Archives: November 2014

The Last Book Party

Gideon Lewis-Kraus on the Frankfurt Book Fair

Yes, this is from 2009, and yes, the Frankfurt Book Fair isn’t happening for another eleven months BUT this is a highly entertaining, stylishly written piece of reportage that will amuse and engage anyone with an interest in the (ludicrous) way in which publishing works. Plus, from experience, it hasn’t changed much in the last five years. Make time for this piece.

Wednesday morning is the first real day of the Fair, and I head straight to the distant hall eight, where I look for Bob Miller. In the early Nineties, Bob Miller founded Hyperion, Disney’s publishing company, where he became known for bringing out such inspiro-motivational titles as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. He left Hyperion this past spring and has since gotten a lot of press< for his new venture, a boutique imprint at HarperCollins called HarperStudio. One idea behind HarperStudio is to break the prisoners’ dilemma of contemporary corporate publishing by doing away with the huge advance: the imprint won’t offer any advances larger than a hundred grand. But any profits will be shared fifty-fifty with the writer. Nobody has any clue whether this will work, but everyone seems hopeful about it, and if Bob Miller shows even a little success there’s a good chance other houses will follow suit. I’ve had two conversations so far in Frankfurt in which he has been called a “hero.”

Bob is sort of my uncle. His mother is my grandfather’s second wife. I was, for complicated and typical family reasons, raised to be pretty skeptical of him, but over the past few years I’ve come to see him as a stand-up guy. His jokes aren’t always hilarious but he’s decent, supportive, and very well-intentioned, and I feel a touch of pride for all his book-business success, even if I probably won’t buy HarperStudio’s The 50th Law, a business-advice manual by the rapper 50 Cent. As Bob and I sit around at the HarperCollins booth, he keeps awkwardly introducing me as an “old friend,” because he’s not really sure about the protocol. I sit in on a few of his meetings and listen to him deliver his spiel to curious fellow publishers, most of them foreigners. People are consistently enthusiastic. Bob takes heart in the fact that he might help to reshape the industry along more reasonable lines. Also to his credit is the lack of vampire talk at his meetings, though at the surrounding tables there’s a lot of stuff about dogs. (“Dogs are big every year,” says Ira, bored.)

Bob and I head over to a meeting he has set up with Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate, a mid-size house based in Edinburgh. Jamie is sometimes called the “rock star of publishing,” but he’s a refined 1985 sort of rock star, like an Etonian Whitesnake. His father is the Eighth Earl of Strafford, and his stepfather, who ran the BBC for many years, is straight-up KBE. Jamie has a leonine aspect, with a high clear brow and soft curls eddying over his ears and along his collar. Today he’s wearing a graphite suit with a steeply angled ticket pocket over an open-necked cobalt shirt. He’s got a really plush lilt that approaches purring. The previous evening, when I first met Jamie, I told him that the only galley I wanted to take away from the Fair was Geoff Dyer’s forthcoming novel, which Canongate will publish this spring, and Jamie took one out of his distressed satchel and gave it to me, along with a CD of his favorite Nick Cave songs. He said that he and Dyer play tennis together, and that he read the first sixty pages of the acetate-wrapped, gold-and-black FSG hardcover of Out of Sheer Rage while half-drunk one late night in his library, standing up by the shelves, then sat down on the couch and finished the whole book in a “one-er.”

Canongate’s booth has a Chesterfield couch and a leather club chair, but Bob and Jamie and I are at a low table. Jamie’s talking about having republished a cult cocaine book from the Seventies called Snowblind, and how “Damien”—Damien Hirst—designed a limited-edition version. Damien’s idea was to use heavy steel-reinforced mirrors as the book’s covers, and for each book to come with a real hundred- dollar bill in a compartment drilled out of the pages and a steel fake AmEx-card bookmark. This was all during a period when Damien was seriously, like, interested in cocaine “as a thing.” They did a thousand copies and the book sold for a thousand pounds, though at Damien’s recent auction some copies went for fifteen hundred. Now Jamie is talking about Marc Quinn’s blood and more stuff about Damien—Bob and I are just rapt—and he interrupts himself—he is constantly interrupting himself—to say that he loves Bob’s business model and really hopes they can do some business together one day, even though HarperCollins UK will be publishing all the British editions of Bob’s books.

