Tricky isn’t it? Actual ongoing ethnic cleansing punctuated by regular massacre, or slack visual montaging in an interesting but ‘off” film by one of very few really significant makers of film ever? Continue reading “on choosing to take offence; j-l g here and elsewhere”
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 . 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
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.
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.
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.
I want to write something simple, direct and therefore probably clumsy about what is going on when established art critics ignore and/or get snippy about a piece like Richard Hamilton‘s bold, brave and irreducible [this is the rub of course] work; Maps of Palestine.
Recognising the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and subsequent six decades of uniquely chronic entrenchment, overt war crimes slash crimes against humanity [oh those yada yada], ever more settlements and greater delusional sanctimony is forbidden in public discourse in Britain. Hence my ‘clumsiness’; you’ll need an open or well-informed mind to read on while I stumble through the ‘unsayable’.
It’s forbidden -or ‘unsayable’- partly because establishment Britain continues to offer cover as well as arms to the brave pre-pre-emptive killers of uniquely dispossessed, starved, besieged, picked off, randomly bombed, endlessly redisplaced and remassacred Palestinians, but also because it looked the other way for so long during a genocide much closer to home.
Maps of Palestine  Richard Hamilton [w. thanks Eyal Weizman]
RH’s monumental maps are heart stopping; their allusions more shocking than anything that Koons and the Gang can muster. Art critical consensus mutters divertingly that it’s not really art is it? and if it is, it’s not really any good, is it? And, oh aren’t we a bit bored of this? They can’t say that about Unorthodox Rendition because it resonates visually with the equally ambiguous, uncannily similar, iconic image of Jagger and Fraser, Swingeing London 67, which is secure in art history, but Maps is fair game, it’s easy…
Easy to ignore or disparage; bad politics and/or bad art. One of its actual characteristics is ‘simply’ political; the fact that it is a bald rendering of two maps of Palestine which make it evident that Palestinians have been cleansed from their homes and land and are now confined to tiny littering ‘camps’ [in Agamben’s sense, yes, but not exclusively here]. There is no disputing possible, no interpretation; this is simply the case. Which is why it’s not art, innit? That is; ideologically blinded by a perception that it’s ‘simply’ political, they can’t see anything else.
I want to say something about the way in which it is art in definitive ways and how its potent ambiguity as an object also makes it strikingly good, or anyway, lasting, art. It crystallises something unseen/unrecognised about the present which will resonate/fascinate in the future when ‘we’ will see better and with unerring perspective. In order to make that point carefully and probably clumsily I want to tell you another true story about Palestinian dispossession with covert establishment support.
The first time I actually met Mourid Barghouti, the great Palestinian poet and memoirist, was at a writer’s event in Norwich in 2005. These kinds of things; lots of writers from all over the place brought together for a ‘productive’ exchange, are often dire but this was not, I think. However, there was a round-table event that was profoundly degrading as well as terrifying in its way. A writer called AB Yehoshua was present, a man whose work is credibly literary, presumably the work of an agile albeit conservative mind. I don’t say this in the corruptingly ‘even-handed’ way that has so glossed Palestinian dispossession, but because I had positive expectations of him.
At one session, Mourid spoke very precisely about his own displacement and of place itself with a minimum of nomination, though of course when you tell the truth, even glancingly, it’s likely to hurt someone. He was calmly precise in mentioning some facts and asking open albeit suggestive questions. It was scrupulously exact and even respectfully polite; therefore very potent. For those who knew the background in depth it was clear that merely being allowed to stand there and say anything as a Palestinian was a mould-breaking, radical fact in itself.
[Actually, you can judge my memory because Mourid’s paper Place as Time is online here and, in fact, pertains to what I’m trying to say here more broadly than I remembered]
When it came to Yehoshua, the tank-like figure that had barged and roared into the room morphed all-too easily into the Sharon-like Commander of US-supplied artillery. Spotting a Palestinian he opened fire with all he had to hand, no questions asked, perfect immunity assured and, however often this happens in actuality, it was extremely shocking to witness. His blind rage, I mean in particular, and boy did he bluster and wow was it obvious that this is how it goes. He objected to something that all present knew to be the case; a recent example of Palestinian women being forced to give birth at illegal checkpoints erected on occupied territories held against International law [and more profound things] for decades.
The mere mention of this incontrovertible fact as an open question sent Yehoshua off into a reflex torrent of incoherent, self-defeating abuse in which he sought to say in essence; well if you weren’t intent on murdering lil’ ‘ol me I wouldn’t have to do it … if only you could grasp the relentless responsibility-taking that I do each and every day… but what would you know about that?
