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Esther Kinsky and Caroline Schmidt on gardens

While in lockdown, Esther Kinsky, author of River and Grove, and Caroline Schmidt, translator of Grove from German to English, have both been focusing on gardening. Here they share one of their email exchanges about gardening and photographs of their successes.

(EK to CS, May 29 2020)
How is your little cherry tree doing that seemed like a shivering waif in the March sunlight? One of my cherry trees in the orto (planted last year) has five immaculate cherries to show for itself. The fruit tree miracle is my peach tree, also planted last year, which is full of little flat vineyard peaches. 

But the flowers! The first wave of rose bloom is already over, and unfortunately my great project of having an old English climbing rose (nicely named ‘Shropshire Lass’) intertwine itself with a late blooming violet Clematis on the rose arch hasn’t worked out, they’ve just missed each other, the tips are touching, but the lass has finished her first bloom (rosy white, as befits the name) while the clematis is only just coming out and looking a bit stark with nothing but the thin black iron of the rose arch to match its deep violet. Maybe next year they shall wed.

My seven English roses have all survived my learning curve here in Italy, some are thriving more than others. Roses are such strange creatures, they are characters really, sometimes they make me think of cats because they also do as they please. But probably I’m just an impatient and inconsistent gardener, too greedy for beauty. Apart from that, I’m almost aghast at the size and copiousness of my snapdragon (up to my shoulders), Sweet William, and Nigella, and Echinacea. The former two come from a 70 cent Lidl seed packet, I have to confess (I hate Lidl and usually limit my shopping there to cat food, but the seeds have proved to be quite something). I really recommend Nigella, these wispy flowers in so many shades of blue, very undemanding, after the blossom they form pretty seeds pods, and the seeds make a wonderful spice (black cumin).

Last year’s English poppies have self seeded and are now, probably after some cross fertilisation with the wild red poppies, developing the most amazing colours and colour effects, I attach a few photos, they are so delicate and short lived, and that’s why their beauty is so touching. I hope we’ll manage an Olson week this year and you’ll see the garden.

Did I tell you how much I like your project to offer a kind of collaborative residency? Maybe I can come and contribute something one day, and write a text about Altfriedland, the birds, the Wende.. But I’m not good at building work, so you’d have to find something else for me. Sewing curtains, or gardening. A week of weeding! Not such a nightmare in the sandy soil of the Mark, as Martin used to say. Apparently the Mark Brandenburg was called the sandpit of Europe in the 18th/19th century. (The Friuli is charmingly named the pissoir of Europe because of the precipitation). Considering the martial inclinations of the Prussians the name is rather deceptive.

 

(CS to EK, June 2 2020)

Your flowers are gorgeous, and you’ve convinced me to take a trip to Lidl the next time I’m in Seelow.

Helga says it was a bad year for peaches. She is 80 and lives alone. Every evening she sits down on her veranda and says to her garden: ich weiss du bringst mich um, aber ich liebe dich!

Whenever I water the garden, I imagine the neighbours are rolling their eyes, thinking: there she goes again, giving the weeds a drink! But being a negligent gardener has its advantages. After avoiding eye contact with our blackberry bushes for days, which were drowning in stinging nettle, I was pleasantly surprised to find they had sprouted three squash plants, as big as squirrels. The seeds must have come from the compost.

And when you don’t have a lawn, you have other things, like Storchschnabel. The seedpods are nutty, supposedly; they tasted green to me. Still, I appreciate that the name invites you to see them as beaks.

Readings MINOR DETAIL by Adania Shibli and Elisabeth Jaquette

Minor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – the catastrophe that led to the displacement and expulsion of more than 700,000 people – and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history. A haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, Minor Detail cuts to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment.