It’s never quite clear why this meeting has been scheduled. Jamie is considered to be Morgan Entrekin’s heir as the industry’s boulevardier, the standard-bearer of unanswerable élan. (The two men are close.) He takes risks with strange books and has built a house that’s got more brand identity than just about anyone else. He’s also been shrewd in buying up and repackaging cult books—like a U.K. reissue of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, with blurbs from Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace—that can be had on the cheap, and he knows his market for expensive limited-edition widgets: Damien won’t likely be designing any e-books in the near future. It is in some ways a rearguard maneuver, but a strategic one, and even if his  Entrekinian antics are a bit self- consciously performative, they’re still appreciated by an industry that misses the raffish charm of men like Roger Straus. My uncle Bob, on the other hand, is a corporate guy looking to adapt a system to function within a bottom-line framework. But each seems glad to see the other doing his thing, and Bob leaves the meeting in high spirits.

Translating Infinite Jest

An interview with the Brazilian translator in the Millions

Infinite Jest is a notoriously difficult novel to translate. The German translator, Ulrich Blumenbach, spent six years on his version. There is still no French edition, but one is on the way. Now we have the Brazilian edition. Caetano W. Galindo offers interesting insights into the difficulty of translating such an inventive novel:

GS: What did it feel like to spend so much time, so deep inside such a complicated plot, and such a complicated mind?

CWG: It was a fascinating process. And in this book in particular, the sensation of being “inside” someone’s head (pun intended) is really overwhelming. I love the book even more today, after having unraveled and re-raveled its inner workings. I could feel the plot: I could almost touch it. But you have to remember I was not working on a regular daily schedule. When I could, I clocked 10 hours. But then, the next day, I wouldn’t have time to translate at all, since I would have papers to grade, or other things to write, or students needing help, classes to teach. I think that helped keep me safe. Wallace’s (or Incandenza’s) mind seems to be exactly what the book is: a beautiful labyrinth. Enchanting. But dangerous…

GS: What do you make of IJ’s notoriously indeterminate plot? Did your interpretations or understandings affect your translation?

CWG: As for the plot: well, I’m a translator. The guy designs a labyrinth. I reproduce the design with my own bricks and mortar. It’s not my job to point any ways out, if there are any! As a reader, I do have my interpretation, but that’s not what matters. As I tell students all the time, the translator’s job is not to find an interpretation, but to try and find all interpretations, and keep these possibilities open for this new reader who’s going to have only the translation as a guide. But, back to plot, you basically follow the original steps. No biggie. There’s one thing I regret, though. A student of mine, Ana Carolina Werner, pointed it out to me. The final two words of the book, referring to the tide being “way out,” also suggest the possibility of exit, escape. But there was no way to keep this double entendre in the Portuguese.

West End Boy

Adam Shatz on Anders Behring Breivik in the LRB

Adam Shatz on Anders Behring Breivik, perpetrator of the Utøya massacre, in the London Review of Books:

Before he went on his mass killing spree in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik was a regular at the Palace Grill in Oslo West. He looked harmless: another blond man trying to chat up women at the bar. ‘He came across as someone with a business degree,’ one woman recalled, ‘one of those West End boys in very conservative clothes.’ Indeed he had tried his hand at business, though he’d never completed a degree, or much of anything else. And he was a West End boy, a diplomat’s son. Yet there was the book he said he was writing, a ‘masterwork’ in a ‘genre the world has never seen before’. He refused to say what it was about, only that it was inspired by ‘novels about knights from the Middle Ages’. He did little to hide his obsessions. One night in late 2010, he was at the Palace Grill when a local TV celebrity walked in. Breivik launched into a speech about the Muslim plot against Norway, and about the Knights Templar. The bouncers threw him out. On the street, he said to the celebrity: ‘In one year’s time, I’ll be three times as famous as you.’

This story appears in Aage Borchgrevink’s superb book, and it plays like a scene from a horror film because we know the barfly will make good on his promise. Breivik was hard at work on 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a 1518-page screed exposing the Muslim plot to conquer Christendom. In large part a compendium of extracts from counter-jihadist websites, 2083 was posted online on the day of the attacks under the name ‘Andrew Berwick’, one of Breivik’s several aliases. The signs of Europe’s creeping Islamisation were everywhere, he argued, from Bosnian independence to the spread of mosques in Oslo. Muslim men were having their way with European women, while declaring their own women off-limits to European men. Breivik and his fellow white Norwegians were ‘first-generation dhimmis’ – a term for non-Muslim minorities under Ottoman rule which, like most of his ideas, he’d found online – in what was fast becoming ‘Eurabia’. Worst of all, Europe’s ‘cultural Marxist’ elites had caved in, like a woman who would rather ‘be raped than … risk serious injuries while resisting’. Even the Lutheran Church – ‘priests in jeans who march for Palestine and churches that look like minimalist shopping centres’ – had surrendered. Fortunately, there were ‘knights’ like Breivik who had the courage to defend Europe’s honour.

