doing a mahatma, james salter’s paris review interview online

The Art of Fiction No. 133 ManuscriptOh the lengths I indulged to get a copy of this a few years ago! I love an excuse to return to Salter and his Paris Review interview from the Summer 1993 issue [127 The Art of Fiction no. 133] being online now is enough for me. Here’s a tiny bit of it extracted from my rather long essay [Meeting James Salter];

“In the Paris Review interview of 1993 Salter said “I’ve never had a story in The New Yorker, everything has been rejected.” Of the 11 stories in Dusk -half of which are classics of the form- 9 were rejected by The New Yorker. He didn’t think to submit the other two.

Continue reading “doing a mahatma, james salter’s paris review interview online”

on not meeting edward said, who was right then and is right now

I enjoy unlikeliness and it seemed unlikely to me that Candia McWilliam would find herself in Edward Said’s memoir of his early life; Out of Place: A Memoir [Granta 1999]. That she does so in her own memoir [What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness Cape 2010/Vintage 2011] is one of many endearing things about it and its author. Also a high recommendation for Said and his own memoir.

I spent a number of mornings in June this year running past one end of Edward Sa’id Street in Ramallah, actualising the way he and his work feature near the beginning of my adult life and have been returned to repeatedly ever since. I’m posting an old review I did for The Independent of his collection of pieces The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and after [Granta 1999 -out of print/PenguinRandomHouseUS 2001 -linked] [BELOW]. Read almost anything of Said’s [especially on the question of Palestine] and the absence of a voice like his today makes you weep.

Continue reading “on not meeting edward said, who was right then and is right now”

russell hoban lost and found, for the record

With another new novel due from Russell Hoban this Winter [Angelica Lost and Found, Bloomsbury], I’m re-archiving a profile/interview/critical piece I wrote for The Independent near the beginning of his admirably sustained resurgence -if I can put it like that.

So much earnest nonsense is regurgitated in the British press about ‘lateness’ in the writing of fiction -usually from the chin of Martin Amis- that I enjoy the way that Hoban continues to take his chances, give his best shot, make more writerly attempts. I admire him as a writer as such, rather more than for his writing sentence-by-sentence, which I hope I articulate with more precision below.

Some of my favourite works of fiction -let’s just instance Bouvard and Pecuchet– were written not only ‘late’ but too late -in that they’re not ‘finished’. Actually, I shouldn’t blame Amis [whose Success, Money and Experience will last] for having his thoughts/neuroses on the subject, but those who have reported boyish bar-talk so solemnly throughout my entire adult life!

So here is the Hoban rescued from The Independent’s patchy site. One thing; mention of a blue plaque [in a sentence with a cut and now edited-back-in second half for clarity] was a joke! Right? Obviously. Or it would be obvious to anyone that knows him or his work, or indeed me and mine. In the back of my mind were the ironies of memorialising Edgar Allan Poe’s short time in London -The Man of the Crowd, all that.

His British publisher’s page is here and a well-stocked ‘reference page’ is here.

A first review of Angelica Lost and Found is here.

Continue reading “russell hoban lost and found, for the record”

nasreen mohamedi; reflections on indian modernism, bidoun

NASREEN MOHAMEDI: NOTES

BIDOUN WINTER 2009 #19 NOISE

bidoun-interviews_cover_1-1_large

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

A previous post on Mohamedi referred to my catalogue text from 2001. Now I’m posting my short review of her recent retrospective exhibition as it appeared in the UK. I was pleased and proud to write something on a show that went almost unnoticed -and was certainly not engaged with- in the UK [again], but there’s much more to be written about her work and its contexts.

For now, here are scans of the pages in Bidoun [below; click to enlarge]. Let me repeat that it’s essential wherever you are in the world to see the work itself -to stand in front of the drawings in particular- whenever the opportunity arises. Until you do you will have missed an important 20th Century artist and maker of our new world.

