notes_24 “Aieeee-shaaaa”, a Potential History. Or, unlearning imperialism with Ariella Aisha Azoulay | TT

Azoulay has produced a unique handbook for the 2020s that details how, why, when and where to say no in the affirmative. Her greatest achievement is that, against the foreshortened horizons of a despoiling barbarism, she makes all our tomorrows thinkable.

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – April 2020

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, ‘Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism’

Verso Books, New York and London, 2019
656pp, ISBN 978-1788735711


Guy Mannes-Abbott

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism is almost double the size of my copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism and about half the size, in turn, of Karl Marx’s first volume of Capital. There are many nuanced differences across such a crudely mapped zone but the quality that all three share is a burning desire to change, to radically redistribute the world as it is, or appears to be. Azoulay’s six-hundred-page-long Potential History offers a liveable commonworld through exacting reparations and ends with a very short but insistent affirmation: ‘The potential is there’. [1]

Continue reading “notes_24 “Aieeee-shaaaa”, a Potential History. Or, unlearning imperialism with Ariella Aisha Azoulay | TT”

notes from a meeting, from hubtastic to actual costs of moving, making, showing… [day 3]

Eungie Joo New Museum Photo G Mannes-Abbott

CLICK on image to link to SAF & more images or read on below…

A consequence of trying to write about the MM while presenting at it as well as attending panels, films and exhibitions [to say nothing about the barely glimpsed wonders of downtown Sharjah itself!] was that I missed some sessions. It would be invidious to select any that I particularly regret missing, especially as the quality of presenters and presentations was so high this year, so I will resist.

My Meeting day began with an in-conversation between Eungie Joo from the New Museum and William Wells from the Townhouse in which they talked about their Museum as Hub initiative. Continue reading “notes from a meeting, from hubtastic to actual costs of moving, making, showing… [day 3]”

on the politics of the dead child -occupation vs humanity

independentLondon

What is a Palestinian State Worth? By Sari Nusseibeh

Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Friday, 22 April 2011

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. Continue reading “on the politics of the dead child -occupation vs humanity”

on narrating gaza, this week in palestine [gaza three]

On Narrating Gaza…

By Guy Mannes-Abbott

“When it comes to sieges, precision is required to argue precedence. Besiegers appear all over the place and all over time. The besieged are always the same; rendered animal as time ceases and place becomes that time. The air is stifling, the end is collective yet still bespoke; you are abysmally alone. The military siege belongs to earlier ages but is too crudely effective to be left there, hence “Gaza.” Gaza, where one and a half million people – mostly refugees – have been besieged since June 2007 for their audacity to want to live in their own time and place. Where on 27 December 2008 their besiegers began celebrating the New Year early, culminating in the gift of white phosphorous shells for surviving school children. Witnessed by a never more seeing world…”

My text continues here.

This issue of the TWiP is here and can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Narrating Gaza [حكايات غزة], the new website dedicated to collecting and disseminating voices, images, words from Gaza and which occasioned this piece of mine, is here in Arabic and here in English.

NG can be contacted by potential contributors or the curious here: info [at] narratinggaza [dot] ps

on the use of strawberries and [not even] carnations, gaza one

The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood continues to report with clear-eyed vigour from Palestine. Her latest piece on Dashed Hopes, the collective updating of an earlier report by 21 International charities about the reality of life under siege in Gaza is profoundly shocking. It is mortifying. No, it’s revolting. Even so it might overstate the generosity of the state of Israel’s collective punishment, now in its fourth year.

HS writes that amongst other horrifying stats [“35% of Gaza’s farmland and 85% of maritime areas for fishing remains restricted by the Israeli ‘buffer zone’”], the only exports allowed by the Occupation are strawberries and carnations and those only to Europe. But perhaps not! The report, to which I urge you to link to [PRESS or for a pdf], states “except for the humanitarian activity of exporting a small amount of strawberries, not a single truck of exports has left Gaza since the ‘easing until now’.”

In any case, Gaza is populated almost entirely by refugees from the ethnic cleansing of the plains of Palestine in 1948. More than 60 years later, the offending party is able Continue reading “on the use of strawberries and [not even] carnations, gaza one”

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.

susan sontag ‘in america’ 2000; revisited/residue

Susan Sontag‘s brand of earnest enthusiasm is completely redundant, right? The idea that you might live with a body of work [ha!] -especially written work [ha! ha!]- for a long time and then find a way to articulate what it means to you and perhaps us/we too is obviously ridiculous. Isn’t it?

