A selection -of texts with an arbitrary word length cut-off of 1500 words, to contrast with Chapters_Essays– will build forwards as well as back to 1990. All the way back to a short piece I wrote for the New Statesman about Joel Rose‘s Kill The Poor, one of the books he and his (then) partner Catherine Texier gave me at their old East Village apartment, from where they were publishing Between C&D magazine. Indeed, we delivered a batch of tractor-fed A4 paper copies with a Barbara Kruger ‘cover’/insert in zip-locked bags to the late, special St Marks Bookshop that spring…
The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (LAD) is being heralded by its designer, Jean Nouvel, Agence France-Muséums, and the Abu Dhabi dominated UAE as a special feat as well as a triumphant cultural symbol; the region’s first ‘universal museum’.
No doubt it is an architectural and engineering achievement, but can or should a cultural institution of this kind, in particular, be built under conditions of forced labour in 2017?
The Louvre’s brand name was worth less than half the overall contract for loans, expert advice and training
What is the over-riding symbolism or legacy in such a case?
Continued here (free).
. Outrage: ‘Trafalgar Place exemplifies a dash to socially cleanse valuable land in London’. By Guy Mannes-Abbott, 5 October 2016
In nominating dRMM’s Elephant and Castle housing scheme for this year’s Stirling Prize, the RIBA excuses the casual erasure of a community.
Typically, the RIBA’s Stirling Prize shortlist1 leavens starry spectacles with a socially minded gesture or two. In a thin year for the former, the list still obliged with the flawed spectacularity of Herzog & de Meuron’s Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford. In contrast, the ‘housing crisis’ generated a lot of noise but few homes again, so a ‘flagship’ housing scheme designed by dRMM for the Elephant and Castle’s ‘regeneration’ ticked a misleading box.2
Trafalgar Place is the first phase of Lendlease’s Elephant Park development which is replacing the demolished Heygate Estate’s 1,200 units of public housing with 2,500 private units, masses of shops, offices and car spaces. This doubling of housing density is reducing 1,200 council homes to about 80 equivalents in terms of social rent. As a model of ‘regeneration’ its notoriety was assured by a lamentable agreement in 2010, based on the wizardry of secret financial viability assessments. Thereafter it exemplified a broader dash to socially cleanse valuable land in central London, banishing tenants from their communities and leaseholders from their city.3
… (free reg)
This 1500 word piece is “an acute evisceration” (CS) of a flagship development for the notoriously regressive ‘regeneration’ at the Elephant and Castle. It displays a proper grasp of the political context of such schemes as well as granular architectural detail -all framed within an articulation of an urban ethics with which to fight forwards. “Rightly impassioned yet also stiletto-like in its critique! We need more writing like that.” (MC) wrote another generous ‘expert’ respondent.
Published on the eve of RIBA’s Stirling Prize ceremony (6 October 2016) by The Architectural Review. A scan or pdf will follow, as will work towards my London book…
“Boo’s debut about the vertiginousness of existence in a “Mumbai slum” is the antidote to mainstream books and films on the subject from the English-speaking world. It’s framed by her noting the lack of “deeply reported” non-fiction about India. Her method, developed “within poor communities in the US”, is to invest time and attention in the complex interiors of “small” people…
… India flatters itself that it’s too mystifying a social entity for foreigners to understand, but Boo spikes that myth with compelling force. This is a finely hewn, gently humoured and tough-minded work of lasting import. It memorialises a place where people survive on sewer-grass and feet bloom with fungi in the rains…
Behind the Beautiful Forevers converts everyday extremities and human idiosyncrasy into pared-back prose of great charm. The result combines ethical clarity and writerly exactitude to stimulate outrage and unsettling pleasure.”
