Sunday, December 22, 2013

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch

Like many people, I've read and re-read The Secret History since it came out in 1992. I find it to be an immensely moving and engaging novel, though I do feel that it's a young writer's book in many ways. The balance of power is too stark, the view of the world too limited. 

So I was pleased when I landed a copy of her latest book, The Goldfinch which I finished today. What an absolutely fascinating story. It really is a masterpiece. The main character, Theo Dekker, is scarred, neurotic, deeply troubled, but essentially good. When his mother is killed in a terrorist attack in the opening pages, his life is permanently altered and he bumps around the world: from the Upper East Side to Las Vegas, to Greenwich Village and Amsterdam, always trying to heal, to move on from what he has gone through. He is frustrating, heart-breaking, annoying, and complex.

People keep referring to the book as "Dickensian" which annoyed me at first but there are allusions to Dickens throughout and the book is very much a "David Copperfield" type of story. The highly stylized plot is certainly Dickensian. But the book lacks Dickens' social conscience and what Tartt gives us instead is a philosophical conscience: less about the struggling lower classes and more about what it means to live and what it means to suffer.

This world is slightly claustrophobic at times and the last few days I've been having dreams of its stifling regiments: the New York art world, the upper class histories and provenances, the odd obsessions which come about because of too little day to day struggling (which suggests in a kind of way that struggle is universal). It's a book about friendship, about art, beauty, death, love. But it's also a treatise on living in the real world, living not to avoid pain and suffering but by embracing it, letting it be part of the whole experience of life.

"The pursuit of pure beauty is a trap," Theo tells us:
beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about the wrong things and not at all about the right things? How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion and yet, for me anyway, all that`s worth living for lies in that charm?  We don't get to choose our own hearts. We can't make ourselves want what's good for us or what's good for other people. Because, isn't it drilled into us from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture - from William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mr. Rogers - it's a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do, how do we know what's right for us? Every shrink, every career counsellor, every Disney princess knows the answers: be yourself, follow your heart...
If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm? Reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups? Stable relationships and steady career advancement? The New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise somehow of being a better person? it better to throw yourself head first laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

This is a book I will go back to again and again. Odd that: to encounter a book that you know will be a part of your life for years to come. So much more to say on the topic, so many things occurred to me as I read it. But I'm a bit overwhelmed by it now, it's too close to me now and I have to say that I will miss the world Tartt has created until I have the impulse to revisit it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

French writers don't make their mark in Anglo countries

Interesting BBC article here on why French literature is so under-appreciated internationally, particularly in Anglophone countries.

I've often wondered this fact, too. There are some American writers who household names in France (Paul Auster, Toni Morisson, Richard Ford) but it doesn't work the other way: there are almost no contemporary French writers that have international reputations beyond, perhaps, one or two (and even they are generally not writers that anyone outside the literary world would know). Sometimes when a French writer's book gets made into a movie, there will be a minor blip in attention about their work, but this is usually the exception and usually only when the movie gets some attention as well in North America.

Even in my work I will mention huge French writing stars to very well-read Anglophones and they've never heard the name. And these are often people who know international writing, too (Murakami, Zaffon, Pamuk, etc.).

Maybe it's that French writers are rarely part of the "New York" scene or establishment? But that can't be right because Murakami, though well-known in that scene, isn't really part of that world to any large degree (same can be said for many other well-known international writers). Also, I know several French writers that do live in New York and are part of that world but rarely figure on any international lists and rarely get buzzed about in North America. Maybe it's some underlying bias that Americans and British have towards anything French (that's wine, perfume or cuisine?). There's something to this, perhaps.

French movies (La vie d'Adele excepted) also rarely figure into important discussions on film and haven't for probably 20 years. Personally, I find most contemporary French cinema dullsville but I feel strongly that there is much of interest in contemporary French writing.

That said, I feel much more akin to French writers from "outside" France: Alain Mabanckou (Congo), Abdella Taia (Morocco), Marie NDiaye. But there are still some French writers that I think should be at the top of every serious reader's list: Le Clezio, Bernard Pivot, Emmanuel Carrere, among others.

And as Marie Darrieussecq notes in the piece linked above, French writers are doing interesting biographies, crime writing, and other kinds of writing (not just novels of ideas, etc.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Arvo Pärt, our sins, and Für Alina

Doing research this week, I came across this really wonderful piece from a few years back on the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, in discussing his perhaps best-known piece, Für Alina :

I replied that this suggested another metaphor, because the tintinnabuli style - especially in the simple form in which it exists in "Für Alina" - consists of two lines. The melody, which proceeds mainly in steps up and down the scale, might be compared to a child tentatively walking. The second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad (the fundamental chord of Western music) that is positions as close as possible to the note of the melody, but always below. You could imagine this accompaniment to be a mother with her hands outstretched to ensure her toddler doesn't fall.

Pärt grabbed my own hand with excitement. "This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli," he exclaimed. "The two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us. Sometimes I say - it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken - that the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins."

Friday, November 29, 2013

What we talk about when we talk about Murakami

This really interesting article in Publishing Perspectives touched on something that I noted when I was in Asia last month: Murakami's incredible influence on the cultural life and relations in between Asian countries.

His books were everywhere in Taipei: in bookstore windows, in people's hands, on tables in cafes. I also noticed that whenever anyone mentioned jazz, they'd also mention whiskey. That's a Murakami connection. People I spoke to knew his works, his short stories and his novels, and could speak about them with authority and in detail.

Many Westerners, though, are surprised to hear that in much of Asia, Murakami is not considered a "literary" writer at all and many pooh-pooh him as being a popular writer.

It's significant that he's not drinking green tea.
In Japan especially, the gap between high culture and pop culture is still very much pronounced though it's slowly changing. Because of this, I think, serious writers and cultural workers tend to look askance at Murakami's work, both for its content and for the language he uses (very intentional colloquial writing is what he has long been known for in Japan: one of my big gripes, in fact, is how translators try to mimic this when they translate him into English: Kafka on the Shore was, in my view, almost unreadable due to this issue).

Yet he's a writer who has enormously broad appeal: in Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and many other countries (not to mention Quebec: his books translated into French are probably some of the most commonly seen books on the metro).

Yet as the writer notes in the piece linked above, it's ironic that though Murakami can bring Asian countries together to overcome all the complexities and tensions of past conflicts and current political wrangling, he writes very little about Asia as a whole. Certainly Japan is there but not as much as one might assume given that many of his works are set there.

This is precisely why many foreigners (meaning non-Japanese) and particularly Westerners like Murakami: he is like "Japan-light," an easy writer to access for those interested in Japan or Asia but not willing to go the extra mile to really explore its literature, history or culture in any complex or subtle way.

