Syrian author Iman Al Ghafari: “I did not want to leave my country forever!”

August 28th, 2016
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Larsmo, Ghafari, and Linderman at the Sigtuna Literary Festival. (Photo courtesy Sigtuna)

“I did not want to leave my country forever,” said Syrian author Iman Al Ghafari. When she left her homeland in 2012, she had hoped to recharge her batteries and return to fight for gender issues. Now she knows she cannot go back. Most recently, she worked at the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality, as well as a stint as a guest writer in Utrecht.

Now Ghafari is the Sigtuna literary center’s newest sanctuary writer, a guest in Sweden for the next two years. Sigtuna itself is one of nearly sixty International Cities of Refuge (ICORN), an independent organization of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, advancing freedom of expression, defending democratic values, and promoting international solidarity.

Ghafari spoke at a Sigtuna Literary Festival event yesterday about the plight of feminist and lesbian writers who wish to discuss the issues that concern them in the public sphere. She was joined by author Ola Larsmo, president of the Swedish PEN, and Sigtuna Foundation director Alf Linderman in a conversation about the freedoms we so often take for granted in the West.

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Sigtuna’s newest guest writer

She has a doctorate in English literature from Cairo University; her dissertation was on the poet Sylvia Plath. “There was a feeling of anxiety in Syria, a feeling of being excluded in my own country,” she said. “I was not able to appear in public or express my opinion.”

“Then the situation became unsafe in general – every day explosions and bombs,” she recalled. She left the Syria and has been an exile ever since.

The authorities gave other reasons for her marginalization – she said that to admit the truth “would have been a confession.” Or rather, they gave no reason at all. She insisted she had not resigned from her faculty post, but her university said it no longer wanted her. “Before I left, I was involved in a personal war in Syria. I was not allowed to get an income or leave.” She felt like she was a hostage in her own country and an exile even while living in it.

PEN’s Larsmo said that writers and journalists have a special position within society. When waves of people are fleeing a dangerous situation, they are heading in the opposite direction: “Journalists, truth-finders, those are the people who are trying to tell us what is happening there. They are heading in that direction as others flee,” he said.

He noted that the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie provided a model for the way these people are denigrated and held in suspicion by the very people who should be protecting them. He cited four commonplace accusations they face: 1) The threatened artist is “artistically bad,” he said. Hence, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses is condemned for being a “lousy novel.”  2) The threatened artist was deliberately provocative to get fame and money. 3) The threatened artist is putting other, innocent people in danger – for example, publishers, illustrators, or bookstore personnel. 4) The threatened writer or journalist is fundamentally “a bad person,” or unhinged and unstable. In keeping with the blaming-the-victim mentality, Ghafari recalled fellow Syrians blaming her, asking her, “Why do you put yourself at risk? Stay on safe subjects. Keep quiet. Don’t create problems for yourself.”

Larsmo recalled an incident where asylum was denied to a Bangladeshi blogger for fear he might overstay his welcome in his potential host country. Instead, he was murdered in his own. “I get furious still when I think about this,” said Larsmo. “In spite of the world situation, you have to keep your decency.”

In the absence of free speech, governments exploit divisions among people and persecute writers. “Turkey is now literally a prison for writers and journalists,” said Larsmo. “Erdogan wants to emphasize polarization. Who knows where Turkey will be in five years?”

Linderman asked Ghafari to look in her to make a few near-term predictions. “I’m not optimistic,” she said. “I see more restrictions on freedom of speech moving to the Western world.”

 

The Book Haven goes to Sweden’s Sigtuna Literary Festival!

August 26th, 2016
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Sweden’s oldest city…

Sweden has about 10 million people –about half the size of the New York metropolitan area. It’s language has about the same number of native speakers as the Czech language has. Compare that, however, to the plight of a noble language like Lithuanian, which has a mere 3 million native speakers. It’s something to think about in a world where the big languages are swallowing up the small – English has 340 million native speakers, by comparison, and half a billion when you include those who have it as a second (or third or fourth) language. It’s roughly the same for Hindi, though no one talks about Hindi being the universal Latin of the modern world. Both English and Hindi are dwarfed by Mandarin Chinese, with about 873 million, with more than a billion including second language.