I’ll return to Nasreen Mohamedi at greater, speculative and more definitive length in the future…

Continue reading “nasreen mohamedi; reflections on indian modernism, bidoun”

slavoj zizek; the time of change, interviews you can believe in 1998-9

Slavoj Zizek London 1998 [photo Mykel Nicolaou]

I first met Slavoj Zizek in Bloomsbury in 1998 to conduct a relaxedly spontaneous, short but full-blooded interview in what I was to discover is the authentic Zizekian mode. I knew his work, had seen him speak, admired his reworking of various Idealists more than the brilliant-but-familiar bug-eyed film theorist and, armed only with a dodgy autobiographical preface, wondered about who he was. I’ve just found the 22,000 word transcript  of that first meeting. Afterwards we wandered through Georgian Squares in the University quarter and he graciously accompanied me as far as possible whilst exchanging gossip eagerly, before cutting back to a meeting.

That initial meeting was something of a rehearsal for a plan for me to go to Ljubljana -before easyjet!- to spend a week doing a series of focused interviews. Whilst in that memorably lively city, Zizek would introduce me to key figures from Slovenia’s recent underground; activists, politicos, Laibach, Mladen Dolar and the Lacanian gang, etc. Those sessions produced 14 hours of tape containing dense and agile theorising, but the generous backers of my trip bottled out of publishing the resulting coup [editor had been ‘moved on’, their ‘reliable’ stand-in quoted Bertrand Russell approvingly, as in ‘the only thing I know about Hegel is what Bertrand Russell said…” Weep] -as was always an open possibility. A possibility that had liberated me to do it fully and properly.

Thereafter, there were some telephone conversations and emails  and Zizek sent me his “Kosovo 4.99” piece on the double bind of supporting exceptionally belated foreign intervention to stop Serbian fascism’s campaign of ethnic cleansing; Against the Double Blackmail. A phrase from a clarifying phone call I made to him went in to the first substantial piece published on him in a UK journal [below] around publication of The Ticklish Subject and The Zizek Reader in 1999.

The so-called “Kosovo 4.99” text Zizek sent me was then staged as an exhibition of wall-texts [with a pirate radio installation by Gregory Green] at Cubitt Gallery and as an insert in the pages of Third Text magazine. I came across the original email to me with that ‘lost’ interview transcript. At the time I asked Cubitt to remove the note from SZ with thanks to me from their website because I was embarrassed! Somehow, they took the whole text down instead. After all this time, I’m linking to a pdf of it below with no shame at all.

Continue reading “slavoj zizek; the time of change, interviews you can believe in 1998-9”

penelope fitzgerald; the blue flower on the road of the impossible, 1995 revisited and again

Penelope Fitzgerald [1916-2000] has become the exemplum of a writer I want to admire more than I can.

Who cares? you might say. Well, I wrote about The Blue Flower back in 1995 [see below]. I knew the novels and very little about their author except that her previous novel, The Gate of Angels, had been universally hurrahed. I liked the work and felt that probably I would like the author of such work, but also that there was something lacking in it.

The Blue Flower –about the life of romantic poet and philosopher Novalis at the difficult moment of his idealisation of 12 year old Sophie von Kuhn, his ‘true Philosophy’- was the perfect vehicle to address that lack and I responded to it accordingly. Everyone else loved and admired it greatly. Of course, they could be wrong or merely reflect an established taste that I don’t share. In any case, so what?

Well since then Fitzgerald has taken centre stage beside and in place of her work. This would not make much difference to me except that in a famous instance an earlier novel and eventual winner of the Booker in 1979, Offshore, was poo-pooed by judges and programme-makers as womanly stuff of the side-plate. Even PF’s publisher was famously condescending towards her work.

If I’d known more about her biography or been old enough to have heard the lit chat at the time, I would have critiqued The Blue Flower more cautiously. I wrote with sincere, albeit slightly sceptical, admiration and meant it when I tried to indicate that her writing was as good as post-war Anglo-Saxon writing gets. I admired her for attempting to take on the terrain of Idealist abyss, just didn’t think she’d pulled it off.

That old male literary establishment was and is repulsive with its pathetic boyish sneering. An establishment is always invisible to itself and takes a no less complacent form nowadays, cohering without much thought around a very settled idea of what a novel is. However, it no longer defines it as an exclusively male preserve. Indeed, so long as it’s a roast potato they really don’t mind at all who cooks it.