Plus, he's a decent storyteller and that means something, too...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

THANKFULNESS by Czeslaw Milosz


You gave me gifts, God-Enchanter.
I give you thanks for good and ill.
Eternal light in everything on earth.
As now, so on the day after my death.

                              - Czeslaw Milosz

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Amy Tan and Eileen Chang

One of the first novels about China that I can remember reading is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. I loved it. Then again, I was only  15 or 16 when it came out and I remember getting a hold of a copy of it at the public library. I had had no experience or thought of China and in the town where I am from, China is about as far away as one can be culturally.

So the book opened up a new world for me and at that impressionable age, attracted me to all things Chinese. Later I would live in Shanghai and Hong Kong for years, learning Mandarin and writing a good deal about contemporary Chinese literature.

I largely forgot about Amy Tan: I read A Kitchen God's Wife years after my first encounter with her but I hardly remember it. China was always portrayed rather tragically by Tan. When the film version of The Joy Luck Club was released, I saw it in the theater but was disappointed because it fell so far short of the book.

All of this to say that I picked up her latest book last week and have been reading it. I have to say that I have mixed feelings about it. And I'm not sure if it's just my critical abilities have developed a lot since I was 15 or if it's a flawed book though I'm reading it actively and will finish it. One problem I often have with "historical fiction" (a term I am using loosely), particularly told in the first person, is that the narrator is too often a modern figure, "translating" an older culture for us in the modern world. So the limitations of that modern point of view underline all the analysis and editorializing about the historical period. The narrator of Tan's new book (The Valley of Amazement) seems like a kid from the 1970s USA trapped in the world of 1920s Shanghai: her insights, her feelings. It's also clearly told from an adult's point of view since the insights are uneven: the things she understands are odd (the complex machinations of her dragon-like mother who runs a brothel are crystal clear for a 7 year old). Her voice is irritating. Maybe that's what Tan intends since she (Violet) is supposed to be a spoiled child but it's when we move out of her voice into another character's the the book gets interesting.

There are sections which are absolutely riveting. When Violet, the main American character, is "tutored" by an ageing courtesan, the story comes alive. It's fascinating all the rules and complex courting rituals that courtesans followed in order to be successful. And make no mistake, it was merely a matter of survival, no hedonistic impulses were part of the equation (for the woman, at any rate). The amount of research that must have gone into this is something I can't stop thinking about as I read these long sections about clothes, fashion, envy, increasing one's reputation, attracting men, sexual prowess.

What strikes me is how similar the rules of our "celebrity culture" are similar to the world of being a good courtesan.

It's the main character's voice that I find hard to bear. Why is she so obsessed with her mother's love? This seems like a modern invention, particularly given the fact that in traditional Chinese society, parents never tell their kids "I love you" (True, Violet is half-American and her mother is completely American but Violet has grown up in China with her mother as just about the only influence from American culture and not overly warm, etc.). This deep-seated insecurity seems very much like a modern invention to me (not that Chinese kids didn't want their parents' love but they didn't obsess over it). Tan thanks Lisa See in her acknowledgements, a mediocre writer whose work suffers from many of the same flaws as this one does.

I am a big believer that one can like popular fiction and still be a "good" reader but I am not really getting this book. Oddly though it has hooked me (often I won't even finish books I am enjoying). And it makes me wonder if I should re-read The Joy Luck Club to find out if it's as good as I remember. Or perhaps it's better if I leave it and let it remain in the past.

But where Tan shines is, oddly, when she reaches back and shows us this world from a Chinese point of view (not a Westerner's point of view). In these beautiful passages I am reminded of Han Bangqing's novel (translated by Eileen Chang), The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai. It's a much more interesting book (though perhaps less so to contemporary North Americans since the narration is not exactly what we are used to).

In general, if one wants to get a real insight into China, read Eileen Chang. Her narrators are truly complex and fascinating. Lust, Caution is at once suspenseful, erotic, and complex. Love in a Fallen City is painful, beautiful and gives us Shanghai of the 1920s in a much more believable, less individualistic way that reflects a truer reality of the city. (even the reality of today though the book was written in the 1930s and 40s).

I've written about Eileen Chang before but I come back to her writing again and again, always finding something new, always enjoying my time in the worlds she creates.

I've often heard people say to me that they're not interested in China. I guess on one hand, I can understand that since all we hear in the media is negative stories about it: how dirty it is, how corrupt, how chaotic and crowded, etc. All of this is true. But China is an incredibly complex, amazing, and yes beautiful place with thousands of years of history. I find it endlessly fascinating (and yes also frustrating, nationalistic, self-centered), particularly these visions of Shanghai in the early part of the 20th century.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

QWF Awards 2013

The QWF awards banquet last night was wonderful as usual. But what struck me as I watched the show was how tight the English writing community is. Not coming from Quebec, it's a community that means a good deal to me personally. But to a writer who is writing to his or her peers and hopes for an audience, one could hardly hope for a more enthusiastic and talented group of people.

I appreciate how translators are given a prize each year. Translation is an under-appreciated art and one that is vital in our world today, literary or otherwise. Donald Winkler won the Cole Foundation Translation Prize for his translation of Pierre Nepveu's book of poems The Major Verbs. This is really an amazing collection and Nepveu is a poet whose work I've only recently discovered (though he's one of Quebec's best-known poets). Winkler praised the local community of translators, including his partner, Sheila Fischman.

Paul Blackwell, always dapper in his bowtie and beard, won the YA award for his book Undercurrent. He is charming and friendly though I missed his acceptance speech. I read one of his YA detective novels a few years' back and thought it was fantastic.

Adam Leith Gollner won the Mavis Gallant non-fiction prize for his book Immortality and told a charming story about having oysters with Mavis Gallant in Paris. His book's been at the top of my list since the late summer when I saw him being interviewed by Josh Dulgin at Pop Montreal.

The Concordia first book prize went to Andrew Szymanski, a writer I didn't know about (I
know well the other two books competing in that category). He was the comic highlight of the night, though I think unintentionally...

I was rooting for a friend who was nominated for the AM Klein Poetry Prize, but the winner, Ken Howe, was really funny and gracious.

And, of course, Saleema Nawaz won the Hugh Maclennan Prize for her book Bone & Bread, lovely novel that captivated many earlier this year when it came out. No surprise there.

The QWF banquet really is the highlight of the fall in the literary world of English Montreal. And it's always so great to see people coming out to support their peers, colleagues and friends. And I am proud to be around so many incredibly talented writers, translators, editors and literary professionals.

The Corona Theatre on Notre-Dame: an A+ venue!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sam Shepard

You know how you get kind of obsessed with a writer and try to read as much as you can in one fell swoop?

Lately, for me that writer has been Sam Shepard.

I've read him before and in the spring, I had some very interesting conversations with fans of his work that I met at a few work functions. Over the summer, I picked up a play here, a collection of stories there until I had quite a nice collection which I started reading through in the last couple of months.