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Ingemar Åkesson, Alexander Deriev, and Humble Moi

I ponder this as I sip my morning Gevalia (“Intensivo”) coffee and sample some Präst and Västerbotten cheese in the home of Alexander Deriev in Märsta, outside Stockholm. These smaller language groups are wise to choose to celebrate their own literary glory in the splashiest way they can. In the case of Sweden, that’s a significant literary legacy.

I’m a guest of the Sigtuna Literary Festival, based in Sweden’s oldest city (established in 970). The festival is one of Scandinavia’s largest literary festivals.  This year is its fifth consecutive year – but they don’t just celebrate their own literature; they celebrate everyone’s.

“To arrange and host a literary festival feels completely natural to us in Sigtuna. As Sweden’s first city, we have a unique history as a multicultural place with a long narrative tradition,” according to the festival’s website. “Sigtuna was an important meeting place where people from near and far gathered to network and exchange thoughts and ideas, as far back as a thousand years ago. We want to build on that. ‘Word power’ is simply in the Sigtuna soul.

“In today’s society, characterized by a fast, steady stream of information and opinions, we feel that there is a need for context to slow the tempo –  to provide scope for further thinking and not least of all, time for reflection. We need to discuss and reflect on important issues. In Sigtuna, we lean on more than a thousand years of history, so we prefer take a longer perspective. We want to continue to build on our history as a place of public debate for another thousand years.”

Sweden has a lot to celebrate: I flew in on Norwegian Airlines, which features leading Scandinavian figures on its tailfins. The nation has seven Nobelists (being the home of Alfred Nobel helps, for sure), including Selma Lagerlöf, Pär Lagerkvist, and Tomas Tranströmer – and the tailfins include writers from neighboring Scandinavians as well, such as Denmark’s Søren Kierkegaard and Norway’s Nobelist, Sigrid Undset. (I didn’t see playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg listed for the tailfin honor in my quick scan of the list – curious omissions if so.)

Clearly they have to catch up, given for the current rage for Swedish noir, the international popularity of Swedish crime fiction. Will Stieg Larsson be featured on an airplane anytime soon?

More from the festival in days to come… Previous guests include Lithuania’s Tomas Venclova and Sweden’s Bengt Jangfeldt, so I’m in good company.

“Tell them that we are dying.” The West wasn’t ready to listen: Jan Karski and the Holocaust

August 22nd, 2016
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The young Karski: they didn’t believe him.

“I have met many people who are considered heroes. Karski was the real deal,” said journalist Andrew Nagorski of Jan Karski, the man who tried to stop the Holocaust. Andrew was writing on Facebook – but he has more to say than that. He has just published a powerful article in the Daily Beast recalling his 1998 interview with Karski, who died in 2000. Karski was a courier for the Polish underground, and he was determined to bring evidence of Nazi inhumanity—but the West wasn’t ready to listen.

During his interview with Nagorski, Karski came straight to the point, adding new details not published in his 1944 book, The Story of A Secret State. Karski had met with Jewish leaders in Poland, and recalled the details:

“Hitler has decided to murder all the Jews in Europe,” one of them told him. The other leader started to cry. “We cannot hope that the Poles will help us. Poles can save individuals but they cannot stop the destruction of the Jews. Approach as many people as possible—the English, the Americans, whoever. Tell them that we are dying.”

The other message: The Allies need to scatter leaflets across Germany holding the entire population responsible for this mass murder, telling them they would face wholesale reprisals. They should also publicly execute Germans, “any they can get hold of” anywhere in the world.

Karski replied that such retribution was impossible to imagine, and the demand would horrify everyone. One of the leaders conceded: “We do not dream of it being fulfilled, but nevertheless we demand it,” since this would demonstrate “how helpless we are, how desperate our plight is, how little we stand to gain from an Allied victory as things are now.”

