In 1990, twenty years after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature’, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote an essay entitled How to Rebuild Russia? He argued that the USSR should splinter along ‘ethnic’ lines: the Baltic states, Moldova, the South Caucasus and most of the Central Asian republics should be let go, while a new Russian nation would include Ukraine, Belarus and the ethnic Russian parts of Kazakhstan. The essay overemphasised the similarities between the peoples who would live in this imagined country, and brushed off the repression they suffered under the tsarist and Soviet regimes.
The delayed, fraught Tokyo Olympics were well underway when the Milanese publishing house Adelphi announced the death of Roberto Calasso. He might have nodded mordantly at the timing. Few writers have spun their work so confidently out of a belief that the old cultural totems of Olympian gods and heroic fervour remain not just valid reference points but ubiquitous and hungry presences.
There is a box file marked ‘Jenny Diski (Simmonds) School and other early’ next to my desk. It’s been sitting here for a couple of years, and, just as in childhood when I would flick through the contents to fill an hour on an empty Sunday, I’ve left it largely untouched. On those Sundays the thing that drew my attention was an onion-thin letter, worn with rereading, in which Doris Lessing offers my mum a room, and an alternative existence.
It is with dismay that we learned of the decision of the City of Dortmund to rescind the Nelly Sachs Award for Literature from Kamila Shamsie because of her stated commitment to the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.
The Bocas Literary Festival in Port of Spain draws its distinctive character from the way poetry, storytelling, satire, performance, recitation and masquerade are bound up together in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, and in the lives of the vast diaspora of Caribbean people. The festival is inclusive: even descendants of former colonials, like me, are invited (my grandfather, the cricketer Plum Warner, was born in Trinidad, and I still have cousins there, called Cadiz).
Colourful banners hang from the balconies of Bowater House: 'Under London, heaven's light, grow life, not loot,' one of the 21 slogans says. Another: 'One day will this shadow fall.' The building is part of the Golden Lane Estate, a Grade II-listed social housing complex designed in the 1950s and built on a bomb site in the City of London. Bernard Morgan House opposite is shrouded in white sheets bearing the logo 'Taylor Wimpey'. The developer is about to demolish the building, which housed key workers between 1960 and 2015, and replace it with a 10-storey luxury block called The Denizen.
'People are like boats, we head off for a place we've been longing to visit for ages,' says a character in 'Pirate Rum', a short story by Tove Jansson. 'Maybe an island. Finally we get there. And what happens? We go right past, further out.' Having set off in a canoe, the man gets caught in a storm and is sheltered by two women living on a secluded island.
The Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali is described by his editor, May Hawas, as ‘a libertine, a hanger-on, a sponger, a political dissenter, a depressive, an alcoholic, a gambler, and probably a menace to everyone who let him into their lives.’ The American University in Cairo Press is bringing out his diaries in two volumes, 1964-66 and 1966-68. Ghali’s wonderful (and only) novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, was published by André Deutsch in 1964. He had a job of some kind with the British Army Corps, which he loathed, just as he loathed the town of Rheydt in West Germany where he lived a ‘colourless and middle class and unadventurous’ life. He had reached this relatively safe harbour after years of hardship: the details are fuzzy, but he seems to have run into trouble with the Nasser regime (which he disliked) and from 1954 travelled through Europe, working in factories and docks, and living, as he writes, ‘in the gutter’.
John Berger died yesterday. Reviewing his selected essays in the LRB in 2002, Peter Wollen wrote: Berger, despite his concentrated seriousness, is quite capable of breaking out of the box, seeing things in unexpected new ways, becoming excited by the unusual and the perverse and the eccentric, bringing a pungent subjectivity to the most delicate of judgments.
D.H. Lawrence’s relationship with the town he grew up in, Eastwood in Nottinghamshire, was always ambivalent. Its rural surroundings were ‘the country of my heart’, but the streets of miners’ cottages where his family lived were ‘sordid and hideous’. He freely used Eastwood characters in his writing, and to many locals he was ‘that mucky man’ who’d left the town then rubbished its reputation.