I am just blown away. Funny how when you read something in your early 20s, things can just fly by you. Something about re-reading him now in my early 40s has opened up a whole new world for me. The distances between us all, the ways we disconnect, the ways we try to reach out, the pain of isolation.

Also, since I am originally from the Western US, perhaps his setting felt too close to me when I first approached Shepard years ago. Now that time and distance fall in between, the west is almost exotic, like a song that's vaguely familiar but whose melody and words I've long forgotten.

His collection Great Dream of Heaven is one of those books I intentionally have been reading bit by bit because I don't want it to end. Some of the pieces are short, some just two pages, none more than 10, but they are incredibly self-contained with complex snippets of characters that stay with you for days afterwards.

It strikes me, too, that his writing has fallen out of fashion in certain ways because we no longer find it fashionable to explore issues of class in our art. Or at least not in the dominant culture. And it's not done in any overtly political way: but his stories contains lives of those on the margins, living hand to mouth in small towns and cities in the west.

The premise he starts with is often simple: a woman driving through the midwest with her mother's ashes in an urn in the passenger seat, encountering an injured hawk along the highway. A conversation between a woman being evicted for having too many cats and someone trying to help her. A young boy interviewing his father about the 1980s for a school project. A customer in a fast-food restaurant inquiring about the simple yet complex philosophy behind a painted sign at the counter.

Yet despite the simple settings and lives, he richly creates these complex series of thoughts, never pretentiously, somehow putting on the page things we've all felt or thought or pondered.

His plays, too: Buried Child is moving, mysterious, deeply symbolic, painful.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

New comics series: Manifest Destiny

Been loving this new series by Chris Dingess, called Manifest Destiny.

Based on the travels of Lewis & Clark, the first one in the series hints at supernatural beings and creatures that lived out in the wild west, creatures that Lewis & Clark secretly described and notated in a classified journal only for the eyes of Jefferson.

There's also intrigue and "bad guys" that have infiltrated the Louis & Clark group.

I look forward to seeing how this one develops.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Surveyor's Notebook, Summer 1969

I'm crossing a field that doesn't belong to me, measuring out clumps of condemned trees and tracing heart-breaking outlines as yet unseen by those who live here. When, a surgeon without a scalpel, at five o'clock I walk away through the long leafy shadows, with the light itself stretched tight enough to strum the nerve chords, down my back I sense the looks that kill. I've hiked down into the shelter of a valley and I pause, uncertain, among sandy hillocks, listening under the evening clouds to hear where the first distress calls will come from. Silent and small as a star, a plane passes over and I watch its vapour trail striping the sky, chalky like a child's drawing. Up there, strangers are travelling. One day, my friends, their hordes will descend amongst you. I'm still alone as I tramp towards the motel that awaits me for the night, an unknown traveller prepared to leave his sadness on the doorstep, dreaming of the dry quiet of barns filled with hay and flies.
                                              -- Pierre Nepveau (translated by Judith Cowan). From Mirabel, Signal 2004

Friday, November 1, 2013

Blue Met and I Musici: The Transfigured Night

In our constant attempt to try new things, we've partnered with I Musici Montreal to present a concert tonight on the work of Benjamin Britten and Rimbaud. Preceded by a talk between I Musici Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and our own Marie-AndréeLamontagne, the evening will present works of the night:

Rimbaud in La nuit transfigurée
Captured in four masterpieces! The first, one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most amusing serenades, was composed as a conversation of sorts between two small orchestras. Courtesy of Dominique Labelle, the music of Benjamin Britten then meets the poetry of Rimbaud. In the third work, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the flight of the lark that heralds the dawn is magnificently rendered by violinist Julie Triquet. And finally, love carries the day in Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, from the groudbreaking composer's tonal period.

We're thrilled to have this chance to work together to bring Montreal the power of words through music.

La nuit transfigurée shows tonight at the Beaux Arts Museum at 8pm. The causerie starts at 7pm and will be in French.

Check out I Musici's website for all their events this seasons and to find out more about tonight's concert.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Taiwan #3: the work of Chang Chao-tang

In Taipei over the weekend, I saw one of the most interesting exhibitions I have seen in many years. It was a retrospective of the work of Taiwanese photographer, Chang Chao-tang.

Born in 1943, Chang is one of Taiwan's best-known photographers and his career spans some of the island's most tumultuous historical periods: from the early 1960s when the island was still agricultural and rural to the dizzying heights of the 2000s when Taipei became one of the Asian Tigers and became highly urbanized and developed.

What strikes me about his body of work is how it reflects the cultural and artistic changes in both Asia and the Western world. His youthful work is bold and realist, almost naturalistic, and I kept thinking while viewing his photos from this period, that he was a 17 year old kid, walking through the neighborhoods of Taipei, asking strangers (workers, farmers, children) if he could take their photos. The images are bold, arresting and even shocking. They show us, as one critic noted, "his innate character when viewing the world - engaged yet observant, extremely calm, not removed yet not intrusive, with a faint atmosphere of doubt and questioning, behind which loomed a potent love for everything that exists."

Once Chang is into his mid to late 20s, his work becomes imbibed with Western cultural trends:
Wuchihshan, Sinchu, Taiwan, 1962
existentialism, avant garde conceptual sorts of framing, ghostly images that are experimental, especially in light of his earlier work. These are often blurry images with decapitated figures, indistinct facial features, done in barren landscapes in between rural struggle and idealism and the heady shiny developed cities of more recent times: the landscapes serve to underscore the importance of the body - new images of the body, in fact - and the oppression and political suffocation which the country was experiencing.

His later work strikes one on a very basic level as some Chinese equivalent of Annie Leibovitz since it's so involved with documenting the lives of the country's writers and artists. Chang's work is less conceptual and far be it from me to criticize a well-known artist like Leibovitz, but I'm drawn more to Chang's images. They are edgier, more about the the bone structure of individual faces, more naturalistic with juxtaposed artists and environments; stories seem to hang over each image. Chang's photographs from this time in his career document writers, musicians, puppeteers and other artists of Taiwan. These range from youthful images of poets from the early 1970s to more contemporary images of painters and visual artists from the early 2000s. Nearly every image on display contained a story I wanted to access.

As I was leaving the exhibit on Sunday, a rare treat: Mr. Chang himself just happened to be passing through. I got to shake his hand, briefly tell him how much I appreciated seeing his work (which is always an awkward way to interact with an artist, I believe) and he was on his way, camera around his neck, still out on the street each day, documenting what he sees and experiences. We should all be so involved at 70 years old!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Leonardo Padura coming into his own...

I was so happy to see this Jon Lee Anderson piece on Leonardo Padura in the New Yorker last week. I've been writing about Padura for a while, before he even came to our Festival in 2012. His events didn't get as much buzz as I'd have liked and I was pounding the pavement with his books, trying hard to sell them and sell his events, but his participation lacked the buzz that some other events had.