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Nagorski and Karski in 1998.

Finally, they told Karski that he should convey their demand that Jewish leaders in the West should go to government offices and start hunger strikes there, not relenting “until they have obtained guarantees that a way has been decided upon to save the Jews.” They should refuse all food and water, dying “a slow death while the world is looking on… This may shake the conscience of the world.”

Karski understood that these Jewish leaders were all too aware of “the complete hopelessness” of their situation, which is why they had cast all practical considerations aside. “For them, for the suffering Polish Jews, this was the end of the world.”

Read the whole thing, in all its disturbing glory, here. An excerpt of an interview is also included in the video below, for the film Karski and the Lords of Humanity (I wrote about it here.)

More than eulogies: new book considers the dead – famous and infamous

August 20th, 2016
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deadpeople“Why should we celebrate these dead men more than the dying?” T.S. Eliot asks in “Little Gidding.” And we’re all dying, hour by hour. One new book shares Eliot’s fascination with the dead.

We’ve been following the successes of the New Yorker‘s Morgan Meis (here and here, for example) – now here’s another one. He’s teamed up with Stefany Anne Goldberg to write a book Dead People (Zero Books), that’s getting critical acclaim. It is about what the title says it is, including studies of Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens and Eric Hobsbawn; musicians like Sun Ra, MCA (Beastie Boys) and Kurt Cobain; writers like David Foster Wallace, John Updike and Tom Clancy; artists like Thomas Kinkade and Robert Rauschenberg; and controversial political figures like Osama bin Laden and Mikhail Kalashnikov.

The two conduct a self-interview over at The Nervous BreakdownAn excerpt:

Morgan Meis: Well, when I started writing about Christopher Hitchens he had literally just died. I became very emotional as I wrote. The whole thing was written while crying, to be honest. I realized two things. One, that I had a lot of anger and resentment toward the man and two, that I actually loved him, in the non-romantic sense of the term. I realized that this love was generated by something other than the usual regard for his writing and argumentative skill. In fact, upon reflection, I realized that his writing and argumentative skill were, to my mind, overrated. That made my deep feeling of connection to the man all the more mysterious, a fact that pleased the hell out of me the more I thought about it. I tried to capture some of that in the essay, which, if it has any virtue at all, has the virtue of mostly refraining from restating the well-worn Hitchens clichés. The more I wrote about Hitch, the more I realized that I have no idea why he was such a powerful person.

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Teamwork: authors Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Goldberg

Stefany Anne Goldberg: I had an overall negative feeling about Mikhail Kalashnikov when I first heard that he died. I considered it one of those mild, everyday ironies that the man who invented one of the killing machines of the 20th century, the AK-47, was now, himself, dead. But when I started to read more about the man, and read the letter he had written to a priest near the end of his life, something changed. I started to see him as a tragic figure. That would be an interesting enough change in perception and might make for a good eulogistic essay. But then a third thing happened. I started thinking about Mary Shelley, which is something I do more often than not. I started to see Kalashnikov as involved in the struggle that faces all inventors, which is the struggle, as I see it, between nature and culture. I started to see Kalashnikov as a Dr. Frankenstein figure. This made Kalashnikov scary again, but in a better way. Now, he was no longer, for me, simply the guy who mechanized killing or the tragic figure caught up in historical events that were over his head. Instead, I started to see Kalashnikov as a monster and in being a monster of sorts, to see his specific humanity. Because the gun he invented was, after all, supposed to solve problems. It is in trying to solve problems that the trouble starts, for all of us. And yet, who would ever suggest that we should stop trying to solve problems? The are infinite knots you can get tied up in trying to resolve all the conflicting thoughts and emotions around a figure like Kalashnikov. My little essay was an attempt to get the ball rolling on that.

Read the whole thing here. And go here for Image Journal’s excerpt from the book on Leszek Kołakowski.