Continue reading “penelope fitzgerald; the blue flower on the road of the impossible, 1995 revisited and again”

ahdaf soueif; views from a common, higher ground 2004

Ahdaf Soueif’s stark truth-telling about Palestine, in the journalism collected in Mezzaterra, saved the day in 2004.

It was a bleakly difficult year. The consequences of a series of deaths and accidents were felt thickly while I struggled with the scale and depths of my research on Gujarat, committed to writing a book worthy of a fascinating people/place and my own journeying ‘to the end’. Simultaneously,  global indifference to the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of Palestinians combined unique chronicness with acute horror to maddening effect.

What to do, exactly?

Click on cover to ‘see inside’

Ahdaf’s brilliant piece on Palestinian writers, in particular, lit a double pathway. It reminded me why critical journalism can be worthwhile and inspired the discovery of a way to channel outrage into something positive and productive.

Surely part of the reason Britain has supported the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, part of the reason the British government raced into Afghanistan and Iraq in particular is willful ignorance. Ignorance about the people, their history and a culture only perceived mutely at the end of a gun, as a cross on a screen inside an aerial bomber or a cruise missile launcher.

I decided to discover as much as I could about Arabic and particularly Palestinian writing in English and to champion it in any way I could. In those 6 years there has been some increased attention beyond 2 or 3 best sellers but, just for instance, why is the assassinated Ghassan Kanafani so hard to get hold of in the UK [on this see here]?

More recently, I’ve been learning Arabic and because of the unique way in which it opens up the culture I would advocate a campaign to make a British passport holder fluent in Arabic for every bullet and bomb aimed at an Arabic-speaker in this century, never mind the last.

Take Iraq alone; if for every hundred thousand Iraqis killed by the angels of Democracy, there were an equivalent hundred thousand new Arabic speakers in Britain…

Meanwhile, in her introductory preface to Mezzaterra [dated London June 2004] AS wrote: “Personally, I find the situation so grave that in the last four years I have written hardly anything which does not have direct bearing on it. The common ground, after all, is the only home that I and those whom I love can inhabit.

Towards the end of the preface she wrote; “The question of Palestine is of paramount importance not just because of humanitarian concerns about the plight of Palestinians. It matters that now, in full view of the world and in utter defiance of the mechanisms the international community has put into place to regulate disputes between nations, a favoured state can commit vast illegal acts of brutality and be allowed to gain by them. If the world allows Israel to steal the West Bank and Jerusalem and to deny the history of the people it dispossessed in 1948 and 1967 then the world will have admitted it is a lawless place and the world will suffer the consequences of this admission.

This is to put it as gently -with hard earnt civility and width of appeal- as possible. Six years on settlement activity has flourished and is ongoing, Palestinians [and Lebanese] have been massacred, partly with US dollars and British military equipment, part of Palestine remains under total siege, anyone brave or desperate enough to protest or object is bombed to pieces by a state that is a close ally of the US/UK and EU. At the same time Britain’s fantastically profitable supermarkets are full of reliably cheap Israeli produce.

Instead of making any substantive attempt to stay this aberrant hand the British government has sought ways to weaken the application of International jurisdiction as it applies in Britain, so as to encourage links from the perpetrators of what the UN describes as war crimes. When Rudolf Hess fled to Britain from a mortifying regime he was imprisoned for life. Now the British establishment welcomes leaders who are not fleeing but arrive proud and boastful about their very own mortifying regime.

When despair is insistent it must be resisted. Resistance of this and all kinds is the propellant along an inexorable path towards justice; the easily achieved human justice of courts and a more open and potent recognition of truth. The rhetorical arc of Never Again peaked and fell into Yet Again during my own lifetime but that doesn’t reduce the universal import or urgency of achieving substantial justice in this particular instance. Free Palestine any which way but minus the cant.

Here are some links to directly related pieces by AS:

‘Under the Gun A Palestinian Journey’ The Guardian Dec. 2000 here.