This is a tricky part of programming a literary festival: of course, my job is to "sell" all the events and writers associated with the festival each year, but the public and the media seem so fickle at times, and it's not always easy to predict which authors will capture the public's imagination or interest. And every year, naturally, I have my favourite books or authors that I try hard to get the public and media interested in. It doesn't always work.

So I thought I'd take this opportunity to sell Padura again: he truly is one of the most interesting writers working today, not only in Cuba but in the Caribbean broadly. He writes these almost 19th century crime novels that present a complex and intricate view of life in modern Havana. Because his characters live in Cuba, there are no smart phones or Internet so the novels recall the past in tone and function. His novel Havana Fever shows his protagonist, Mario Conde, as he adjusts to his retirement. He becomes involved in book selling (which sets up a beautiful metaphor about the role that books play in modern life) and then comes across an article about a mysterious bolero singer who disappeared in the 1950s.

Padura has also written a more political novel (as of yet untranslated into English) as well as a book on Hemingway. As Anderson puts it in his piece, "For Cuba's intellectuals, and for its professional class, a new Padura book is as much a document as a novel, a way of understanding Cuban reality."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Taiwan #2: Country of Artists

I've really been struck on this trip at how much art and culture there is in this country. And how art/culture seem to be going hand in hand with development.

Detail on tea shop door
In Dadaocheng, a very old market neighborhood that has been in steep decline since the mid-century, small entrepreneurs are moving in, taking over old spaces and creating ceramics workshops, cafes, boutiques, bars and bike shops. The patchiness of these shops is evidence of its newness: there are still ramshackle tiled buildings that are grimy and full of junk. But that only underscores the beauty and sheen of the newly done shops.

The city government assists in the renovations and cleaning up of these older buildings. And there are limitations as to what kinds of business are allowed to take advantage of these funds. No office buildings. No factories. Only things which are related to culture.

In other neighborhoods, too, there is an abundance of excellent graphic design, great little boutiques that sell lovely designs by local designers. Much of it is in neighborhoods that are being redeveloped.

Detail on garage door
Of course, this raises other issues such as what happens to the working class when they are priced out of their neighborhoods. In a very expensive city like Taipei, these are not inconsiderable things to keep in mind. And it's a balance that cities throughout the world struggle with between encouraging development and artistic expression while limiting the open faced effects of capitalism on the real estate market.

Near Longshan temple, there is a preserved neighborhood that is intentionally kept empty. There must be enormous pressures on the city government to open the space up to rentals or leases for private companies but they keep the space free for art events and festivals. They manage to keep it looking pristine and beautiful, a preserved section of the past that underscores the importance of national pride in the uniqueness of this small country's story.

Overall, culture seems to be flourishing and both government and business seem to be working hard to promote local art, literature and culture.

As we know and as we have seen in much of the world, art rarely can survive on a local scale without government intervention. And though the costs are not exorbinant, the payoffs are enormous: would there be a thriving Korean cinema scene without the money the Korean government spent 15 years ago to ensure that Korean cinema be made? And in Canada and Quebec, we can thank in part the government for being willing to promote our writers, artists, dancers and designers. Though only a few make it "international" each year, Canadians know their own writers. Quebecois know their own aritsts and musicians. That means a lot.

Renovated old mansion

Preserved area near Longshan Temple

Friday, October 18, 2013

Taiwan #1: Local writers vs. International stars

One thing that surprises me as I travel for work is the fact that the struggle for writers today is the same all over the world. Sitting in a cafe in a small Taiwanese city, discussing the work and writing lives of some local writers, I am struck with the fact that none of them can make a living writing from their work. They all have full-time jobs.

This has been a problem for writers for many many generations, but it seems to be getting worse. When I look at the best-sellers in Taiwan, what is it that's selling here? Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey, Dan Brown.

Why do I see these books on the best-seller lists in nearly every country I visit? Is there really something in these books which has captured the imagination of the entire world? Or does it have to do more with marketing and how these authors are sold to us?

Confucius Temple, Tainan
I've said it before, but why is it that we can't spread out money and reading out? Why can't we support more of our own local writers?

I think the situation is solid in Canada and in Quebec. Yes, writers struggle but there are Canadian writers that do well, that can make a living on local readers only. Not a lot of these writers, but some. Whereas, I think in Taiwan (population 25 million) it's extremely rare.

The government and private companies willing to spend money promoting Canadian writing and culture is having enormous benefits. Most of the literary prizes in Taiwan are newish so the rewards are not out there yet. If they can keep at it, I have little doubt that Taiwan writers will start to get better known, both inside and outside the country.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Americans and the Nobel: Perennial whining

With apologies if my gripe is too whiny or negative...

I feel like I write about this every year but every year, after the Nobel prize is awarded, there are such typical reactions in the American media. First it`s accusations that the Nobel has chosen someone "obscure" or "unknown" as if the US media is the arbiter of all that's "known" in the literary world.

Roth: maybe one day
But this year, with our dear Alice Munro, they can hardly say that the committee has chosen an "unknown" writer, so the whine is that so few Americans have won. Again, this seems so terribly America-centric. Why do American literary writers think that the US is the center of the writing world?

For some small newspaper or provincial website, I guess I can understand since Americans can be so terribly nationalistic. But even the New Yorker whines on this point.

So let's consider: since its founding, the Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to :13 French writers,
12 German writers, 9 British writers (lots of Swedes, Norwegians, some Italians, etc.). It's been awarded to 10 Americans, including those who have dual backgrounds (like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Czeslaw Milosz). I guess I don't see why these numbers represent "few" Americans.

It's true that an American hasn't won this prize since 1993 when Toni Morrison won so perhaps the gripe is more a recent reality. Even so, when one considers the Europe-centric laureates in the past, it shouldn't be a surprise. A prize is not pure. There are political considerations, tastes that come in and out of fashion, and the fact that the Nobel prize tends to jump around a bit (so they won't award the prize to a French writer two years in a row, for example). Also, there are lots of great writers who live outside the US. Go figure!

The prize is not representative of democracy. In other words, a country with a big population won't
Oates: maybe someday
necessarily win more Nobel prizes than a country with a smll population. China has won once (twice if one counts Gao Xingjian, whom the Chinese don't usually count). Japan's won twice. These are not small countries. Scandinavian countries, which represent a fraction of most of the world's larger countries, have won 14 times.

To me these gripes get at the heart of America-centrism that is so key to so much of its problems: as if the American way, the American approach, American values, art, culture are somehow the envy of the world or the thing which is the standard.

America is but one country. An important country, yes, with some important writers. But this argument (from the New Yorker)  that not choosing an American winner is reflective of some political prejudice (from a writer who clearly doesn't know much about "international" literature) is just stupid.  And dangerous because it just underscores the insularity that so many (even worldy, educated) Americans have about the world.