. I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, By Mourid Barghouti, intro John Berger The Independent November 2011
“Mourid Barghouti’s first volume of memoir, I Saw Ramallah, is a classic of the genre and a uniquely clear-eyed account of returning home after 30 years of serial expulsion. Barghouti is also the poet of displacement in general as well as its specific Palestinian form. In between the first and this second volume of memoir came Midnight & Other Poems – a first selection from many volumes of his poetry.… More personal than his first volume, freighted with individual and collective return, here are the minutiae of the immediate consequences. It’s an honest confrontation with Israeli violence and impunity, an unflinching description of the Palestinian Authority’s compromising failures, and a plea for joy.
Barghouti renders the world with rare exactitude. He checks statement with humility and attempts to resist an Occupation that “imprisons time inside space” by writing about the place itself. We glimpse Jerusalem, Ramallah and Deir Ghassanah indifferent moments and moods, each detailed with features of the people and their place: trees, in particular, which “fascinate me not just for their beauty but because I see in them also a symbol of resistance without bluster or bragging”.
… I Was Born… begins with the failure of the Oslo peace process and ends with Barghouti’s conviction that “the Palestinian cause is starting over again from the beginning”. This volume is a worthy and necessary accompaniment to the first. It begs for a third that will historicise an “unclassifiable” stain on the 20th century, which already degrades our present one. Meanwhile, read this as it has been written: without blinkers.”
“Journeying towards Mount Ararat, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote of cultivating a sixth sense, “the sense of attraction to a mountain”. Writing about food, American novelist James Salter quoted Brillat-Savarin approvingly on his notion of a sixth sense, “physical desire”. The other five senses, he wrote, are optimised only in “sexual union”. The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury belongs in such exalted company. His new novel also pivots on mountains – in Lebanon – and appreciations of sexual union…”
“Writing about William Wordsworth, Jacques Ranciere celebrated a consideration for “all that is too small” in his poetry about the post-revolutionary landscape of France. The theorist also articulated a post-millennial consensus; lauding the poet for taking care of “the dead child that every politics abandons”. Such a child is the moral focus of Sari Nusseibeh’s new book, but with unintended results.
… There is a wild mismatch between the book’s tone, aimed at a politely curious Bostonian, and the brutal actuality of Palestinian existence. The author cannot be spending much time visiting those imprisoned in the Palestinian hills, nor in besieged Gaza. Yet even in Nusseibeh’s ancestral Jerusalem, neighbours are expelled routinely, and homes bulldozed. These Occupation crimes happen precisely because an understandable obsession with the “dead child” spored a politics devoid of any shared humanity.”
“Absent Presence is formed by 21 sections which run through the poet’s life: from his boyish witness of “annihilating disaster” – the “Nakba” of 1948 – to his last years in Ramallah. The title refers to those Palestinians who, after massacres and expulsion, made it back home to a “nameless” internal exile. Darwish was a “present-absentee” from the age of eight or nine when his family returned to within sight of their stolen lands, outside their erased village. “Absent presence” also characterises the place of women in Darwish’s life, as well as the winged quality of his poetry.
Darwish died still under Occupation, but makes no special pleading: “rather, seize this reality, this name of yours, and learn how to write your proof”. His is the voice of dispossessed Palestine but its longings, including sheer lust, are universal. This book overflows with resonant lines and questions like, “How do words expand to embrace the world?” Not all of Darwish’s attempts work and here they are sometimes hindered by a too cumbersome translation of the Arabic. However, now that their author has gone, his attempts crystallise as unique achievements.
Absent Presence is best approached by the leanest of Darwish’s poetry, in State of Siege (2002), or perhaps by the newly-translated Journal of an Ordinary Grief. Here Darwish joins letter with letter to house the land of his birth in the rhythms of a sea that opens onto humanity’s furthest horizon. His writing “like love…dissolves if you grasp it” – but this is a book for life.”
“… She attempts to write of unspeakable atrocities inflicted by British and Egyptian, American and Israeli despots. Her story is of Egyptian protests and the bombing of Baghdad, of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, familial exile and friends’ imprisonment. Also, she tells of a husband’s duelling with their poet son Tamim, using lines of al-Mutanabbi, the great Arab poet whose works Ashour’s grandfather edited.