Pt 2 ‘Our World is Upside Down’ here.

‘Do Something’ The Guardian Letter to Blair April 2002 here.

‘The Waiting Game’ The Guardian Nov 2003 here.

NB In between came ‘Palestinian Writers’ The Guardian Sept 2004; an abridgement of an excellent essay republished in Mezzaterra on the richness of Palestinian writers and writing. It is not online.

‘The Palestinians say; “This is a war of extermination”‘. The Guardian Jan 2009 here.

PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature 2010, is ongoing here.

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground,

by Ahdaf Soueif

A glimpse of hope in a polarised world

By Guy Mannes-Abbott

Tuesday, 9 November 2004

Ahdaf Soueif is best known for The Map of Love, a novel which did much to open up the minds of English-speaking readers to Egyptian modernity. It brilliantly interwove the love affair of an English colonial woman and an Egyptian nationalist in the early 20th century with a burgeoning national “renaissance”, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.

That book followed an earlier novel and two collections of stories. However, the political writing she began in 2000 with Under the Gun has made her a writer of special importance. Mezzaterra includes “The Waiting Game”, her brave, despairing return to the occupied heart of Palestine, and a recent portrait of Palestinian writers under existential siege.

Mezzaterra‘s second half, literary pieces from two decades in London, is the surprising bonus. It includes reviews of writers from Jean Genet and Amitav Ghosh to Philip Hensher, along with pieces on al-Jazeera, Islamic “queens” and “the veil”: a term without an Arabic equivalent. Each exhibits Soueif’s demanding exactitude, whereby she will apologise for making “small points” before demonstrating their full import. Words, she proves repeatedly, matter.

Soueif is obsessed with language and power, the way words like “freedom” and international laws are abused when applied to Islamic contexts. She dissects sloppy mistranslations of Arabic and ideological clichés about Islam. More subtle difficulties loom when transliterating her own name from the Arabic as Soueif, in contrast to her brother, Ala Swafe. Reviewing William Golding’s An Egyptian Journal, she takes elegant revenge for Ala’s anonymously belittled efforts to coach the author in such subtleties.

The brilliance of this collection lies in Soueif’s linkage of “small” things to universal categories. She praises her friend Edward Said for being “human”, “fair” and “inclusive”, qualities that describe the “mezzaterra” of her title. This common ground, where differences enrich rather than clash, is civilisation. A “with us or against us” world, with its “war on terror” and “peace process”, is the opposite.

Souief is transfixed by the Palestinian uprising. She writes, contra Said, of having always felt “essentially in place: Egyptian, Muslim”*. So, writing about Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians in front of a wilfully diverted world, her combination of centred gravity, minute precision and insistent humanity generates highly clarified truth.

The truth makes for bleak reading, as her nightmares materialise in massive new Israeli settlements. “And yet there is still hope,” she writes, even in ravaged Ramallah where Palestinian writers like Liana Badr and Adania Shibli** shape exquisite stories against chronic injustice. The only real hope is for “a viable Palestine”. Although it may require courage, take these marvellous essays to heart.

* AS does write this here, but I’m aware that she has also described a more complex relationship to this identity during earlier years of living in Britain. In 1999 for example she explained to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at The Independent that “15 years ago I think I might have said I was both Egyptian and English. Now I long for Egypt. I feel an anxiety that I am not in Egypt more often; that I am in this place but not of it.”

** Adania is one of the Beirut 39 here and has books forthcoming in English here.

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james salter; readers revenge & the sixth sense

Mandelstam,_Cukovsky,_Livshiz_&_Annenkov_1914_Karl_Bulla

James & Kay Salter         –         Osip Mandelshtam

In Life is Meals A Food Lover’s Book of Days, by James and Kay Salter [Knopf 2006], there is the following entry for the 29th May: 

THE SIX SENSES

One cannot think well, love well, slep well, if one has not dined well

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Brillat-Savarin recognised the five basic senses -taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell- but he  believed there was a sixth sense: physical desire, a unique and distinctly French idea.

Everything subtle and ingenious about the first five senses, he wrote, was due to this sixth, “to the desire, the hope, the gratitude that spring from sexual union.”