A villanelle on self-pity and a few words hurled at heaven

August 17th, 2016
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heynA villanelle, for those of you who don’t know the lovely form with its remarkable incantatory power, is a 19-line poem with a rhyme-and-refrain scheme that runs as follows: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters (“a” and “b”) indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain (“A”), and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.

Got that? Think Elizabeth Bishop‘s “One Art” or Theodore Roethke‘s “The Waking.”

The history of the villanelle, from the Italian villanella, a rustic song, goes back to the 16th century. The French poet Théodore de Banville compared the interweaving refrain lines to “a braid of silver and gold threads, crossed with a third thread the color of a rose.” The complex form was fixed with Jean Passerat‘s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” in 1606.

Here’s one more to add to the repertoire: “Self-pity” by a poet from the calm shores of Lake Michigan, Marnie Heynwho has just published a collection of poems, Hades Lades, with The Writers’ Bloc Press. (She takes liberties, as many poets do – clearly Passerat didn’t have the last word. Though she keeps to 19 lines and interwoven refrains, she combines terza rima with the villanelle.)

And below that, a more recent poem Marnie has written, about five years ago, dedicated to Humble Moi. I ran another dedicated to myself, titled “Gravitas,” by Patrick Hunt last March. As I noted then, it’s one of the pleasant byproducts of having poets for friends.

What both Marnie’s poems have in common, oddly, are the inclusion of buses. I wonder why … though I expect Marnie is a longtime fan of public transit.

Self-pity

I’m rigid on the bus at all the halts.
I set my jaw against sincere persuasion,
And that is not the gravest of my faults.

I overdress at any provocation.
My smile will never soothe a single sting.
I set my jaw against sincere persuasion.

I can’t subtract. Above all things,
I dearly love to win an argument.
My smile will never soothe a single sting.

My correspondents don’t get what I’ve sent.
I’m validated by the times I pine.
I dearly love to win an argument.

I decline my rightful turn in line
And trample on some hapless stranger’s feet.
I’m validated by the times I pine.

I lead in polka dancing, miss the beat,
And trample on some hapless stranger’s feet.
I’m rigid on the bus at all the halts,
And that is not the gravest of my faults.

 

hurling words at heaven

for Cynthia

you know I feel the creator’s presence the way I feel
the lateral coziness of that odd woman’s thigh, there
on the Trailways bus between one city in a state where
I know no one, and a city in another state where I know
no one, but I will manage well enough, and I am in
no danger, and going somewhere I want to be, there
beyond loneliness,
…….and so I know you will understand
that this bright, windy day I will not mirror Moses or
echo Jeremiah, rather that I will toss easy catches,
underhand, with flourishes, telegraphing every move,
soft, slow lobs right at the sweet spot where the stroke
can’t miss,
…….and ask, please, shine a light on the monster,
toss a banana peel under the heel of that stalker, whisper
a homecoming recall into every throbbing ear, and just
let Sinai be, let it be, while you show your countenance
to the gentle, the patient, the weary, this year, even in
Jerusalem

 

Postscript on 8/20: We have some nice pick-up from our friends at one of our favorite blogs, 3QuarksDaily, here.

Janet Lewis in poems and novels: “at last, a self drives through modesty.”

August 13th, 2016
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The young Janet Lewis

The Book Haven wrote about novelist and poet Janet Lewis (1899-1998) for Stanford’s 2013 Another Look book club event on her novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre. I had met the writer years before at her home in Los Altos.

Author Richard Stern, writing in a 1993 Virginia Quarterly Review, made the same trek I had once ventured to the modest home with the big loquat tree, where Janet Lewis had lived with her husband, the poet-critic Yvor Winters (1900-68), for decades. Since it’s a few days before Lewis’s August 17 birthday it’s time to share an excerpt from Stern’s essay:

Almost half a century before the silicon chip, Janet Lewis had written about ecological disaster, “the incoherent civilization emerging from the physical wilderness.” (Against a Darkening Sky. )

I took the El Monte turnoff, then drove along San Antonio Road to West Portola, near El Camino Real. A couple of hundred yards up the east side of the road were a mailbox, a garage, a grape gate and, behind that, the small, tree-shaded cottage to which Janet Lewis and Yvor Winters moved in 1934, seven years after they’d come to California. The door was opened by a tallish, straight-backed, white-haired woman wearing glasses on her strong, straight nose; the face was amiable, thoughtful, alert. The initial shock was, “This woman can’t be ninety-one years old.” In a minute, you forgot age, though Janet Lewis does move and talk with that special economy which is the product of an exceptionally long, therefore successful intercourse with the world. Perhaps because I’d read her Indian poems, I thought that there was an American Indian quality to its grace.