Reading Aloud Allowed

Antonia Lloyd-Jones, translator from Polish, describes her experience of reading her own translation for the audiobook recording of DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD by 2018 Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk

When Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, was shortlisted for several prizes including the Man Booker International award in 2019, there were a number of public promotional events, at which I did readings from the book. To maximise the opportunity, I never read the same extract twice. I chose dialogue-free extracts, and made the unconventional narrator sound eccentric, to catch the audience’s attention, and give them an idea of the whole book – black comedy, with this strange character at its heart. These readings were well received, and even though the book didn’t win any prizes, I was rewarded by kind comments and excellent sales. To my surprise, several people asked if I was going to read the audiobook. I hadn’t heard of a translator doing that, but authors read their own work, so why not? I asked Jacques Testard, the publisher, if it was possible. He liked the idea, but although hoping to make an audiobook, he didn’t yet have the resources.

Meanwhile the much larger American publisher was planning to record one, so I offered my services, but was told I sounded too British. The job went to an American professional actress of Polish origin, who read it with a mild Polish accent, and won an award for her reading. I was disappointed, but realised I’d expected too much. I thought the whole thing was off and forgot about it.

Almost a year later, Jacques told me that Fitzcarraldo had received a grant to make some audiobooks, and would I still like to record Drive Your Plow… for the UK market? I immediately said yes, although I knew it would be a challenge.

 

How to get it wrong

The recording schedule was tough – three days to read 268 pages. I felt nervous on the first day, and soon discovered that I wasn’t properly prepared. Of course I knew the text well, but I had never read the whole thing aloud to an audience before, just short, self-contained pieces, for a few minutes at a time, to make an impression quickly.

On that first day I expected to record six chapters, but after four, Kate Bland, the audiobook producer, said she thought we’d better stop to allow Tamara Sampey-Jawad – the Fitzcarraldo editor responsible for their audiobooks – to hear it, and decide if that was what they wanted. It was obvious from her tone that it wasn’t what she would have wanted. I asked her to tell me straight what I was doing wrong. She was diplomatic, but made some general suggestions: I wasn’t differentiating the characters well enough in the dialogues, and I wasn’t getting the pace right for long sections where the narrator describes a scene at length, or expounds one of her bizarre theories.

I was crestfallen – so I was out of my league. As someone with no professional training, I’d been presumptuous to imagine I could do this. I was afraid Tamara would listen to the recording, agree with Kate, and ask me to stop. Instead, she liked it, and I was back on board. But I knew I should listen to Kate’s warning. I asked to defer the recording to give me time to do some more thinking, and to prepare properly.

 

How to get it right, possibly

In my efforts to find a new approach, first I consulted friends: an actor who has recorded lots of audiobooks, and a theatre director. They gave good advice, and prompted me to listen to some existing audiobooks with a new ear. I also read the entire book again, aloud, to rehearse, which earned me some funny looks on public transport.

As I read, I highlighted the dialogue to give myself visual cues for the lines spoken by different characters. I realised that I shouldn’t give them accents or strong quirks of speech, because I wouldn’t remember who spoke how, it would be hard to keep up, and it could sound off-putting or patronising. Instead I simply had to alter the tone to reflect who was speaking and what they were saying – act the lines, as it were, and pause between them to allow the listener to keep pace with changes of speaker.

Most importantly, I realised, or rather remembered, that the narrator was the key to the whole reading. When I translated the book to be read on paper, I had made sure that although the central character, Janina Duszejko, is plainly eccentric, she shouldn’t be too weird, or the reader wouldn’t want to stick with her to the final page. For the purposes of the story, ideally the reader needs to sympathise with her, even though she’s a rebellious non-conformist who rubs people up the wrong way. More than that, the reader needs to become complicit with her as she embarks on some unusual behaviour. I think she sounds quite stylised in Polish, and it works, but for English-language readers I instinctively feel she should be a little less overtly strange, so in my translation I reined her in a bit, to make sure the reader found her likeable as well as odd.

Now I realised that I needed to do the same thing for the listener. Reading aloud adds another layer of interpretation – reading off the page for themselves, the readers understand the text in their own way, but the actor reading the audiobook inevitably interprets, influencing the listeners’ response. While in short bursts at public events it had been all right for me to add a tone to tell the audience that Duszejko is eccentric, that was the worst thing I could do when reading the entire book. It would become annoying after an hour or two – and that’s what Kate had picked up on. I was making the narrator too alien, and ultimately unsympathetic.