Well, call me Anglo-Saxon, but BS is a bore if he doesn’t understand the mutual implication of desire in the five senses. Desire uncompromised and desire realised.

I prefer Osip Mandelshtam’s notion of a sixth sense, mooted during his journeying to Mount Ararat:

Ashtarak. “I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, an “Ararat” sense: the sense of attraction to a mountain.

Now, no matter where fate carry me, this sense already has a speculative existence and will remain with me.

[p. 57 Journey to Armenia Next Editions 1980. Orig. Puteshestviye v Armeniyu Zvezda 1933.]

Do we have to choose? Does a mountain sense include desire etc. or desire include “the sense of attraction to a mountain”? Then again, what is it with mediators and authorisation?

A mountain sense is my candidate because it adds something distinct and dimensional to the core senses in ways that desire doesn’t. I write that having climbed Shatrunjaya, ‘the mount that realises all desires’, more than once…

NB See my Note ‘js; reader’s revenge & last night 2006’ on the entanglements and ambivalence of these things.

puttermesser is dead; cynthia foster wallace (nee) ozick is 92

Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers was published in 1999 in the UK and short-listed for the IMPAC Award (Updated Apr2018) aka the Dublin Lit Award. I see that when David Foster Wallace read his HB copy he noted some of the same words [as news of his papers arriving at the HRC Texas reveal] as I did. Tellurian, for example. I’m posting two images that speak for themselves and a light-weight review I wrote for The New Statesman during a divertingly busy year. Within a few months, the tanks had re-entered occupied territories shattering any last delusions/illusions.

I remain a fierce reader and admirer of Ozick’s work, despite her quixotic blindness towards/repellant views about Palestinian dispossession -which obviously undermines her fondness for exception and the you-can’t-be-entirely-serious rhetoric around “winners”. I was re-reading The Messiah of Stockholm in late December 2008 [trapped again, wrestling with her singular sentences], just before the white phosphorus went in to Gaza’s already besieged schools and, even now, am re-reading the essays collected in The Din in the Head [2006]. Fortunately, the cold obscenity of what she wrote in the same year about Rachel Corrie’s Journals (link to myth-busting re RC not CO’s toxic piece) is not included.

Ozick is a curious and extreme instance of a vexatious problem and in posting this I’m forcing myself to come back to it, soon (not yet; Apr 2018!). Nothing I say will reduce the brilliance (in every sense and so its own limit) of this novel and others because writerly singularity outplays historical anomaly however grotesque the views. At least, on the billionth loop around it, that is what I feel, but I know the ice is very thin hereabouts (hmmm and hmmm again and again). Meanwhile, roll on the day that nakba-denial is also a crime and when universal crimes already constituted are actually prosecuted.

Puttermesser Paper, Cynthia Ozick

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

July 1999

Like an eager parliamentarian, I should confess my ‘interests’ in this new novel of Cynthia Ozick’s. My 7 year old cat is named after Ruth Puttermesser -lawyer, Mayoress and murderee- the heroine of these stories. I’ve also got form, having greeted the publication of her 1993 collection of essays What Henry James Knew with extravagant polemic in these same pages. I was championing her astonishing stylistic precision, singular appetites and general awkward brilliance. I don’t retract a word.

If you don’t know Ozick, you’ll find an infectious deep mining and celebration of writing, ranging from the thunder of James and Bellow to the lightning of Bruno Schultz and JM Coetzee, in her essays. In them she animates the Classics and invests her fascination with mystical Judaism to great effect, just as she does in her short and long fiction. All of this is apparent in The Puttermesser Papers which, if you do know Ozick, you’ll recognise as a cycle of stories from the last 20 years. The Puttermesser Papers earnt substantial praise when it was published in the United States in 1997 and was nominated for the 1999 IMPAC Award. Such recognition came late to Ozick and remains incomplete while novels like The Messiah of Stockholm are still unavailable here.