Spectres combines invention, unofficial history and human abyss in an elliptical novel in which Ashour articulates an ethics rooted in Arabian and ancient Egyptian cultures. The result transforms a bleak constellation into a quietly stirring beacon… Spectres is a boldly original novel by an important writer whose exemplary work we need more of in English.”
“Bertolt Brecht is back at the National Theatre this season and Enron, Lucy Prebble’s hit, has been lauded as Brechtian epic theatre. Enron restages high capitalist folly in a compelling performance which merges YouTube, art installation and musical theatre. If “epic” in intention, its sheer spectacle proves inconsequential as political theatre.
But political consequence was crucial to the work of Walter Benjamin and Brecht, as Erdmut Wizisla’s extraordinarily potent “story of a friendship” underscores. Benjamin the “pure man of genius” as critic and philosopher, and the younger “unwashed” Brecht, were a controversial enough pairing to generate sneers about sexual submissiveness from their Berlin contemporaries. At last, here is an authoritative account of their “astonishing closeness”.
… Wizisla’s story of artistic and political radicalism in the darkest of times is a landmark publication. These two friends “inhabited” their times supremely well; their traces ought to inspire us in ours.”
Lanterns on Their Horns takes place in an invented village a bus ride away from the real town of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh…
This really is a novel about profane Indian cows, and yet nothing is quite as it appears. The traditional electricity-free village is the double of one flooded by Narmada river waters. A heavy monsoon inundates this new village too, forcing a return to the ruined site. Once there, Laxmi, the educated daughter of a suicide farmer, and Ramu, an orphaned goatherd, get rich on their insurgent milk. The centre of village life gravitates their way…”
“Yalo’s difficulty with words; his smattering of a “dead” Syriac tongue; his ambivalence towards Arabic and struggle to narrate, begin here. Khoury leads us towards his displacement brilliantly, but it’s only one of the big ideas to which he gives vivid life. Yalo the disaffected fugitive is part Everyman, part Lebanese Underground Man, and part the refugee as coming global citizen.
Yalo is a highly compelling performance, presented in beautifully crafted, often lilting prose, a tribute to Khoury’s authorship in Arabic as well as to Humphrey Davies’ translation. This novel is about a corrupted individual in a corrupting time, but it speaks of and to us all.”
“Amin Maalouf is the celebrated author of novels such as Samarkand, Leo the African and The Rock of Tanios. They re-conjure Omar Khayyam in 11th-century Persia, the Christian Inquisition in North Africa, and the imperialist torsions of 19th-century Lebanon. Rather than sturdy historical narratives or perky metafictions, Maalouf’s novels exemplify the elementary arts of invention.
Oddly, this memoir of his ancestral “nameland” requires a similar suspension of disbelief from readers. Maalouf lives in Paris, retreats to the French Atlantic, and wrote in Havana and Beirut during the four-year journey of this book. It’s a memoir that explodes notions of origin across a wide canvas, ultimately embracing all that family history and legend brings.
… Born in 1949, Maalouf fled warring Lebanon in 1976. The lives of his grandfather and great Uncle Gebrayel embody a recurring dilemma. Botros the rebel stayed home and invested his free-thinking secularism in founding the “Universal School” in “the Mountains”. Gebrayel left at 18 and made a fortune in Cuba, but died racing the car that it afforded him. Both little “empires” ended in ruins… His account of visiting Gebrayel’s Cuba conveys brilliantly the queer storm of distant intimacies and puzzling pride…
Maalouf turns Botros into his theatre for the collapse of 400 years of Ottoman rule, with tragic religious and nationalist consequences. Origins is many things: an introduction to Lebanon’s complex history, the end of Ottoman empire through Arab eyes, an intimate account of diasporic identity. Maalouf holds to his elliptical narrative with spirit and finesse. The result is both exquisitely tempered and rudely compelling. Believe it or not, Origins is a journey into an enlarged future.”