It reminds me of a Chinese guy I talked to once who told me that he only eats Chinese food because it's so varied and so encompassing. And "foreign food" is too bland and too much of the same. In his very limited and underdeveloped mind, there were two choices: Chinese and not-Chinese and the entire complexity, history and variety of all "non-Chinese" cooking was one blanket category in his mind.

Or a friend in the US who was arguing with me about US politics, who asked me which newspapers I read: The NYT, the Guardian, the Globe & Mail, Le Monde and the South China Morning Post (not every day but I read those and more regularly). He reads the Seattle Times. His analysis: that my papers were "anti-American" and his paper had the "correct" view of the situation. Oy.

I say the above as an American, mind you. An American who has lived outside the US for the majority of my adult life. I probably get much more worked up about this than any America-phobe I know!

(Sidebar: the article also suggests the criticisms of the Booker prize for opening up the criteria to include Americans is based in prejudice. Could be true. But is there a single major US literary prize that considers writers who AREN'T American? Has there been a British National Book Award winner recently? A Japanese Pulitzer prize winner?)

An American will win the Nobel when it produces a writer good enough to compete with all the excellent writers who live outside the US.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro and the Nobel Prize

Hey this is really good news. Not terribly shocking, I must say, and a more conventional choice that Nobel committee has been making in the last few years. Except Llosa. And that's not to say that she doesn't deserve it, God knows. I also like that the committee has selected someone who writes short stories as her main medium. I can't think of another Nobel laureate who is known mainly for short stories, at least not in recent memory.

You go, girl
As per usual, Americans gripe that an American hasn't won in 20 years (Toni Morrison in 1993) which I always find incredibly irritating. Even the New York Times did it this morning. As if all or most writers come from the US. Yes, there are many famous writers in the USA but fame is not itself a criteria for the Nobel. (Sidebar: what is this obsession with fame? Americans - and Canadians for that matter - often equate fame with quality.) That said, I don't recall Canadian media outlets griping each year that a Canadian hasn't won when they award it to someone else.

I thought Murakami would be up there but maybe he's still too youngish. That said, only two other Japanese have won, Kenzaburo Oe (the year after Morrison) and Yasunari Kawabata way back in like 1968. I was also thinking perhaps Umberto Eco might be on the list though he often isn't listed there in the possible laureates.

We've been working on Alice for a few years, a number of years more like it. But she's not been in the greatest of health, so we've had no luck. I'm sure she'll manage to rest up to fly to Oslo to accept this, though. It's funny because I was just talking about Alice Munro last night to our board, an event that we are planning involving her work at the 2014 Festival.

So when it happens in late April, remember: it wasn't because she won the Nobel prize!

Anyway, it's a first for Canada! I believe? And will generate interest in her work (which has managed to do well for many years anyway).

Great news.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What the public often doesn't understand about Festival programming

It's a tricky balance, programming a big literary Festival like Blue Met. On the one hand, people like stars, people like to come and hear writers they know talk about books they've read. The media prefer stars, and when we have Festival years with some big names, we get bombarded with media requests.

Franzen: our most requested author.
But we can't just invite stars. First of all, they're expensive. I often surprise people who assume that writers come for free (just their expenses covered) in order to promote their books. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. A big US writing star who is a well-known name can easily cost upwards of $30,000, not to mention first class airfare, etc. For one appearance. Yes, it's true, there are a limited number of those kinds of writers, but these authors represent the standard list of writers we get from people making suggestions. In other words, these are often the writers people recommend to us.

Think about it from the writer's point of view: their job is to sit in a room alone and think quietly, tapping into a computer. Their job is not to be on stage, not to sign books, not to shake hands with strangers and go to shwanky dinners. It's a part of it, sure, but the most important part is the first part. So writers need quiet time in their homes to do this. Some love the public aspect of it but big star writers will get dozens, maybe hundreds, of invitations a year. They can't do them all. And one way to "weed" requests out is to charge for an appearance.

Some writers even charge for an appearance when they have a book to promote. In other words, they don't even need to tour to sell books.

Yes, connections help but only a bit. I am thinking of a very well known youngerish writer
Carofiglio: not a household name but immensely successful event
who lives on the West Coast of the US. His going rate is $30,000 plus business class airfare from San Francisco (near where he lives). I know someone who knows him and his wife. But what he says is that he has to set his speaking fee at this amount so that he only has to do a few speaking engagements a year. This makes it worth his while, and can spend the rest of his time at home writing. It's about setting priorities. And for anyone who travels a lot for work: travelling frequently gets really old.

Of course, not all writers costs $30,000 but many cost $10,000 or $15,000. It's hard to get a big US, Canadian, French or British "star" writer for less than that (though sometimes we get lucky).

What I often hear next from our public is, "Well, Montreal is a place where people love to visit so that should make it easier to get a writer to come." Yes. But mainly no. When you're a big name writer and you do 10 literary Festivals in one season, you really don't care where it is (with a few exceptions). You might be there three or four days, have an event or two each day, but the rest of the time you're in a hotel room, in airports, in taxis, around strangers. There's nothing "Montreal" about that kind of experience.

Also, we're not considered a big market by book publishers. We might fill a room with audience members, but unless we sell books, the publisher doesn't really care. As a general rule (media attention counts for something, but in the end, it's about books). That's why we are always harping on about buying books: if we don't sell books, publishers are less likely to work with us.

None of this to say that it's impossible to get big stars. We have a budget but we have to spend it very wisely. Again, it's about balance. Part of what we do is bring (some) stars but part of what we do is introduce new or lesser known writers to our public. Some of our most talked-about events, in fact, have been with writers that are hardly household names.

I'm often irritated when I see the programming choices of certain big Festivals: star, star, star, star, star. As if that takes any creativity at all. If one's budget is high enough, of course, it's easy to just tick off a list of the biggest writers around. But that doesn't make an interesting literary Festival in my mind. Or perhaps our audience expect more than that. I like to think it's the sophisticated taste of Montreal readers.

Along with some big names, it's also about creativity and variety: doing events which are appealing to our audience and don't cost $20,000 to put on, doing events which appeal to different age groups, different backgrounds, creating discussions which get people thinking. Introducing a new writer to our audience.

It's like putting together a giant puzzle every April, making sure the pieces fit together, making sure it all comes together to represent a beautiful and colourful picture.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Water Cooler Conversations: TV. Not books. Not movies

At a few social events recently, I've been struck by how rarely movies or books figure into our social conversations. I was chatting with a couple of people about Woody Allen's new movie, Blue Jasmine (I liked it though it definitely has some problems. I think it's his best movie since Vicky Christina Barcelona and the story is rather complex for a Woody Allen film), but discussing a movie in such a setting was unusual. It was just three of us in a corner, chatting about the movie, how we felt about it, what was new or unusual about it. This was in a room full of maybe 25 people. A few people indicated that they'd seen it but had little to offer to the discussion beyond "yes," or "no."

