE), enter GK and JK)

GK:       we’re going to Radio City after this
JK:        it’s her birthday
GK:       I’ll be sixty-four where does the time go
K:          where indeed
GK:       I wasn’t always this fat when I stopped wearing a girdle I        
                 went all over the place
JK:           say something in French Ma
GK:          qu’est-ce que tu veux savoir
JK:           you tutoyed him Ma, hear that she tutoyed you
K:             so she did
GK:          it’s like that afternoon the Filipino butler kept giving me drinks
K:             you’ve a butler
GK:          no Barney Rosset’s butler we went for dinner
JK:           had a big screaming dinner all talking French Gallimard         
                 was there you’re speaking pure eighteenth-century Norman
                 dialect he said to me
GK:          I played the piano then I went downstairs started kidding
                 the little butler I was having a ball
JK:           later we hit the bars did Fifth Avenue supposed to have an
                  interview with Holiday magazine never made it
GK:          Florida when we lived there he didn’t drink at all but over
                  here oh my
JK:           I can take it you know Li Po drank all those guys drank
                 dharma bums roaming China
K:             Buddhists I suppose
GK:          think I’d like a sandwich

(GK wanders off)

Sam Knight on the Theft of the World’s Rarest Water Lily

In the Guardian's new 'Long Read' section

Last month the Guardian started a ‘Long Read’ section, giving prominent writers, essayists and other public figures space to write longform pieces, with the depth and breadth of analysis you no longer find in broadsheets. Thus far, highlights have included Pankaj Mishra on the failure of the ‘Western model’, and John Gray on the nature of evil.

‘The Long Read’ is also going to give space to longform investigative journalism, which is very good news indeed considering that this is a form that seems to be dying out (at least in Britain). This week they’ve published Sam Knight’s piece on the theft of the world’s rarest water lily at Kew Gardens: 

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is what staff at Kew Gardens call a honeypot. The world’s largest and most prestigious botanical garden, Kew receives 2 million visitors each year, and a huge proportion of these, perhaps 30,000 a week, make sure they see the conservatory, a large armadillo-like structure near the eastern gates. Built in 1986, the glasshouse has climate controls that allow it to contain 10 plant habitats under a single roof. In the space of a few minutes, visitors can examine ghostly, egg-shaped cacti in the desert cool; tumbling red Passiflora in the heat of the forest; and the fibrous mangroves of a swamp. On any given morning, squads of children, dressed in yellow high-visibility jackets, trek among the lurid, flowering bromeliads and tropical leaves the size of pillowcases, and squeal at beetles that skitter out on to the walkway.

Shortly after two o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, January 9, Nick Johnson, the 43-year-old manager of the conservatory, returned to Kew after spending the morning at a school in east London. Johnson, a trim man with a short beard, had left his team preparing the glasshouse for the gardens’ annual orchid festival. The exhibition is a big deal at Kew. Orchids are the world’s largest group of flowering plants, and their devotees, known as orchidophiles, are among the most eager and best-organised plant enthusiasts. Around 120,000 come to the festival each winter, and a good show, and positive press coverage, can boost visitor numbers at Kew for the rest of the year.

The theme for this year was “Plant Hunters”, and Johnson’s staff were dressing half the conservatory to evoke the high romance of Victorian botanical adventuring, a time when avid collectors and the best scientists (there was little distinction between the two) set off for distant jungles armed with cutlasses and a year’s supply of tobacco. The temporary display included a period botanist’s campsite, complete with pith helmets and wicker baskets, and a cascade of fuchsia and cream vandas.

It was an unusually warm January day. Johnson couldn’t wait to take off his winter coat. But as soon as he walked into the glasshouse, he ran into Duncan Brokensha, an apprentice on his team. Brokensha was agitated. Amid the festival preparations, he had carried out a routine inspection of the water levels in the ponds. As usual, he had also checked on the rarest, and most endangered, plant in the glasshouse, the Nymphaea thermarum, which is the smallest water lily in the world. Unlike some of the valuable orchids and cacti in the conservatory, which are kept behind glass screens, the tiny water lilies, whose white flowers measure less than 1cm across, were on open display, albeit in a relatively inaccessible position near the foot of a concrete bridge. There were 24 planted out in the mud. Today, Brokensha counted 23 – and a hole where the 24th had been.