“In Michael Haneke’s Caché, “hidden” events return in opaque form, but with dramatic effect. The film foregrounds acts of viewing, yet what is hidden resists representation in image or word. The writer, critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin began publishing in Germany behind the teenage pseudonym of “Ardor”. By 1934, he was submitting texts using an anagram of the word Lateo, signifying “hidden” or latent – and being spurned. His elliptical work exists between these two terms: ardour and latency.
… Benjamin had dedicated himself to the margins where the “small”, discontinuous or discarded, settles, and he was destitute. He had catalogued and disseminated his writings among a network of friends. Now a sample of marginalia – notebooks, workings, lists and vital scraps – has surfaced against all probability. Walter Benjamin’s Archive is a visual treat containing reproductions of drafts of his Berlin Chronicles, alongside plans for work on Parisian Arcades and Goethe’s Elective Affinities. There are annotated photos of Russian toys and bourgeois interiors, postcards of Sienese Sibyls, and lists of his infant son’s linguistic jumbles.
… Benjamin was blessed by archivist-friends: the Adornos, Gershom Scholem, and Georges Bataille. He has been equally fortunate with archivist-editors: Hannah Arendt, Michael Jennings, who edited the Selected Writings in English, and Giorgio Agamben, who did the same in Italian. Now Leslie has produced the best compact introduction to Benjamin…”
. Holy Warriors Edna Fernandes The Independent July 2007
“‘Aplomb’ is a favourite word of James Salter’s. He praises Virginia Woolf for hers, adds it to the physical glories of a busy mistress, and in Nedra Berland, heroine of his novel Light Years, wrote a study of it.
Salter is the Jewish-American fighter pilot and film writer/maker, transformed in mid-life into a master of ecstatic prose fiction and non-fiction. Literary canons are risible; however, he has written three books that everyone should read before they die: A Sport and a Pastime (1967), Light Years (1975) and his recollections, Burning the Days (1996).
… Salter’s world, most obviously the idyll memorialised in Light Years, may appear exclusive but is shaped by “lives achieved in agony”, by gamblers who have lost, by a peculiar dissidence. All this is exemplified in his new collection of ten short stories written since the early 1990s. From the first, Salter was fully present in his stories, which have all the penetrating perspective of his novels. At least half the stories in Dusk, his previous collection, are milestones of the form…
Last Night is a beautifully weighted collection, fully the equal of Dusk…”
“The distinguished Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom is probably best known in English for his love letter to Spain, Roads to Santiago. He has always been a writer who travelled, with nests in Amsterdam, Berlin and the Balearics. He is also the author of Unbuilt Netherlands, a history of architectural projects which remain “not-built” – a condition he renders peculiarly potent.
Nomad’s Hotel is a selection of 14 essayistic travel pieces which span four decades, criss-crossing West Africa and Europe with sidesteps to Australia and pre-revolutionary Iran. Nooteboom’s ultimate subject is travel itself: a meditative movement through unknown places and the bottomless past. He begins by drawing on Arabian philosophy for theses on “voyaging” as a “pilgrimage” not towards God, but “mystery”…
Nooteboom dislikes people who feel “at home exclusively in the present”. He has deve-loped a prose cleansed of living, speaking people, and can overindulge his “musings”. However, there is rigour in his restlessness for which the reward is insight. Beautifully translated, the meditations on place and time in Nomad’s Hotel achieve a potent state of non-completion.”
“Ma Jian’s short stories appear in English 19 years after being denounced as “spiritual pollution” in his native China. Stick Out Your Tongue resumes where Red Dust, his exceptional memoir exploring China’s cultural fringes, left off. He had sought spiritual clarity in Tibet but found a besieged people living in unrecognisable poverty. These traveller’s tales were written in a state of inspired abjection back in Beijing, just before he fled into exile.
In an afterword, Ma describes the Tibetan people as “outsiders in their own home”, adding that being Han Chinese, he had “no right” to be there. However, Ma was already a beatnik fugitive in his own land.
