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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Independent

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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