The plant had been stolen. Johnson was furious. Mainly with himself: he had decided, the previous spring, to plant the water lily in the glasshouse. At the time, Kew possessed virtually the entire planet’s population of Nymphaea thermarum. The water lily had not been seen in its only known location in the wild, a thermal hot spring in Rwanda, since 2008, and it was one of around 100 plant species that now only survive in botanical gardens, on the very edge of extinction. Johnson had known the risks of putting such a scarce, and delicate, species on public view. People swipe the occasional flower and cutting from botanical gardens – they always have.

The Cult of Jeff Koons

Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books

‘The Koons retrospective is a multimillion-dollar vacuum,’ writes Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books, ‘but it is also a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism and Dada and Duchamp has gone to die.’ A great piece on the triumph of the cult of Jeff Koons, written in response to the retrospective currently on at the Whitney Museum in New York: 

Imagine the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the perfect storm. And at the center of the perfect storm there is a perfect vacuum. The storm is everything going on around Jeff Koons: the multimillion-dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the hyperbolic claims of the critics, the adulation and the controversy and the public that quite naturally wants to know what all the fuss is about. The vacuum is the work itself, displayed on five of the six floors of the Whitney, a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies.

Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them. This is the last show that the Whitney will mount in its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue before moving to new quarters in the Meatpacking District, and Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, has come up with a parting shot so swaggeringly obnoxious that it can’t be ignored.

Anybody who has taken Modern Art 101 will be able to give you some general idea of how we arrived at the point where a ten-foot-high polychromed aluminum reproduction of a multicolored pile of Play-Doh holds center stage at the Whitney—and is hailed by Roberta Smith, one of the chief art critics at The New York Times, as “a new, almost certain masterpiece.” What we are seeing at the Whitney is the mainstreaming of Dadaism and in particular of the readymade, the ordinary and frequently mass-produced objects that Marcel Duchamp reimagined as art objects, including, early on, a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, and a urinal.

Duchamp produced his first readymades roughly a hundred years ago. At the time they were seen by hardly anybody; they were the ultimate insider’s cool dude joke art. This was a joke that Duchamp presented deadpan, with the deliberateness of a man who very carefully weighed every move he made. He had already pursued a serious career as a painter; he had created a sensation at the Armory Show in 1913 with his Nude Descending a Staircase; and he would not have abandoned painting without cause. Duchamp felt there was too much of a mystique around art. Years later, he told Calvin Tomkins, “I don’t believe in [art] with all the trimmings, the mystic trimming and the reverence trimming and so forth.” The readymade was an act of supreme skepticism; at least that is what it was for Duchamp.

Valeria Luiselli

Interviewed in BOMB Magazine

Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is writing a novel in English. She’s also ‘in the process of correcting and rewriting the English translation of a novel she wrote in Spanish last year, The Story of My Teeth‘, which she wrote in installments for the workers in a juice factory in a suburb of Mexico City. By the sounds of the workers got really into the novel, and helped shape it as Luiselli was writing it… 

JK You’re working on a novel too?

VL Yeah, I started working on it a few years ago, in English, so I’m going much more slowly. It’s about South Africa. And perhaps about the USA too. I’m about to take a long road trip with my family.

JK Where?

VL We’re not sure yet. We’re going to go from New York to Tennessee first, and eventually to Arizona, then return through the northern states. I went to buy a map the other day and found a map of South Africa, so I bought it too. I have the feeling that if I overlap the two maps, I’ll have a novel, somehow.

JK I can see that, since in Faces in the Crowd you’re writing two novels that meet in the middle.

VL We’ll see. At the moment, I’m in the process of correcting and rewriting the English translation of a novel I wrote in Spanish last year, The Story of My Teeth. I wrote it in installments for the workers in a factory. Originally it was a commission from the Jumex Foundation, an important contemporary art collection subsidized by the eponymous juice factory. Two curators, Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán, asked me to write fiction for an exhibition there, and I suggested the idea of writing a novel in installments for the factory workers. I wrote one installment a week, and each was distributed as a chapbook among them. Some of the workers formed a weekly reading group. Their discussions were recorded in MP3 files that were sent back to me. I’d hear their feedback before writing the next part. So each installment grew from their stories about the factory’s neighborhood, Ecatepec, on the outskirts of Mexico City, a sort of wasteland.

JK Interesting but weird at the same time.

VL There’s something disturbing about these workers’ labor in the juice factory subsidizing this big collection for the privileged consumption of art. I didn’t know what I was going to write about for the workers; it was really their questions and comments that slowly built up the plot.