So I took a new approach, and read it straightforwardly, as me, rather than the way I imagined the character might sound in real life. And it all fell into place – reading it without encumbering myself by “acting” the narrator allowed me to change the pitch, pace and tone when I actually needed to. I felt much more relaxed when I came to do the recording, and wasn’t fazed by the dialogues either. Of course I can’t be the judge of the result, but Kate seemed happy with my change of approach.

 

How it works in practice

If you’re wondering how audiobooks are made, the producer sits you down in a recording studio, carefully adjusting the seat and the position of the microphone to make sure you’re comfortable. Then she shuts you in there alone, taking her place on the other side of a glass screen, at a computer showing the sound levels. She speaks to you through a microphone, occasionally making useful comments. In my case, the book was on a stand in front of me as I read, and I made pauses to turn the page, a noise that has to be edited out afterwards.

It’s impossible to read for long without fluffing. Some sentences took several goes, making me feel like a scratched CD that’s juddering. Some words just decide to be bolshie: I had trouble with ‘retrograde’, ‘particularly’, and ‘deaths’. Thankfully, the producer removes all the false starts, coughs and splutters, making the recording sound smooth as silk. So yes, there is some mild cursing, but it ends up on the cutting-room floor.

The text included two songs, one very famous, but on my theatre director’s advice I didn’t attempt to sing, but spoke them. I had to check in advance some dates in German, and how to pronounce some unusual words, including ‘adipocere’, ‘Ephemerides’, ‘pyknic’ and ‘butyric’. Oh, and Cucujus haematodes.

Of course, as the translator, I couldn’t resist making a few tiny amendments as I read, and even found a mistake, where a ‘not’ had been left out, so the audiobook is slightly different from the printed edition.

And it was bloody hard work – try reading 104 pages aloud in a period of six hours with two half-hour breaks. After the first day I felt as if I’d swallowed tin tacks. Hurray for Strepsils and especially for (disgusting but effective) Vocalzone throat pastilles, honey and lemon juice.

 

What I learned

Even after translating this book, reading the whole text aloud showed it to me in a fresh light. It confirmed what I knew, that Olga Tokarczuk is a brilliant writer. Perhaps only a former psychotherapist could have created the extraordinary Janina Duszejko, who talks a lot of truth and common sense, but who can also come across as seriously unwell and out of control. Reading it again so intensely made me have new feelings about Duszejko – she partly inspired me as I found myself sympathising with her often extreme views about animal rights and human folly, and she partly made me want to get away from her at high speed as she gradually slid off the rails.

Perhaps some people will like my reading, and some won’t – the sound of someone else’s voice is a personal thing. But I hope I’ve done justice to Olga Tokarczuk and her extraordinary creation, Janina Duszejko.

Thank you to everyone at Fitzcarraldo Editions and Cast Iron Radio.

Esther Kinsky and Caroline Schmidt present GROVE

In Grove an unnamed narrator, recently bereaved, travels to Olevano, a small village south-east of Rome. It is winter, and from her temporary residence on a hill between village and cemetery, she embarks on walks and outings, exploring the banal and the sublime with equal dedication and intensity. Seeing, describing, naming the world around her is her way of redefining her place within it.

Here, author Esther Kinsky shares photographs of the places that inspired Grove and gives a reading, followed by a short talk by the translator, Caroline Schmidt on the experience of translating Grove.

 

 

 