On Yvor Winters and her novels…

They’d married in 1926, but Janet was too ill to go with him to Moscow [Idaho]. She did accompany him to Stanford, where he went for his doctorate. “We lived on the outskirts of Palo Alto. I felt marooned up there, and wrote a story about some neighbors. The Bookman accepted it, and I felt I was a writer again.”

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The older Janet Lewis

I said she wasn’t the only writer born in 1899 who grew up in Oak Park.

“Yes, Hemingway. I didn’t really know him. He was around, but he dropped out for a year to do newspaper work, then graduated the year after I did. I was in class with his sister Marcelline for three years.”

I thought of pursuing the comparison of their short stories about northern Michigan—hers are low key and a bit rambling next to his—but she took that up in another way. “I became a writer in the country, during summer vacations on Neebish and St. Joseph’s Islands. I had a close friend, Molly Johnston, who was part Indian. Her brother Howard was a wonderful storyteller. I wanted to preserve his stories about the family. I went at it in the wrong way, embroidering a sketch about Molly. It didn’t make sense unless you went back and told the stories in back of the stories. These went back to the 18th century, to their Ojibway grandmother Neengay and her Irish husband John Johnston.” Out of research came The Invasion: A Narrative of Events concerning the Johnston family of St. Mary’s (New York: HarcourtBrace, 1932), her first important prose book.

lewis_wife-of-martin-guerre-fcOf Janet Lewis’s four other novels, three, like The Invasion, spring from actual events. “I have this affinity for the circumstantial case. I like to get at the intimate obliquely. Perhaps I’d have been more successful if I’d been more personal. Though my contemporary book, which is more personal, is rather shapeless.” This is Against a Darkening Sky (Doubleday: 1943), the story of the violent accidents and unhappy love affairs which pound the quiet life of a house-wife living in a Santa Clara County orchard. “Some of these accidents happened to our neighbors.”

It’s Janet Lewis’s historical fiction which has been highly praised, especially her second novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). Albert Guerard Jr., the teacher under whom I read it in 1948, called it “one of the greatest short novels in American literature.” Like the others, The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947) and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959), the book revolves around the misinterpretation of evidence. The critic Donald Stanford relates this theme to the murder conviction of a friend of the Winters, David Lamson, sales manager of the Stanford University Press, who was accused, indicted, tried, and sentenced for the murder of his wife. The Winters were active in his exoneration; Yvor Winters helped with the defense brief and co-authored a book on the case.

birthday cakeLewis’s reliance on circumstantiated cases as the basis of fiction may be related to her poetic reliance on meter and rhyme: the need for an unwavering, authoritative center. In her later poetry, written when she’d stopped writing fiction, meter gives way to free verse, and the pure imagistic presentation is mixed with commentary and exclamation, as if, at last, a self drives through modesty.

Read the whole thing online here.

Poet Anna Frajlich’s long journey from Warsaw to New York

August 10th, 2016
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Anna, photographed by Krzysztof Dubiel.