These exquisite, earthy stories explore the peculiar overlap between Ma’s apparently unrelated “outsiders”…”
. 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 | The Independent November 2005
“… 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…
“To say anything simple about India is to say almost nothing, and Kumar resists this with distinction. Beginning in Gujarat’s refugee camps, he never quite leaves behind a state that once epitomised India’s cosmopolitan modernity. His trajectory is from Partition carnage, through the destruction of Ayodhya’s 16th-century mosque by the “new Hindus” in 1992, towards the nadir of resurgent India: Gujarat’s “state pogrom” against Muslims…
… India prides itself on asking big questions, but avoids Kumar’s: what is, and am I, a Hindu? His ambivalent answers are the crucial manoeuvres of modernity. Kumar exposes his, and his country’s, complex interiors in this important work of provocation. It requires a political response: a progressive vision of India’s future free of the “medieval machismo” of the “new Hindu”.”
.The deadly style wars of Istanbul | Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s bestselling novelist, mixes the methods of Islam and the West. It’s an art to die for, he tells Guy Mannes-Abbott | The Independent 24 August 2001
“…Three years after its appearance in Turkey, Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red (translated by Edrag Goknar, Faber, £10.99) is now published in an excellent English version. This pivotal book, which absorbed Pamuk through the 1990s, could conclusively establish him as one of the world’s finest living writers.
… He is currently editing the complete works of Dostoyevsky in Turkey, and writing introductions. “The great Dostoyevsky book that I like is The Possessed,” he says, drawing out the Ss in emphasis. The project involves returning to a key inspiration of his youth and a writer whose “demons” he shared…
Crucially, Pamuk adds that he also identifies with the Russian’s “involvement and problematic love/hate relationship with the West.” Dostoyevsky came to see “the particular qualities of being Western [as] being rational and being proud: the characteristics he hates most”. Pamuk laughs happily and sweetly, as if slightly surprised at himself.” Continued
. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Slavoj Zizek The Independent Jan 2001
“Here is Zizek, again, hoovering up contemporary thought and reworking it through his own rigorous matrix. [He] gives a dazzling show; but behind the performance is a passionate commitment to returning philosophical thought to political work.”
. Northern light on a world at war | Sven Lindqvist travels far and wide to disinter Europe’s dark secrets. Guy Mannes-Abbott meets him in Stockholm. The Independent 14 May 2000
“Sven Lindqvist declared his credo 30 years ago: “If a book is to be a weapon, it must have a sharp edge.” He was introducing a book that confronted tyrannical landowners in Latin America with their excesses, much as General Pinochet is finally being made to face his.
So far, so honourable; but it is the way that the edge gains its sharpness that makes Lindqvist’s voice distinctive. The key is that his own experiences form part of his meticulously observed work, “just as much as my own love would do if I were writing a love story”.
In his new book, A History of Bombing (translated by Linda Haverty Rugg; Granta, £14.99), Lindqvist has used his childhood nightmares to write a largely 20th-century horror story. His presence also looms in the way that, throughout this idiosyncratic work, he conjures the blasted earth and wretched screams produced by repugnant fantasies and genocidal policies.
It’s a book about a kind of global lottery in which all of us are players, sponsors and losers. Lindqvist calls all the big numbers: the thousands of degrees centigrade reached on the streets of Dresden and Hiroshima, the million Hiroshimas in the world’s nuclear store. He details everything from the first bomb made in 12th-century China, filled with porcelain shards, to the number of times we can blow ourselves up today. It sounds numbingly familiar, but this book will make you burn anew…” Continued
. In America Susan Sontag The Independent May 2000
“… In America is a bold attempt to inhabit the experience of success. The problem is that Sontag is rarely able to animate the past or, in particular, her characters. Sontag is essentially a collector, the figure she has so often written about, and her novels are the product of fascinations. The result here is inventive non-fiction awkwardly parading as a novel. Sontag’s appetites, perspectives and exactitudes would sparkle in almost any other form.