Dispatches

From Katharina Volckmer, London, UK

I wanted to write about the books I’m reading. About Tolstoy, Proust, Bachmann, Bernhard, Humboldt, Stepanova, Vuong, Preciado, Nelson and Smith. About colours and how they move me. How I painted the door of an old shed in bright turquoise and felt redeemed. About how desperate I am to visit the Forbes Pigment collection in Harvard. How I imagine that standing in front of colours which no longer exist elsewhere would heal my broken soul. I wanted to write about how colours can tell us what is right and what is dangerous. About how the aesthetics of Netflix are so ugly that I want to cry. About how some pigments continue to be made from organic matter. That some famous paintings are made with cow piss and pulverised mummies. How brutal beauty really is. About how if we stare at green for long enough our eyes will interfere and turn everything red. How red is the oldest pigment we know. How we can only stare at things for so long before our brain stops blurring their existence. I wanted to write about my body and how it keeps drifting in and out of me. How there is no desire left. How I’m scared that all the wrong forces are in charge now. That nobody will ever fuck again and all museums will be permanently closed. About how all colours will cease to exist and we will have to destroy someone before we can create again. I wanted to write about how Stalin was right that a single death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. How I think that all historical anecdotes are bullshit and usually told by self-important men who think they are a mix between Churchill, The Godfather and Joyce. I wanted to write about how all I want from these daily numbers, 761, 897, 937 is to go down. How I want people to stop dying so I can carry on with my empty pleasures. How I have started to do workouts and live in hope of a firmer ass. I wanted to write about how a zoo in Germany has contemplated slaughtering some of its animals to feed the rest. How they have a fucking list and how their polar bear would come last. How this is exactly what we are doing. How we sacrifice each other to get to the top of the list. How we play around with the word essential. How we brush our shining white fur and look down on antelopes and meerkats as second-rate cat food. How beating hearts suddenly become disposable. How Count Bezukhov says – Whilst I’m alive, I should live. How we think that only joy can reconcile us to our fate.

Katharina Volckmer is the author of The Appointment, forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in September 2020.

Dispatch from Rotterdam

By Kate Briggs

The book I have been working on for the last three years has two main characters: a young woman and her newborn baby. I have been drawing on observation, on reading, my own experience. But mostly I have been making them both up. Each weekday morning since the schools closed here in Rotterdam, I have been getting up early, before my kids wake up, to spend a couple of hours with the two of them: trying to make them do things, think things, look at, touch and feel things. The other day, after describing this new routine, a friend asked me whether, given the new reality of our situation and all the unknowns to come, I still felt the project was relevant. Honestly, her question floored me. I realized – but only in the moment of her asking – that it hadn’t yet occurred to me to consider, let alone to worry about, this, and immediately went into a spiral of self-doubt: was this a good sign for my state of mind, for my capacity to respond to the world, for the book, or a very very bad one?

I have been thinking about these questions a lot.

I think I have two possible answers to them now.

The first is that it has clearly felt, if not exactly relevant, then at least necessary and important to go quietly in the morning into this other space at my desk, populated mostly by other people’s books, and spend some solitary time there, before relaying with my partner and being pulled into all the other activities (home-schooling, online teaching, a bit of indoor and outdoor exercise) of the day.

The second is that this book-in-progress, in ways I still find hard to articulate (even to myself), is also about the novel as an art-form and so also, to my mind, about relevance: about spheres or circles of relevance, how they are generated and how they can be made to open and expand. Something I have been trying to write about is now an almost outmoded form of address, the kind that used to open a formal letter, like an unpaid electricity bill, before the cookies (the algorithms?) knew everyone by name and addressed us personally. (I still have to check my impulse to feel touched by an automatically generated email taking the trouble to write: Dear Kate, Hi Kate). To Whom It May Concern – I remember getting letters that opened like this. It seems to me to be a very novelistic form of address. On the one hand, to some degree targeted and precise: the letter addresses a person, is seeking to address a person, very likely the person who happens to open it. But, on the other, the whom is still very undecided, as yet undetermined. So, the letter asks, sharing the responsibility for answering the question out, is this of concern to you? Will this, the subject matter to follow, be of immediate and obvious concern to you? Possibly not. But, the phrasing suggests, there’s a chance. It’s the may that leaves the door open. Who may this – for instance, a book that opens and stays with a baby – concern? Who would it appear to concern most immediately and who might find themselves included, perhaps unexpectedly, within the remit of its address? Surprised, a bit wrong-footed to find that a subject, a setting, a set of actions or problems that they didn’t think mattered to them, that they wouldn’t have thought was of any particular interest or concern to them, can matter.