2083 isn’t just a manifesto: it’s also the would-be inspirational memoir of a man who has rejected the ‘Sex and the City lifestyle’ in favour of his sacred duty. The leap from empty hedonism to murderous heroism is also a recurring theme in the biographies of the young men who leave Bradford, Hamburg, Paris and Oslo for Syria. As Borchgrevink writes, Breivik’s hatred of Islam didn’t prevent him from proposing a tactical alliance with al-Qaida against the liberal state he hated even more. The desires that motivated him scarcely differed from those of his jihadist enemies: revenge, adventure and fame.

Breivik was born in 1979. His parents never married, and separated before he was two; he was raised by his mother, a nurse, who turned out to be unstable and emotionally abusive. By the time he was four, the home had become so turbulent that the state welfare services recommended he be removed. But the recommendation was never acted on, and Breivik grew up hating his mother, whom he accused of ‘feminising’ him, and idolising the father he rarely saw. He was drawn to tough boys like his pal Rafik, the son of Pakistani immigrants who claimed to know members of the notorious ‘B Gang’ in Oslo East. Breivik was a ‘potato’, a white boy, but under Rafik’s tutelage he bought himself a pair of baggy trousers and learned to steal and speak what Borchgrevink calls ‘Kebab Norwegian’. He ‘bombed the city’ with his graffiti tag, Morg, inspired by a Marvel Comics villain. But the friendship with Rafik gradually unravelled, partly because Rafik and his cohort seemed to be a magnet for the white girls who rejected him. Breivik joined a ‘white pride’ gang, and even found himself a girlfriend – but then she dumped him for a Pakistani.

He didn’t do much better in his attempt to become a millionaire, though in his twenties he did make some money selling cheap mobile phone contracts and fake diplomas, mostly to immigrants. He joined the right-wing Progress Party, whose opposition to immigration and higher taxes chimed with his own resentments. But what appears to have transformed him was discovering the writings of Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen, a blogger who wrote under the name ‘Fjordman’. Fjordman’s online manifesto, Native Revolt: A European Declaration of Independence, gave meaning to Breivik’s failures by situating them in a global war between Christendom and Islam. Rafik, he realised, was no mere hoodlum: he was a secret jihadist. ‘The petty-criminal subculture of the 1990s was reborn as a religious conflict,’ in Borchgrevink’s words, and Breivik was now a knight in the war to save Europe.

Keen to make contact with his fellow knights, he introduced himself to Fjordman, who found him ‘as boring as a vacuum cleaner salesman’. He turned up at a pro-Israel meeting organised by the Friends of, a far-right website edited by Hans Rustad, a former soixante-huitard who claimed that Muslim men were using sex as a form of warfare, inflicting a ‘slow castration’ on Western men. Rustad felt ‘there were some inhibitions missing in [Breivik’s] head.’ No one with inhibitions would have wandered into Monrovia during the Liberian civil war, which is what Breivik did in 2002. He told friends that he was going to buy blood diamonds, but his real purpose was to pay his respects to Milorad Ulemek, known as the Dragon, an ultra-nationalist Serb who’d fought in the Special Operations Unit of the Serb army: the Serbs, in Breivik’s view, had been Europe’s front-line defenders in the battle with Islam, only to be cruelly abandoned in their hour of need. Nothing much came of these encounters, but he now felt himself to be part of a community. In 2006 he moved back in with his mother, so that he could contribute to right-wing websites, play video games and work on 2083. But he was afraid of becoming ‘a bitter old goat behind a computer’: ‘Convert your frustration and anger to motivation and resolve,’ he told himself. He began taking steroids, and dressing up in a red uniform covered in badges; his mother thought he’d gone ‘all Rambo’.