So, what is it about Ozick? Well, it’s difficult to convey the astonishing fecundity of this novel in summary. There’s just so much in it, for one thing; all condensed into a swiftly flowing stream of exquisitely placed words. But this is not writing for swooners because Ozick means what she writes. She’s serious, high minded and literary in that sense and yet her’s is a gleeful kind of seriousness.

We first meet Ruth Puttermesser as a 46 year old lawyer in the New York Mayor’s office. She’s insistent that her married lover, Morris Rappaport, allows her to finish Plato’s Theaetetus before they have sex. The previous night she’d read him a line of Socrates, defending the enquirer’s mind “for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.” This is typical of Ozick; to begin a story with a quote like that, but also for the quote to be one expressive of unbounded yearning.

Puttermesser goes on to lose her job unfairly and to conjure a female golem into being who becomes her peculiarly loyal public servant; successfully campaigning for Puttermesser to become Mayor. As Mayor she establishes a paradisal realm in Manhattan for a while until Xanthippe the golem does what golems do and runs amok. So with Puttermesser’s reputation and the city in ruins Xanthippe is dispatched back to the earth from where she came.

We next meet Puttermesser in her mid-50s as she falls in and out of love, through a filter of the life and work of George Eliot which is, I promise, no less vivid for that.  Eventually we witness the aged Puttermesser being murdered and then raped, in that order, after which she describes life in paradise -where the quality of timelessness proves bitterly disappointing.

Ozick’s insistent awkwardness is her great attraction for me. She does things writers of fiction are not supposed to do, like giving dismissive summaries of plot which “must be recorded as lightly and swiftly as possible.” She also tells you things in a spirit of enthusiastic sharing, so you end this book knowing all about golems, for instance. There is the Prague golem as a protector of the Jews but also the earlier mystical golem conjured out of nothing but unformed matter. This latter quality of blooming impossibility is also her work’s great strength.

Puttermesser embodies notions of Jewish as well as American redemptiveness and utopianism. Ozick writes, “Puttermesser craved. Her craving was to cleanse the wilderness … of injustice”. She is encouraged in this by Xanthippe’s notes saying things like; “No reality greater than thought.” She is the kind of retired Mayoress whose tea bags come with Nietzschean aphorisms saying “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Before retiring she’d dreamt about appointing PB Shelley, to honour his principle that “poets are the legislators of mankind.”

These are not exactly belly laughs but there are plenty of smiles in The Puttermesser Papers. However both Ozick and her heroine are yearners for ideas and a better world. Yet if this book is an embodiment of that yearning, it is a kind of visceral, sexy tango of yearning -strange as it sounds. It’s this crazy exuberance along with her singular style that makes me recommend this book to you in the way that I would recommend Kafka or Calvino, Jean Rhys or Virginia Woolf.

revolution every day; elias khoury interview 2005

Elias Khoury’s Yalo was one of my stones stepped in 2009 [see Categories] and it’s on the long-list for The Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, announced here. Competition is stiff, needless to say, but I hope it wins.

I posted a link to the interview-based piece I did around the seminal publication in English of Bab-al shams [Gate Of the Sun] in 2005 -the first of its kind in English- and now post it below. Gate of the Sun is a monumental work of fiction; a brilliant creative achievement which is both important and highly accessible. That is, it’s so compelling that there’s no excuse for not realising the necessity of reading it.

In the US Archipelago Books is promising two new Khoury titles; a novel called White Masks in 2010 and another novel As Though She Were Sleeping in 2011. There are already two more works of fiction published in the US by university presses. I’m looking forward to the day when his critical writing becomes available to the English-speaking world.

Wherever you start with Khoury [an earlier novel, Little Mountain Collins Harvill 1990 is out of print] you’ll be hungry for more.

The Independent

Elias Khoury: Myth and memory in the Middle East

Lebanese writer Elias Khoury is one of the leading lights of Arab literature. Guy Mannes-Abbott meets him

Friday, 18 November 2005

Elias Khoury is the kind of writer who wins the Nobel Prize for literature to sneers from the English-speaking world. When the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was greeted in this way in 1989, the late scholar and activist Edward Said remarked sagely that “Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded” of major world literatures. At the same time, Said pointed to the future, celebrating the promising achievements of Khoury – a “brilliant figure” – and Mahmoud Darwish: a Lebanese and a Palestinian writer respectively.