In The Volcano Lover, Sontag produced a vivid portrait of late-18th-century Naples. Her fascination with Neapolitan society in the age of Nelson and Napoleon was so effective that it compensated for the absence of a pumping heart in her story of Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s love affair. For In America, the equivalent object of fascination is the actress’s mobile world of veils, feints and flaming egotism. When the book is over, this leaves almost no residue. Further, Sontag has attempted to re-jig the 19th-century novel, which must teem with life, but cannot sustain the required imaginative autonomy.
Marina wonders whether “she had used up the allotted number of impossible feats her will could make possible”. Sontag writes often and well of American “willing”, the knowledge “that I can triumph by sheer stubbornness, by applying myself harder than anyone else”. Which is laudable – until the rigid fruit of such stubborn labouring is before you.
So few writers will risk their intellectual ambitions in the form of a story now that it’s tempting to minimise the failings of this attempt. But Sontag … proves unable to free her narrative voices from authorial echo and prod -and, dare I suggest, a blinding self-regard.”
“The commonplace really is precious in Thubron’s hands. Everyday encounters, gathered impressions and an equal receptivity to archeologists and homeless drunks enable but also anchor his speculations. So, although he began by looking for patterns, the place became “diffused and unexpected as I travelled it. Wherever I stopped,” he admits, “appeared untypical” and refused to reveal an “essential Siberia”.”
“Bukowski’s tone is caught in a poem called “as crazy as I ever was” from his mid-Seventies collection Love Is A Dog From Hell. It’s about being unchanged by his cult status: “The feeling is the/ same:/ relentless/ unheroic and/ necessary/ sitting here/ drunk and writing poems/ at 3:24 a.m.” In fact, the fame that came in the last 10 years of his life – including the biographical movie Barfly, in which he was played by Mickey Rourke – changed a lot, but he meant that it changed nothing important. Ultimately, Bukowski was a poet of small things, the small necessary things that kept him alive and working…
… In a poem called How to Be a Great Writer, he names some of his inspirations (Hemingway, Celine, Dostoevsky and Hamsun) and advises “always be aware of the possibility of total defeat/ whether the reason for that defeat/ seems right or wrong”. He described the simple vitality of his work to a biographer like this: “Writing has to be blood on the line” …
… The core of Bukowski’s writing is its articulation of almost complete disaffection and its dismissal of conventional life: the acceptance of so little by so many. Bukowski doesn’t condemn anyone except “phonies”, but he refuses to ransom his life to a stifling, homogenous world and so he finds a way to exist among its refuse. It’s a place where life has become elemental, where continuing with it is not taken for granted but rebuilt from nothing.”
. No Lease on Life Lynne Tillman The Independent April 1998
“… This is writing like little else, which contains subject-matter so extreme as to provoke ambivalence even in his fondest readers. His work is singular, too, because it’s exquisite stuff, combining prose of freeze-dried elegance with well-tuned cultural antennae. Most importantly, it embodies the economy and pace of the technologies that structure our perceptions. So it generates an exhilarating sensation of being on the chaotic cusp of things. As such, it would give any legislative body a heart attack, but it reads like “now” in the way that drum-and- bass music sounds like now…
… For the uninitiated, this novel is the best place to start. Yet it still requires an imaginative leap to deal with his affirmation of things habitually treated as maladies. Cooper’s books exist in a world entrapped by the evergreen present and its attendant tragic messiness. But his fictions inhabit a place of synaptic impulse and electronic space, of DNA and ecstasy, of nanoseconds and the infinitely expanding universe. It’s your world and mine: catch it while you can.”
. Walter Benjamin: A Biography Momme Brodersen New Statesman November 1996
. The Black Book Orhan Pamuk New Statesman July 1995
. Christina Stead: A Biography Hazel Rowley New Statesman February 1995
. This Year in Jerusalem Mordecai Richler The Guardian 1994
. The Following Story Cees Nooteboom New Statesman January 1994
“If you are looking for antidotes to the amiable or insular English novel, the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom is a good source. This slim new novel, which, absurdly, is his first to be published in the country, beat an impressive shortlist to take the European Literary Prize for 1993. It is writing that is ultimately about the process of inventing with language, but it has a compelling energy and raw elegance to equal its extraordinary ambitions.