On the morning of 22 July 2011, Breivik uploaded his manifesto to his favourite websites, and emailed it to 1003 contacts in Europe and Israel. He’d timed the launch to coincide with the events he’d planned for later in the day: a bombing in central Oslo, followed by a strike on Utøya, an island 40 kilometres north of the city where the Labour Party Youth had their annual retreat. He’d been preparing the attack since 2002, he claimed when interrogated by the police. He had bought his Ruger rifle and Glock pistol legally; the rifle bore the inscription ‘Gungnir’, after Odin’s spear. He built the 950 kg bomb with fertiliser he’d purchased for a farm he set up in 2009 on land rented from elderly farmers north of Oslo. Five months before the massacre, a UN-directed anti-terror programme identified him as one of 41 Norwegians who had imported chemicals that could be used for fertiliser bombs, but the Norwegian security services didn’t investigate. They were worried about radical jihadists, not West End boys who lived with their mothers.

Interview with Fiona McCrae

In Guernica magazine

Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf Press (with whom Fitzcarraldo Editions shares Eula Biss’s On Immunity), was interviewed in Guernica earlier this year by Jonathan Lee. A very interesting summary of the indie publishing philosophy, as evidenced by this snippet on discovering Per Petterson: 

Guernica: I saw you speak at an event last night at the offices of the literary journal A Public Space—where, as you know, I work—and you were addressing a crowd of emerging writers. You talked about Graywolf publishing “against the tide”—finding work that other houses might overlook or might not think would work. How much of that is out of necessity, and how much is by design?

Fiona McCrae: I think it’s both. The two drive each other. My nature is much more attracted to against-the-tide books. For example, at Graywolf, if I hear that there is another offer on a manuscript, it generally makes me less interested, not more. I do not feel competitive in that way, so I don’t believe that the fact someone else wants to publish a piece of writing makes that piece of writing good. I think I was overly affected as a child by fairy stories where the bronze casket turns out to be the winner, not the gold. With a Graywolf author like Per Petterson things have happened for him in a wonderfully organic way—he’s become a big name for all the right reasons, from quite modest beginnings. When publishers spend a huge amount of money on a book up front, they start from the position that it has to work, or else, and that can drain the pleasure from the experience and make everyone overly tense, and certain successes are deemed insufficient in some way.

Guernica: You publish a book like Out Stealing Horses with pretty modest expectations of sales, and then when it wins the IMPAC things grow from there, naturally. That’s your preferred route to success.

Fiona McCrae: Yes. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in the publishing industry in loving those “sleeper” stories. I prefer them to the stories of splashy advances. At Graywolf, I prefer knowing we were the only ones who offered on a book, who saw it might work.

Of course, I don’t mean that everyone we publish would stand no chance at another publishing house. But we like to make the right offer on a book, and to make that offer to an author who really does connect with Graywolf. With Out Stealing Horses, we bought that for a fairly modest advance when a number of publishers over here [in New York] had turned it down. And then unexpected things started to happen.

Guernica: What was the first unexpected thing?

Fiona McCrae: Well, early on Amy Tan phoned up out of the blue to offer a blurb that we hadn’t asked her for. That never happens. And then the book was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, then shortlisted, and finally, incredibly, it won. And then the same for the IMPAC, which was announced one week before [it appeared] on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Suddenly everything was happening.

Another example. I remember us publishing Tracy K. Smith’s poetry, and then in 2011 publishing her new collection Life On Mars. We thought she deserved to win something that year, but then the National Book Awards came and went. Nothing. Later in the year I was at the National Book Critics Circle Awards announcements. Nothing. Then I was in London for the London Book Fair in April, out with three friends who’d studied English literature with me at university, and a text came through saying: “Tracy K. Smith has won the Pulitzer Prize.” That was great fun—to see that happen to someone [for whom] you’ve published over three books.

Publishing Kazuo Ishiguro was like that in England. Faber published his first work in an anthology, and then his first two novels before The Remains of the Day, which of course won the Booker Prize.

Guernica: What about those difficult moments where you do well with an author’s book, and then they cash in by leaving for a bigger publishing house?

Fiona McCrae: It happens, of course, but sometimes an author just needs more money than we can offer. There’s no point wringing your hands over that. It’s not our job, as a small non-profit publisher, to come between an author and a big advance. In fact, it goes with the territory at any-sized publishing house. People leave Penguin. People leave Knopf. The nice thing, when authors don’t leave, is that all the books stay under one roof, and the continuity can be very productive. Per Peterson has always remembered that we took him on when others didn’t want to publish him. And after the huge success of Out Stealing Horses, there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted to stay with Graywolf. We paid more for his next book, of course, but he could have got a bigger advance by switching publishers. He chose to stay. And we took on Kevin Barry in a two-book deal, so were able to publish his short-story collection after he too got the front cover of the New York Times Book Review and went on to win the IMPAC.