Poet Anna Frajlich-Zajac (she uses Frajlich as her pen name) is retiring from Columbia University, where she taught Polish language and literature for decades. The Harriman Institute’s Ronald Meyer has written a tribute to the Polish poet. Here’s how she came to New York City, in a wave of Jewish emigration too little known in the West:

Anna and her family were part of the mass emigration of some 13,000 Poles of Jewish descent who had fallen victim to a virulent anti-Semitic campaign and political crisis known as March 1968. Emigration required renunciation of one’s Polish citizenship, which Anna had to perform on behalf of her two-year-old son. Like her fellow émigrés, Anna believed that she would never see her native land again. Officially they were bound for Israel, but her husband argued that if they were to leave Poland, they should go as far as possible from Europe; thus they informed the authorities in Vienna that they wished to make the United States their home. They traveled to Rome under the care of the gendarmerie due to their statelessness. As they awaited travel documents for the United States, they were charged only with refraining from any demonstrations, which left them free to explore the Eternal City and begin adapting to life in the West. Many years later Anna’s Roman ramblings would provide the background for her dissertation and monograph, The Legacy of Ancient Rome in the Russian Silver Age.

I couldn’t agree more with Anna’s assertion that “language is a key to literature, to history, to understanding progress of any sort.” I had the good fortune to meet Anna in connection with An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz:

Anna worked as a freelance cultural correspondent with Radio Free Europe (RFE) as a writer and interviewer, which culminated in her interview with Czesław Miłosz upon his receiving the Nobel Prize. She first met Miłosz at a lecture at the Guggenheim on October 17, 1978; he inscribed the date in his book about Stanisław Brzozowski, which Anna had purchased in a local Polish bookstore and brought for him to autograph. When writing her thesis on “one of the most original Polish thinkers of the twentieth century,” to cite Miłosz’s formulation, Anna had to travel across Warsaw to read this same book in the restricted section of the library, after producing a document from her thesis adviser. Now she had her own copy, with the author’s inscription. They continued to meet sporadically at readings and conferences.

invisibleThe Nobel interview, which has been published in English translation [that would be in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz], almost did not come about. Miłosz had not been treated well by RFE in the early days of his emigration, and he did not feel obliged in the least to give them an interview. But he had been persuaded that since he had given an interview to Trybuna Ludu, the Polish Communist daily, he should give one to RFE. He agreed, but insisted that Anna conduct the interview. The interview took place at Miłosz’s home in Berkeley. The piece, which very much represents a poet interviewing a poet, was a resounding success; it was broadcast four times and published. In 1993, Anna was conducting interviews for the column “What Other People Read,” which was appearing in the cultural supplement to the Polish Daily News. She conducted a telephone interview with Miłosz for the column, realizing only after hanging up that she had forgotten to hit the record button. She immediately called him back and explained the situation. He “graciously” suggested that they conduct the interview again the next morning. You can read about Anna’s relationship with Miłosz, including how he introduced her to Scotch after they concluded the Nobel interview and that she taught his granddaughter Polish at Columbia, in her essay, “He Also Knew How to Be Gracious.”

Anna earned her master’s degree in Polish philology at Warsaw University, writing her dissertation on the philosopher and critic Stanisław Brzozowski and the Polish positivists. She began her graduate studies under the guidance of Zoya Yurieff, a professor of Slavic literatures and cultures at New York University who was an early inspiration and encouraged her graduate education in the first place. Yurieff also suggested the topic of ancient Rome in the poetry of the Russian symbolists.

What future for Anna? She plans to write a memoir called Women in My Life, which will include portraits of her mother and a Warsaw University professor, among others, and, of course, Zoya Yurieff.

Read the whole retrospective here. Meanwhile, a poem dedicated to her wonderful husband, reprinted with her permission:

Manhattan Panorama

to Władek 

The bridges overhang the city
like diamonds in a diadem
reflected lights are burning
in the Hudson and the Harlem Rivers
in the East River in the bay
and in puddles on the road
the bridges overhang the city
that shone in flight
between a setting star
and the rising moon
walls pinned into heaven
pressed by granite to the ground
wind in its stone sails
out to sea
it moves at dawn

(Translated by Ross Ufberg)

Albert Camus: his childhood, poverty, and “the solar side of his work”

August 6th, 2016
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A morality made from very concrete things.