JK What kind of questions were they asking?

VL Their conversations usually revolved around the problem of what determines the value of the objects in Jumex’s galleries. For instance, what generates the value of, I don’t know, Maurizio Cattelan’s desiccated dog. Or the value of these ghost window frames by Olafur Eliasson. They’d seen the exhibition and were discussing these pieces as I was tangentially writing about them.

The novel’s narrator is an auction caller, but he auctions stories more than objects. I use a lot of names of writers in Mexico City, as if they were found objects, and displace them to a foreign context—an old procedure in contemporary art that is maybe not so common in fiction. I take the names, empty them of content, and place them in the context of a story very different from their real one.

JK You’re using them as readymades, basically.

VL Exactly. I also used a lot of Google Maps images to write that novel. Some of those maps are hacked, I think. Surfing them I actually found a street called “Aquí vivo” (I live here). That cannot be possible.

Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower

James Wood on the Australian novelist

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.”


A short story by Joshua Cohen

Next March, Joshua Cohen publishes a new novel, The Book of Numbers (Harvill Secker), in which the dying founder of the world’s leading tech company hires a failed novelist called Josh Cohen to ghostwrite his memoirs. Meantime, there is other Joshua Cohen fiction available online, not least ‘McDonald’s’: the story of ‘a frustrated pharmaceutical copywriter whose imaginative flights fail to bring solace because of a certain word he cannot put down on paper’. It’s part of Joshua Cohen’s 2012 collection Four New Messages, published by Graywolf Press, which almost certainly stylistically and thematically (the internet, technology, sex, failure, etc.) prefigures The Book of Numbers

You can read the story over at Triple Canopy (the most avant-garde online publication around?), with interactive illustrations (if that is the right term) by Erin Schell:

I’D BEEN WRITING A STORY, yet another shitblast of the hundreds I’ve begun only to crumple for ply (I’d never been blocked before, some blockage should’ve been good for me but), came to that part in the story and just—I just had to stop, it was ridiculous!

I came to the point I knew would come, the point that kept coming, the point where I’d have to say what I didn’t want to say, to say what I couldn’t—what had no place in, forget my story, I told my father, What I’m talking about has no place in my life!

What are you talking about? Dad asked and smiled retirement’s bridgework at being confronted by something as stunningly tedious as himself, probably—but himself fictionalized, as a fictional character—because I’m broke and so was wearing his clothing, also I have the beard he has because we both have weak chins. I’d come back to Jersey for the weekend to sleep without siren in my old ugly unrecognizable bedroom and fill up on homecooking.

I said, I can’t say the Word.

We were in the bedroom.

He sat on a chair across from me on the bed and sipped from a wineglass and stared.

I said, You’re trying to get me to say it.

The walls were white scuffed with recent paint slashes: color swatches my parents were considering for the bedroom’s repainting, assorted pastels and other near neutrals very much not me. The bed and chair were not mine but new. My hutch desk was gone along with the shelving, the room was being converted into a guestroom but—as Mom had strained to say over the phone that early Friday—I would always be welcome.

How can you tell me what happened without telling me what Word? Dad asked suddenly standing older and grayer and rounded goutish and taking his glass from the sill and tipsy but maybe his feet were asleep walked out of the room.

After dinner Mom disappeared sinkward to rinse and call back a friend who’d called interrupting stroganoff, while Dad and I stayed seated as if extra table legs and he said, Let’s try this again, so I told him the story:

I said, There’s this girl, we’ll start with her, I guess I have to describe her. She’s pretty? Dad asked, I said, I describe her as tawny (I wasn’t quite sure what that meant), with red hair dyed and two huge mouthsized eyes. She’s sexy? Dad asked and shot a look at Mom who was busy making a dietetic dessert sandwich of ear and phone and shoulder. I said, She’s like the girl next door to the girl next door, meaning she’s somewhat trashy but also covered entirely with blood, in the first scene she’s just bloody head to toe. Of course she is, Dad said (distracting himself with the bottle, he poured the last petit noir), but you can call the different sections of a book, scenes? I thought that term was just for the movies? I said, You can say scene about a book but if you say chapter about a film people will think you’re an asshole. Of course they would, Dad said then took a sip winking and by the time he’d replaced empty glass to tabletop the sink had stopped, the kitchen was empty and Mom was already upstairs, her laughter floating distantly and then disappeared, aerated into a higher hilarity—into the refrigerator’s hum, the run of the dishwasher, the clock’s compulsive perk.