Tom McCarthy on Gravity’s Rainbow

In the New York Times

Tom McCarthy reviews the audiobook edition of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon in the New York Times:

“Gravity’s Rainbow,” Thomas Pynchon’s gargantuan parable of rocketry, sex and a whole bunch of other stuff, turned 41 this year — six years older than its author when it was first published. What happens when a novel whose scenes of coprophagia and pedophilia moved Pulitzer trustees to cancel the prize in 1974 (when Pynchon seemed poised to win) eases into middle-aged, canonical respectability? Well, for one thing, it gets an audiobook release. Since the mid-1980s, a George Guidall recording has been floating around, like some mythical lost rocket part — no one had heard it, but all Pynchon fans knew someone who knew someone who had — but in October a new version, authorized and rerecorded and burned onto 30 compact discs — hit the stands. How on earth, I wondered as I stripped the wrapper, is poor Mr. Guidall going to render the sudden outbreaks of crazed capitals, or librettos in which stoners with guitars pastiche Rossini, the instructions helpfully stating “(bubububoo[oo] oo [sung to opening of Beethoven 5th, with full band])”? He turns out to do it in a slow and deep-voiced manner, beneath whose calm avuncularity you can detect anxiety, even mania, bubbling but never quite erupting — although I could have sworn I heard him, in the silence at the end of CD 30, racing out the door to buy a year’s supply of those Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges the hero Slothrop sucks, or perhaps to check himself into the book’s White Visitation mental hospital.

The main benefit of Guidall’s superhuman effort may well be ergonomic. Unlike Grigori, the novel’s reflex-­conditioned octopus, a human reader has only two hands; removing the book as a physical object frees up one of these to palm through Steven Weisenburger’s “A ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ Companion” and the other to click around the many online glossaries to the text while listening. Such resources seem to me more than optional; only “Finnegans Wake” is more opaque, more reference-­saturated than Pynchon’s novel. And perhaps the benefits of audio end here. An old canard, reeled off incessantly by people who haven’t read “Finnegans Wake,” or at least haven’t understood it, holds that “you need to hear it spoken aloud in order to appreciate it.” This is nonsense: Joyce’s novel, wrapped around in silence, is all about legibility — inscriptions, codices, scattered scraps of paper in need of reassembly, exegesis or decoding. So it is with “Gravity’s Rainbow”: The book’s logic is entirely scriptural. Every surface in it is a parchment to be interpreted: ice-cracks form “graffiti . . . a legend to be deciphered”; raindrops splash in asterisks, inviting us “to look down at the bottom of the text of the day”; lit cigarettes trail “cursive writing”; even feces on the walls of sewers presents “patterns thick with meaning.” Its people, lying in rows in a hospital ward described as a “half-open file drawer of pain each bed a folder,” are legible as well, “poor human palimpsests” that doctors transcribe and — more sinisterly — rewrite. Slothrop’s ancestors, as Puritans, scanned the sky for messages, viewed all of nature as a ledger packed with data “behind which always, nearer or farther, was the numinous certainty of God.” In keeping with their sensibility, the narrative momentum thrusts both forward, toward inevitable (because predestined) final catastrophe and judgment and, simultaneously, backward, through histories encrypted into junkyards, light bulbs, even human hair, reverse-engineering cities into ruins, rooms to their “plan views” in order to lay bare the plans hatched in them, plans in whose web all current actors find themselves entangled. One character is tellingly urged, in a direct address by the narrator, to ponder a “wind tunnel” theory of history, through which tensor analysis might reveal “nodes, critical points,” turbulence-spots decisive in the shaping of all subsequent airflow, only now become apparent — then told, “Here’s a thought: Find a non-­dimensional coefficient for yourself.”


Seiobo There Below

Excerpt published in The White Review

Over at The White Review, the first chapter of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, ‘Kamo-Hunter’, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Originally published in English by New Directions in the US, it’s forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions Tuskar Rock Press in the UK in 2015. 



Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silken breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scourging heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles, and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; each individual shallow wave, as it falls, tumbles over the low weirs, and then, every inconceivable fleeting element of this subsiding wave, and all the individual glitterings of light flashing on the surface of this fleeting element, this surface suddenly emerging and just as quickly collapsing, with its drops of light dying down, scintillating, and then reeling in all directions, inexpressible in words; clouds are gathering; the restless, jarring blue sky high above; the sun is concentrated with horrific strength, yet still indescribable, extending onto the entire momentary creation, maddeningly brilliant, blindingly radiant; the fish and the frogs and the beetles and the tiny reptiles are in the river; the cars and the buses, from the northbound number 3 to the number 32 up to the number 38, inexorably creep along on the steaming asphalt roads built parallel on both embankments, then the rapidly propelled bicycles below the breakwaters, the men and women strolling next to the river along paths that were built or inscribed into the dust, and the blocking stones, too, set down artificially and asymmetrically underneath the mass of gliding water: everything is at play or alive, so that things happen, move on, dash along, proceed forward, sink down, rise up, disappear, emerge again, run and flow and rush somewhere, only it, the Ooshirosagi, does not move at all, this enormous snow-white bird, open to attack by all, not concealing its defenselessness; this hunter, it leans forward, its neck folded in an S-form, and it now extends its head and long hard beak out from this S-form, and strains the whole, but at the same time it is strained downward, its wings pressed tightly against its body, its thin legs searching for a firm point beneath the water’s surface; it fixes its gaze on the flowing surface of the water, the surface, yes, while it sees, crystal-clear, what lies beneath this surface, down below in the refractions of light, however rapidly it may arrive, if it does arrive, if it ends up there, if a fish, a frog, a beetle, a tiny reptile arrives with the water that gurgles as the flow is broken and foams up again, with one single precise and quick movement, the bird shall strike with its beak, and lift something up, it’s not even possible to see what it is, everything happens with such lightning speed, it’s not possible to see, only to know that it is a fish — an amago, an ayu, a huna, a kamotsuka, a mugitsuku or an unagi or something else — and that is why it stood there, almost in the middle of the Kamo River, in the shallow water; and there it stands, in one time, immeasurable in its passing, and yet beyond all doubt extant, one time proceeding neither forward nor backward, but just swirling and moving nowhere, like an inconceivably complex net, cast out into time; and this motionlessness, despite all its strength, must be born and sustained, and it would only be fitting to grasp this simultaneously, but it is precisely that, this simultaneous grasping, that cannot be realized, so it remains unsaid, and even the entirety of the words that want to describe it do not appear, not even the separate words; yet still the bird must lean upon one single moment all at once, and in doing so, must obstruct all movement: all alone, within its own self, in the frenzy of events, in the exact center of an absolute, swarming, teeming world, it must remain there in this cast-out moment, so that this moment as it were closes down upon it, and then the moment is closed, so that the bird may bring its snow-white body to a dead halt in the exact center of this furious movement, so that it may impress its own motionlessness against the dreadful forces breaking over it from all directions, because what comes only much later is that once again it will take part in this furious motion, in the total frenzy of everything, and it too will move, in a lightning-quick strike, together with everything else; for now, however, it remains within this enclosing moment, at the beginning of the hunt.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The stage adaptation

Katherine Boo’s excellent Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an account of life in a Mumbai slum, has been adapted for the stage by David Hare. (Here’s Pankaj Mishra’s 2012 review of the book, too.)

In a National Theatre rehearsal room, a stagehand is dumping a hundred or so empty plastic water bottles from a bin liner onto the floor. Set dressing tends to be a bit more fastidious, even decorous. The main reassurance that this isn’t theatre being done on the cheap is the presence of playwright Sir David Hare, artistic director elect Rufus Norris and the esteemed actress Meera Syal.

For 20 minutes, Syal leads the cast of 25 South Asian actors in a run-through of the National’s forthcoming epic, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It is perhaps the biggest play about waste ever mounted.

The source material is a remarkably powerful book by Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist who spent more than three years meticulously documenting lives in Annawadi, a teeming slum in the shadow of Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was published simultaneously in the US and India in 2012, was widely hailed and won numerous awards: it shone a torch on endemic corruption and abject poverty, refusing to sentimentalise its subjects while giving them their humanity: Boo’s Annawadians quarrel and joke, strive and connive like the rest of us, but with a much shorter life expectancy.