Pick up a book once in a while...
But then someone brought up Breaking Bad and Justified and the conversation just took off, several people then joined in, all had something to say. And people were passionate: arguing, getting sharp and even shrill. Even if people hadn't seen Breaking Bad, they all had read and heard enough about it that they could at least understand what the conversation was about and could even contribute a bit. Mad Men, Girls, The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, Dexter: all of these shows were discussed with varying degrees of enthusiasm and criticism.

Afterwards, I thought about how rare it is that books figure into these conversations. Why is that? Are there just too many books so it's rare to find people who read the same books as you do? If I were at a party where most people had read something very popular (like Twilight or 50 Shades), would a conversation develop around these books? Or do they lack the complexity necessary to make an interesting conversation? (Or perhaps people would be embarrassed to admit that they'd read them?) It seems to me that books are better suited for a conversation between two people or in a forced setting (like a book club).

It's depressing, actually, because since I read all the time, I rarely have the chance to talk about a specific work I am reading or have recently read. I will occasionally have the chance to talk with someone about a writer whose work I admire, but it rarely gets very in-depth. And I'd say that my social circle reads more than the average person does (since I work in the book world but also since so many of my friends are writers, artists or those who work in the arts). The rare exception is when I lend a book to someone I know and we discuss it when they give it back (and this frequently centers around graphic novels, for some reason, since typically people won't take 2 months to read a graphic novel).

Movies, too, operate in this way like books do: if someone is interested in indie or foreign movies, there are so many that it's not likely we will run into someone who has recently seen a movie we have. And if one is into huge blockbusters that many people see, there is little in it to discuss since these movies are so rarely complex.

So that leaves TV. I don't mind this wave of TV that has been sweeping through North America the last 10 years or so. Certain TV shows have become the new water cooler topics since it's "good" popular culture. Still, being a book lover and promoter, I wish that element were present, too...

Friday, September 13, 2013

Literary Prizes and Capitalist Tendencies

I've been thinking about the plethora of literary prizes lately and all the stories that have been circulating about various prizes and ways that prizes are awarded and how juries are organized, etc., and it occurs to me that the reason we completely reorganized our Grand Prize jury in the last few years was to alleviate some of the pressure that prize-awarding bodies have been under to make the process as independent and transparent as possible. To be honest, this was something that was suggested to me and so when I came on board, we completely reorganized the way we awarded the Blue Met Grand Prize without much thought or discussion.

And we've been happy with the results. Our last few winners (Colm Toibin, Joyce Carol Oates, Amitav Ghosh) have attracted the public and received a good deal of press attention. Oates and Ghosh have published some solid work since their wins, too. (Toibin only won six months ago, so we should give the guy some room!)
Joyce Carol Oates, winner in 2012

The down side if, of course, that the independence of the jury limits certain aspects of the
prize. In past years, we typically alternated between awarding the prize to a Francophone one year and an Anglophone the next year. But with an independent jury, that doesn't always work, particularly given the criteria of our prize (especially since we change our jury each year). Letting a jury decide, though, allows us to get a winner who represents more than just our own opinions in the office about who should win. We want people to think of the prize as a community of readers who award it with jury members composed of journalists, editors, cultural workers and even politicians.

Carlos Fuentes, winner in 2005
Writers who have concerns about literary prizes, about "grading" writers or works, about ranking something which is inherently subjective, miss the point, it seems to me. The honest truth is that prizes are less about "quality," really, and more about putting a temporary spotlight on a writer. A prize is something the media understands, it's something government bodies understand, it's something the public understands. In many ways, our prizes each year are a kind of stand-in for our Festival for we have often found that if our prize winner is a big name writer, our Festival gets a lot more attention from the press and we sell a lot more tickets. The name of our winner also influences who come to our Festival: when it's a Francophone, we get a lot more Francophones, when it's a man, we get more men, etc.

So while the prize is given to the writer, it's less about ranking or grading work or individuals than it is about putting a temporary spotlight on a writer or on his or her work for the world to have a chance to look along with us. It's about quality, of course, but there's a lot more to it than that: it's about writers who are contributing to the literary milieu, but it's also about availability, innovation, tradition, stage presence, and attracting the public. So "the work" is only one part of a larger picture. At any rate, most of our prizes (we have two others) are for a body of work which means something different than a prize for a single work.

Paul Auster, winner in 2004
What I appreciate about the way we award our prize is the rigorous debate that goes on behind the scenes: disagreements, arguments, it can get heated at times. But it's a real discussion and there's more to it than just throwing a big pot of money at it and lining up all our media contacts and sending them out like flying monkeys. It's also a varied prize and we've awarded it to writers from at least 8 different countries (though most with strong connections to Canada, the US or France). A look at our past winners reveals no "flash in the pan," and all of our laureates so far (two have subsequently died, Norman Mailer and Carlos Fuentes) have continued to do amazing work; this stands in contrast to other prizes which seem to be more about the dollar amount of the award (as if that makes any difference whatsoever to anyone but the writer), and the whole media campaign which surrounds it.

Another thing I've been told by a few winners that they haven't accepted our award because it pays X $ amount but because it means something in a larger context. Anyway, most of our laureates could ask a lot more to appear in public than our prize pays them, but they still come happily...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fall reading....

Fall pokes its head around the corner and 2014 is beginning to take shape. Arab prize-winner confirmed, check. Metropolis Azul prize-winner confirmed, checked. Two pretty big stars confirmed. Several international writers confirmed. Still some big pieces to put into place and still a lot more writers to invite and events to confirm. But we're moving along...

Been reading like a madman:

Sarah Schulman's novel The Mere Future which was excellent. Robert Walser's Berlin Stories (ok, again, I read it last year). Carolina de Robertis' Perla, Jenny William's biography of Hans Fallada, then I read Fallada's A Small Circus which was slow-going at first but I managed to get into it after 100 pages or so...finally read Heinrich Boll over the weekend (his A Soldier's Legacy)

Picked up Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy and been racing through that.

And none of that even includes reading for the Festival! I've got a huge stack of books on my office desk that I am slowing making my way through though every few days, another one gets added to that pile. What a great problem to have...

Lately one of my reading obsessions has been fiction set in Europe between the wars. Again, this is personal reading, nothing related to the Festival (though I can always find some connection) and when I look at my day, it's amazing that I even have time to read at all since I am up at 6:30 every morning, running all day without even a chance to sit down until dinner, then to the gym and in bed at 11.

I guess I manage to get a lot of reading done over the weekend, but also on the metro, while I wait in lines, just before I fall asleep.

People who don't read don't know what they're missing...