This – getting taken by surprise by unexpected, unlikely concern – happened to me recently with a book written by one of my oldest friends. He is a sculptor, and also into skateboarding. The two for him are indirectly, sometimes very directly, related. I have always felt like I could meet him anywhere, on any level of his life’s interests, but not on small wheels. Not my bag, I would say to him, deliberately choosing a translation-resistant expression he’d appreciate: not my bag, not my thing, my friend. But then there has been this mother-character, and the way she uses a corner of her street, a patch of urban planning where, for no obvious reason (to prevent cars parking?) large round stones have been sunk into concrete, how she has discovered that if she rolls the pram very slowly over this edging of the pavement the rise and fall – like great rollers working to lift and tip a ship – can sometimes get the baby to sleep. And I found myself reaching for Raphaël’s clear and thoughtful prose, feeling, for the first time, very directly concerned by his documentation of the activation of public space, and especially of public art, by skateboarders: making monumental sculptures kinetic, animating solid forms into temporary liquid waves a person can surf.*

With so much more clearly and critically at stake, something like this, something somewhere in the region of this sudden spreading out of the remit of relevance, has happened with the virus. Day by day the circle expands: it’s way over there, it’s only the flu, it’s over here, the schools and my students’ studios are closed, someone’s father is dying. We are all concerned now. We didn’t expect to be at the start of it, but now we are.

COVID-19 is not a literary problem, I realize.

But I think the question of relevance – which is also the question of concern, who is concerned by what, who sees what as pertaining to themselves and their own interests and situation – is. And I am coming to believe that, as in the personal-impersonal letter, personal because it arrived at my door, impersonal because it doesn’t know me, it doesn’t even know my name, relevance is something always to be sought out, to be asked for searchingly, also hopefully – Could this matter? Might this track in at the outer edges of your concerns? – and not given, never taken for granted in advance. For who am I to have decided, already and for you, what interests you, what might come to matter or pertain to you?

In the afternoons, as an improvised extra-curricular activity for these weeks off school, my youngest has been co-writing a story with four of his friends. Step one was for each them to think of a character, name him or her and describe them. They invented Planet, a she-dragon who lives on the sun; Lightrock, an evil gargoyle with big wings; Icon, a scavenger who drives a red Tesla; Fynix, a transformer who can blast lightning from his hands. The idea is that each household takes turns to write a chapter of the story. Our method has been for my son to freestyle while I type, trying to keep pace. The ideas come so fast: Planet is too hot on the sun. So she flies down from the sun to the highest mountain on earth. The very highest peak of the highest mount. A mist falls. The mist rises. There is a blast of lightening. Lightrock appears, showing his evil face –

NO MUM!

Sammy shouts in my ear with such force and volume my hands leap from the keys.

What what what? I stare at him, thinking he must be in pain.

Go back! He is wide-eyed, totally into it: a blue mist.

A blue mist falls.

Right, right. I press delete; go back: a blue mist falls.

There is a blast of lightning. Then, the mist rises. Lightrock appears, showing his evil face.

Okay, I think. So this is how you do it. Let me learn from this. This is how to make things up. This is what it looks like to be properly invested in the elements in your bag (your problems, your questions, your objects, your passions, your fantasy fictional scenarios), this is the lightning-power of conviction that can for a minute, for a half-an-hour, for the duration of my typing the story, or for some passage of my life, make it the bag that I am prepared to carry around, too.

*Raphaël Zarka, Free Ride: skateboard, méchanique Galiléene et formes simples (Paris: Editions B42, 2011) and Riding Modern Art (Paris: Editions B42, 2017).

Kate Briggs is the author of This Little Art.

Diarist, letter writer, painter, poet

From Sophie Hughes, Birmingham, UK

I have very few childhood memories of my paternal grandmother, Barbara Hughes (née Holland). I really got to know her in my twenties. By that time, neither of us bothered with conventional grandmother-granddaughter roles. We became friends and have shared hundreds of correspondence, mostly online.

In an early email to her in 2008, I asked Barb about her husband, my paternal grandfather, who I could barely remember. Architect, playwright, drinker, rogue. The ‘playwright’ part was beginning to interest me, a gradually engaging student of literature. I wanted to know more. She put the answer on hold, replying only that: ‘I am dogged by the feeling that I must get the record of his tremendous talent documented’.