The book was bound to journey away from the page and the first person to pounce and option it was the omnivorous New York producer Scott Rudin. He gave the idea of staging it to Hare, who for Rudin had adapted Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. But Boo was not initially persuaded.

“I just wasn’t sure what it would be like to fictionalise lives,” she says. “I was uncomfortable with it. But then other people in my life said, ‘You’re being silly, these are very serious people with interesting points of view.’ I thought, I need to know what the people who are in my book think about this.”

So she went to Annawadi and asked around. She remains a frequent visitor anyway — she went eight times in 2013. And she found that the characters in her book — the ones who are still alive, that is – were keen.

“In some way they found the idea of theatre more accessible than a book, because many of the people I wrote about were illiterate or semi-literate.”

Ned Beauman interviews William Gibson

In the Guardian

In the words of the commissioning editor who is behind this piece, this interview by Ned Beauman with William Gibson, on the occasion of the release of his novel The Peripheral, is the ‘nerdiest ever bit of commissioning’: 

Let me make one thing clear from the start: this is not going to be one of those hard-hitting Lynn Barber-type profiles. I am a huge William Gibson guy, and I have been since I was 13 years old. Earlier this year I took my devotion to the extreme lengths – the excessive lengths, let’s all admit – of publishing what was essentially a William Gibson tribute novel, like a small-town Black Sabbath playing an evening of wonky covers at the pub. So when I tell you that Gibson picked me up in his car from my hotel in Vancouver, so I didn’t even have to get a taxi – and indeed that he was impeccably hospitable and generous over the ensuing 24 hours – you might think: “How awfully convenient that this lifelong hero of Beauman’s, whom he is clearly desperate to be friends with, should happen to be a really nice guy.” Yes, I agree, it is awfully convenient, but sometimes things just turn out that way.

The effect that Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer had on me when I read it as an adolescent – comparable to a defibrillator applied directly to my forebrain – was the same effect that it had on speculative fiction in general when it was first published in 1984. People who wouldn’t normally be seen reading a book about a hacker in the future who sneaks on to a space station to help a computer turn into a god – and that’s a lot of people, perhaps including you – they made an exception for Neuromancer, because it was just too brilliant to ignore. Neuromanceroriginated a subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk, which later withered away, redundant, because cyberpunk had become the condition of the real world. Gibson could therefore be credited with anticipating the information age, with the result that for the last 30 years he has regularly been pressed into service as a prophet. And yet you’re not giving his fiction its due if you just score it on the accuracy of its predictions like a six-horse accumulator. Call me biased, but I think the most interesting thing about a novelist is the inherent quality of his or her novels. And Gibson’s – 11 so far – are some of the best and most singular novels by anyone writing in English.

Gibson picked me up that day so that we could drive about 20 minutes northeast to Dusty Greenwell Park, a margin of grass overlooking Vancouver Harbour. Dusty Greenwell Park is not the most arcadian of retreats. Down the slope, past a snarl of blackberry bushes, is Canada’s largest container grain-loading facility, where trainloads of malt are disgorged into containers and then trucked off to the shipping terminals. Trains thunder past for minutes at a time, almost drowning out conversation, and a grain elevator, discoloured by rust and moss and pigeon shit, blocks part of the view of the North Shore Mountains across the bay. We visited because this was the setting of one of the climactic scenes of Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country, in which “the narrow park leap[s] into shivering, seemingly shadowless incandescence” as a spy flees a patrolling helicopter.

Spook Country is not the book that Gibson, 66, is currently promoting. That is his superb new novel The Peripheral. But The Peripheral is set partly in the American south in the 2030s, and partly in London in the 2100s, so it would have been difficult to find a directly relevant excursion within the Vancouver city limits.

In the book, it’s a sort of transtemporal Skype running on a mysterious Chinese server that accounts for those two eras becoming entangled in a single story. By bringing them face to face, Gibson was addressing the tendency of any given generation to assume that “the inhabitants of the past are hicks and rubes, and the inhabitants of the future are effete, overcomplicated beings with big brains and weak figures. We always think of ourselves as the cream of creation.” Although he generally defers to his unconscious when asked about his creative process, Gibson allowed that this book may have had its origin in a news story he read about a midwestern Christian militia called Hutaree whose members were arrested in 2010 for an alleged conspiracy to kill local police officers.