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney, from The Harvest Bow

As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

English education: is it anachronistic? Adam Gopnik's opinion...

A very interesting piece by Adam Gopnik on the New Yorker blog this morning, an argument that has been banding about for years: is it necessary to "major" in English anymore? Or, more precisely, is the major becoming obsolete or abandoned in academia?

It's something I think about, being an English major myself (and hesitantly so, after starting out in the sciences, every one I knew told me that I should be studying humanities and a career aptitude test I took when I was 18 or 19 suggested something similar) and feeling strongly that an undergraduate education in humanities is an excellent foundation for most types of professions.

Gopnik sidesteps (at least throughout most of the piece) the real argument which he only glances at sideways in the final paragraphs:

No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them each other as cheaply as possible, and die.

Right. I wholeheartedly agree but this argument isn't then applied to the entire approach to education in much of the developed (and developing) world: education as commodity as opposed to education as foundation, as experience, as a shaping and influencing period of time. But that's where we are: people now go to college with the intent of "getting a good job," whereas I don't think was necessarily always the case (at least not in North America). And literary studies does not necessarily equal gainful employment (though I know people who've studied science, law and other fields who can't find jobs after graduation whereas I studied literature and have never had trouble finding work in my entire adult life knock on wood!).

Perhaps the argument can be made that we no longer have that luxury: to send generations of young people to school to simply learn about who they are and now it has to have a more practical concern, i.e., learn a trade, learn how to balance your personal needs with larger external concerns, learn to jump through hoops, learn to socialize in the "right" way with the right people.

But I think this is precisely the advantage of the system we have now. By studying humanities as an undergraduate, by giving our young people freedom to extend their youth and learn about things they may never have another chance to learn about, they can become better citizens, can develop how to think better, etc., before they do their graduate degrees and have to put on the garb of a productive citizen. Does it really matter, actually, what one studied as an undergraduate once you finish your graduate work and have been in the real world for a few years? Give undergraduate students free license to study what they want to study without having to think about the beyond. There will be plenty of time for that (this leaves out the entire cohort of students who don't even go to college at all, an argument for a different day).

Another issue that Gopnik doesn't address is how the English/literary academic system itself certainly has some blame in the fall of literature as a field of study: one can quite literally do an entire degree in literature and never read any primary texts at all. Academic literary studies can be incredibly obtuse, useless and obscure. Because I work for a literary festival and I come to literature from a "general readers'" point of view (an epithet in academia), I notice frequently the rift between those who simply like to read and those who do "professionally."  Academic institutions' insistence on isolation and obscurity has to play a role in the fact that so few people want to study English or literature any more.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Four Excellent Movies Set in New York City

Yes, there are lots of great movies set in New York but when I daydream about taking a weekend away, it's always a New York movie I want to see. Here are four of my favorite films set in New York:

Of course, Woody Allen's masterpiece, shot in black and white and starring Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep and others. This is a movie I know long sections of almost by heart: that opening scene with the saxophone playing and Woody Allen's voiceover trying to get it right, the repartee with his ex-wife (who leaves him for another woman) and the amazing acting of a very young Hemingway who is uber-convincing as a highly intelligent yet still emotionally her age woman in love with the Allen character. Some gorgeous B&W shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and the streets of NYC.

I haven't seen this movie in a long time but I love the images it still conjures up: Cher walking home in the early morning (what people of my generation called The Walk of Shame), her father sitting in his easy chair always listening to Vicki Carr, Olympia Dukakis as the mother. Great film.

After Hours
This was one of my favorite movies when I was in my 20s. Griffin Dunne (why did he never become a star) just trying to get home through the (rough) streets of New York. He tries to romance Roseanne Arquette (who lives with a sculptor though her entire life and character are just bizarre) but soon he realizes that's going nowhere and leaves. Through a series of misadventures, he loses all his money and is forced to make his way home on foot. Along the way he meets Teri Garr (who's hilarious as a waitress who hates her job) and is mistaken for a burglar and almost done in by a crazed mob. It's a hilarious film directed by Martin Scorsese.

Rear Window
Though there is nothing uniquely New York about it in some ways (you can tell it was filmed completely in a studio), the hardscrabble life of Nicky's neighbors and the glamour of Lisa (Grace Kelley) do seem uniquely New York.

Also: Dog Day Afternoon, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Tootsie, Do the Right Thing....

Monday, August 19, 2013

Back in full swing...

After semi-working at home (reading, writing, catching up on all the little niggly things we can never get to during the year), we are back in our offices full time now, airing out dusty corners, going through the piles of books, galleys, catalogues and magazines that have piled up, and getting kind of excited about what we have on our docket for 2014! Yes, it might seem like an eternity away but before you know it, winter will be here, then spring and our 2014 edition.

Can't say what we have going on yet, but I can say that our 2014 Festival dates are April 29 - May 4, 2014 and will be held at Hotel 10, 10 Sherbrooke Street West, just as we've done the past few years.

One of the first things on my task-list (just finished going through my hundreds of emails, organizing, deleting, replying, puzzling) is to tackle the piles and piles of books we have all over our offices and in my office in particular. That means filing some, tossing some, lending many, and giving some away as promotion! Stay tuned for that!

It's a big messy job keeping track of all these books, but, naturally, we wouldn't have it any other way...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Daytrippers, Guadaloupe and the History of Greenwich Village

Been reading a lot this summer but trying to focus as much as possible on reading during this quiet time because, as past years suggest, I will have limited time once fall is here. So not writing here or doing much else this time of year.

Some books I've had on my summer reading list but haven't managed to get to yet include:

The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians. Since we made it to New York a couple of weeks ago, I've been intrigued by the idea of a book telling the history of one neighborhood, Greenwich Village.

Miguel Marmol:  simply because I've not read anything by a Salvadorean author before and this "Latin American classic" seems like it could be interesting.

The Bridge of Beyond: I love Guadaloupe. Maryse Conde was our grand prize winner a number of years back and since I've read a couple of her works, I've been waiting for another book from the island to fall into my lap. So I'm excited about this upcoming publication. Plus anything by NYRB is going to be cool...

So far the highlight of my summer reading has been Daytripper, a graphic novel by two Brazilian artists (brothers, no less), Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. The book is a revelation: funny, serious, moving, beautifully drawn and terribly entertaining. It tells the life story of a Brazilian writer as he imagines different deaths for himself, considering his complex relationship with his father, his mother, and his best friend. It's really a lovely story and I can't recommend it highly enough...

Hope everyone's summer is moving along without incident!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Henry James feels too heavy for summer

So we're off to NYC for several days next weekend and, as I am often wont to do before I travel to New York (or just about anywhere, in fact), I want to read fiction set there. I picked up this excellent edition (with an introduction by 2013 Blue Met Grand Prize winner, Colm Tóibín, no less!) of The New York Stories of Henry James. It's been slow-going.