She’s in the backseat bouncing, I said, that’s the opening: her body bloodied with a knife sticking out of it in the backseat being bounced between her seatback and the backs of the seatbacks in front of her—Wait, Dad asked, what the hell? I said, If he’s not careful on the next large preggers bump her corpse could tumble to the floor, falling atop the filthy mats, atop the sloppy wads of mats, to wedge between her seat and his recline.

His? Dad asked, I said, If he doesn’t slow down.

It’s night? Dad asked, I said, Yes or virtually, the sun’s gone down, moon’s gone halved, how’d you know? her body’s rolling and thumping.

What’s the night like? Dad asked, I said, It’s wet, the stoplights flash above like spotlights.

It’s green, a bright go green, the car’s being driven fast.

Slow down, Dad asked, who’s driving?

Her boyfriend.


Driving southwest, I said, away from the towns he’d grown up in, toward the towns she’d grown up in, poorer to rich, criminal to just criminally tame—quarter tank to Empty, burning last gas, he’s wasting time, he’s stalling.

Dad asked, What’s his name?

Blood’s pooling in the seams of the seats, blood’s puddling and the radio’s off but he turns it down anyway, that’s a good detail that he can’t stand all that noise, he’s turning the volume down, down, lower down, all this one paragraph he’s just lowering the volume.

Why’s he doing that? Dad asked, I said, It’s a circular motion like how you’re supposed to stab someone then diddle the wrist, tweaking the knob of the liver, the spleen.

That’s a good detail? Dad asked.

Neon sizzles past, neon sizzes, zisses? The windshield, in reflection, becomes signage. His throat burns, the boyfriend’s, “his hands are readiedtense.”


RB and me: an education

Brian Dillon in the Dublin Review

Brian Dillon on ‘growing up’ with Roland Barthes, in the Dublin Review:


For a long time I sincerely believed I could not love a woman who was not well acquainted with Barthes’s writing. If this seems a bizarre criterion to apply to a prospective lover – all the more eccentric given my dismal prospects to start with – I think I can see now what I was hoping for. Theory in general, and my specific ambitions, had become a way of keeping the world at bay, an intellectual apparatus by which I thought to defuse potentially explosive emotional situations, or more accurately damp the slow-burning grief and general misery that I was unable to express. That much is obvious. What’s perhaps less clear is how much of desire and love and longing I’d also cathected into this stuff by my early twenties. It’s not that I simply wanted a lover who was super-smart and culturally cynical and much better read than I was; I wanted somebody infinitely sensitive and self-scrutinizing, also just as passive and debilitated as I was before the enigma of the Other. And this ideal relationship was obscurely related to central concepts or turns of thought and phrase in Barthes – a kind of abstracted perversity, lurid but nonviolent; a languid refusal of the role of sexual protagonist; a drifting between word and body, sex and Art, ideas and desire. I’d started to read Barthes as if his books, these works of ‘literary theory’, actually described a psychosexual utopia that was just out of reach. (It may be that this is exactly what they do describe.)

Such fantasies did not stop me from falling in love with people who had strictly no knowledge of or interest in the kind of books I was reading. And the ones who did had by no means taken things so much to heart. But like many an inarticulate young lover, I thought for a time that seduction was a matter of giving the right book to the right woman. In my case it was Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: a meditation on Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther that catalogues the melancholic lover’s prized ‘image repertoire’ – the scene of waiting, the feeling of being dissolved in the presence of the loved being, the attraction of suicide – and thinly veils the author’s own life as a middle-aged gay man in Paris in the 1970s. This gift was always a prelude to disaster. The first time, the girl in question – she was a French waitress, of all things – left the country within days and never returned. The second, I found the book a month later under the girl’s bed, bearing the distinct imprint of a Doc Marten boot. The unlucky third time, the book was my idea of a Valentine’s Day present, and we split up weeks later. We split up again two years after that, by which time she’d got round to reading A Lover’s Discourse and wishing she’d never met me. Advice to the young: this book is brilliant and cursed.


A short story by César Aira

César Aira’s short story, ‘Picasso’ (trans. Chris Andrews), published in the New Yorker a few weeks back, is taken from The Musical Brain and Other Stories, a story collection forthcoming from New Directions in March 2015. New Directions publisher Barbara Epler’s short interview on discovering Aira‘s work is also worth a read for context.