In eleven of Barb’s emails to me she refers to herself as a ‘BOVLB’ (AA Milne’s ‘bear of very little brain’). In a 2012 email, long after I’d begun to suspect who the creative energy in that duo had really belonged to, she confirmed my inkling that she was in fact a bear of very considerable brain (and wit, creativity and talent) who had simply not been seen in the same light as her husband: ‘My favourite situation has always been a reflected glory glow!’ she signed off, cheerfully, as if she had not just encapsulated the sad fate of all wives to husbands who encourage (or don’t discourage) an idea of themselves as ‘tremendous talents’.

Today, her artistic legacy outshines his: dozens of poems, paintings and sketches, years’ worth of diaries that chronicle an extraordinary self-education in classical music (a concert a night, for a time); an incognito creative life that I might have known nothing about had she not insisted, throughout her turbulent life, on writing for herself. Her husband published. She wrote.

This week, the suddenly Barbaraless, locked-down world beyond my house is unrecognisable and inaccessible, and I have time to sit with her emails, song recommendations and poems (or the ‘best ones […] and that’s not saying much’), which she emailed me over the years, remembering not the grandmother, but the woman who never stopped writing.

 

The diarist

Here is an entry from Saturday 30th March 1946, when she visited Leonard Woolf (something about a broken gramophone). A pioneer of the ‘accompanying playlist’, in her diaries there is a song for every occasion:

‘A foggy day in London town (sung by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald). The bus crept along and I was late getting to Victoria. He was standing in the street, his back towards me, looking up at the Mansion flats as if he had not seen them before. Was he expecting her to emerge from the building, the sound of that clanking lift, a muffled echoing reaching outside.  Leonard turned around and lifted both arms, bringing the palms of his hands together in an instant prayer. “Virginia hated fog – in London”.  His arm around my shoulder we went in…..’

 

The letter writer

I have three of her paintings hanging by the entrance to my house like amulets.

One of them (pictured above) was painted from a photograph taken in early January 1978, from a period in the seventies when Barb was living in Abu Dhabi and later in Al Ain. She was, she told me in an email from 2012, like the speaker in Walter de la Mare’s poem, ‘crazed with the spell of far Arabia’: ‘These kids were straight out of the desert – those lovely orange flowers from the great garden city of Al Ain just springing up, were theirs.’ Barb had a way of seeing and remembering people. Some of her emails remind me of Natalia Ginzburg’s personal essays in this respect, but also perhaps because of that classic Ginzburgian line, which is also classic Barb: ‘There is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer.’ Barb was a small writer, but one whose words, unspooling without punctuation from her naturally digressing mind, or springing up like lovely orange flowers between parenthesis, were hers.

 

The poet

For some time now,

weeks,

I have been half dead:

not under the ground,

resting

in a brown funereal

parlour,

not grim, but rather

jolly:

like a French film coffin

knowing

the funny man would come,

trip,

and lift the lid.

Certainly the top would come off.

 

I did not expect

a tune

from Claude Debussy

dying of cancer

1914

out of the sepia

listening

a tight white light

firing

each vertebra

once,

life lumber puncture.

Certainly I could stand up again.

 

Barbara Hughes

15 January 1926 – 19 March 2020

 

* Claude Debussy, Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor, played by Alfred Cortot and Jacques ThibaudSophie Hughes is the translator of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor.