I'm a fan of Henry James but, first, it's hard to read such dense and heavy text on a hot summer day when people are riding by my balcony on bicycles and dogs are barking in the sunshine. It feels too weighty, requires too much concentration. I read the first three stories with some effort but after finishing the third one, I just couldn't bring myself to continue. At least not for now.

Why does Henry James feel like a cold autumn afternoon writer? Or a stay-in-bed-and-drink-hot-chocolate-while-it-snows writer?

The other reason I couldn't make it work this week is that though the stories are all connected to (not all set there) New York, Henry James is not the kind of writer that revels in space. No long passages about taking the train or sitting in a park people-watching (or at least not in the three stories I read). You get no sense of life in New York (not "common life" at any rate) from reading the stories. Henry James' interests lie inside: in the psychology of human interactions, motivations, fears, secrets. That's fine but because of that fact, I think, the "New York" side of this collection feel rather arbitrary and Tóibín's contextualizing James within the New York of his day is about the only time in the collection where New York really features as part of the stories.

I should dig out my old copy of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, a real New York kind of novel...

Friday, June 14, 2013

Socalled does Isaac Babel ...

At the end of his life, when writer Isaac Babel wrote a speech, indirectly staring Stalin's censors down, he did so with his usual ironic humour and sarcasm. He suggested that "bad writing" was a right that all writers had and a right that the Soviet authorities were refusing to allow. His irony was one that was not lost on his audience: "Let's not fool ourselves: this is a very important right, and to take this right from us is no small thing...let us give up this right, and may God help us. And if there is no God, let us help ourselves."

Babel's humour was his ultimate, most effective, weapon. Later he would suggest that he was practising a new genre, the genre of silence, another dig at Stalin sealed his fate.

I've been thinking and reading about Isaac Babel lately because of the Segal Centre's upcoming production of "Tales from Odessa," a production that was commissioned for the centre and the Yiddish Theatre company, based on the short stories of Babel.

Babel is a writer I've been reading since I was a teenager (one day I will write about how I was this non-Jewish kid growing up in rural America, fascinated with Jewish writers like Singer, Aleichem, Babel and others. One day when I was a little kid, I remember asking my father "What is a Jew?" and he told me that Jews wore funny hats and didn't eat pork. I found this absolutely enthralling.), but only lately have I been revisiting him as an adult, thinking about his tragic life and his unusual sense of humour from the perspective of someone in his 40s.

What I especially like about Babel's stories is the fact that they, like all good writing, are both a snapshot of a time and place vanished forever, but also capture something essential about being a kid, about being a member of a community, about family relations, but unlike Singer or Aleichem, his relationship to his own Judaism is complex and the Jews in his story are largely secular, often brutal or aggressive (one of his stories explores the Jewish mafia of Odessa pre-WWII). Often Babel's protagonists note another character's Jewishness, but never make it clear that the author himself is a Jew. There are even ambiguous digs at Jewesses or old rabbis. This could be read as another example of Babel's ironic sense of humour or perhaps he was just giving his (Russian, Ukrainian) readers what they wanted.

Born in Odessa in 1894, Babel would repeatedly run up against the Soviet authorities in his prime, first banned from writing (thus his suggestion that he was a master of the genre of silence) then arrested in 1937. He disappeared into the Soviet gulag and it only emerged in the last several years that he had died in 1939 or thereabouts, either shot or suffering from typhus (or both, accounts differ).

Joseph Roth (a writer I admire greatly) wrote with a certain tinge of nostalgia, not necessarily for his life in a shtetl, but from a longing to return to the Austro-Hungarian order that he knew as a young man. There is nothing nostalgic about Babel's stories: they are full of violence and murder, humour and terror, love and sex and longing.

Red Cavalry explores the precarious life of a soldier in the midst of the Soviet-Polish war and Babel manages to straddle both the 19th and 20th centuries in the series of stories that both represent the content of the past with the form of the future (unlikely he read James Joyce though there are similarities in terms of form).

But I am glad that Segal is doing his Tales from Odessa because this is the work that I just love. It's so funny and his protagonists find themselves in such funny situations:

They sat down at the table, Yevzel served them with vodka, and Mr Trottyburn unfurled
Socalled: this guy's a genius
his wares. From the bale he produced cigars and fine silks, cocaine and filing tools, loose tobacco from the state of Virginia and red wine that had been purchased on the island of Chios. Each article of merchandise had its own special price, each figure was washed down with Bessarabian wine that smelt of sun and bedbugs...the drunken Malayan, full of surprise, touched Lyubka's breast with his finger. He touched it with one finger, then with each finger in turn. His soft, yellow eyes hung above the table like paper lanterns on a street in China; barely audibly he began to sing, and he fell to the ground when Lyubka gave him a push with her fist. (translated by David McDuff).

The Segal Centre production is part of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre and the music is done by the super creative and innovative musician Socalled, so it's sure to get the tone of Babel right on (if a Canadian Jewish rapper can approach a 20th century European writer). Don't worry, there are subtitles in both French and English though part of the charm of seeing anything at DWYT is actually hearing the Yiddish. Not sure if the songs are in Yiddish though I suspect they are...

I am so looking forward to this! Check out more about the Segal Centre production here. The show starts Sunday, June 16 and continues until July 7th.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

So I've been reading Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger  the last few days and I have to say one aspect of it is really annoying me: the long chapters. Sheesh, how am I supposed to find two hours in one sitting to read a 200 page chapter? And it's not like there are many breaks within a chapter as natural ending points either.

It might seem like a small thing but I constantly drop back in to the middle of the action (her scenes go on and on and on...) and have to re-orient myself again.

The novel is set just after WWII in rural England and is told by a local doctor whose mother was a servant in The Hundreds, a dilapidated old mansion whose family is odd and isolated. Formerly part the ruling class, the family struggles with one inept servant and Waters does what Downton Abbey tries to do (though this book pre-dates D.A.) but without the opulence or obsequiousness of "before". We only see the shabbiness and helplessness of the after.

While I am reading in bed at night, I start to get a bit sleepy and zip ahead to see how many pages are left and then realize it's going to take another hour to get through this chapter. Ugh. Then I get irritated.

You'd think I could just get lost in the story and not notice but there are too many demands on our time today. It doesn't work that way.

And I've been thinking about this, how unusual it is nowadays when so many books have short chapters or many ending points within a chapter. I always assume it's a natural breaking point for a writer, to end a scene, to stop for the day. I can't imagine how a writer spends all day writing a few pages, then returns tomorrow and has to carry on with the same conversation, the same tensions, the same scene as she did the day before.

It's a good book otherwise. I like the atmosphere she creates of the spooky old house and all the dysfunction and polite chatter that masks something lurking underneath. The protagonist is elusive, the other characters all seem to be hiding things.

But shorter chapters, please!!