The word “brilliant” is etched across Khoury’s new novel, Gate of the Sun (Harvill Secker, £17.99) and on my mind when we meet in London for lunch. His reputation as a novelist, critic, commentator, editor and academic with real political commitment is formidable. Khoury came to prominence in Lebanon – and therefore the Arab world – in the mid-1970s. Still in his twenties, he was working in the Palestine Research Centre, editing the literary pages of its journal and writing his second novel, Little Mountain, which re-worked his experiences in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 almost as they happened.

“It’s meaningless!” he thunders, when I ask him what it means to be Lebanese. Then, speaking rapidly, he develops a characteristic response which ends with a modified repetition of the phrase. In between, he sketches a history of Lebanon’s many civil wars since the 19th century, describes similarities in dialect and cuisine between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and asserts that “I feel more Beiruti. If you are a Beiruti, you are an Arab. You are open to all types of cultures, and to innovating in the Arabic culture at the same time. You are in the Lebanese dilemmas and you are so near to Palestine”. So you feel “that the Palestinian tragedy is part of your life.”

By this he means sheer physical proximity – “It’s a matter of 100 kilometres” – but also that he has grown up with the Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948, the year of his birth. All of this is the subject of the epic Gate of the Sun, which has already been cheered in Arabic, Hebrew and French editions during the seven years it took to arrive in this elegant English translation by Humphrey Davies.

Gate of the Sun, or Bab El Shams, is an attempt to render the Palestinian nakba – or “catastrophe” – of 1948 and its tortuous aftermath. Specifically, it contains the stories and lives of people whose ancestral villages in Galilee, now in northern Israel, were “wiped out of existence”, forcing them into desperate flight by land and sea to Lebanon.

“Actually,” says Khoury, “I was writing a story about Galilee, because it’s in-between” and home to many Palestinian writers, including Darwish. “I was not writing a history of Palestine. Of course, many ask why it was a Lebanese not a Palestinian who wrote this story. I really don’t know. What I know is from the experience of the Palestinians I worked with,” he explains.

The nakba of 1948 was “a shame, a total defeat; it’s a disaster, a real personal disaster. There are stories here about the woman who left her child, about a woman who killed her child. So it’s not easy to talk about. The Palestinians did not realise, and if they realised they did not believe that this could happen, because actually this is something unbelievable.”

Khoury had the initial impulse to turn stories he heard in refugee camps into a memorial narrative in the 1970s. He spent much of the 1980s gathering “thousands of stories” before writing this extraordinarily accomplished novel. Gate of the Sun is essentially a love story set in a world turned upside down. It involves a dying fighter called Yunis and his wife Naheeleh, an internal refugee in Galilee, whose relationship forms during stolen visits across the border to a cave renamed Bab El Shams. The cave is “a house, and a village, and a country”, and “the only bit of Palestinian territory that’s been liberated”. It produces a “secret nation”: a family of seven children who have borne four more Yunises by the end of the book.

However, this is no parable. For Khoury, “Yunis, of course, is a hero. He used to go to Galilee, he used to cross the borders… but in the end we discover that he was nothing, that Naheeleh was this whole story; her relationship with the children, and how she actually defended life. In the refugee camps I met hundreds of women like Naheeleh. Then it’s no more a metaphor. It’s very realistic.”

This reality is the “revolution of actual work carried out by our mothers”, which the poet Mourid Barghouti articulates so well in his memoir I Saw Ramallah. It is “realised every day, without fuss and without theorising”.

Khoury’s story of love and survival is told by Khaleel, an untrained “doctor” at a redundant hospital in Shatila refugee camp. Shatila was the site of a notorious massacre in 1982, overseen by an Israeli army commanded by Ariel Sharon. During the months that Khaleel attends to Yunis’s lifeless body, he stitches together his honorary father’s stories in order to bring him out of coma. Gradually, Khaleel’s own story emerges: of his love for a female fighter called Shams, and his experience of the camp massacre.