Gertrude Stein once wrote that ‘there is no question and no answer. There is an announcement.’ In his wonderful In the Dutch Mountains, Nooteboom described the search for a form for impossible answers to unanswerable questions, and concluded that ‘inventing is making decisions’ … “
. Eclipse Fever Walter Abish New Statesman July 1993
“The publication of a new novel by Walter Abish is an even in itself, both because a decade has passed since his last (How German Is It?) and two since his debut, Alphabetical Africa, but more importantly because of the dignified purpose in all his writing.
.. It is the charged formal enquiry of Abish’s shorter experiments that underpins his more conventional novels. With its compelling mystery plot, Eclipse Fever doubles the leap into accessibility that How German Is It? presented…
Amish, who is not above tricksy smartness, is concerned to contrast the ‘sin stn supermarket discernment; of American culture with the possibility, entrained by John Ashbury in Flowchart, of accumulating some ‘belated certainty’. Each man’s work is characterised by just such a liminal hush of carefully deferred conclusion, and by shared European influences…”
. What Henry James Knew Cynthia Ozick New Statesman June 1993
“Cynthia Ozick writes in her introduction that “civilisation, like it handmaid (read hand-made), is custom-built”. It is part of what Henry James knew, and an extension of his dictum that “it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance”. Ozick knows how curious such noble intents seem on our postmodern cusp, “our little age”, but with insistent lament and persuasive brilliance she spills more from it today than anyone else writing in English today.
An extravagant claim? Certainly, but not simply a ricochet off the hard fact that Ozick is effectively unpublished, unknown, unrealised in this country …
… The most striking element of Ozick’s critical voice, apart from the glee of her lapping sentences, is that she is as interested in what escaped Henry James as what he knew. His late texts “vibrate with cognitions that are ultimately not submissive to their creator”, which places them in the modern fold with Kafka, Borges and Joyce. It makes Ozick as good, and responsible, a writer on T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf as she is on Italo Calvino and William Gaddis…”
. Remembering Babylon David Malouf New Statesman May 1993
“In an afterword to his novel, An Imaginary Life (1978), David Malouf wrote that his “purpose was to make this glib fabulist of (the changes) live out in reality what had been … merely the occasion for dazzling literary display.” He is referring to Ovid, whose fruitful encounter with a wild boy is the subject of that exquisite book, but might have been remonstrating with an earlier self as he faced his new novel…
… Malouf makes the embrace of otherness an explicit requirement in this novel, and elaborates his twin obsession of miraculous renewal and the process of naming, which make up his fictions and their formal impetus. His concern is to create a synthesising space for “specimens as wonderfully different to the eye as the apple and the rose”. Remembering Babylon exhibits his absolute assurance and mobility with both the everyday and the precious …
Remembering Babylon shapes this unnameable in-between with an extended narrative realism and historical inventory that is extraordinarily brave and beautiful. The writing is always focused , and yet it emits a tabular glow, so that a distant bush fire becomes a single cloud “blooming” with a fallen light. “The forests up there had all day been climbing into the sky and drifting down again to cover all this side of the range with ash; a breath out of the heart of the country.” The overt echoes of the poet Paul Celan’s trees in spring here only exemplify the scale of Malouf’s command which has produced a very fine novel entirely free of glibness.”
. On the Heights of Despair and Anathemas and Admirations E.M. Cioran New Statesman August 1992
“In his 1968 collection, Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth write of an “unremitting joie de anger”. It is a principle that characterises all his fiction, as it swims among a sea of stories, competing voices and realities … Barth’s audacious narrative energy has long been indebted to the pre-modern tale cycles of Boccaccio and Shererazade… It is his virtuosity itself, though, that can become wearing … the book is stuffed with sex, which provides the wire moments of punning excess … a declaration of love for the art of swimming.”