I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine,” wrote Albert Camus, describing his impoverished childhood in French Algeria. “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

The Nobel author was much on our mind last year – when Another Look featured Camus’s masterpiece, L’EtrangerIn my reading for that project, I managed to miss his daughter Catherine Camus’s 1997 interview, when she and her partner Robert Gallimard were interviewed in London by Spike Magazine‘s Russell Wilkinson. Much of the of the conversation was about the author’s last unfinished work, First Man, which had been published in English in 1995.

Much of it reminds me of these words from his Nobel banquet speech: “Art … obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.”

A few excerpts:

R: Will we get a clearer notion of his ideas through The First Man?

…I think he wanted to write something to explain who he was, and how he was different from the age that had been conferred upon him. He was viewed by many as an austere moralist, but it was on the football pitch and in the theatre that he learnt his ‘morality’. It’s something sensed, it won’t pass uniquely through thought. It couldn’t possibly. He started thinking through sensation. He could never think with artifacts or with cultural models because there were none. So it’s true to say that his morality was extremely ‘lived’, made from very concrete things. It never passed by means of abstractions. It’s his own experience, his way of thinking. There are those who will find his notions about absurdity appealing, and others who will be drawn by the solar side of his work, about Algeria, the heat and so on.

R: Since The First Man deals with Camus’ birth and childhood in Algeria, it seems strange that Camus’ deep personal involvement with the Algerian nationalist crisis tends to get overlooked in the traditional portrayal of him as a French writer. Do you think The First Man will re-emphasise the importance of Algeria in our consideration of Camus?

CC: I hope so. Camus’ was born in Algeria of French nationality, and was assimilated into the French colony, although the French colonists rejected him absolutely because of his poverty. Politically, he was in favour of a federation, and effectively he considered that like South Africa today (or as they are trying to do), there should be a mixed population with equal rights, the same rights for the Arab and the French populations, as well as all the other races living there.

***

stranger

Lots of the solar side here.

R: So Camus tried to live the paradox of being both “solitaire et solidaire”?

CC: I think Camus felt very solitary. You can see it in all his books. The Outsider isn’t Camus, but in The Outsider there are parts of Camus. There’s this impression of exile. But where he is in exile isn’t especially in Paris or elsewhere, but from the intellectual world, because of his origins. And that’s a complete exile. Just because of his way of sensing before thinking. He’s in a field that he often feels like escaping from. In any case, you have to learn what blood is. It all has to be rationalised. In that he feels exiled, solitary…

***

And love is very important in The First Man, in that Camus loves these things he never chose, he loves his childhood experience in a very real way. Their poverty meant that there was nothing else they could think about but what they would eat, how they would clothe themselves. There’s just no room for other things in his family. It’s difficult for others to imagine the position in which he found himself. There is no imaginary existence in their lives.

French intellectuals are mostly petit bourgeois, and it’s hard to say whether that makes Camus’ work more valuable. I’d rather say that it’s different. Necessarily. His positions are sensed. So, naturally, those intellectuals who don’t have that experience have difficulty in comprehending it. But I think it made Camus more tolerant because he had already seen both sides of things when the others had only ever seen one. They imagine poverty, but they don’t know what it is. In fact they’ve got a sort of bad conscience about the working classes. It’s the perspective they could never adopt, not in the way Sartre wants to, because they weren’t familiar with them. They could never address themselves to the working classes. They don’t know what it means, and that gives them a bad conscience about it. Camus has a greater proximity to those in poverty.

R: And does this proximity result from his humility, which can been seen in the letters at the end of The First Man to Monsieur Germain, his old schoolteacher?

CC: It’s because his teacher in The First Man has a primary place. Camus shows us this teacher exactly how he was. The First Man is completely autobiographical. The mother he describes is the woman I knew, and she was exactly as he describes her. And this teacher really existed. But it’s also to show that people attach so much importance to celebrity, and Camus writes his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in thanks to his teacher. … It’s to show that this is what has come from what his teacher did for him. And also throughout the world there are Monsieur Germains everywhere. That’s why I published the letters, so that he could have a place in the work. But I couldn’t ever act or think on behalf of what my father would have said or done. He’s an artist, he considers himself an artist, and so he takes on the responsibility of speaking for those who are not given the means or the opportunity.