 

Riots and Viruses

A diary from Joanna Pocock, London, UK

In the summer of 2011, I spent my nights sitting at a pale oak desk in the study of my tiny two-up, two-down in East London. I was copy-editing a book called Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil by a writer called Timothy Mitchell. The book was interesting, but it isn’t its contents that have left their mark on me all these years later. It is everything that was going on around me that has stuck – most notably the sounds of that summer: the near-constant droning of helicopters, hovering so low they shook my house. This was the summer of the London riots, when for six days, thousands took to the streets to protest the killing of Mark Duggan, shot dead by police on 4 August in Tottenham, north London. Anger at the racism and the unfair targeting of Britain’s black population erupted. A friend who lived up the road texted me photos showing the bins along his street on fire. Friends in Dalston were sharing similar images on social media. The press had a field day showing the looting, disparaging those who were extracting flat-screen TVs and trainers from broken shop windows. Many of the businesses on Bethnal Green Road, my local high street, were boarded up. Five people died. There was a sense of unease, of despair, of anger and injustice. Every night, I would put my four-year-old daughter to bed feeling frightened and anxious. And every night, as she slept, I would pour through the text of Carbon Democracy, sifting through its footnotes, diligently tracking my changes.

Something else has stayed with me from that August: the memory of my complete and utter exhaustion. My husband was away working and our daughter was on her summer break. My days were spent playing with her; my nights were spent copy-editing while the helicopters filled the air with their aggressive watchful persistence. The subject of the book I was editing – our dependence on Big Oil and our reckless addiction to endless economic growth – felt connected to these riots. The tight fabric of greed and my inability to individually unpick its seams gave me a sense of panic and powerlessness.

Nine years later, in the spring of 2020, I am sitting at the same oak desk in the same room in the same house in East London. I am copy-editing a book for the same publisher, although this one is about the history of democracy in the West and its relationship to capitalism. There are no riots going on outside my window and my daughter is in the next room on my husband’s laptop doing homework. Her school has closed and the streets outside are silent. There are no helicopters above, nor even any airplanes criss-crossing the sky. There are few cars and no late-night revellers singing drunkenly as they head to the Bethnal Green Working Man’s club. The only sounds are the blackbirds, the wood pigeons, the coal tits and the parakeets – the latter being a new addition to the soundscape of life in London. Late at night, I am jolted awake by foxes ripping through the piles of garbage as they fight over scraps. Because of an industrial dispute between the refuse collectors and Veolia, the company in charge of disposing of Tower Hamlets’ waste, my street is filling with fried chicken boxes, broken toys, heaps of uneaten food, wipes (lots of wipes), blue surgical gloves (a sign of the times), bits of plastic, and stuff, just so much stuff. Neighbours report that they are seeing more rats.

The filth around me is due to workers not being paid fairly. The quiet around me, however, is the result of a virus: COVID-19. It has travelled around the world, leaving a wake of inconsistent advice, fake cures, uncertainty, exhausted frontline workers, bankruptcies, unemployment, isolation, illness and death. People I know are getting sick. People I know cannot pay their rent. People I know are lonely and in freefall. There is so much work to do to fix this, so many seams to unpick in order to mend the fabric that has been created to lead up to this. It is impossible to know where to begin.

And just as Mitchell’s book on oil was connected to the helicopters, the rioting, the anger and exhaustion of nine years ago, so is the idea of our fragile western democracy linked to this pandemic. A democracy that involves the digging for minerals, the razing of forests, the destruction of habitats, and the replacement of wild animals with domesticated ones. What is different in 2020, is that I sense this book on democracy that I am editing will become a marker, a sort of flag, a spot on the graph of my life where I will be able to plot the moment when there was a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The problem I am having is that I cannot imagine what this ‘after’ will look like, how it will feel or sound, whether it will involve helicopters or parakeets, whether the mounds of rotting garbage will grow or lessen, whether my daughter will remain locked inside or be allowed to run outdoors. I do know, however, that this sense of an ‘after’ feels illicit, like a forbidden landscape, and so I try not to dwell in it. Instead I correct the footnotes, and track the changes, and look up the publication dates of books and the spelling of names. I try and fix what I can, no matter how small. But nothing will shake the thought that this ‘after’ is a place just beyond my line of sight and my powers of imagination. In fact, I wonder if there will be an ‘after’ at all.

Joanna Pocock is the author of Surrender.