If this evokes the Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade tells stories to keep herself alive, it’s the structure and act of telling that are important. Edward Said praised Khoury’s innovations in Little Mountain and the author takes the compliment, but says that “when I came to write Little Mountain, I discovered that real experimentation is not intellectual”. Instead, you have to “go deep to your own experience”.

In 1967, aged 19, Khoury travelled alone to Amman to join the Palestinian resistance after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. In 1970 he finished his studies in Paris before writing his fictional debut, a nouveau roman. In 1975 he fought for revolutionary change in Lebanon, his disillusionment captured elegantly by Little Mountain. These years involved “a very deep engagement about what is justice, what is a human being and what is life”.

It is this experimenting with life, combined with such testing experience of it, that makes his writing less “experimental” in the literary sense than naturalistic. Crucially, he developed a faith in oral narratives; encompassing both the colloquial forms used in telling a story, and the non-classical type of Arabic that such stories are told in. “I don’t think there is any story we live from the beginning to the end,” he says. In this novel, “the structure is oral telling – openness. That is, you begin a story, you enter another story, and then you come back”.

In the novel, Khaleel complains about fugitive “snatches” of story that he’s struggling to remember and narrate. He blames the influence of tarab, the ecstasy generated by the rhythms of Arabic music and – by extension – poetry for the sidelining of descriptive skills. Khoury elaborates: “It’s repetitive, but every time you repeat, you change. Also in prose you create music, repeating the same story three, four, five times, and every time it’s a very slight difference. This is the Thousand and One Nights, this is the musicality of the oral and this is tarab.”

One of the results is that it produces “suspense from a totally different perspective. If you want to know what will happen to Yunis, he will die, so close the book and go home; but it’s another type of suspense.” It is this rhythmic accumulation of story that makes Gate of the Sun so unexpectedly compelling. It’s also this democratic form of telling which has enabled Khoury to approach the subject; to piece together fragments into a masterfully executed novel. The resulting mosaic of suggestive truths complicates any simple metaphorical reading while returning over and over again to discrete realities.

“Reality,” he summarises, “can become metaphor or a myth. But a myth, if it will become a reality, it’s the most savage thing in the world. The Israeli project is to make a myth into reality. This is the problem.”

Khoury’s iteration of inconvenient realities is rigorously ethical. It is there in his responsibility towards Jewish history as well as to Palestinian dispossession, and in his novel’s investigation of love’s work. It informs his efforts to modernise Arabic by means of colloquial speech, and his commitment to grassroots democratic movements in Lebanon and Syria.

Khoury’s experience of life has generated a sophisticated optimism. He takes the long view, having resettled in the ancestral home in Beirut from which he was driven in the 1970s. He is both worldly and warm, a man of heart as well as passionate intellect. Nothing is off-limits and he answers every question fully even though we have, literally, eaten into preparation time for an evening reading. Before parting, though, I must ask the author of Gate of the Sun about the theory that “to narrate is to return”.

“No, I think that to narrate is to reconstruct, to appropriate but,” he breaks into a story from one of his novels before resuming, “one of the biggest, er, pleasures of the Palestinians was to regain your name, to be Palestinians. And once you regain your name – and I think this is narration, to regain the name – then you prepare yourself to go: that is, to create a Palestine, not to return to a Palestine which was.” These paradoxes and “pleasures” find potent resolution in Gate of the Sun. It’s a novel that will outlive us.

Biography: Elias Khoury

Elias Khoury was born in Lebanon in 1948, to an Orthodox Christian family in the East Beirut district known as Little Mountain. As a sociology undergraduate, he volunteered for Fatah, the military wing of the Palestinian revolution. During the 1970s he worked in PLO organisations in Beirut, and helped found the journal al-Karmel with the poet Mahmoud Darwish. He speaks Arabic, French, English, Syriac and “a little Hebrew”. Author of 11 novels, four non-fiction books and three plays, he also scripted a film of Gate of the Sun. The novel is published by Harvill Secker this month. Khoury is now an editor with the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. He lives with his wife in his great-grandfather’s house on Little Mountain.