“The thing that struck me was that several very young teenagers had been left to fend for themselves when all of the adults had been taken away to jail,” he said. “I started imagining being one of those kids and how I would understand the world.” The setting also fed on Gibson’s own upbringing in small-town South Carolina, the film Winter’s Bone and the HBO series Deadwood, about a lawless town during the Gold Rush. “I wanted the equivalent of the city slickers, from a very different world, turning up in Deadwood. Initially I thought the other world would be New York or Los Angeles. But at some point I realised that could be the future.”

By now we had found a bench and we were both sipping from little cans of Boss Coffee that we’d picked up at Fujiya Japanese Foods on the way to the park. This made the outing rather Gibsonian in ways that neither of us realised at the time. Boss Coffee is manufactured by Suntory, and I’ve since learned that a lot of the malt in the containers before us would have been bound for Suntory’s beer and whisky breweries in Japan. Huge Japanese conglomerates with tentacles in the most unlikely places; the hypercomplex networks of globalised commerce; really good espresso – these have been quintessential Gibson tropes ever sinceNeuromancer.

By and large, I like Gibson now for the same reasons I liked Neuromancer when I first read it: his books are really cool – and I don’t mean “cool” as in “hip” or “chic”, I mean “cool” as in “awesome” or “rad”. That sounds like faint praise, because 13-year-olds have no taste and “cool” is not a respectable term of critical approbation. But what I mean by “cool” is that Gibson presents you with something new – a technology, a garment, a building, a scheme, an expertise, a power structure – and this new thing is burnished with so much imagination and lyricism and attention to detail, and so much of the noir and the gothic and the postmodern all at once, that it’s electrifyingly exciting just to contemplate. He does this several times on every page, and intersperses some old junk that he did not invent, and then connects all this stuff up so unpredictably that the connections are themselves exciting. And before long the connections are dense enough that he has a world, and he lets you shadow a small cast of reprobates as they pinball through every echelon of that world.

The Case for Paying Ransoms

Simon Critchley in the New York Review of Books

Simon Critchley makes the case for negotiating with ISIS for the release of hostages in the New York Review of Books:

The recent revelations about payments made by European governments to secure the release of hostages held by ISIS raise a fascinating set of issues and an apparent moral dilemma. In a couple of extended, detailed, and carefully researched articles published by The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi documents the extent of the complicity between various European nations and international terrorist organizations. It is estimated that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates have made $125 million from kidnappings since 2008, including $66 million in the last year alone, which may account for about half of the operating budget of these groups.

The case of ISIS is even more extreme. Emerging out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the group that has come to be known as ISIL or ISIS, or the more ontological IS, gradually captured and gathered together twenty-three foreign hostages from twelve countries, the majority of them Europeans. (This is not counting the forty-six Turks and three Iraqis taken during the fall of Mosul in June this year.) They were initially held in a prison under the Children’s Hospital of Aleppo and subsequently transferred to a building outside an oil installation in Raqqa in eastern Syria, the current capital of ISIS.

Notably, the two American and two British hostages—James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning—who were horrifically beheaded between mid-August and early October of this year were in this group, as was a Russian captive, Sergey Gorbunov, who was shot dead last spring, after it became clear the Russian government had little interest in his case.

So where are all the rest, who mostly came from continental Europe? For the most part, safely back home because their governments negotiated with ISIS for their release. Details are murky, but it would appear that, from among the twenty-three, almost 6 million euros was paid for the release of three Spanish aid workers, followed by a reported $18 million for four French journalists, and substantial payments for an Italian aid worker, and a Danish photojournalist, who was released after the family apparently raised the money for the ransom. (It should also be noted that, according to press reports, the forty-six Turkish hostages and the three Iraqis may have been released in a prison swap for 180 Islamic militants—including two British jihadists, Shabazz Suleman and Hisham Folkard, being held by Turkish authorities. President Erdogan of Turkey denied that any ransom had been paid, but was rather cagey about the details of the negotiations.)

Fitzcarraldo Editions at Offprint Paris (14-16 November)

At the Beaux-Arts

Fitzcarraldo Editions will have a stand at Offprint Paris from 14-16 November at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Offprint Paris is an art-publishing fair featuring discerning publishers on art, photography, design and experimental music labels. This year’s edition showcases more than 130 publishers from over 20 countries, the exhibition ‘Disarming Design from Palestine’, talks and signings. Come visit. 

Fitz Carraldo Editions