(This is by the by but worth recounting: In 1997 César Aira wrote a novel, since published in English as The Literary Conference, in which a translator named César with aspirations to rule the world attends a literary conference so that he can be near the man whose clone he hopes will lead an army to victory: the world-renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes. In response, Fuentes wrote Aira into his 2003 novel La Silla del Águila, predicting that he would become the first Argentine writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2020. The odds on that are probably quite good.)

It all began when the genie came out of the Magic Milk bottle and asked me what I would prefer: to have a Picasso or to be Picasso. He could grant me either wish but, he warned me, only one of the two. I had to think about it for quite a while—or, rather, he obliged me to think about it. Folklore and literature are so full of stories about greedy fools who are punished for their haste it makes you think those offers are all too good to be true. There are no records or reliable precedents on which to base a decision, because this sort of thing happens only in stories or jokes, so no one has ever really thought about it seriously; and in the stories there’s always a trick, otherwise it would be no fun and there would be no story. At some point, we’ve all secretly imagined this happening. I had it all worked out, but only for the classic “three wishes” scenario. The choice the genie had given me was so unexpected, and one of the options was so definitive, that I needed some time to weigh them up.

It was a strange choice but not inappropriate; in fact, it was particularly apt. I was leaving the Picasso Museum, in a state of rapture and boundless admiration, and at that moment I could not have been offered anything, or any two things, that would have tempted me more. I hadn’t actually left the museum yet. I was in the garden, sitting at one of the outdoor tables, having gone to the café and bought a little bottle of the Magic Milk that I’d seen tourists drinking everywhere. It was (it is) a perfect autumn afternoon: gentle light, mild air, and still a while to go before dusk. I took my notebook and pen from my pocket to make some notes, but in the end I didn’t write anything.

The Diski Memoir, Part II

In the London Review of Books

Jenny Diski on moving in with Doris Lessing as a teenager. Indispensable reading.

Over the years I called Doris ‘the woman I live with’, which I worried could be taken to have something a little unseemly or suggestive about it in those not quite yet permissive days; ‘the woman whose house I live in’ (less unseemly but odd); or most often, ‘Doris, my mumble, mumble, mumble’, ‘the person who bla bla bla’. Or I took a deep breath and went the whole hog: ‘Doris, who invited me to go and stay at her house when she heard …’ But with that the conversation was scuppered and once again, I’d end up telling the whole convoluted tale, which fairly rapidly, since Doris had also sent me to the Tavistock Adolescent Clinic to get ‘sorted out’, had become very boring, like a straightforward writing down of my life story. For a while, I decided on ‘foster mother’ but the ‘mother’ part of it made me cringe (as it certainly made Doris cringe), and a friend, who wasn’t English and didn’t know about the system of care for children, objected that it made her sound as if she had taken me in for money. So taking account of cultural understandings, another possible designation hit the dust. I occasionally tried a light-hearted ‘my benefactor’, which had a theatrical and comic edge to it, but once again required a story to be told. There was ‘my friend, Doris’ but that didn’t convey the dynamics of the relationship or the age discrepancy. ‘My fairy godmother’ was kept for those occasions when I was needing to end a conversation for my lack of interest in it. ‘Auntie Doris’ always got a laugh from Doris, and I think she suggested it as a joke when the matter came up. The name thing was an ongoing problem.

Sometimes, for lack of a solution, I thought I’d simply call her ‘my mother’, but that made me so inordinately uncomfortable, ‘mother’ and ‘my’ being more than doubly cringeworthy, that even now I feel the need to reiterate that she wasn’t really my mother. We never spoke about it in more detail than the Auntie Doris joke, but she must have had a sense of it because when my daughter was about a month old and lying on the carpet in her flat, Doris said, out of the blue, in the awkward, clipped and embarrassed tone she used for any discussion of our relationship, which I very well recognised by then: ‘Do you want her to call me grandma? Or some sort of thing like that?’ I took it for the kindly and difficult gesture it was, but awkward and embarrassed myself by her manner, I said I thought ‘Doris’ would be the best name to call her. In any case, I said, ‘she’s got two grandmothers, even if one is invisible – please god.’ I was quite taken by surprise at the thought that all along while I was trying to figure out how to refer to Doris, I actually had a real mother to call my own. But having thought that, it seemed irrelevant.

Fitz Carraldo Editions