I don’t think these things stand or fall around Sontag and I don’t think that it’s any easier to do the work of exception now; to stand back, up or out enough to be willing and able to celebrate, polemicise, passionately engage, act commitedly, work with words, difficult though they ought to be. No easier, no harder, no more necessary. No less.

Sontag is not the tool or resource I reach for either; she was historicised/historical, boringly everywhere and thus to be avoided as well as out of sync with some of what she was celebrating when I first encountered her ‘great’ essays on the ‘great’. I didn’t start with Sontag, but if you did, my only question was where you went afterwards? -because you did go ‘on’, no?

Then there are all the obvious ways in which she does incarnate American culture’s definitive civilisational moment, which I’m not going to call by any name or term, but which she surfed and was flooded with. Commodity/celebrity. You know, if you endlessly tell everyone every day that you are greatly detained with greatness, difficulty and authority, the wise will only listen awry. If you do it in the literally shiny pages of Vanity Fair, the wise become a little deaf. And yet. Flooded and surfing means that it is not contradictory. It is what it is.

So, I tried to critique Sontag’s In America honestly and for what it’s worth this little review called it right. I don’t mean to be dismissive, though, which is partly why I’m re-archiving it here and now. Nor do I mean to be seen to be right! [agents on the Estate Express don’t make ‘right’ either, nor my critique wrong, obviously.] Sontag’s novel may well be so bad in a way that it exemplifies the badness that is also its subject; American commodity/celebrity, in a perfectly condensed single volume.

Sontag worshipped books as possessions, brains as fetishes, writers and thinkers as gods/goddesses. There are admirable aspirations in there, residue beyond the packaging. All I can now recall about her going to Sarajevo and putting on Waiting for Godot in the late stages of a brutal siege is that she did it. It’s irreducible. While western powers contorted themselves to look the other way for year after year and so-called radicals corrupted themselves to ignore the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims before the world, she was there. She was there, being there, doing being there. I don’t care exactly why, or exactly what measurable impact it made, but I note that she went, stayed, knew what it was like. Just another person, not just another person.

There is something similar about the way her critical writing could work; the breathless intensity of baptismal enthusiasm for a book or a writer felt convincing [or not] while reading, generated an appetite for her object or a sugary rush and desire for more Sontag. It’s true that nothing of hers materially altered or even impacted on [made Sontagian] its object or my lasting understanding of it. Rather it enacted Sontag’s urgent appetite for it [of course], was a convincing herald for the work, took it so seriously that it could butterfly it all over again. The residue is urgency and appetite.

I was caught up by this when reading one of her last pieces; Loving Dostoevsky, in At The Same Time 2007. It recounts her accidental discovery of Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden and in essence her passionate admiration for the book [as well as “the incomparable” Dostoevsky, a sentiment I claim as my own]. I don’t want to say anything about Tsypkin, his book, or her critique, only to recall how affective her voice was within the first and last line of her piece. It excited me, I panicked about what else I didn’t know, whether I knew the author or not who now sounded so different, relished the sheer thrill of it all -as she presented it- and felt more alive and clarified in all I thought during those minutes of reading.

It’s easy to sneer about Godot resistance in Sarajevo -even if raised to the challenge of Camp Gaza today- easy to sneer about bursts of enthusiasm and gushing celebration of [dead] writers. Is anything much easier than such a sneer? In fact, it’s notably hard to articulate an agility of intellect or thirst in place of being merely academic and especially difficult to keep the words alive, generative.

The problem is legacy, or residue: if I can appreciate Sontag’s championing of under-recognised figures at one cultural moment, their subsequent ubiquity -or just belated recognition- belittles her effort. It’s forgotten/forgettable and, fatally, it’s polemical need to foreshorten makes it less critically robust after its assimilation too.

Did she know or realise this? Did she hope that the passion might out live the historicising correction? I know it isn’t that she didn’t care! Then again, it’s Calvino’s celebration of Fourier that lingers with me more than all the rest. Zizek’s introductory interpretation in English of Badiou too [yes!]. Then de Quincey’s short text on Kant is a tattoo of truth almost as lasting as Joseph Frank’s staggeringly good five volumes on Dostoevsky. Yet again, look at her perspectival acuity with regard to the Twin Towers and Abu Ghraib…

NB; Speaking of Dostoevsky and Frank, I missed the abridged version of his light-footed monument Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, published by Princeton UP in December 2009. The publisher has a good page here, including contents and a pdf of the first chapter. There is an interview with 91 year old Frank here in which he says of Dostoevsky that “He poses questions in such a way that, whether you agree or not, it makes you think about them.”