Letter to the President

A letter from Annie Ernaux to Emmanuel Macron, originally broadcast on France Inter, translated here by Alison L. Strayer

Cergy, March 30, 2020

Monsieur le Président,

‘I am writing you a letter / That you may read / If you have time‘. As a lover of literature, you may find that this introduction strikes a familiar chord. It is the beginning of Boris Vian’s song Le Déserteur, written in 1954, between the Indochina War and the Algerian War. Today, whatever you proclaim, we are not at war: the enemy in this caseis not human, not a fellow being; it possesses neither thought nor a will to harm, knows no borders or social differences, reproduces blindly by jumping from one person to another. The weapons, since you insist upon this martial lexicon, are hospital beds, respirators, masks and tests, and the numerous doctors, scientists and caregivers. And yet, since you have governed France, you have remained deaf to the warnings from the health-care field, and the words we read on a banner in a demonstration last November – ‘The State counts its money, we will count the dead’ – tragically resonate today. You preferred to listen to those who advocate the withdrawal of the State, the optimization of resources, flow regulation – all that technocratic jargon, devoid of substance, which muddied the waters of reality. But look, these are the public services which, in great part, ensure the country’s functioning: hospitals, National Education and its thousands of teachers, so poorly paid; Électricité de France [EdF], the Post Office, the Métro and the French rail service [SNCF]. And the people you called ‘nothing’ not so long ago are now everything, those who continue to empty the rubbish bins, scan products at the checkout counters, deliver pizzas, all to guarantee the physical side of life, as essential as the intellectual side.

‘Resilience’, meaning reconstruction after trauma, is a strange choice of word. We have not reached that stage. Take heed, Mr President, of the effects of this time of lockdown, of upheaval in the order of things. It is an opportune time for questioning. A time in which to desire a new world. Not your world! Not a world in which decision-makers and financiers are already, shamelessly, resuming the old refrain of ‘work more’, up to 60 hours a week. A great many of us no longer want a world of glaring inequalities, revealed by the epidemic; on the contrary, a great many of us want a world where basic needs, healthy food, medical care, housing, education, culture, are guaranteed for all, a world which, indeed, today’s solidarities show us is possible. Be aware, Mr President, that we will no longer let our life be stolen from us, it is all we have, and ‘nothing is worth more than life’ – another song, this time by Alain Souchon. Nor will we perennially muzzle our democratic freedom, currently restricted, a freedom which makes it possible for my letter – unlike that of Boris Vian, banned from the radio – to be read on air this morning on a national radio network.

Listen to the original broadcast hereAnnie Ernaux is the author of A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer. 

Dispatches

A diary from Moyra Davey, New York, USA

March 29, 2020

One by one, in less than 24 hours, nearly all of my ‘projects’ toppled like dominoes, until on the afternoon of Friday, 13 March, my assistant and I found ourselves staring at each other and realising there was nothing left for us to do.

Since then I’ve wasted the better part of two weeks reading the news, but I’ve also been in touch with many friends and family members, and am doing yoga with my teacher and our group via Zoom. To briefly see their faces and hear their voices and to go through our routine together is a lifesaver.

I usually open the New York Times first thing in the morning, but today instead I read Catherine Malabou on finding her solitude within confinement, in order to write (‘the psychic space where it is possible to do something’). I copied out parts of the essay, and for one day at least, determined to shut out the noise, I cleared off my desk, which was a disgrace, if not to write then at least to read (books).

Listening: Duane Train, an updated and expanded mini-Mancuso Loft party. DJ’d by the laid back, droll Duane Harriott every Wednesday from noon to three on WFMU. Eleven years of music and playlists are archived here.

Reading: I just finished Carson McCullers’ five novels and some of her stories, and have begun her unfinished autobiography, Illuminations and Night Glare. Writing in the 1930s and 40s, her stories feel singularly undated and contemporary. Notably, she had a way of conjuring queerness that manages to be both forthright (taken for granted), and coded. This quality is most striking in my favourite of the novels, the slim, perfect The Member of the Wedding.

Catherine Malabou, ‘To Quarantine Within Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe and “I”‘ (with thanks to Vincent Bonin, Montreal).

Moyra Davey is an artist and writer based in New York. Her essay collection Index Cards is forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions on 3 June 2020.

 

Fitz Carraldo Editions