‘I like to write about books that give me pleasure,’ Angela Carter wrote in her preface to Expletives Deleted, the collection of her journalism published posthumously in 1992. ‘I also like to argue,’ she said. ‘A day without argument is like an egg without salt.’ Between 1980 and 1991, Carter wrote some of her finest literary tributes for the LRB: Grace Paley, Colette, Christina Stead, Iain Sinclair. But the pieces that really leap at you from the archive are three from the middle 1980s about food and foodies or, as Carter called it, ‘conspicuous gluttony’ and ‘piggery triumphant’, and how ‘genuinely decadent’ she found the foodie search for the perfect melon, ‘as if it were a piece of the True Cross’.
Earlier this year Harare City Library unveiled the Doris Lessing Special Collection, 3500 of the writer’s books donated to the library after her death. Lessing lived in Southern Rhodesia between 1925 (when she was six) and 1949.
Andrew O'Hagan in the LRB, 30 July 2015: I’ve always had a soft spot for To Kill A Mockingbird. I like its prose and am easily persuaded by its gently nostalgic tone, its depiction of a sleepy Southern town and its nightly routines, neighbours who know one another, a parent who can make a richness of a child’s moral sense. The novel glows with soft light – too soft, some would say – but it yields a hard lesson. Time passes and bad things happen but decency and empathy draw you back. It’s a children’s story, really, not unlike The Railway Children and other daddy-obsessed narratives, but Mockingbird gains power by seeming so deeply hitched, as it might or might not have been, to a social upheaval and a time of change. Atticus Finch was the right everyman for the right time and Gregory Peck was his ideal embodiment.
Dover Press has reissued William Seabrook’s 1934 memoir Asylum, an account of his self-committal to a mental hospital in an attempt to cure his chronic alcoholism. Seabrook, who committed suicide in 1945, is probably most famous now for introducing the zombie to American popular culture in 1929, but he was also a bestselling journalist, travel writer, pulp anthropologist, Great War veteran, primitivist, sadomasochist, occultist, and fellow traveller among the Modernists in New York, London and Paris.
In one of his recently published letters to his wife, Véra, Nabokov gives yet another version of the legendary encounter between Joyce and Proust in 1922. The various accounts of the meeting (many of them collected in Richard Ellmann’s Life of Joyce) disagree on almost everything, though it probably happened at a party given by the writer Sydney Schiff to celebrate the opening of Stravinsky’s Renard in Paris on 18 May. According to one version of the story, Joyce arrived drunk and poorly dressed; Proust, draped in furs, opened the door.
The PEN International Congress in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, last week was the first to be held in Central Asia. It was also the first at which the organisation resolved to oppose ‘anti-LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) legislation which restricts the right to freedom of expression’, having never before campaigned on sexuality or gender identity.
Russell Edson, who died this week, wouldn’t have minded if you hadn’t heard of him. A self-described hermit, he was content to hoe his row outside the public eye and prevailing literary taste, ‘just happy to be writing’, as he told Mark Tursi in 2004. Best known as a prose poet, Edson also wrote plays and novels, and often illustrated his own work. But he came to my attention, in the early 1990s, via a cassette tape: a friend’s copy of A Performance at Hog Theatre, a recording of a 1979 public reading in Amherst, MA. In his precise, wry baritone, Edson recites a few dozen poems to a small, attentive audience, playing against the crowd’s uncertainty: is this poem funny? Or is it serious? Should we laugh? (They should, and do.)
In her review of Monopolising the Master, Anne Diebel briefly mentioned my father, Michael Swan. In a 1955 piece for the London Magazine, he’d quoted liberally – and without permission – from James’s letters to the sculptor Hendrik Andersen. The letters were astonishingly candid and indiscreet, and loaded with exclamation marks. It’s also astonishing that the London Magazine and Harper's Bazaar, which reprinted the piece, weren’t sued by the estate.
Erje Ayden died last month in New York. He was born Erce Aydıner in Istanbul in 1937. His father was a politician and, later, justice minister. Erce was sent to Robert College, a private American high school overlooking the Bosphorus. His family wanted him to be a lawyer but he dropped out and escaped to Paris, where Nato employed him as a spy (or so he claimed). He moved to New York in 1957, and worked as a bricklayer, waiter and gravedigger before writing down his experiences in a series of pulp novels.