Which reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s acute, urgently honest and revealing review of Frank’s Dostoevsky [orig. Feodor’s Guide VV 1996] in which the big questions asked by Dostoevsky of his world and of writing clearly formed a big brick in the wall that DFW must have hit at about that time*, finding himself perhaps on the wrong side of the only question/line that matters. Which reminds me, in contrast, of William Gaddis…

*It’s not online now, so I quote: “… we have abandoned the field … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t–could not–laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that–how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try?”

 

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Famous for 35 years

In America by Susan Sontag (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 387pp)

Saturday, 27 May 2000

As a literary brand the name, Sontag is a synonym for serious. So the phrase “Susan Sontag’s new book” is a promise of significance. The writer has long grown accustomed to a state of “perma-profile” involving, on the one hand, recent battles with her good conscience in Sarejevo and against traumatic injury, as well as a second brush with the cancer she famously defeated in the 1970s. On the other is the dubious realm of critical sanctification and the Vanity Fair puff.

Sontag, born in 1933, earned a reputation in her thirties with the essay collections Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. Her writing influenced what we think about camp, photography and illness, and helped make icons of European men such as Barthes, Canetti, Artaud, and the saturnine Walter Benjamin. She has long been “the most intelligent woman in America”, and countless column inches have been spent on the miles of book-shelves that line her Manhattan apartment.

She returned to fiction in 1992 with a well-received historical romance, The Volcano Lover: a novel invested with the matured intellectual vigour that fuelled her reputation. It was a gamble, and it revealed a problem: not the predictable cynicism of the intellectual, but the way that Sontag’s profile precedes, envelopes and smothers her work. It does so in the sense not just that In America is “Susan Sontag’s new book”, but also by her presence, which is felt on almost every page – sometimes deliberately, but rarely appropriately.

In America is the story of an actress and her successes in her native Poland and adopted America. In between, Maryna Zalewska, with an entourage that includes her husband the Count and another close admirer, gives up acting to found a utopian community in California – a brief experience of failure. The novel is set during the 1870s and is “inspired by” a historical figure. The actual actress’s exhaustingly researched biography has spurred on Sontag’s fascination with artistic celebrity, which she treats as an American story.

Marina’s stage genius is unrivalled in America, and Sontag writes at devoted length about her Shakespearean cameos, her fizzing fame and its endorsements – from fans and of products. At the end of her previous novel, the volcano lover himself, Sir William Hamilton, was judged against Sontag’s criteria of originality, discipline, invention and zeal. Hamilton was found wanting, but these are Marina’s possessions. Sontag celebrates them with this novel about one woman’s specialness.

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, aiming for absolute achievements, deserves more than tempered praise. The way that In America re-stages the American dream speaks urgently to the present; combined with Sontag’s abilities, it could be a triumph. Yet it fails because of her limitations as a fictionaliser, as she proves unable to free her narrative voices from authorial echo and prod – and, dare I suggest, a blinding self-regard.

Copyright 2009 Independent News and Media Limited

01.09. from gaza to mourid barghouti

I’m linking to a six-part blog I wrote for English PEN around the publication in December 08 of Mourid Barghouti’s Midnight & Other Poems, to which I contributed a substantial introduction [you can read it here.]

Midnight is available from ‘all good bookshops’ as well as its publisher whose resourceful pages begin here. A properly weighty review of Midnight by Boyd Tonkin of The Independent appeared in January 09.

Mourid Barghouti’s excellent website is here. His classic memoir I Saw Ramallah is widely available, not least from its UK publisher whose site also contains an extract which demonstrates how essential, tough-minded and exquisite it is. A sequel appeared in Arabic in 09 [with a title that translates as; I Was Born There, I Was Born Here] and is on its way into English.

The Bombing and the Brink

by Guy Mannes-Abbott [with thanks to Sophie Mayer and English PEN World Atlas.]

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI -which includes a link to the whole piece.

Words did not and cannot defend displaced and besieged civilian populations against the use of white phosphorus, for example, but they can and should undermine attempts to justify or deny that use and, most critically, hold its users to account.