Read the whole thing here

Zbigniew Herbert, Vasily Grossman, and “a small kernel of human kindness”

August 3rd, 2016
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Grossman saw it all firsthand in the Red Army.

Many of you may remember my post some weeks ago on Vasily GrossmanLife and Fate (here). If you read the whole excerpt, you may wonder what becomes of Ikonnikov, the Tolstoyan Russian prisoner in a German concentration camp, who refuses to pour cement for a gas chamber.

He dies, of course. But in his last scribblings, he maintains that “Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.” He explains:

“My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

herbert

Shouldering a lot.

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

As I was reading those words, I remembered something very similar from Warsaw poet Zbigniew Herbert – a writer who, as Seamus Heaney said, “shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” In his essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” Herbert describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:

When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.

Van Oldenbarnevelt

A crumb of helpless goodness for him.

The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.

Feminist voices in Sweden’s crime fiction

August 2nd, 2016
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Crime fiction scholar Rosemary Erickson Johnsen

There’s more to Swedish crime fiction than internationally best-selling author Stieg Larsson, but the casual visitor browsing the bookstores might not know it. He seems to dominate the cover blurbs, even a dozen years after his death:

If you’re a fan of Stieg Larsson, you’ll LOVE this,” blares a red circle on one cover, while another volume claims to have “a dangerous edge to gladden fans of Lisbeth Salander.” Åsa Larsson, whose series is set in the far north of Sweden, was crudely hailed as “the new Larsson” on one cover. When “translated by Stieg Larsson’s and Henning Mankell’s Steven T. Murray” is printed on a book cover as a selling point, readers may begin to suspect that a shared language is all these writers have in common. Crime fiction readers are alert to distinctions among subgenres, but the massive influx of Nordic noir — a term that itself eclipses any number of meaningful distinctions — has blurred important boundaries in marketing these titles in English translation. Comparisons are a practical device for signaling subgenre to potential readers, of course, but the Stieg Larsson effect has overwhelmed normally observed distinctions.

treacherousSo begins an article by Rosemary Erickson Johnsen, a crime fiction scholar, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Hej, Men Nej, to ‘The Girl’ and ‘Girl’s Books’: Three Swedish Women Crime Novelists.”  She considers three new Swedish authors – and all three have books in English, too: Liza Marklund, Camilla Läckberg, and Helene Tursten:

Each author has her own brand of feminism, authentic yet inflected by different strands within feminism and crime fiction. One fundamental marker of their difference from the putative feminism of the Larsson books is the presence of fairly ordinary families in the sleuths’ lives and the integration of their central characters’ personal and professional autonomy. Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon, Läckberg’s Erica Falck, and Tursten’s Irene Huss are presented as characters balancing motherhood, personal life, and career, all while being involved in criminal investigation. Their developing characterizations are central to their respective series, and are interwoven with the crime-fiction plots and tied to social commentary. All three writers are blending genres, borrowing from other genres including romance, suspense, and thriller, and those borrowings shape their female investigators in ways that impact reader experience and probably contributed to the backlash they inspired.

She concludes:

Larsson

Not the only party on the block.

Some of the more romance-novel elements might be distracting to crime-fiction purists, but even the silliest of the main characters’ struggles reflect something real, and not all women are feminists. The detectives in most other police procedurals may not worry about their children’s homework or reflect on their long-time marriage, but there’s no reason why such ordinary features cannot be included. As I have already suggested, the genre blending that includes these elements calls for a different relation of reader to text; perhaps this, as much as anything, contributes to the annoyed dismissal by both the male traditionalists and Maj Sjöwall. Marklund, Läckberg, and Tursten are not Stieg Larsson; nor are they sisters of “the Girl” or writing “girls’ books.” Instead, these authors suggest there are many ways to inhabit a feminist worldview, many ways to situate oneself as an independent woman, whether that’s in Sweden or anywhere else.

Read the whole thing here.


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