Doris Lessing in the LRB on 'unwritten novels', 11 January 1990: I first began to brood about unwritten novels in the late Fifties, after the Twentieth Congress. (Everyone over a certain age will know what I mean: youngsters, even the politically minded, ask, what was that?) I knew I had lived through an extraordinary time, but now it was over. What had ended was a political atmosphere – and this is always impossible to describe to later people, who are living in a different, equally compelling atmosphere, nearly always inimical to the first. (In the last few weeks we have seen a similar sudden change, one that no one foresaw, and the way we all thought so recently will rapidly seem improbable.
Writing drunk rarely works. Writing hungover, on the other hand, can be surprisingly effective. A bastard behind the eyes can still the frivolous part of the brain – the part that wanders off and watches cats on YouTube, or scrolls through Vice’s Dos and Don’ts – and allow the serious part to take control. Daily Rituals, Mason Currey’s compendium of working methods of the ‘great minds’, is full of writers who spent their nighttimes getting wasted, then got up and almost immediately started producing.
‘What is “experimental” art,’ the late Christine Brooke-Rose once asked, ‘or an “experimental” novel? Is it a genre?’ The question was the theme of a symposium on her life and work at the Royal College of Art last week, organised by Natalie Ferris. Tom McCarthy, like Brooke-Rose mistrustful of the label, suggested that the question had to be: ‘Experimental compared to what?’
In 2010, the Israeli novelist Nir Baram caused a small scandal at the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem by daring to point out that 'we are witness to the systematic violation of the rights of non-Jews in the State of Israel and the Occupied Territories.' Festival director Tal Kremer told Haaretz that 'in the end, his speech did no harm,' and she frequently cites it to persuade pro-Palestinian writers to attend. 'I don't think my job is to put up barriers and engage in censorship,' she said. However, 'in light of what happened with Nir Baram' – which she calls 'a production error on our part' – 'we asked this year's authors to give us the text of their speeches' in advance.
In the latest issue of the Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, along with the usual spread of articles on such subjects as the threat and promise of ebooks, the pros and cons of talking at literary festivals, and the cut in the Public Lending Right, there are two self-regarding items of Tory cheer. The first is by Toby Young, plugging his latest book, How to Set Up a Free School, in the guise of a piece about the 'writer as political activist':
It's been almost disabling, this nothing interesting happening. The world having become entirely uneventful, no worries, no problems, nothing to engage the mind and heart. It's a dull time to be alive, but at last there's a break in the complete dearth of matters to care about. Jane Austen might have died of arsenic poisoning. And since she might have died of arsenic poisoning, she might have been murdered. If only the tedious old Janeites couldn't be relied on to get their knickers in a twist, we could disinter her bones and put them to the test. Now are you excited?
As a young novelist who writes almost exclusively about young people (specifically, his friends and himself), Tao Lin has unsurprisingly been tagged – or burdened – with the ‘voice of his generation’ label, and said to resemble such writers as Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis. But the ‘voice of his generation’ who came to mind while I was reading Lin’s books was Jack Kerouac. It’s not the most obvious comparison, perhaps: their prose styles are very different, and one of the few other people to have seen some resemblance points out that ‘entire Lin paragraphs could be housed in a single Kerouac sentence.’ More obliquely, Lin has been included in a loose collection of writers one critic has called the ‘Offbeat Generation’.
Mario Vargas Llosa has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
One of the perks of being a writer these days is that from time to time you get to sit next to politicians at BBC-hosted dinner parties and on publicity-seeking panels of writers feeding the face-time craving of readers. Just before the 1997 election there was Paul (now Baron) Boateng on my left (at the table, not politically) responding to my ill-mannered complaint about the destruction of the point of the Labour Party by the invention of New Labour and its Tory policies on poverty. Don't worry, he said conspiratorially, you'll see. We have to get into power. Then we'll legislate to improve the condition of the poor. We're still the old Labour Party, but we have to get elected. New Labour is the only way to do it. Wait and see, we're playing the long game. But once you're in power, you'll have another election to fight. Just wait and see, he said. I waited and I saw.
In a ghastly vision of future desolation, Lord Byron foresees the contemporary American novelist’s dust-jacket photo:
Theo Tait on Gordon Burn's last book, Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel, from the LRB of 5 June 2008: Gordon Burn’s work takes place at a point where fact and fiction, public events and private lives, fame and death all meet. Burn, who died last Friday, wrote pieces for the London Review on John Cheever (the ‘gut-spilling’, the ‘ear-scalding exhibitionism’) and Robert Stone (his ‘stoned rap’, his ‘junky jabber’).