. Mao II DonDeLillo. New Statesman September 1991
“The novelist is the tenth stop on Don DeLillo’s journey through contemporary American icons. In his ninth and definitive book, Libra, the “electrifying event” of JFK’s assassination was dissected, and its multiple narratives displayed. In work so symptomatically postmodern, a return to the moment of writing -that most problematic event- was inevitable.
DeLillo has claimed the Rushdie fatwa and the image of a hunted JD Salinger as both beginnings and back-drops for Mao II. Other more apocalyptic images structure the book: Tiananmen Square, Hillsborough Stadium, and the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini. News is the “last addiction” here, its significance vitiated in the repetition of image-upon-image. DeLillo’s territory is precisely this overlapping margin of “the life and the consumer event.”
… DeLillo excels at interrogating these epistemological spaces in his fiction. He refuses to lead the way out of this postmodern theme park,addressing himself instead to a vigorous examination of its functioning.
… On American soil and in the company of the writer it is both adroit and intimate, but this authority dissipates as it moves towards an encounter with terrorism. The novel is, finally, more a collection of unresolved thoughts, a sketch-book of obsessions. Nevertheless, DeLillo remakes language as he brings contemporary language to book…“
. Lilac and Flag John Berger. New Statesman February 1991
“Lilac and Flag is the final part of the trilogy worked on intermittently for fifteen years titled Into Their Labours … Testament is central to all these stories: Berger re-presents peasant culture in the face of it’s elimination. Lilac and Flag is the story of migration by those villagers to the metropolis.
Berger is well aware of his ambivalent place in the Alpine village he has lived in since 1974. In Pig Earth he offered his voice as an “independent witness” to the “lived experience” of the villagers. Early stories re-work the “so-called gossip” of everyday life whilst Berger focuses on historical forces destroying their culture. Those stories are told in the very leanest of prose, whose self-conscious realism threatens to collapse into parable. Through the trilogy the stories get longer as they approach the challenge of the modern, fracturing into the complexity of this novel.
… The movement in the trilogy is from speech to writing. If early stories tended to conform to their realist project and confirm their expectations, Lilac and Flag surprises when it confounds and exceeds them.”
. Cyrus Cyrus Adam Zameenzad & The Four Banks of the River of Space Wilson Harris New Statesman September 1990
“… but though Zameenzad uses narrative with a rare audacity and vigour, Harris’ mature prose is its perfect foil.
Wilson Harris has come to that stage in a writing life where The Four Banks is both a manifesto and exhibition of his poetic craft. If it lacks Zameenzad’s she story-telling exuberance, it almost perfects the fabulist developed in the first tow parts of this trilogy…
… Harris toys with his colonise tongue, lamenting the ‘thin word of my age’. He advocates focusing attention on ‘the crumb of the Word’ to encounter the ‘unimaginable’ in its tapestry. He make gestural use of quantum physics to write of a ‘polyhistoric kind of being’; a laps into occasionally choking self-reference…”
. In Memorium to Identity Kathy Acker & Dirty Work Larry Brown New Statesman August 1990
“In Memorium to Identity is something of a wonderful riot, in spite of its title… All the familiar Acker is here; sex shows, the living as dead, f-words, the Burroughs-factor, dislocation and diatribe. The longest section is a fairly straight run through of the Rimbaud myth…
… Acker disclaims “romanticism”, and yet emerges here neither New or Neo, but an old romantic. She junks ‘identity’ and memory, to embrace the ‘unknown’ and imaginary…”
. Kill The Poor Joel Rose and Absence Makes the Heart Lynne Tillman. New Statesman March 1990
“Rose and Tillman are two seemingly disparate voices from a group emerging in the late-eighties from downtown Manhattan and East Village. Writing from the metropolitan margins,typically urban,gritty,unsentimental and provocative, their shared cultural experiences focus on language and form. Rose is one of the editors of Between C & D, which, with other literary magazines, first published work by co-editors Catherine Sexier and Patrick McGrath, and other notables include Tillman, Gary Indian and Kathy Acker.
‘New York’s a lock and we locked out’… “