Somewhere in his rage he was complaining about the responsibility of the artist for what they say and/or do. The obscenity of his violent outburst centred on his abuse of the most responsible of poets who had just given a very precise and elegant paper which exemplified the burden of artistic responsibility to perfection. Yehoshua meanwhile, abused his presence, his voices volume, the complicity of the British establishment, and raged on irresponsibly, not only refusing to take any responsibility for actual ongoing crimes, but abandoning any claim of artistic writerly responsibility in any and every conceivable way [and yes, I raise that to the highest, broadest of ethical categories].
His behaviour was obscene and cowardly; safe in the knowledge that he was squatting on a tank. It was terrifying because it revealed an entirely warped mindset, deeply entrenched in mass violence and practised impunity. At home his tank contains missiles. After missiles. After missiles. Here, his words were unleashed with the same intention; to kill the poet, the Palestinian, the other and any substantive sense of responsibility in art or elsewhere. What was shocking, indeed terrifying, was the knowledge that this small incident is played out endlessly, on a much greater scale, with blood and families and farmland and has been for more than six decades.
Almost more shocking was that the Chair made no sign of complaint, didn’t even notice anything unusual. It wasn’t that he felt awkward about how to rein in the verbal violence and lack of elemental human decency but that he was [I’m being kind] so immured to the established British discourse that he didn’t think there was anything even slightly odd about the outburst.
Art critics querying/ignoring Hamilton’s particular piece are not the Yehoshua in the story so much as the Chair; doing the work of casual complicity, blind to what is before them, ignorant of the artful potency of facts or the potency of facts used artfully.
The point about Hamilton’s piece of work is that it shows two separate realities -one potential and one actual- and makes no attempt to force meaning between them. No pointing, telling, explicating, merely the erection of two objects in space and time alongside each other; all relations open, a deep elliptical hole -more mysterious than a slathered over Anish Kapoor- of perfect ambiguity. As a work of art this is as close to the essence of what it is as you can get without it needing to be the most brilliant piece of art ever made or seen. To question this as art is to cancel art as a category.
Think of poetry and how it’s essence lies in Agamben’s reworked classicism; the enjambement of sound and meaning. Without the non identity of metre and sense text is not poetry at all; it only emerges as poetry in the very ellipsis formed [and is otherwise ‘mere’ prose] [See my Introduction to MB’s Midnight & Other Poems]. Similarly, it is the openness of the relationship between images [as well as viewer/s] here that makes it art.
One response to it is indeed simple, factual and unchallengeable; it is a map of ethnic cleansing yes, every bit as rigidly horrifying as aerial photographs of the infrastructure of death camps in the early mid-1940s [or that of settlements in the late 20th and early 21st century]. Infrastructure which, as here, war machines flew over without blinking, noticing, taking any responsibility for. ‘Camps’ which suit a purpose, a game ‘larger’ than the facts of chronic ethnic cleansing on the occupied ground.
A work of art, like a poem, that reminds me or exists only in this most elemental threshold zone is a blessing to receive. Before you tell me -or yourself- that this is not art or that it’s bad art, or that it’s ‘message’ is not very successfully conveyed, sit down and articulate to yourself what the relationship is between these two objects or images and then what the relationship is between them or that and you as a viewer. You might have to talk very precisely in general, and especially around how you distinguish the form that these two objects take from, say, two naked human figures stood in marble alongside each other. Why is that art? Why is that not bad art? Are you beginning to get it?
In fact this particular piece is not only a purified form of art, it is also fantastically humble and/or profoundly ethical art-making; an act undertaken for the other and otherness in its widest sense. I’m tempted to equate the refusing of it [the refusing to see or acknowledge it as art] with if not a crime but arguably an act against humanity.
I’m reminded of the sophistry that Emmanuel Levinas betrayed in an important and fascinating exchange in the immediate aftermath of the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, when a profound ethical response from a position of strength [the head of state responsible for those particular massacres said ‘No-one can teach us anything about morals’; an approach adhered to across the end of the century and beyond] might have helped [see; The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand pp 289-297 Blackwell Oxford 1989]. If he misrepresented himself in the friendly context of the exchange, then it too was an ethical failure, surely?
Here is the contemporary face of ethical art making [with all its responsible innocence]. Today it is what it is, one day it will have extraordinary potency as a cultural object, a work of art. This image is only possible now; it is today writ large, in all its stark horror and misrecognition. Tomorrow it will seem inconceivable, impossible, absolutely mysterious. Tomorrow no-one will casually dismiss its status or its efficacy as art.
Tomorrow all those smugly complicit commentators will be eager defenders of the importance of memorialising the Nakba; the most committed to never again allowing humanity to descend to such depravity for so extended a period; the most insistent on the uniqueness of this horror, resistant of diluting comparisons to any other. But not until tomorrow.
Hamilton’s show contains a number of contemporary icons, stretching across the years and building potency in the present. With the new work, shockingly radical because so little else is, the show could almost just as well be called This is Tomorrow, but then that sounds strangely familiar…